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.

Change in William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World

In her fine biography of William Morris Fiona McCarthy claims that his late romances are unlike anything else written in the nineteenth century.[1] One could just as easily say that they’re unlike anything else written at any time, including the post-Tolkienian fantasy fiction with which they’re so often compared. They articulate radical attitudes to women, class and sexual desire in an archaic prose that seems to anchor them in what is often taken to be the conservative past of the medieval romances. Their strange plots repeatedly turn romance conventions on their heads while seeming to conform to them; and they convey a dreamlike atmosphere, largely again through Morris’s prose style, which resembles his verse in its tendency to treat all incidents – crises and pastoral interludes, loving conversations, quarrels and apparitions – with the same fluid smoothness, seldom varying its rhythm whatever emotional terrain it traverses, much as a dream tends to inhabit the same mood throughout its length no matter what bizarreries or horrors it conjures up. Many incidents in them are never explained, and as a consequence the onus rests on the reader to decipher their significance, to an extent that simply isn’t true of many other contemporary narratives. George MacDonald wrote that he intended his own fairy tales to awaken something in their readers, not to direct them;[2] and the same statement might well have been made by Morris, whose interest in dreams was as intense as MacDonald’s, and whose romances helped to stir modern fantasy into wakefulness.[3]

The Wood Beyond the World (1894) is as strange and enigmatic as any of these late romances. It takes us on what seems to be a journey through the mind of its central character, Golden Walter, in which he finds himself playing a range of contradictory roles in a narrative whose form and content violate expectations in a number of crucial ways. An examination of its experimental features may help to debunk the still persistent perception of fantasy and romance as fundamentally reactionary genres. It may help, too, to point up the extent to which they can sometimes match modernism in their readiness to reinvent the past with an eye to the challenges of the present and future. The book’s form has political implications, and it’s these political implications that I want to tease out in the reading that follows.

Before setting out, though, it’s worth pausing to take note of the remarkable range of medieval and early modern prose romances to which Morris had access, thanks to the tireless labour of Victorian scholars. Stimulated in part by the international success of Walter Scott’s historical novels – Waverley, Ivanhoe, The Monastery and the rest – nineteenth-century scholars worked to put into print a huge amount of prose fiction from the sixteenth century and before which had been in many cases unavailable since early modern times, or never printed at all. Bibliophiles like Henry Huth, editors like F. J. Furnivall, Edmund Gosse and Alexander Grosart, book clubs like the Chetham Society, the Hunterian Club and the Roxburghe Club, and book series like the Globe editions, ensured that prosperous readers like Morris had access through mid-to-late Victorian libraries and bookshops to a wider range of old prose romances in English (Malory, Boccaccio, Bandello, Marguerite de Navarre, Lyly, Sidney, Lodge, Greene, Cervantes, Rabelais, and of course Anonymous) than at any other time in history. As a result he must have known the sheer diversity of the genre, its stylistic and formal inventiveness, its frequent refusal to follow pre-existent patterns, its preoccupation with topics neglected in official discourse – above all with women, desire, and desiring women – and its wayward way with historical and geographical fact, to an extent that would have been impossible for writers before him, apart from Scott and a few of his fellow antiquaries. Morris writes, in other words, free from the presuppositions about ‘chivalric’ romance that may have been entertained by many of his readers, but also intensely conscious of those presuppositions and prejudices. He plays with them even as he flouts them, and this knowing playfulness with accurate and inaccurate perceptions of the past is one of the characteristics he confers on the best examples of the fantasy tradition that followed him.

The title of The Wood Beyond the World helps to highlight the impression it gives of opening a door from one space – the everyday, mercantile, urban space in which it begins – into another: the enchanted wood where the bulk of the action takes place. ‘Wood’ and ‘world’ are so nearly homonyms that it’s easy to imagine one as being buried or concealed within the other (as C. S. Lewis did later in The Magician’s Nephew [1955]). This effect is intensified by the recurrent visions that trouble the protagonist, Golden Walter, taking him far away from the familiar surroundings of his place of origin, Langton on Holm (whose name punningly refers both to its homeliness and to its location, a holm being an island in a river – as well as to its dullness, since Langton invokes the German langweilig, boring). Three times Walter sees two women and a dwarf processing through the familiar everyday landscape; on one occasion, they seem to be leaving his father’s house moments after they have boarded ship and set sail for distant lands (p. 9).[4] Each time the threefold apparition ends by vanishing without a trace, and each vision intensifies his desire to track down the originals of the figures in it, despite his fear that they may have been illusions, the seductive symptoms of a catastrophic breakdown in his mental faculties. When the third occurrence of the vision is witnessed by his father’s matter-of-fact scrivener, Arnold, Walter is half convinced that it has substance, but even then will only concede that ‘there was at least something before my eyes which grew not out of mine own brain’ (p. 19). The question of whether what he sees is inside or outside his head – or of how far what he sees with his material eyes is affected by his mental state – continues to disturb his mind for much of the narrative, raising the question of what space the door through which the visions proceed might open into.

The behaviour of the visions doesn’t conform, then, to everyday notions of cause and effect, and so anticipates the degree to which Walter’s quest for the originals will operate in defiance of conventional narrative logic. Another way in which these visions anticipate this defiance is in the protagonist’s inability to decide which of the women fascinates him most: ‘For he said to himself that he desired not either of the twain; nay, he might not tell which of the twain, the maiden or the stately queen, were clearest to his eyes; but sore he desired to see both of them again, and to know what they were’ (p. 10). The contradiction in the young man’s thinking here – he tells himself he does not desire either woman, yet ‘sore he desired to see both of them again’ – predicts the continued confusion over identity (his own, as well as those of the two women) which will be a marked feature of his later adventures. Confused identity is a familiar romance motif, but it doesn’t generally manifest itself at the point when the romance hero first sights his future lover. On these occasions it’s expected that the knight will fall head over heels in love with a single woman, and that he will know full well from the first that it’s love or desire that draws him to her. Walter’s confusion may arise from two causes. The first is that he is no knight, and therefore presumably not subject to the usual rules of chivalric fiction. The second is that the mental state he finds himself in when he sees the visions is a singularly unromantic one, and that this sets him at odds from the outset with the narrative trajectory of traditional romance.

Walter’s situation at the beginning of the narrative is, in fact, a mass of contradictions. His nickname refers both to his current prosperity and to the long line of his prosperous forebears: his father ‘was of the Lineage of the Goldings, therefore was he called Bartholomew Golden, and his son Golden Walter’ (p. 2). But his gilded past and glittering present serve as a mask for an unhappy marriage to a wife whose barefaced adultery effectively puts him in two minds:

he hated her for her untruth and her hatred of him; yet would the sound of her voice, as she came and went in the house, make his heart beat; and the sight of her stirred desire within him, so that he longed for her to be sweet and kind with him, and deemed that, might it be so, he should forget all the evil gone by. (p. 2)

This sentence pits a bevy of romance conventions against each other. The young man loves a young woman who doesn’t love him back, so that disparate ages and inter-generational conflict are not a factor in their relationship as they so often are in stories. They are married, rather than barred from marriage either by circumstance or their elders; love and hate are fused in Walter’s attitude to his spouse; and while he would seem to have obtained his ending before his adventures begin, it’s anything but a happy one. Summarized like this it’s easy to see why the situation might give rise to the threefold vision that haunts him: two women who are equally desirable, one a slave, the other her mistress, attended by a malicious servant whose grotesque appearance differs from Walter’s beauty as much as his marriage differs from the public appearance it presents to the world, or from marital ideals in general as promulgated by fairy tale and sentimental fiction. Both Walter and the Dwarf are linked with the colour yellow (the former is ‘yellow-haired’ [p. 1], the latter ‘clad in a rich coat of yellow silk’ [p. 7]), as if the latter is the mirror image of Walter’s self-disgust at his failure as a husband and lover.[5] Walter later tracks the Dwarf and his companions to a far-off place called the ‘Golden House’ whose name echoes his own sobriquet, and whose magnificent appearance recalls the opulent life he led in Langton. The Dwarf carries a bow, which makes him a malevolent adult version of the childish love-god, Cupid. There is a second male lover at the Golden House who competes with Walter for the attentions of the two women of the vision, just as his wife’s lover had earlier competed with him for her affections. The central plot of the romance, then, represents a twisted double of Walter’s marriage situation, as if it has been deliberately offered to him as a nightmarish alternative model of human desire and its workings to set alongside the idealized versions of love and marriage offered by traditional forms of fiction.

But the Golden House is only one of a series of unsettling doubles that punctuate the narrative. The first of these – the first that Walter becomes aware of – is a pair of ships in the harbour at Langton. One is a vessel boarded by the threefold vision when Walter first sees it (pp. 6-8); the other is his father’s vessel, which Walter boards before setting out on a long sea-voyage intended to free him from his loveless union. As the second ship casts off, Walter notes how the sailors repeat with unnerving precision the routines already carried out on board the ship he noticed earlier:

it all seemed but the double of what the other ship had done; and he thought of it as if the twain were as beads strung on one string and led away by it into the same place, and thence to go in the like order, and so on again and again, and never to draw nigher to each other. (p. 11)

Doubling here becomes a metaphor for the repetitive nature of routine itself: the daily comings and goings in the household of wives, lovers and husbands, as mentioned in Chapter I (‘as she came and went in the house’ [p. 2]); the mercantile traffic that follows identical routes from land to land in quest of profit; the daily routine of the marketplace; the cycles of history, which repeat the same triumphs and tragedies in successive generations. Walter’s fear is that routine will undermine any effort on his part at escape or innovation – new encounters, the resolution of past difficulties, liberation from his hostile partner – and that the two ships will instead follow the same preordained trajectory for ever without any significant variation, much as his marriage has followed the same routine of hatred and renewed desire throughout its duration without any sign of rapprochement or reconciliation between the spouses.

The structure of the adventures that follow both reaffirms this anxiety and works against it, as Walter moves from one location to the next, at each point confronting the notion of preordination or predestined activity, but at each stage also breaking the cycle, freeing himself from the chain of repetition, and bringing about new chapters in his own story and (finally) in the history of the lands he moves through. The Wood Beyond the World doesn’t follow the there-and-back-again format of Tolkienian fantasy or classic medieval romance (in this it differs from its successor, The Well at the World’s End [1896]); and its refusal to do so can be read as a sign of its radical agenda, that is, of Morris’s determination to liberate his protagonist and readers from the reactionary view that a romance ending should always restore the status quo established at the beginning – or indeed that the future can be confidently predicted on the basis of the past, a foundational principle of conservatism as well as of the capitalist marketplace with which Walter’s family is affiliated.

The notion of predetermination is worth considering further, since it’s a concept that gets taken up by the later fantasy tradition, and one that’s cleverly problematized in Morris’s book. The repeated vision may suggest to the reader, on the basis of previous experience, that there is some sort of destiny or fate that links Walter with the women he keeps seeing. Walter, however, sees the vision as liberating him from his apparent destiny, which is to remain unhappily married and to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant and local dignitary. This becomes clear when he sees the vision for the third and final time, in the nameless city to which his vessel conveys him on his father’s business. Just before this third encounter he learns from his father’s scrivener that the old man has been killed by his wife’s relatives, the Reddings, in revenge for sending her home in disgrace after his son’s departure. The news at once prompts Walter to get ready for the voyage back to Langton, where he expects to ‘enter into the strife with the Reddings and quell them, or die else’ (p. 18) – that is, to carry on the feud for the foreseeable future, in an ugly variation on the routine he has so far been slave to. His duty seems clear, along with the two equally unattractive endings available to him: death at the hands of or victory over his father’s killers. But his third sighting of the women and the Dwarf negates his view that these are his only options. He yearns to follow the women instead, as a third way (like the third way shown to Thomas the Rhymer in the ballad) whose uncertain outcome will free him from the familial duties by which he feels bound. The archaic term ‘boun’ is used by Morris to describe the destination of the ships that conduct the business of the Langton merchants (p. 13), as if to stress the limitations of the mobility they seem to offer. Sure enough, the next stage of Walter’s liberation from his past can only come when his ship is driven off its ‘bounden’ course. Shortly after his departure for Langton, the new vessel in which he finds himself – again, symbolically, one of his father’s – becomes ‘unboun’, so to speak, from its route, when a sudden storm drives it to the shore of an unknown island. As it turns out, this is the country where the women and the Dwarf dwell in the Wood Beyond the World, a place beyond all known maps, and beyond reach, too, of the business transactions often referred to in medieval texts as worldly affairs (as against spiritual ones). Walter’s pursuit of the women, then, takes him away from his destiny, not towards a predestined or ‘bounden’ ending. It therefore seems entirely appropriate that the experiences he has with the women should defy expectation, literary or otherwise.

Before he reaches the Golden House, Walter’s arrival at the unknown island sets up another set of expectations that appears to bind him to a specific course of action. He and his ship’s company, which includes the scrivener Arnold, meet an old man who lives by himself on a farm in an otherwise unpopulated part of the unknown country. The man tells Walter how he ended up in this lonely state, and as he does so the young man becomes convinced that the route the old man took to his youthful adventures – through a gap or ‘rift’ in the nearby mountains – will also take him, Walter, to the women in his vision. The problem is that the old man deems his adventures to have brought about only ‘evil’ (p. 35), and to have set him on course for his eventual seclusion; he therefore does all he can to dissuade his young visitor from following the same course of action, and the prophetic terms he uses, together with the image we may still hold in our minds of the beads forever following each other along the same piece of string, make his forebodings plausible. As Walter sets out for the gap in the mountains, then, the reader may well assume that he is condemning himself to an ‘evil’ outcome, and perhaps to lifelong loneliness on the farm where he met the hermit. The reader is, however, given a number of clues that this is not in fact the case. For one thing the old man was a knight in his youth, as opposed to a bourgeois merchant, so that his destiny might be expected to be of a different kind from Walter’s (knights are destined to rule where merchants trade; errant knights may expect to end up on a preordained patch of land, while the fortunes of merchants fluctuate with the market, making their eventual destinies less certain). For another, the old man killed his predecessor on the farm before setting out on his journey, whereas Walter does not. In fact, the old man’s knightly status and his manner of acquiring his land would seem to be connected. In killing his predecessor the old man describes himself as succeeding to the dead man’s property ‘as though this were a lordly manor, with a fair castle thereon, and all well stocked and plenished’ (p. 34). Walter, by contrast, is un-lordly in his origins, non-violent in his habits and above all unconcerned with his inheritance, since his quest for the women diverts him from the legal process of succeeding his father in his ‘goodly house’ in Langton (p. 9), just as it involves parting company with his father’s legal representative, the scrivener Arnold. Morris has, however, planted in our minds the possibility of ‘evil’ presiding over Walter’s journey, and as a result the reader can’t be assured of the happy outcome of this romance until she’s reached the final page.

The gap in the mountains leads Walter, of course, to the titular Wood Beyond the World: an idealized setting redolent of fertility and wealth, presided over by the Golden House, a building ‘carved all about with knots and imagery’ which Walter considers ‘beyond compare of all the houses of the world’ (pp. 72-3). At the same time, the setting is dominated by ambiguities of many kinds. Walter approaches the House by way of a series of encounters: with the Dwarf, with the younger of the two women known as the Maid, and finally with the ruling Lady, whom he meets in the House itself with her current lover, a young man wearing a royal ‘chaplet of gems’ as a sign of his rank (though he looks in Walter’s eyes ‘nowise […] chieftain-like’ [p. 74], so that his appearance is itself contradictory). Each meeting feeds Walter with preconceptions about the meetings to come. The Dwarf, who occupies an ambiguous halfway house between human and animal (he even moves in a fusion of styles, ‘whiles walking upright […] whiles bounding and rolling like a ball […] whiles scuttling along on all-fours like an evil beast’ [p. 56]), convinces Walter that the Maid is a kind of monster (a ‘Wretch’ or ‘Thing’ [pp. 54-5]), whose hidden ‘knife’ may not be trusted. When he meets the Maid she fills him with anxiety first about the Dwarf, who becomes ‘that one’ (p. 60), a nameless monstrosity too horrible to be mentioned, and then about the Lady, whose identity seems somehow multiple: an ‘evil mistress’ who ‘by some creatures’ is ‘accounted for a god, and as a god is heried [worshipped]; and surely never god is crueller nor colder than she’ (p. 65). The encounter with the Lady and her royal lover suggests that the reference to her as being ‘accounted for a god’ may be the familiar hyperbole of Petrarchan love discourse; her coldness to Walter on his first arrival reads like a conventional game of desire as practised in the early modern romances of Lyly, Greene and Gascoigne, and it’s only the Maid’s words that suggest there may be something more sinister afoot. This perception is intensified if the reader remembers what Walter learned from the old man at the farm: that his neighbours, the stone age ‘Bear-folk’, worship a bloodthirsty female deity (p. 29) who demands human ‘blood-offerings’ from them (p. 40). The Lady, then, like the Dwarf and the Maid, may be mixed in the reader’s mind of compound elements, human, bestial and supernatural, and this mixture puts us perpetually in two minds as to which of these elements will become foregrounded in any given episode set in the Wood of ‘lies’, as the Maid calls it.

One can see by now why Morris, like his successor Tolkien, was averse to the notion that he might have written allegories (as McCarthy tells us, he reacted angrily when an editor suggested that The Wood was a socialist allegory of labour’s struggle with capitalism). Allegories such as Bunyan’s hugely popular Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) assigned singular, limited roles to each of their characters; the identities and moral standing of Worldly Wiseman, Little-Faith, Hopeful and the rest are obvious at once from their names. Walter’s meeting with the Maid, on the other hand, is all about uncertainty; not least, the Maid’s uncertainty as to Walter’s own nature, her uncertainty as to whether the Lady lured him to the Wood for some dark purpose, her cogitations as to how to proceed, and finally her uncertainty about what Walter will think of her if she succeeds in carrying out the plan she finally comes up with. The reader doesn’t share in all these uncertainties; by this stage of the narrative, for instance, we may well have decided that Walter is an upright citizen, exactly as Morris describes him in the opening paragraph (‘rather wiser than foolisher than young men are mostly wont; a valiant youth, and a kind’ [p. 1]). The Maid’s fears spring in part from her status as a slave, a condition of which we’re constantly reminded by references to the steel ring on her ankle: subject to the whims of a volatile mistress, unsure as to whether any given situation is an ingenious trap devised to remind her of her servitude. And one element of this trap consists of the Maid’s concerns about Walter’s potential attitude to her, conditioned as she assumes it is by romance conventions concerning female behaviour. Should she display excessive wisdom or courage – qualities associated with Walter’s character as a man in the opening pages – she fears that he may judge her to be as the Dwarf described her: a dangerous monster forever set apart from the rest of her sex, a kind of inverted Blessed Virgin. Walter does indeed doubt the Maid at various points in their subsequent adventures – not surprisingly, really, since he has only known her for a short time, and has already been betrayed once by a woman he loved. But then, he also begins to doubt himself, largely thanks to his ambivalent attitudes to the Maid and the Lady. Identities in the Wood seem not to be fixed, and it’s the complexity of the women’s roles there, in particular, that points up its refusal to be bound by allegorical or romance regulations.

The Maid lays out the rules of the game she will play – a deadly serious game of the sort played by slaves conspiring to win their freedom – when she first meets Walter. ‘Thou hast cast thy love,’ she tells him, ‘upon one [i.e. the Maid herself] who will be true to thee, whatsoever may befall; yet is she a guileful creature, and might not help it her life long [in other words, her cunning has been forced on her by lifelong captivity], and now for thy very sake must needs be more guileful now than ever before. And as for me, the guileful,’ she continues,

my love have I cast upon a lovely man, and one true and simple, and a stout-heart; but at such a pinch is he, that if he withstand all temptation, his withstanding may belike undo both him and me. Therefore swear we both of us, that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will. (pp. 69-70)

Such a speech spoken by a woman to a man is more or less unprecedented in the annals of romance, at least in my limited experience.[6] For medieval and early modern writers an admission of guile would invariably be tantamount to an admission of guilt, and the guileful woman would quickly betray her true colours by seeking to beguile or bamboozle her lover (as Lucilla does, for instance, in Lyly’s Euphues [1578]).[7] At the same time, the Maid also professes truthfulness in the sense of fidelity (she will ‘be true to thee, whatsoever may befall’), and so insists that a consistent set of values will underpin her deviousness. She then sets up a clear distinction between herself and Walter. He is ‘true and simple’ by nature, she says, but must cultivate deviousness if he is to survive; he must strategically give way to ‘temptation’ if either or both of them are not to be destroyed by the ‘evil mistress’. So far so Machiavellian; this might be Lady Macbeth enjoining her husband to ‘Look like th’innocent flower, / But be the serpent under it’, with the crucial difference that the Maid is enjoining Walter to seem duplicitous, even to be duplicitous, but to cultivate a secret simplicity in his intentions and commitments. This troubling advice comes hard on an earlier reversal of Walter’s preconceptions about romance behaviour, where the young man promised to deliver the Maid from her enslaving mistress and she retorted that ‘it is more like [i.e. more likely] that I shall deliver thee’ (p. 67). On their first encounter, in fact, the Maid seeks to instruct Walter in a new kind of narrative, where the knight is less effective in a crisis than the damsel in distress, where lying may be necessary rather than immoral, and where trust and forgiveness are bestowed with difficulty rather than with the ease that so often characterizes their attainment in chivalric romance. Walter is not a rapid learner; he promptly agrees with everything the Maid has said on the grounds that she is his ‘Hallow’ (p. 70), that is, his saint, which makes her sound dangerously perfect, in direct contradiction to everything she has just told him about herself. But the Maid has given him a key to interpreting or reading her subsequent actions which promises to convert him to her way of thinking, should he choose to accept it, before the story’s end.

Most strikingly, her advice closes with an insistence that both of these would-be lovers learn to cultivate a commitment to change rather than consistency if their relationship is to flourish. The Maid has learned to change guilefully in order to protect herself from the Lady’s cruelty. She can also change her own and other people’s physical appearance, which is a skill the Lady does not possess (perhaps she does not need it, being a slave-owner rather than a slave). Walter must learn to change (from simplicity to duplicity, from fidelity to promiscuity, from the assumption of male dominance to reliance on a woman) in order to protect himself and the Maid. And both must promise to change again, for one last time, when the need for changefulness is over. Her insistence ‘that by both of us shall all guile and all falling away be forgiven on the day when we shall be free to love each other as our hearts will’ could be taken as Morris’s manifesto: his romances recognize the need for compromise in adversity, acknowledging partial or apparent complicity with the dominant power as a necessary part of the struggle for freedom from it, as against the idealistic purism of traditional chivalric codes. At the same time, the original principles of chivalric romance remain important to him: fidelity (to those who are worthy of it), simplicity (a clear set of social and moral values underlying one’s actions), and devotion to truth (even when one is forced to lie in the interests of self-preservation). He wants his readers to recall traditional chivalric romance even as they recognize the various departures from it in his narrative. There’s an idealism here, in other words, concerning the possibility of keeping faith in the worst of circumstances, which the Maid is concerned to assert even as she spurns the kind of idealism based on arbitrarily-assigned gender roles that has dominated past narratives of this kind.

Sustaining this clandestine idealism proves as difficult as one might expect in the adventures that follow. Walter continually doubts the Maid’s fidelity, distrustful of her increasing intimacy with the King’s Son even as he self-consciously fulfills his own obligation to be physically intimate with the Lady. His relationship with the Maid is complicated by the fact that he finds the Lady equally attractive, as also by the fact that he is continually mistaking the one for the other, so that at times the only distinction between them seems to be the ring of steel on the Maid’s ankle which marks her out as the Lady’s property. Even when the Maid eventually frees them from the Lady’s power – by magically disguising the King’s Son as Walter and luring him to the site of an assignation, where the Lady kills him in a jealous rage after being tipped off by the Dwarf – Walter suspects her of excessive intelligence and courage (or deviousness and boldness), exactly as she predicted he would. Changing attitudes to gender prove as difficult in Morris’s romance world as they were in the actual struggle for women’s equality in which Morris took such a marked if problematic interest.[8]

The confusions of identity that occur in the Wood are exacerbated by the uncertainty as to how terms are used and phenomena explained. We’ve already noted how the term ‘yellow’ occurs in the descriptions both of Walter and of the Dwarf – that is, of the most ‘virtuous’ and ‘vicious’ male figures in the narrative – and how the sobriquet ‘golden’ applies at once to Walter, his father, and the enchanted House where Walter finds himself after abandoning his father’s ship. Similarly, the term ‘Enemy’ gets regularly applied to different inhabitants of the Wood, Maid, Dwarf and Lady; and its capitalized initial ‘E’ aligns it with the names denoting qualities in allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, as if to point up the danger of assuming a stable correspondence between signifier and signified. We’ve seen, too, how the origins of the visions Walter sees are never confirmed (were they sent by Lady, Maid, or some other influence?); so that it’s hardly surprising we never learn their purpose either (were they devised by the Lady to ensnare a new lover, by the Maid to procure a rescuer, by destiny to ensure that the story unfolds as it does?). Another incident that never gets explained is Walter’s killing of a lion on a hunting expedition with the Lady. Was the lion conjured up by the Lady as a test of Walter’s mettle? This would explain the fact that it is yellow, like her servant the Dwarf who shares so many of its properties, and that its body disappears, leaving no trace, after its killing. But if so, why does the Lady associate it with her Enemy (presumably the Maid), and react to its appearance with seeming terror? The Maid asserts that since the Lady is a liar her behaviour and words on this occasion cannot be trusted; but of course the Maid too is a mistress of false appearances, as her final plot against the Lady demonstrates. Finally, the Maid mistakes Walter for the King’s Son on at least one occasion, and the Lady mistakes him for her royal lover when she stabs the latter (using a knife of the kind the Maid carries about with her – as she claims, for purposes of self-defence and possibly suicide, though the Dwarf identifies it as the sign of the Maid’s monstrosity). The Lady commits suicide, in the end, just as the Maid proposed to do if her bid for freedom failed. Walter, meanwhile, ends up as a serial adulterer (he is successively unfaithful to his wife, the Maid and the Lady), a bigamist (he marries the Maid while still, apparently, married to his wife in Langholm), a voyeur (he is always spying on the Lady and the Maid, like the Dwarf he hates), a killer (he stabs the Dwarf to protect the Maid from his arrows), and a liar, and hence in some sense akin to the Lady, the Maid, the Dwarf and the King’s Son. The Wood, then, is a veritable labyrinth of resemblances and echoes, with each of its inhabitants repeatedly usurping the other’s role and partner in a dance of power that renders any notion of any one of them having a unique destiny, or preordained moral function, profoundly questionable.

It seems appropriate, then, that Walter’s moment of triumph in this romance is not an act of prowess (his killing of the Dwarf is a botched job at best, and he does little to rescue the Maid from her captivity) but instead an acceptance of his own complicity with the faults of which he suspects her. Having engineered the death of the Lady and the King’s Son, the Maid approaches the difficult task of explaining to Water what she has done – the chief difficulty being that she has behaved like the wicked witch of conventional romance – with hesitation; a hesitation that seems fully justified when Walter allows himself to half believe the Dwarf’s account of what has happened before he has even heard the Maid’s side of the story. It’s at this point, however, that Walter suddenly recalls the lesson in reading that the Maid taught him when they first met. The lesson involved pointing out to him how each of them must behave if they are to stand a chance of escaping from the Lady’s clutches; and how they must act in similar ways, and accept equal responsibility for their own and each other’s actions, if they are to have any chance of developing an adult relationship after their escape. Her lesson taught him, in fact, to rid himself of the double standards applied to men and women in fiction; and he shows he has learned the lesson when he affirms, as the Maid hesitates to speak freely to him, that he too has been guilty of any crimes she may confess in her account of the Lady’s death:

Yea, said he, and true it is that if thou hast slain, I have done no less, and if thou hast lied, even so have I; and if thou hast played the wanton, as I deem not that thou hast, I full surely have so done. So now thou shalt pardon me, and when thy spirit has come back to thee, thou shalt tell me thy tale in all friendship, and in all loving-kindness will I hearken the same. (pp. 157-8)

This statement of pardon before the Maid has told her tale certifies that Walter has learned to read in a new way, with an egalitarianism or ‘loving-kindness’ regarding gender (and ‘kindness’ suggests similarity or kinship in medieval English) that’s pretty much alien to the romance tradition, which tended to apply such different standards to men and women, especially in sexual matters [though this isn’t altogether true of Philip Sidney or Mary Wroth]. This is not to say that these standards have yet been fully naturalized either in Walter or in Morris’s readers. Morris is careful, for instance, to ensure that the Maid remains what her title suggests, a virgin, so as not to alienate his more conservative readers. But the passage, like the romance as a whole, also asserts the possibility of accepting an authoritative, cunning, powerful, active and passionately desiring female figure into the storytelling tradition, and in doing so paves the way for the yet more powerful women of Morris’s later romances, The Well at the World’s End and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897).[9]

Walter doesn’t remain entirely convinced by his own rhetoric of loving-kindness. His assertion of trust in the Maid is sorely strained when she later takes on the Lady’s former role as goddess of the Bear folk, and he fears that she will take the opportunity to have him sacrificed like previous visitors to the Bear country. Later a similar fear afflicts him when he is seized, stripped, washed and fed by the people of a city called Stark-wall, and again presumes that these are preparations for ritual murder to appease some sanguinary deity. As it turns out, however, both acts of sacrifice are averted thanks to the equal commitment of the Maid and Walter to changing things for the better. The Maid uses her power as a substitute goddess to dissuade the Bear folk from the practice of human sacrifice rather than to encourage it (though she also instructs them to enslave weak or sickly strangers instead of sacrificing them; the historical moment would not yet seem to have come for the total erasure of slavery). Similarly, Walter’s ordeal in Stark-wall turns out to be a test of his fitness to be crowned king – a test he passes with ease; and he immediately uses his newfound power to institute change, inviting the Maid to be crowned as his Queen while symbolically inviting her to choose the clothes in which she will be installed alongside him. Again the change he implements is not as radical as it might be; it seems clear that the Queen doesn’t wield the same authority in Stark-wall as her husband. But their personalities and experience ensure that they make a difference in the World beyond the Wood (as the Lady at one stage calls it), extending the principles of loving-kindness beyond the charmed circle of their marriage.

Walter’s legacy, like his reformation of Stark-wall, is finally limited. When he dies he leaves behind ‘no needy’ subjects, but the quasi-democratic practice whereby he was crowned king after emerging ‘poor and lonely from out of the Mountains’ (p. 250) is forgotten, to be replaced, one guesses, by patrilineal succession. And the Maid’s actions, too, leave an ambiguous legacy. The skills she taught the Bear folk in her capacity as their goddess – which include tillage as well as relative kindness to strangers – eventually give rise to warfare between them and their neighbours, the people of Stark-wall, though ‘that was a long while after the Maid had passed away’ (p. 250). And after her coronation she continues to suffer from what sounds like post traumatic stress disorder, since under certain circumstances ‘her heart waxed cold with fear, and it almost seemed to her that her Mistress was alive again, and that she was escaping from her and plotting against her once more’ (pp. 249-50). Like all the great socialist writers, Morris was no glib optimist; he harboured no illusion that the changes he advocated through his experimental ‘plotting’ would come into being any time soon, or that the damage inflicted by the past would leave no trace on the psychology of its victims and their descendants. Change, nevertheless, lay at the heart of his literary programme, and he had the vision to trace the roots of potential change in the language and artistry of the past, as a miner traces a vein of ore through the rock of bygone ages.

Morris’s attitude to change is perhaps best exemplified in The Wood Beyond the World in his attitude to religion. Medieval Catholicism is more prominent in this text than it became in his later romances; in The Water of the Wondrous Isles, for instance, it has more or less disappeared, as I recall, whereas in the Wood his characters are constantly invoking the name of God or the Blessed Virgin. At the same time religion is firmly rooted in human urges. We have seen how the Maid becomes Walter’s ‘Hallow’ or saint when he pledges his love to her; and later, one of the residents of Stark-wall predicts that her name will be hallowed in future generations ‘little less than they hallow the name of the Mother of God’ (p. 244). Yet only shortly before this scene she was associated with a harsher religion, that of the Bear folk, who had been instructed by her predecessor, the Lady, to sacrifice strangers to appease their goddess. And when Walter first encountered the people of Stark-wall he suspected them of practising the same religion: ‘Surely all this [ritual],’ he comments, ‘looks toward the knife and the altar for me’ (p. 229); an opinion that’s rendered plausible by an elderly citizen’s reference to the ‘God-folk’ they formerly worshipped (p. 233), who seem to be equivalent to their ‘Fathers’ or male ancestors (p. 235). Like the characters in his romance, then, Morris’s gods blend qualities traditionally associated with human beings, beasts and deities; they can be gentle and supportive or fatal to strangers; they can wield power with arbitrary violence or dispense blessings on their followers freely, as the Maid-goddess does on the Bear folk when she makes believe to bring them much-needed rain without recourse to the usual murderous rituals, or when she sends the people of Stark-wall to teach them husbandry. This combination of qualities is most disturbingly embodied in the Lady, who is referred to by the Dwarf as a creator (‘it is like that she made me, as she made the Bear men’ [p. 55]), and who veers between disdain for and erotic dalliance with her human subjects. For Morris, religions give rise to both purposeless violence and altruistic acts of generosity, and the way he mixes pagan and Christian elements in his story suggests that he holds this to be true of all religions, ancient and modern. As a result what might be termed missionary work, such as the Maid’s among the Bear-folk, doesn’t have an unambiguously positive effect on its recipients, and certainly not an enduring one. The measure of any given civilization, he implies, is the social and political impact of its religious beliefs, and these beliefs are generated by its living mortal citizens rather than by any external influence or pre-planned programme, divine or otherwise.

It’s hardly surprising, then, if religious language gradually dropped away from his romances as an irrelevance. His concern was with constructing earthly paradises, not heavenly ones, as the title of his most celebrated book of poems affirmed.[10] And paradise, like hell, inhabits people’s minds and bodies, as it inhabits the Maid’s body in the brief period of history when she inhabits Stark-wall. ‘It seemed to me as she went past,’ says one of the citizens at her coronation, ‘as though paradise had come anigh to our city, and that all the air breathed of it’ (p. 244). The Wood Beyond the World was also described as a paradise, though a deadly one that killed the wanderer who entered it without due caution. Distinguishing one kind of paradise from the other is a task Morris leaves to his readers; and his romance provides an invaluable guide to that difficult process.

[1] Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 634.

[2] George MacDonald, ‘The Fantastic Imagination’ (1893), in The Complete Fairy Tales, ed. U.C. Knoeplmacher (London: Penguin Books, 1999), pp. 5-10. See especially pp. 9-10: ‘It is there not so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning […] If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it’.

[3] See e.g. his utopian dream-vision narrative The Dream of John Ball (1888).

[4] All quotations are taken from William Morris, The Wood Beyond the World (London etc.: Longmans, Green and Co., 1904).

[5] It’s important to note here, and to condemn, the racism and disability discrimination involved in Morris’s depiction of the Dwarf. In certain ways he was distinctly a white male able-bodied writer of his time.

[6] There may well be equivalent speeches in Sidney’s two highly sophisticated romances named Arcadia, the Old and the New (c.1580 and c. 1586), and in Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621).

[7] See my analysis of the duplicitous language of Lyly’s Euphues in Elizabethan Fictions: Espionage, Counter-espionage and the Duplicity of Fiction in Early Elizabethan Prose Fiction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 5.

[8] On Morris’s and the contemporary women’s movement see Ruth Kinna, ‘Socialist Fellowship and the Woman Question’, in Writing on the Image: Reading William Morris, ed. David Latham, (Toronto etc.: University of Toronto Press, 2007), chapter 13, pp. 183-96. See also the essays by Florence S. Boos and Jane Thomas in the same collection.

[9] For a fine analysis of Morris’s most powerful and complex romance heroine see Florence S. Boos, ‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles: Morris’s Socialist “New Woman” Romance’: http://morrisedition.lib.uiowa.edu/WaterWondrousIntro.html

[10] Morris’s major anthology poem The Earthly Paradise was published between 1868 and 1870.

Celtic Fantasy and War: Patricia Lynch and William Croft Dickinson

[I started thinking about Celtic Fantasy in May, when Geraldine Parsons invited me to take part in a Round Table on the subject with herself and Thomas Clancy at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies here in Glasgow. The event is elegantly summarised by Megan Kasten here; but I went on thinking about Fantasy and Celticity, and turned my thoughts into a keynote for the CRSF Conference at the University of Liverpool last week. This, then, is the keynote, with thanks to Geraldine for getting me started on it and to Will Slocombe, Beata Gubacsi, Tom Kewin and the CRSF organising committee for the invitation to give it, and for making the conference such a supportive environment to deliver it in. I should also apologise profusely to the courteous Irish scholars who suffered in silence through my dreadful mispronunciations of their beautiful language. I should have asked Geraldine for lessons beforehand. I’ll know better next time.]

Cover Illustration by Pauline Baynes

In her recent book Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave 2017) Dimitra Fimi identifies what she calls the desire for ‘Celticity’ as rooted in myth: the fantasy of a sophisticated shared culture that once extended across much of Europe, and whose traces can still be found in the customs, character and conversation of the Welsh and Irish people and their diasporic relatives across the world. According to this myth, in ancient times Celtic culture differed from the culture of the Roman Empire in much the same way as modern Celts differ from the English and Anglo-American colonists who inherited the Roman imperial mantle: it was ‘spiritual, natural, emotional, artistic, rural, and timeless’, where the colonists favoured materialism, rationalism, and restraint, qualities perceived as underpinning the rapid spread of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The association of Celticity with emotion, spirit and nature aligns it with the literary genre now known as fantasy: the art of the impossible, which seeks to liberate itself from the Anglo-Roman espousal of rationalism by imagining people, events and things that violate the laws of physics or biology. The impulse to fantasy arose at a point when those laws were being systematically formulated by the Enlightenment, manifesting itself in the uncanny narratives of Gothic fiction, the dreamlands of Romantic poetry and the earthy tricksiness of the folk tale, and attaching itself to revolutionary and nationalist movements even as those movements appealed to reason as the basis for a reconstruction of stagnant old societies along radical new lines. Celtic fantasy found its most potent manifestation in the Irish literary revival, whose championing of medieval Irish literature and folktale supplied the soundtrack, so to speak, for the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence four years later. In Ireland, the dream of a Celtic past as expressed through stories helped, in its own small way, to spark a revolution. That’s more than can be said for most literary movements, and itself identifies Celtic fantasy, even in its humblest manifestations (the ballad, the folk tale, the bedtime story for children) as well worth thinking about.

Capital from The Book of Kells

In this post I’d like to focus on the question of how Celtic fantasy written for children engaged with politics in the decades before the subgenre really took off in the 1960s. My chosen texts have been left out of most accounts of the rise of Celtic fantasy, since they come too early to fit into the established timeline for the movement’s emergence. One of these novels is from Ireland, the other from Scotland, and both were written in times of crisis – though it’s hard to think of any decade of the twentieth century that wasn’t a time of crisis in one way or another. To be specific, both can be read as responses to war, and both concern themselves with the traces of war in the psychological, cultural and physical landscapes of the authors’ nations. They are Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944); and between them they provide a number of valuable insights into what Fimi might describe as the impulse to Celticity, in children’s fiction and elsewhere.

Both books bear a striking resemblance to the debut novel of the most celebrated writer of Celtic fantasy for children: Alan Garner, whose novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen came out in 1960, sixteen years after Borrobil. In all three books two children, a boy and a girl, find their way into the Celtic past, where they get caught up in events that have a profound effect on their country’s history. In each case they encounter one or more guides who help them understand the culture they find themselves in; in each case the Celtic past proves to be much more complex than they might have expected; and in each case their journey from past to present involves an intimate encounter with some striking geographical feature (Garner’s Alderley Edge, the prehistoric monuments of Dickinson’s Scotland, the Irish boglands in Lynch). Dickinson’s novel shares with Garner’s the detail that the young female protagonist carries with her into the past a talismanic stone, which plays a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the narrative. In The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, too, talismanic objects get carried and exchanged between the Celtic otherworld and the everyday present, most notably a magic shamrock. And Lynch’s novel also shares with Weirdstone a sense of unease at certain implications of the confrontation it enacts between the Celtic past and the globalized present. It’s not necessary, I think, to assume that Garner had read the earlier novels, but they prove that Celtic fantasy was alive and well, and being used for serious purposes in children’s fiction, long before Colin and Susan first set eyes on the sleeping knights of Fundindelve.

Patricia Lynch

The first of my texts, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, emerged from a background of political activism. Its author threw in her lot at an early age with the conjoined struggles for women’s suffrage and a modern, independent, socialist Ireland. At eighteen she was sent as a correspondent by Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Women’s Dreadnought, to cover the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1922 she married the English historian Richard Fox, who had just returned from a visit to the newly-founded Soviet Union and who was building a formidable reputation as a radical thinker (in the later 1920s his books were published by the Hogarth Press). The couple moved to Dublin, where Fox wrote books about Irish women rebels (published the year after The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey), the Citizen Army, and two prominent members of the Labour movement in Ireland, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Lynch meanwhile began to write children’s fiction, beginning with The Green Dragon in 1925, and becoming the most influential Irish writer for children of the twentieth century. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey is richly infused with the couple’s passion for international socialism, as well as with Lynch’s feminism, and with the conviction that both these movements had a natural affinity with Irish culture and history – that their roots reached deep into Irish soil, quite literally speaking given the book’s emphasis on the boglands of the West. It’s also interestingly choosy about the elements of ancient Irish culture that should be accommodated into twentieth-century Irish identity. Celticity, it suggests, must be mixed with a strong strain of modernity if Ireland is to fulfil its potential as an independent nation.

The Happy March from The Crock of Gold

Lynch’s debt to another Irish socialist fantasy writer is everywhere obvious in this novel. I’m thinking of James Stephens, whose The Crock of Gold (1912) harnessed ancient Irish myth in the services of a radical vision for an independent, egalitarian Ireland. Lynch’s child protagonists inhabit a landscape which, like Stephens’s, contains forceful women, tricky leprechauns, intelligent animals, travellers who abide by strict laws of their own and have a passion for stories, roads with a personality of their own, and figures from ancient Irish literature and legend. The brother of the novel’s heroine is even named Seamus, recalling the young boy from a series of celebrated stories by James Stephens published in 1915 as The Adventures of Seumas Beg (Seamus was also one of Stephens’s many pseudonyms). The Crock of Gold ends with an act of liberation in which the story’s heroine, Caitlin ni Murrachu, joins with the medieval hero Angus Og and the hosts of the Sidhe to free the Irish people from enslavement by capitalist imperialism. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey culminates in a more tentative vision that seeks to establish continuity between the Celtic past and a socialist Irish future in a gesture of reconciliation aimed at administering imaginative balm to the wounds inflicted by the Civil War of 1922-3. Lynch’s is an optimistic book but not a glib one, and provides a joyful antidote to the satirical revision of Stephens’s novel undertaken by Flann O’Brien in his bleak surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman (c. 1940).

The political resonance of The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey can be best appreciated, I think, by turning to the report Lynch wrote for The Women’s Dreadnought about the Easter Rising. The report, ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’, was prefaced by some thoughts on Easter Week penned by Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who identifies the Celtic nations of the Western Archipelago as instinctively more progressive than their powerful neighbour, ‘slow-moving England […] who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles’. Pankhurst clearly sees what she calls ‘the Celtic temperament’ in the terms assigned by Fimi to Celticity: spiritual, emotional and artistic, concepts combined in her account of ‘the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world’. Against this utopian dream Pankhurst sets the scenes of desolation reported from Dublin: not just the carnage caused by the savage military suppression of the Rising, but the desperate poverty of ‘tenement dwellings […] crowded with poor, ill-clad people’ which still stood as a physical rebuke to British rule in Ireland, and which were described in such vivid detail by James Stephens in his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). More significantly for Lynch’s development as a novelist, Pankhurst wrote of the plight of rural people in the West of Ireland, living in ‘hovels’ on ‘strips of undrained, stony ground’, earning a few shillings a week for making lace and with illiterate children ‘kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work’ of lacemaking, whose returns were falling year on year despite government assurances to the contrary. Like most of Lynch’s novels, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey locates itself in rural Ireland, and involves the reconstruction of one such hovel along better principles thanks to an unexpected windfall provided by a grateful leprechaun. The woman who lives in the cottage makes lace to a standard her children are deeply proud of. The children help their parents with their work, but the young girl also reads about Irish history as if with the specific intention of reconstructing Ireland on the ruins of a sometimes heroic, sometimes catastrophic past, and eventually brings the past into the present, quite literally, in the form of a Celtic hero from her favourite history book. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey could almost have been written as a direct response to Pankhurst’s description of the appalling living and working conditions in rural Ireland that helped to provoke the Easter Rising.

Women of the Easter Rising

Lynch’s ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’ differs from the celebrated eyewitness account by James Stephens – The Insurrection in Dublin ­– in its concentration on women’s experiences. All the witnesses whose interviews Lynch reports are women, and her particular interest in the material impact of the conflict on the ‘women’s problem’ of running a household is everywhere obvious. The women she spoke to were predominantly working class: a ‘pale-faced, haggard-eyed waitress’, whose sweetheart is in prison facing execution; a charwoman whose home came under fire by the British army; another domestic servant whose two-roomed flat was blown up by the military; a girl whose brothers are fighting on opposite sides, one at the front in Fanders, the other in the Irish Volunteers; a woman who knows first aid and has tried to help, first a British soldier, then a dying ‘Sinn Feiner, barely 12 years old’, who was wounded in the head so that ‘his brains were showing’. The same first aider witnessed the meeting between a dying woman, whom she carried into a nursing home, and her injured young daughter. Elsewhere Lynch writes of a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for the crime of being ‘out walking’ with a non-combatant member of Sinn Fein. In Lynch’s Rising, women and children are the chief casualties of the chaos of what she represents as a civil conflict, with Irish citizens – sometimes members of the same family – on both sides.

James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin blamed the Rising on a catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the British: a refusal to see things from the Irish point of view or to try to understand the psychological impact of putting down the insurrection with extreme force. Lynch clearly shared his views. At the end of her report she speaks of the Irish capacity for remembering significant historical events – embodied in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by young Eileen, who reads her history book so intensely that its characters come alive – and warns that the British actions in Dublin will not be forgotten. ‘Will the English government never learn?’ she concludes.

It can only suppress revolt by appealing to the imagination of the Irish. If not one leader had been shot, if clemency, toleration had been the order, the rebellion would indeed have been at an end. We cannot resist kindness, we can never endure oppression.

A heroic girl marrying her lover on the morning of his execution; a beautiful countess giving up the advantages of her position to live with the working people and if necessary to die with them; these strike the imagination of a race of poets and idealists.

For Lynch, central to the images of the Rising embedded in the Irish collective memory are representations of two women, Grace Gifford and Constance Markievicz, the latter of whom took active part in the fighting – a fact perhaps commemorated in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey when little Eileen gets caught up in the fighting between the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fir Bolg at the First Battle of Maighe Tuireadh. Eileen, however, is more concerned to avoid hurting anybody with her spear – apart from one aggressive boy she strikes in self-defence – than to use it in anger, and is instrumental in establishing peace between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. Her experience of conflict in Celtic times is profoundly disturbing to her, like Lynch’s of the Insurrection, and it’s the peacetime accomplishments of the Tuatha Dé that she admires – the cities they build, the magic they weave – rather than their martial prowess.

The Magic Pool, illustration by Jack Yeats

Eileen, in fact, resists the narrative logic of Celtic literature and folktale as much as she embraces it. As in the folktales, her and Seamus’s kindness to animals is duly rewarded: the novel’s title commemorates their rescue of a beaten donkey, who turns out to have magical powers and takes them to a pool on the flat-topped mountain near their home where they can see anything they care to; but the children can’t agree on what they want to see in it, and its resources are never put to significant use. Later the children meet a leprechaun, which Seamus catches for the usual purpose of forcing him to surrender his crock of gold; but the boy lets him go again by mistake, and when Eileen befriends the leprechaun by finding and returning his shoemaking hammer this turns out to be of greater practical use than violence, since he both mends her shoes in return and supports the children in their later adventures. Subsequent encounters with the magical past are equally ambiguous about the value of traditional means of acquiring money, fame and power. When Seamus gets kidnapped by an eagle and enslaved by the Wise Woman of Youghal – who wants access to the magic enclosed in a four-leaved clover sent to the children by their beloved Aunt Una – Eileen has to rescue him in a toy plane, with somewhat inadequate assistance from the leprechaun, miscellaneous birds and beasts, and a pilot dressed all in silver. Eileen’s rescue, then, embodies both collectivism and a rather fragile version of modernity (the toy plane is flimsy, being made of cardboard, and the pilot eccentric and irascible), as against the imperialist symbolism of the eagle or the Wise Woman’s quest for an unshared, undemocratic power obtained through the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland past and to come. By this stage in the story, Lynch’s young protagonists have come to embody the struggle between competing versions of Irish identity, with Eileen the champion of a progressive model of relations between classes, genders, and the environment, while Seamus is constantly tempted to replicate the aggressive actions and selfish motives of his ancestors – though his affection for his sister always redeems him in the end.

Eileen’s possession of a toy plane should alert us to the way Lynch likes to reverse traditional gender expectations. Not only does this girl come to the rescue of her elder brother, but she does it with the help of a toy he would like to have owned himself (‘That’s what I wanted!’ he tells her when she carries it out of the shop). Later Seamus gets equally annoyed with his sister when she gets too caught up in her reading to play with her dolls, so that he has no excuse to join in with her games in direct contradiction of his stated belief that dolls are ‘silly, babyish things’ and that he is ‘surprised at Eileen bothering with them’. In any case, Eileen’s dolls don’t get used for conventional purposes: she never nurses or makes clothes for them, but pins ‘gay pieces of stuff around them, turning a Dutch doll into a gipsy, and a sailor into a Red Indian or a pirate’; she even allows her brother to stalk them with his bow and arrows so long as he never hits them. Clearly Eileen is as international in her outlook as Lynch herself was, and as addicted to roving either in real life or in her imagination (at one point in the novel she runs off to join the real-life gipsies, though she finds looking after their babies deeply disenchanting). She is no more entrapped in traditional household roles or ways of thinking than the characters in the books she reads are trapped in the past – or than her parents are trapped in a shoddy cottage (they rebuild their home from scratch at the end of chapter 3).

The past, then, is never sentimentalized in Lynch’s fiction – any more than the relationship between the brother and sister is sentimentalized (Eileen runs away to join the gipsies after squabbling with Seamus). Ireland past and present is a place of divided cultures, often at war with one another in words or deeds. People inhabit different dwellings depending on their work and culture: the tinkers live in the carts from which they sell their wares, Tim Quinlan the road-mender in his mobile shelter, Captain Cassidy on his barge, the gipsies in their immaculate caravans, the turf-cutter and his family in their cottage at the edge of the bog where the turf gets cut – and each of these dwellings is on the move, including the cottage, which gets rebuilt. The gipsies and the tinkers are at odds (‘When you go back to your own people,’ the Tinker Chief tells Eileen, ‘you’ll tell them how much better than the gipsies the tinkers are’), though Eileen at first finds both communities equally intimidating – just as she is terrified of being caught on the barge by Captain Cassidy, or in the fair by the showman who chases her when she releases one of his human exhibits. And when the children make their way into the past by magic, they find it full of rival peoples at once as alluring and intimidating, as foreign and familiar as the diverse communities of modern Ireland.

Finn

Their first encounter with the past features the hero Finn and the warriors of the Fianna, whom they meet on the same flat-topped mountain where the donkey showed them the magic pool. This encounter goes badly: Eileen makes a fool of herself by posing as a princess, and when Seamus asks to join the Fianna he is set a number of tasks he cannot possibly perform (‘If you were put in a hole with a shield and a stick,’ they tell him, ‘you must be able to defend yourself against nine warriors’). Keeping hold of the past, too, proves a problem for the modern visitors: solid objects such as trees and spears are always melting away and the whole scene eventually vanishes when Seamus disobeys an order. There’s a cultural and physical gap between the fabulous attainments of the past and the youthful exuberance of the present, and Seamus can only promise to practise hard at fighting, jumping and running in an effort to bridge it.

The second encounter with the Celtic past goes better, at least at first. One of the ancient inhabitants of Ireland escapes from Eileen’s history book and she makes friends with him, forging an alliance which is a mutual embracing of difference. The stone-age visitor, a ‘little dark man’, is mistaken at first by the girl’s contemporaries for a thieving vagrant – a tinker or a gipsy – before being captured and put on show as an African ‘savage’ who ‘eats raw meat and swallows lighted candles’. Eileen’s urge, then, to befriend him and hear him tell stories seems initially to be an extension of her unusual interest in strange cultures, as manifested elsewhere in her games of Red Indians and her flight to join the gipsies. But the apparent differences between Eileen and the little dark man mask a deeper kinship. When they magically enter the history book he escaped from she finds that he is in fact a hero of old Ireland named Sreng, which means, as she points out, that that they are effectively related: ‘You see, we all belong here just as you do, only we live in a different time’. Through the ages Ireland has nurtured a range of populations as physically and culturally diverse as that of the globe, and recognition of its diversity leads naturally to the sense of kinship with men and women of all races and classes which Eileen displays throughout the novel.

Sreng

At least, it should lead to such a sense of kinship. Instead, this second encounter with the Celtic past turns sour, much like the first. Sreng’s people the Fir Bolg prefer fighting to making friends, and one of the Fir Bolg boys takes violently against Eileen – symbolically enough, because she prevents him from killing the Salmon of Wisdom. Meanwhile the Fir Bolg Chief decides to wage war against a new wave of Celts who have arrived in Ireland: the Danaans, as Lynch calls them – the Tuatha Dé – who build cities of stone, wield lightweight metal weapons, and wear brightly-coloured clothes and intricate jewelry. The episode culminates in a battle involving three kinds of Irish people – the Fir Bolg, the Danaans and the two modern children – which ends not in heroic deeds (in the ancient texts Sreng strikes off the arm of Nuada, King of the Danaans) but chaos and confusion, much like the chaos of the Easter Rising as Lynch describes it. Eileen loses her spear and finds herself stranded behind enemy lines, where she ‘covered her eyes to shut out the sight of warriors cutting and stabbing, but […] could not shut her ears to the cries of pain and anger’. The Fir Bolg chief is killed, the aggressive boy traumatized, and the children flee with the wounded hero Sreng back to their own time, leaving ‘something of the present’ behind them in exchange (a pencil and a handkerchief, which they stuff into a hollow tree trunk). Impressive though the city of the Danaans was, when they set eyes again on the ‘whitewashed cabin at the edge of the bog […] in all the wonderful past they had not seen anything more lovely’. The Celtic past is not to be privileged, for Lynch, above the present and future; they are enmeshed in one another, and the most precious element of each is a commitment to the arts of peace.

Above all, the Celtic past doesn’t wield any cultural or moral authority over the present in Lynch’s novel. This is largely because its values – such as the celebration of martial prowess and the corresponding elevation of men over women in the social hierarchy – make it problematic as a model for modern life. Farah Mendlesohn has argued in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) that the characters in ‘portal quest fantasies’ like this one – people who pass through a magical door or along an invisible road into an unfamiliar country – invariably require a guide to teach them how to behave and what to think about the things they’re seeing, such as Puck in Rewards and Fairies or Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For her, this makes the portal quest fantasy a fundamentally conservative genre. In a more recent book, Children’s Fantasy Literature (2016), she and Michael Levy summarize the 1930s as a decade of relative conservatism in children’s fiction, when protagonists must learn obedience at the hands of their adult instructors, and when fantasy novels are full of servile animated toys whose desire to please their owners reflects the dominant ideology of the mid-twentieth century. Lynch’s novel bucks both these trends. Eileen and Seamus have guides aplenty: the leprechaun, the ‘little dark man’ Sreng, a mysterious Man in Brown who comes over the bog following an ancient road and takes them to meet the Fianna. But none of these guides overawes them, and the youngsters are as often inclined to ignore their advice as they are to take it. Eileen treats Sreng and the Man in Brown as her equals, and Seamus strives to emulate them, seeing only his age as a bar to matching their accomplishments. The children’s sense of equality arises from the qualities that make them capable of forging friendships with random strangers – the birds, beasts, supernatural creatures and people they meet on their adventures. The young siblings are brave and curious, and they like to learn, whether new stories or new physical skills. In addition, they treat each other as equals, despite the difference in their ages and sexes. And the people they like best from Celtic culture are the ones who share their egalitarian values, such as the Man in Brown, who respects and rewards good men and women of all classes who give him food and shelter; or Sreng, who oversees the ceasefire between his people and the Danaans, and who later refuses to be the new chief of the Fir Bolg because, as he puts it, he prefers ‘wandering, seeing strange people and countries, making new friends’. He, like Eileen, is an internationalist, and his instinct for reconciliation is as urgently needed in post-Civil War Ireland as it was in the days of the warring Celts.

Reconciliation is also the theme of our second text, William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944). This is hardly surprising given that it was published at the height of World War Two. Its author was the longest-serving incumbent of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and the first Englishman to hold the post. A noted writer of ghost stories, he advanced the theory in his Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (1961) that the country’s fortunes were largely determined by its geography, a view that gets borne out in his debut novel.  Once again the story concerns a young brother and sister who find their way into the past, where they meet the jovial wizard of the title, whose constant cheerfulness, pointed hat with a feather in it, and habit of breaking into rhyme at every opportunity link him irresistibly to Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. It’s tempting to imagine Dickinson may have known about Bombadil, who first appeared in a song in the 1930s – after all, he and Tolkien were fellow professors as well as fellow veterans of the Great War, and there are numerous hints in Borrobil that Dickinson had read The Hobbit (1937). Borrobil, however, concerns itself not with Middle Earth – an alternative England – but what is clearly Scotland, and in particular with the way the struggles of the past have left indelible traces on the Scottish landscape. Dickinson first told the story to his two young daughters, and one gets the impression he did so to reassure them that wars had come and gone across the land through successive generations, leaving no lasting damage, only strange remains: villages on stilts in the middle of lakes, hills with mysterious rings around them, barrows, stone circles, brochs and castles. His version of the Celtic past is the solution to the riddle posed by these remains, as well as a promise that the war will pass like a bout of bad weather, leaving only stories of courage and trickery behind it, and a few archaeological wonders which need the stories to bring them alive.

A Digestive Biscuit

In fact, the novel represents war as a kind of ritual, the human equivalent of the war between the seasons as this was celebrated in the half-forgotten Celtic festival of Beltane. The young protagonists, Donald and Jean – whose names mark them out as Scottish – already have some awareness of the procession of the seasons. Their adventures begin at harvest time, when the fields are full of haystacks to play in, and it’s hinted that they may even have taken part in the harvest: we learn in the second paragraph that they have come to the part of the country where the story takes place on an ‘extra’ holiday, a phrase often used in wartime to mean breaks from school to help with farm work. At the same time there’s something odd about the seasons as they experience them. The Beltane festival took place in Spring, around the first of May, while the main hay harvest happens in July, so the presence of Beltane fires at harvest time is something of an anomaly. It would seem, though, to be a deliberate one on Dickinson’s part, because one of the children takes with him into the past three digestive biscuits with wheat sheaves stamped on them, which he gives to the king of a land that has been ravaged for decades by a monstrous dragon. The king takes the wheat sheaf symbol as a sign that the dragon will be defeated and that harvests will be possible again, as they have not for as long as the dragon held sway over the fields and hills. Donald and Jean, then, stand for the return of new life to a depopulated kingdom, and carry intimations of both spring and harvest with them. One wonders if the disruption of the seasons is an allusion on Dickinson’s part to the disruptions of war, which are also hinted at by the allusion to the ‘extra’ holiday – a break in the timetable of school and home life forced on the British population by the need to provide themselves with food.

The Mysterious Wood

The country they find themselves in – like Lewis’s Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book that’s also set in wartime – has been as badly damaged as the one they’ve left behind. The country’s ageing king is confined to his castle and a single town, built in the middle of a lake for protection from the flightless dragon – like Tolkien’s Laketown; while another lord in the North part of the kingdom is sick, like the Fisher King, and cannot personally lead his people against the Norse invaders who threaten their homes and families. Time, then, is held in suspension in this damaged country; death or suspended animation has dominion over it, and its rulers are confined and powerless. The children, on the other hand, are full of unbounded youthful energy, exemplified in their decision to visit a wood at night at the beginning of the story, and by the stream of questions they fire at the wizard Borrobil when they meet him. Borrobil tells them that they have travelled to the past by dancing in the stone circle ‘with summer joy’ at a time of year when summer and winter, life and death are held in suspension, and that this show of liveliness is what has taken them back to the ‘dead’ times to witness the battle between the Kings of Summer and Winter – or of Life and Death – in person. They disrupted time by their actions at Beltane, and they go back in time to see time reassert itself over a land that has lost it.

Broch

Once you first notice it, it’s clear that the disruption or loss of time is a key theme in the book. The dragon’s presence has caught the land in a perpetual cycle, marked by combat between a human hero and the monster every seven years. The children also hear about another king of that country, King Eochaid, a kind of Ossian figure, who is condemned by the King of the Fairies to keep riding on his horse until a white dog jumps down from his arms – which it never does. When the hero Morac kills the dragon he gains the gift of second sight by touching its hide with his lips – the gift, that is, of intermittent visions of the future – and thereby signals the recommencement of chronological change. Later in the story the children enter the fairy kingdom itself under strict injunctions to accept no gifts there; the penalty for doing so is to stay underground for ‘seven years and seven days’, and we already know from the story of King Eochaid that ‘one day in the fairy kingdom is one hundred years in the land of men’. The children keep finding themselves in situations where they lose track of space and time – most notably when they are walking along enclosed paths on the approach to the wood on Beltane Eve at the beginning of the story, and again in the mountains on the way to a meeting with the giant Grugol, and when they are imprisoned in the castle of the sorcerer Sulig (‘Had they been imprisoned here for ever?’ Donald wonders). Each time their emergence from these enclosed spaces signals a return to normal time, a wholesale reorientation under the guidance of their mentor Borrobil, who may lose them occasionally but is always at hand to come to the rescue – independence and agency not being such an attractive option for young readers, perhaps, in the middle of a global war.

Crannog

The most significant form of time in the novel, however, is what might be called story time; the binding together of different elements into a continuous narrative. Borrobil is a storyteller, and always makes sure he has time to tell a story no matter how urgent the business he is caught up in. This is where the Celtic context of the narrative comes to the fore. Scotland has no coherent interrelated body of Celtic texts as Ireland has, and this absence is reflected in the fact that Dickinson never names Scotland as the setting of his novel: one has to infer this from various clues, such as the presence in the landscape of crannogs, standing stones, long barrows and especially brochs, and from the Pictish names ‘Brude’ and ‘Giric’, as well as of the Men of Orc, who are clearly connected to Orkney. Dickinson provides this connecting narrative, linking features of the landscape – Giric’s underground house, the hills with rings round them, fairy rings, standing stones and brochs – to a continuous tale that makes sense of every unexplained phenomenon one might encounter on a stroll through the highlands and islands. I suggested earlier that he treats each feature as a kind of riddle – as with the explanation of the crannog by the presence in the neighbourhood of a dragon who cannot fly or swim, or of the hills with rings as having been caused by the death throes of the same dragon, which had wrapped its tail around them – and this tendency is also reflected in the shorter tales that crop up throughout the narrative. These are full of actual riddles in rhyme (all of them solved by Borrobil) and ingenious ruses performed by tricksters to escape seemingly impossible situations. For much of its length, then, the novel substitutes verbal combat – by riddle or ruse – for armed trail by combat; and even the spear- and swordfights it contains, from the killings of the dragon to the defeat of the invading Norsemen – are won by cunning rather than force. Like Lynch, Dickinson delights in wit and laughter rather than bloodshed, and his invented version of Celtic Scotland is populated by tale-tellers, jokers, singers, punsters and riddle-makers, who use brains instead of armies to defeat their enemies.

Ringed Hillfort

Like Lynch, too, Dickinson peoples his Celtic era with multiple coexisting cultures, in accordance with his views of Celtic Scotland as a historian. Giric is a Pict, and his barrow-like home and fondness for ‘the old customs and the old ways’ identifies him as from a different background from that of his fellow Pict, King Brude. The Men of Orc with their brochs have a different culture from the crannog-building peoples of southern Scotland; the hills are occupied by fairies and the sea by the murderous Blue Men; and it’s never quite clear what culture Borrobil belongs to. Through this diverse landscape of conflicting beliefs and customs Donald and Jean wander, finding a welcome wherever they go and witnessing the defeat of aggressors and invaders of all kinds by their cunning companions. For Dickinson and Lynch, Celticity at its best is a union of heterogeneous peoples, who love the arts – which in Dickinson’s case include the arts of constructing houses and monuments – and especially the ancient art from which their books have been cobbled together, that of telling stories. In both novels, stories come alive and inhabit the same space as their youthful listeners and readers; and in both novels the Celtic connections of the stories link them intimately to the land, with its peat bogs, mountains, lochs and mysterious roadways. Stories bring people of all cultures and ages together, bring the past and present into conversation, hold out the promise of a better future. Few books illustrate this promise better than Borrobil and The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.

 

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 3: The Pevensies

[This is the third part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and this third part deals with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The next interface between our world and Narnia involves all four children, and is this time triggered by the apparent segregation of child time – play time, so to speak – from the ‘official’ adult work schedule. The children enter the wardrobe together to avoid Mrs Macready, the housekeeper, as she entertains visitors – part of her duties as the Professor’s employee; she has told them to ‘keep out of the way whenever I’m taking a party over the house’, and they are in any case keen to avoid the fate of ‘trailing round with a crowd of strange grown-ups’. It seems to escape their attention that the ‘strange’ grown-ups in question are already bound up with the Pevensies – aligned with them, that is, in certain crucial ways. The adults have come to the house in quest of the ‘strange stories’ associated with the building: stories at least as strange, Lewis claims, as the chronicles of Narnia. In addition, two of the four children have already spent some time trailing around after extremely ‘strange grown-ups’ (both of them keen to show off their houses) in previous chapters, while the other two have sought out a more or less strange grown-up in this one: the Professor himself, who showed such unexpected (not to say ‘strange’) willingness to believe the unbelievable. Despite the emerging ‘rule’ in the later Narnia books that only children can enter Narnia, and that their visits will cease when they reach a certain age, Lewis is quite deliberately clear in this first volume about the continuities between their ‘impossible’ Narnian experiences and the ostensibly serious business of adulthood.

The ingenuity of Lewis’s account of this third entrance into Narnia lies in the apparently ‘collective’ point of view it adopts. The first two entrances were narrated from the perspective of two different individuals, and the radical difference between these two perspectives – as well as the way each perspective of the country in the wardrobe changed as it went along – may have led the reader to expect a considerable disparity between the experiences of all four children when they finally found themselves, in Lucy’s words, ‘all in it together’. Instead Lewis narrates the chapter as if from a consensual position – as if all four of the Pevensies were in agreement about what is happening to them and their attitude to it. Lewis repeatedly uses the term ‘everyone’ and its analogues to imply this solidarity among the siblings: ‘everyone asked her what was the matter’; ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’; ‘Everyone agreed to this’; ‘They were all still, wondering what to do next’, and so on. But it quickly emerges that this apparent consensus excludes Edmund. For one thing, the sentence ‘Everyone stopped; everyone stared at him’ marks the moment when Edmund’s brother and sisters realize he has been lying about not having been in Narnia before: three of the children are looking at the fourth with surprise and loathing. For another, this moment is followed by a muttered comment from Edmund that signals his exclusion of himself from what he sees as the intolerable smugness of their collectivity: ‘I’ll pay you all out for this, you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs’. Both before and after this moment of revelation, Edmund’s voice repeatedly sets itself in opposition to those of his siblings, reminding the reader in the process that he has good reason (as he thinks) to see things very differently from the way they do. As a result, the tendency of the other children to read their experience first as a game and then as a thrilling adventure is given an added dimension of seriousness, generated by the reader’s mounting sense of how easily the younger brother’s petty nastiness and contrariety might turn to something more destructive (we can hardly have forgotten Mr Tumnus’s fear of being turned into stone, or how near Edmund himself came to suffering the same fate).

From the beginning of chapter six, Edmund’s dissent is conveyed with admirable precision. When the children first find that there’s something physically ‘strange’ about the cupboard (it’s cold and damp and bristly) Edmund is the only one to suggest they simply leave it: ‘“Let’s get out,” said Edmund, “they’ve gone.”’ When they reach Mr Tumnus’s cave and find it trashed, it’s Edmund who has the first word: ‘This is a pretty good wash-out,’ he comments, ‘not much good coming here’ (and his disagreement with Lucy on what constitutes ‘goodness’ in Narnia lends an uneasy moral weight to the observation). It’s Edmund who spurns Lucy’s suggestion that they try to rescue the captured Tumnus: ‘A lot we could do […] when we haven’t even got anything to eat!’ And it’s Edmund who draws Peter aside at the end of the chapter to express his doubts about the robin they’re following: ‘We’re following a guide we know nothing about. […] Why shouldn’t it be leading us into a trap?’ Peter’s response is to call on his knowledge of stories as a guide to the behaviour of intelligent animals in magic adventures: ‘They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read’ – and Lewis would have known very well that robins have been associated with Christ (the red breast was traditionally stained by the blood of Christ) and with fairies (James Stephens identifies the robin as under the protection of leprechauns in The Crock of Gold, which Lewis liked well enough to replicate its ending in Prince Caspian). But Edmund again represents the contrary or resistant reader – much as Eustace does in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where he is the only one of the visitors to Narnia who has no knowledge of or interest in imaginative fiction. Edmund tells Peter, as he told Lucy, that the children have no idea whether they are taking the right ‘side’ in the Narnian conflict: ‘How do we know that the fauns are in the right and the Queen […] is in the wrong? We don’t really know anything about either.’ This is not wholly true, of course: the note they found at Tumnus’s vandalized cave was signed by one ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’, and the mere existence of a Secret Police in the Second World War would for English readers have linked their employer, the Queen, to the Nazis and hence to ‘wrongness’. But Edmund backs up his claim with a couple of statements that can’t be denied, whatever Peter’s views on Narnian politics: that the children are lost, and that they still have nothing to eat (‘no chance of dinner either’ are the last words in the chapter). A chapter that opened, then, with Edmund as the sole dissenting voice amid a strong consensus ends with his voice as dominant. In the same way, his isolation, which was emphasized shortly after the children entered Narnia when he inadvertently revealed his knowledge of the country, ends with all the children isolated in a country none of them knows well at all – and where Lucy’s closest friend has just been arrested for ‘High Treason’. At the end, in fact, Edmund is in the strongest position of the four, since he at least knows where to find his only ally in Narnia, the woman who had Tumnus arrested. The chapter, then, performs yet again the reversal, or change of tone and emphasis, the reader experienced between the first two entries into Narnia, as well as within them. And in the process it demonstrates, better than any of the previous chapters, that the act we are engaged in as we follow the chapter – reading itself – is a serious business.

Chapter six, in fact, contains several points at which the act of reading is foregrounded; in particular, the act of reading in relation to the ‘real’ world of the reader. When the Pevensies decide, at Susan’s suggestion, to put on some of the fur coats in the wardrobe to protect themselves against the Narnian cold (after all, Susan points out, ‘it isn’t as if we wanted to take them out of the house; we shan’t even take them out of the wardrobe’), they at once take on a look of storybook heroes – kings and queens – in the oversized garments: ‘The coats were rather too big for them so that they came down to their heels and looked more like royal robes than coats when they put them on’. The robes anticipate, of course, their future status as ‘real’ kings and queens of Narnia; and they soon sense that the sort of make believe that in our world would be merely playful – such as dressing up – here takes on a new significance; that fictions here harbour truths or realities, just as the apparently fictional Narnia turned out to be an actual country. Noting their resemblance to Scott and Amundsen in their furs, as depicted in films and books, Lucy suggests they play at being Arctic explorers, but Peter at once rejects the suggestion because ‘This is going to be exciting enough without pretending’. Despite this, he proposes that they appoint Lucy their ‘leader’ as if in a game (‘follow my leader’ comes to mind) – another decision about which there is a general consensus which must exclude Edmund – and she at once suggests they visit Mr Tumnus. At this point the children are still in playful mood, not fully aware that they have left the territory of petty fabrications and small pleasures, of tea and cake and enchanting stories; and even their encounter with the Faun’s ruined cave doesn’t fully alert them to the seriousness of their situation. It’s only the discovery of a piece of written text among the ruins – the sinister note left by ‘Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police’ – that alters their reading of Narnia, leaving them more susceptible to Edmund’s gloomy perspective on its beauties.

The formal language of the note is carefully calculated to effect this alteration. In a single sentence it declares that Tumnus has been arrested for crimes against ‘her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc.’; and the location of the note – nailed to the carpet in the middle of Tumnus’s sitting room – gives these words additional weight. It was in this room, after all, that Tumnus first told Lucy about ‘Queen’ Jadis, challenging the Witch’s right to the titles listed here and stressing the danger he was in from informants and spies. The note, then, provides additional evidence that stories come true in Narnia, even nasty ones (and one might again think of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the island where dreams come true also harbours nightmares). And it is Lucy – to whom the Faun told these Narnian stories – who first identifies the link between the note and the children who read it. The Pevensies’ first reaction to the text is a collective one: ‘The children stared at each other’, seeking support in their efforts to process the information it contains. Susan then proposes that they all go home, since Narnia no longer seems ‘fun’ or ‘particularly safe’ – language better suited to a game gone out of control than a land ruled over by a fascistic dictator. But Lucy vetoes the proposal on the strength of her recognition that they themselves are referred to in Maugrim’s message, and that they are therefore intertwined or bound up with the politics of Narnia, just as they were previously caught up in the politics of wartime Europe:

‘Oh, but we can’t, we can’t,’ said Lucy suddenly; ‘don’t you see? We can’t go home, not after this. It’s all on my account that the poor Faun has got into this trouble. He hid me from the Witch and showed me the way back. That’s what it means by comforting the Queen’s enemies and fraternizing with Humans. We simply must try to rescue him.’

What Lucy has seen, as Susan has not, is that Maugrim’s note contains direct references to Lucy herself, and that these textual references entail real-life consequences. Because he helped Lucy, and because helping her led to his arrest, the children owe the Faun a debt of gratitude by virtue of the rules of the very serious game called obligation.

At this point Lucy doesn’t know, of course, that the children are yet more deeply implicated in the arrest than they are through her debt to Tumnus. It was Edmund who revealed the Faun’s act of ‘High Treason’ to the Witch; and the reader is reminded of this fact by the scornful response of Edmund himself to Lucy’s insistence that they help her friend (‘A lot we could do’). Lucy’s reading of the note is countered by Edmund’s rejection of her proposal – and hence of her supposed leadership of the siblings – as unrealistic – that is, as still locked in the fantastic mode of a childish game. But by this time in the book we are well aware that Edmund has a shaky hold on the relationship between the ‘real’ and the imagined, the possible and the impossible, playfulness and bullying or abuse. Despite her misgivings, Susan accedes to Lucy’s plan a few lines later precisely because she finally recognizes they are no longer pretending: ‘I’ve a horrid feeling that Lu is right,’ she comments, invoking an attitude of reluctant and fearful acquiescence which is the very opposite of playful. And she agrees because she is following the rules of the kinds of stories in which obligations must be repaid – fairy tales, romances – as against the ‘realistic’ fiction to which Edmund’s comment appeals. The children continue to follow the rules of fairy tale and romance when they choose to follow a robin as the first step on the road to rescue. For them, the rules of games and stories are no different in kind – only in scale – from the rules that govern a decent person’s conduct in ‘real’ life, and they carry over their expertise in reading and game-playing into the task of achieving the impossible – of rescuing their friend against dreadful odds. It is Edmund’s unwillingness to commit to these rules – an unwillingness he has displayed since the book began – that makes him an unsatisfactory reader of the ‘real’ world of Narnia.

Clearly, then, the interface between our world and the secondary world that contains Narnia is something more complex than a series of entrances and exits through the portal of the wardrobe. The difference in attitude of those who pass through the portal is what drives the action of this first of the Narnia chronicles, and these attitudes are carried over from their attitudes to our own world – and in particular by their attitudes to games, which include the games of reading fiction and telling stories. Those who are willing to participate in games and stories as collective and active processes find themselves able to ‘read’ the land of Narnia positively; to seize the opportunities it affords, to revel in its pleasures, to interact with its friendly inhabitants, and to participate actively in liberating it from the despotism that suppresses its best identity. Those who refuse to participate in collective games, including stories, find themselves rapidly enlisted by the despotic self-styled Queen, and consequently read the landscape and every other Narnian they encounter as hostile. An enjoyment of playfulness, which embraces playful or imaginative fictions – fairy tales, romance and fantasy – has a serious role in preparing the enjoyer for what Lewis convincingly represents as resistance against a Nazi-like occupying government. Hostility to playfulness of this kind, on the other hand, is both symptomatic of and likely to reinforce an attraction to power games aimed at personal advancement, and to oppressive authority figures who adopt the same philosophy. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in other words, amounts to a defence of reading and writing fantasy, the most playful literary mode of all, in that it demands the most active imaginative engagement from its readers. Those who can believe ten impossible things before breakfast are better suited to placing themselves in ‘strange’ mindsets, and of resisting the temptation to empathize only with those who share their narrow view of what is ‘realistic’ or ‘real’, than those who mock imaginative games or fables.

The games played by the Pevensie children after their third and final entry to the country underscore the book’s commitment to the concept of playfulness, in both its good and bad manifestations. The most striking example of the difference between these forms of playfulness can be found in Edmund’s and his siblings’ responses to Aslan. The first mention of the lion’s name – in chapter seven, long before they meet him face to face – strikes each of them in different ways: Edmund feels only ‘a sensation of mysterious horror’, as if alone and unsupported, while the other three children respond as if to a game, a story or a work of art. Peter feels ‘brave and adventurous’, sensations suitable to the hero of a romance or to one of its readers. Susan responds like a listener to ‘some delightful strain of music’. Lucy gets ‘the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays’, a period of unrestricted play. Once again, Edmund is the outsider, and his next encounter with Aslan – or what he thinks is Aslan – confirms his continued resistance to collaborative play, as indicated by his horror. On seeing a stone lion in the Witch’s courtyard he assumes that it’s the beast whose name disturbed him earlier, petrified, as he hoped it would be, by the Witch’s wand. At once he does ‘something very silly and childish’ in revenge for the horror it inspired in him: he draws a moustache on its upper lip and a pair of spectacles on its eyes. What’s ‘childish’ for Lewis here is the assumption that you can make yourself feel big at another person’s expense by putting them down – that is, by mocking them. This isn’t real play, the novel insists, but the kind of bullying Edmund had earlier practised on his sister; and accordingly he discovers that he doesn’t ‘really get any fun’ out of it, because of the lion’s continuing look of dignity and power in the face of his unimaginative scrawlings. The wrongness of Edmund’s view of playing is underscored, of course, by the fact that the lion is not in fact Aslan; the boy continues to have little grasp of the distinction between what is real and what is imagined, despite – or rather because of – his by now well established tendency to scepticism.

‘Real’ playfulness, so to speak, is the province of Aslan, and is first figured in the unlikely person of Father Christmas. Mr Tumnus had told Lucy when he first met her that the Witch had banished Christmas, so that the arrival of its most familiar symbol in chapter ten is clearly Aslan’s doing; and while in our world Father Christmas has become a measure of the distinction between adults and children (children believe in him, adults don’t), in Narnia he is ‘so big, and so glad, and so real’ (my emphasis) that any ‘childish’ associations he may have are banished completely. To confirm his new connection with maturity he dispenses gifts which are emphatically real: ‘tools not toys’, as he puts it, a sword for Peter, a bow and an ivory hunting horn for Susan, a flask of magic potion for Lucy. All four items would be toys in twentieth-century England, but in Narnia they are in fact what in our world they only mimic: the practical means of active resistance against oppression. When the children first meet Aslan he encourages them to use two of these tools against the chief of the Secret Police who wrote the note they found in Tumnus’s cave, and in doing so they take another of the many steps from fiction and play to practical engagement with a tyrant. One of the first such steps, as we have seen, was the discovery and reading of Maugrim’s note; so that reading, too, progresses in this book from a pleasant pastime to a stimulus for action.

Aslan doesn’t lose his connection with play, however ‘real’ or ‘terrible’ he might seem in person; though he only fully manifests this connection after he has sacrificed his life for the traitor Edmund. Appropriately enough, the act of self-sacrifice begins with a display of bullying playfulness on the part of the Queen and her hideous entourage, as they subject the lion to a succession of humiliations designed to point up their triumph over him, their climactic victory in the long war game that has been going on between them. The awakening of Aslan from the sleep of death, however, brings a new form of playfulness of Narnia: the collaborative sort that enacts the terms of mutuality and egalitarianism by which it must be conducted. The lion’s first wakening is at once attached to the notion of realness: ‘Oh, you’re real, you’re real! Oh Aslan!’, cry the girls as they feel the evidence of his materiality in the warmth of his breath and the touch of his tongue. And the lion’s conquest of death quickly becomes what Lewis calls a ‘romp’ (there’s another at the end of Prince Caspian, modeled on the romp in the final chapter of The Crock of Gold). ‘Oh children, catch me if you can!’ Aslan calls, and the challenge triggers a delightful yet somewhat dangerous playground chase, which connects the large and the small, the potent and the petty in a sentence that quite deliberately links childishness with maturity and power: ‘It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind’. The three interfaces between our world and Narnia were all building up to this moment, when an imaginary enactment of a deadly game – that of hunting – succeeds in articulating the gigantic joke or trick the lion has played on his power-hungry enemies. Aslan returned from the dead because he knew old stories, and believed in them, better than the Witch did; and the celebration of his return is appropriately conducted in a communal, rule-bound activity (keep your paws velveted at all times and don’t outrun the weakest player), since play of this kind is the best model for the proper conduct of social practices.

The final interface with Narnia in the book comes at the end – as it does in all the Narnian chronicles but one – with the return to our world, in this case through the familiar medium of the wardrobe. In this case, too, the return reenacts the game played by the girls and Aslan on the lion’s revival. We have already heard from Tumnus about the ‘White Stag who would give you wishes if you caught him’, and since Narnia is the place where fantastic stories come true, it seems fitting that the subject of this particular story should enter the ‘real world’ of the narrative in its closing stages. The four children, now grown up, decide to hunt the Stag ‘with horns and hounds in the Western Woods’, in the process pointing you the continuity between childish games, fairy stories told to children, and the more dangerous games and equally challenging stories enjoyed by adults. By this stage in the story the adult protagonists also talk in the language of the literature three of them loved as children; even Edmund speaks as they do, having been naturalized to romance thanks to his reconciliation with his siblings. The effect is literally charming. A Victorian lamppost becomes for him ‘a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof’; and in the process an everyday object from Britain’s city streets is estranged or enchanted into a wonder – much as it was from the other direction when Lucy first saw it improbably planted in the middle of a snowy wood. The sight of the lamppost triggers memories in all four siblings, though for these heroes and heroines of romance it is our world rather than theirs that is the stuff of the fantastic imagination: ‘It runs in my mind’ Edmund tells the others, ‘that I have seen the like before; as it were in a dream, or in the dream of a dream’. Not only does this make our own world fantastic, but it also gives a seriousness to dreams and the imagination that they aren’t often accorded: we, the readers, know this ‘dream of a dream’ to have a solid foundation, and can also predict that Lucy will be right when she tells her brothers and sister that going beyond the lamppost will lead to ‘strange adventures’. By this point in the story, too, ‘strangeness’ itself has become something to be treasured for the sake of its very unfamiliarity, the surprises it entails. The search for strange things is a ‘quest’, as Peter points out, and a quest is a ‘high matter’, like ‘feats of arms’ or ‘acts of justice’. The link between the imaginary and the important, the fantastic and the real, the playful and the deeply serious, has become central to the philosophy the children live by, a founding principal of the culture they inhabit and the language they speak. And the reader, by following the children on their journey from this world to the next and back again, have become acculturated to the same perspective, the same reading of ordinary and extraordinary people and objects.

The book ends by bequeathing this climate or culture to the world beyond its pages. The four children pass the lamppost and find themselves tumbling out of the wardrobe – in their old clothes, children once again, at the very moment when Mrs Macready and the visitors are moving past the doorway of the room where the wardrobe stands. The Professor, when they tell him his adventures, accepts the story readily as potential ‘fact’ – just as he accepted Lucy’s when nobody else did; and he proceeds to lay down the rules of the game they must play in future, the game of having been acculturated to Narnian mores while living in a world where the very existence of that land is an impossibility. They must not tell many other people about their adventures – must not even discuss them much among themselves – for fear (we might suppose) of disenchanting what they have experienced by the inadequacy of their verbal descriptions of it, or else perhaps of being ostracized, ridiculed, bullied, like immigrants from a despised community. It will be clear to them who can be told about Narnia without courting mockery: people who have undergone ‘adventures of the same sort themselves’. As with the ‘strange stories’ about the Professor’s house, the Professor’s confidence that there are indeed other people in our world who have had experiences as strange and wonderful as visiting Narnia suggests that the interface between the real and the fantastic is well established in the world of the reader, as well as in the book we are coming to the end of. And Lewis makes sure he casts the spell of this confidence into the environment beyond the book in the final sentence. ‘And that is the very end of the adventure of the wardrobe’, he tells us; ‘But if the Professor was right it was only the beginning of the adventures of Narnia’. The challenge of this final sentence lies in the potent word ‘if’. The conditional indicates that Lewis is affirming or asserting nothing, like the poets in Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry; instead he is inviting us to consider the implications of accepting that what we have been imagining may have some sort of substance, some direct and quantifiable impact on us and on the mental and physical places we occupy. The challenge is a bold one, and its boldness marks the remarkable contribution Lewis makes in the Narnian chronicles to the evolution of children’s fiction in the postwar years.

The term ‘if’ also points up the extent to which Lewis is reliant on his reader to construct his ambitious new bridge between the possible and the impossible, the real and the fantastic. One of the most astounding things about the Narnian chronicles, for an adult reader returning to it after long absence, is its sheer economy: the simple, crystalline and not-so-numerous sentences with which Lewis brings his imagined country to life. When I asked students in a class on The Silver Chair what had surprised and interested them about their re-reading of Narnia, many replied that they remembered the book as much longer and denser than they now found it: packed with material details, colour, and diverse incident, where on re-reading it seemed remarkably, even disappointingly slim and succinct. This is because Lewis asks us in his fantasy series to do the major legwork of world-building ourselves, as readers – to make Narnia our own. As I suggested earlier, we never really see the ‘real’ Narnia described by Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it’s the Witch’s version we spend most of our time in – except in the final chapter, whose title, ‘The Hunting of the White Stag’, indicates its focus on the exit from Narnia, not on its construction. The fullest description of the country comes in the brief account of the children’s coronation, which wittily invites the reader to participate in its imaginative composition:

The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And, oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?

There’s nothing fantastic in this passage; instead it invokes what many of Lewis’s readers will be familiar with, a Northern seaside, and in the process calls on their collective memory to collaborate in composing the coronation scene. Having deftly sketched a place we may remember well, Lewis proceeds to enchant it by introducing the impossible, the things we can’t remember because they never happened: ‘And through the eastern door, which was wide open, came the voices of the mermen and mermaids swimming close to the shore and singing in honour of their new Kings and Queens’. Because these mer-voices are inserted into a real context so expertly conjured up, they are utterly convincing; and it’s perhaps inevitable (if we paused to reflect, on being asked to do so, at the end of the previous passage) that we will associate them with the ‘cry of the sea-gulls’, or at least allow the sea-gull voices imaginatively to mingle with the quasi-human ones, producing a new and strange combination that might well have a genuine impact on our next encounter with the sea. We are dignified with the status of co-authors; we participate fully in Lewis’s fictive game.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out something else about the Chronicles, which relates to gender – always a contentious subject in commentaries on Lewis’s writing. Another experience a modern reader will undergo when reading these books is that of discomfort, rising at times to real distaste, at the segregation of the sexes in Lewis’s universe; the most striking example in this first novel being Father Christmas’s paternalistic refusal to let Susan and Lucy take part in the final battle against the Witch. As he hands Susan her bow and hunting horn with one hand, the gift-giver takes them back, or restricts their use, with the other: ‘You must use the bow only in great need,’ he says, ‘for I do not mean you to fight in the battle’; and shortly afterwards he tells Lucy with infuriating glibness that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Women, then, have one set of roles in Narnia, and men another, and there would seem to be no interface between them; indeed, part of what marks out Jadis as evil may well be her readiness to take on masculine traits such as fighting, commanding, and political manoeuvring against her enemies. At the same time, it seems to me that there is a real attempt in this novel to achieve a kind of parity between the status of boys and girls as protagonists, and that this was something Lewis thought of as central to the fantasy tradition – however inadequately he may have succeeded in bringing it about.

The clue to this belief of Lewis’s about gender equality in fantasy lies in a statement he makes in his essay ‘On Three Ways of Writing for Children’, written soon after the publication of the first Narnia book in 1952.[1] Here he makes a clear distinction between fantasy fiction for children – he carefully chooses the genderless term – and realistic fiction specifically aimed at boys and girls – segregating the sexes much as the school system it so often describes segregated them in the 1950s. Admittedly, like most writers of his generation Lewis proceeds to refer to the reader of fantasy as if she were male (‘the boy reading the fairy tale desires and is happy in the very fact of desiring’, while the boy reading the school story is unhappy because he cannot have what he desires – sporting prowess and universal popularity). But elsewhere he sets the ungendered fantasy reader against the boy who reads about, and yearns for, a success often specifically gendered as male in the 1950s: ‘In a sense a child does not long for fairy land as a boy longs to be the hero of the first eleven’. And once one has noticed this, it’s hard not to notice how scrupulously he divides his Narnian adventures between boys and girls. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, two boys and two girls enter Narnia, and it’s Lucy’s perspective that may well seem privileged to a reader thinking about the book in retrospect, since she’s the one who finds Narnia and whose understanding of Narnian politics is vindicated by the actions of the Witch. As a boy who grew up at a time when ‘boys’ books’ and ‘girls’ books’ were often very clearly demarcated – to my shame, I have to admit my youthful tendency to avoid reading books whose protagonists were female, perhaps as a result of having been educated in largely single-sex schools – it seems to me that the Narnia books may have had an important impact on my ability to empathize with girls, at least in fiction. Lewis’s efforts to treat boys and girls equally may have been flawed, and may also have been strongly influenced by the mixture of genders in earlier children’s fantasy – especially that of his favourite practitioner of the genre, Edith Nesbit. But his willingness to have his girls participate fully in the physical dangers and metaphysical wonders of high fantasy seems to me to have made a crucial contribution to the genre’s emergence in later years as a fruitful space for imagining gender parity.

I hesitate to suggest this, but I wonder too if Lewis’s decision to exclude Susan from the number of the Pevensies who are reunited in Narnia in the final book of the series may be explained by her excessive attachment to desires and activities gendered specifically female? The girls who do re-enter Narnia in The Last Battle are represented as capable of what might be called an interface between the genders – of wearing armour and fighting alongside the Narnian resistance, as Jill does with the aid of a bow and arrows much like Susan’s. By this stage in the series Father Christmas’s prohibition against women fighting in battles seems to have been forgotten; Jill kills several Calormene invaders without demur. Again, the girls from our world in all the Narnia books share a literary background with the boys; they don’t read exclusively male or female texts, but like Lucy know the ‘rules’ of fairy tale and fantasy just as well, or are just as ignorant of them (in Jill’s case), as any of the male protagonists. Lewis doesn’t offer us, I think, a boy protagonist with an equally flexible gender identity – unless it’s Shasta in The Horse and his Boy, a fisherman’s adopted son whose ignorance of all traditions of male heroics is problematically aligned with his upbringing among an Orientalized people – and this is unfortunate, to say the least. But he clearly means the fantasy tradition to be an ungendered one (it’s Prince Caspian’s nurse, for instance, who first tells him stories of the old ‘fantastic’ Narnia); and it’s this, I think, that makes Susan’s wholesale commitment to desires conventionally gendered as female a bar to her continued inclusion in the mixed company of Narnian adventurers. That’s hardly an excuse for her banishment from Lewis’s land of heart’s desire, of course; but it makes it, I think, just a little more interesting.

To conclude: I think its fascination with what I’ve called the interface between our world and the secondary world of the imagination is what distinguishes Lewis’s Narnia series from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Where Tolkien’s work is founded on an elaborate and continuing process of world-building, which has an existence independent of the books set in Middle Earth, Lewis is concerned instead with the collaborative process of imagining the impossible as it is necessarily shared between writers and readers of fantasy. This concern extends itself to other forms of interface: between childhood and adulthood, between male and female, between past, present and future, between human and animal, between Nordic and classical mythologies, even between good and evil, which he is so often said to set too simplistically at odds – the list could go on. I hope my over-detailed analysis will have shown that his apparently simple stylistic and narrative structures mask a really considerable moral and philosophical complexity. I hope, too, that it may prove a bit of an intellectual springboard to thinking about interfaces more widely in relation to fantastic fiction.

And with this wish, desiring reader, I bid you farewell.

NOTE

[1] C. S. Lewis, Of This and Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), pp. 56-70.

 

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 2: Edmund

[This is the second part of a three-part blog post. The first part dealt with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second deals with Edmund’s, and the third will deal with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

The question of the reality of Lucy’s visit to Narnia – whether or not it ‘really’ happened – underpins the next interface with fantasy in Lewis’s narrative: Edmund’s visit. Partly as a result, this interface involves an exact reversal of Lucy’s experiences. Things happen back to front, as if in a mirror; and one reason for the reversal is that Edmund has already made up his mind before he enters the wardrobe that Lucy fabricated all her adventures. As a result, the world he finds on the other side is disturbing to him because it violates his sense of what is real, or perhaps of his own capacity to distinguish what is real from what is imagined. In addition, he feels as unable or unwilling to reverse his mental position in response to this disruption of his world view as Lucy earlier found it to pretend she was ‘playing at’ Narnia when she was not. Edmund necessarily sees Narnia through different eyes because the mind behind those eyes has different priorities, a different philosophy.

Another reason for Edmund’s different experience can be found in his mood when he enters the wardrobe: that is, in the kind of pleasure he is seeking as he passes through the mirrored door. Where Lucy was driven by Alice-like curiosity and a sensuous delight in the feel of fur, Edmund is driven by the desire to mock his sister for her inventions: ‘he wanted to go on teasing her about her imaginary country’. For him, this is a continuation of the power game he has been playing since Lucy first made her claims about entering Narnia; not a collaborative game, played by an agreed set of rules for a certain time, but a competition for supremacy in which there can only be one winner, whose victory isn’t temporary but permanent, establishing the victor once and for all as wholly superior to the defeated players. So it’s not surprising that Edmund is deeply disturbed by the loss of control he feels when he leaves his comfort zone. The discovery that the wardrobe does not in fact contain Lucy, that it is larger than he expected, that it sounds and feels unlike the interior of a piece of furniture, makes Edmund shiver – and, one presumes, not just with cold. There are two possible reasons for the fear suggested by his shivering. One is that he has been ‘unpleasant’ to Lucy about the things she seemed to have invented – so that she would have every right (according to his understanding as a player of power games) to be equally ‘unpleasant’ in response. The other, related reason is that the country he finds himself in is definitely not his. Lucy found it first, which makes it effectively hers from a colonialist perspective – from the perspective, that is, of a person who likes to stamp his authority on other people. It represents, in effect, a contest between them which she has won in emphatic fashion, thanks to his having been forced into the position of primary witness to her truthfulness. For both these reasons, Narnia can be taken as inimical to him. His state of mind is neatly summed up in the following sentence: ‘though he did not like to admit that he had been wrong, he also did not much like being alone in this strange, cold, quiet place’. The place is ‘strange’ because it once seemed impossible, and because its existence proves that he was mistaken in his assumptions about what was possible, which means he should logically rearrange his perceptions of the laws that govern the universe (as Todorov points out in his book on the fantastic). Both these things contribute to make Edmund ‘not much like’ the woods, and he seeks his sister’s company not so much to apologize as to make himself feel safer by getting together with someone who knows the ‘strange […] place’ better than he does.

It’s perhaps as a result of these selfish motives, in a kind of fairy tale logic of moral rather than scientific cause and effect, that when Edmund calls out for his sister what he gets instead is the self-styled Queen of Narnia, the White Witch. The Witch is the polar opposite (no pun intended) of Lucy’s Faun, and hence, to some extent at least, of Lucy herself. She is powerful, tall and arrogant, and she reacts to her meeting with a human stranger not with friendliness but sudden violence (‘she rose from her seat and looked Edmund full in the face, her eyes flaming; at the same moment she raised her wand’). Ironically, her physical appearance also ticks a number of boxes in the iconography of goodness. She arrives on a sledge with bells on it, drawn by reindeers, which invokes Christmas as inevitably as Tumnus’s packages. She is associated with whiteness, the colour of ‘good’ in conventional Western narratives: her reindeers and furs are white, and so is her face, which is ‘not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth’ (and here the rapid shift from snow to paper to icing-sugar has a wonderfully disconcerting effect, making her sound like an artificial confection, a spun-sugar sculpture or a table decoration for a high-class banquet). Tumnus, by contrast, was shaped and coloured like a conventional devil (red, with hooves, horns and a very un-goat-like tail); so that if we accept Lucy’s reading of the Faun as accurate (and her now evident ‘truthfulness’ invites us to do so) then the Witch’s reverse iconography should mean she must stand for something devilish.

The trajectory of Edmund’s meeting with the Witch, too, reverses that of Lucy’s meeting with Tumnus. As with the Faun, her mood undergoes a sudden change, but this time from rage to cunning, from violence to seduction, from command to conversation. She offers the boy food and drink after her change in mood – not before it, as Tumnus did – and the provisions she offers are yet further removed than those of Tumnus from the dreariness of wartime rationing: a hot drink magically made from snow; a box of that unobtainable sweetmeat, Turkish Delight. With food comes talk, as it did with Tumnus and Lucy; but the communication between Edmund and the Witch is all one way (‘she got him to tell her’ all about himself, and he never thinks to inquire about her habits and adventures – when she describes her house to him it is solely as a place he would take pleasure in). The Witch may promise to adopt Edmund as her son, and hence eventually as her equal, but the imbalance of their relationship is obvious from their verbal exchanges.

The most intriguing aspect of their conversation is the way it ends. The White Witch finishes not with a discussion of the speakers’ ‘real’ identity (Tumnus ended his talk with Lucy by revealing his status as the Witch’s spy) but a return to the world of children’s games – that is, of transient fictions – which has by this time been rendered problematic by the fact that Narnia was not a game or fiction, as well as by Edmund’s preference for power games or competitions over consensual playfulness. The Witch suggests that ‘it would be fun’ for Edmund to pretend he has never met her, and that he should save the information he has about the Witch’s house ‘as a surprise’ for his siblings when he brings them back to Narnia. The reason for this ‘game’, however, is a serious one; if Edmund mentions the Queen alarm bells might be rung in Lucy’s mind, because she will have heard ‘strange stories’ from Tumnus about her. Strange stories here are implied to be fictions, and unpleasant ones at that; but Edmund’s experience with the strange story of Narnia should suggest to him there is substance behind them. He might also have noticed that what the Witch is suggesting to him is not a bit of transient ‘fun’, a ‘surprise’ which is pleasurable for its own sake, but a functional lie, a verbal trap; if he does not play this particular game his siblings are unlikely to approach the Witch’s domicile. Edmund’s mind, however, is too preoccupied with another kind of pleasure (also a trap) – the enchanted Turkish Delight he craves to have more of – for him to notice the inconsistency between her claims that what he will be promulgating is a harmless fiction and the suggestion that this fiction is being devised to suppress another ‘fiction’, the possibly well-founded rumours that the Queen is harmful.

Edmund’s encounter with the Witch, then, raises questions not just about the borders between fiction and reality but about the function of games. A game that is not participated in by all its players with a similar purpose – to spend a set period of time in consensual, rule-bound activity – is not a game; Lucy’s experience showed this, as did Edmund’s teasing, which was a game for him but perceived as bullying by his sister. Gradually, in fact, Lewis is building up a sophisticated dialogue between terms that are often carelessly used, especially in the context of children’s activities. The notion that there is a clear dividing line between fiction and fact, the game world and the ‘serious’ world, is itself a convenient fiction; after all, games must of necessity make use of otherwise functional spaces and materials (including time), just as fictions must make use of words and concepts which are in other contexts ‘factual’. And Lewis is suggesting that the relationship goes further than this; that the conventions that govern games (everyone who plays them agrees to abide by the rules) and the conventions that govern fictions (the recipients of any story agree to take it to some degree as ‘fact’ for as long as it lasts) are directly connected to, and serve as serious preparation for, certain essential life skills. Edmund is not an accomplished player of consensual games, as his treatment of Lucy shows, so he is ill equipped to see when he is being played with against his consent; that is, when he is being manipulated. He isn’t clearly aware of the distinction between stories and lies – his teasing assumes that Lucy is lying rather than telling a story (though in fact she is telling the truth) – and so agrees to tell the Witch’s lies as if they were a story. Further: since he has been discomfited and (in his eyes) diminished by the revelation that Lucy’s story or ‘lie’ was in fact the truth, he chooses to adopt lies as his personal mode of discourse, instead of gaining a new alertness to the possibility of truths underlying apparent fictions (such as the strange stories about the Queen). The success of a story, as of a game, depends on a collective act of imaginative complicity between the teller and the listener; a lie depends instead on the consciousness of the liar that she or he possesses information unknown to his or her audience. The imbalance of power between the Witch and Edmund reflects Edmund’s preference for power imbalance in the world beyond the wardrobe, and the exchange between them is designed in all its details to perpetuate and intensify this imbalance of power.

Shortly after Edmund’s encounter with the Witch he meets Lucy on her way back from a second tea with Tumnus, and his sister at once anticipates the pleasure of shared storytelling as they tell their elder siblings about their visit to Narnia. ‘What fun it will be!’ she exclaims, and concludes that from now on ‘we’re all in it together’. True to his nature, however, Edmund at once sees an imbalance in the collective pleasure she anticipates. He ‘secretly thought it would not be as good fun for him as for her’, partly because he will have to admit he was wrong and thus publicly acknowledge his ‘loss’ of the earlier competition between himself and Lucy, and partly because he assumes the others will be on a different ‘side’ in the politics of Narnia than the one he has taken – that is, they will be against the Witch, making it more urgent and possibly harder for him to keep the secret of having met her. Games, then, have turned into something different for both children; a real-life companionate ‘adventure’ for Lucy (the word still has a smack of storytelling about it), and a competition for unprecedentedly high stakes for her brother.

When they re-emerge from the wardrobe, Edmund and Lucy find that the ‘game of hide-and-seek’ they had been playing before entering Narnia is still in full swing. But their attitude to the game has changed entirely, since they now know that there is something genuinely strange hidden in the wardrobe which was one of the hiding places in the game. The real is secreted in the playful, just as forms of truth are secreted in fiction; on this, at least, both the younger siblings should be able to agree, whatever their contradictory readings of the place they’ve just returned from. This makes it all the more shocking when Edmund decides that his best tactic both for preserving his self-esteem and hurting his sister is to pretend that he and Lucy have been playing a different game instead of experiencing a different reality: a game-within-a-game, so to speak, rather than an unsuspected truth-within-a-fiction. ‘Oh yes,’ he tells Peter and Susan, ‘Lucy and I have been playing – pretending that all her story about a country in the wardrobe is true. Just for fun, of course. There’s nothing there really’. The cruelty here is compounded by his redeployment of Lucy’s word ‘fun’, which for her involved collective pleasure in an astonishing discovery (‘What fun it will be!’). Peter improves things a little by coming to Lucy’s defence: he suggests that Edmund’s ‘game’ with Lucy is merely a continuation of his bullying, a malpractice rendered more serious by Peter’s increasing suspicion that his younger sister is ‘queer in the head’. Lucy, meanwhile, remains true to her insistence that her ‘story’ is real: she ‘stuck to her story’, as Lewis puts it, and it’s this development of the concept of story beyond the invented or imaginary – this seeming conviction of hers that stories can be true – that induces Peter and Susan to consult Professor Kirk on the matter.

The Professor’s response to their question (has Lucy gone bad or mad? Is she suffering from mental illness?) is to apply a kind of logic to it which Lewis particularly associates with the Scottish enlightenment tradition (think of the Scottish sceptic MacPhee in his unfinished novel The Dark Tower, who becomes an equally sceptical Irishman in That Hideous Strength; Professor Kirk’s name, like that of Mrs MacReady, helps to link him with Scotland). ‘There are only three possibilities,’ he tells them. ‘Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’ The ‘logical’ position he takes here is unusual, in that it assumes that a known truth-teller should be believed even when the scenario she describes would seem to be ‘impossible’ by any conventional standards of assessment. In other words, the Professor is more concerned with the psychology of human beings than with the empirical evidence of the senses. For him, the question of Lucy’s personality – her attested tendency to tell the truth – is vastly more important than questions of precedent (such as: have countries ever been found in items of furniture in the past? Do fauns exist? etc.). From this point of view Narnia would seem to be a country of the mind, whose capacities, like those of the house he inhabits, are vastly more spacious – and vastly more interesting – than conventional empiricism or logic would tend to assume.

Lewis associates logic with Scottish culture, but Scotland also produced the visionary writer whose work Lewis most admired, George MacDonald. MacDonald’s books are full of no-nonsense characters – most of them old women – who treat encounters with the fantastic with the same intellectual rigour as any other aspect of human experience. Edmund’s attitude to games and fictions when he first enters Narnia indicates, among other things, his muddled thinking – his lack of the sort of intellectual and moral rigour cultivated by Professor Kirk and George MacDonald’s formidable grandmothers. By the end of the novel, by contrast, Edmund has become an exemplary thinker, someone who judges the evidence of the mind and senses with such rigour that he comes to be known as ‘Edmund the Just’. Edmund, then, is a complex, changeable character in a way that Lucy is not; and his name confirms his potential for opposite ways of thinking, and for undergoing opposite destinies or endings, just as Lucy’s confirms her singularity as a custodian of the singular light of truth.

Sam Troughton as Edmund in the 2014 National Theatre production dir. Sam Mendes

There was a real, historical Edmund the Just, a tenth-century King of England who obviously suggested the sobriquet to Lewis (among other things, this Edmund I made peace with the Scots: quite an achievement for an English king in the tenth century). But the other Edmund invoked by the name of Lewis’s child-traitor is the antagonist in King Lear, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester who betrays his brother in a fit of murderous playfulness, a betrayal that leads to the deaths of his father, his king, the king’s three daughters, and Edmund himself. Where Lucy’s name suggests a singular truth – a light shining in darkness – Edmund’s has several competing associations, and can be read in different lights depending on the situation he finds himself in. There could hardly be a better way of signaling Lewis’s conviction, everywhere apparent in the Narnian chronicles, of the urgent need for his readers to cultivate the skill of reading well.

The Interface with Fantasy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Part 1: Lucy

[This is the first part of a three-part blog post. The first part deals with Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe, the second with Edmund’s, and the third with the toings and froings of all four Pevensie children between our world and Narnia.]

Dust jacket of First Edition

The interface with fantasy in any narrative – the moment when the reader first encounters the particular version of the impossible with which the story will concern itself – both defines a text as fantasy and indicates the kind of fantasy it will be. It’s also frequently the most exhilarating moment in any fantastic story: the most surprising, the most idiosyncratic, the most memorable. Alice spotting a rabbit as it runs by pulling a watch out of its waistcoat pocket – and the burning curiosity with which she responds to this impossible action – sets the perversely logical tone of Carroll’s book of dreams. The moment when Nesbit’s five very ordinary children dig a fairy out of the sand in an abandoned gravel pit, only to discover that the fairy is precisely the opposite of the ones in books (wingless, hairy, with apelike hands, a spidery body and the retractable antennae of a snail), perfectly sums up the many reversals of the children’s expectations that will follow this discovery. The morning when young Will wakes up to find the world blanketed in snow and all his numerous family asleep and impossible to rouse – this is the essence of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, where magic brings solitude and coldly impersonal decisions as well as beauty and wonder. As I thought over the last few weeks about the phenomenon of the Narnia books, which compete with The Lord of the Rings for the title of most influential works of fantasy in the postwar years, it struck me that what sets Lewis’s work apart – not just the novel but the series as a whole – is its fascination with this moment of interface, the point at which the protagonist recognizes that they have left behind the physical and social rules of the fields they know. So exciting does Lewis find this moment of first encounter that he re-enacts it over and over again in the course of his series: most notably, perhaps, in the multiple pools that offer entrance to innumerable worlds in The Magician’s Nephew; in the door in the air at the end of Prince Caspian; in the picture that comes alive in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – followed by the many disembarkations on unknown island-worlds with which that book is filled; and in the plural encounters with successive layers of the Narnian universe in The Silver Chair, beginning with an entrance through a door in a wall reminiscent of Lewis’s favourite short story by H G Wells. The interface with fantasy is Lewis’s theme, and his abiding fascination with it is what makes his work distinctive.

If Lewis’s Narnian sequence is a fantasy of interfaces, then The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most characteristic of the Narnia books, since it consists almost entirely of a series of entrances into and encounters with the impossible, the magical, the strange. The first of these entrances, I would suggest, is by way of the book’s title. I can still remember quite distinctly a time before I first read the novel, when I knew only what it said on the cover of the Puffin paperback edition, above a picture of two girls dancing with a lion (I suspect I was told the title instead of reading it; I was a late-ish reader and remain a slow one). The bizarre combination of a beast, a quasi-human figure of horror (I found witches terrifying throughout my childhood) and a grown-up item of furniture (I wasn’t sure what a ‘wardrobe’ was until someone explained) surprised me by its fusion of the exotically powerful, the supernatural and the mundane. No story I knew contained just these elements, or any combination like them, and I couldn’t wait to learn how the three mismatched terms were linked. Tolkien talks in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ about how the deployment of unexpected combinations of words can serve as an act of imaginative conjuration, and I think Lewis achieved this in his title (which owes something of its effect to Nesbit’s titles: Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet).

The second entrance, encounter or interface is by way of the house to which the four children of the opening sentence are evacuated in the book’s first chapter. In Five Children and It Nesbit’s titular children arrive at a rural house from the city of London, and the building seems magical to them because it’s isolated from other buildings and because its grounds have no clear boundaries or enclosures. Their previous experience of domestic space has been urban and rule-bound (they’re not allowed to roam the city streets unsupervised), and the sudden emergence from urban regulation suggests that their new life will be governed by new criteria. We don’t know much about Lewis’s Pevensie children apart from the facts that they, too, live in London, and have been sent to the country (somewhere in Dorset, scholars tell us, though the description of the area, with its mountains, stags and eagles, makes it sound like Scotland) to escape the Blitz. They, too, relish the house because of the unaccustomed freedom of movement it offers (‘That old chap will let us do anything we like’ Peter enthuses); but whereas for Nesbit’s children this freedom takes them out and about (only one of their adventures is housebound), the Pevensies have their adventures inside the house, which Lewis transforms into quasi-magical terrain by making its topography both vast and mysterious. In the first chapter Peter points out that ‘It’s about ten minutes’ walk’ from their bedrooms to the dining-room with ‘any amount of stairs and passages between’, the vague terms ‘about’ and ‘any amount’ underscoring his unfamiliarity with the building’s layout. The youngest child Lucy finds this sense of vague expansiveness intimidating (‘the thought of all those long passages and rows of doors leading into empty rooms was beginning to make her feel a little creepy’). And closer acquaintance with the house only makes it more mysterious. While the first few doors the children open lead only into ‘spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected’, the later rooms they find prove more suggestive: ‘a very long room full of pictures’ with a suit of armour in it; ‘a room all hung with green, with a harp in the corner’, evoking the Irish legends from Lewis’s Belfast childhood; rooms lined with books, ‘most of them very old […] and some bigger than a Bible in a church’; a room containing only a wardrobe. Lewis carefully builds up the impression that the house is too large to know well, and that its rooms have stories in them, some of them written down or printed (and the comparison of some of these books to ‘a Bible in a church’ suggests that the words inside are in some sense potent). Later we learn that the house is so famous that sightseers come ‘from all over England’ to visit it, drawn by its association with different kinds of narratives:

It was the sort of house that is mentioned in guide books and even in histories; and well it might be, for all manner of stories were told about it, some of them even stranger than the one I am telling you now.

With extraordinary economy this sentence extends the building’s mystery in several directions. First, we learn that it’s connected with history – no mystery there, many ancient buildings have ancient origins. But in the next part of the sentence history segues into story, which implies fiction; and some of the ‘stories’ it conjures up are ‘even stranger’ than the story of four children entering a world of talking animals through a wardrobe. One begins to wonder if the Bible-sized books in its library may contain some of those other, ambiguously-fictional narratives; or if Edmund’s teasing questions to Lucy about whether she’s found any new countries in other cupboards around the building might have a grain of truth in them; or whether the suit of armour may have been used in the English Civil Wars, or in an Arthurian romance.

Shortly afterwards the narrator again implies that the house may have something literally magical about it. As all four children approach the wardrobe together for the first time he wonders whether ‘some magic in the house had come to life and was chasing them into Narnia’ – and though he never commits himself to this explanation it marks the continued growth of the building into something organic, something more than architectural. In fact, by this point in the novel the house has acquired a vitality that makes it seem like an extension of its owner, the hairy, rational, courteous and unexpectedly open-minded Professor Kirk. Like the Professor, it is full of possibilities, rendered more diverse by the fact that none of them are particularised or confirmed.[1] These possibilities are extended further still when Susan points out, on entering the wardrobe, that anything they find inside it might be said to be inside the house; and by the Faun Tumnus’s assumption that the place Lucy has come from is another country inside the room where she found the wardrobe. ‘Daughter of Eve’ he calls her, investing her in the process with a mythical status as exotic as his own, ‘from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe’. By these means Lewis brings our imaginations ‘to life’ through a series of hints relating to the house, preparing them like a good gardener for the more flamboyant impossibilities he introduces as the book goes on.

Pauline Baynes’s wardrobe, which has two doors and no mirror

The next three interfaces, of course, are the three entrances into Narnia by way of the wardrobe. First Lucy on her own, then Edmund and Lucy – though they effectively go separately – and finally all four Pevensie children step through the door with a looking-glass in it (a nod to Carroll?) and find themselves in another landscape, in another season, which turns out to be located in another world. So imaginatively potent, for Lewis, is this moment of transition from this world to the next that he makes us go through it three times, each time from a new perspective, which imbues each entrance with a different mood and meaning. One of the side effects of this threefold interface is that it leaves the young reader with the conviction that such encounters may not be unique – that they might in fact occur from time to time, though rarely, in ‘real’, non-literary life. This view is corroborated by the Professor’s logic, when he asks Peter and Susan whether they find Lucy a more credible witness than Edmund and goes on to suggest that if so, they should believe what she has told them about finding Narnia, no matter how incredible. An adult’s championing of the youngest Pevensie – especially when the adult has the grand title of ‘Professor’ – renders her and Edmund’s impossible experiences of Narnia distinctly plausible; and it’s perhaps for this reason that I worked so hard to convince myself as a boy that I, too, could find an entrance to Lewis’s invented country – though I suspect there were other elements to this desire for conviction, among others the strong association of Narnia with desire itself.

Lucy’s experience of the interface with Narnia can be understood as a series of mirrorings (remember the mirror in the wardrobe door, which Pauline Baynes doesn’t include in her illustrations). These mirrorings ensure that the transition between ‘our’ world and the ‘other’ one isn’t too sudden to feel convincing, and that the two worlds in some sense interpenetrate each other: there are things in one that occur in the other, though in a new relationship and with different connotations. One might think of George MacDonald’s observation in his novel Phantastes about how a room is rendered magical when seen in a mirror; it’s identical to the one you live in, but the reversal of the relations between the objects in it suggest the possibility that in the reflected world there has been a fundamental realignment of all the regulations that govern our quotidian existence.

Lucy’s entrance into Narnia is partly impelled, like Alice’s decision to follow the rabbit, by curiosity: first the modest curiosity as to whether or not the wardrobe door is locked, which is what makes Lucy stay behind when her siblings leave the room; and later the excited inquisitiveness as to the nature of the snowy wood to which the wardrobe leads her. The other impulse that takes her into the wardrobe is that of pleasure. In the wardrobe she finds fur coats, and since ‘There was nothing Lucy liked so much as the smell and feel of fur’ she at once steps in and rubs her face against them, going ‘further in’ (a phrase that acquires particular resonance in the final Narnia book, The Last Battle) to indulge her senses of touch and smell more fully. As she goes forward into the dark she first loses one of her senses – that of sight – quite naturally, because it’s dark; and she then fails to sense something she expects, which is the rough woodwork at the back of the wardrobe. Afterwards her sense of touch conveys to her something she expects – the crunching of mothballs under her feet – only to surprise her when she reaches down to touch them, since the crunchy substance is ‘soft and powdery and extremely cold’. Next the texture of the coats changes, to be replaced not with the expected wooden planks but with wood in another form, the prickly ‘branches of trees’. Her sense of sight returns to her, but as often happens when one has been in the dark her understanding of distance has been affected, and the light she sees appears to be much further away than ‘where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been’. As a result of these incremental alterations, it seems perfectly natural as well as surprising when Lucy finally realizes that she is standing ‘in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air’. The stress on many senses, not just one – and the stress on familiar, precisely-evoked sensations – is what makes the transition so utterly convincing.

Alongside sensation, Lewis also uses wordplay to link the new land Lucy discovers with the house she’s left. The first things she finds in Narnia – a wood full of fir trees, the whiteness of snow, the darkness of nighttime – are all perfectly consonant with the experience of playing, or falling asleep, in a dark wooden wardrobe full of fur coats and snow-white mothballs. Lewis has already shown us that Lucy is a little timid – she disliked the large unknown spaces of the Professor’s house – so it’s a stroke of genius to have her look back over her shoulder when she reaches the wood and see not only ‘the open doorway of the wardrobe’ between the trees behind her but even ‘a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out’. The empty rooms of Professor Kirk’s house had earlier frightened her, so it should come as no surprise that she quickly summons up courage to move forward through the much more crowded space of the Narnian wood in which she finds herself. Her discovery of an ordinary lamppost a few steps later – in the middle of wood, far from any discernible path – reassures her still further: it suggests modern industrial civilization, perhaps even the urban environment she knows best, where some helpful authority has made provision for the needs of citizens to find their way about at night. So again it’s hardly surprising that when a ‘very strange person’ steps out into the light of the lamppost Lucy should react not with fear but only intensified curiosity: especially since the ‘very strange person’ is much the same height as her, carries an umbrella, wears a ‘red woollen muffler’ that matches his skin, and is weighed down with what looks like his ‘Christmas shopping’. Umbrellas and mufflers are designed for protection, not assault, and anyone who has the generosity to buy Christmas presents for his friends can pose no threat (or so one might reason); and though this assumption may be simplistic (as indeed it proves to be) it seems to be corroborated by the faun’s exclamation of surprise when he first sees Lucy. ‘Goodness gracious me’ is hardly the phrase a devil might use, despite the stranger’s possession of horns and reddish skin, and serves to justify Lucy’s confidence in talking to him in the next chapter.

The series of mirrorings I mentioned earlier refers to the fact that the room can be seen behind Lucy after she’s moved out of it – a space rendered as magical as Narnia by its unexplained presence ‘between the dark tree-trunks’ – and by the Faun’s perfect equivalence to Lucy in terms of size. It continues with the rapid-fire questions the Faun poses to her, which suggests he is just as curious as she is, and by his readiness to take Spare Oom and War Drobe as geographical locations as exotic for him as Narnia is for her. Soon afterwards, Lucy’s belief that she should be getting ‘home’ to the Professor’s house is mirrored by the ‘homely’ picture painted by the Faun of its own habitation, where there is ‘a roaring fire – and toast – and sardines – and cake’. And the ‘dry, clean cave’ to which he takes her is much more child-sized and child-friendly – much more ‘homely’, in fact – than the rambling, many-doored mansion Lucy has left behind (there is only one door in the cave, which ‘must lead to Mr Tumnus’s bedroom’ – there is really nowhere else it can lead to). The Faun’s home is also better stocked with provisions than England is, given that Lucy’s England is at war and therefore subject to rationing (cakes would have been a rarity because of the shortage of eggs). Again, Mr Tumnus’s cave mirrors the world she’s left in its fondness for books and stories, especially strange ones: the books on its shelves refer to humanity as a possible fiction (Is Man a Myth? is one of the titles), and Tumnus himself is a fount of strange tales like the ones that have accumulated around the Professor’s house. Strangeness and familiarity are blended in the Faun’s cave, in fact, exactly as they were in the mansion, although in slightly different proportions.

At this point in Lucy’s adventure Lewis engineers a sudden change of mood. After telling his tales of midnight parties where Fauns dance with Nymphs, of milk-white stags which grant your wishes and of summer visits from the god Silenus, who makes the rivers run with wine instead of water, Tumnus abruptly reveals that such seasonal delights no longer take place and that Narnia itself has receded into the past, to be replaced by the perpetually snowbound country Lucy has discovered. The Faun then drops the bombshell (the wartime metaphor seems appropriate) that he himself is not what he appears to be – that he is a bad Faun, not a good one, and that his entertainment of Lucy has a hidden agenda: to lull her into a false sense of security and then hand her over to his paymistress, the wicked White Witch. This is a mirror-style reversal more extreme than any we’ve encountered so far, whereby apparent acts of friendliness become a mask for treason, a pleasant wood becomes suddenly sinister, snow becomes oppressive – it is now the sign of the Witch’s power – and the return journey to the lamppost becomes as full of anxiety (‘The whole wood is full of her spies,’ Tumnus tells Lucy) as before it was full of wonder. Even this reversal, however, mirrors a similar reversal in the world that Lucy has left. It might be said to resemble something we never actually witness in the novel: the sudden, unlooked-for recollection that the world is at war, which transforms the loveliness of the countryside into a fragile refuge from violence and forces one’s idealized imaginary homeland to recede into the distance – into the past and perhaps, though not certainly, the distant future – while the present becomes discoloured or warped by suspicion and fear.

Lucy’s experience of the interface with Narnia, then, contains in itself the possibility that the country can be read in different ways. But the change of mood also affirms that a ‘true’ reading of the evidence provided by the country is possible. By the time it takes place, a bond has been forged between Lucy and Mr Tumnus, a bond founded on a shared pleasure in food and stories and curiosity about strange cultures – pleasures it’s difficult to fake. So when Tumnus breaks down in tears and tells the girl that he is wicked she assumes that he is talking about some past misdemeanour on his part, and assures him that he cannot possibly be bad now because he is so sorry for what he has done. The revelation that his misdemeanour is in fact taking place now, at this very moment, and that the child he has been telling her about is not an element in a finished tale but Lucy herself, who is currently in danger from the Faun to whom she is speaking – this revelation shocks Lucy into terror (she turns ‘very white’). But her conviction that Tumnus is what he appears to be – a friend – helps to change the direction of the narrative once again. By being certain that he is ‘a very good Faun’ Lucy ensures that he behaves as one; while, conversely, Lucy’s own behaviour ensures that Tumnus realizes he could never betray an actual human child, no matter how easy such a betrayal might seem when the child was imaginary. There’s a sense here that behind the hall of mirrors that enabled the transition between the Professor’s house and Narnia – and between the possible and the impossible, which have been so richly twined together in the description of that transition – there is a common set of values, a shared recognition of the appropriate way to behave towards strangers, whether children or adults, migrants or evacuees, that transcends any fleeting consent one has given to other sorts of behaviour on the basis of fear or wilful self-delusion.

In other words, by this stage in the novel the question of what is real has come under scrutiny. The country Lucy comes from, England, is a land in crisis. So is the country she arrives in, Narnia. Both places, then, are in one sense not themselves – the ‘real’ England and the ‘real’ Narnia lie elsewhere, in a time of peace and prosperity that has long been absent and might not come again. Any hope that this double crisis will be resolved lies in behaving as though the moral values of the ‘real’ country remain intact during this period of absence. Lucy behaves in this way quite naturally, by assuming Tumnus is ‘good’ whatever crimes he may have committed in the Witch’s name. Tumnus’s ‘badness’, meanwhile, is the result of an act of imagination: he agreed to betray, in theory, what he thought of as an imaginary person – a human being, at a time when human beings have not been seen in Narnia for many centuries (hence the title of his book, Is Man a Myth?). But as soon as that imagined person proved to be real Tumnus realized he could never betray her without also betraying his sense of his own real self as (first and foremost) a decent person. In addition, his agreement to serve as the Witch’s spy was based on the threat she posed to his identity, his faunness, so to speak. If he fails to do her bidding she will cut off his horns, pluck out his beard, fuse his ‘beautiful cloven hoofs […] into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s’ – or worse still she will turn him to stone, a simulacrum of a living goat-man. On meeting the real girl Lucy, however, Tumnus realizes that his ‘real self’ is not the physical one with horns and beard and cloven hooves but the one who refuses to hurt children, who treats strangers with respect, and who seeks to help them at great risk to his own life. In doing these things Tumnus identifies himself as a ‘real’ Narnian, and brings closer the possibility of the ‘real’ Narnia being restored. If all of the White Witch’s spies go through the same process of self-realization her power will be diminished, and Narnia will re-emerge in some form at least from its long quiescence.

When Lucy returns to the Professor’s house after her time with Tumnus, the question of what’s real continues to trouble her. She tells her siblings about the visit to Narnia, and they at once assume that her story is impossible. This gives rise to three alternative interpretations of her narrative: first, that it’s a lie; secondly, that it’s a game – an activity with rules which we take part in for a certain period of time for the sake of a transient feeling of pleasure; and thirdly, that it’s a joke. All three siblings also decide that whichever one of these interpretations or readings of the story is correct, the lie or game or joke has gone on far beyond what is acceptable. Convention dictates that at one point a fiction be acknowledged for what it is – that the book be closed and ordinary life begin again – but Lucy stubbornly refuses to obey this convention even for the sake of a quiet life (she was a ‘very truthful girl and knew that she was really in the right’). On person’s game or joke or fiction, then, is another person’s reality; the dividing line between the imagined and the actual is permeable, and ‘realness’, as well as the conventions that determine its parameters, is a contested concept. Later, the older siblings Peter and Susan begin to wonder whether there is a fourth explanation for Lucy’s insistence on the truthfulness of her impossible story – not that it’s a game (her unhappiness puts paid to that idea) but that she believes she is telling the truth even though she is not; in other words, that she is suffering from some kind of mental illness. This is what drives them to discuss the problem with the Professor. But the fact that the reader has already been convinced, within the framework of the story, that Lucy has ‘really’ undergone the experiences she describes suggests that the limits of the possible are vastly greater than Peter and Susan are aware; and this suggestion is later corroborated both by the references to the even stranger stories associated with the house and by the Professor’s ready acceptance that Lucy is sane, and that therefore – in the absence of any evidence against it – her story should be believed. The game abruptly becomes potential fact, and the relationship between the elder siblings and the youngest shifts in consequence. Objects and people – Lucy, Susan, Peter, the mysterious wardrobe – subtly change places, in the process changing their signification.

It might be at this point in the story that the knowledgeable reader brings to mind the mythical connotations of Lucy’s name. Lucy comes from lux, the Latin for light, and the saint who originally owned the name became associated by the Catholic Church with the longest night in the year, a time when the memory of light, and the current location of its source, must have seemed (in the days before artificial lighting) as far away and inaccessible as an imaginary country. But even in the longest night of the year the sun is real, and the conviction that its light and warmth will at last return can be sustained by stories as well as memory. That’s the promise Lucy’s name brings with it, in conjunction with her story: that things unseen may be as real as things we can smell and touch, and that the impossible may perhaps be made possible through a concerted effort of the desiring imagination.

 

NOTE

[1] This is an effect that gets destroyed, I would imagine, or at least altered, if you read The Magician’s Nephew first in the Narnia sequence. Lewis seems in fact to have written it last.

Top Ten Fantasy Titles

[Last semester my colleague Matt Sangster challenged me to list my top ten fantasy titles (or, to be precise, my top ten works of fantasy literature written in the English language in the twentieth century). I’ve tried this exercise before, and the list has radically changed each time I’ve compiled it in my head. Call this a snapshot, then, of my preferences at the time of asking (October 2016). If he’d asked me the same question this month the list would have been quite different…]

Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)

The oddest of fairy tales, in which the bourgeois citizens of a prosperous town express their fear of sex, death, the working classes, unruly women and disobedient children, by banishing all talk of such things from polite society. They also banish a hallucinogenic drug called Fairy Fruit. Forbidden things (which also include the priesthood and the aristocracy) are confined to a place they call ‘Fairyland’, beyond the country’s borders. Inevitably the borders can’t be policed, and all efforts at containing illegal people and objects fail. Gorgeous descriptions, extravagant names, and a murder mystery complete the picture. A snapshot of English life in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.

 

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (c. 1940, published 1966)

Written in a language like no other, this bizarre trip into the tormented interior of 1930s Ireland – which is a miniature working model of 1930s Europe – is so packed with invention, so chock-full of gags, so musical in its rhythms and so disturbing in its vision of the way the world ticks that there’s no describing it. The nameless narrator finds himself caught up in the clockwork mechanisms of the universe. Although from one point of view his experiences are hell, they are punctuated by moments of such heartbreaking beauty and hilarity that the book is like a piece of shot silk, as dark or light as your mood at the time of reading. Boxes within boxes have never seemed so explosively complicated. Bicycles have never seemed so erotic.

 

Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (1950)

An architectural fantasy, whose chief character is a labyrinthine castle governed by rituals whose origins and purpose have been lost in the dusty corridors of time. At first the castle’s denizens are as isolated from each other as the castle is from the outside world. Gradually they come together in the face of the threat posed by Steerpike, an ambitious former kitchen boy who seeks to transform the building into a totalitarian state, or a playground, or a madhouse, depending on his mood. A matchless commentary on the various forms of dictatorship, internal and external, that dominated the middle years of the twentieth century.

 

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-5)

I love this for the subtlety of the transition from the world of the hobbits – the comfortable Shire – to the world of the ancient epic heroes; for the effortless interplay between telling details (mushrooms, pocket handkerchiefs, Longbottom Leaf, stewed rabbit) and the sweep of a grand narrative; for the sense of increasing danger it generates from the first chapter; for Tolkien’s obvious delight in bringing the remote past into vibrant life. The book perfectly captures the precariousness of the mid-twentieth century, in which war and imperialist expansionism threatened to obliterate the past altogether.

 

Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

A perfectly constructed story, about a boy whose abusive and lonely childhood gives him a problem with women that almost turns him into a monster. The world he lives in, made up of islands, encourages an isolationism in its inhabitants that only adds to his loneliness. The dragons here are the best in fiction, with the possible exception of Tolkien’s Smaug. Le Guin’s delight in the sea that both separates and links her islands is as palpable as her fascination with the social and political causes of psychological damage, and the strange roads that lead to healing.

 

Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

Lessing called this an experiment in autobiography, and it’s the perfect example of how fantasy can force us to rethink the terms by which we understand the world we live in. A city is undergoing radical changes, a breakdown in the social order which the protagonist observes uneasily through the window of her ground floor apartment. The causes of the breakdown are unclear, but it’s implied that they have their roots in the breakdown of relationships between men, women and children in the domestic environment, which the protagonist also sees played out in a kind of looking-glass world on the other side of her living room wall. The style has a magnificent awkwardness that admirably conveys the difficulty of making sense of things, and the inadequacy of conventional forms of expression as a means of doing so. The ending is as ambiguous as it is exhilarating.

 

Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980)

The best collection of fantastic stories of the twentieth century. Though many of these are science fiction rather than fantasy, Wolfe’s refusal to authorize any single version of the strange events he presents us with invests the whole collection with a magical atmosphere, as if we are witnessing successive acts in a ghost circus. You’ll have to read these stories again and again in an effort to work out what happens in them, and each reading will give you a different answer. Just like living through the 60s and 70s, those decades of change when the stories were written.

 

John Crowley, Little, Big (1981)

Another architectural fantasy, set in a house whose many facades make it seem like several houses occupying the same space. Over three or four generations, an American family struggles to come to terms with its close relationship with a supernatural community of half-seen beings – perhaps the fairies – who have made their homes in the house’s environs. The fairies become a metaphor for the many forms of estrangement and misunderstanding that afflict the small community called the family, as well as the larger communities of the city, the nation and the world. Re-reading it now I think of it as the ultimate threnody for the political and social possibilities of the 60s and 70s. The prose sings.

 

Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock (1984)

A children’s book for grown ups. A neglected young girl makes friends with a man who seems in thrall to the mysterious head of an extensive and powerful family. The girl and the man tell each other stories and the stories come true in unexpected ways. Based on two old Scottish ballads, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘Thomas the Rhymer’, this novel is remarkable for the way it traces the changing relationship between girl and man until both are adults and equals. It is also an extended commentary on the complex relationship between the life of the imagination and ‘real life’ – whatever that is – and how the former changes as we change, adapting itself to our needs at different stages of our development. And it has much to say about our false assumptions concerning the natures of adulthood and childishness.

 

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (2000)

A disgraced scientist sets himself up as the champion of justice and the saviour of a city. In fact he is the one who put the city in danger by releasing the Slake Moths, monstrous yet strangely attractive insects that feed on the dreams and memories of men and women, leaving them helpless, barely sentient. A brilliant meditation on the problem of mounting an effective resistance to global capitalism in an age when everything you eat, wear, study, think and dream is in some sense an integral part of the capitalist machine. Full of astounding composite creatures (cactus-people, insect-people, machine-people) whose awkward hybridity confirms the fact that we are all of us bizarre from other people’s perspectives, and that we are all of us to some extent implicated in other people’s atrocities (which means we are also honour bound to work against them).

 

Utopia, Laughter and Reformation: Erasmus, More and Rastell

For some time now I’ve been thinking about writing a book about English comic fiction and the Reformation – no doubt one of those many lost books that will never get finished. It’s an odd combination, certainly: a religious crisis that provoked violent conflict throughout Europe and a mode of writing that tends to get lost in literary history, largely because it’s thought of as light, a form of ‘popular’ and often crude entertainment that has nothing significant to tell us about the culture that produced it. James Simpson’s brilliant volume of the Oxford English Literary History, for instance (1350-1547: Reform and Cultural Revolution), has no comic fiction in it at all, and there has never been a monograph on early modern comic fiction in English. What has comic prose fiction to do with religious and political controversy? Very little, this neglect seems to say. But my view is that it has a great deal to tell us about reformation of one sort or another, and here I’m going to try to show this through a peculiarly rich case study.

Early 17th-century illustration of The Praise of Folly

The comic is about obliqueness: disrupting patterns of expectation, twisting familiar narratives, social customs and verbal conventions out of shape, taking people by surprise in such a way as to shock them into laughter. It depends for its effects on the assumption that there is a direction in which things usually go: a social or cultural pattern or norm that gets transgressed by the comic incident or comment, though in such a way as not to disturb the reader too radically. For this reason the comic, like satire, is sometimes taken to be a basically conservative medium; the status quo gets asserted rather than undermined by comic disruption. Even when the laughter it induces is uncomfortable or nervous, the fact that we laugh at all confirms that the object of our laughter is not serious – that in the end it has no power to alter things. If it did, we wouldn’t laugh at it; we would weep, gasp, rage, or shout. The medieval church’s ready accommodation of carnival periods into its religious cycle attests to laughter’s power of containing the emotions it releases, and to the inevitability of the return to sober normality after the period of laughter is over.

Illustration for Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools

Not all laughter, though, is so easily contained by the authorities. All three of the writers I want to write about here share a tendency to cross the line between the comic and the unacceptably transgressive, the forbidden, even the treacherous. There’s a time and a place for laughter, the Bible tells us, and even if fools have a degree of licence or legal protection there are subjects even a fool doesn’t breach with impunity. One of the most famous fools in history, Scoggin – who became the hero of his own collection of comic stories which went on being published into the eighteenth century – got himself sentenced to death by the king he served, and only saved himself by asking to be allowed to choose the tree from which he would be hanged – a choice he of course never made. All three of my writers were famous for their humour; and all three fell foul of the authorities of church and state, two dying for the doctrinal positions they took up in the early years of the Lutheran controversy, while the third lived largely in exile, and had his works placed on the papal index of prohibited books after his death. These writers didn’t get into trouble specifically for their humour; but their comic writings do have something to tell us about how and why they crossed the nebulous borders between the permissible and the illicit, and perhaps also about why each of them ended up on different sides of the religious conflict. Their eventual differences are all the more remarkable because the three of them started out with such similar convictions. What, then, does their comic fiction tell us about the different directions in which these convictions took them?

From the early days of their friendship the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus, the English lawyer Thomas More, and More’s brother-in-law, the printer John Rastell, shared a very humanist passion for social and ecclesiastical reform achieved through letters: above all, through the process of making words perspicuous; of clarifying their meanings with the help of translation, etymology (tracing the history of words) and exegesis or explanatory commentary. Erasmus sought a return to the first principles of Christianity through a return to correct texts – especially, of course, accurate texts of the Bible. For him, the accurate use of words and grammar, in translations of the scriptures but also in the secular scripture of classical literature, could lead to a reformation of society and the Church. His quest for perspicuous or lucid wisdom expressed itself in the successive editions of his Adagia: collections of proverbs or adages drawn from ancient Greek and Latin authors, which he saw as embedded in and indeed springing from a collective popular culture, since many have close affinities with old Dutch sayings he had known since childhood. His aim was to reintroduce the sort of lucid wisdom expressed in these proverbs into a church and secular government that had lost sight of the common people, and so of Christ’s original message, which embraced the powerless and disenfranchised.

Erasmus by Hans Holbein

Erasmus’ friends Thomas More and John Rastell shared his view of the redemptive power of words properly used in grammar, rhetoric and reasoning; but their focus at the beginning of their careers was on the secular letter of the law. More famously depicted in Utopia a land where the law is reduced to a few simple precepts understood by all citizens, in token of the common responsibility for government which is the founding principle of his invented society. John Rastell sought to realize this vision in his own country, England, by printing the first translations of English law into the English language, thus removing the mystique that had woven itself around legal processes by virtue of the erudite language in which they were couched. Rastell’s translations proved so popular that they went on being reprinted into the eighteenth century; and the global success of More’s Utopia is well known. But it’s also well known that the dreams of these humanists were just that: idealistic dreams, which never stood a chance of achieving a proper reformation of church and state in any country. We know this now, of course, with the advantage of hindsight; and it’s clear that all three writers knew it then, since they chose to convey their dreams, in part at least, through comic fiction. But I would suggest that they knew it in different degrees. Rastell really seems to have thought he could effect some sort of change in English society, since he converted to Protestantism in old age and set about furthering the cause with all his resources – in fact, he bankrupted himself in the end as he worked to establish radical Protestantism in England. Erasmus, too, truly believed that he could change the world with his words – or rather with God’s words freshly presented to readers alongside his commentaries – though he had few illusions about how radical the change must be or how hard to effect. More, on the other hand, knew full well that his utopianism was utopian; that however ‘good’ it was, it existed nowhere, and that there was little hope that any of its precepts would be accepted in Europe any time soon. As I said, with the advantage of hindsight it could be said that these writers’ comic fictions represent these positions with startling accuracy. It’s time, then, to turn to those fictions to see if they bear out this contention.

The theme of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly is inversion. The goddess Folly distinguishes a vast variety of foolishnesses as she argues for her own centrality to human experience, first by showing how she dominates each individual’s life from birth to death, then by schematically illustrating the foolishness of each estate or class in European society, with special emphasis on the people who regard themselves as least ridiculous, the ruling classes of church and state. But two special kinds of folly are pitted against each other throughout her discourse. The first is the folly of simplicity, which states openly and plainly in the most lucid words what is and what (in Christian terms) should be – and hence attracts derision from the powerful, who have a vested interest in keeping things obscure an incomprehensible. The second is the folly of sophistication, which aims to complicate the simple tenets of Christianity through verbal obfuscation in the interests of underpropping tyranny. As Folly’s mock sermon unfolds, we learn that the dominant folly of sophisticated people is the pretence of following Christ’s simple philosophy, as Erasmus calls it elsewhere, while actually following the fool-osophy of self-interest – which means that what’s called folly by the world is in God’s eyes wisdom, and vice versa. Folly’s constant switching between these two brands of folly produces a vertiginous effect on the reader, so that we find ourselves constantly wrong-footed, repeatedly enmeshed in one folly or another until the sermon’s final section, when the ecstatic foolishness of Christ’s followers emerges triumphant as the one stance worth cultivating. Erasmus’s constant comic violation of the reader’s expectations in this discourse leaves us without stability except in Christ, whose perspicuousness or simplicity of phrase and purpose is confirmed at last as the only certain ground in a world turned inside out by the Fall. The radically disturbing effect of the sermon preached by Erasmus’s Folly, with all its comic volatility, was confirmed by the condemnations to which it became subject; including, of course, the famous statement by More, at the height of the Lutheran controversy, that he would rather have it burnt with his own Utopia than add its fuel to the mounting flames of religious revolution.

Roman mask of Silenus

It’s ironic that the celebration of simplicity should have been so central to a text that delights in its own complexity, its cunning play of one form of absurd behaviour against another. One might say the same for Erasmus’s Adagia, where simple proverbs open out like boxes to disclose the wealth of ideas they can accommodate. But in the Fallen world we have lived in since the exile of Adam and Eve from the first utopia, Eden, the relationship between simplicity and sophistication has been drastically reversed or inverted, so Erasmus believed. As a result, the simple playfulness of verbal punning (like the pun of his book’s title) has been transformed by unscrupulous authorities into self-serving trickery, lies and fraud. This is best illustrated by comparing two of the metaphors he uses in The Praise of Folly. The first is the ‘Silenus of Alcibiades’, a grotesque statue that opens up like a container to reveal the figure of a god concealed inside. Erasmus sees words themselves, when properly used, as such a container, and he repeatedly returns in his pedagogic writings to the idea of words and phrases as boxes that can be endlessly unpacked. The other metaphor, which is the reverse of the Silenus, is the theatre, where a resplendent show conceals the physical and moral turpitude or sickness of the actors. A prince resembles an actor, Folly tells us, when he seems ‘bothe riche, and a great lorde’ but has ‘no good qualitees of the mynde’; and she pursues this analogy by imagining ‘one at a solemne stage plaie’ who decides ‘to plucke of the plaiers garmentes, whiles they were saiyng of theyr partes, and so disciphre unto the lokers on, the true and native faces of the plaiers’. Under these conditions ‘who before plaied the woman, shoulde than appeare to be a man: who seemed a youth, should shew his hore heares: who countrefaited the kynge, shulde tourne to a rascall, and who plaied god almightie, shulde become a cobler as he was before’ (37-8). The person who removes the players’ costumes in mid-performance exposes the absurd illusion that allows the play to function, just as the analyst who exposes the disparity between a prince’s splendid appearance and his sordid personality reveals the absurd illusion that sustains monarchic authority in contemporary Europe.

At the same time, the costume remover exposes his own folly by his actions. Doesn’t such a man ‘marre all the mattier,’ Folly asks, ‘and well deserve for a madman to be pelted out of the place with stones’? Elsewhere she describes the pagan gods as looking down on the unruly ‘Theatre’ of the world and laughing at all mortals without exception. To see oneself as planted somehow outside this universal theatre – as spectator rather than actor – is delusional; so that the critic who strips the actors of their costumes discloses his own inability to see that he is one of them. Even those few men or women who glimpse the truth make themselves foolish by their efforts to describe it: ‘thei doo speake certaine thynges not hangyng one with an other, nor after any earthly facion, but rather dooe put foorth a voice they wote never what, much lesse to be understode of others’. In the process they too become actors: clowns or fools who entertain the rest of the world with their incoherent jabbering. The quest for the simplicity of truth, then, is as much a form of folly in the fallen world as the sophistication that seeks to conceal the true nature of things for personal advantage. No one is free from Folly’s influence; so it hardly seems surprising that Erasmus never took a hard line in the reformation struggles that broke out after his book was published. He was not arrogant enough to suppose he was exceptional; and The Praise of Folly illustrates this wittily self-conscious humility on every page. His book is utopian in that the ideal Christian exists nowhere – that is, he or she is an exile in a world that has dedicated itself to something very different from the Christian ideal. The hope Folly’s sermon offers us is that ideal Christianity nevertheless exists, not just in Heaven but hidden away in the nooks and crannies and strange containers of the human mind, and of the mind’s preferred mode of communication, the art of words.

Thomas More by Hans Holbein

More’s most celebrated work, Utopia, adopts a different perspective. If Erasmus is concerned with inversions and reversals, More dwells on separations, dividing his text into two parts as if to confirm the eternal division between the knotty complexities of Tudor England, as described in the first book, and the rationality of the communist state described in the second. The man who brings news of Utopia to Europe is Raphael Hythloday, the angelic messenger (as his Christian name suggests) who is also a purveyor of nonsense (as his surname indicates). Hythloday tells More that he lived in Utopia for several years, and that he would never have left it except to spread word of its achievements – to serve as a secular evangelist for the ideal society. Yet Hythloday refuses to offer his services to kings for fear of being contaminated by the corruption of courts. As a result, news of Utopia is confined to More’s comic fiction, which can be dismissed by kings and their advisors as a toy, a tissue of impossibilities fit only for leisure-time perusal by the small band of erudite readers who know Greek and Latin. This superior attitude of kings and the aristocracy towards Utopia exactly mirrors the superior attitude of the discoverer of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, who sees himself as self-evidently more intelligent than any adviser currently serving a European prince. And More’s persona in the book seems to share this superior attitude, to judge, at least, by his use of the theatrical metaphor, which is so very different from the use of it made by Folly.

In an effort to persuade Hythloday that philosophers should serve as counsellors to kings, More makes a famous distinction between the philosopher who gives the same advice to every audience and the philosopher who adapts his words to the needs and whims of each recipient. The former, More contends, may be compared to the man who interrupts one theatrical performance with another, obtruding a solemn speech from a Senecan tragedy into the buzz and burley of a Plautine comedy so that he ‘must needs mar and pervert the play that is in hand, though the stuff that you bring be much better’. In the same way, when serving in a prince’s court one must not ‘labour to drive into their heads new and strange information which you know well shall be nothing regarded with them that be of clean contrary minds. But you must with a crafty wile and a subtle train study and endeavour yourself, as much as in you lieth, to handle the matter wittily and handsomely for the purpose; and that which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad’. Throughout this account More assumes, like Hythloday, that the philosopher – he himself – is wiser than the men he deals with, and guileful enough to insinuate part of his advice into ‘contrary minds’ through a clever performance. Hythloday points out that such a performance runs the risk of propping up corrupt regimes, since how can one persuade a monarch to do anything except by flattery? But even this objection continues to imply a sharp distinction between the principled humanist counselor and the ignorant men he seeks to influence. This distinction corresponds to the difference between the carefully rationalized order of Utopia, described in the second book, and the chaotic social and legal practices of Europe; and the narrative concludes with the acknowledgment that it is unlikely Europe will ever be influenced by even the best Utopian ideas: ‘so must I needs confess and grant that many things be in the Utopian weal public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope for’. Hythloday and More cannot agree on the philosopher’s role in a modern state; but they do agree that in the end no modern state will accommodate any good principles he may put forward, however ingeniously. Utopia, then, anticipates More’s final performance at the court of Henry VIII, when he played out his own dissent from the king’s agenda by cracking jokes on his way to the tragic scaffold. The book’s ostensible topic is communism, but its effect is to reinforce the isolation of the tiny community of humanist thinkers from everyone else in Europe.

More was inclined to preserve this isolation as far as possible; an ambition that runs counter to his famous pleasure in taking part in stage performances and cracking jokes. In his works More often expresses particular anxiety about the new medium of print and its capacity for slipping out of the author’s control, putting sensitive political and religious ideas in the hands of the malicious or the uninformed. His persona Morus, for instance, tells Peter Gillis that he is unsure whether to print Utopia:

For the natures of men be so diverse, the phantasies of some so wayward, their minds so unkind, their judgments so corrupt, that they which lead a merry and jocund life, following their own sensual pleasures and carnal lusts, may seem to be in a much better state or case than they that vex and unquiet themselves with cares and study for the putting forth and publishing to others, which others will disdainfully, scornfully, and unkindly accept the same.

Where his brother-in-law the printer John Rastell tends to note with amazement the multitude of alternative points of view in the commonwealth, and the enthusiasm with which they’re being disseminated in print, More is concerned that many of these different points of view proceed from ‘corrupt judgments’ – a phrase that testifies to his lifelong concern with religious and political orthodoxy. Merriment, in this passage, is both a private affair and in this case a corrupt one, since the ‘merry and jocund life’ he represents as easier than a hard-working one dedicates itself exclusively to ‘sensual pleasures and carnal lusts’. At the same time, More has no time for people who don’t appreciate a good joke (and merriness and jocundity are both words associated with jokes and funny stories). The worst reader of his book, he insists, would be ‘One [who] is so sour, so crabbed, and so unpleasant, that he can away with no mirth or sport’, or ‘so narrow between the shoulders, that he can bear no jests or taunts’. The clash between these two positions – both in favour of and antagonistic to jokes and merry-making – is what makes More such a fascinating figure, despite his later propensity for torturing and burning people who didn’t agree with his religious position.

As I’ve mentioned already, More limited the number of hostile or perverse readings of Utopia by printing it in Latin, and in later life he famously expressed the view that it should be burned along with the Praise of Folly rather than set forth in English, for fear of corrupting the ‘wayward phantasies’ of its unlearned readers even further than they had been already. Merry-making became an increasingly serious matter as the religious controversies of the 1520s got under way. More’s most significant intervention in the Lutheran controversy, the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, places most of its ‘merry tales’ or funny stories in the mouth of a youthful ‘Messenger’ with whom More disputes concerning Luther’s doctrines. At one point, More warns the young man against the comic anti-clerical anecdotes that were so popular in the period – and to which More himself had contributed more than once – because they lay undue emphasis on laughable members of the clergy rather than on those who set good examples. The Dialogue Concerning Heresies also presents itself as a testament to the dangers of the printing press. More worries about printing it because it contains eloquent accounts of so many of the heresies he seeks to refute. He decides to do so, in the end, because of the fear that the Messenger may misrepresent More’s arguments, printing them in a version that gives greater weight to the young man’s own ‘corrupt judgment’ as a Lutheran sympathizer than to the authoritative judgment of the church as articulated by the older man. By the time of his Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation, which he wrote in prison under the shadow of execution, More was even more ambivalent about the value of wit at a time of religious controversy. The first book alludes to two biblical texts on the delicate problem of comic timing: ‘Woe may you be that laugh now, for you shall wail and weep’, ‘There is time of weeping and there is time of laughing’. More goes so far as to assert that in both passages Christ ‘setteth the weeping time before; for that is the time of this wretched world, and the laughing time shall come after in heaven’. By this reasoning, well-timed mirth can only occur after death. Fortunately in the second book of the Dialogue More chooses to ignore this perception and tells a string of funny stories designed to lift the reader’s mood. But there’s an indication in much of his work that the merry tales he tells, and the kind of merry-making in which he participates, is an essentially private affair that can only be safely enjoyed by the learned and their carefully vetted employees. Part of what makes the Messenger in the Dialogue Concerning Heresy susceptible to Lutheran influences is his impatience with learning, despite his evident intelligence; and More is inclined to put this position down to sheer laziness, asserting that the Lutheran insistence on an unmediated reading of the Bible arises from the fact that he is simply too lazy to read the commentaries of the Church Fathers. For More, both printing and laughter can get out of hand, and he circumscribes his enterprises in both areas with warnings and provisos.

Utopia itself is isolated from the rest of the world, both geographically and conceptually speaking. More tells Peter Giles in the letter at the beginning that he only managed to write it in snatches: ‘I therefore do win and get only that time which I steal from meat and sleep’. We eventually reach Raphael Hythloday’s account of Utopia through a thicket of debates about England: the effects of enclosure, the punishment of criminals, the value of advising monarchs, the operation of the law, all these things get in the way of the perfect commonwealth and no consensus is reached about them. Utopia, on the other hand, is one universal consensus. Nothing is hidden there, all thoughts and ideas are open, the laws are readily comprehensible to all citizens, there even seems to be general agreement about which books are most interesting – and the Utopian taste in books corresponds very closely with More’s (they love the Greek satirist Lucian, for instance, whose work More translated into Latin with his friend Erasmus). At the same time, the consensus is reached by a remorseless logic that protects itself with threats of violence; as Hythloday’s narrative goes on, in Ralph Robinson’s translation, the word ‘death’ gets repeated with alarming frequency, as the agreements among the Utopians are defended against those who might object to them with the ultimate sanction of capital punishment. If you don’t agree with our logic, the implication is, no matter how we talk and explain and reason, you must die. It would seem that reaching consensus is a costly business. Meanwhile, the lack of consensus between the Utopians and the rest of the world means that communication between them is not only difficult but more or less impossible. The famous story of the ambassadors from a neighbouring country who bedeck themselves in gold to impress the Utopians and instead find themselves to be objects of derision – Utopians only dress children and fools in gold, since it’s a useless metal for any practical purposes – suggests that the opposite values held by outsiders and Utopian insiders make dialogue profoundly problematic. A similar verbal impasse is suggested when Hythloday tells his listeners ironically that the Utopian logicians – scholars of logic or reason – are much inferior to European ones, since ‘they have not devised one of all those rules of restrictions, amplifications, and suppositions, very wittily invented in the small logicals (logical textbooks) which her our children in every place do learn’. Utopian logic is simple and readily comprehensible to all, and this makes it incomprehensible to non-Utopian specialists in logic. The basic values of this society in terms of gold – the staple content of European treasuries – and the use of reason are entirely different; which means that only a few eccentric Europeans who can appreciate their point of view are able to talk to the Utopians at all.

It’s not surprising, then, that while the Utopians have welcomed and absorbed a great deal of knowledge from the outside world, the rest of the world has learned nothing from Utopia. They inhabit different conceptual spheres, speak different languages, cleave to different values, which explains the shutting down of possibilities with which the second part concludes, when More speaks of the ‘many things […] in the Utopian weal-public which in our cities I may rather wish for than hope for’. Laughter separates the Utopians from ourselves – the derision of the Utopians for the foreign ambassadors, the derision of foreign logicians for Utopian logic. Perhaps More’s simultaneous approval and disapproval of jokes and humour springs from this: that there are different kinds of laughter, some of which draws people together, others of which drive a wedge between them, and the difficult business of knowing the difference between them is a matter of life and death.

John Rastell’s comic fiction is almost unknown in the twentieth century; it’s utopian in the sense that it’s nowhere now, but I also want to suggest that it’s utopian in the political sense, aiming to establish an egalitarian commonwealth in the land of its publication. It can be found in a small collection called A Hundred Merry Tales, which he published in 1526 and was still well enough known in Shakespeare’s time to earn a mention in Much Ado About Nothing. If More’s and Erasmus’s fictions crossed borders throughout Europe, Rastell’s collection is stubbornly English: it’s the first collection of comic fiction to locate itself firmly in England through the names and places it contains, and it doesn’t seem to have won fame outside its country of origin. Unlike the works of Erasmus and More it is anonymous; Rastell’s authorship can only be deduced from internal evidence, mainly its similarity to his excellent play The Four Elements. And it doesn’t claim any kind of authority, either through the humanist credentials of its author (since the writer is unnamed) or by the ease of scholarly reference that characterizes More’s and Erasmus’s writings. The men and women whose adventures Rastell relates come from all classes, trades and callings, so that the few critics who have written about his book tend to treat it as a sociological document, an anthology of popular anecdotes that were common currency in Rastell’s lifetime. The book stems, in fact, from an acceptance of popular or collective wisdom which is yet more radical, by implication, than Erasmus’s Adagia. And it also displays a determination to add a few grains to this collective wisdom. A couple of examples will give a flavour of its contents.

In tale 52, a ‘rude and unlerned’ young man is instructed by his priest to learn the Lord’s Prayer, and asks his friend to teach it to him in exchange for something more valuable: ‘a songe of Robyn Hode that shall be worth xx of it’. The humour here arises from the incompatible value systems held by the church and the ‘rude’ young man: in Tudor culture stories of Robin Hood were used as synonyms for worthlessness, because of their popularity, their simplicity, their self-conscious opposition to the ‘high’ matter of chivalric romance. But Rastell’s tale doesn’t pass judgment on the young man’s valuation of such songs and stories. In the course of getting to the punchline we are given a detailed ‘exposicyon’ of the ‘vii peticyons’ contained in the Lord’s Prayer; and the moral of the story merely makes mention of what we have learned while we were reading it: ‘By thys tale ye may lerne to knowe the effecte of the holy prayer of the Pater noster’. One could add that the tale instructs the clergy in their duty to their parishioners, since the young man has not reaped much benefit from clerical tuition. The worth of the Lord’s Prayer has been declared to the reader of this story by way of a reference to Robin Hood, and these two very different forms of discourse work together to a worthwhile end.

The same could be said, in fact, of all the ‘merry tales’ in Rastell’s collection. The story of the pater noster occurs in a part of the book that is given over to religious instruction. Embedded among the comic narratives, this sequence of four stories – from 52 to 55 – explain certain key texts of the Christian liturgy: the pater noster, the Ave Maria, the creed and the ten commandments. The sequence might remind us that many medieval collections of merry tales claim to have been assembled for the use of the clergy, who liked to inject comic anecdotes into their sermons. But it also confirms Rastell’s commitment to the project of making knowledge common. Tale 53, for instance, the story of a friar who preaches in rhyme, sets the good intentions of the preacher against the snobbery of the courtiers in his congregation. The friar explains the Ave Maria, the narrator tells us, ‘in suche fonde ryme, that dyvers and many gentlemen of the court that were there began to smyle and laughe’, whereupon the friar rebukes them for mocking a man who seeks to ‘preche to you the worde of God’. The tale ends with a moral that seems to side with the courtiers: ‘the most holyest matter that is, by fond pronuncyacion and otterauns, may be marryd nor shall not edyfye to the audyence’. But this conclusion is followed by a second moral or summary: ‘by thys tale they that be unlearnyd in the laten tonge may knowe the sentence of the Ave Maria’. For the courtiers, then, the sermon was marred by the manner of its ‘otterauns’ or delivery; but for the unlearned it was rendered more effective by being conveyed in memorable verse. The courtiers in the tale are clearly uninterested in the edification of the unlearned; and it seems that many priests share their indifference, since the friar’s lesson is only necessary to his non-courtly hearers because they have not been properly taught by previous preachers. A reformist perspective can be detected in this story, making it consistent with Rastell’s lifelong concern for making things common: from his translations of the English law for the use of all readers, to his publication of the first popular history of England, The Pastime of People, in 1530, to his conversion to reformed religion a year or so later, won over by its commitment to making the scriptures available to all Christians.

Rastell’s philosophy may again be best summed up by his attitude to theatre. Tale 54, on the ‘artycles of the Crede’, urges its readers to go to Coventry ‘for a more […] suffycyent auctoryte’ of its doctrines, where ‘ye shall se them all playe in Corpus Cristi playe’. Rastell was a member of the Coventry Gild of Corpus Christi, so it’s pleasing to hear him ascribe ‘auctoryte’ to his gild’s productions of the popular religious plays known as mysteries. Tale 3 tells the story of a man called John Adroyns who played the devil in a Suffolk mystery play; his failure to remove his costume after a performance leads to a succession of terrifying encounters, which culminate with a gentleman coming to the door of his house with a chaplain, armed with holy water, to prevent the supposed devil from collecting his immortal soul. In this tale, an illusion or fantasy begins in ‘feare’ and ends in ‘myrthe and dysporte’, as everyone finally disentangles the confusions that caused such chaos. So too in tale 16, a thieving miller and his accomplice get mistaken for a ghost and a devil, in the process becoming inadvertent actors like John Adroyns and spreading havoc throughout the community. Here, too, the moral or exegesis alludes to the defusing of tensions and the pointlessness of paranoia: ‘it is foly for any man to fere a thing to moche, tyll that he se some profe or cause’. In these last two cases, entire communities are deceived by accident, a situation that is resolved by a collective agreement as to the interpretation of events which restores ‘myrthe and dysporte’ without resort to clerical intervention. No social class or religious order is exempt from folly; and the ease with which a collective resolution is reached reflects the optimistic outlook that led the ageing Rastell to adopt the Lutheran confession, and to devote the remainder of his days – along with his printing press and the whole of his fortune – to the furtherance of the Lutheran cause in England.

Rastell was jailed in 1536 for arguing against the payment of tithes to the church, and died in prison without a trial; an ironic ending for a man who had devoted so much time to making the law accessible to ordinary people. He is not remembered as a martyr; but even this oblivion is not inappropriate for a man who repeatedly insisted that his objective was not self-promotion but to benefit the English commonwealth, working quietly behind the scenes for its reformation. All three of our writers claimed to serve the commonwealth, and did so in part through the common currency of laughter; but only Rastell chose to do so in the common language, which perhaps explains why he was so susceptible to conversion. The other texts we’ve discussed today – Erasmus’s Praise of Folly and More’s Utopia – were first translated into English in the radical religious climate of the reign of Edward VI. Protestant readers of these texts would have received them in a very different light from their early Catholic readers. And it’s this difference, I would contend – the variety of readings to which these texts have been subjected, so that they are very far from the restricted documents More wanted to them to be – that makes the story of English comic fiction and reformation so well worth telling.

 

 

Mervyn Peake and the Poetics of Piracy

[This is the text of a keynote I gave recently at a terrific conference in Edinburgh, ‘Deeper than Swords: Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore’. It’s also a rough sketch, I hope, for something larger. Warm thanks to Anahit Behrooz and Harriet MacMillan for inviting me to give it!]

I’d like here to consider the work of Mervyn Peake as an extended exercise in what I’m calling the ‘poetics of piracy’. Peake had a lifelong obsession with pirates, born in part from his boyhood obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson: he is said to have known Treasure Island by heart, and his illustrated edition of that text, published in 1949, confirmed its continuing centrality to his imaginative life and artistic practice. The first book he wrote and published was a pirate story, Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939). One of his earliest surviving experiments in prose fiction, the unfinished Mr Slaughterboard (c. 1933-6), links piracy to the work of the artist in disturbing ways. His early verse is filled with the vocabulary of piracy, and pirates continue to emblazon and trouble his visual and verbal art throughout his career. It seems to me that thinking about what piracy meant to Peake can help us map out his peculiar relationship to what has come to be known as fantasy literature; to pin down its elusiveness, much as the map in Stevenson’s novel pins down the whereabouts of Captain Flint’s buried treasure – though it’s worth remembering that in the novel the chart obtained by Jim Hawkins proves an untrustworthy guide to the current location of the treasure in question. But then, that’s the point of the poetics of piracy; it’s all about the elusive, the illegal, the unsettling and the endlessly alluring, as seen in relation to the seemingly fixed and inviolable rules that govern the authoritative discourses of society, religion and science. I don’t promise, then, that I’ll be able to offer a conclusive account of Peake as a writer of fantasy; but his fascination with buccaneering literature and folklore can certainly explain why he so exasperatingly refuses to locate himself at the epicentre of any genre, which is itself, I think, a crucial quality of good fantasy fiction.

Peake’s most celebrated works of fiction, the Titus novels, have always had a vexed relationship to the fantastic. Nothing explicitly impossible takes place in them; they contain no magic; and indeed one of Peake’s few uses of the term ‘fantasy’ in the texts – when Titus encounters a wild girl known as the Thing – seems firmly to differentiate the physical environs of the titanic castle of Gormenghast from the immaterial fabrications of the human mind:

He was propelled forward by his imagination having been stirred to its depths by the sight of her. He had not seen her face. He had not heard her speak. But that which over the years had become a fantasy, a fantasy of dreaming trees and moss, of golden acorns and a sprig in flight, was fantasy no longer. It was here. It was now. He was running through heat and darkness towards it; to the verity of it all. (673)

 For Peake, then, the imagination is stimulated by what exists, by the rich evidence of the senses which forms the basis of the visual artist’s training, as he or she scrutinizes live or inanimate models with the aim of populating the mind with the precise proportions, textures, contours and colours of the real. At the same time the Thing, as represented to Titus’s imagination from his first sighting of her at the age of seven, has come to represent a range of qualities with associations to the pirate stories Titus loves as much as Peake does. A thief, a rebel and an outcast, the Thing’s opposition to the monumental authority of the boy’s ancestral home is embodied in the free-ranging agility of her frame, its seeming ability to defy the laws of gravity as well as of the books of ritual that restrict the daily movements of the castle’s denizens. Rooted or earthed in the real, despite her airiness, she represents the liberty to spin dazzling new structures from the materials afforded by empirical observation. And she is also deeply disturbing to him, as pirates are, even to lovers of pirate stories. In both these associations – with liberty and with inward disturbance – she has affinities with the faculty of fantasy which has been placed at the heart of a peculiarly modern literary genre.

Fantasy has always been a disreputable object. Its ancient Greek roots meant ‘making visible’, an exposure of that which has been hidden, perhaps for good reason; while in later Greek the word associated itself with the concept of having visions, as well as with the less alarming process of showing, demonstrating, pointing out. When used to refer to the imaginative faculty, the source of its disreputability comes to the fore. For early modern English speakers the Imagination or Fantasy was the part of your brain that received the evidence of the senses; but it was also capable of representing to your mind the images of things not actually present, which would seem to ally it with the faculty of Memory. The difference was that Memory was an orderly faculty full of shelves and files labeled in alphabetical and chronological order, grouped under headings and carefully connected with one another through a range of logical associations. The business of organizing mental images was that of the Understanding, which interposed itself between the unruly space of the Fantasy or Imagination and the storehouse of the Memory. Understanding, then, was a kind of sorting office staffed by efficient functionaries; while there was a wildness about the Fantasy before the Understanding got hold of it, an innate tendency to disconnect the mental image from all association with its original contexts, or to link images together which had never been conjoined in reality: tacking a fish’s tail or a horse’s body onto a human torso; assembling elaborate fusions of elements from different life forms to create griffins, dragons, and chimeras of all kinds. Memory was associated with maturity, with a settled awareness of one’s intellectual, social and moral responsibilities. Fantasy was associated with the playful, sometimes destructive or self-destructive exuberance of youth.

Some thinkers, like the Elizabethan poetic theorist George Puttenham, have always warned against inventing fictions altogether, since this could permanently distort one’s judgement of what is real. He split the fantasy into two kinds: the good sort, which conveyed things to the understanding ‘right as they be indeed’, and the bad sort that filled the analytical parts of the mind with false impressions. Poets, he said, should confine themselves to drawing on authentic memories or accurate representations of extant things when composing their verses; they should be historians. Writing about what never happened or could happen distorts not only the past but the efficient functioning of the present. Lawcourts could have their findings compromised by made-up testimony. Religions could become corrupted, as Plato said had happened in ancient Greece when poets allowed themselves to reimagine the gods. Governments could find their policies determined by non-existent threats or possibilities. For Puttenham as for Plato, irresponsible poetic fictions can proliferate like viruses, spawning insurrections, illusions and errors as they spread.

For the modern poet Jeffrey Robinson, Puttenham’s distinction between responsible and irresponsible fantasy – between the practice of poetic and intellectual realism and what we now call ‘making things up’ – endured in a subtly different form into the age of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the revolutionary movements that arose from it. Robinson identifies the famous distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817) as a struggle to distinguish between the orderly functioning of the imaginative faculty as, in effect, a tool of authority, imposing its unified vision on everything it comes in contact with, and its deployment as an instrument of exploration or discovery, a light skiff or launch capable of skimming from image to image, from one idea to the next, irrespective of the accepted relations between the various objects of its attention. The Fancy, which is etymologically linked with Fantasy, is for Robinson the precursor of twentieth-century modernist poetic experiment; but his list of its qualities could also serve as a description of how the genre of Fantasy Literature has often been perceived in modern times:

A faculty that acknowledges ‘the referent’ through the playful, unpredictable, erotically engaged, unregulated mind of the subject, without a ruling regard for the socially acceptable […] The Fancy […] begins to emerge as whimsical, playful, trivial, physical, sexual, and popular, more than enough reasons for the poetry of the Fancy to trouble the cultural police. […] Indeed, its triviality and whimsicality is precisely what keeps it from remaining a polite ornament of the literary aristocracy. […] Poetry of the Fancy isn’t about ‘work’ or ‘usefulness’ but about play. As do children, poems of the Fancy play seriously.

The qualities of ‘fancy’ as Robinson describes them here have survived from the early modern period to the present day in attitudes to the word fantasy, which is now a term of opprobrium in ordinary discourse, no longer dignified by association with a necessary mental function but used to denounce the childish failure to take proper account of the material conditions that govern our economic, social, political or even physical circumstances. Fantasy is irresponsible, fleeting, flippant, self-indulgent, infantile, wayward. As a result it’s also dangerous, especially when used as a guide in our daily actions. Too much fantasy can make you go blind.

The poetics of piracy are not the same as Robinson’s poetics of fancy, and they aren’t necessarily connected to the fantasy genre as we now understand it, since the folklore of piracy springs from what are deemed to be real people and real social practices, rooted in history. The origins of modern pirate folklore lie in an early eighteenth-century book, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1725), which recounts the purportedly factual adventures of a number of buccaneers whose names have passed into common currency: Bartholomew Roberts (better known as ‘the Dread’); Blackbeard; Calico Jack; William Kidd; and Israel Hands, who lent his name to the man shot dead by Jim Hawkins on the rigging of the Hispaniola. I don’t know if Peake was familiar with Johnson’s book, but all three of the principal texts he drew on for his boyhood dreams of piracy certainly were. Treasure Island is the first and foremost. The second, mentioned in Peake’s short story ‘I Bought a Palm Tree’ (1948), is that classic account of survival, piracy, and the healing powers of missionary work, R M Ballantyne’s The Coral Island; while the third is J M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. To look at Peake’s work through the prism of these three novels is to recognize the dominant role played by buccaneers not just in his plots and images but in his aesthetic philosophy, not just in his early years but throughout his life. His poetry, prose and pictures owe an incalculable debt to the figure of the sea-wolf as imagined by Ballantyne, Stevenson and Barrie, and a full understanding of the development of his most celebrated creation, Gormenghast Castle, can only be achieved by asking oneself why the notion of piracy should have proved so endlessly suggestive to this quintessential mid-twentieth-century artist.

What, then, do the pirates of legend and literature bring with them? First of all, they’re associated with boyhood and youth, as Peake knew very well. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor was a pirate book for children, and he drew dozens of pirate pictures for his sons in the Sunday Books – exercise books in which he sketched for them on Sundays – to such an extent that Michael Moorcock’s recent novelization of that document was more or less forced to take pirates as its subject. Like children, pirates have no sense of responsibility, breaking laws freely, abandoning families, friends and partners whenever they feel like it, killing each other on the slightest of pretexts without a qualm (children do this in play). Their resistance to convention is given physical expression by their mobility: pirate ships sail the seas at the whim of the crew, not in obedience to instructions from outside authorities as is the case with most seagoing vessels. At the same time there are severe constraints on a pirate’s freedom, the chief of these being the ship itself, which confines its crew within a narrow circuit more effectively than any building or institution. Pirates are also often subject to tyranny. The imposition of the captain’s will by force, widely practised on other vessels, takes its most extreme form in the spontaneous and inventive acts of cruelty practised by certain legendary leaders among the buccaneers – though there’s also a folkloric tradition of more or less democratic practices under the sign of the Jolly Roger. Rituals govern them: the necessary rituals associated with the everyday running of the ship, supplemented by additional oaths, codes, rules or agreements enforced with threats of appalling violence. Pirate ships are often represented as all-male communities, and this too imposes constraints: certain forms of behaviour are associated with masculinity in any given culture or period, and the lack of any alternative gender perspective can mean that notions of ‘manhood’ govern the pirate’s thoughts, desires and actions. Same-sex desire is perhaps more widespread under these conditions than in mixed-sex communities, and though this has traditionally tended to be eschewed in children’s fiction, it’s worth noting how central it is to Peake’s own children’s book, Captain Slaughterboard, which is one of the few narratives of the period to place what is clearly a homoerotic romance at its centre. Other piratical concerns are economic (they indulge in plunder – a word Peake uses repeatedly in his verse to describe the process of absorbing the physical wonders of the world through the eye – and conceal their treasure, which clearly works against the principles of capitalism); geographic and artistic (treasure maps are as inseparable from pirate culture as their icon, the Jolly Roger); and dramatic (pirates like to dress up and make theatrical speeches, and everyone else likes to dress up as pirates). To sum up: breaking national, international, moral and sartorial laws is what pirates do – sometimes by imposing laws of their own – and they do it as flamboyantly as possible. That, at least, is the folklore, and it’s from folklore as conveyed through literature that piracy derives its energy.

In the literary folklore there’s another association with pirates that hasn’t been much discussed, which is their complicated relationship with the middle classes. It’s Stevenson, I think, who’s responsible for this link. The young hero of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins, is the son of an innkeeper – the kind of job in the service industry that a retired pirate might well choose for himself, as in effect Long John Silver has done when Jim first meets him; but when mutiny breaks out he decides to throw in his lot with the ‘gentry’ rather than the sea dogs. Jim’s allies in the book are the local landowner, Squire Trelawney, a physician called Doctor Livesey, and Captain Smollett, and his adventures see him make the transition from servant (he is employed before the cruise alongside the squire’s gamekeeper, and serves as cabin boy on board the squire’s ship) to junior partner in the economic enterprise of seeking the titular treasure. At the same time Jim is strongly drawn to the charismatic ship’s cook, Silver, who has an astonishing ability to make himself equally attractive to the working men of the crew and to their masters, and who switches sides between them at a moment’s notice when it suits his interests. Silver, in fact, represents another aspect of pirates: their ability to merge with other communities, springing spontaneously out of the disciplined ranks of a legitimate crew and melting away into anonymity as soon as they disembark at the end of a voyage. Whatever his class origins, Silver’s easy relations with all classes, his predatory focus on economic self-interest, his insouciant pleasure in legal and economic risk-taking, his constant reinvention of himself as innkeeper, cook, friend, conspirator, captain, rebel, trusty servant and eventually fugitive, all stand to endear him to the guilty bourgeoisie who secretly share many of his values and even some of his techniques. The ease with which Jim might find himself on Silver’s side can be measured by the speed of Ralph’s capture and impression as a pirate in The Coral Island; but where Ralph never feels at home aboard the pirate ship – at least until he acquires it for himself – one can imagine Jim feeling thoroughly at home with Silver once committed to his cause.

Piracy, in fact, can represent the middle classes’ flirtation with working class culture; and this is confirmed by the personality of that most middle-class of pirates, Captain Hook, who is haunted by his failures during his schooldays at Eton, and who shares his persona in crucial ways with Peter Pan: both feel the lack of a mother, both enjoy a little swordplay, and both tyrannize over their social inferiors, giving vent to their moods whenever they feel like it and indulging in occasional bouts of disloyalty or outright betrayal. Both, too, thrive on having enemies, to the extent that Peter’s bereavement of Hook at the end of the novel compounds the sense of desolation generated by his effectual marooning on his island by Wendy and the Lost Boys. Hook and Peter represent the middle-class view of piracy – a temporary game in a contained alien space which arouses forbidden lusts (for blood, dictatorship, extreme risk-taking, imaginative self-indulgence) only to suppress them as the book draws to a close, allowing its young reader to return, perhaps a little embittered, to his or her preordained role in polite society.

Mervyn Peake’s attachment to piracy is everywhere apparent in his poems. Pirates and the poetics of piracy as I’ve sketched it out enable him to articulate his fierce resistance to the economic and social pressures that threaten to curtail his practices as an artist, and to acknowledge the link he sees between the destructive energy of violence and the creative stimulus he derives from the natural world. The earliest verses in the Collected Poems figure the dawn as a potentially piratical act of murder: ‘The’invisible scimitar of Morn, / Again had passionately torn / And slashed the Sky’s pale neck’, which culminates unexpectedly in a birth: ‘And in that welter of living fire / Be-jewelled and robed to his heart’s desire / Was born – young Day’. This three-way link between blood, fire and new life continued to resonate in Peake’s mind into the 1940s, finding its most startling expression in the encounter between a decidedly piratical sailor and a newborn baby in the fires of the Blitz in his 1947 ballad, ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’. An equally troubling association between beauty and violence emerges from Peake’s frequent references to the artist’s absorption of information through his senses as a process of piratical looting. In ‘If I Could See, Not Surfaces’ (1937), for instance, he speaks of his desire to ‘plunder splendor / At the womb’, and of how this activity promises to feminize him so that he can ‘give bold birth / To long / Rivers of song’ (so birth comes into the equation here too). These are neither of them specifically buccaneering references, but there are plenty of those, from the description of the artist Mané Katz’s Paris studio as ‘a pirate’s glutted locker’ (1937) to the account of unemployed young men in ‘The Cocky Walkers’ (c. 1937) as skidding ‘Their careless privateer’ down the ‘seas’ of London streets ‘Agog for a gold island / Or a war / With penny pirates on a silver sand’. In 1942, when Peake suffered a nervous breakdown in the army, he pictured himself and his fellow patients at Southport Hospital as sickly sea-dogs, ‘The swashbucklers / Who have to be in bed by half past nine […] The unconvincing pirates of the ward’. And if in his last known poems pirates aren’t mentioned by name, the imagery of the sea and its devastations lingers on, as in ‘Great Hulk down the Astonished Waters Drifting’ (c. 1958), which records what could well be the aftermath of a life of piracy:

Where is her captain and the golden shore
Where danced the golden sailors? Where’s the sea
That sang of water when the heart was free
And mermaids sang where mermaids swim no more?

In all these verses, creativity and the artist’s receptiveness to beauty have an intimate connection to wandering, illicit adventures, flamboyant masculinity, playfulness, mutiny, pain and bloodshed – a potent and disturbing fusion that testifies to Peake’s sense that there is no officially sanctioned place for his kind of art (imaginative, grotesque, inflected by the influences of romanticism and popular culture) in the mid-twentieth century, any more than there is a place for psychiatric patients in the military machine.

For Peake as for Barrie and Stevenson, piracy is both at odds with and strangely attuned to the values of the middle classes. His most elaborate working-out of his buccaneering aesthetics was the eccentric prose narrative Mr Slaughterboard, whose titular pirate captain sails the oceans with a cargo of books lovingly preserved in a seaborne library, where he spends his days discussing literature with his manservant Smear, ‘An eyeless deformed creature dressed as if about to catch a train to London Bridge’. The narrative culminates in a massacre, Mr Slaughterboard having been assailed by an attack of creativity (‘the Captain was becoming aesthetic. Always dangerous’) which makes him command his crew to swim repeatedly under his vessel in a series of ever more demanding competitions until they are all wiped out. The captain claims to have a conscience, but it’s the kind that favours his leather-covered volumes of Dickens above human lives, that celebrates the aesthetic at the expense of his crewmembers, and that privileges the accumulation of an ever-increasing and diverse plunder of beauty – literary and visual – over everything else. Self-centred, murderous and godless, Mr Slaughterboard nonetheless shares the tastes of the bourgeoisie for all the components of conspicuous consumption – high culture, good clothes, congenial company and attractive surroundings – with a bourgeois disregard for the material processes by which they fall into his hands.

If the link between beauty and death lay at the heart of Peake’s aesthetics, then the outbreak of war must have come as a shock for him – not least because what it represented for him was a drastic extension of aesthetic ‘plunder’ for his inward piratical treasure chest or locker. As war swept over Europe he wrote two fine sonnets which responded with simultaneous horror and exhilaration to the beauty of warplanes: ‘The Metal Bird’ (c. 1937) and ‘Where Skidded Only in the Upper Air’ (c. 1939). During the Spanish Civil War he wrote a sonnet on the Spanish mannerist painter El Greco (1938), which reads his strangely elongated and brightly-coloured saints as premonitory visions of the bombing of Guernica: ‘Their beauty, ice-like, shrills – and everywhere / A metal music sounds, cold spirit shriven’. When World War 2 broke out Peake responded with a series of drawings in the style of Goya, showing works purportedly painted by ‘the Artist Adolf Hitler’ using the fields and towns of Europe as his canvas, in which standard studio subjects – ‘Family Group’, ‘Reclining Figure’, ‘Study of a Young Girl’ – are reconceived as images of atrocity, modeled on the real atrocities Hitler had sanctioned in his quest for power. Peake’s poetics of piracy had found a rival in the irresponsible, lawless, plunder-loving artist figure from Austria, who reproduced in actuality, using human material, the aesthetics of piracy as practised by Mr Slaughterboard. The collision between one version of piracy and another – between the buccaneering spirit of the lonely heart and the cold privateering of a would-be pirate dictator – provides the plot of the first two Titus books, Titus Groan (1946) and Gormenghast (1950). The books delineate an epic struggle over Peake’s imaginative territory, embodied in a monstrous post-medieval castle which doubles as a middle class household, its seemingly interminable rooms occupied by doctors, teachers, poets, and lonely children who might have been modeled on the inmates of British boarding schools. And it’s suffused from beginning to end with the poetics of piracy, shared freely between the youthful upstart Steerpike and the rest of the castle’s denizens, as if Peake is concerned to find a way to rescue his beloved buccaneering from its enforced association with the aesthetics of Nazism.

As G Peter Winnington has shown us, Gormenghast is an island full of natural wonders, prowled by bizarre creatures (all its denizens get linked to beasts at one point) and subject to violent natural forces, some of them as awe-inspiring as the tidal wave in The Coral Island (a calamitous snowfall, a period of scorching heat, a flood). As the novels proceed it becomes a territory ripe for exploring, inhabited by various tribes, each with its own exotic customs and cultural practices: the teachers of Gormenghast school, for instance, who can be seen ‘squatting like aboriginals upon their haunches’, or lurking in the shadows ‘like bandits in a bad light’. Despite being made of stone, it also resembles a ship by virtue of its creaking timbers, its cargo of unexpected treasures, the piratical manners of its crew. Like a ship the place is full of hammocks, from Rottcodd’s in the Hall of the Bright Carvings to the hammock Steerpike slings under the table at the Dark Breakfast, or the hammocks occupied by Bellgrove and Irma when the flood waters rise in the second volume. Even authority there has a piratical aura. The Master of Ceremonies, Barquentine, is named after a ship – the kind Captain Cook used when he sailed to Australia – and stumps around on a wooden leg like an elderly Silver, cursing and threatening violence wherever he goes. Lady Gertrude is a giant pirate with a booming voice, who has a horde of affectionate birds instead of a parrot, a bevy of white ship’s cats and an utter disregard for any authority besides her duty to what is effectively her ship – the castle itself. She is constantly being compared to a vessel, and her language is a pirate’s, as when she swears to track down the killer of her husband at the end of Titus Groan: ‘Let them rear their ugly hands, and by the Doom, we’ll crack ’em chine-ways’ (p. 347). Her daughter Fuchsia, meanwhile, is sometimes one of the natives of the territory colonized by the sea-wolves, sometimes the sea-wolves’ young accomplice, a female Jim Hawkins. She enters her private attic like a pearl diver entering the sea, ‘his world of wavering light’, and moves through it with the confidence of a Cherokee or a Sioux, knowing every inch of it ‘as an Indian knows his green and secret trail’. One of the items she keeps in the attic is a pirate portrait of ‘the twenty-second Earl of Groan’, who has ‘pure white hair and a face the colour of smoke as a result of immoderate tattooing’ (p. 57). Once ensconced in her lair beneath the rafters, she reads a nonsense poem about a seaborne cake who is pursued by an amorous and deadly piratical knife; and the poem proves prophetic, since it’s there that she encounters Steerpike, who presents himself (after reading her books and guessing at her tastes) as a bold adventurer, a rebel and a dangerous would-be lover – a kind of landlocked pirate.

The servant classes of Gormenghast, too, have piratical aspects. The grotesque physical appearances of Flay and Swelter recall the bizarre bodies and outlandish manners of Mr Slaughterboard’s crew, and its inspiration, Captain Hook’s crew in Peter and Wendy (‘Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed […] Gentleman Starkey, once an usher in a public school and still dainty in his ways of killing […] Noodler, whose hands were fixed on backwards’). The climactic battle between Flay and Swelter in the Hall of Spiders evokes the random duels to the death between grappling pirates in Treasure Island. They turn the Hall into a feverish nocturnal tropical island, full of ‘lianas’ of trailing thread, oppressive heat and reflections from water:

As pirates in the hot brine-shallows wading, make, face to face, their comber-hindered lunges, sun-blind, fly-agonied, and browned with pearls, so here the timbers leaned, moonlight misled and the rank webs impeded.

In this context Swelter comes into his own, moving ‘more and more like something from the deeps where the grey twine-weed coils the sidling sea-cow’. He also acquires a distinct resemblance to Long John Silver, who had, if you remember, ‘a face as big as a ham ’; so too, as Swelter stalks Flay we learn that he has a ‘great ham of a face’, which seems at odds with its earlier representation as a place of opening and closing cavities of fat. At the climax of the battle Swelter moves yet further into pirate territory. His freshly-slain corpse becomes a vessel, with Flay’s sword sticking out of it ‘like a mast of steel’ (p. 318). Flay’s own piratical apotheosis has to wait till he becomes marooned, transforming himself into a ragged and hairy Ben Gunn whose cave contains not treasure but – in the end – the Thing – for it’s in Flay’s cave that Titus finally catches hold of her, acquiring in the process the sort of imaginative ‘plunder’ Peake recorded in his poems.

The central form piracy takes in the Titus books is its embodiment in two boys: the upstart Steerpike and Titus himself. Both are rebels who dream of taking charge of their own destiny; both rove freely across the landscape of the castle; both detest the oppressive weight of authority, and both trigger acts of treason and rebellion again and again throughout the two novels. Steerpike, at the beginning, is the one who discovers the castle’s potential as a setting for romance, scaling its precipitous walls like a young adventurer scaling cliffs, unveiling its hidden wonders such as the terrace open to the sky, and spinning exotic yarns to Fuchsia like the old sea-cook Silver in his galley (and of course Steerpike begins the book in the galley or kitchen too). But Steerpike is also a thief, who steals other people’s romances – notably Fuchsia’s – and uses them to further his own ends, thereby destroying their imaginative landscapes as he destroys Lord Sepulchrave’s library. In the second book he seeks to supplant young Titus as the protagonist – and it’s striking how he seems if anything to get younger in that book, as if to make this possible: playing games such as walking on his hands for no good reason, tormenting the Twins like a bullying schoolboy, cutting off Barquentine’s hair in clumps with a pair of scissors as he walks behind him, acquiring a catapult which he uses to deadly effect. The analogy to Peter Pan grows increasingly obvious. As he approaches Barquentine’s bedroom, planning to murder him, his shadow gains an independent life of its own in one of Peake’s most astonishing virtuoso passages (the shadow grows and shrinks until it becomes a ‘thick and stunted thing – a malformation, intangible, terrible, that led the way towards those rooms where its immediate journey could, for a while, be ended’, p. 567). Later Steerpike learns the pipe, Peter Pan’s instrument; and before the end of the book he has started to crow like a cock, Peter’s trademark cry of triumph: first over the corpses of the Twins he murdered – then, fatally, as Titus plunges towards him through the ivy in the final showdown between the two young men.

Meanwhile, he retains both the adaptability of Long John Silver – able to speak to any denizen of the castle in his or her own language whenever he chooses – and his casual murderousness. When Steerpike kills Flay, he does it in much the same way as Silver kills the young sailor, Tom, who refuses to join his mutiny. In Treasure Island Jim watches in horror as John ‘whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back’; and Silver follows the missile ‘agile as a monkey’ and ‘twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body’ (p. 97). In the same way Steerpike flings a knife at Flay, watched by the horrified Titus, and ‘while the blade […] still quivered in his heart […] following the path of the flung knife, as though he were tied behind it, sped over their shoulders and was in the upper room before they could recover’. Once a fugitive after the killing, Steerpike seems to come into his own; he finds his Satanic solitude in the deserted places of the castle utterly congenial, and embraces it so completely that he generates a Silver- or Pan-like aura around himself even as the manhunt closes in, convincing his pursuers that he could ‘hide in a rudder’, as the Countess puts it.

Titus too is a rebel, an explorer of the castle, a congenital loner, and a player of games (though his game is marbles, not theatrical posturing). His imagination, much more than Steerpike’s, is possessed by pirates. As he muses in a sun-drenched classroom, one of his marbles spawns another astonishing flight of fancy – sunny and colourful, in marked contrast to the passage about Steerpike’s shadow:

Wading towards him, dilating as they neared until they pressed out and broke the frame of fancy, was a posse of pirates. They were as tall as towers, their great brows beetling over their sunken eyes, like shelves of overhanging rocks. In their mouths were hoops of red gold, and in their mouths scythe-edged cutlasses a-drip. […] And still they came on, until there was only room enough for the smouldering head of the central buccaneer, a great salt-water lord, every inch of whose face was scabbed and scarred like a boy’s knee, whose teeth were carved into the shapes of skulls, whose throat was circled by the tattooing of a scaled snake.

Following the pirates’ example, Titus breaks out of the ‘frame of fancy’ – making his daydreams real by playing hooky on Gormenghast Mountain, seeking out the castaway Flay in his cave, evading the rituals that are meant to define his days, and finally tracking down his rival Steerpike in a feverish daze, as if infected by the marshes of Treasure Island, to engage him in single combat. In the process of pursuing his piratical dreams, Titus sees the castle fulfil its potential as the stronghold of liberating romance, as against the authoritarian prison of the policed imagination – or the grim playground of a dictator, which is what Steerpike seeks to make it. At the beginning of the second novel, Peake points out how the castle holds all the ingredients of an adventure story, a boy’s own thriller: ‘Here all about him the raw material burned: the properties and settings of romance. Romance that is passionate; obscure and sexless: that is dangerous and arrogant’. By the end of the book the potentialities of that material, which lay dormant at the beginning, have been activated by the twin energies of Titus and Steerpike. As the floodwaters rise around it, making of it a fitting stage for the conclusive fight between them, Gormenghast becomes a true island, not just the copy of one; the morose Bright Carvers become pirates or Indians, skimming about the castle’s perimeters in the canoes they have carved; the Professors take to the water, steering their dilapidated boats through corridors in fulfillment of their own daydreams of liberation from their sun-drenched classrooms; Bellgrove and Irma take to their hammocks and find new contentment in their marriage; and the Countess becomes the pirate captain she was always meant to be, issuing orders for the summary execution of the traitor she has vowed to gut.

The interesting part about all this is that Titus, too, is a traitor, who proclaims his hatred for the castle’s ritual to his mother at the very moment when he brings her news about the whereabouts of the traitor Steerpike. If Steerpike was Fuchsia’s would-be seducer, Titus is the Thing’s, and both the women they covet end up dead. If Steerpike is a bundle of contradictions – cold and calculating yet whimsical, murderous yet capable of astonishing empathy, treacherous yet ready to master every detail of the pointless rituals he despises – Titus is full of contradictions too, in his love and hate for Gormenghast, his pride at and disgust with his inheritance as the Earl of Groan. This ‘terrible antithesis within him – the tearing in two directions of his heart and head’ – is made up of a ‘growing and feverish longing’, an ‘ineradicable, irrational pride’ in himself and his lineage, and ‘the love, as deep as the hate, which he felt, unwittingly, for the least of the stones of his loveless home’. The antithesis brings him so close to his enemy Steerpike that before long the other young man has stolen his boat – the light canoe or skiff he associates in his mind with the Thing – and paddled off in it as if to take his place at the centre of the narrative. Antitheses are the stuff of the poetics of piracy, as I hope I have shown. In placing them at the centre of his narrative, Peake made an enduring statement about the state of things – especially, perhaps, about the state of England in and after the Second World War – which he could have articulated in no other way.