The Time Machine and the Origins of Modern Fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morlock by Tatsuya Morino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. S. Lewis, Reader

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

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

Tree by Tolkien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H. G. Wells, Writer

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] ‘I believe this great ignorance might be a help to the evangelization of England: any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.’ Letter to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V., 9 July 1939. C. S. Lewis, Letters, ed. W. H. Lewis, rev. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: William Collins, 1988), p. 322.

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

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

[10] The Tempest, 5.1.50-1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Inward Exile in Frances Browne’s Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856)

190px-Frances_Browne_7Frances Browne (1816-1879) is a writer I’d like to know much more about. Born the daughter of the Postmaster of Stranorlar in Donegal, known in her lifetime as the ‘Blind Poetess of Ulster’, she made herself a voyager of the mind, who loved the works of Byron, Dante, Scott and Homer, and who traveled to Edinburgh and London at the height of the Famine to earn a living – and that of her family – by writing stories, essays, poems and reviews for magazines, as well as three novels. Her most famous work is Granny’s Wonderful Chair (1856), a collection of fairy tales written after she came to London. This exists in two versions that I know of: a simplified edition containing four stories bound together by a simple frame narrative, which looks like a clumsy redaction for small children; and a more stylistically sophisticated version, with longer words, longer sentences and longer paragraphs, containing seven stories and a much expanded frame. To me the longer version reads as both a trenchant analysis of the state of Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and an ambitious work of art. These claims might seem grandiose given the book’s modest length and its faithful adherence to the language and conventions of the Victorian fairy tale; but I hope to make a case for it in these notes.

5140362346_a27b7d731b_bIn a letter quoted at the beginning of her first book of poems, The Star of Attéghéi (1844), Browne goes into detail about her education: how she persuaded her siblings to read to her in return for doing their chores; how she learned the location of distant countries by tracing the map with her fingers, beginning in a place she knew well and asking a sighted helper to name the places her fingertips passed until they reached the country in question; how she devoured history books and newspaper reports in her thirst to know the world, and learned novels and poems by heart in her thirst to expand her imaginative horizons. The Star of Attéghéi is packed with evidence of these mental travels. The two most ambitious poems it contains are a national epic set in Circassia, which gives the book its title, and ‘The Vision of Schwartz’, which tells the story of the twelfth-century German alchemist who invented gunpowder and who is afforded visions, by a spirit, of its drastic impact on world history. Other poems follow emigrants into exile from their homes in Ireland, Arabia, Canaan, Egypt, France, and the lands of the Cherokee people; her lifelong interest in the subject may have arisen from the fact that her father was the local emigration officer for several shipping lines to America and Australia. Browne finds in countries far from home echoes of the sufferings of her own; her Circassian epic begins and ends with an appeal to the bards of Ireland to sing something similar about the quest for ‘glory, love and liberty’ in Irish history. At the same time, many of her poems are about isolation, featuring a succession of male and female Robinson Crusoes (the introduction tells us this was one of the books her parents owned, along with the travels of the Scottish explorer Mungo Parke). One gets the impression that loneliness was an experience Browne knew well, despite the size of the family she grew up in.

A striking example of Browne’s poetry of isolation is ‘The Australian Emigrant’, in which a young girl on a ship bound for Melbourne laments that she has never felt at home, not even in Ireland. The story has a verse frame in which the stage is set for the girl’s song, which is in a different metre and includes this stanza:

Oh! MAN may grieve to sever
From the hearth or from the soil, –
For still some hope, some right, was his,
Which lived through want and toil; –
The dwellers of the forest,
They mourn their leafy lair; –
But why should WOMAN weep her land?
She has no portion there.
Woe – woe for deeds of worth,
That were only paid with ill! –
For to her the homes of earth
Are the house of bondage, still!

Here the girl expresses her disenfranchisement in a verse form widely used in Presbyterian hymns of the sort familiar to Browne from her upbringing (rhymed ABCB, with lines one, two and four in trimeter and line three for the most part in tetrameter). Such hymns were widely sung in households as well as churches, and the form’s association with communal singing gives an ironic contrast with the poem’s subject: a sense of exclusion that culminates in the young girl’s death. The girl’s song expresses a concept which pervades Browne’s work: that of what might be called inward exile, whereby a person feels herself to have been effectively displaced or marginalized by their local community or family. The resulting sense of home as a house of bondage is felt by the protagonists of both sexes in most of the stories in Granny’s Wonderful Chair, and while ‘The Australian Emigrant’ associates the experience with women, it could also be read as a direct consequence of living in a colonized country, at a time when British imperialism offered as a solution to domestic slavery the opportunity to travel around the globe in any direction – without ever finding a final escape from the ideological clutches of a global Empire.

Frances-Browne-Grannys-Wonderful-Chair-ills-DAs a result of its focus on inward exile and the outward migrations to which it gives rise, Granny’s Wonderful Chair offers an interesting perspective on the tendency of Victorian children’s literature, as considered by Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn in Children’s Fantasy Literature, to focus on enclosed domestic spaces. Levy and Mendlesohn see this tendency as driven by the desire to protect children by containing their imaginative and intellectual wanderings within a safely limited environment. For Browne, by contrast, the domestic space is very far from safe. It’s the location of abuse, neglect, hunger and child labour, and indoctrinates its child inhabitants in the necessity for travel – much as Browne’s own upbringing taught her to value migration (though there is no evidence that she was either abused or neglected). Home is not home for her heroes and heroines, and most of them set out to seek their fortune in classic fairy tale fashion, their restlessness echoing that of the Irish people in the mid-nineteenth century, who emigrated in their millions in the face of hunger and oppression.

i088Like Browne’s first book of poems, then, Granny’s Wonderful Chair is a peripatetic miscellany; but unlike the earlier volume – and in classic fairy tale fashion – the start and end points of the travels it describes are never specified. Instead each story begins by locating itself at a certain point of the compass: north, east, south, west, and then again west, west and north, as if in deference to Browne’s bias towards her own origins in the far north west of Ireland. These compass bearings imply that the collection takes place within a clearly defined topography, like the island of Ireland divided into many small kingdoms; and the work of the various protagonists and their families in each story – spinning, weaving, cobbling, shepherding, pig-keeping, fishing, fiddling, and so on – would have been familiar to Irish readers from their local communities. The presence of fairies in the landscape also associates the land with Ireland (though one of the fairies has the name Robin Goodfellow, which may make him more English than Irish), and there are a number of other links I’ll touch on later. At the same time the namelessness of the land makes it universal, a land of the mind, so that the travels it contains could be inward as much as outward ones; and indeed many of the stories in the collection are concerned with inward matters: the healing of a broken state of mind, for instance, or the reuniting of divided families. Granny’s Wonderful Chair, then, shows everywhere Browne’s preoccupation with the psychological as well as the material causes of alienation, and with bringing the experience of the world to bear on the particular troubles of the Irish.

3e948ac74967f477f9575b60c24bb625If the main characters in Granny’s Wonderful Chair find their homes unhomely, its narratives are also full of authority figures who spend little time at home: absentee landlords like the Irish landowners lampooned by Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent (1800). Interestingly, each of these absentees is represented as a much-loved figure whose return is yearned for rather than dreaded. The frame narrative, for instance, tells of a poverty-stricken girl called Snowflower whose grandmother sets off on her travels, leaving her alone with only a magic chair for company. Luckily the chair is capable of telling her stories and transporting her physically as well as mentally anywhere she chooses – a metaphor, perhaps, for the books and stories Browne encountered in her own childhood. Snowflower makes her way in the chair to the court of King Winwealth, whose country has gone to rack and ruin since the unexplained disappearance of another much-loved figure, the King’s brother Prince Wisewit. The chair regales King Winwealth with stories to take his mind off his melancholy on account of his brother’s departure; and one of these stories again tells of absenteeism. ‘The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’ concerns a pair of much-loved local lords who disappear from their estates, leaving their children and tenants to be abused by their grasping stewards. In each case the lost authority figures have been kept away for reasons beyond their control, and their eventual return is greeted with delight by dependants who have been badly treated by the lost lords’ substitutes.

Alongside these physical absentees, many of Browne’s stories tell of rulers who are inwardly absent, thanks to depression or dissatisfaction of some kind, and whose misery makes their subjects miserable – psychological absentee landlords, so to speak. King Winwealth is one, and another is the king in the chair’s first story, ‘who had lately fallen into ill-humour because a neighbouring princess, with seven islands for her dowry, would not marry his eldest son’. The king of the mer-people in the sixth story is similarly discontent because a fisherman will not marry one of his daughters, and because the young man also refuses to tempt other mortals into visiting the underwater kingdom, which thrives on riches purloined from humans and their ships. The seventh and final story, which concerns a boy called Merrymind with a magic fiddle, again tells of a land made wretched by its ruler: in this case a lady called Dame Dreary with a dress of a ‘dingy drab colour’, ‘iron-grey’ hair and a ‘sour and gloomy’ face, whose subjects work unremittingly from dawn to sunset, unable to take a break until the spell of gloom is lifted from their dismal despot. In these unhappy kingdoms cheerfulness is more valuable than gold: Snowflower’s uncomplaining good humour as she retires to the meanest rooms in King Winwealth’s palace after regaling the King with tales; the optimism of the cobbler in the first story, who is granted the gift of merriment by the ‘Christmas Cuckoo’ of the title, and uses it to cheer up another king; young Merrymind in the final story, whose name denotes his disposition, and who liberates Dame Dreary and her people from their collective depression with the help of his enchanted violin. Songs and stories are a partial remedy, at least, for the psychological condition that leads to inward exile; and both are set in opposition to the lust for personal gain that drives the stories’ antagonists.

14802668033_a4041a7a9dIn Browne’s world, then, art is effective – it does work in the world and helps to change it. The stories told by the chair cheer up both King Winwealth and his people, as well as bringing financial security to Snowflower (just as Browne’s first collection of poems brought financial support to her, in the form of a small pension awarded by Robert Peele). The art of conversation and the disbursement of good advice, as practised by the cobbler Spare in the chair’s first story, teach another king and his court to share in Spare’s magical gift of merriment. Merrymind’s fiddle brings ‘the sound of merriment’ to the whole of Dame Dreary’s valley and teaches its inhabitants how to enjoy themselves outside working hours. Each of these works of verbal and musical art have a similar effect to the Irish tradition of song as celebrated by Browne in her most famous poem, ‘Songs of Our Land’, first published in the Irish Penny Journal in 1841. In the poem, Irish songs are praised as a kind oral archive, a repository of suppressed cultural information which endures from generation to generation, in marked contrast to the ‘power and the splendour’ of imperial thrones that ‘pass away’ and are forgotten along with their occupants. For Browne, songs preserve among the Irish people the thoughts of their ‘poets and sages’, keeping alive the ‘spirit of freedom’ in times of servitude and destitution. They also impart the sense of a stable identity to ‘wanderers through distance and danger’: emigrants, in other words, like Snowflower, or the cobbler Spare, or the boy Fairyfoot in the fourth story, who finds his way to the hidden land of the fairies, or the fisherman who journeys to the merfolk’s kingdom, or Merrymind, who leaves his home because his family has no time for him – apart from his mother (his mother also happens to be the only person apart from himself with any confidence in the possibilities for future employment represented by his fiddle). Each of these protagonists has an artistic gift. Fairyfoot, for instance, is a passionate dancer, while the fisherman Civil who visits the merfolk has the gift of the gab, as he tells a captive mortal woman when she asks him to help her escape from the submarine kingdom: ‘Fair speeches brought me here,’ he points out, ‘and fair speeches may help me back, but be sure I will not go without you’. Evidently stories, good advice, dancing, eloquence and wordless musicianship have much the same effect on these heroes and those who meet them as the songs in Browne’s poem, giving them a sense of community in troubled times – supplying them, in fact, with a portable home in their state of inward or outward exile.

zpage063If the rulers who remain at home in these stories are invariably inward exiles, so too (as I’ve suggested) are the stories’ protagonists: the boys and girls who set out to seek their fortune, some of whom we’ve already encountered. Before setting out the bulk of these young people already feel profoundly alienated. Merrymind is mocked by his father and siblings for his attachment to a fiddle he at first cannot play. Fairyfoot is derided by his large-footed family for the dainty size of his feet. In ‘The Christmas Cuckoo’, the cobbler Spare finds himself successively isolated in different communities: first his brother abandons him for not being sufficiently prosperous; he’s then looked down upon at the royal court for continuing to wear shabby clothes, in spite of the wealth he has gained from the monarch’s patronage; the king then loses interest in him when he loses his magical ability to make him cheerful; and Spare only finds a place for himself when he returns to the humble cottage where he first encountered the Christmas Cuckoo, and where he showed his community spirit by feeding it through the winter until it was strong enough to take flight in early spring. The young heroine in ‘Childe Charity’ is despised by her relatives after her parents’ death, as are the children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles in the second story. If the ruling classes in each of these stories are disconnected from the lands they govern, their adult subjects and tenants are equally disconnected from their young dependants, showing no appreciation for the arts they practise or the generosity and good manners the children treasure.

zpage110The sense that the people of Browne’s alternative Ireland have lost their culture, and that it can be restored to them only with difficulty, is reinforced by the fact that entire races have gone into a kind of internal exile in the wildest parts of the country. Fairyfoot makes friends (as his name suggests he will) with the fairies, who live in hiding from other mortals because – as Robin Goodfellow tells him – ‘we and the people of this country have had no friendship ever since large feet came in fashion’. The abused children of the lost Lords of the White and Grey Castles find their way to the woodland home of a mysterious replacement mother, Lady Greensleeves, who has similarly been forgotten by the rest of humankind, and who helps them because she is lonely and likes their company. A similarly green-clad figure is at the centre of ‘The Greedy Shepherd’: a mysterious old man with the power to turn sheep into wolves to set them free when they have been mistreated. Meanwhile the fairies in ‘The Story of Childe Charity’ have cut themselves off from mortals in direct response to their selfish behaviour: the young girl of the title is taken to Fairyland as a unique piece of evidence that there are ‘good people still to be found in these false and greedy times’. The most prominent fairy folk in the story of Merrymind are ‘two fair maidens, all in white spinning on silver wheels, and singing together a blithe and pleasant tune like the larks on May-morning’. Known as the Night Spinners, they have been segregated from human beings for ‘seven times seven years’, and although we are never directly told this it would seem that what kept them away was the capitalistic self-absorption of Dame Dreary and her subjects. When Merrymind shows his community spirit by gathering firewood to keep them warm, the Night Spinners reward him with golden strings for his broken instrument, and he proceeds to smash the spell of glumness over the land by playing the tunes he heard them singing. The effect of these tunes is similar to the effect of the ‘Happy March’ at the end of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) – a collective liberation from alienated labour; and it’s worth considering the following passage by Browne as a possible influence on Stephens’s famous vision of liberation at the end of that novel:

The men paused in their delving; the women stopped their scrubbing; the little children dropped their work; and every one stood still in their places while Merrymind and his fiddle passed on. When he came to the castle, the coopers cast down their tools in the court; the churning and cheese-making ceased in the banquet hall; the looms and spinning-wheels stopped in the principal chambers; and Dame Dreary’s distaff stood still in her hand […] That night the fairies danced on the hill-tops; and the night-spinners, with their silver wheels, were seen by every hearth, and no more in the deserted cottage.

James Stephens is also worth thinking about in relation to another theme of Browne’s: hunger. Browne left Ireland for Edinburgh at the time of the Great Hunger, and it’s hunger that drives young Snowflower to leave her grandmother’s cottage on the magic chair – indirectly leading her to great good fortune at the court of King Winwealth. The cobbler Spare’s continual cheerfulness in the face of hunger is what first draws a melancholy lord to him as he is ‘gathering watercresses at a meadow stream’ – bereft of any other food source, like King Sweeney. Later in the story, the sign that Spare’s brother Scrub has inherited the gift of merriment is his utter contentment in the face of near starvation: he and his wife live only on wild birds’ eggs and berries after he obtains the gift. The abused children of the lost ‘Lords of the Grey and White Castles’ have only a barley loaf and some sour milk ‘to serve them for breakfast, dinner, and supper’, and their search for their fathers leaves them hungrier still. But like other fairy tale protagonists, and unlike the other characters in Browne’s book, these children are under a strict injunction from Lady Greensleeves not to eat or drink anything that’s given them on their travels; and this advice saves them from falling under the spell of the malevolent fairy lord who enchanted their fathers by giving them enchanted wine. Their willingness to suffer hunger, in other words, saves them from enslavement. Childe Charity gains the good will of the fairies for giving an old woman her supper, saving for herself only the scrapings of the pots in her abusive family’s kitchen. Meanwhile, plenty to eat continues to be the sign of servitude or entrapment. The fisherman Civil is unhappy in the sea-people’s kingdom because there is no end there of ‘fun and feasting’ – he concludes that ‘Fishing would have been easier than those everlasting feasts’ – and meets a fellow mortal who has been trapped there for many years. Merrymind rejects the offer of food from a surly giant in favour of wandering free and hungry around Dame Dreary’s land. Stephens, too, identifies hunger as a mark of solidarity among the poor, and contrasts the unspoken code that all poor people on Irish roads must share whatever they have to eat with one another with the psychological torment suffered by the servants of capitalism, as represented by two disembodied voices speaking out of the darkness in a police cell. For Stephens, this code of sharing food provides a template for the simple, egalitarian laws that will govern a future Ireland, unshackled at last from its prosperous and selfish imperial neighbour. Browne’s book implies something similar – though its vision of Irish liberation isn’t in the end as optimistic as that of Stephens, not surprisingly, perhaps, given the suppression of the Young Irelander rebellion in 1848, and the temporary absence after that of an alternative independence movement.

i071Throughout Granny’s Wonderful Chair the notion of the restoration of Irish identity is invoked by many means. The absent, loved lords in several stories have as much in common with the idealized Irish kings of legend as with the absentee landlords satirized by Edgeworth. The hidden fairies, with whom a succession of protagonists achieve reconciliation, bear a family resemblance to the Sídhe. More importantly, Snowflower’s storytelling invests her with a place in King Winwealth’s palace and helps to draw a new community around her. For each story the chair narrates Snowflower finds herself rewarded with a new item of clothing, better sleeping quarters and nicer food; each time the king wishes to hear another story he sends a more exalted page to find her. By the final chapter she is fully clothed in fine new garments, while in the course of the chapter the King’s unpleasant wife Wantall and daughter Greedalind disappear for ever down a gold mine, to be replaced at the monarch’s side by the long-lost Prince Wisewit and Snowflower’s grandmother. Both Wisewit and the grandmother, Frostyface, are connected with the chair of the book’s title, which may stand for Irish culture as celebrated in Browne’s poem ‘Songs of Our Land’: the chair belongs to the former, while the latter turns out to have been the owner of the magical voice that told the stories, trapped in a velvet cushion by a malignant fairy. The name of the fairy, Fortunetta, associates her with money rather than good fortune – a lesser, more grasping kind of fortune than the other kind, as the diminutive implies. Wisewit is liberated from his imprisonment in the cushion, ironically enough, by the efforts of Winwealth’s money-grubbing wife and daughter to secure the gift of storytelling for themselves. There’s an allegory, here, of the Irish artist’s need to retain her imaginative independence from her paymasters, whose acquisitive impulse is dictated by a desire for personal gain rather than the needs of the wider community. And in Browne’s book, imaginative independence helps to build a happy nation. Snowflower’s personal good fortune brings good fortune to King Winwealth’s people, whose new-found prosperity is best exemplified, Browne suggests, by their new-found freedom of movement: on his return as his brother’s adviser Wisewit makes ‘a highway through the forest, that all good people might come and go there at their leisure’, while the malignant fairy Fortunetta leaves the country in an ill-tempered gesture of self-imposed exile: ‘finding that her reign was over in those parts, [she] set off on a journey round the world, and did not return in the time of this story’. It’s an attractive thought that travel should be for Browne as much the sign of happiness at the end of the book as it was of misery at the beginning.

But the happy ending of Granny’s Wonderful Chair is not allowed to stand. Having conjured up a happy, prosperous kingdom, Browne promptly erases it again, much as George MacDonald did with the happy kingdom ruled over by Princess Irene and her miner-husband in The Princess and Curdie. ‘Good boys and girls, who may chance to read [this book],’ Browne tells us,

that time is long ago. Great wars, work, and learning, have passed over the world since then, and altered all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them; but nobody has been known to have seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from the fairies themselves.

front1Wars, schools and factories are the machinery of Empire, and the noise they make, Browne suggests, is capable of drowning out the songs and tales of colonized nations. But they persist, and she has heard them through the hubbub, like her mentor Andersen. Like him she has made their magic available to new generations. And she is not a singular instance of the sort of person who can hear old stories handed down from ancient times; this is a collective capability, and has helped to generate in some of its possessors a political conviction. ‘There are people who believe,’ she tells us, that the spell which has again trapped Prince Wisewit in the form of a storytelling mouth, a common item of household furniture, can again be broken, and that when that happens ‘the prince will make all things right again, and bring back the fairy times to the world’. This ending, with its sudden shift of focus from the realm of literary fairy tales to the ‘real’ world of the reader, throws into relief the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist allegory that has been implicit throughout the book in the names of the characters. It links storytelling to revolution through the person of Prince Wisewit. It’s an opening out of the collection’s ending rather than a shutting down: a promise that the active art we have encountered in Browne’s stories may also have its effect outside the limits of her book. And it’s a promise that the stories she has told will continue to travel through time till what they describe – the return of the prince – becomes reality, and home is made homely at last for the Irish people.

William Morris, The Well at the World’s End

And now I’ve finished the epic journey from Upmeads to Utterbol, as recounted in The Well at the World’s End.

UnknownFor a long time this was a book I shunned because of its style. I didn’t like what I took to be the fake medievalism of it, preferring T. H. White’s decision to modernize comprehensively, or Tolkien’s ingenious technique of seguing into medieval language by careful stages. But the language of fantasy has interested me for a while now, and the various revivals of early English in major fantasy texts – from William Hope Hodgson’s bizarre take on it in The Night Land, with its endless and inexplicable use of infinitives, to E. R. Eddison’s baroque mannerisms in The Worm Ouroboros – now seem to me to be an important part of their ingenuity and charm. Morris is an expert user of late Middle English, steeped in Chaucer and Malory (as his Kelmscott editions of those writers show), and one of the reasons he chose it for his romances may have been to make a point about how he was disrupting both Victorian and Medieval conventions as he wrote. For instance, he would have known that the second person singular, ‘thou’, was used in Medieval times to signify familiarity, and never for formally addressing one’s social superiors. So when woodsmen, bandits, shepherds, merchants and craftsmen persistently address Ralph of Upmeads as ‘thou’ they are asserting the dignity of their social positions by addressing him as an equal. And he would have known that Ralph’s habit of addressing men and women of all classes with the elaborate tropes of chivalric courtesy – along with his decision to marry a cross-dressing innkeeper’s daughter rather than a princess – signals his acquiescence with their egalitarian assumptions. At the same time, Morris’s use of outmoded language meant he could imitate certain Medieval attitudes to gender and sexuality rather than Victorian ones – Malorian attitudes in particular. As Helen Cooper has shown, Malory didn’t tend to condemn women for showing desire – witness the fair Maid of Astolat, or Lancelot’s lover Eleanor, or even Guinevere. That Morris recognised Malory’s interest in and sympathy for women is demonstrated by one of his earliest poems, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, which takes a radically different view of Lancelot’s royal mistress than Tennyson did in The Idylls of the King. So the choice of Medieval language may have been partly intended to liberate Morris to write about desiring women without arousing the wrath or distaste of his contemporaries; and he seized this opportunity in The Well at the World’s End in a big way.

That’s what struck me this time I read it – I think because between this reading and the last I’d read Morris’s brilliant feminist fantasy, The Water of the Wondrous Isles. That book has a female protagonist – the first and last in epic fantasy before the work of Patricia McKillip in the early 70s, I think, though I’d be happy to be proved wrong (it partly depends on your definition of epic fantasy, of course). So I knew he was a champion of women’s empowerment, in theory at least, and that he could write magnificently about female desire. Re-reading the Well, I was bowled over by the centrality of women to it. In fact, for most of the romance the male protagonist, Ralph, does almost nothing of his own volition – he’s sent out on his quest by one woman, furthered in it by another, and enabled to complete it by a third, and he encounters numerous other remarkable women along the way. And Morris’s representation of them follows the path he trod in ‘The Defence of Guinevere’, making heroines of women who in other writers’ hands – writers of both sexes – in the 1890s would have been dismissed or condemned without a moment’s hesitation.

The first is Ralph’s ‘gossip’ or godmother: a merchant’s wife old enough to be his mother, gifted with second sight, and deeply in love with her godson – while fully conscious of the impossibility of that love being consummated, given the disparity between their ages (disparity of stations is barely mentioned), and the fact that she already has a loving husband. Her love for him is clearly sexual in nature, yet it is neither condemned not mocked by Ralph or the narrator. More remarkably still, the woman’s husband is fully aware of it, and doesn’t suffer from jealousy; instead he does everything in his power to satisfy his wife’s wish to spend time in Ralph’s company and to ensure the young man’s wellbeing. I can’t think of a three-way relationship quite like this in literature – let alone Victorian literature, which would tend to make the desiring older woman either comic or monstrous.

The second woman is even more remarkable as a heroine figure. She’s richly ambiguous, being adored by men and loathed by women – largely because women know that no man, including their lovers and partners, can resist her. Like the merchant’s wife she’s much older than Ralph and married to another man, but this doesn’t stop her choosing to become his lover. She has magical powers, has ruled as a queen and leads a band of outlaws like Robin Hood’s; she is also a kind of goddess figure to an isolated community, their ‘Lady of Abundance’ whose appearances are said to bring fertility to the land. She is loathed by many of the clergy, though many others desire her as much as their secular male counterparts. Each of these things individually would have earned her the name of a wicked enchantress in another narrative. In this one, she remains the presiding genius of the book, even after her death; the standard against which every other character is measured. One way in which she serves as such a standard is the extent to which she has been slandered and abused in the course of her long life; the impression one gets is that she has been driven to acts of violence and treachery by the violence and treachery of the men who surround her – so she is a living witness to the corruption of the violent, patriarchal world through which Ralph is travelling. But remarkably, she also becomes the architect of its transformation. Both before and after her death (sorry for the spoiler) she sets Ralph on the track to the Well, and to the relationship with a third woman that will make a decent man of him.

The third woman, the cross-dressing Ursula, could be said to be a safer alternative than the Lady of Abundance as a lifelong companion for Ralph to settle down with. Given that she is effectively bequeathed to Ralph by the dying Lady, one would expect her to be a feeble, conventional being, fit only to be rescued from frequent deadly perils and comforted in adversity. One would expect her to be dully chaste, bereft of desire except of the most decorous kind, and to be willing to submit to Ralph in every situation. In fact, she’s nothing of the kind. She dresses in armour, watches over the sleeping Ralph with her sword unsheathed, frees herself from the tyranny of Utterbol (Ralph never even gets there, despite his plan to free her), and saves Ralph’s life when they reach the terrible Dry Tree. After the couple drink from the Well she settles into a more conventional role – she is even rescued at one point by Ralph, though this rescue seems to be symbolically accomplished for the sole purpose of atoning for the fact that he earlier failed to rescue the Lady. But Ursula travels side by side with him as he returns to root out the would-be conquerors of Upmeads, refusing to stay in safety when he goes to war; and the equality of their partnership continues to be implied to the end of the book. She is also repeatedly mistaken for the Lady, which confirms that she is the inheritrix of the Lady’s powers – of active desire as well as of foresight.

The conclusion one reaches, after reading The Well at the World’s End, is that Morris wants his readers to understand that a society is only ever as civilized as the way it treats its women. The tyrannies Ralph encounters are defined as such by the women who live under them: the captive women in the Burg of the Four Friths, the merchant towns that collude with Ursula’s enslavement, the unhappy Queen of Utterbol and her devious maid Agatha, both of whom have had their personalities deformed by the aggressive patriarchal culture they find themselves in – a point driven home by the fact that both succeed in redeeming themselves when they’re freed from oppression. Women, Morris implies, deserve to share power with men in exactly the way that men deserve to share power with each other. The climactic battle of the book is fought not by a single mighty leader, as so many history books imply, but by an egalitarian army made up of farmers, shepherds and outlaws; Ralph barely lifts a finger in it. He is a catalyst, not an agent; and what he brings about is health, the healthy society that drinks, like Ursula, from the same Well as he does.

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Of course, The Well at the World’s End was a big influence on Tolkien – like a lot of Morris’s work (The House of the Wulfings is often mentioned). Names echo across both books (Gandolf; Silverfax); and it’s structurally very close, with a There-and-Back-Again plot that closes with a Scouring of the Shire. But it’s also radically different from The Lord of the Rings because of the women who drive it, and because of its fascination with ambiguous, redeemable characters; there’s no equivalent here of a one-dimensional orc. And its There-and-Back-Again plot isn’t a return to the status quo, but a radical cleansing, a democratizing of the past as a blueprint for a better future. That’s why Morris had to write fantasy at the end of his life; because no society had ever quite succeeded in doing what he wanted it to do. And it’s interesting to consider whether some aspect of this radically democratizing impulse was retained in Tolkien’s post-Morrisian vision.

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin

PS220If ever there was a taproot text – in John Clute’s terms, a fantasy that branches out into a thousand other fantasies – this is it. From the moment when the Princess Irene runs off into the uninhabited regions of the ‘great old house’ she lives in – triggering memories of the exploration of the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the book rustles with the ghosts of books to come. The goblins of the title are precursors of Tolkien’s cheery goblins in The Hobbit, and of their nemesis, Gollum; the boy Curdie’s wanderings through the rocky labyrinth of the mines anticipate the astonishing journey through stone accomplished by Susan and Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; the songs Curdie sings to intimidate the goblins share their doggerel rhythms with the songs sung by the elves in the Last Homely House, later Rivendell; Irene’s old-young great great grandmother, whose light guides lonely wanderers on the mountainside to safety, is the forebear of Galadriel and Aslan; the faith of Irene and Curdie’s scepticism predict the games of faith and scepticism played out in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The butler serving the goblins wine in the king’s cellar conjures up the drunken butler of the King of the Wood-Elves, again in The Hobbit. The bizarre domestic animals of the goblins, with their distorted bodies and eerily human faces, conjure up the murderous sphinxes in Dave McKean’s movie Mirrormask or the tormented toys of Toy Story. And in its meditations on class the book as a whole reads like a direct source of Wells’s The Time Machine, where the wealthy have become effete, mindless children and the working classes cannibalistic cave dwellers. But MacDonald’s morals are more sophisticated than those of most of his successors. His fairy tale is designed to shame his readers into rethinking their assumptions about class, race and gender, yet one always gets the sense that he includes himself in the ranks of those who need shaming. He doesn’t stand on an eminence dispensing wisdom to less enlightened inferiors; he shares the wisdom he’s been given by women – always women – wiser than himself.

The moral complexity of his book is clear from the moment he tells us about the goblins’ origins. These are not creatures who have been the way they are since the dawn of time; they are products of the Darwinian age, unlike Tolkien’s orcs but very much like Gollum. ‘There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country’. The goblins hold a very reasonable grudge against the descendants of those who ‘caused their expulsion’ from ‘their former possessions’. And they continue to evolve as the book goes on, beginning as comic weaklings, and growing increasingly menacing as their revenge matures towards fruition. Things don’t stay stable in MacDonald’s world, and the most unsettling thing about this instability is that his grotesque antagonists are so closely allied – physically, mentally, geographically – to his heroines and heroes.

The Goblins’ plot to seize the house where Irene lives is a plot to recover their own. Their desire to abduct Irene is a violent expression of the desire to reunite two communities that were violently separated. Humans made the goblins, and the proximity between the two species seems to be confirmed by Curdie’s obsession with them, and by the fact that his guiding thread at one point leads him straight into the arms of the goblin royal family. Even their distorted animals are terrifying because of their parodic humanity: ‘what increased [their] gruesomeness was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human’. MacDonald hints here that there has been interbreeding between goblins and animals, as we know there has been between humans and goblins (that’s why the goblin Queen has toes). In his post-Darwinian universe the grand hierarchy of species – the Great Chain of Being – no longer exists, and anyone can become anyone or anything else, given time, habit and inclination.

The structure of the book reinforces this idea of the potential for slippage between one condition and another. There are three principal families in the book: the princess’s dysfunctional family, in which the father is mostly absent and the mother dead; Curdie’s family, whose male members labour underground or work secretly after working hours to expose the plots of the goblins; and the goblin royal family. All three families are dominated by their women: the great great grandmother who watches over Irene; Curdie’s mother, who seems in effect to be the great great grandmother’s younger sibling; and the goblin Queen, who conspires to overthrow the other two families while concealing their close family resemblance by hiding her human toes inside a pair of granite shoes. Threads link the families: the cord or ‘clue’ Curdie uses to find his way to and from the maze of tunnels bored by the goblins, and which leads him to them time and again; the magical thread spun by Irene’s great great grandmother, which leads her first to Curdie and later to Curdie’s mother. The threads insist on the links that bind princess to miner, miner to goblin, goblin to princess.

The ruling classes and their servants struggle to contain the younger generation, twelve-year-old Curdie and eight-year-old Irene, in the places to which their class and age should properly restrict them. Irene is confined to her bed, Curdie cooped up in the mine, or in a locked room in the great house where the princess lives, or in a hole in the goblin palace. (The great house and the goblin palace don’t treat him very differently – he’s even shot by the princess’s guard, who think at first he’s a goblin, then a thief, unable to rid their minds of settled assumptions about the habits and intentions of the poor). The same urge to cabin, crib and confine – on the part of others, on the part of themselves – is what twisted the goblins’ bodies and minds into ‘gruesomeness’. But Curdie and Irene resist enclosure, running up and down the mountainside, scurrying through tunnels, staying up all night, making friends with unsuitable strangers. And in the end their energy breaks down the artificial barriers that divide the kingdom. Irene is found by Curdie in his mother’s arms; Curdie is invited by Irene’s father to share a communal meal in the great house, with the other miners, like long-lost relatives. By this time the nature of class has already been questioned by the narrator, who insists that ‘there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well’; just as the princess is, for Curdie’s mother, ‘a good girl […] and that’s more than being a princess’.

The book ends with a deluge which underscores the point. Curdie and Irene live in a seemingly solid landscape – the most solid imaginable, a land of mountains. But under and through and across the mountains, water flows. It menaces the miners, sustains the gardens of the great house, and forms an essential part of the goblins’ plots against their former rulers, as if the water were somehow an expression of the class system. But at the climax of the novel, when the goblins unleash what is intended to be a watery vengeance on the humans, the flood goes awry thanks to the miners’ intervention. Instead of overwhelming the mines as the goblins had hoped, the floodwaters sweep through their own tunnels – exposing their kinship to the miners in the process, as they are drowned by the very same element which is most feared by their fellow stone-workers. But the water also bursts out of crevices in the mountainside, and threatens to overwhelm both the miner’s cottage where Curdie lives and the great house of the princess. Both these structures are buildings, so both are vulnerable to the same physical threat to their foundations. The members of the princess’s household seek refuge with the miners’ families; and later it’s the miners who drain the great house so they can go home. When the house is drained it turns out to be full of goblin corpses, the symbolic remains of a rigid class system that has now (perhaps) been overthrown. The feast thrown for the miners by the King announces a new entente cordiale between the workers and the ruling classes, whereby both are respected by their opposite numbers and all deserving citizens are assumed to have princely blood.

But MacDonald doesn’t leave the goblins rigid and unchanging. The surviving goblins undergo another metamorphosis: ‘Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even the miners’. This process turns them into people ‘very much like the Scotch Brownies’; so they end the book as Scots, just like MacDonald. It’s typical of MacDonald to acknowledge his own kinship with the antagonist-victims of his narrative.

Fluid identities, then, are key to this book, as they were to Phantastes. And the most fluid of identities in the book belong to the women. Irene’s great great grandmother and Curdie’s mother don’t seem to be restricted to the class or time into which they were born. They aren’t rigid in their judgements of others. They don’t bully or patronize the children in their care when they fail to follow instructions. But they’re also concealed from sight, as if in acknowledgement that MacDonald’s culture wasn’t yet ready to accommodate them. The great great grandmother stays hidden in the attic, and cannot be seen even by Curdie until he too has learned to cultivate the flexibility she embodies – no other man sees her, except the King on one occasion. The mother stays hidden in the cottage. In the book’s final chapters it’s Curdie who is most active, plunging through flooded rivers, carrying Irene to safety, and riding the King’s own charger in a successful mission to save some horses from a flooded stable. It’s a reversal of the usual class structures of Victorian romance, but not of the gender structures that were challenged earlier in the novel – as when the Princess rescued Curdie from the goblin dungeon. MacDonald was a visionary and a radical; but he was not so much of a fantasist as all that.

George MacDonald’s Phantastes

Phantastes

George MacDonald’s Phantastes has always read to me like a journey into the heart of a Victorian house: the sort of journey experienced by the young heroine of his children’s book The Princess and the Goblin when she wanders through endless corridors full of doors till she finds the secret stairway leading to the forgotten room where her great great grandmother lives, surviving on pigeon’s eggs, air and wisdom. The middle-class Victorian house was insistently alive. Furniture was elaborately carved with foliage; cabinets full of pottery were displayed, often in the shapes of animals and people; cornices sprouted acanthus leaves and ceiling roses blossomed; book covers and frontispieces swarmed with flowers, beasts and trees. Phantastes opens with the unlocking of a desk in a study, whose interior turns out to contain a living being, a miniature woman of the kind you might find on a Victorian mantelpiece or casual table. A little later the narrator’s room, with its grass-like carpet, its foliage-carved table, its green marble washstand, morphs into the forest glade it was designed to resemble, like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are. The journey through Fairy Land that follows alternates between houses of different kinds – cottages, palaces, towers – and a pathless forest. But the forest is the kind of wilderness encountered in old romances, and calls books to mind rather than places, with its fairies, dryads, monsters and knights errant. Each chapter is headed by an epigram, duly attributed to its author; and the narrator’s adventures are punctuated by acts of reading, beginning with the fairy tale read to him by his little sister on the night before he opens the desk. In fact, the story never leaves the house in which it began, and the narrator keeps emerging from his adventures like a reader lifting his head from a book in which he has been immersed, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the life he led before he started reading – then plunging back into the story, where all the action that really matters to him is taking place.

One could say, in fact, that the story never leaves its narrator’s head – that it’s a kind of pre-modernist experiment in Woolfian stream of consciousness. As its title suggests, this book is the fantasy par excellence, because it concerns itself with the imagination, analysing its operations with the seriousness and concentration of a scientist. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where the word originates, ‘Phantastes’ is the part of the brain where the images collected by the senses are stored before being processed by the understanding and stowed away in the orderly cabinets of the memory. It’s an uneasy faculty, whose physical form is a gloomy young man with ‘hollow beetle browes’ and ‘sharpe staring eyes’ who claims to be able to foresee the future. The room he inhabits in the front part of the human head is painted with ‘infinite shapes of things’, including non-existent beasts like centaurs and hippodames (sea-horses); while the buzzing flies that fill it have a more worrying significance, since they represent:

…idle thoughts and fantasies,
Devices, dreames, opinions unsound,
Shewes, visions, sooth-sayes, and prophesies,
And all that fained is, as leasings, tales, and lies.

The linkage of fantasy or imagination with ‘lies’ and ‘opinions unsound’ articulates an anxiety about the imagination which is very specific to the period of the Reformation when Spenser was writing, when each religious faction saw this faculty as responsible for spawning the hordes of dangerous fictions that threatened to obscure and even obliterate the Gospel truth. Spenser’s House of Alma – the human body – is under siege by a ‘troublous rout’ who are associated both with the Catholic Irish, who resisted the Reformation, and with the troublesome flies that buzz around Phantastes’s chamber (the rout resembles a ‘swarme of Gnats at eventide’ rising out of the ‘fennes of Allan’). The imagination, then, spills out of its confines in the head and floods into religion, politics, social struggle. As well as receiving images the imagination bodies them forth (as Shakespeare put it), populating the world with the strange physical and philosophical fusions that bedeck its interior walls. It paints as well as being painted, colouring what its possessor sees until the absurdest propositions and most doubtful doctrines seem to be empirically demonstrable – objectively true. And all this without recourse to the more settled, rational portion of the brain, the understanding. No wonder Spenser and his contemporaries worried about its potential influence on religious doctrine and political dissidence.

Yet despite its suspicion of the imagination Spenser’s Faerie Queene is also a love song to it, as the Romantic poets recognized when they adopted variations of Spenser’s stanza form in place of the couplets beloved of the eighteenth-century poets. And MacDonald shares the Elizabethan poet’s view of the potential deadliness of the imagination, precisely because he finds it so infinitely seductive, and because he believes so strongly in its capacity to reshape the world by casting its own interior light upon it. When he first crosses the border into Fairyland the narrator discovers he has fairy blood, thanks to the empirical evidence of his vision. He can see fairies as only fairies can, both the pretty flower fairies of the Victorian decorative tradition and the hideously clawed tree-dwelling ogres of Gothic legend – both the benign woman of the beech tree and the vampiric woman of the alder. It’s his fairy vision, perhaps, that enables him to see the female ‘spirit of marble’ in a cave and release her from her prison, as a great sculptor might have done – in which case having fairy blood is equivalent to being a verbal or visual artist. But this vision can be distorted, as it is when he later releases a quasi-Jungian shadow from a cupboard, which interposes itself between his eyes and anything beautiful he encounters, rendering it ‘commonplace’ and ugly and encouraging him to damage it and drive it away. His vision’s capacity to shape the world, then, can operate in two directly opposite ways, that is, to beautify or defile it. The same is clearly true of art, for MacDonald – especially the verbal arts; and this is why he represents the act of reading in his novels as such an adventure.

Like The Faerie Queene, then, MacDonald’s narrative is full of beautiful visions and deadly traps, and it is difficult for the narrator to distinguish between them. This is not, however, true of MacDonald’s readers, who often have the horrible feeling that they could warn the young man against the dangers he is running into if he’d only listen. This is because the implied reader of Phantastes has been educated in the ways of romance, and above all of the fantastic romances of the middle ages and the early modern periods, which underwent so many reprintings in the nineteenth century. Romance writers like Spenser expected their audiences to take an active part in the narrative, identifying the nature of each new menace or potential ally through a host of clues embedded in the language of the poem or story. MacDonald’s implied reader knows exactly how to do this – and ironically so does the narrator, who is always recognizing retrospectively that he should never have fallen into what was in the end a thoroughly familiar act of folly. But the traps he springs on himself are as attractive to him as the elusive beauties he is always pursuing; it’s as if the possibility of the former is what makes the latter so alluring. Indeed he himself – MacDonald’s narrator – has two sides to him, as his name suggests, since ‘Anodos’ can mean (according to my rather dodgy source in Wikipedia) either ‘pathless’ or ‘ascent’.

In fact Anodos has more than two identities. If the structure of the book is like a nest of Chinese boxes – a mind within a book within a desk within a library within a house – then the narrator has a plurality of nested selves. He is both Anodos and Anodos’s shadow; but he’s also the Percival-like knight who has been disgraced, and who sets out to erase the stains of his disgrace through a lifetime of struggle. He reads about this knight at the beginning, in a cottage on the border of Fairyland, and keeps meeting him throughout the rest of the book, as if he is meeting his future self or some imagined alternative version of his current self, an alter ego. Again, Anodos is both the heroic young man in the last ‘act’ of the novel, one of three brethren who kill three monstrous giants, and the monstrous egoist who preens himself on this victory and sets out to capture and imprison weaker knights, like another giant, as further proof of his power. He is both the squire who humbly devotes himself to the service of Sir Percival in this final section and the youth who can clearly see the nature of a corrupt religion when the knight cannot, and gives up his life to destroy it. He ‘is’ effectively all the male characters in his story, in the same sense as a male reader or artist ‘is’ all the characters or shapes he conjures up.

It would be easy to conclude that all the female figures in the book are also constructs of the male reader-artist’s brain; but the book is dedicated, it seems to me, to the task of liberating them from him – of developing what may eventually turn out to be a grown-up relationship between the male narrator and the women he either meets or imagines. I suggested recently that William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End dedicates itself to creating a civilized relationship between men and women, as against the kind of hierarchical relationship between them privileged by Morris’s culture. The same could be said of Phantastes, since the narrator is again and again sent on his way by female potentates: the miniature woman he finds in his father’s desk (some kind of manifestation of Anodos’s dead mother?); the beech woman who is waiting to become a ‘real woman’, perhaps in the sense that she is waiting for the narrator to stop fetishizing women, making idols of them; and above all the great great grandmother figure he finds in a cottage on an island, who sends him out on successive adventures in an effort to shape him. As Iuean Ledger has pointed out to me, most of the readers in Phantastes are women, and we’ve already established that reading is for MacDonald an energetically active art. The evidence for this view of reading is in his tremendous essay on ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, where he says of his own stories: ‘It might be better that you should read your own meaning into [them]. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of [them]: your meaning may be superior to mine’. And the women in Phantastes are always reading their own meaning into things, to the consternation of the narrator, who cannot follow the operations of their intellects any more than he can follow the fiercely agile motion of their fleeing bodies.

He never succeeds in catching up with the marble woman he releases near the beginning of the story – I think because he never quite succeeds in thinking of her as anything other than his own creation, with the result that he is always looking for her in the wrong place. And the end of the story finds him alone, unpartnered, looking tentatively towards his future in England, but unsure as to whether he will be able to ‘translate the experience of my travels […] into common life’. The danger of the male imagination in this book is that it makes women what it wants them to be and cannot see what they are as independent beings. It also makes men into what they see themselves as being, which robs them of their own independence, their capacity for change. The real identities of men and women are multiple and mobile, and manifest themselves at odd moments throughout the narrative, as when the narrator encounters his alter egos (the shadow, Percival, the giant knight), and is thrown into confusion, no longer certain who he is. The constant shifting of a person’s identity is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s work: the impossibility of pinning a person down, of defining them without degrading them, is equally a concern of his celebrated story ‘The Golden Key’. But Phantastes is also about something else: the difficulty of achieving dialogue. And that brings us to the vexed question of MacDonald’s prose style.

It’s an awkward, knotty style, made up of many short clauses separated by far too many commas. There’s very little conversation in it (as Alice complains about the book she’s listening to at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland), which sometimes makes it hard to digest. But the absence of conversation also reinforces the impression one gets of inhabiting the inmost recesses of a person’s skull, peering out through the eyes without paying much attention to the evidence of the other senses, except sometimes for the hearing (MacDonald is a passionate lover of music). And the convolutions of each sentence reinforce the impression that MacDonald or his narrator is reporting back on inexplicable experiences he has really undergone, struggling to convey them with precision because they matter to him, although their meaning is elusive.

Here’s an example:

‘All this time, as I went on through the wood, I was haunted with the feeling that other shapes, more like my own in size and mien, were moving about at a little distance on all sides of me. But as yet I could discern none of them, although the moon was high enough to send a great many of her rays down between the trees, and these rays were unusually bright, and sight-giving, notwithstanding she was only a half-moon. I constantly imagined, however, that forms were visible in all directions except that to which my gaze was turned; and that they only became invisible, or resolved themselves into other woodland shapes, the moment my looks were directed towards them.’

The striking thing about this passage is all the buts, althoughs, notwithstandings, ors, and howevers with which it’s filled, as the narrator strives to explain to us the precise meteorological and luminescent conditions that make it surprising he couldn’t see anything precisely, or that what he saw when he did succeed in getting things into focus was nothing like what he had expected to see. The words ‘haunted’ and ‘imagined’ act here as lenses held up to the reader’s eyes in a kind of thought experiment, as a means of demonstrating how the state of a person’s mind affects their vision. MacDonald didn’t have to write like this; The Princess and the Goblin is a masterclass in stylistic clarity. It was only by using this style that he could give Phantastes its peculiar tone, which is that of a scientist trying to describe an experience for which all his training in logic and empiricism has not prepared him.

It’s satisfying, then, to think that the book was published the year before On the Origin of Species.