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.

 

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orrery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

‘Towards an Archaeology of the Future’: Theodora Kroeber and Ursula K Le Guin

[I’ve been busy this month with preparations for GIFCON 2018 while working on a couple of long-ish posts for release in the next few weeks. In the meantime I thought I’d put up an essay I wrote many years ago on Ursula Le Guin, because I intend to build on some of what it says in future posts. Thanks to Edward James, then editor of Foundation, Ursula Le Guin read this piece in typescript and said that she liked it. Nothing I’ve done as an academic makes me prouder than that.

The piece first appeared in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 67 (Summer 1996), pp. 62-74.]

On 20th August, 1911, an amazing thing happened: a man walked out of one world and entered another. He had walked further perhaps than any other man in history: several thousand years, by some people’s reckoning, from the Stone Age to the Age of Steam, from ‘Inside the World’ (as the Kesh would call it) to a place ‘Outside’ it, from the country of his people, the Yahi, to the country of the twentieth-century Californians.[1] He was infected by the experience; within five years of his emergence from the wilderness he died of tuberculosis, like so many other indigenous Americans. Nobody knows the man’s name; he kept it secret because names were not to be lightly spoken in his culture.[2] The name he was given by the strangers who befriended him was Ishi, which means simply ‘man’ in the Yahi language. Fifty years later, a woman called Theodora Kroeber wrote a book about him, Ishi in Two Worlds, (1961); and this book haunted her daughter, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, throughout her extraordinarily varied literary career. I would like here to consider a few of the ways in which Kroeber’s Ishi continued to make himself felt in the narratives of Le Guin; how he kept wandering out of his world into ours in different forms and different contexts from her earliest published stories to her mature works of the 1980s and 90s; and the questions about the relationship between our culture and other cultures, between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarous’, the past and the future, as well as the tentative answers (usually couched in the form of further questions) he brought with him.

In the course of his lifetime Ishi lived in two different places he called home. The first was the country of the Mill Creek Indians, as settlers called them, which occupied the space between two tributaries of the Sacramento River, and from which he emerged in the first fifty years of his life only to mount forays into adjacent territories as he and his family found their traditional food sources rapidly dwindling. The second was the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, where he lived out his last five years, emerging from the city only to make one last brief trip to his former home. Kroeber’s account of Ishi’s sojourn in the museum is extraordinarily moving in its evocation of the loneliness of the last stages of his life. His people had been wiped out, for the most part by the guns of settlers, but also by the diseases they brought with them as a gift. His family – twelve individuals, reduced to five, then four, then none in the course of the decades – had survived in hiding for forty years after the rest of the Yahi people had been massacred – an astonishing feat of endurance. There was no one else left alive who spoke his language. From before he reached puberty there was no one left alive with whom he could have contemplated having a sexual relationship. He lived in the museum as a walking exhibit, demonstrating the skills of house-building, arrow-making, fire-lighting and shooting that had constituted his vital contribution to the community he came from, and observing with amusement and occasional wonder the bizarre behaviour of the new friends he found among the inhabitants of San Francisco. He spoke a unique mixture of the English and the Yahi languages, and he seems to have changed the lives of the people he met as profoundly as they changed his.

In Ishi in Two Worlds we are privileged to witness an encounter between two wholly different cultures – each one studying, each one studied – in the same small space at the beginning of the last century. Such a two-way encounter occurs a number of times in Le Guin’s writing, and it often takes place in an academic context. In her early short story ‘April in Paris’ (1962) a lonely twentieth-century scholar finds himself transported back to fifteenth-century France to meet his medieval counterpart.[3] In The Dispossessed (1974) a scientist from a society of anarchists finds himself trapped in a university run by capitalists, and gradually comes to recognize the extent of his isolation in this new environment. But in neither of these cases does the protagonist find himself as lonely and disoriented as Ishi must have done. Like Le Guin and her husband Charles, the medieval scholar is fluent in Middle French and Latin, and the scientist Shevek in The Dispossessed shares with his captors the language of physics. More acute states of isolation occur elsewhere in Le Guin’s work: the clone Kaph in ‘Nine Lives’ (1969), for instance, ‘a lost piece of a broken set, a fragment, inexpert in solitude’, who has lost eight-ninths of himself when eight of his fellow clones were killed in an earthquake;[4] the loneliness of the alien Falk in City of Illusions (1967), stranded on a broken world with no memory of where he came from. But Kaph shares the language and the technological skills of his fellow workers, and Falk is eventually given the chance to return to his home planet. For all their highly-developed sense of being cut off, none of Le Guin’s characters finds herself in a state of isolation as extreme as Ishi’s, except perhaps for a man and a woman in the first of her novels, Rocannon’s World (1966), published only five years after Ishi in Two Worlds. Le Guin’s other solitaries acknowledge this man and woman as their ancestors, and continue to respond to the problems they first faced in ever more complex variations on Ishi’s predicament.

The man is Rocannon, left alone on a strange world when his fellow scientists are obliterated in an instant by a bomb dropped by a faceless enemy. Like Kroeber, Le Guin conveys Rocannon’s isolation primarily in linguistic terms: ‘Mogien understood no word he said, for he spoke in his own tongue, the speech of the starlords; and there was no man now in Angien or in all the world who spoke that tongue’.[5] For Rocannon, as for Ishi, this linguistic isolation is irreversible: return is denied him, and he must learn to make what he can of the alien environment in which he has been stranded. In fact he makes it his own in a double sense. By the end of the book he has learned to call it ‘home’ (presumably in the new language he has been forced to adopt); but after his death, the League of All Worlds (of which he was an envoy) baptizes the planet as a whole with Rocannon’s name. This last development is an interesting one. Is the name of a non-native scientist, however thoroughly he has been naturalized, really an appropriate designation for a planet with a long history of its own? The name suggests not so much that the world has domesticated Rocannon as that the League of All Worlds has domesticated the world; and it suggests too that for the League the most interesting moment in a planet’s history is the moment when it loses its autonomy, when it settles into its humble place in interplanetary discourse. And what of the other occupants of the place Rocannon came to call home? The men, and above all the women, who made him welcome in their dwelling-places?

The fate of these nameless householders is hinted at in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, first published as a short story, ‘Dowry of the Angyar’, in 1964.[6] In it a woman called Semley, from the planet that will one day bear Rocannon’s name, appears out of the darkness between the worlds to reclaim one of the exhibits in a Museum of Anthropology, an exquisite necklace, and is observed with wonder by the anthropologist Rocannon. The fact that it is a necklace she has come to reclaim might be read as an allusion to Kroeber’s book. In the foreword to Ishi in Two Worlds Lewis Garnett elaborates on a metaphor Kroeber uses to describe the biographer’s difficult art:

This book, as the author herself says, is like an archaeologist’s reconstruction of a bead necklace from which some pieces are missing, others scattered. She puts together two necklaces: first, the story of a tribe that survived almost unchanged, along the streams of the Mount Lassen foothills, from what we call the Age of Pericles to the period of our gold rush; of its decay and its murder. The second necklace is the story of Ishi’s adjustment to the trolley-world of San Francisco – proof, as the author says, that Stone Age man and modern man are essentially alike.[7]

For the anthropologist Rocannon in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, Semley’s necklace is transformed from a museum exhibit into the fragment of a story to which he has no access – the story of Semley, which is what later prompts him to travel to her planet in his turn. In much the same way, Ishi invested the exhibits in the Californian museum with new meaning and new life – for instance, by objecting to the practice of leaving camping gear untended in a room that housed the dead (in Ishi’s world this might have resulted in unwelcome interference with the equipment by restless ghosts, no matter how completely the dead had been assimilated into the discourse of science).[8] Semley’s necklace comes to stand for the gap between the narratives favoured by different cultures and the ways in which encounters between these cultures may exacerbate the gap even as they seek to bridge it. For Semley the necklace has a value and a function of which the curators of the museum have no knowledge: she needs it as a dowry for her husband, an emblem of the status of her family. But unknown to her it has acquired a different function in a new cultural context since it was lost to her family in the distant past. It was exchanged with the voyagers by one of the races on her planet who privilege the values of barter over those of heredity; exchanged, in fact, for the very same starship that carried Semley to the museum. And as a result of this initial change in the valuation of the necklace, another change is brought about. Unknown to her, it has lost the function for which she sought it even as she travelled through space towards its resting-place. ‘The gap of time bridged by our light-speed ships’ means that she will return to her world years after her husband’s death; and with him dead, her friends aged, her daughter grown to adulthood, the necklace will no longer have any use as a dowry.[9] Instead it will acquire for her family the status of a cursed object, until it is returned again to Rocannon, who will eventually give it to his wife – a woman of Semley’s people – as a dowry. In the meantime, for readers of the novel it will perhaps acquire a further meaning still: it will come to stand for the deadliness of misunderstandings between cultures, and for the impossibility of returning to the precise historical point from which one has started.

Semley’s necklace becomes, in fact, a sign that changes its meaning in the space between past and present, like a word from a language that is no longer spoken which has been assimilated into a different tongue. The consciousness of such profound linguistic changes, which accompany and even bring about changes within communities that share a common language, is always present in the work of Le Guin; and for her, as for her mother Theodora Kroeber, the task of charting these changes – or recording a diversity of different understandings and ways of speaking within a text that is written in a single language, rooted in a particular time and place – is the principal problem that confronts a writer, whether she is an archaeologist or a novelist. Indeed, the language used by Le Guin herself has changed as her ideas have changed. This is most obviously the case with her use of the personal pronoun. In her preface to the 1989 edition of her essay-collection The Language of the Night, first published ten years previously, she explains the dilemma with which she was confronted when faced with her earlier essays:

In general, I feel that revising published work is taboo. You took the risk then, you can’t play safe now… And also, what about the readers of the first version – do they have to trot out loyally and buy the recension, or else feel that they’ve been cheated of something? It seems most unfair to them. All the same, I have in this case broken my taboo. The changes I wanted to make were not aesthetic improvements, but had a moral and intellectual urgency to me… The principal revision involves the so-called ‘generic pronoun’, he. It has been changed, following context, euphony or whim, to they, she, you, or we. This is, of course, a political change (just as the substitution of he for they as the correct written form of the singular generic pronoun – see the OED – was a political act).[10]

In the collection, the essay that is most seriously affected by this change in linguistic and ideological stance is inevitably the one that discusses her exploration of a genderless culture in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): the celebrated essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?’.[11] In the 1989 edition of the collection, Le Guin prints the essay along with a commentary, as if it had been a text from a previous epoch that requires annotating to be understood by the modern reader. At this point the collection resembles an archaeological dig, the different layers or columns representing different stages of Le Guin’s development. The novel she describes as an attempt at an ‘archaeology of the future’, Always Coming Home (1985), is written in two languages: for the most part it is in English, but to overcome the ideological assumptions that are ingrained in that imperialist tongue she occasionally lapses into the language of the future, Kesh, to describe concepts that have no equivalent in ‘Western’ thinking.[12] In other words, Semley’s necklace initiated a linguistic revolution – a revolution that was carried on in The Dispossessed by the anarchist Odo, who invented a new language for her tender new-born society. In the same way, the relationship between the woman Semley and her male observer, Rocannon, foreshadows the revolution in Le Guin’s thinking about the relationship between the reader (or writer) who thinks like a twentieth-century man and the text that reaches towards other modes of being.

Theodora Kroeber

The prologue to Rocannon’s World raises another question that Le Guin went on to consider in greater depth in her later work: the question of how the writer’s perspective or philosophical stance affects her subject. Inevitably in a book about an unfamiliar culture the writer is likely to adopt a point of view that can be understood by the bulk of her projected readership; and inevitably such a point of view tends to obscure or distort the subject under scrutiny. Theodora Kroeber was acutely conscious of this problem as she tried to chart Ishi’s career. There was a danger, for instance, that the gaps in what was known about Ishi’s life would tempt the writer into irresponsible imaginative speculation, or that her readers – and she herself – might be tempted from time to time into allowing their contempt for a ‘primitive’ culture to colour their response to the story they were reading. Kroeber found some startling ways to avert such reactions. For one thing, she wittily records Ishi’s amusement at what he saw as the absurdity of the ambitions of white civilization – his dismissal, for instance, of aeroplanes and impressive buildings as inadequate and unnecessary copies of mountains and birds. For another, she keeps slipping Ishi into unexpected roles in the world of technology. ‘It is a curious circumstance,’ she writes at one point,

that some of the questions which arise about the concealment [of Ishi’s family for forty years] are those for which in a different context psychologists and neurologists are trying to find answers for the submarine and outer space services today. Some of these are: What makes for morale under confining and limiting life conditions? What are the presumable limits of claustrophobic endurance? What temperament and build should be sought for these special and confining situations? It seems the Yahi might have qualified for outer space had they lasted into this century.[13]

This unexpected juxtaposition of the close community of the Yahi with the close community of astronauts in space might almost have provided the seed for the idea of the crew of clones in ‘Nine Lives’, or the problems of forming a healthily cooperative society in a spaceship explored in ‘Vaster than Empires and More Slow’ (1971) or ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (1990). In Rocannon’s World, however, Le Guin had not yet found satisfactory solutions to the other problem confronted by her mother: the problem of making both her readers and her narrator receptive to cultural difference. Her account of the story-teller’s art in the prologue shows this:

In trying to tell the story of a man, an ordinary League scientist, who went to such a nameless half-known world not many years ago, one feels like an archaeologist amid millennial ruins, now struggling through choked tangles of leaf, flower, branch and vine to the sudden bright geometry of a wheel or a polished cornerstone, and now entering some commonplace, sunlit doorway to find inside a darkness, the impossible flicker of a flame, the glitter of a jewel, the half-glimpsed movement of a woman’s arm.[14]

The peculiarity as well as the wit of this passage lies in the fact that the archaeological metaphor applies not to the subject under examination by anthropologists in the museum, Semley, but to one of the anthropologists themselves, an ‘ordinary League scientist’ who went to Semley’s world and became part of its mythology. This is particularly odd when one considers that the prologue was originally a short story – one that concerned itself with the adventures of Semley, and made no mention at all of the adventures of an ordinary male League scientist. It is as if at this stage in Le Guin’s career, and in the history of science fiction, the only conceivable protagonist of a story must be a man who shares the cultural assumptions of his readers; the only conceivable objects of interest must be recognizable elements in the progress of ‘Western’ culture, the wheel that was of no importance to the indigenous peoples of the New World, the cornerstone of a stone-built house, never the baskets or dancing-clothes of Ishi’s family. Le Guin repeatedly states in her critical writings that that in those days – in the days when she penned Rocannon’s World – she had not yet learned to write from a woman’s perspective.[15] She seems to be right, at least in part: the woman in this passage is only a half-glimpsed movement in the dark. Writing about women and writing convincingly about cultural difference seem to have been skills that Le Guin had to learn in conjunction.

In the narratives that followed Rocannon’s World, the relationship between scientists and the cultures they study undergoes a succession of remarkable metamorphoses. Already in her second novel, Planet of Exile (1966), the scientists have come closer to the people they scrutinize; indeed they have become dependent on them. The Terran colonists in this second book have been stranded as a community on alien soil; they must integrate themselves with the inhabitants of the world they occupy or perish as Ishi perished, as a result of the incompatibility of their bodies with their new environment. The indigenous inhabitants of the planet, like so many of Le Guin’s ‘primitive’ peoples, have much in common with the Yahi; they will not meet each other’s eyes (Yahi men would not look into the eyes of Yahi women); they practice polygamy; they have summer and winter houses; they cremate their dead (the Yahi were the only native Californians to do so).[16] But by the time we meet a descendant of these two races, Falk in City of Illusions, they seem to have become entirely technologized, and little trace of the indigenous people of Alterra can be found in them. This is partly a natural result of the perspective from which Le Guin’s second novel is told. As in Rocannon’s World it is never quite clear who the narrator is in Planet of Exile, but there is nothing to suggest she does not share the expectations of a twentieth-century ‘Westerner’, since she commits the bulk of her novel to the task of tracing the movement of the main female character – a native Alterran – from the ‘primitive’ homes of her ancestors to the relatively ‘civilized’ city of the Exiles. In the same way, The Left Hand of Darkness persistently reminds its readers that they inhabit a patriarchal society; as Le Guin acknowledges in her essays, the narrator’s use of the ‘so-called generic pronoun he’ inevitably colours the reader’s response to the androgynous Gethenians. The protagonist Genly Ai may become a kind of sibling or lover of the principal Gethenian, Estraven, but that pronoun ensures that the reader never become wholly naturalized to the genderless cultures of the world called Gethen.

Le Guin’s frustration at the distortion this linguistic bias entails finds angry expression in her novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). The title of the novella alludes to a radical linguistic difference between Terran colonists and the inhabitants of a tree-covered planet. Those colonists who give much thought to such things believe they can exploit the logging opportunities afforded by this forested terrain without materially affecting the wellbeing of its human inhabitants; but they fail to recognize the extent to which the identities of these people are inextricably bound up with the woods they live in. Once again, the natives of the world called Forest, the Athsheans, have something in common with Ishi’s people. Men and women in this culture speak different dialects, as the Yahi did; male activities are rigorously distinguished from female ones; and they regard their dreams as instructive, as sometimes seems to have been the case among the Yahi. More importantly, perhaps, the men who ‘translate’ these dreams – those who convert them into speech and action – are among the most highly respected members of society. The word for translator and the word for god are identical, and the elision of these two concepts acknowledges the profound and sometimes terrible power of transmitting meaning from one form to another. Whatever is translated is changed irrevocably, so that the indigenous translator who is central to The Word for World is Forest, Selver, is also the individual responsible for transforming the culture of the Athsheans dreadfully and for ever. In this narrative, as we might expect, the proximity of what we would call the anthropologist – the ‘hilfer’ or scholar of ‘High Intelligence Life Forms’ – to the subject of study affects the subject more drastically than in any of Le Guin’s previous novels. Selver effectively merges with his hilfer friend Lyubov, and after Lyubov’s death the Terran’s ghost drifts sadly in and out of Selver’s consciousness, bringing with it the horrifying new ideas with which Lyubov is familiar. Once Lyubov’s knowledge has been translated into Selver’s language, Selver and the people he incites to violence against the colonists can never be the same again. The Athsheans avenge the Yahi nation on the colonists, destroying them with spears and bare hands as the Yahi themselves never could; but in the process they learn a new way of life; they learn the skill of genocide, and can never forget what they have learned. The precarious balance which kept Selver’s people free from war – uniquely free in the known universe, as the novella suggests, a situation as precarious as the ecological and cultural balance that enabled Ishi’s people to survive – has been destroyed, and they will never again be exempt from this infection.

The acute pain expressed in The Word for World is Forest – Le Guin observes that in contrast to her other work ‘this story was easy to write and disagreeable’[17] – springs from its fusion of the issues encountered in Ishi in Two Worlds with those of contemporary American politics. Throughout its length the parallels between the world called Forest and 1960s Vietnam are often made explicit.[18] The military leader of the Terran colonists is a Vietnamese soldier called General Dongh, who is despised as the scion of an untrustworthy race by his eurafran subordinates; and the eurafran soldiers among the colonists dull their sensibilities, as American combatants did in Vietnam, with the intensive use of hallucinogenic drugs. But the most aggressive of the colonists, Captain Davidson, bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier manifestation of American colonialism, a man called Anderson who was the most prominent of the Indian-killers in Kroeber’s book.[19] Like Anderson, Davidson inspires unthinking devotion among his followers; as with Anderson, his concern for preserving a sense of his own masculinity is a driving force behind his violent xenophobia; and like Anderson he is a man adrift, a loose cannon who begins by being exploited by the colonial administration for their own ends but who rapidly develops an agenda of his own and loses all contact with his superior officers.[20] Kroeber attributes the savagery of the suppression of the Yahi in part to the aggressive individualism of the gold-seeking Forty-niners, stranded as they were hundreds of miles from the national government, with its inadequate but sometimes well-intentioned laws concerning the treatment of native Americans.[21] Like a forerunner of Marlon Brando’s General Kurz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Davidson quickly detaches himself from the chain of command and begins to act as a god on his own account. His actions as much as Lyubov’s awareness of his actions contribute to the translation of the peaceful Athsheans into killers – just as Kroeber judges that the killing of Yahi children taught the Yahi how to kill the children of the whites. Lyubov cannot help bringing Davidson into the Athsheans’ world, and at the end of the story Davidson is still alive years after Lyubov’s death, living among the Athsheans as implacably as the anthropologist lives on in Selver’s dreams. In this way Le Guin offers her most terrible and despairing word on the relationship between anthropologist and anthropologized, between the student and the studied: an impassioned cri de coeur on the impossibility of dissociating the dominant culture of the writer from the culture she strives to represent.

The Dispossessed responds to this problem by smashing the form of the conventional linear narrative. In its account of the career of the physicist Shevek, chapters on his early life in the anarchist world of Anarres alternate with chapters on his later stay in the capitalist world of Urras. Neither period in the scientist’s life is privileged over the other, and both phases make an equal contribution to his eventual reconciliation of the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in post-Einsteinian physics. In the process, the problem of time which dogged Kroeber’s account of the life of Ishi reaches tentatively towards a solution. The problem is that in Kroeber’s text, for all the qualities that would have made Ishi and his people so well suited to life in the twentieth century, they remain firmly locked in the past – all are dead by the time the book is written – while Kroeber’s own people inhabit another period, the present; and the two periods remain as rigorously segregated from each other as Anarres is from Urras, despite all the writer’s efforts to bring them together. This is a problem of narrative technique as well as of chronology. A linear form of narrative insists that one thing follows another; it invites its readers to believe in the inexorable progression of a uniform ‘human race’ towards some sort of apotheosis, and so encourages the dominant culture to regard itself as possessing exclusive rights to the future. In The Dispossessed, by contrast, the past and the future coexist with the present. Anarchy has emerged from capitalism, and is continuing to emerge from it as the text unfolds thanks to the efforts of revolutionaries; at the same time, without constant vigilance on the part of the anarchists capitalism may swiftly reemerge from anarchy. In the course of the novel, discontented elements on Anarres are returning to capitalist values as conditions on the planet deteriorate, while dissidents on Urras struggle to forge anarchy in their disintegrating homeland. The point of narrating the two processes in parallel, as Shevek sees it, is that without an awareness of where they come from the Anarresti are in constant danger of repeating the mistakes of history. By returning to the Anarrestis’ point of origin, Urras, Shevek hopes (among other things) to remind the inhabitants of Anarres of the need to be perpetually renewing the revolution. At the same time he hopes that he will serve as a beacon of hope for the future to the revolutionaries on Urras. Without addressing themselves to both cultures simultaneously, neither he nor they can ever hope to find a way forward, either in science or in politics.

In addressing two antagonistic societies, Shevek might be said to offer a model for addressing two phases of American history, one of which has been privileged in textbooks to the virtual exclusion of the other. At one point in the dual narrative he hints at this in terms that must be startlingly familiar to Le Guin’s American readers:

He was a frontiersman, one of a breed who had denied their past, their history. The Settlers of Anarres had turned their backs on the Old World and its past, opted for the future only. But as surely as the future becomes the past, the past becomes the future. To deny is not to achieve. The Odonians who left Urras had been wrong, wrong in their desperate courage to deny their history, to forgo the possibility of return. The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer; and his sons are born in exile.[22]

This way of describing the relationship between Urras and Anarres, the Old World and the New, may seem to place Shevek in the position of the heroic frontiersman of the legendary Wild West; an Anderson, say, who has suddenly become aware of his European ancestry and has returned to Europe to learn about the origins of the American republic – and to teach his ancestors a lesson. But Shevek has something in common with Ishi as well as with Anderson. Like Ishi he is baffled by the possessiveness of the people he encounters; like him he is amused by much of the gadgetry they are so proud of (and with Ishi he finds pockets one of the most amusing of these gadgets).[23] Moreover Shevek, like Ishi, is given to reversing the usual criteria for distinguishing civility from barbarism. The operations of capitalism ‘were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary’.[24] The history he learns on Urras is as much the history of those who opposed the barbarism of the capitalists as it is that of the capitalists themselves; it is the history of the freedom fighters who are branded barbarous by the society they challenge, and whose forebears have been banished to a harsh environment that resembles the barren land set aside by the American government for Indian reservations.[25] For this reason one might imagine that Shevek would have found as much to admire in the Yashi as in their European successors.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that he would not. If the Anarresti had been presented somewhat differently – or if Le Guin had written about them a few years later – they might have resembled a fusion of Native Californian culture with the culture of the pioneers. But The Dispossessed resists such a fusion. The moon to which Le Guin’s anarchists were exiled was uninhabited apart from a small colony of miners; and there seem to be no surviving aboriginal inhabitants of Urras. The one development of their society that the anarchists refuse is what the narrator calls a regression to ‘pre-urban, pre-technological tribalism’.[26] Le Guin’s utopian vision had to wait another eleven years before it could embrace a post-urban, post-technological culture as something better than a regression.

Which brings us to the most complex of her fictions, the unique compilation of stories, poems, recipes, songs, plays, maps and commentaries produced by the nonexistent future inhabitants of the Napa Valley, Always Coming Home (1985). In this book at last a people who bear some resemblance to the Yahi take over the various narratives contained in the volume, and adopt the role of instructors with respect to the ‘editor’ of the text; a very different role form that of the anthropologist’s so-called ‘informant’. Once again, the title of the book deserves to be dwelt on. Throughout Le Guin’s work two motifs recur repeatedly: the motif of the journey and the motif of the home. As we have seen, Ishi’s journey between two times was also a journey between two homes: his home by the Sacramento River and his home in the museum. Shevek traces a similar journey between two homes: his childhood home of Anarres and his ancestral home on Urras. The title of Always Coming Home combines the notion of travel with the notion of domestic stability – the spaces traditionally allocated to men and to women in European history. It suggests, as Ishi’s story suggests, that they are inextricably linked; that sequency need not be privileged over simultaneity, that constant movement can work hand in hand with an awareness of, and a respect for, where one is. It suggests that the culture of the Kesh need not inhabit an inaccessible future, but that it has always been present, always available to those who permit themselves to see it: like the woman who is glimpsed for a moment among the crowds of San Francisco in the story called ‘A Hole in the Air’.[27] The man of the Kesh who sees her is another Ishi, an exile who has strayed from the far future into the twentieth century through the mysterious hole of the story’s title, and who dies, as Ishi did, of an infection caught during his visit. The woman, on the other hand, is presumably still living in San Francisco at the time Le Guin is writing the story; waiting, perhaps, to find her way through another hole in the air to the Valley of the future, the place where she will finally be at home.

In addition, the title of Always Coming Home evokes the dual nature of the texts in that collection. Some are accounts of journeys, dominated by the history related by Stone Telling; others are celebrations of life among the Kesh, made up of the poems, songs and recipes interspersed with the prose throughout the book. The prose stories in the collection recount for the most part incidents in which the delicate balance of Kesh life is challenged or disrupted: breaches of Kesh etiquette, incursions by hostile intruders on the Valley, disturbances in the domestic environment – like the story of the vampiric consumer Dira (an anthropomorphic tick)[28] who almost eats a Kesh woman out of house and home, or the story of two angry old women who destroy their households, ‘Old Women Hating’. These narratives look familiar enough to a twentieth-century reader; they are appropriate components of what we take to be a literary work, although they also serve to strengthen the reader’s awareness of the difference between our culture and that of the Kesh. The recipe, on the other hand, is perhaps the most characteristically Kesh of the genres contained in the book. It is a text to be returned to time and again, to be modified, reduced or expanded as occasion demands, refusing to assert its authority over the reader, and ready t be forgotten as soon as it has lost its usefulness. It offers a witty analogy for the way the Kesh regard their literature; they ‘do poetry’, as Le Guin explains in an essay, ‘as a common skill, the way people do sewing or cooking, as an essential part of being alive’.[29] By reading or performing the poetry, by playing the music that accompanies the text (the first edition was accompanied by a CD), by cooking from the recipes, we bring the population of the book alive by inviting it into our homes; and in doing so we bring together the present and the future, what might be and what is, more fully perhaps than in any of our previous literary encounters. When we participate in Always Coming Home we find ourselves haunted by the Kesh as the translator Selver was haunted by the anthropologist Lyubov: changed by, rather than changing, the subject of study.

We might also find ourselves haunted by the ghost of Theodora Kroeber. The recipe is a mode of writing (like the anthropological biography) that Le Guin seems to have associated with her mother. In her introduction to the 1985 edition of Kroeber’s book of Native American stories, The Inland Whale (1959), Le Guin observes that ‘Theodora’s native gift was for the brilliant shortcut that reveals an emotional or dramatic truth, the event turned legend – not raw fact, but cooked fact, fact made savory and digestible. She was a great cook both of food and words’.[30] By combining cookery and Native American legend in Always Coming Home Le Guin might be said to have combined two periods of Kroeber’s life: the first sixty years, when she gave her energies to creating a home, and the last two decades, when she gave herself to creating books. In an essay on women who have succeeded in combining motherhood and writing Le Guin asks herself what her own mother might have achieved if she had not chosen, or been constrained, to separate the two roles chronologically.[31] The Kesh would have had a kind of answer: the roles are not fundamentally dissimilar, and both are equally creative. By the end of her life Kroeber was at ease with them both, as she was with the many surnames (Kracaw, Brown, Kroeber, Quinn) that marked out the successive stages of her personal history.[32] This is not, perhaps, an answer that will satisfy many women; but it is an answer that looks forward to a time when choices will no longer be determined by the gender, race, class or wealth of the chooser; a time that is always leaking into ours through the holes in the air made by the experimental writings of Ursula K. Le Guin.

 

NOTES

[1] ‘Inside’ the world and ‘Outside’ the world are terms coined by Le Guin in Always Coming Home (1985; London: Grafton Books, 1988). The terms are explained in the section called ‘Time and the City’, pp. 149-72.

[2] For Yahi naming conventions see Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), pp. 126-8.

[3] ‘April in Paris’ can be found in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 31-45.

[4] ‘Nine Lives’ is also in the Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 1, pp. 128-57.

[5] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile (London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1983), p. 27.

[6] ‘Dowry of the Angyar’ can be found under its later title, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[7] Ishi in Two Worlds, ‘Foreword’.

[8] Ishi in Two Worlds, p. 206.

[9] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, p. 4.

[10] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night (London: The Women’s Press, 1989), pp. 1-2.

[11] The Language of the Night, pp. 135-47.

[12] ‘Towards an Archaeology of the Future’ is the title of the book’s first section, Always Coming Home, pp. 3-5.

[13] Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 97-8.

[14] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, p. 4.

[15] For instance, in her essay ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’, reprinted in Dancing at the Edge of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 126.

[16] See Ishi in Two Worlds, Chapter Two, ‘A Living People’.

[17] See Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 126.

[18] See Le Guin’s essay on The Word for World Is Forest in The Language of the Night, pp. 125-9. It is worth noting that the original title of the novella was The Little Green Men, alluding not just to the generic Martians but to racist descriptions of Vietnamese people in terms of size and colour that were prevalent in the language of the pro-war lobby in the 1960s.

[19] See Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 63-8 etc.

[20] Anderson’s concern for his own masculinity is hinted at by his admiring disciple Sim Moak: ‘Anderson was twenty-five years old and as fine a specimen of manhood as one would wish to see… you can imagine a great tall man with a string of scalps from his belt to his ankle’ (Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 65-6). Davidson too is a ‘big, hard-muscled man’ who ‘enjoyed using his well-trained body’ (Again, Dangerous Visions, p. 36).

[21] See Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 43-5 etc.

[22] The Dispossessed (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1975), p. 80.

[23] The Dispossessed, p. 62; Ishi in Two Worlds, p. 162.

[24] The Dispossessed, p. 113.

[25] Attempts to resettle the Yana people on reservations proved abortive; see Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 62-3 and 72-4.

[26] The Dispossessed, p. 85.

[27] Always Coming Home, pp. 154-7.

[28] I am grateful to Ursula Le Guin for pointing out to me that Dira was a tick when she read this essay in typescript.

[29] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 186.

[30] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 139.

[31] Dancing at the Edge of the World, pp. 231-2.

[32] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 138. Tenar in Tehanu inherits Kroeber’s multiplicity of names.

The Time Machine and the Origins of Modern Fantasy

At a recent conference in Fudan University a Professor asked me about the difference between fantasy and science fiction, and I gave my usual somewhat glib reply. In a science fictional world, if you asked how something worked you would get an answer that made some sort of sense in terms of contemporary science; while in a fantasy world you would not get any such answer – would not, in fact, feel inclined to ask many questions about how things worked at all, being far too preoccupied with reacting to the wonders and horrors on every side. In other words, science fiction claims to operate within the realms of what may at one stage be possible, while fantasy is concerned with the impossible, with things, creatures and phenomena which the reader knows full well have never existed, never will, and never can. The Professor gave as an example of science fiction a text from before the genre was named, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). At once I remembered my own recognition when I first read it that it draws freely on the tropes of fantasy: the Eloi resemble elves or fairies, the Morlocks goblins or malignant dwarves, the Time Traveller’s journey the wanderings of some unwary mortal in what Tolkien calls the Perilous Realm or Faërie, where time is disconcertingly out of kilter with human clocks. I then remembered that Tolkien refers to the book a number of times in his most famous statement on the fantasy genre, the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’ (1947), usually encountered in the anthology Tree and Leaf (1964). I went back to the essay to remind myself what he said about it, then re-read The Time Machine in the light of Tolkien’s essay. In the process I discovered all over again just how cunningly Wells was meddling with the ingredients in Tolkien’s Soup of Story – that endlessly evolving dish to which each new generation, each new writer contributes distinctive new touches – in this early text of his.[1]

Tolkien first mentions Wells’s story when he is trying to work out his definition of fairy stories – something he never finally succeeds in doing, not because he fails in the attempt but because he isn’t really interested in success. The definition of a fairy-story, he says, depends on the definition of its chief ingredient, ‘Faërie’, and defining this, he says, ‘Cannot be done’, since ‘Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible’.[2] Later he links the term to the art of enchantment, a capacity to provoke ‘wonder’ in the reader. If wonder has any meaning at all it refers to something that has not yet been subjected to analysis – something that is for the time being simply reacted to, emotionally and rationally, as extraordinarily strange and desirable (though for Tolkien desire is invariably qualified by the adjective dangerous, a term that recurs over and over again, along with its cognates, in his essay). The undefinability of Faërie sets it at odds with the lucid, purportedly scientific explanations of seemingly impossible things which Wells offers in his science fiction, a genre Tolkien links with travellers’ tales in its preoccupation with marvels ‘to be seen in this mortal world in some region of our own time and space’ – as opposed to the other-worldly marvels of fairy story.[3] Clearly for Tolkien ‘this mortal world’ includes other worlds in the physical universe we inhabit, such as the titular satellite in Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (1901). But Tolkien goes on to identify The Time Machine as possessing something of a fairy tale quality, precisely because of the distance of time with which it concerns itself: ‘Eloi and Morlocks live far away in an abyss of time so deep as to work an enchantment upon them; and if they are descended from ourselves’, he adds, we should remember that the Beowulf poet traced the ancestry of the elves ‘through Cain from Adam’ (p. 13). They are far enough away for their link to ‘our own time and space’ to have been rendered more or less untraceable – the Time Traveller repeatedly reminds us that any conjectures he may have as to their evolution are precisely that, conjectures ‘which may be absolutely wrong’.[4] Elsewhere Tolkien states that one of the attractiveness of fairy stories consists in the sense that they have been cut adrift from recorded history, a condition most admirably evoked, he thinks, in that simplest and most evocative of openings ‘Once upon a time’ (p. 81).[5] For much of The Time Machine the Time Traveller finds himself literally cut adrift in that he is without means of escaping from the far future, bereft even of the ability to link up his personal history to the rest of the history of the world with any accuracy – or to communicate his discoveries to his fellow historians, even if he does succeed in puzzling out what has taken place between his original period and the time in which he is stranded.

The one element of Wells’s novel that separates it from fairy story, Tolkien opines, is ‘the preposterous and incredible Time Machine itself’ (p. 13). The device, in other words, that purports to offer a rational explanation for the Time Traveller’s ability to reach the far future is precisely the thing that weakens the ‘enchantment of distance’ (p. 13), presumably by implying that there is a real scientific possibility of future expeditions to periods other than our own. I think – as most readers will, I expect – that Tolkien is wrong about the preposterousness of Wells’s device, though his view is wholly consistent with his insistence that fairy story achieves its effects by resisting explanation or definition, in scientific terms or otherwise. Indeed for many readers of science fiction, the problem with the Time Machine is that it doesn’t offer a rational explanation for anything, since we never get a hint as to how it operates – not even something as perfunctory as the account Wells gives of the non-existent substance, ‘cavorite’, that enables the spacecraft to leave Earth’s atmosphere in The First Men in the Moon. The Time Machine is, I think, partly introduced in order to tie Wells’s novel to the sorts of stories being written by his contemporaries that aimed to undermine confidence in scientific materialism: ghost stories, occult narratives, accounts of séances. (In some of his other time travel narratives, such as The Sleeper Awakes (1910) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), he uses sleep as the protagonist’s mode of transportation). And the machine is also an embodiment of the inexorable link between technological innovation and violence which is such a marked feature both of Wells’s scientific romances and of the later sections of Tolkien’s essay.

It’s in the section that discusses ‘escape’ or ‘escapism’ in fairy stories that Tolkien most famously associates technological progress with the human propensity for violence against its own kind. For him, as a veteran of the First World War and a horrified witness of the Second, the turn to literary archaism – both in fantasy and elsewhere – could be an act of political protest as well as of personal taste; ‘For,’ he writes,

it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable […] products. (pp. 63-4)

A few sentences later Tolkien refers to the ‘Morlockian horror of factories’, and adds that these are condemned even by that ‘most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science Fiction’ (p. 64) – and here one assumes he is thinking, among other books, of the novel in which the Morlocks feature. The fact is, of course, that Wells condemns factories (if that’s what he’s doing) not by ‘mere silence’ but by representing them in the form of the monstrous thudding machines that loom in the glare of the Time Traveller’s matches as he stumbles through underground caverns in quest of his lost machine. Intriguingly, then, Wells’s novel seems to militate against the sort of escape from the horror of the times which Tolkien identifies as one of the chief functions of both fairy story and science fiction. Yet there’s an escape of sorts in the narrative (as Tolkien points out), since it transports its readers so many thousands of years from the times they live in. Does Wells’s novel expose a contradiction or weakness in Tolkien’s argument? Or does it instead expose a paradox in it, implicit in the way he suggests that turning away from industrialism may be seen as a riposte to the technological turn in contemporary history – reminding us of that turn, so to speak, through its conspicuous absence? If this were the case then escape wouldn’t ever be escape – it would be a means of addressing the time of writing rather than evading it, summoning up what it rejects like a vengeful ghost or monster or demon from the turbulent id of the unwary reader. This is something the comparison of Wells brings to the fore in Tolkien’s thinking, as I hope to show in another post.

I’ve so far discussed two references to Well’s novel in Tolkien’s essay – the acknowledgement that it achieves ‘enchantment by distance’ despite the technology it contains, and its condemnation of technological progress through its representation of the great-great-grandchildren of the Victorian working classes, who have been transformed into inhuman monsters by the inhuman conditions under which they worked. A third, more oblique reference speaks again of the transportation device used by Wells, this time more generously than Tolkien did when discussing it specifically in the context of the narrative. The reference occurs when he is discussing what he calls ‘Chestertonian’ fantasy, of the kind exemplified by G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), which denotes an abrupt recognition of ‘the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle’ (p. 58). Such moments of recognition – as when the boy Charles Dickens saw the word moor-eeffoc on a glass door (it is ‘coffee-room’ seen from the other side), and found his perspective on Victorian London radically transformed – may cause you, Tolkien avers,

suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits[.] (p. 59

This distancing or estrangement of a familiar place is exactly what Wells achieves in The Time Machine, the whole of which happens within geographical walking distance of the Time Traveller’s suburban residence – though much of it at thousands of years’ distance from the time of his birth. The inhabitants of England at this chronological moment are indeed odd and interesting to the Time Traveller, though less interesting (and, indeed, less interested in their visitor from the past) than he had hoped. This is because they seem to have grown backwards in terms of intellectual and physical development since the late Victorian epoch in which his journey started, devolving (in the view of the Traveller) to a ‘remote past age’ when humans were smaller, less intelligent and more readily victimized by predators than in the age of empire. They are surrounded by antique monuments of the sort one might find in the British Museum: the marble statue of a sphinx, a doorway carved with ‘suggestions of old Phoenician decorations’ (p. 27), and decaying ‘palacelike buildings’ instead of individual houses (p. 29), which perversely make the Time Traveller think of ‘communism’ rather than the despots of earlier epochs. Wells’s ‘strange dim future’ contains many traces of a ‘remote past age glimpsed by history’, and the time machine is the two-way glass or (in Tolkien’s term) ‘time-telescope’ that reveals both (p. 59).

There’s a fourth reference to Wells’s story in Tolkien’s essay, and in many ways this fourth is the most unsettling of them all. It occurs when Tolkien is discussing what he sees as the perverse and arbitrary association of fairy stories with children. This association arises, he thinks, from the sentimentalizing of childhood as a period of pastoral innocence and its corollary, the association of adulthood with an atmosphere of deepening industrial gloom:

Let us not divide the human race into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children – ‘elves’ as the eighteenth century often idiotically called them – with their fairy-tales (carefully pruned), and dark Morlocks tending their machines. If fairy-story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. (p. 45)

The view that children have a natural affinity with fairy stories arises from the conviction voiced by Andrew Lang in the introduction to The Blue Fairy Book that young people resemble ‘the young age of man’ in their ‘unblunted edge of belief’, their ‘fresh appetite for marvels’ (p. 36). For Tolkien this statement traduces both early human beings, about whom we don’t know much except that they provided the template for modern humans and were probably therefore highly sophisticated (p. 40), and children, whose lack of experience may make them easy to hoax but who have a keen interest in distinguishing between truths and falsehoods, things to be believed and things to be enjoyed as delightful fictions. Tolkien’s linkage of children with Wells’s Eloi draws out the disturbing connotations of Lang’s comments. The Eloi are effectively a ‘different race’ from the machine tenders,[6] just as sentimentalists see children as a different race from adults. They suffer from arrested development, like a community of vapid ‘Peter Pans’,[7] and can never grow up as children are meant to. Above all, the Traveller thinks that they are food for the Morlocks, nourishing them and by extension their machines with their bodies while engaging in no kind of intellectual exchange with their minds or culture.[8] The perception of children as naïve simpletons to be protected from tough literary meat through the administration of bowdlerized fairy tales bears some comparison, Tolkien implies, to the Morlocks’ preservation of their cattle the Eloi in a state of abject dependency, which in turn recalls the subjection of human bodies to the service of the ‘Morlockian horror of factories’, of which ‘machine-guns and bombs […] appear to be [the] most natural and inevitable […] products’ (p. 64). Another way of putting this is that providing children with dumbed-down fantastic narratives on the grounds that they are naïve enough to think them true resembles a totalitarian state keeping a populace in its place with propaganda, or a capitalist government providing a labour force with inferior educational opportunities in order to preserve their status as components in the industrial machine – while the same capitalist government encourages its most highly-educated citizens to think of fairy stories as infantile, with the result that any practical philosophical or emotional purpose these stories might serve is nullified for adults. Under these circumstances Lang’s reference to a ‘fresh appetite for marvels’ takes on decidedly sinister connotations (like the Time Traveller’s reference to the Eloi as ‘these delicious people’, p. 33).

The comparison of adults to Morlocks and children to Eloi does something else; it renders the domestic environment profoundly uncanny, in exactly the way that Wells’s novel renders Richmond and its surrounding suburbs both beautiful (in a way that all Victorian suburbs aspired to be beautiful – as pastiches of pastoral communities) and disturbing. In the future world, Tolkien implies, families eat each other, as the ‘adult’ Morlocks eat the ‘childish’ Eloi. In evolutionary terms, however, the Morlocks and the Eloi are the same generation – cousins, perhaps, rather than parents and children. Wells makes this clear by the fact that the Morlocks are nearly as small as the Eloi in relation to the Time Traveller (he calls them ‘little brutes’, p. 73, and refers to their ‘soft little hands’ as they touch him in the dark, p. 67). It’s the Time Traveller who’s the grown up in Wells’s narrative – the father figure; in which case his relationship to the Eloi, especially Weena, is almost as disturbing as his eagerness to inflict needless violence on his less favoured offspring the Morlocks. I don’t think Wells means to imply that the Time Traveller’s relationship with Weena is sexual – he describes her as ‘exactly like a child’ (p. 42), refers to her as his ‘little one’ as he carries her protectively on his shoulder (p. 67), and even expresses doubt as to whether she is male or female (‘my little woman, as I believe it was’, p. 41) – but his strange double vision of her as both human and less than human, both childish and capable of adult attachments, both lovable and contemptible, represents a decidedly unhealthy intensification of the estrangement between the late Victorian middle class father and his children (separated not only during daylight hours by their distinct locations at work and school but even in the domestic environment, where the feminized space of the nursery is more or less out of bounds to an adult male). More than this, it represents a pastiche of the conventional relationship between late Victorian men and women, with the former perceived as physically and intellectually powerful and practical, the latter weak, infantile and affectionate. The relationship begins in the manner of a fairy tale romance, with the man rescuing the little drowning woman; but it ends in a manner that underlines the Time Traveller’s dismissive attitude towards the child-woman: he loses track of her in a fight against the Morlocks, and when afterwards he finds her ‘gone’ he derives comfort from the thought that she has been burned to death in a fire he himself started instead of being carried off by her cannibalistic relatives to their underground kitchens. His sorrow for her, too, is short-lived. As soon as she has vanished he starts to think of home – ‘of this house of mine, of this fireside, of some of you’ (p. 71), his male friends – and once back in the ‘old familiar room’ his grief seems ‘more like the sorrow of a dream than an actual loss’. In Wells’s novel, nursery notions of fairy-tale heroism, or of fairy-like children utterly alien to their towering father figures, lead inexorably not to a happy ending but to the inevitable destruction of the family.

Interestingly, Tolkien in his essay both opposes fairy tales to machines – whether the conjectural time machines of fiction or the real-life factories that serve modern industry – and aligns them with them. Consigning fairy stories to the nursery, he says at one point, would have the same effect on them as leaving a fine work of art or a delicate scientific instrument in the hands of small children would have on those objects.

[A] beautiful table, a good picture, or a useful machine (such as a microscope), [would] be defaced or broken, if it were left long unregarded in a schoolroom. Fairy-stories banished in this way, cut off from a full adult art, would in the end be ruined; indeed in so far as they have been so banished, they have been ruined. (p. 35)

This passage strangely invokes the contents of Wells’s novel: the beautiful and useful objects lying ‘long unregarded’ and hence ‘defaced and broken’ in a futuristic version of a public ‘schoolroom’ – a museum – whose own pedagogic function has in turn long been lost by disregard (and the Time Traveller among the Eloi at one point thinks of himself as ‘a schoolmaster amidst children’, p. 28); neglected machines in this building’s galleries, one of which is willfully damaged when the Time Traveller himself breaks off its lever to use as a club; the sense of ‘banishment’ which the Time Traveller feels because of his difference from the Eloi and the loss of his means of escape, the Time Machine; the ubiquity of ‘ruins’ of all kinds in the far-future landscape. The loss of interest in fairy stories themselves, in fact, is a fundamental element of Wells’s story. It ends with the members of the elite middle classes who have been gathered to hear the Time Traveller’s account of his great experiment, his journey to the future, collectively dismissing the narrative as fabricated and therefore worthless. Unable to see its application to themselves – with the sole exception of the story’s scribe, who sees it clearly – they implicitly consign their species to the fate it describes. In the process they also dismiss the Time Traveller exactly as he dismissed the Eloi, confirming the affinity he felt for the little people when he first met them, in spite of the physical disparities that set them apart.

Wells’s story, meanwhile, quite self-consciously proclaims its own affinity with a range of popular fantastic or pseudo-scientific narrative and theatrical forms in addition to the fairy tales popularized by Andrew Lang and George MacDonald – most prominently the ghost story, the magic show and the séance, the latter of which was notoriously associated with charlatanism and occultist eccentricity. The presence of the séance-narrative behind the story – skilfully evoked by the Time Traveller’s invitation of a group of sceptical guests to inspect a model of the time machine before he sends it on its chronic travels, like a professional medium anticipating the presence of unbelievers among participants at his act of supernatural prestidigitation – invests the scientific discourse of the Time Traveller with a fragility it would not otherwise possess. His language is contaminated by it with the suspicion of dishonesty, rendered as unstable for his audience as the physical environment of Richmond is by its association with his talk of time. The bodies of the guests, too, are unstable from the beginning of the story, flushed with alcohol and food consumption to the point that their ‘thought runs gracefully free of the trammels of precision’ (p. 7); so that they are susceptible to the light effects of a living room in which a fire has been laid, where ‘the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses’ (p. 7). The scene is both atmospheric and deliberately vague: there’s no way of knowing what the phrase ‘lilies of silver’ refers to – some pattern on the Time Traveller’s wine glasses? Some kind of ornament on the mantelpiece? – just as there’s no way of knowing exactly what the model time machine looks like when its creator brings it out. It has a ‘glittering metallic framework’ and is the size of any ‘small clock’ that might be made of similar material; there is ivory in it, ‘and some transparent crystalline substance’ (p. 11). The substance is formed into a ‘bar’ about which, as the Traveller himself points out, ‘there is an odd twinkling appearance […] as though it was in some way unreal’ (p. 12). Unrealness pervades the scene, and gets reinforced when the little time machine is put into motion (at the Time Traveller’s invitation) by the most sceptical witness present: a Psychologist, whose profession it is to investigate states of mind that reinforce delusions. It behaves as one might expect an object to behave at a professional séance, theatrically blowing out candles, swinging round as if out of control, being ‘seen as a ghost for a second perhaps, as an eddy of faintly glittering brass and ivory’, and finally vanishing (p. 13). The witnesses are duly unsettled by this display – the Psychologist shows signs of being a little mentally ‘unhinged’ when he tries to light a cigar without cutting it first – and the atmosphere of instability intensifies when the same Psychologist later explains that the machine could have gone back in time as well as forward, because if it had been in the room when they first arrived it would have existed below the threshold of perception because of the speed at which it was travelling through time. In the Time Traveller’s after-dinner world, then, solid objects can appear unreal, things of metal and ivory can exist unperceived in the middle of a room full of people, travel can take place when a thing is stationary, and a person’s senses cannot be trusted on account of their many and obvious limitations. We are, in other words, in a place of relativity, as has often been remarked.[9] But there’s a particular feature of this relativity that Tolkien’s essay on fairy stories helps to bring to the fore.

In his discussion of Chestertonian fantasy – itself an engagement with the fantasy that was written in what’s sometimes called the decadent period of the 1890s, in the middle of which The Time Machine was published – Tolkien speaks of how a sudden change of perspective (like the glimpse of the bizarre word Mooreeffoc on the glass of a coffee-room door) can render things momentarily strange, conjuring up a sense that the familiar place where you find yourself is somehow foreign, ‘that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine’ (p. 59). Tolkien goes on to describe the limitations of such an effect; it is momentary and local, operating like a ‘time-telescope’ trained on a single spot at a particular moment but unable to transform anything beyond it. The remarkable thing about this passage, however, is Tolkien’s suggestion that at this moment of estrangement the past and the future are simultaneously brought into alignment, like a pair of planets seeming to pass each other as they are watched by an astronomer. At this point he does not choose between past and future as being dominant in one’s sense of England’s alienness, and does not suggest that at the moment of estrangement one can; the alienness is in effect both the strangeness of past and future. And Wells does something similar at the beginning and the end of his novella. Why is it, one may ask, that the Time Traveller is unable to be sure whether his little model time machine has travelled forward or back in time when the Psychologist turns the lever to send it on its way? Surely the direction of travel would be clear from the direction in which the lever turned? My guess is that Wells introduces this uncertainty on purpose to suggest that the direction is immaterial – that the stories we tell ourselves, and above all the fantastic stories such as fairy tales, ghost stories, horror narratives, projections of the future and myths, mean that the past and future are continually in dialogue with the present, telling us as much about our condition as the discourse of scientists. At the end of the story, too, the Time Traveller vanishes on his full-size machine in a direction unknown to the nameless narrator – forward or back in time, possibly traumatized, out of control. The last thing the narrator sees of him is a ‘ghostly, indistinct figure sitting in a whirling mass of black and brass’ (p. 82), like a soldier caught in a wartime explosion (the resemblance is accentuated by the sound effects: ‘an exclamation, oddly truncated at the end, and a click and a thud’). Has the encounter of past and future put an unbearable strain on the scientist’s mechanism, pulling it to pieces at the point of its launch, scattering fragments of machine and rider promiscuously through time? If so, the Traveller remains strangely alive after his disappearance thanks to the mechanisms of story. The narrator goes on to conjecture that he may ‘even now – if I may use the phrase’ be wandering across a ‘plesiosaurus-haunted Oolitic reef’, or in one of the nearer futures in which ‘men are still men, but with the riddles of our own time answered and its problems resolved’ (p. 83). He has become a ghost, in other words, but whether of the past or of the future can never be known. More importantly, he is a ghost with whom we can retain imaginative contact by virtue of our storytelling imagination and our related capacity for hope. The ability of the storyteller – the anonymous narrator – to retain this kind of contact with him suggests that for Wells the fairy story is by no means confined to the nursery; it’s in operation at every level of our lives, and can conjure up things and situations for us that the discourse of science is unable to touch.

The time machine is a ‘framework’ (p. 11) – that’s all we know about its shape – and a framework is devised to contain or support something: a picture, the fabric of a building, a plan. It’s an invitation for something to be placed within it, like the magician’s pentagon. Into the framework supplied by the time machine – the model time machine with which the story begins, and the full-sized, grown-up time machine, now banished from the nursery, with which it ends – Wells inserts the narrative told by the Time Traveller. And the narrative, as we’ve seen, points in two directions: to past and future. It describes a future that resembles the Edenic past – with a fall built in, enacted by the Time Traveller himself as he guesses at the cannibalistic truth behind the idyll he has discovered, but also with a race of unfallen people still living in it at the end. It contains fragments of ancient myth and tragedy in the form of the sphinx, of history in the form of the inscriptions and palatial buildings, and of utopian speculation in the form of the wonderful machines in the Palace of Green Porcelain. It contains childlike creatures whose youth is blighted by an appearance of debility, suggesting imminent death: the first of the Eloi the Time Traveller sees reminds him of ‘the more beautiful kind of consumptive’, since his ‘flushed face’ possesses ‘that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much’ (p. 24); in other words he combines in his person the beginning and the end of an individual human life, just as the landscape he inhabits combines the beginning and the end of human civilization. And that landscape is also stocked with ghosts aplenty, as if they had been summoned in their swarms by the apparent séance with which the story began.

Morlock by Tatsuya Morino

When the Time Traveller first glimpses the Morlocks he mistakes them for phantoms of the dead: ‘up the hill I thought I could see ghosts. There, several times, as I scanned the slope, I saw white figures’, including on one occasion ‘a leash of them carrying some dark body’ (p. 43). Their evanescent bodies (now he sees them, now he finds no trace of them at all) recall the uncertainty of vision that characterized the story’s opening passages: ‘I doubted my eyes’ (p. 43). Ghosts, of course, evoke the past – though the ghost-like figure of the Time Traveller seen by the narrator at the end of the story could be heading towards past or future; but these ghosts, if such they are, also conjure up the notion of extreme futurity:

For a queer notion of Grant Allen’s came into my head, and amused me. If each generation die and leave ghosts, he argued, the world at last will get overcrowded with them. On that theory they would have grown innumerable some Eight Hundred Thousand Years hence, and it was no great wonder to see four at once. (p. 43)

The opening séance of the story, then, has summoned the spirits of the dead from two directions – ghosts of past dreams and nightmares, ghosts of future populations – making the time machine at the centre of the séance a two-way ‘time-telescope’ of the kind evoked by Tolkien. Meanwhile the vanishing of the time machine itself – carried off, it emerges, by Morlocks soon after its first arrival – confirms its own insubstantiality, as signaled by the unreal crystal of which it was partly constructed. As we’ve seen, the model time machine as it vanished resembled ‘a ghost for a second perhaps’, anticipating the ghostliness of the Time Traveller’s figure as he rides its larger successor into obscurity. And its disappearance may perhaps remind us of the other disappearances that his trick with the time machine has effected, including that of the house in which the séance took place, whose walls melted from around him as he travelled through time, signaling the eventual disappearance of all private dwellings from the ‘Golden Age’ he arrives at. Ghostliness is a condition of all solid objects and living things at one time or another, Wells seems to suggest, whether through a trick of the light in a firelit room, or the falling of twilight, or the passage of time.

As ghostly and evanescent as anything else in the story is the discourse of science. Science questions the existence of ghosts, despite their omnipresence (from the perspective I’ve just given) in human experience. The language of science provides explanations for things. Science can play ingenious tricks on a person’s perception (one of the Time Traveller’s guests alludes to a previous exploit of his when he asks: ‘is this a trick – like that ghost you showed us last Christmas?’, p. 14), first furnishing ocular proof of the fantastic narratives associated with the festive period, then demonstrating incontrovertibly the non-existence of the phenomenon it seemed to have proved. The Time Traveller’s adventures in Wells’s story are punctuated by scientific discourse; each hauntingly evocative set piece is accompanied by an elaborately rational explanation, from the account of duration as the fourth dimension in the opening section to the various theories the adventurer puts forward to account for the wonders he sees in the time to come. These explanations, however, keep getting dismissed as new evidence arises, and the Time Traveller himself acknowledges that he could never have gathered enough evidence to support them in the short period he spent in the future. ‘Very simple was my explanation’ he observes wryly as he finishes expounding his initial theories about the pastoral landscape and its inhabitants, ‘and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are!’ (p. 34). And later, when he has new evidence and has formulated a new theory: ‘So I say I saw it in my last view of the world of Eight Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One. It may be as wrong an explanation as mortal wit could invent. It is how the thing shaped itself to me, and as that I give it to you.’ (p. 72). The notion of the thing shaping itself in his mind, as if against his volition, wonderfully evokes the limitations of the reach and functioning of nineteenth-century reason as confirmed by the Time Traveller’s journey.

The one hope the Time Traveller has of getting the full story of humanity’s history is dashed when he discovers what has happened to paper in the twilight of the species. Armed with the club or mace he has wrenched from one of the machines he found in the Palace of Green Porcelain – a weapon that associates him variously with a medieval knight-at-arms protecting his damsel or a murderous caveman – the story’s protagonist finds his way into a gallery of the defunct museum which is lined, he thinks, with disintegrating flags, giving it a vaguely military appearance:

The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. […] Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought chiefly of the Philosophical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics. (p. 63)

The decay of paper means that any chance of composing an authoritative scientific or historical account of human development has been lost. As a result, the story we’re reading can only ever assume the status of a work of fiction – as transient, Wells implies, as the frail leaves of the popular magazine in which it first appeared, the New Review. The passage is rendered semi-comic by its deployment of the vocabulary of popular Gothic fiction – references to decay, rot, and disintegration combining with the reader’s consciousness of the monstrous ‘Lemurs’ (a word derived from the Latin for ghost) in the near vicinity to generate an atmosphere of ancient terror reborn (p. 49). It’s also rendered ironic by the Time Traveller’s implicit claim that he is not interested in the sort of ‘ambition’ that might have preoccupied a literary man confronted by this scene, who might have meditated on what it told him of ambition’s futility. This doesn’t ring true from what we know of the story’s protagonist. He was ambitious enough to invite ‘the Editor of a well-known daily paper’ (p. 16) and a journalist to his demonstration of the full sized time machine; and in the future he is disappointed by the public’s lack of interest in him, and sufficiently interested in leaving a mark in the Palace of Green Porcelain that he writes his name ‘upon the nose of a steatite monster from South America that particularly took my fancy’ (p. 64). The monster stands in a gallery among a ‘vast array of idols’ from ‘every country on earth, I should think’, which suggests both the Time Traveller’s wish for a global reach and the idleness (the monster is another idol) of still desiring it under the circumstances.

There is another irony at work in the passage where he finds the rotted library, and this concerns the field in which we are told the Time Traveller has done the bulk of his research. He is no specialist in the science of time; instead he has published ‘seventeen papers upon physical optics’ – that is, on the science of sight. No wonder the friends gathered at his house at the beginning of the story so strongly suspected that he was deceiving their vision, as he had done the previous Christmas.

It’s clear that this suspicion arises from his personality and looks as much as from his field of expertise. The narrator refers to his ‘queer, broad head’ – a portion of the anatomy to which the phrenologists were giving excessive attention at the time of writing, taking it as a working model of what was going on inside – while at the beginning of the second chapter he launches into a lengthy disquisition on the eccentricities that rendered the Time Traveller untrustworthy as a consultant on scientific matters. He was

one of those men who are too clever to be believed; you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness. […] Things that would have made the fame of a less clever man seemed tricks in his hands. It is a mistake to do things too easily. (p. 15)

Even in his own time, then, the Time Traveller has found it impossible to make his name in the scientific community, thanks to his own shortcomings as a person of probity. In his suburban house he has been literally and metaphorically stranded on the margins for many years before he strands himself in time. There’s a strong sense that his invitation of representative (if not particularly elevated) figures of the community – a Provincial Mayor and a Medical Man as well as the Editor and the Journalist – is a final bid to place himself at the centre of society, to escape from the banishment of ostracism, so to speak. Instead, however, he becomes in the narrator’s account only one nameless human figure among many, as completely detached from both society and scientific discourse by his namelessness as the world of the far future he discovers is detached from the unfolding narrative of evolution.

Scientific discourse itself, that future world has shown us, is unstable, as easily lost from the collective understanding as is the memory of human achievements. Our sense of what’s past and what’s to come is rendered unstable by our transplantation from one time to another of the prejudices and preoccupations of our upbringing, so that looking at the future, if we could do it, would be tantamount to looking at the past, since we can only read it in the outmoded terms that direct our vision and understanding. Our maturity, in other words, is governed by the things of our childhood – in biblical terms, we never put off childish things, but continue to see through a glass (or ‘time telescope’) darkly, from infancy to old age. Wells conveys this confounding in our minds of childhood and adulthood not only by the childlike forms of the sexually mature Eloi, or by the resemblance of the Morlocks both to uncomely children and to museum specimens (‘They were just the half-bleached colour of the worms and things one sees preserved in spirit in a zoological museum’, p. 49), but by the occasionally childish qualities of the Time Traveller himself. The prank he once played with a fake ghost makes him sound like a naughty schoolboy. When he loses his time machine he behaves, he admits, ‘like an angry child’ (p. 36). The sole piece of technology he makes use of in the future – a box of safety matches – proves as deadly in his hands as parents fear it would in the hands of an infant: he sets fire to a forest with it and burns Weena to death. Those of his ‘serious’ acquaintances who take him ‘seriously’ believe that ‘trusting their reputations for judgement with him was like furnishing a nursery with egg-shell china’ (p. 15). Could this phrase have given Tolkien the basis of his statement, in the essay on fairy stories, that consigning fantastic fiction to the nursery would be like leaving a ‘beautiful table, a good picture, or a useful machine (such as a microscope) […] unregarded in a schoolroom’? Perhaps, but Wells’s point is different: that in the long run the distinction between the nursery or schoolroom and the laboratory, lecture hall or university library is not as clear as we like to think. For all his eccentric appearance and unusual inventiveness the Time Traveller is linked to the other people who gather in his living room by the nouns, not names, by which he is identified. He is the reader’s brother, a member of the reader’s generation, no matter when in history the reader may be encountering his narrative.

In his preface to Seven Famous Novels (1934) Wells described his early scientific romances as ‘fantasies’ quite distinct from the ‘anticipatory inventions’ of the great French author Jules Verne.[10] This is because Verne deals, he says, in ‘actual possibilities of invention and discovery’, while Wells’s stories are ‘all fantasies; they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream’. One trick to making such a fantasy work, he claims, is to ensure that there is only one ‘fantastic element’ in it, whose effect is to ‘throw up and intensify our natural reactions of wonder, fear or perplexity’. Another trick is to translate the imaginative component ‘into commonplace terms’ – to ‘domesticate the impossible hypothesis’, as he later puts it. By 1934, then, Wells was eager to detach his early fiction from science – thus bringing it closer to the fairy stories of Tolkien’s essay. And he was also eager to bring them close to home – or to be more exact, close to the home as a concept. The location of The Time Machine in and around an ordinary suburban living room was, according to this preface, its most significant artistic feature. ‘Anyone can invent human beings inside out or worlds like dumb bells or a gravitation that repels’, he avers; the crucial thing is to accommodate these wonders among familiar and everyday objects. What he achieved, however, was rather different from this. He rendered the domestic wonderful, fearful and perplexing, making its walls transparent, its inhabitants emotionally and physically unstable, its comforts deeply uncomfortable, its social and familial relations appallingly complicated. And he helped found the genre of modern fantasy, as well as the genre of science fiction.

 

Notes

[1] The reference to ‘the Cauldron of Story’ (which contains the Soup) comes in the ‘Essay on Fairy-Stories’, J. R. R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 3-81. See especially p. 27, and indeed the whole section on ‘Origins’, pp. 18 ff.

[2] Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, p. 10.

[3] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 12.

[4] H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, in Selected Short Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 48.

[5] ‘As for the beginnings of fairy-stories: one can hardly improve on the formula Once upon a time. It has an immediate effect. […] It produces at once the sense of a great uncharted world of time.’

[6] Tolkien, ‘Of Fairy-Stories’, p. 34.

[7] Tolkien, ‘Of Fairy-Stories’, p. 45.

[8] As Kathryn Hume points out, he never knows this for sure; it’s an assumption he makes that exonerates (in his view) his instinctive loathing for and desire to smash the skulls of the Morlocks. See Kathryn Hume, ‘Eat or Be Eaten: H. G. Wells’s Time Machine’, in The Time Machine, ed. Stephen Arata, Norton Critical Editions (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2009), pp. 205-6.

[9] See for example Colin Manlove, ‘H. G. Wells and the Machine in Victorian Fiction’, in The Time Machine, ed. Arata, p. 248: ‘A literary form of the theory of relativity informs the very postulated existence of a fourth dimension in The Time Machine’.

[10] See The Time Machine, ed. Arata, pp. 154-5.

The Magic Books of C. S. Lewis and H. G. Wells

Reading a book is an act of conjuration. When we open books we raise the dead to new life, jump across spectacular gaps in space and time, release into the atmosphere concepts and ambitions long forgotten, experience the griefs and joys of distant strangers. We are, in effect, doing the impossible. No wonder, then, if the literature of the impossible, fantasy – which represents people, things, events and places as they never were and never could be, which violates the laws of physics and biology – no wonder if fantasy is obsessed with acts of reading. No wonder, too, if it concerns itself in particular with the reading of books, those bundles of printed pages folded and bound together so that we can’t get access to them except through a deliberate act, a gesture as purposeful and ritualistic as casting a spell. Children’s fantasy is full of acts of book-reading which are also magic acts, and this is hardly surprising given that children still remember the painful but miraculous process of learning to associate marks on the page with things and people for the very first time. Gothic fiction, too, in which the supernatural breaks into the material world through ruins, forgotten doorways or neglected alleys, is obsessed with books as magic objects: perverse and sometimes poisonous rivals of the bibles, dictionaries, textbooks and encyclopedias that purvey the official version of the world to its more or less obedient denizens. Perhaps this is because the genre so often appeals to the childish amazement – not unmixed with horror – at how much more any given space contains than seems physically possible (a handbag, a drawer in a desk, a police box, a person’s mind), or at how attractive or repellent influences from one period, place or culture can insinuate themselves into another, both processes being best exemplified in the act of reading a book. I’d like, then, to think about what fantastic literature has to say about the experience of engaging with that strangest of human artifacts, the book, and what the book as magic object has to say about the act of reading. Above all, I’d like to consider how magic books in fantasy fiction address the question of the text’s relationship with the real, and of the choices we make in realizing – that is, making real – the fantastic things we read of.

Here, then, is a magic book in a novel for children by C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), the third in his fantasy sequence the Narnian Chronicles. A young girl finds this book in an empty house on a seemingly unpopulated island – though the island, like the one in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is full of noises, which makes the approach to this magic object decidedly unsettling. The situation has all the ingredients of Gothic fiction, but Lewis is careful to distance it from the Gothic by leavening those ingredients with a liberal dose of reassurance:

She went up to the desk and laid her hand on the book; her fingers tingled when she touched it as if it were full of electricity. She tried to open it but couldn’t at first; this, however, was only because it was fastened by two leaden clasps, and when she had undone these it opened easily enough. And what a book it was!

It was written, not printed; written in a clear, even hand, with thick downstrokes and thin upstrokes, very large, easier than print, and so beautiful that Lucy stared at it for a whole minute and forgot about reading it. The paper was crisp and smooth and a nice smell came from it; and in the margins, and round the big coloured capital letters at the beginning of each spell, there were pictures.[1]

There are points in this passage, I think, worth lingering over. First, the magic book emits some sort of ‘electric’ energy, as if unable to contain its power to connect to the world, to light it up in a literalization of the familiar metaphor embedded in the term enlightenment. Secondly, the book seems at first to be hard to open, so that the act of will involved in reading it is emphasized – the fact of reading as an active choice rather than a passive process. As it turns out, though, opening it is easy once Lucy has unfastened the ‘two leaden clasps’ that hold it shut – so those clasps are obviously not meant to keep its contents safe from prying eyes. And once the book is open there are a number of indications on its pages that it’s a benevolent space, not a threatening one. The writing is ‘clear’, as if to signal the writer’s intention to make things clear to those who read; it’s ‘easier than print’, which stresses the fact that this is a handwritten manuscript not mechanized type, the work of one writer working in solitude rather than a team of workers (writer, printer, typesetter, proofreader, distributor, bookseller and so on), possibly controlled by some censorious authority, such as must usually be involved in making and marketing a printed book. The script is so beautiful that simply looking at it is a pleasure. In fact, Lewis is careful to indicate that the book pleases all the senses: it feels good, smells good, and delights the vision with colourful pictures. This magic book, then, is decidedly an object in its own right, with a character independent of the meaning of the calligraphic characters it contains. By describing it in such detail Lewis emphasizes the interaction of the reader with the book as object; it inhabits the world of the reader as positively as the reader inhabits the world of the text when she starts to read. And the contents of the book show a similar stress on the interaction between text and reader, reader and text, since the effect reading has on the world is clearly represented in its pages.

When Lucy first starts to read this magic book she finds exactly what we might expect: a set of spells, one of which she has been sent to find. Spells are, of course, very specific examples of how reading affects the world beyond the book. If they are effective, the mere utterance of them changes things materially, so that illnesses are cured, the shapes of people, animals or objects transformed, one’s body transported to some new location. Spells are also things of mystery. Only a select few know how they operate, and these practitioners tend to keep this knowledge secret, set apart from the body of familiar knowledge which is accessible through conventional schooling. There is an air of danger about spells, since their use has so often been forbidden by authorities nervous of the power they might impart to their users, or fearful that they might function through the agency of malignant spirits. In other words, there is a social and political dimension to reading a spell, since the very fact of reading it aloud can radically alter the reader’s relationship to the society she lives in and the authorities that govern it.

Sure enough, as Lucy reads on she moves from an encounter with spells as simple agents of change to spells as dangerous social and political interventions. The first spells she finds are medical: magic for curing warts and toothache, each accompanied by vivid pictures (‘The picture of the man with toothache was so lifelike that it would have set your own teeth aching if you looked at it too long’, p. 130). Later in the book the pictures become ‘more real’, the narrator tells us (p. 131); more photographically accurate, that is, in their representation of their subjects; eventually even cinematic. At the same time they become more problematic in terms of the implied motives that drive people to use the spells they illustrate, more complicated in their depiction of the spells’ effects. As Lucy studies a spell to make the reader ‘beautiful […] beyond the lot of mortals’ (p. 131), she sees an exact double of herself drawn on the page beside the words of the incantation. Her double, ‘the other Lucy’, is pictured speaking the spell ‘with her mouth open and a rather terrible expression on her face’ (p. 132). In the next picture the ‘other Lucy’ has turned towards the ‘real Lucy’ and the two girls – the image on the page and the living, reading human being – are looking into each other’s eyes, with unsettling effect: ‘the real Lucy looked away after a few minutes because she was dazzled by the beauty of the other Lucy’ (p. 132). Note here how the beauty conferred by the spell obscures or dazzles the senses instead of clarifying them, in contrast to the ‘easy’ calligraphy of the magic book, the promise of enlightenment it seemed to offer. In a quick succession of images the real Lucy next sees the impact of this dazzling beauty on the world of Narnia. Tournaments are held in the other Lucy’s honour, swiftly succeeded by all-out war in which nations are ‘laid waste with the fury of the kings and dukes […] who fought for her favour’ (p. 132). In later pictures the other Lucy is back in England, standing beside her sister Susan ‘who had always been the beauty of the family’, but who is now dethroned from her perch and clearly envious of Lucy’s new attractiveness. The real Lucy is thrilled by this narrative, in which she becomes first the heroine of a story set in Narnia – albeit one that involves the reduction of the country to a wasteland – and then the new centre of attention in her place of origin, England. As a result, the real Lucy is just about to recite the spell and make these stories real (in both Narnia and England) when she is put off by the appearance on the page of the face of Aslan, lion-god of Narnia, whose growling puts the fear of God into her (quite literally) and makes her turn the page.

In the pages that contain the spell for more-than-mortal beauty, then, the magic book shows more than the words of the spell itself. It shows in its illustrations the results of the spell once uttered: war between nations, strife between sisters, a ‘terrible’ change of appearance in the spell’s utterer. And it also invites its reader to consider the question of what’s real. The Lucy in the book who speaks the spell ceases to be the ‘real Lucy’, splitting off from her and becoming her ‘other’, so that the ‘real Lucy’s’ desire to become her in spite of all she’s read is a desire to stop being ‘really’ herself. Becoming something other than ‘real’ in this sense brings about the destruction of a place she loves, the land of Narnia, which undergoes a change as radical as hers, becoming a zone of conflict rather than a space that favours friendship as it was before – between species, between beasts and humans, between supernatural beings and mortal creatures. Under the influence of her new loveliness, in fact, Narnia ceases to be really Narnia, and this is particularly devastating because in the Narnian chronicles a number of characters have tended to assume from time to time that the land of Narnia is not real at all – that it’s imaginary – whereas the ‘real Lucy’ has always been the fiercest champion of Narnia’s realness.

The change in Lucy, and the change in Narnia, if it were to occur as it does in the magic book, would be brought about by a change in values, whereby beauty matters more than affection (between people, nations, siblings, and worlds). Another word for affection is caring – etymologically linked to the Latin word caritas, the term used in the medieval church’s liturgy to translate the particular kind of love God has for his creation. That Lucy must cease to care if she is to say the spell is implied both by the fact that once the spell is cast ‘no one cares anything’ any more for her older sister Susan, and by the fact that when Lucy decides to utter it she says to herself, ‘I will say the spell […] I don’t care. I will’ (p. 132). The voluntary acquisition of spectacular beauty – beauty of the kind that sets you apart from other people, beauty ‘beyond the lot of mortals’ – involves the abandonment of the emotion, care, that binds one human being to another in a mutually supportive community. Breaking off attachments in this way is in some sense a rejection of the real, since there is no practical purpose to it: it’s an arbitrary act that does no one any good, least of all the person who performs it.

If, then, a spell in a book can make real an effect (dazzling beauty) that divorces its recipient from reality – from her values and affections, from any concern for the consequences of her actions, even from the evidence of her senses, since the beauty dazzles – then the act of reading can at times be as deadly as at other times it’s useful. I said at first that the magic book presents itself as a benevolent space, with its clear writing, its promise of enlightenment, the pleasant sensations it affords, the medical cures it offers; but the Gothic aspect of the book’s introduction into the narrative foregrounds the perils that also lurk between its pages. The spell for beauty embodies that danger: it is clearly and unambiguously designed to be damaging to its users. If the magic book has indeed been written for benevolent purposes, the only point of the spell’s inclusion among its contents must be to be rejected, to be left unread. It’s the reverse of the therapeutic spells that opened the volume: this particular text must remain trapped within the book’s covers, unscanned and therefore unrealized, an emblem of the divorce between the imaginary and the real, and of the necessity of knowing when to keep that divorce firmly in place. Some fantasies, like some spells, are best left unrealized. The imagination can be a calamitous faculty, especially when focused exclusively on the pleasure of the imaginist, and the spell would seem to have been placed in the volume as a test of the reader’s motives in engaging with the text within.

That the unreading of the spell is indeed its function is confirmed by the appearance of Aslan’s face in the middle of the page, like a prohibition, when Lucy tries to read it aloud. The face terrifies her, not because of its malevolence – as Mephistopheles might have terrified Faustus – but because of its anger, its disapproval, in connection with what it stands for. Aslan belongs to the world of Narnia, and represents everything Lucy desires in that world: ready communication with animals; the promise that bad things will eventually be sorted out, against all odds, by a strength greater than her own; the affirmation that the impossible may be possible after all, that stories may come true, and that play (like the games where we talk with normally inarticulate creatures or dance with predators) can be as serious as anything her society takes to be so. The impossible Aslan, the talking beast who was branded imaginary by (among others) Lucy’s sister Susan at various points in the earlier Narnian chronicles, yet was rendered real to Lucy’s readers by the vividness of Lewis’s descriptions of him, tells her not to read on. His realness, independent of the magic book (indeed he did not seem to be in the book when she first opened it), is confirmed by her prior knowledge of his personal traits: ‘she knew the expression on his face quite well’ (p. 133). Aslan is a being conjured up by books before The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and hence known to most ‘real’ readers, as well as to the ‘real’ Lucy, better than any other being the voyagers encounter. When we read about Lucy seeing him on the page, then, we know exactly what to think of him. We trust him as a reliable guide to what should and shouldn’t be done or read; that’s his function in both the Narnia books that came before this one, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and Prince Caspian (1951). He represents, in fact, a ‘right’ way of reading: to make real in our minds things that will change us for the better, be enshrined as part of our memory so that our way of seeing the world, of reading it, will be subtly modified.

C. S. Lewis, Reader

The suggestion that there is a ‘right’ way of acting and reading, and that Aslan stands for it, implies that the Narnian Lion God is coercive, a didactic tool in the hands of an author concerned to reshape his young readers’ minds with the spell of his prose. I don’t think Lewis would have seen things this way. Rather, I think he’d have seen his task (his own task as author, Aslan’s task as avatar for his version of Christ) as reminding readers of their own ‘real’ identities. The real Lucy’s temptation to speak the spell for beauty is something that both she and the reader knows would be a terrible mistake – after all, we have been shown the consequences, from the breakdown in family relationships to the outbreak of war. This awareness explains the ‘terrible’ expression on the face of the ‘other Lucy’ as she recites it: she does so in the full knowledge of what will come of it (she has presumably first read the same pages, showing the same consequences of the spell, as the ‘real’ Lucy is reading). Aslan’s appearance to the ‘real Lucy’ is therefore a reminder of what she already knows, of who she really is – not an imposition of a certain way of thinking by an outside authority. And she can ignore him, too, if she wishes. Seeing his face prevents her from reading out the spell for beauty, but she goes on to read another spell she should have left unread – a spell to find out what other people think of you – and in the process, we learn a few pages later, she loses one of her best friends. After she has uttered that second spell she sees an image of her friend bad-mouthing her to a school bully, and this changes Lucy’s view of the girl forever, despite her subsequent discovery that she didn’t really mean it, that she spoke only out of fear of being hurt by the bully if she said what she really thought. Lucy had to suppress part of herself in order to read aloud the spell to find out people’s thoughts; we know this because she spoke it ‘all in a hurry, for fear her mind would change’ (p. 133) – that is, because she prevented herself from thinking about the consequences of her action. And as it turns out, the spell doesn’t inform her what her friend really thinks of her, only what she pretends to think. It implants false knowledge in Lucy, and once implanted, it seems, she never manages to remove it – the false knowledge becomes real to her and permanently damages her relationship with that friend in the process.

Interestingly enough, the scene where her friend bad-mouths her takes place in our world rather than Narnia’s. In the magic book, the girl and the bully are shown sitting in the solidly familiar surroundings of a third class carriage on a train, and the scene is the most realistic one so far in the magic book: a moving picture like something from a film, with ‘telegraph posts flicking past’ the train window as Lucy watches. Our world, then, is a place where things that are not real can masquerade as realities, where what is asserted is not always true, where people can betray their real identities just as they can in books. Books, conversely, can be ‘realler’ than the ‘real’ world: think of how the Narnian Lion in the book stands for what Lucy really knows and is, while our own world stands for the way she and her friends may be coerced into suppressing or disguising their powers of thought.

Tree by Tolkien

Not long after damaging herself by speaking this spell, Lucy finds the spell she has been sent to find, ‘to make hidden things visible’, and reads it out as she was instructed. Rosemary Jackson tells us in her book Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion that the Latin word which lies at the root of the English term fantasy, phantasticus, means something like ‘to make visible or manifest’.[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, Lewis’s friend who wrote The Lord of the Rings, argues in his celebrated essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that the task of the author of fairy stories or fantasies is to realize an imagined world – to make it real by all the rhetorical tricks at his or her disposal.[3] Lewis, on the other hand, is keen to remind us that not everything real is visible (think of air, toothache, weight, music, abstract notions), and conversely that not everything we see is authentic. Fantasies and the desires that lie behind them can make things real as well as visible, while conversely real-life events and actions can distort our sense of what exists and what doesn’t. And Lewis shows this – renders it visible – by an event he places near the end of the chapter where Lucy reads the magic book.

After she has spoken the spell to make things visible, Lucy encounters Aslan himself, the ‘real’ one rather than the one on the page, who has been made visible like the island’s inhabitants by her incantation. Lucy is delighted to see him, and as she turns to greet him her own face becomes ‘almost as beautiful as that other Lucy’ in the magic book – though ‘of course’, Lewis adds, ‘she didn’t know it’ (p. 136, my emphasis). As soon as Aslan has been realized in the strange house, with all the qualities he embodies, so too is the beauty in the spell Lucy read about in the magic book – only here it’s ‘real’ beauty, in the sense that it’s something enjoyed not by Lucy (who is specifically stated not to be aware of her appearance at that moment – not to ‘know’ it) but by those who interact with her, by the community (in this case, the community of readers who have read this passage over the years since its publication). Her beauty is a collective pleasure, in other words, rather than a mark that distinguishes and thus segregates its owner from everyone else, as the ‘other’ Lucy’s beauty was. The real Lucy’s beauty also depends on the circumstances under which it manifests itself: the motives and emotions of which it is a sign, in this case love directed outwards towards others, caring love. And it depends on what its possessor does as well as what she feels. Lucy’s motives and emotions propel her towards the lion (‘she ran forward with a little cry of delight and with her arms stretched out’, p. 136), enacting the Latin word for movement, motus, which is at the root of both the words motive and emotion. Beauty, then, is not a fact but an act, a state of being, something alive and energetic – which can stop being beauty as soon as its possessor stops behaving beautifully. And in this book it’s rewarded with reciprocal movement in the shape of a lion’s embrace.

In the passage, accordingly, Aslan is described in terms that make him as vivid, tangible and caring as Lewis knows how:

And he was solid and real and warm and he let her kiss him and bury herself in his shining mane. And from the low, earthquake-like sound that came from inside him, Lucy even dared to think he was purring (p. 136)

As with the description of the magic book, Lewis ensures he appeals to most of the senses: sight (his mane is ‘shining’), touch (he is ‘solid’ and ‘warm’) and sound (his thunderous ‘purring’). Not only, then, does the spell make Aslan visible, it seems to make him concrete, give him mass. And once he has been realized like this he proceeds to make Lucy realize what she did earlier by uttering the spell to read people’s thoughts. He first calls it ‘eavesdropping’, which carries unpleasant connotations of the invasion of privacy, and then something less pleasant still, ‘spying’, which implies the clandestine surveillance of a person or community for hostile purposes – a word with strong emotional resonance in the aftermath of the Second World War. Afterwards he points out the inaccuracy of the information she gathered from this act of espionage; and Lucy at once tells him that despite its inaccuracy – despite the fact that she now knows the girl only said she didn’t like Lucy because she was afraid – Lucy will never be able to forget the apparent betrayal, and that their friendship will come to an end as a result. In other words, the ‘other’ or imagined friend has permanently replaced the ‘real’ friend in Lucy’s head, usurping what she ‘knows’ with bogus knowledge – becoming real in her head. Her awareness of this, and the loss that will come of it, indicates that she has started to think again, having suppressed her thought processes while she read the spell; but it also indicates how potent false knowledge is, and hence how potent certain acts of reading may be in damaging the reader. Lucy has become in part the other Lucy by deliberately reading the spell without thinking, and hence by undermining her own faculty of reason.

Lewis, then, has in this passage set up a complex dialogue between different kinds of realness and fantasy. Through his representation of a magic book which seems to occupy both the secondary world of Narnia and the ‘real’ world of 1950s England – the place and time where Lewis himself was writing – he has set in competition two versions of reality at least, and two versions of fantasy too. The book serves as a kind of portal or gateway opening on more than one location. It faces its reader with two alternative versions of the book’s imagined reader Lucy, one of which is ‘authentic’ in that it pays attention to what she really knows and believes, the other false in that it chooses to ignore what it knows, to discard the evidence of its senses, spurn its reason. Both Lucys are at once readers of the magic book and characters in the various narratives it contains, and both Lucys exist both in Narnia and in England. The effect of this is to suggest that realness is an internal phenomenon; that what a person (or group of people) honestly perceives or knows to be real is so, regardless of whether that realness is perceptible to anyone else. It also implies that we are capable of convincing ourselves that something is not real against our better judgement, simply because we desire it to be so. And Lewis indicates that we can’t be forced to really believe something, which makes sense: we can be forced to say we believe a thing but it’s hard to imagine a mind being changed by coercion (though Orwell succeeded in imagining this only a few years before the publication of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949]).

In other words, there are two kinds of fantasy as well as two kinds of reality: things we claim to exist when we know they don’t – because we desire them – and things we make up for the delight of imagining them, in full acknowledgment of their non-existence. The big difference between these two kinds of fantasy is, Tolkien suggests in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, a matter of power – or more exactly, power in this world, ‘domination of things and wills’.[4] For Tolkien, a stage magician pretends to make impossible things happen as a way of gaining power over his audience – by making them think him uniquely gifted, much as people think the ‘other Lucy’ gifted because of her beauty. The bully makes a weaker person state something they don’t believe for the pleasure of demonstrating his or her superior force. On the other hand, Tolkien insists, inventing an imaginary place exerts no power over anyone; in its ‘purity’, as he calls it, it’s a communal or collective experience, as pleasant to the writer as to the reader, and without a palpable design on either[5]. There is a problem with Tolkien’s logic here, since he himself suggests that reading about imaginary places does in fact exert power over the reader: it makes her delight more intensely in the real things and places with which she comes into contact, since it associates them with the excitements and pleasures of narrative; it changes her point of view, in other words, which is a pretty potent effect.[6] So too in Lewis’s chapter, Aslan has power over Lucy because she knows about him from previous encounters; the reader who has followed her adventures is able to ‘read’ what he stands for from having read about him in other books; the Lion could therefore be said to direct our interpretation of the chapter we’ve just scanned, or more accurately to be a rhetorical tool for directing our interpretation of it, a tool wielded by the writer for his own purposes. Lewis showed his awareness of this rhetorical or persuasive power in fiction early in his career as a novelist, when he told a Christian friend in a letter of 1939 that the ignorance of religion among contemporary readers meant that novels could work as highly effective propaganda for Christianity, ‘smuggling’ its doctrines or teachings into readers’ minds in disguised and simplified form and thus leading them by stealth towards what Lewis considered the truth.[7] He wrote in this way during the Second World War, when persuasive rhetoric was being deployed by both the Allied Forces and the Nazis in the service of very different ideologies. He would have been intensely conscious, then, that the methods he was suggesting (taking advantage of ignorance to spread contentious forms of knowledge) could be used in opposing ways, precisely as the knowledge in Lucy’s magic book could be deployed for either therapeutic or destructive purposes.

The Narnia books have sometimes been read as propaganda by readers hostile to Lewis’s outlook. Such readers might point out, among other things, that Lewis fails altogether in his account of the magic book to show any awareness that what people believe or know may change according to the period and culture they inhabit; for him what’s true and right is always and essentially true and right, regardless of the fluctuations of history, and he wants to make the reader believe so too. Change is, however, clearly visible to any twenty-first century reader in this chapter, both because there are no longer third class carriages on British trains, as in the scene from the magic book where Lucy’s friend bad-mouths her to a bully, and also because we may well find ourselves resisting certain aspects of Lewis’s narrative. We might object to Aslan’s apparent authoritarianism, for example, his quiet assumption that everything he says should be obeyed; or to Lewis’s assumption that girls like Lucy will be tempted by the offer of supreme beauty (rather than, say, political power) – a temptation to which he never subjects any of his male characters, unlike the children’s author he most admires, E. Nesbit;[8] or to the fact that the magician who owns the magic book has absolute authority over the inhabitants of his island. We might respond to these objections by arguing that Aslan is not in fact authoritarian, since (as I suggested earlier) he only reminds Lucy of what she already knows and leaves it to her to decide whether or not to stand by that knowledge; or that Lewis’s point about beauty is precisely that his contemporary culture drastically limits a girl’s sense of her own identity by placing it first and foremost among the values she should aspire to. We might also respond, more problematically, that the magician governs the island’s inhabitants because they are unable to govern themselves (as the magician himself affirms). This was the rationale of many British colonists for taking control of other people’s countries; and it’s famously the rationale of Shakespeare’s Prospero in The Tempest for his enslavement of the native islanders Ariel and Caliban. Ariel couldn’t look after himself, Prospero insists, because he let himself get trapped in a tree by the ‘foul witch Sycorax’, while Caliban couldn’t read or talk when Prospero met him (at least, he couldn’t express himself in a language Prospero could understand).[9] Caliban wasn’t convinced by Prospero’s logic, and neither would most modern readers be. And Lewis’s magician shows his own unease about wielding power over his subjects by using Prospero’s phrase for it: ‘Sometimes, perhaps, I am a little impatient, waiting for the day when they can be governed by wisdom instead of this rough magic’ (p. 138). Prospero refers to ‘this rough magic’ when he’s about to give up his power at the end of the play,[10] and the use of the same phrase by Lewis’s magician implies that he too plans to give up his power when the time comes, just as the British were slowly handing back power to their colonies in the 1950s (though there’s some ambiguity here about whether being ‘governed by wisdom’ refers to the islanders’ own wisdom or someone else’s, and hence about whether they will in the end achieve self-determination). The magician is at least a little more democratic than the British: his magic book was used by the islanders to turn him invisible as well as themselves, and he must wait as patiently as they must to be freed by Lucy from that enchantment. Time, then, has affected Lewis’s rewriting of The Tempest, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it; he shows himself in it a man of the mid-twentieth century, not the seventeenth or indeed the twenty-first.

Whether or not we feel comfortable as contemporary readers with Lewis’s account of the book as a magic object, one thing’s for certain: he represents Lucy’s encounter with it, and with the fantasies it contains, as an immensely complex experience that affects her deeply. He presents it, in fact, as an adventure; something risky, even dangerous, which could result in damaging her irreparably as easily as it could result in enriching her mind.

It seems to me that books represented in fiction as magic objects very often embody the danger of reading: from The Monster Book of Monsters in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), which bites the hands of its unwary readers, to the titular compendium of spells and prophecies in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964), which stings the reader’s fingers like a nest of hornets when they handle it without permission; from the wizard Ogion’s magic book in Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), which releases shadows into the world to whisper at the reader menacingly from beside the door, to the book at the centre of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy (2003-2008), which absorbs readers into its imaginary world and releases characters from that world into this one, often at the command of unscrupulous criminals and tyrants. I’d like to end, though, by looking at a magic book directly linked to the one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which embodies the dangers of reading from a rather different perspective.

The book can be found in H G Wells’s great short story ‘The Door in the Wall’ (1911), which was one of Lewis’s favourites and seems to have infiltrated every one of the Narnian chronicles.[11] It’s not a story specifically written for children, as the Narnian books are, but a story about childhood experience and its effect on our adult lives. In it, a young boy finds a mysterious green door in a wall in London and walks though it to find a vast and impossible garden, full of affectionate wild animals and friendly adults, containing a palace where children play delightful games in a state of total mutual trust and blissful timelessness. We never learn in the story whether this pastoral landscape ‘really’ exists or is a child’s daydream, conjured up by his loneliness, the death of his mother and his father’s neglect. The scene itself is something of a cliché, composed of familiar images from Victorian picture books and a vague memory of the passage in the Book of Isaiah which tells of a time when ‘The wolf […] shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them’.[12] What we do know is that the green door continues to haunt the boy throughout his life, appearing in different walls at decisive moments in his career as if to tempt him to walk through it, to choose the simple idyll it hides before the opportunity to meet up with a woman he loves, or to cast a crucial vote in parliament, or to take part in a conversation or interview that will result in some form of promotion. At the end of the story the boy, who has grown up and become a successful politician, is killed when he walks through a door in a temporary hoarding and falls into an excavation at a building site. The door he walks though is not green, which suggests that (if he opened it thinking it was, having finally succumbed to the temptation of returning to the garden) he must have been the victim of a delusion, a psychotic episode that brought his life to a premature end. The narrator, though, suspects that his end may not have been a sad one, and that for the dead man at least the door he opened led to the yearned-for companionship and stability that had eluded him throughout his lifetime. The mysterious portal that appears in different places irresistibly recalls the various portals that lead to the land of Narnia in Lewis’s sequence, and the link is confirmed by the fact that the scene it reveals is one where humans and wild animals interact with the kind of trust Lucy showed when she buried her face in Aslan’s mane.

What I’m interested in here, though, is the magic book which the young boy finds behind the door when he first enters the enchanted garden. The book is shown to him by a certain ‘dark woman’ he meets there, and when she opens its pages he sees that they contain not words but moving pictures, like the pictures that accompany the spell to know people’s thoughts in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The pictures show scenes from the little boy’s life so far, and he finds them as exciting as any performance by a stage magician. He urges the woman to turn the pages faster and faster until she reaches an image of the scene where he was about to enter the green door. The dark woman gently tries to prevent him turning this final page, but he insists, and when she yields he finds himself looking not at the garden but at himself in ‘a long grey street in West Kensington, in that chill hour of the afternoon before the lamps are lit’, alone and neglected once more.[13] ‘This was no page in a book’, we are told, ‘but harsh reality’; he is no longer reading about the long grey street but standing in it, and that street is metaphorically speaking where he lives for the rest of his life until the moment when he walks to his death through another portal.

The book held by the woman points up a number of things that might otherwise escape us in the rest of the story. First, her reluctance to let the child turn that final page, the one that takes him back to his original life, exactly parallels the child’s initial reluctance to enter the door, and occurs at the same point in the narrative. When the boy first finds the door he gets the sense that it would be ‘unwise or […] wrong of him – he could not tell which’ to give in to his desire to go through it (p. 108). He is simultaneously ‘drawn and repelled’ by it (p. 109), because he both yearns to enter and is quite certain that ‘his father would be very angry’ if he did. In the event, he does go through, but the sense remains that there are two sets of rules at war within Wells’s story: a set of rules imposed by the father – who is a lawyer and hence a custodian of society’s rules – and a set of rules attached to the garden, which concern such half-understood obligations as the need to keep it secret, and the need to come back soon after leaving it, despite all the pressure on him to concentrate on other things. The rules divide themselves into the laws of work and of the ‘serious’ things in life – such as love or a parent’s death – and the laws of games or play, which dominate the world beyond the door. Games exist in our world too, of course; but there’s a difference in the way they’re played. In the garden, the boy plays a game whose details he can’t remember afterwards no matter how intensely he yearns to play it again;[14] and later on there is a game he plays in the ‘real’ world which involves finding a new route to school each day.[15] The second of these games is played within strict limits of time and space set by the urgency of keeping to a schedule imposed by authority; it’s also solitary, a game the boy plays by himself. By contrast, the first is communal, its organization agreed upon by everyone rather than imposed by a singular authority from above, and timeless, in that he loses track of time while playing it, and is only drawn away by the prospect of reading the book held by the dark woman.

The magic book in Wells’s story represents something very different from the game played in the garden. It is read in only one direction – from front to back, page following page in strict progression, as if in imitation of the strict regulations that have governed the boy in his London upbringing. It’s made up of a series of separate scenes, each disconnected from the one before. The marvel of the book (the boy is said to ‘marvel’ as he looks at it) is that it contains ‘realities’, which is what draws his attention: images of things that have really happened to him in the past (p. 111). But there seems to be no story to it, no sense of an unfolding narrative whose progressive pressures and tensions keep him reading. He skips some pages as uninteresting; his reading, then, is not immersive as the game was. When the woman hesitates to turn that final page the boy cries, ‘And next?’ (p. 112) – but the following page is unconnected to its predecessors: instead, by some mysterious agency the picture of the London street it contains lifts him out of the story set in the garden and back into a world that has no coherent plot. And Wells is careful to give the impression that the boy’s life from this moment on is made up of fragments. There is a kind of structure to it called a ‘career’, but each episode in that career has no link to the one before, and even his love life is fragmentary. ‘Twice I have been in love’, he tells us (p. 118), and the narrator of the story alludes to a woman ‘who had loved him greatly’ (p. 107), but there is no way of telling if she was one of those he was in love with. The garden, by contrast, is identified specifically as a story by the boy’s father, who considers stories to be lies, breaches of the rules that govern his life on this side of the door. The child is given his ‘first whipping’ for telling the tale or lie or story of the garden, and he is forbidden to read other fictions: ‘Even my fairy-tale books were taken away from me for a time – because I was too “imaginative”. Eh! Yes, they did that! My father belonged to the old school’ (p. 113). The deployment of the term ‘old school’ here sets the fairy-tale books against the regulated system of education in the ‘real’ world, and the adjective ‘old’ makes that system sound outmoded, wearisome, drab.

H. G. Wells, Writer

In this short story, then, the magic book serves a different function from the one in Lewis’s novel. The magician’s book on the island was never less than absorbing, and while it contained only spells, some of these spells were also stories, both fantastic (the story of the other Lucy who was warred over by nations) and realistic (the story of the act of betrayal by Lucy’s friend). As spells, all of its contents had the potential to affect the world beyond the book’s covers. Wells’s magic book, on the other hand, contains only realism – or rather, realities; it represents what has been and what is, not what might be, and instead of affecting the world beyond it the book draws its readers in, extinguishing their delight and enclosing them in the ‘old school’, so to speak, of the everyday. Both books aim to confirm what the child reading them already knows, but where Lewis’s book appeals to the child’s intelligence and offers her a choice as to whether or not to act on what she thinks is rational and right, Wells’s suppresses thought and choice and imagination. After the boy has finished reading it and been returned to the everyday world, the garden he visited – and which he perceived as real – becomes in adult eyes a mere story, while the contents of the magic book become the only reality. Moreover, the notion of story itself – in the form of the boy’s reports of what he experienced in the garden – gets violently punished as a pernicious lie. Lewis’s magic book offers multiple different possibilities for action, while Wells’s offers only restrictions, and these very different characteristics are reflected in the fact that Lewis’s book is brightly-coloured while Wells’s is bleak and grey. Reading Lewis’s book leads directly to a happy encounter with Aslan, while refusing to read Wells’s volume leads to death – and a particularly mundane death at that, as if in punishment for rejecting the mundane. Wells’s book, then, represents the act of reading as a vehicle for the dominant ideology of his time, while Lewis’s represents it as an act of liberation from the limitations of the everyday.

But while their magic books work differently, there’s a close affinity between Wells and Lewis (as is confirmed by Lewis’s lifelong love of Wells’s science fiction) despite the seeming opposition between their political views. Wells, as a non-Christian socialist, might have perceived his narrative as a story of capitalism’s attempt to suppress the socialist dream: the dream of equality, of justice, of escape from the grind of work and from the arbitrary legislation designed to benefit powerful men like the boy’s father. But this dream contains Christian echoes. The boy thinks of the garden as a ‘sacred secret’, and Lewis would have found it easy to read it as a metaphor for his religion, a second Garden of Eden. Lewis’s liberating magic book, meanwhile, embodies the potential for damage contained in the self-serving deployment of liberty: the damage of oneself as well as of others, a damage of which Wells shows himself intensely conscious in his more ambiguous utopian writings.[16] Both writers pit the collective and communal against the capitalist quest for personal power. Both find themselves antagonistic to the perception of the material, the measurable, the economically saleable as the only form of realism, and champion instead the imagination as an emancipatory faculty closely allied to rational thought.

Both, too, consider fantasy – the invention of impossible stories – to be among the most exciting and absorbing activities of the human mind. As a result, for both writers fantasy is also dangerous: capable of deluding individuals, dividing families, triggering acts of verbal or physical violence, killing the fantasist. Its dangerous potency is what makes it fascinating. Its fascination is what makes it potentially deadly. This is the spell that draws us, they imply, each time we take a magic book down from our shelves. It seems to me, then, that the productive tension between the competing uses and forms of fantasy and reality, as exposed by the competing magic books of Lewis and Wells, deserves further thought.

NOTES

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), p. 130

[2] Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), p. 13.

[3] ‘But if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faërie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder.’ J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 14.

[4] Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 53.

[5] ‘Uncorrupted it does not seek delusion, nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves’ (‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 54). The phrase ‘palpable design’ comes, of course, from Keats’s letter to John Reynolds of 3 February 1818 (‘We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us’).

[6] ‘By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.’ ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 59.

[7] ‘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.’ Letter to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V., 9 July 1939. C. S. Lewis, Letters, ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: William Collins, 1988), p. 322.

[8] I’m thinking of the first chapter of Five Children and It (1902), in which all five children – boys and girls both – become ‘as beautiful as the day’, thanks to a wish made by one of the girls.

[9] The Tempest, 1.2.259 and 1.2.354-61.

[10] The Tempest, 5.1.50-1.

[11] For Lewis’s admiration of Wells, and its limitations, see R. W. Maslen, ‘Towards an Iconography of the Future: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists’, Inklings-Jahrbuch für Literatur und Ästhetik, Band 18 (2000), pp. 222-49.

[12] Isaiah 11:6, King James Bible.

[13] ‘The Door in the Wall’, H. G. Wells, Selected Short Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 112.

[14] ‘I don’t remember the games we played. I never remembered. Afterwards, as a child, I spent long hours trying, even with tears, to recall the form of that happiness’ (p. 111).

[15] ‘It was the sort of game […] that every imaginative child plays all day. The idea was the discovery of a North-West Passage to school. The way to school was plain enough; the game consisted of finding some way that wasn’t plain’ (p. 114).

[16] I’m thinking here in particular of The Shape of Things to Come (1933), whose fictional author – a man called Philip Raven – is so horrified by the gap between the world of the early 1930s and the utopian world of the future, which he reads about in another magic book shown to him in a series of prophetic dreams, that he eventually commits suicide in order to avoid witnessing the violence that will bring utopia into being.

Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. A Retrospective, Part 2

[This post contains material relating to the recent event at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, which took place on 24 November 2017. It also contains the quiz, with all the answers!]

Watching Laura Richmond doing Superhero Science

The Quiz

Visitors were asked to find the answers in the museum displays; the quizmaster extraordinary was Dahlia Porter. You too can try this on your next visit to The Hunterian Museum! Answers at the end of the post.

  1. Nathaniel Chanticleer from Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the-Mist loved to read the epitaphs at his local cemetery. If he lived near the Antonine Wall, what names might he have read on the tombstones?
  2. When Victor Frankenstein travelled to the Orkneys to make the female creature, he would have needed instruments and body parts like those in William Hunter’s collections. What science did they both practice?
  3. William Hunter received this as a present from his students in 1761, but it could also be the prize for winning the tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. What is it?
  4. Look for the display of Hominids: Brains and Tools. According to the nineteenth-century theory of devolution, if Dr. Jekyll is Homo sapiens, what would that make Mr. Hyde?
  5. What kind of Harry Potter dragon might hatch from the “Time Capsule Dinosaur Eggs”?
  6. A Tasmanian relative of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary beast in Hound of the Baskervilles is lurking in the museum. What is its name?
  7. Scotland’s coins rival the Gringotts Wizarding Bank! Which coin features a fantastic beast that is also Scotland’s national animal?
  8. In Beatrix Potter’s children’s books, there is a character named Mrs. Tittlemouse. She is hiding somewhere in the museum tonight. What species is she?
  9. In Robert Burns’ poem ‘Tam o’Shanter,’ the witches come out of a church like wasps coming out of a byke. How many bykes are on display in the museum?
  10. Look for the museum’s collection of musical instruments: how many are related to the instrument Peter Pan played?

Bonus question: In the gemstone case, #60 could be a pun on the title of a gothic poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which influenced Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. What is the name of the poem?

The Labels

These labels were placed on cases around in the entrance hall and main hall of the museum, each marked with the unicorn cartoon shown here (the cartoon was based on the beast sitting at the top of the seventeenth-century Lion and the Unicorn Staircase to the left of the Principal’s Lodging, The Square, University of Glasgow). Some labels relate to specific objects on display; others riffed on the museum’s contents in general. Take the list with you when you visit the museum, and recreate the experience!

At the Fantasy Science Station

Entrance Hall

Label 1, Centre Case: Doctors of Fantasy Scotland

This entrance hall pays homage to the museum’s founder, Dr William Hunter (1718-1783), who helped make the University of Glasgow one of the great centres for the study of medicine. Fittingly, Doctors feature largely in works of fantasy connected with Scotland:

Dr Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Created a female monster on an unnamed island in the Hebrides, as a partner for his earlier male creation, but destroyed her before she could be brought to life. (Mary Shelley stayed in Dundee before writing her Gothic masterpiece.)

Dr Henry Jekyll, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Used chemicals to transform himself into his evil alter-ego, Mr Hyde.

Dr Godwin Baxter, in Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things (1992). Said to have reanimated a dead woman, Victoria Blessington, at his house in Park Circus near the University.

And then there’s Doctor Who…

Label 2, Centre Case: Doctor Who’s Scottish Connections

Did you know that Doctor Who studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, under Joseph Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery? There have been three Scottish Doctors (Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Peter Capaldi), as well as two Scottish companions, Jamie McCrimmon (played by Frazer Hines, who is English) and Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan). The Doctor Who writer and producer Steven Moffat is a graduate of the University of Glasgow.

Label 3, Centre Case: Arthurian Scotland

The Arthurian legends have left traces in Scotland, both in placenames such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and in stories and films. Arthur is said to be buried under the Eildon Hills and Merlin in Drumelzier, Tweedshire. Antoine Fuqua’s film King Arthur (2004), starring Clive Owen, represents Arthur as a Roman cavalry officer guarding Hadrian’s Wall against the Scottish Woads; Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: the Legend of the Sword (2017) was extensively filmed in Scotland; while Doune Castle in Stirlingshire featured as multiple castles in Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Label 4, by the Firmus Altars: Worshipping Ancient Gods

These altars testify to the worship of diverse gods by Roman troops guarding the Antonine Wall. The most important study of comparative religion and mythology in the early twentieth century was The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890-1900), by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer. This influenced many great writers including W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. Among the books it inspired was a celebrated historical fantasy by the Edinburgh-born writer Naomi Mitchison, The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931), an epic meditation on religion, magic and politics in the ancient world.

Label 5, by the Burials at Shirva: Gravestones in Fantasy

These Roman gravestones might make us think about fantasies of the dead. The fairies are often associated with the dead, and J. M. Barrie may have had this in mind when he imagined Peter Pan leading the souls of dying children to the afterlife in Peter and Wendy (1911). A brilliant fantasy novel of the early twentieth century, Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), has a hero called Nathaniel Chanticleer who spends much of his time in graveyards, and ends up chasing his runaway son to Fairyland. Fittingly, Hope Mirrlees’s name is inscribed on her family’s monument in one of the great graveyards of the world, the Necropolis next to Glasgow Cathedral.

Volunteers

Lobby between entrance hall and main hall

Label 6, on the statue of James Watt: James Watt’s Contribution to the Fantastic

Famously the inventor of the steam engine, whose use in the nineteenth century powered the literary genre known as Steampunk. Prominent practitioners now in Scotland include Christopher Priest (The Space Machine, 1976) and Elizabeth May (the Falconer trilogy, 2014 onwards).

At the Harry Potter Station

Main Hall

Label 7, by the Plesiosaur: The Loch Ness Monster’s Song

Sssnnnwhuffffll?
Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?
Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!
Zgra kra gka fok!
Grof grawff gahf?
Gombl mbl bl –
blm plm,
blm plm,
blm plm,
blp.

Edwin Morgan
from From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973)

Label 8, on the case displaying Gold from Scotland: Scottish Treasure more Precious than Gold

In the children’s fantasy The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919), by the noted classical scholar W. W. Tarn, the treasure of the title is a hoard of Spanish doubloons hidden in a cave. At the end of the story the heroine, Fiona, discovers that the thing she really treasures is the place where she lives: the Isle of Skye, which is the Isle of Mist in the title.

Fiona was modelled on Tarn’s daughter Otta, who grew up to become the celebrated folklorist Otta Swire. Her work on the folk tales of the Western Isles is much admired by Neil Gaiman.

Label 9, in the area marked Minerals – Gifts from the Underworld: The Underground Fairies of Scotland

Scotland is a land full of fairies, many of whom live underground. One of the most important sources of knowledge about them was a book written by Robert Kirk, seventeenth-century minister of Aberfoyle, and published as The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies in 1815 and 1893. Kirk died in 1692, and was said to have been taken under Doon Hill, the fairy hill near Aberfoyle, by the people he wrote of.

The hero of the Border Ballad ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ was seduced by the Queen of Elfland and taken by her under Eildon Hill, where he lived for a while before returning to mortal lands with the gift of prophecy. The ballad has influenced much modern fantasy, including Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) and Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer (1990).

Label 10, on the case marked Time Capsule Dinosaur Eggs Case: Dragon Eggs

Those who wish to know about the danger of meddling with Dragon Eggs like these need look no further than J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), in which Hagrid acquires an egg which hatches into a black dragon with poisonous fangs called Norbert.

Label 11, on the case marked Hominids: Evolution and Devolution. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, the excitement sparked off by Darwin’s theory of evolution (most famously described in his book The Origin of Species) gave way to a fear of degeneration or devolution: evolution of humankind into more primitive forms. When the handsome and learned Dr Jekyll turns into the short, hairy, aggressive and lustful Mr Hyde, Victorian readers might have said he had devolved or degenerated.

Label 12, also on the case marked Hominids: The ‘cave-man in a lounge suit’: Professor Challenger in The Lost World (1912)

When the Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World (the inspiration behind Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park movies, which lends its name to the second movie in the series) he introduced to the world the scientist Professor Challenger, who closely resembles a ‘cave-man’ in his strength, hairiness and physical proportions. Which one of these looks most like him?

In The Lost World Professor Challenger finds a surviving population of dinosaurs on an inaccessible plateau in South America – along with ‘cave-men’ of an unidentified kind…

Label 13, on the case marked Rocks from Space: Sir Terry Pratchett and the Sword from Space

When the English Fantasy Writer Terry Pratchett was knighted he had a sword forged for himself out of metal from a meteorite like the ones in this case. He may have been thinking of the meteorite sword wielded by Alveric in Lord Dunsany’s celebrated novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). The Scottish connection? Pratchett invented one of the most famous clans in fantasy literature, the Nac Mac Feegles, who first appeared in his novel The Wee Free Men (2003).

Label 14, on the Thylacine and Dire Wolf case: Winter Is Coming

The dire wolf, which is now extinct, was native to North America. However, in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire (1991 to the present; serialised for TV as Game of Thrones) it is native to what looks from the maps like an alternative version of the UK.

In the first book of the sequence, a litter of ‘direwolf’ puppies is adopted by the children of the Stark family, whose home bears an uncanny resemblance to Scotland. Indeed, Doune Castle near Stirling was filmed as the Starks’ home, Winterfell, for the pilot episode of the first series.

Label 15, in the Scotland’s Own Coinage Exhibition: Gringotts

Coins are connected in a number of ways with Scottish Fantasy.

The Edinburgh-based author J K Rowling invented the most famous bank in fantasy literature, Gringotts in Diagon Alley, which Harry Potter first encounters in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).

Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891), about a bottle that grants your wishes, features a plot whose denouement involves finding the coin of the lowest denomination in the South Pacific. Read it to discover the details!

W. W. Tarn’s The Treasure of the Isle of Mist (1919) begins with a hunt for Spanish doubloons on the Isle of Skye.

Label 16, on the Harvest Mouse Case: Beatrix Potter’s Scottish Holidays

Beatrix Potter, whose book The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1917) features a country mouse called Timmy Willy like the one who made the nest in this case, spent childhood holidays in the Birnam area, Perthshire (it was from Dunkeld that she sent the famous letter containing the story that would become The Tale of Peter Rabbit).

There she forged a close friendship with the Perthshire naturalist Charles McIntosh, which is the subject of a fine exhibition in the Birnam Institute Exhibition Centre and Garden, Station Road, Birnam, Perthshire.

Label 17, on the Bykes, Nests and Mounds Case: A Hive of Witches

In Robert Burns’s fantastic poem Tam o’ Shanter (1790) the unfortunate hero finds himself chased by a coven of witches who emerge from a ruined church like bees from a ‘byke’ or hive:

As bees bizz out wi’ angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
[…] So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

Label 18, on the Magpie and Nest case: The Nest of the Never Bird

This magpie’s nest reminded us of the nest of the Never Bird in J. M. Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (1911). The Never Bird’s nest can float, and she uses it to rescue Peter Pan when he is in danger of drowning after being marooned on a rock by Captain Hook.

Label 19, on the World Cultures Case, facing the First Contact Case: Scottish Fantasies of the South Seas

 The Hunterian contains many artefacts collected from the island nations of the South Seas. The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson went to live in Samoa in a bid to preserve his health, and there he wrote the great short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891), which features a bottle with a curse on it and a Hawaiian protagonist named Keawe.

Louise Welsh wrote an opera version of ‘The Bottle Imp’, with Stuart MacRae, called ‘The Devil Inside’, premiered by Scottish Opera at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in January 2016.

Label 20, on the Lady Shepenhor case: Scottish Mummies

The story ‘Lot No. 249’, published by the Edinburgh-born author Arthur Conan Doyle in 1892, tells of an Oxford student who reanimates a mummy using ancient Egyptian magic and uses it to carry our assassinations for him. As the first story to feature a reanimated mummy as a predatory monster the tale had a lasting effect on the horror genre in the twentieth century.

An earlier mummy story by Conan Doyle, ‘The Ring of Thoth’, helped inspire the 1932 film The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund and starring Boris Karloff.

Label 21, on the Archaeology Uncovered case, facing the Archaeology case: Fantasies of Prehistoric Scotland

One of the finest fantasies of Prehistoric Scotland, as represented by this skull and by the weapons of stone, bronze and iron in the case behind it, is Borrobil (1944). Written by William Croft Dickinson, who held the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, it contains imaginative explanations for the presence of various archaeological remains in the Scottish landscape, including hill forts, crannogs, long barrows, standing stones and brochs. It also contains a wingless dragon with poisonous breath.

At the Special Collections Station

The Books

This is the list of books from Glasgow’s Special Collections displayed at the event. Each has associations with Fantasy Scotland, and the selection was made by MLitt student Lindsay Middleton, whose notes these are.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Occult Philosophy
London: Printed by R. W. for Gregory Moule,1650
Sp Coll Ferguson Ai-d.10

Argippa argued for the existence of three types of magic: Elemental, Celestial and Intellectual. Each, he believed, ultimately came from God, and could be used uncontroversially by Christians.

In Frankenstein (1818), Mary Shelley cites Agrippa as influencing Victor Frankenstein: ‘I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa… A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind’. Frankenstein then travels to Orkney to make his female monster, creating a connection between Agrippa’s text, fantasy and Scotland.

Coronatio Naturae [i.e. The Crowning of Nature]
1597 – 1602

MS Ferguson 208

This is a collection of 72 pen and watercolour illustrations with Latin descriptions. The ‘Crowning of Nature’ is a symbolic representation of the alchemical process, aimed at the discovery of the Philosopher’s Stone. Here, a dragon is being used to demonstration the Multiplication and Fermentation stage of the process. This magical creature is well suited to illustrate the creation of one of history’s most important magical substances.

“Nicholas Flamel”, Livre des figures hierogliphiques
France: 18th century

MS Ferguson 17

This French manuscript includes a series of watercolour illustrations known as Nicholas Flamel’s Livre des figures hierogliphiques. Legend has it that the hieroglyphs were originally found in a mysterious text purchased by Flamel, a fourteenth century scribe and bookseller, which he spent his life thereafter decoding. By doing this he is said to have been able to produce the Philosopher’s Stone, famously described by J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as bestowing immortality on its user and allowing base metals to be turned to gold Unfortunately, the legend seems to date from several hundred years after the real Flamel was alive.

Robert Kirk: The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
London: David Nutt, 1893
Sp Coll Ferguson Al-c.54

Robert Kirk was the minister of Aberfoyle. His Secret Commonwealth, originally written in 1691, is an account of the fantastic creatures that apparently lived in the surrounding land. He roamed the hills around Aberfoyle, gathering accounts of fairyland and folklore from residents. This rare edition features a commentary by Andrew Lang, who was undoubtedly influenced by Kirk’s account of fairies. The first volume was originally published in 1815 thanks to the author Sir Walter Scott, another writer of great Scottish fantasy who was influenced by Kirk’s non-fiction study.

Andrew Lang: The Yellow Fairy Book
London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1906
Sp Coll RB 4913

Lang was a Scottish novelist, literary critic and poet. His series of twelve “coloured” fairy books bring together children’s fairy tales from around the world, from authors such as Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. With the help of his wife, Leonara Lang, he translated and adapted fairy tales to make them suitable for children, and his series is one of the most well renowned collections of fairy tales to date. This 1906 edition contains beautiful illustrations by H. J. Ford.

Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw

The Songs

Kath Campbell sang the following ballads:

  • Tam Lin, as collected by Robbie Burns (Child no 39a)
  • The Knicht o’Archerdale (Child no 47)
  • King Orpheus (Child no 19)

Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw performed the following songs:

  • Never Never Land, from the 1953 Disney movie, Peter Pan. Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne
  • Heidenröslein. Lyrics by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, music by Franz Schubert
  • I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
  • The Land of Make Believe. Lyrics by Peter Sinfield, music by Andy Hill
  • Nacht und Träume. Lyrics by Matthäus von Collin, music by Franz Schubert
At the Games Station

The Answers

  1. Salaman and/or Verecunda
  2. Anatomy
  3. Tri-Wizard cup or Silver-gilt cup
  4. Homo erectusor Homo habilis
  5. Chinese Fireball
  6. Thylacine
  7. Unicorn coin #10
  8. Harvest Mouse
  9. Fifteen [bykes]
  10. Four [flutes]

Bonus answer: Christabel

 Photo Credit: all pictures of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. A Retrospective, Part 1

On Friday 24 November, between 7 and 10 pm, an event took place in The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland was conceived as a celebration of the links between Scotland and the fantastic, in close association with the magically diverse collections of The Hunterian. It was also dedicated to the idea of Scotland as fantasy: a place people dream of even if they’ve never been there, whose residents are equally given to dreaming about alternative versions of the land they live in. This blog post touches on some of the thoughts that emerged in relation to the project between early August, when we received news that we would be funded by Event Scotland (Scotland Winter Festivals) and the Being Human Festival, and the event itself in late November, close to St. Andrew’s Day.

The Event

Night at the Museum gives us the opportunity to enter The Hunterian after dark – when it’s at its most atmospheric – and stroll around with drinks in our hands, discovering what the exhibits look like when removed from the cold and rational light of day. The first of these events I went to was dedicated to Robbie Burns and the work of the university’s Burns Centre, and it enchanted me at once with its blend of performances on stage in the museum’s main hall, atmospheric lighting, and research stations or stalls arranged round the edges of the display areas, where you could talk to passionate researchers about the adventures they were having among archivists, librarians, performers, artists, craftspeople, scholars and Burns enthusiasts around the world. It occurred to me at once that Shawn Levy’s original Night at the Museum was a fantasy movie, and that as scholars of the fantastic we should surely be holding such an event ourselves. My colleagues Dahlia Porter and Matt Sangster agreed; and we quickly formed a fellowship with Moira Rankin of the University Library – where William Hunter’s books are held in Special Collections, on the vertiginously elevated top floor – and Ruth Fletcher of The Hunterian, whose astonishing energy, imagination and commitment made her the driving engine of our collaborative project. Together we talked over ideas for the shape and style of the inaugural Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. Together we put in bids for funding. Together we won it, and began to draw more and more conspirators into our circle.

Like the Burns themed Night at the Museum the event was to centre on three elements. Research stations, where the public could meet and talk with researchers whose work touched on the theme of the evening. Performances, where the theme would be brought alive by musicians and actors. And The Hunterian collection itself, which it would be our task to link both imaginatively and intellectually to fantasy and the fantastic. As part of the event we aimed to bring some books from Special Collections to display in a case alongside the permanent items in the main hall. I also liked the idea of having labels or signs throughout the museum, pointing up some of the many connections we could identify between the collection and the idea of fantasy in and of Scotland. Dahlia and Matt proposed we have a quiz or treasure hunt, which would send visitors scurrying from object to object making new connections between the exhibits and the books or stories or myths we had in mind. Costumed guides should be available in every part of the museum, helping to usher the visitors to the more neglected corners of the building. I wanted actors, too, who would appear in unexpected places (balconies, elevators, springing out from behind pillars, swinging on trapeses slung from the rafters) and recite speeches in character about their own particular Scottish fantasy connections. This last dream never quite came to fruition, but one day, who knows? We have a little treasure chest among us stored with ideas that we didn’t have space or time or personnel to try, all of which remain available for exploitation in some future exhibition, festival or happening…

The process of selecting the research stations was both carefully thought out and somewhat random. We knew, on the whole, the fields we wanted to see represented, which included archaeology, Celtic studies, classical culture, museum studies, theatre, film and TV, and art history. We were limited, however, both by the number of researchers who were willing and able to give up their time and by how many stations we could safely fit into the space available. In the end the stations selected themselves from the long wish list we’d assembled. By a kind of alchemy they took shape quite independently of what we had in mind, and the particular selection of research themes and fields imposed a shape or structure on the evening which was not in any sense of our making.

Kath Campbell performing ballads

The line-up of performers, too, was the result of a carefully compiled wish list and sheer good fortune. I was obsessed from the start with the idea of having a bit of the musical Brigadoon, about a Scottish village that only materializes every one hundred years, but the company we’d lined up to deliver this had to withdraw at the last moment. I wanted the Haydn settings of poems by Anne Hunter, wife of John Hunter, brother of the museum’s founder William, because two of these poems at least – ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ and ‘The Spirit’s Song’ – deal with fantastic themes; but we couldn’t find a singer able to perform them. We had better luck with other things on our wish list. Supernatural border ballads were a necessity – there’s simply no other aspect of Scottish culture that’s given rise to so many haunting fictions all over the world (think of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, Sally Prue’s Cold Tom, Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock). My colleague Kirsteen McCue knew exactly who should deliver them, and put us in touch with Kath Campbell, a scholar of ballads and Romantic literature as well as a superlative singer. I knew from the start who I wanted for our final act: those long-term stars of the Glasgow Cabaret scene Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw. Bert Finkle I was lucky enough to know already; he’s also known as Neil Williamson, author of speculative fiction, whose novel The Moon King blew me away when it came out in 2013, and who put me in touch with the remarkable group of writers known as the Glasgow SF Writers Circle (SF here stands for Strange Fiction), thus revealing to me the very heart of the fantastic in my home city. I couldn’t believe our luck when they agreed to put together a bespoke show for our event, inspired by that most seminal of Scottish fantasies, Peter Pan. Afterwards I went around for days with the last song sung by the Markee ringing in my ears: it was Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’, and I’d forgotten what an exquisite melody it had and how strange its lyrics were. I found out afterwards that the Markee works in the Gilchrist Postgraduate Club where I and my co-conspirators had been putting our heads together for so many weeks. Small world, and a decidedly weird one.

Alan Riach gets monstrous

The non-musical performances came about through serendipity. It was Moira Rankin who suggested we contact Professor Kevin O’Dell to ask if one of his Zombie Science team would put on a short show for us. We were lucky enough to find Laura Richmond available, goggles and all, and her dazzling Superhero Science son-et-lumiere thriller had her audience, young and old, completely mesmerised (I sat next to a child on the night who was rooting loudly for the villains throughout the performance). Later, our colleague Professor Alan Riach suggested he perform Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, which is written entirely in an unfamiliar dialect of monster-ese, of which Alan is surely the most authentic human speaker. Again, the crowd was mesmerised (perhaps that’s why the monster is inclined to sing rather than roar when she emerges from the icy depths – she attracts far bigger meals that way). These four performances were all we had time for; perhaps the last-minute withdrawal of one of the acts was a blessing in disguise, as my Grandmother would have said.

Photo by Martin Shields

The most crucial element of the event was the volunteers. I had a vision of masses of people in peculiar costumes swarming through the museum in a whirl of colour and prosthetic ears and noses – something close to the mayhem that made up the best scenes in Shawn Levy’s movie. For this we needed help from students: postgraduates past and present who have (for reasons of their own, like the jilted lovers and runaway criminals who join the French Foreign Legion) elected to take part in the MLitt in Fantasy at Glasgow, or else to embark on PhDs or DFAs in this strange field of scholarly and creative activity. Over the two-and-a-half years when the MLitt has been running I’ve come to know something important about Fantasy graduates: that you’ll never a find a more passionate, friendly, imaginative group of people to collaborate with in the length or breadth of the Deep Dark Forest – or anywhere else, in fact. I wasn’t disappointed. When I asked for volunteers to dress up in costume, staff some of our research stations, guide our guests around the building, many stepped forward from last year’s cohort, and many more from the intrepid crowd who joined us in September. From among their number we found ourselves an intern to work with Special Collections in identifying books for display; an experienced stage manager to liaise with the performers; a world-class Harry Potter expert; a team of creative writers several of whom were established authors, published and unpublished, before they joined the MLitt programme; and too many more to list here.

Our army of fantasy-focused helpers was joined by equally passionate researchers from a range of other disciplines: the School of Education, who brought with them specialist expertise in Scottish fantasy for children and an astonishing range of examples; comics fans from across the College of Arts; games enthusiasts who know everything it’s possible to know about the different varieties of fantasy-based playing environments (one of these was a Fantasy Mlitt graduate); lexicographers from the world-renowned Oxford Thesaurus project, whose playful approach to words brought out their latent magic; and specialists in sexual health, who encouraged our visitors to think fantastically about sexually transmitted diseases (I still covet one of the furry herpes-shaped creatures they doled out as prizes). An undergraduate ably stepped forward to lead the team of specialists in palaeontology who could explain the science of the Loch Ness monster (what kind of a creature could she reasonably be if one were to set aside for a moment one’s scepticism as to her longevity and her ability to thrive in those icy depths?). I’m still astonished at the energy and passion these researchers and volunteers showed as they entertained and informed our guests for three solid hours, in many cases without a moment’s rest.

The stage was set for our spectacular. As bonuses, the wonderful Louise Welsh – Professor of Creative Writing, novelist, activist, opera maker – agreed to cut the ribbon for our event, while further well-chosen and generous words were to be uttered by Sarah Churchwell, Director of the Being Human Festival, and Steph Sholten, Director of the Hunterian.

In the meantime, Dahlia, Matt and I were getting to know the museum.

The Museum

The Hunterian in the 1830s

The Hunterian Museum was the brainchild of the physician and collector William Hunter, who built up a huge collection of paintings, books and objects in the course of his lifetime. First opened in 1807, and housed in a specially constructed building off Glasgow’s High Street, this is the oldest public museum in Scotland and one of the oldest in the world, a worthy forerunner of the New York Met, the Pitt Rivers, the Smithsonian and the V & A. That first building was neoclassical, a model of rationalism worthy of the age that produced the great Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the modern system of cataloguing plants and animals, as well as the economist Adam Smith and the chemist and anatomist Joseph Black, both professors at the University of Glasgow. When the university moved from the High Street to the West End in 1870, Hunter’s collection got another purpose-built home, this time a neo-Gothic hall at the very heart of the new campus. Designed by George Gilbert Scott in a fairytale style he called Scottish Baronial, the hall sends out mixed messages, unleashing a torrent of dreams, quasi historical narratives and industrial-technological associations which make it something very far from a model of rationalism. In its role as a feudal dining hall it welcomes visitors to a feast of history, while gently impressing them with its aristocratic grandeur. This is an ancient house, it seems to say, and long connected with the ruling elite; you may also think of medieval churches if you look at the rose window high up in the east end. As a work of architectural engineering, on the other hand, it would have impressed its early visitors with its modernity. The university’s main building was one of the first in the world to be constructed round a riveted iron frame, and the ironwork is obvious both in the exposed steel girders visible as you climb the magnificent staircase towards the museum’s front entrance and in the soaring pillars that support the timber roof of the museum hall itself. Rooted in the past, we look to the future, this ironwork declares; who knows what that future will bring, but we have done our part to ensure that it will be built on solid foundations.

The Hunterian now

The iron, which comes from the foundries of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, and the blond sandstone cladding the hall, which comes from the nearby quarries at Bishopbriggs, link the new structure with the Scottish industrial landscape. From the front of the university’s main building you can look out across Kelvingrove Park towards the Clyde, which helped spread the products of these industries across the world. The details of the museum building – the rose window, the metal columns with their fancy capitals, the stained woodwork of the ceiling and banisters – these are imaginative, the whims of dreamers, albeit dreamers with a sound knowledge of architectural history and engineering. The quality of the materials from which it’s constructed, on the other hand, and the huge amount of work that’s gone into putting them together, suggest that they are products of a time when labour was cheap, and when labourers and their families had little prospect of taking advantage of the university education whose physical housing they had helped to build. Fairytales and facts, history and dreams, politics and extravagant imaginings are interdependent, and it’s incumbent on us to tell the story of the sometimes vexed relationship between these disparate elements, and to celebrate the fact that the premises which house The Hunterian are now accessible to a wider range of social classes than ever before.

The Fantastic

The best narratives I know about the politics of museums occur in fantasy or fantastic fiction: stories that contain one or more element which is avowedly impossible, an artifact with magical properties, a face-to-face encounter between a still-living past and an unsuspected future, the discovery of a portal in the archives leading to strange alternative dimensions. Such fantasies invoke the foreignness of the new context in which museum objects find themselves, the clash between the cultures and beliefs that shaped them and the new narratives to which they find themselves contributing. They conjure up the excitement of the unexpected discoveries to which the often random eclecticism of a museums’ displays are always giving rise. And they remind us that there has always been something supernatural about museums, since they were first dedicated in ancient Greece to the worship of the nine Muses, those mountain-dwelling goddesses of science, art and memory whose names and functions were always changing with the changing times.

Modern fantasy (as Jamie Williamson has recently argued) has its roots in the same antiquarianism that produced the first museums in Britain, including The Hunterian. Exploring the past led writers to speculate about it; reading about mythology inspired writers to develop mythologies of their own; gaps in the historical record prompted writers to tell stories to fill in the lacunae. It’s no surprise, then, if museums feature widely in fantastic narratives. Even the story of Middle Earth has its repositories for historically or artistically significant items. When Bilbo Baggins gets home from his adventures in The Hobbit (1937) he lends his beautiful mail shirt to the museum or Mathom-House at Michel Delving, though he later recovers it to set out on fresh adventures in The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). In taking it out again he fulfilled one of the objectives of fantasy and the fantastic: to breathe new life into old ideas and objects and stories by bringing them into conversation with the ideas and desires and problems of today. Long before that – measuring time by the chronology of the fantastic texts themselves, that is by their date of publication – the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells’s first science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) learns much of what he learns about the far future by visiting what he calls the Palace of Green Porcelain, a giant museum encrusted in tiles like the real-life museum complex in South Kensington. Unfortunately the palace doesn’t have much to tell him because all the books in it and many of the specimens have fallen to pieces. When the Time Traveller reaches for a lever on one of the giant machines it shelters, he doesn’t trigger some unguessed-at technological process of the far future but instead wrenches it off to use as a weapon, a stone-age club, against the skulls of the cannibalistic Morlocks who seek to ambush him in the building’s depths. In this book, then, the museum has lost its ability to communicate, to unfold a coherent chronological narrative, apart from the one of loss and decay that can be deduced from its dilapidated condition. The episode has, of course, a political edge. The great museums of the world are designed tell a story – indeed, multiple stories, one of which concerns imperial conquest, the process that enabled such a vast array of remains and artefacts to be brought together and displayed so far from their places of origin. The Palace of Green Porcelain declares that the time of conquest is over, that even the story of the cultures that inflicted it on their neighbours will soon be forgotten, rendered illegible to later generations by the long, slow processes of atrophy and decay. The Time Traveller, as a representative of the imperialist age of Victorian Britain, is himself reduced to stone age status by the need to protect himself against his own descendants, whose desire to devour his body is read by him as barbarism – despite the decades and centuries of equally savage exploitation, the cannibalism, so to speak, of colonized cultures, of which his body and mind are themselves the products.

The Time Machine, then, makes a story out of the loss of the museum’s story. It reminds us that a museum is a time machine, whose objects transport us back to earlier epochs – but which also make nonsense of those objects by incorporating them into new settings where they are decidedly not at home, just as the Time Traveller is not at home among his children’s children’s children, the elf-like Eloi and goblin-esque Morlocks. The notion of the museum’s contents being reassembled into a new shape – something strange, ungainly, threatening – is taken up by China Miéville in his novel Kraken (2010), which includes a museum that has somehow transformed itself into an ungainly deity cobbled together from the contents of its storage facilities and the glass containers that preserve them. Here is its first appearance, as it rescues the protagonist – a museum curator called Billy – from a vicious attack by a London gang:

It was a skull on the top of a giant jar. A huge glass preserving bottle, of the type that Billy had for years been filling with preservative and animal dead. This one was nearly five feet high, full of flesh slough and clouding alcohol. On its glass lid was a shabby human skull liberated, Billy absolutely knew, from one of the cupboards of remains in the Natural History Museum. It snapped its teeth. Where the rim met the lid the flaring glass served as its shoulders, and the thing raised two fleshless taloned arms taken from bone boxes, humerus, ulna radius, clacking carpals and those sharpened phalanges.

The angel of memory.

The dishevelled and battered angel of memory mentioned in this last sentence, who strives vainly to bring order to the debris of the passing ages, is the invention of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who himself died making a bid for freedom in wartime Spain, one of countless victims of the Nazi rewriting of history through so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’. Benjamin speaks movingly in his writings of ‘the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by’, and which is embodied in the figure of the angel constantly blown into the future while stubbornly facing a past which it can never reduce to order. In The Time Machine the museum is a passive monument to this futile endeavour. Miéville’s grotesque museum-angel is an angrier embodiment of the concept, murderously protecting its acolyte, the curator, from the mob of vicious London dandies which aims to ‘pick his brains’ for their own unpleasant purposes. Loosely flung together from disparate parts whose names suggest they may one day know the dignity of being reassembled into a full skeleton, yet enclosing in its glass bowels the decomposing organic matter Miéville unpleasantly refers to as ‘flesh slough’, this latter-day angel of memory is lethally effective, dismembering its barbaric enemies with the speed of a ninja. History may have been reduced to rubbish by neglect, incompleteness, and deliberate falsification, but it still has a potency which means we ignore it at our peril.

The Angel Islington by Chris Riddell

Scotland-leaning fantasists are no less seduced by the allure of the museum than their English counterparts. Neil Gaiman is not quite Scottish, although he has a house on the Isle of Skye; but the protagonist of his early novel Neverwhere (1996) is a young man from Scotland. His Scottishness allows him to read the City of London with fresh eyes: eyes that discern both the mysterious under-city of London Below, full of lost souls, forgotten myths and abandoned scraps of history, and the incremental takeover of London Above – the everyday London of the 1990s – by the super-wealthy, who display a haughty unconcern for the intricate ties that bind past to present, or one city-dweller to another across invisible barriers of class, race and culture. For Gaiman and his Scottish protagonist, Richard Mayhew, the British Museum is the central site of this takeover. At a central point in the novel Richard emerges with his friend Door from the labyrinth of London Below by way of an abandoned underground station called British Museum, to find himself in one of the museum’s outlying storerooms which is full of ‘junk’: misplaced or forgotten cultural artefacts whose detachment from their historical and cultural contexts robs them of meaning, despite the fact that this particular junk is ‘magnificent, rare, strange and expensive’. They make their way to a private viewing in the Museum proper, where a multi-millionaire is displaying his collection of angels in a room marked ‘Early English’ (no doubt a reference to Pope Gregory I’s exclamation on first seeing the beauty of the early inhabitants of the British Islands: non angli sed angeli, these are not Angles but angels). The multi-millionaire’s angel collection is remarkable both for its diversity and its disorganization, having been described by Time Out (Gaiman tells us) as ‘indiscriminate to the point of trashiness’. Like the contents of the storeroom it has been reduced by its lack of context to the status of expensive junk, emblematic of the chaos on which the angel of memory seeks vainly to impose any semblance of meaningful order. Later in the book another collector, the assassin Mr Croup, obtains a priceless figurine from the T’ang dynasty and promptly bites its head off; his respect for antique art is clearly no more exalted than his respect for human life, and in this he shares the attitude of the multi-millionaire, whose name – Mr Stockton – suggests his tendency to reduce the world in general to so much stock to be bought and sold for his own advantage. Mr Stockton’s acquisition of the ‘Early English Room’ for the launch of his angel exhibition suggests the displacement of history and public service in his native land, as embodied in the public museum, by the worship of personal profit. It may also be no coincidence that in Shakespeare’s time there was a coin called an angel, or that the contamination of angels by association with total self-interest turns out to play a pivotal role in the plot of Gaiman’s novel. We put in museums the objects our culture values, though by no means always in monetary terms. Gaiman’s London Above has largely forgotten the other things we value them for.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Having said this, one of the angels in Mr Stockton’s exhibition is painted on a door which opens to let Richard Mayhew and his friend into a room containing a genuine angel – that is, a former occupant of heaven. Light pours though the door as it opens: the ancient portal retains its aura, despite having been marooned among a mass of inferior angel-themed artefacts. Museums in more solidly Scottish and Scotland-based fantasies are equally conscious of the magical properties of museums and the objects they contain, when seen in the right light by sympathetic observers. They also seem strongly inclined to follow Wells in drawing out the political aspect of museum collections. Arthur Conan Doyle’s atmospheric short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’ (1890), for instance, which inspired Karl Freund’s 1932 movie The Mummy, tells of a young student of Egyptology who visits the Louvre Museum for research purposes, where he meets an unusually long-lived Egyptian who has nothing but contempt for the efforts of colonial nations to piece together the narratives of his culture from surviving fragments: ‘Your knowledge of the subject is contemptible,’ he tells the unfortunate student, ‘Yet it is superior to that of many who make even greater pretensions’. The Egyptian reveals himself as Sosra, son of the chief priest of Osiris in the ancient temple of Abaras, who discovered the secret of a vastly extended life and was thus unfortunate enough to outlive the woman he loved by many centuries. Thanks to his insider knowledge Sosra is able to supply the full narrative that lies behind one of the female mummies in the Louvre’s collection – it is of course the body of his lost lover – while incidentally expressing his contempt for the European researchers who violate the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors (‘no Egyptian would ever stain his soul by moving even the outer case of a buried friend’). Conan Doyle is unable to resist touching on the distasteful racial theories of the late nineteenth century – Sosra insists on his difference from ‘the down-trodden race of slaves who now inhabit the Delta of the Nile’, and his physical similarity to the figures painted on ancient sarcophagi tends to confirm his claims – but his awareness that the museum context can occlude the stories of the peoples whose artefacts they conserve still resonates in the twenty-first century.

Closer to Glasgow, Lisa Tuttle’s novel The Silver Bough (2012) revolves around a museum-cum-library which harbours clues to the fairy past of a small West Highland community. Its dull inventories, unvisited storage rooms and neglected corners preserve traces of a magic which, once painstakingly recovered by a diligent librarian, brings the past to life and in the process helps to reinvigorate the small community where the museum is located. In terms of politics, the novel makes an eloquent plea for the value of rural museums and libraries, and its most fairy-tale element may be the sudden financial windfall (an apt metaphor for a novel that concerns itself with the history of apple orchards in Scotland) which brings new life to the museum building at the novel’s close.

Julie Bertagna’s Exodus (2002), meanwhile, brings us to the premises of The Hunterian itself, in a not-so-distant future when the world has been overwhelmed by rising sea levels. Perched on its hill overlooking Glasgow, the university main building and the museum it contains serve as a Noah’s Ark preserving the evidence of past human achievements, deprived of coherence, like the objects in Wells’s Palace, by the loss of historical knowledge that followed the cataclysmic floods of the post-human epoch. For the novel’s heroine, a teenager called Mara, the objects in the museum’s cases embody the infinite achievements of past generations, and the infinite possibilities wasted by their failure to conserve the earth for their descendants by preventing global warming:

Now Mara walks into a hall full of glass boxes. Inside each one is a vast assortment of objects, every kind of human invention. And suddenly she understands. These halls hold the golden names of long-gone people who dreamed up the visions that took humankind from wooden clubs to space telescopes, from bread-making to the building of cathedrals, from baked-clay vases to violins and oil painting, from brittle twig combs to the delicate mechanisms of compasses and thermometers, then to computers and cyberspace. And finally to cities in the sky.

Mara is walking through a history of dreams.

Note here how the present tense stresses the precariousness of the future in which the novel is set. The story unfolds from page to page with no certainty that there will be another future from which to look back on Mara’s adventures, a future such as would be implied by the use of the imperfect mode. Sure enough, the museum does not outlast the second book of Bertagna’s novel series (pardon the spoiler). But the dreams that it evokes continue to animate humanity’s survivors. In particular the life size model of an ancestor of modern human beings, homo habilus, gets carried away from its main hall by a child who represents the next phase in human evolution – a young girl with webbed toes and a preternatural ability to survive prolonged immersion in the rising seas. The model later makes landfall on the shores of Greenland, ready like its new owner to begin a new phase of existence in what was once the harshest of terrains, now transformed into an oasis. We wanted to include the model of homo habilus in our Night at the Museum as a tribute to Bertagna’s novel, but in the end it proved too difficult to move him from the museum’s storage facilities; he will have to wait for another opportunity to resume his former place among The Hunterian’s display cases – though one hopes this won’t be so drastic an occasion as the novel suggests.

The other fantasy I know of that roots itself in The Hunterian collection is Hal Duncan’s exuberantly experimental novel Vellum: The Book of All Hours (2005), which begins with a robbery in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. One of the central characters smashes a glass case in the basement of the university library, where Special Collections was formerly housed, to seize the eponymous ancient volume, with the aim of escaping into its pages and discovering a world or succession of worlds without laws or borders, where the dreams, desires and nightmares of humankind can be worked out without restriction. The volume in question was written by the angel Metatron, and the thief himself is also an angel, as are most of the other major characters in the novel: members of a group called the Covenant, they are sworn to resist any attempt to seize authority on the part of a deity, past or present. The volume contains a map, like all good history books or fantasies; but this map begins with the familiar (a detailed blueprint of the library building) before spreading suddenly abroad into the infinitely strange and unexpected. And it unfolds for page after page; there is no sign that it will ever come to an end:

The Macromimicon. Was it then a book of maps, not of what was, but of what might have been, of a world that had taken a different course, with this village growing into a town instead of that one, this town burgeoning into a city instead of another? I turned another page. […] Strangely – in retrospect – it never occurred to me that this book might actually be nothing more than mere invention, a work of fancy: perhaps the accuracy of the blueprint of the library held that idea from my mind; perhaps it was the power of the old family legends engrained so deep within me. All I know is what I felt: a growing conviction that this book spoke somehow of a higher truth.

The novel Vellum is the product of many hours’ research in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. It encompasses (among other things) the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna and her descent into the underworld, Aeschylus’s tragedy of defiance against the gods Prometheus Unbound, the Egyptian Book of the Dead (that beloved resource of the American experimental novelist William S Burroughs), Freud’s psychoanalytic narratives, and the myth of Metatron, the Recording Angel of Jewish mysticism. Each of these textual resources (at least, the original manuscripts and objects on which they are inscribed) is worthy to be housed in glass cases in the world’s finest museums. But Duncan’s book liberates them from all glass cases, as the thief liberates The Book of All Hours, in the process demolishing the constricting grand narratives that the great museums of the world were designed to propagate. In Duncan’s book, chaos and anarchy are not destructive but boundlessly creative, and this attitude, freely shared among the members of the Covenant, is finally able to free Benjamin’s angel of memory (as embodied in all the angels in the novel, with their different perspectives and interweaving narratives) from the authoritarian constraints of official records.

Photo by Martin Shields

This is one of the ‘higher truths’ we wanted to carry with us into Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. For the evening, we wanted to suggest alternative narratives for The Hunterian’s displays which would head our visitors off in new imaginative directions, some of which have been touched on in this little meditation on the museums of fantasy fiction. The dynamics of the evening – with no particular route mapped out through the museum’s displays; with many displays left untouched by our Fantasy Scotland labelling but (perhaps) rendered a little more mysterious by their proximity to labelled objects; with performances breaking out at odd moments (we did not provide a programme so as to avoid excessive crowding around the stage in the main hall); with random volunteers wandering among the exhibits and research stations, some costumed, some not – the dynamics of the evening allowed for every visitor’s experience to be subtly or even wildly different. (One child sat at the creative writing station all night long, brushing off all her parents’ attempts to draw her attention to other happenings while scrawling page after page of – what? We never found out.) So, the eighteenth-century Blackstone Chair, which has been used for several centuries to examine students in the humanities or classics, became for the evening a kind of sorting hat in the corner devoted to Harry Potter and fantasy for children; but the nearby skeleton of the False Killer Whale remained stubbornly itself. The Dire Wolf inevitably got recruited as an extra in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire, while its next door neighbour in the same glass case, the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, kept its own counsel, moving mysteriously through the bush of its native island, half real, half legendary. The magpie’s nest became temporarily the nest of the Never Bird from Peter and Wendy, while Ferdinand Verbiest’s Chinese-language Map of the Whole World continued to show the world as it was in the seventeenth century, from a Chinese perspective, for purposes you would have to turn to history to find out. The Hunterian’s mummy, Lady Shepenhor, became the mummy of Sosra’s lover in Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’. Most of the Roman artefacts from the Antonine Wall just stood there, waiting for something to take place in the spaces between them.

We hope that as a result, Scotland as well as the Hunterian Museum has got just a little larger, a little stranger, a little more fantastic.

 

[In the second post on Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland we provide the quiz handed out on the night and the labels that decorated the museum’s cases.]

Photo Credits: all photos of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle

Octavia Butler and the Impossibility of Slavery

[For Black History Month 2017]

At the heart of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred is the question of writing. How to write truthfully, effectively, humanely, about past atrocities: atrocities on a scale that can’t be conceived of, involving crimes that can’t be atoned for and bodily and psychological impressions that can’t ever be fully recovered by the reader as lived experience? Her choice of fantasy as a means of asking these questions might seem perverse, especially because she made it at a point in the history of the genre – the mid-1970s – when it was chiefly associated with the secondary world fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. The success of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the launch of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, and with this short-lived but influential imprint a publishing phenomenon was born, inventing a genealogy for itself and spawning a host of Tolkien imitations and original novels from the mid-1960s onwards. And indeed, the Ballantine series could well have played its part in Butler’s choice of form. Its daring reimagining of literary history, which involved recovering forgotten texts and nurturing new ones, each of which found startling new ways to consider the relationship between the imagined past and the haunted present, had much in common with her project. In addition, Kindred is refreshingly open about the need for professional authors to tap into commercial trends if they are to make a living from the pen: its protagonist is a professional writer of fiction like Butler herself. Writing as a source of income constantly forces its exponents into intensive negotiations with the complex freedoms and restrictions of the literary marketplace.

But in writing what she called a ‘grim fantasy’ Butler may also have been engaging with a number of specific fantasy tropes. For one thing, she was taking advantage of an ancient association between slavery and fantastic fiction, which stretches back to the works of Aesop and Plato, both of them slaves whose imaginative storytelling alternately won them fame and got them into trouble – in Aesop’s case even getting him killed, or so the ancient biography attached to his name suggests. Aesop made animals talk and act like human beings – or more accurately like a strange chimerical fusion of beasts and people – and his successors included the self-professed apologist for slavery Joel Chandler Harris, who from 1881 wrote the animal fables attributed to his nostalgic ex-slave Uncle Remus. These fables attained massive popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, opening the door to more fantastic tales along similar lines. Harris’s most distinguished successor was the African American writer Charles W Chesnutt, whose story collection The Conjure Woman (1899) brought distinctly unsettling overtones to its tales of magic on the slave plantations of the antebellum South. These tales were purportedly told to the author by another ex-slave, Uncle Julius; and Julius is a very different figure from Harris’s genial source. He tells each story as a way of seizing some advantage for himself – as when he claims that a building is haunted by the ghost of a slave who was magically transformed into the tree from which it was constructed, with the result that the building is handed over to Julius himself for use by the religious congregation of which he is a member. Uncle Julius, then, is a sort of Brer Rabbit trickster figure, not the amiable sub-relative of a rich white family which Uncle Remus is content to become. And Uncle Julius tells his tales to a fellow African American rather than to white folks, or to the governors who were served by his ancient forebear Aesop. His book marks the beginning of a new chapter in literature, anticipating the deployment of the fantastic as a means of giving a voice to the monstrous past (the term ‘monstrous’ is one of Uncle Julius’s favourites) by African American writers from the late twentieth century to the present.

Chesnutt’s story of the slave turned tree, ‘Po’ Sandy’, tells of desperation, heartache, and physical and mental agony. The aggressively overworked Sandy returns from his labours one day to find that his master has sold his wife. He then marries a woman called Tenie, only to be sent away soon afterwards to work on a distant plantation. In response, Tenie – a ‘conjure woman’ like the one in the title – turns him into a tree, at his own request, so that he can stay near her; but Sandy’s master has the tree chopped down and sawn into logs (with horrific sound effects) while she is away on her mistress’s business. Tenie goes mad in consequence. Uncle Julius’s acquisition of the haunted building, then, serves in his story as a small restitution for the torments of forced separation and bodily violence inflicted by a barbaric system. In this the tale is quite unlike Uncle Remus’s animal fables, which ascribe the acts of savagery they contain to a natural order that lies beyond the enchanted circle of the storyteller’s ersatz family: a community of generous whites and humble blacks who live in perfect harmony and whose innocence is embodied by the old man’s most regular listener, a little white boy of seven or eight. Whippings and beatings don’t occur in this happily mixed enclave, and there’s no reference to them having occurred in the antebellum past where the ex-slave spent most of his life; but they find expression in the acts of violence with which his animals threaten one another, and which from time to time get carried out in earnest – though only ever on the strong and cruel, not the weak and helpless.

One thing, however, unites Uncle Remus and Uncle Julius with their progenitor Aesop. For each of them narrative is a means to an end, a necessary form of persuasion, a way of making things happen in the immediate aftermath of the storytelling act – even if all that happens is that the little boy stops damaging Uncle Remus’s belongings and brings him cakes in exchange for more stories. Their tales are bound up with their lives in a practical way, just as the building Uncle Julius tells of is bound up with the suffering body of the man it was made from – or just as the tall tales told by Brer Rabbit serve to extricate him from potentially lethal entanglements. The ligatures that bind story to world are embodied in the ‘morals’ traditionally attached to Aesop’s fables, which are replaced in Chesnutt’s book by the successive revelations of what Uncle Julius wants from his listeners in return for each tale. And as we shall see, that sense of an almost physical connection between the world of the story and the world of its teller is shared by Kindred to an unnerving degree.

The links between slavery and the fantastic grew stronger after Butler wrote Kindred. The African American writer Samuel R Delany started his epic Return to Nevèrÿon series at the end of the 1970s, much of it concerned with a slave rebellion led by a Conan-esque barbarian miner called Gorgik. In the late 1980s Toni Morrison published Beloved, which tells of another haunting, this time of an ex-slave by the young daughter she killed to prevent her being returned to slavery. More recently, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) reimagined the famous escape route from South to North as a physical track cut through rock and earth at the cost of thousands of hours of voluntary labour, an imaginary monument to the countless hours of involuntary labour suffered by African Americans on the historical plantations. The remarkable diversity of these fantastic representations of slavery, their experimental restlessness, which manifests itself most clearly, perhaps, in the various forms and styles tried out in his series by Delany, presents us with one of the reasons why the genre or mode of fantasy is so well suited to this topic. Slavery is an unfinished story, and one that can never be finished, in part because it can never really be imagined – and hence never really started – by those who haven’t been subjected to it. Using fantasy to speak of atrocity is to acknowledge that we who have not undergone such things can only ever dream of them, and shouldn’t be tempted into believing we fully understand their appalling causes and damaging consequences.

There’s another point here about fantasy which isn’t embraced by the crudely collective ‘we’ of that last sentence. With very few exceptions, African Americans have little hope of tracing their ancestry further back than a few generations. The forced removal of African names, the replacement of ancestral languages with the words of the slave-owners, the imposition of bizarrely inappropriate sobriquets from classical history – Remus the murdered brother of the founder of Rome, Julius the conquering Caesar, Caesar in The Underground Railroad, whose name recalls the plantation name of the captive African prince in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – all testify to the fact that a white man’s fantasy made hideously concrete underlies the whole structure of North American slavery, a pseudo-Mediterranean rival for the pseudo-Nordic fantasies made real by the Nazi state of the 1930s. This systematic extirpation of traceable historical records leaves only the imagination available as a means of recovering the intimate details of African American history; and fantasy is the most open and honest rhetorical stratagem for asserting the role of imagination in conjuring up this painstakingly obliterated past.

At the same time, fantasizing about that past brings responsibilities with it. Slavery happened – slavery happens – and any attempt to address it needs to take cognizance of the facts as they have come down to us. There are plenty of counter-examples. Too many fantasies represent slavery as an unscrutinized fact of life, an exotic part of the scenery to be dismissed as uninteresting as soon as noted, or offer too easy channels of escape for their fictional slaves, thus cheapening the appalling practical and psychological difficulties involved in any attempt to win freedom from a life of forced labour. A particularly noxious example of the representation of slavery as exotic fantasy is the series of Gor books by John Norman, which enjoyed some popularity in the 60s and 70s with their pornographic depictions of ‘naturally’ subservient women in the sort of post-decadent sword-and-sorcery setting that Delany mocks in his Nevèrÿon series. The original sword-and-sorcery tales published in the pulp magazines of the 1910s, 20s and 30s by writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are full of casual references to slavery not much less glibly eroticised than Norman’s piffling mimicries of these precursors. Less offensive, perhaps, but equally problematic are the representations of slavery as a state from which one can simply free oneself without major repercussions. The socialist William Morris can’t be accused of perpetrating this sort of myth in his romances of the 1890s. The heroine of his The Wood Beyond the World, for instance – one of several books by Morris published in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series – is first encountered by the male protagonist as a slave and later frees herself and him with her magic; and she goes on to suffer what sounds very much like post-traumatic stress disorder in later life. Nevertheless, she and her female successors in his late romances attain prosperity and lasting happiness without the torment of losing husbands, friends and children who remain enslaved. And even their condition as slaves acquires a kind of exotic allure from its context in what is self-evidently a chivalric romance, whose ending is likely to be a happy one, whatever rough territory its characters may happen to traverse.

In Butler’s own lifetime, Ursula le Guin famously chose a dark-skinned man as protagonist of her Earthsea sequence – though she repeatedly saw him whitewashed in filmed adaptations of the novels – and the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore (1973), represents slavery in her world from the slave’s perspective. At one point one of the protagonists, the young Prince Arren, finds himself chained in the hold of a galley. But he spends only a few pages in captivity before the inevitable rescue by magic:

The fog glowed over the deck like the moon behind thin cloud, cold and radiant. The oarsmen sat like carved statues. Crewmen stood in the waist of the ship, their eyes shining a little. Alone on the port side stood a man, and it was from him that the light came, from the face, the hands, and staff that burned like molten silver.

The Archmage Ged takes Arren from the slave-ship with consummate ease, leaving the other slaves unbound; and it’s some time before Arren’s thoughts return to his fellow slaves, and the question of why Ged didn’t also take the slavers’ weapons from them when he loosed their captives’ bonds. Ged replies that he did not unarm the slavers or bind them because he refused to be made a slaver in his turn; but the more complicated question of how far a band of freed slaves might be able freely to choose what is to be done with their former owners, or what choices they might be forced to make in the complex process of regaining their liberty, are never addressed. It’s characteristic of le Guin’s restless urge to revise and rethink her projects from fresh perspectives that she twice returned to the topic of slavery and its effects on the mind and body, first in the story ‘The Finder’ in Tales from Earthsea (2001), then in the dazzling third volume of her post-millennial fantasy series Annals of the Western Shore (Powers, 2007), which is all about the after-effects of enslavement. But at the time Butler wrote Kindred there had as yet been no serious attempts in fantasy (as far as I know) to inhabit the mind and body of a slave, with the crucial exception of Chesnutt’s work and that brief passage of le Guin’s.

The trope Butler puts at the centre of her story, on the other hand – time travel – was a familiar one in both fantasy and science fiction. The best known early example of its use, H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), transported a white middle class protagonist into a slave state of the future, where infantilized human cattle provide food for their masters in return for a lifetime of creature comforts, and where the time traveller’s own imperialist aggression finds frequent outlets in his penchant for beating out the brains of the cannibalistic masters. There is an irony about Wells’s vision which Butler must have appreciated. At one point the time traveller speculates that the master race in this future time must be descended from the industrial working classes, wage slaves who have exacted a hideous evolutionary revenge on the ruling classes who benefited from their labour by feeding on them for many generations. If he is right, then slaves have merely replaced masters in an aeon-long cycle, and there is no prospect of the socialist liberation from this cycle of which Wells was dreaming at the time his book was published; freedom is a fantasy and varieties of slave state may be humanity’s ‘natural’ condition. The fear that history may indeed be cyclical finds a clear echo in Butler’s book, and the struggle to free oneself from its nightmare has never felt more urgent.

A later example of the time-travel sub-genre, Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), is in effect a nostalgic tourist excursion into turn-of-the-century New York, its theme tune of ‘jingle bells’ conjuring up all the pleasures of old time sleigh-rides unsullied by the period’s attendant torments and inequities. Butler touches only once in her novel on this kind of time-travel tourism, when the protagonist’s white husband starts to consider how delightful it would be to travel west in the early nineteenth century and witness at first hand the white man’s conquest of central and western America:

‘This could be a great time to live in,’ Kevin said once. ‘I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it – go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true.’

‘West,’ I said bitterly. ‘That’s where they’re doing it to the Indians instead of the blacks!’

He looked at me strangely. He had been doing that a lot lately.

This exchange takes place when the narrator, Dana, has become uneasy about how straightforward she and her husband have found it to settle into their new life in the early nineteenth-century slave state of Maryland. ‘For drop-ins from another century,’ she comments immediately beforehand, ‘I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease. The problematic nature of their ease is confirmed by Kevin’s enthusiastic allusion to the ‘building of the country’, a metaphor that elides the materiality of the building process: the slaughter of the land’s previous inhabitants, the forms of more or less forced labour involved in the physical construction of farms and buildings, the violence, racism and patriarchy that underlie the ‘Old West mythology’. Only a white man speaking from the privileged position of the slave-owning classes could use the metaphor so glibly, and the strange look Kevin gives Dana when she points out the perspective he has just adopted emphasizes the wedge he has inadvertently driven between them by failing to consider his utterance from her point of view. A single statement has made them strange or foreign to each other, and in the process pointed up what the novel has to say about the fantasy of a single unified ‘country’ on which the state of America has been founded.

Finney’s Time and Again represents its journey as a trip home to a less complicated and more humane period of American history – utterly blanking the racism and anti-feminism of turn-of-the century New York. Butler’s novel foregrounds the complexity of the term ‘home’ in its opening sentence: ‘I lost an arm on my last trip home’, it begins, and it’s not until some way into the book that the reader begins to appreciate the difficulty of ascertaining which ‘home’ she refers to. Does she mean the house in Altadena, California, into which she and her husband were moving at the time of her first experience of time travel? Or does she mean the slave-owner’s house in Maryland to which she is repeatedly transported, and which she and her husband problematically begin to think of as ‘home’ in the course of their adventures? The Maryland house is more tightly bound up with Dana’s family history than the Californian house is, and when Kevin too gets taken back in time and forced to live there for several years he has appalling difficulty in readjusting to the twentieth-century environment on his return. More drastically, Dana’s experience as a slave teaches her that she must find a home for herself in the slavers’ house if she is to survive there at all. Dragged repeatedly to it by the mysterious link between herself and the son of its owner, Rufus – whose unusual name recalls the black central character of James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), thus underlining the kinship between the white boy and the black narrator which is gestured at in Butler’s title – Dana needs to build lasting alliances with her fellow slaves as well as with the child as a means of protecting herself from the cultural isolation that would inevitably destroy her. Her recognition of the need to make herself at home, so to speak, also drives home to her the devastating consequences for slaves of being sold away from the home they have been born into – the fate of ‘Po’ Sandy’s’ first wife in Chesnutt’s story. Two such sales of slaves who leave family behind lead to deadly confrontations between Dana and Rufus, and the only clue she finds at the end of the novel as to the fate of the slaves she met in the previous century occurs in a list of slaves put up for sale on the death of their owner. Home, then, for a slave, is a place to be clung to and cultivated as well as to escape from, and the contradictions built into it are summed up in the way Dana’s arm gets bound up with the wall of her twentieth-century home at the beginning and end of the novel – both making her part of the building, like Chesnutt’s Sandy, and inflicting terrible pain.

Language, then – written or spoken – is the first source of difficulty for the writer of African American history. A casual reference to the building of a country can become an act of complicity with the slavery that made it possible. The word ‘home’, often seen as cognate with ‘nation’ or ‘country’, becomes loaded with unwelcome connotations. The same is true of the reference to kinship in Butler’s title. We have already seen how the plantations used familial titles to naturalise the possession of human beings: Uncle Remus, Uncle Julius, in this book Aunt Sarah. Unsettlingly, these titles sometimes identified concealed or even flagrant familial relationships between black slaves and their white owners. The most disturbing aspect of Dana’s journey into her family history, as she is hauled back in time by a series of crises in the life of one of her ancestors, is the discovery that she is related to the slave-owners as well as the slaves of the early nineteenth century. She finds this out because of the boy Rufus’s surname: an unusual one which has been inscribed in the list of her ancestors recorded in the only book handed down by her family, ‘a large Bible in an ornately carved, wooden chest’. Rufus Weylin is set down alongside Alice Weylin as parents of Hagar Weylin, the woman who bought that Bible and began that list; and as soon as Dana recognizes Rufus as her ancestor the nature of his connection with her family, as recorded in the list, becomes problematic. It is inscribed alongside the name of a black woman, Alice Greenwood, who is Rufus’s childhood friend; and when Dana begins to think about the eight-year-old Rufus and his potential future wife, she begins to find the familiar names fraught with unexpected difficulties: ‘Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn’t someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white?’ In nineteenth-century Maryland the word ‘marriage’ as applied to a bond between a white man and a black woman – and marriage of some sort if implicit in the fact that Alice Greenwood has, in the list, assumed Rufus’s surname as well as her own – is barely possible. The plain words mask a story of rape, enslavement, abuse and eventual suicide in which Dana finds herself a player against her will; an inadvertent pimp, so to speak, between her ancestral parents; an accomplice to sexual violence. Home, marriage, kindred, family history – all the words that help to make Dana who she is are thrown into confusion, and the way she understands herself and her place in the world is radically changed as a result.

As it turns out, the family Bible also provides testimony (or a testament) to Dana’s link with another white inhabitant of the boy’s household: his mother, Margaret Weylin, a frustrated and abused woman who takes exception to Dana as soon as she meets her, in part at least because she can read so much better than she can, despite her inferior status as a domestic slave. Later in the book, when Margaret Weylin suffers a physical and mental breakdown, she conceives a passion for the scriptures and becomes reconciled to Dana, asking her to read from the Bible daily to her as if to cement the unwelcome connection between them by a still more unwelcome intimacy. In the process the good book becomes a mark of ownership; Dana has no choice but to read it when she’s ordered to do so. If words are difficult, slippery things when considered in relation to history, then so is the Word, the divine scripture that gave Margaret’s granddaughter Hagar her name. After all, Hagar was the slave of Abraham before she became his wife, and thus testifies to the complicity of the dominant American religion with the system of bondage in which she was born.

Many commentators have pointed out the plainness and lucidity of Butler’s prose style; but her narrative of tangled relationships and disconcerting connections makes every word complex. More than this, it invests every word with a devastating forcefulness by virtue of its deployment in a narrative that literally brings home the horrors of the past. The Bible, the Word of God, begins as a receptacle where the words that define Dana’s family are recorded. It becomes a token of the link between Dana and Margaret – a link that is defined both by their kinship and by their status as mistress and slave. And it ends as a vehicle for Dana’s grief when Alice Greenwood Weylin commits suicide to escape from her abusive relationship with Rufus, its words brought to life for the first time since her childhood by her new understanding of the pain they articulate:

The minister was literate. He held a Bible in his huge hands and read from Job and Ecclesiastes until I could hardly stand to listen. I had shrugged off my aunt and uncle’s strict Baptist teachings years before. But even now, especially now, the bitter melancholy words of Job could still reach me. ‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…’

Reading Kindred is, then, a learning process, for us as for Dana. We learn to read the world afresh both through the act of reading it and through the effect of the many other acts of reading that fill its pages. Most remarkably, reading and writing in it become matters of life and death. Each time Dana finds herself hurled into the past by some mysterious agency whose nature we never find out, she is confronted by a situation in which Rufus’s life is in danger: he is drowning in a river, he has fallen from a tree, his room has caught fire, he is being beaten to death, he is dangerously sick or suicidal. Metaphorically speaking, she must read the situation as fast as she can in order to save him – and not just Rufus but her entire lineage as inscribed in the list, including herself, since she will not be born if the boy should die before he fathers Hagar.

Literal reading, too, and its corollary the study of words, gains a new urgency from Dana’s relationship with Rufus. When they first meet she begins to believe that she can educate him, that he can learn from her, acquiring some of the more enlightened attitudes of her generation and thus helping to alleviate some of the suffering he will otherwise inflict. She tries to dissuade him from using offensive terms for black people like herself; to teach him to read and thus open his mind to other ways of living; to encourage him to respect other African Americans as he respects her. But her efforts at pedagogy find themselves countered by an appalling alternative education, whose force makes itself increasingly felt with every visit. Like the slaves on his father’s plantation, the boy’s mind has been shaped by violence: his father’s violence to the slaves and him, as he was growing up; his own verbal violence to his mother Margaret; the acts of violence he is exposed to in the daily running of the plantation and the wider slaving community. Even what she reads him is full of images of slavery, like the Bible: Robinson Crusoe, which begins in a slave ship and ends with a relationship between Crusoe and Friday which looks very much like that of master to slave; Gulliver’s Travels, with its representation of the Yahoos as worthy slaves to the wiser Houyhnhms; The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the protagonist Christian seeks deliverance from the slavery of sin. And as well as teaching him – he is a very slow learner – Dana is forced, at her own slow pace, to learn from Rufus: to undergo a crash course in that violent alternative education that shapes him alongside her own. The final lesson she learns in this tough school is to take his life: to stab him with a knife she carries when he tries to rape her. Before meeting Rufus she could never have done this; and there are many occasions in the course of her visits when she fails to do it or resists the urge. By the end of the book, however, he has learned to write and she has learned to kill; the pen and the blade have discovered a kinship as toxic and ineradicable as Dana’s kinship with young Rufus and Alice, her other ancestor, whom he rapes, enslaves and finally drives to self-destruction.

Writing and reading, as practised by slaves in the nineteenth century, are acts of defiance. These skills give the captive power: the power to write their own destiny by recording their thoughts and reading the subversive thoughts of others, or by forging a pass that will help them escape to freedom. This power must be countered by the owners with another kind of writing: the marks on a human body of the slaver’s whip, which impart knowledge to their recipients, knowledge of the system in which they are trapped and a deep-seated sense of their own entrapment. Teaching a black boy to read earns Dana her first whipping, and as she receives it from the boy’s owner, Rufus’s father, he ‘curses and lectures’ like an angry schoolmaster. Dana faints under his lashes and is transported home to California; and by this time in the story we know that this only happens when she thinks she’ll die. Later, however, she learns more about whipping; it’s not such a crude or merciful measure as she thought at first. No intelligent owner, she finds, would kill a valuable slave with his blows if he can help it; and the discovery means that next time she’s whipped (after an attempted escape) she remains where she is, a slave in Maryland. The second whipping is embedded in the vocabulary of knowledge through pain, pitched directly against the vocabulary of learning. ‘Educated nigger don’t mean smart nigger, do it?’ says Rufus’s father, commenting on Dana’s ineffectual efforts to run away. ‘You’re going to get the cowhide,’ Rufus then tells her, ‘You know that’ – and at this point she realises that she ‘hadn’t known’, that the young man’s gentleness had led her to think he would let her off lightly. She knows more than she wants to, however, about the function of cowhide. As Rufus’s father beats her,

I tried to believe he was going to kill me. I said it aloud, screamed it, and the blows seemed to emphasize my words. He would kill me. Surely, he would kill me if I didn’t get away, save myself, go home!

It didn’t work. This was only punishment, and I knew it.

She has, in other words, learned her lesson; she has taken another step towards becoming a naturalised citizen of a slave state. Her literacy in the ways of violence keeps her away from her own time and place, preventing her from finding escape in the fear of death that would send her home, barring her from the art of writing by which she defined herself in modern California. One knowledge drives out or supplants another, and she spends the rest of the book seeking desperately to win back her identity as a writer, and with it what she increasingly identifies as her life.

In her own time, Dana’s talent for writing helps her forge a community: the miniature community of husband and wife and their potential offspring, the family of the future as against the family inscribed in the Bible and thus embedded in the past. Both she and her husband Kevin are professional writers, and their capacity for writing – and for the meticulous research which is everywhere apparent in Butler’s novel, the quest for truth in other writers’ texts – is both part of what draws them together in the first place and part of what enables them to imagine a future for themselves which departs from the cyclical entrapments of a traumatic history. The temerity of their decision to live by writing is signalled by the fact that they meet in a factory, where they are forced to work because they can’t make a living from their pens. The temerity of their decision to become partners in the 1970s is signalled by the fact that they are both disowned by their nearest relatives when they get together. But a living can be made from the pen with sufficient commitment, just as a new family can be formed by a meeting of minds and bodies against all odds. The new home into which they move is proof of this; they buy it together with the proceeds of Kevin’s most successful book. Living in it, though, once they have bought it, is not so easy. The fact that it’s Kevin who bought it – the straight white male in their relationship – suggests that it doesn’t yet belong to both of them equally when they move in. Kevin finds it hard to write there, even before the first time travelling episode. And it’s while unpacking books, the tools of their trade, that Dana first gets hurled into the past, as if to show that the words they use, the knowledge they draw on, the possibilities they imagine for the future, remain interwoven with unresolved issues from the past which must be confronted before the future can begin. In the course of her adventures, Dana’s marriage becomes a kind of utopia, the one possibility she clings to of a brighter future when her troubles and travels are over. The serious business of making it properly utopian, however, must be deferred till the time travel ends – and hence till after the end of Butler’s book.

Which brings us back to fantasy fiction, and why Butler chose it as the vehicle for her tale, as against the science fiction with which she made her name.

Fantasy is often defined as the literature of the impossible: a kind of writing that takes as its starting point an acceptance on the part of the reader that she will choose to believe, throughout the act of reading, in events, people, things and places that could never exist in past or present or the conceivable future. This is where it doffers from science fiction, which is concerned with the possible – or rather takes as its premise the possibility that what it describes might really take place at some point in the future, or might have done in an alternative version of the universe we know. Possibility versus impossibility; this is the difference between SF and the fantastic. There is just one impossible thing in Butler’s book: the series of unexplained events that take Dana back from her own time, the 1970s, to the early nineteenth century. The rest of the book is a model of realism; the kind of realism that stresses the material necessities and practical difficulties with which it confronts its characters. Dana is always asking herself how to take objects and clothing with her when she leaps through time, how to alleviate the bodily and psychological damage she suffers in her beatings, how to persuade Rufus to supress his desire for her and think instead about his responsibilities to his slaves and his children. She simply has no time to wonder how she keeps making those leaps; there are too many more important things to consider.

At the same time, she keeps coming up against the impossibilities of slavery. Her leaps through time are each caused by the fact that she believes she is about to die, having reached the limits of what the human body can endure. As those limits get more extended, as her body learns to endure greater punishment, she is confronted with different impossibilities – psychological ones; above all, how to reconcile herself to the increasing ease with which she is adapting to the intolerable conditions in which she finds herself. She begins to choose to return to her time by committing suicide, again and again, in dreadful anticipation of the eventual suicide of her body double, her ancestor Alice. Ease itself becomes a problem for her, as it does for Kevin when he returns from his one extended trip to Maryland. ‘Everything is so soft here,’ he tells Dana, ‘so easy. […] It’s good. Hell, I wouldn’t go back to some of the pestholes I’ve lived in for pay. But still…’ Concealed behind that final ellipsis is the thought that ease is difficult for him, an uneasy nostalgia for the titanic efforts required of him from day to day in the past he’s left behind for ever. That ellipsis, in fact, represents the terrible possibility that he might by now feel more at home in the days of the slave trade than in the days of the automobile and the electric oven.

Ease, in fact, is what finally drives Dana to kill Rufus in self-defence. The brilliance of Butler’s portrait of this slave-owner, abuser and rapist is how strangely attractive she makes him seem – largely, perhaps, because we’ve seen every detail of how he was made into what he is, but also because of his awkward fusion of kindness and cruelty, aggression and thwarted affection. At the point when he’s about to rape her Dana is suddenly struck by the fact that she could partially consent; that she could become his slave mistress, bear his children, integrate once and for all into his perverse pastiche of a loving family; after all, she is already ‘Aunt Dana’ to his son by Alice.:

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand holding my hand, and slowly, I realised how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk. But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh I had saved so many times. So hard to kill…

If the whip represents the pen of the slaver then the knife could be said to represent one of the pens available to the slave: a pen whose use involves automatic self-destruction, but which also writes freedom in death for those who choose to wield it. For Dana, imminent death is a key to life – it will take her ‘home’; yet killing remains the difficult option. When Kevin tried to persuade her it was necessary, back in California, he couldn’t even utter the word. The easy option is the happy ending, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe; a false reconciliation which is embodied in the parody of an affectionate embrace described in the passage. Dana’s decision to use the knife instead is not a triumph; it is, like Tenie’s decision to transform ‘Po’ Sandy’ into a tree, the counsel of desperation. It’s a refusal of something that had once seemed impossible, but has somehow made itself possible in the course of Dana’s adventures. It’s an acknowledgment that simple happy endings, too, are impossible, like utopias; they exist no place, and the best we can do to achieve them is to reject the grim alternatives when we have power to do so.

The end of Kindred is a series of ellipses, of gaps in the narrative. Dana never finds out the fate of most of her friends from the nineteenth century, never learns what became of her ancestors Hagar and Joe, Alice’s children by the rapist Rufus. At the end of the book, as at the beginning, she knows only their names, although she can conjecture some of the paths they might have taken on the long road to liberty. But her quest to bring them to life – through her dealings with Rufus, through her writing of the novel – have made the past immeasurably closer for her readers. Immeasurably closer, and a lot less easy.