[This is the third blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first and second are here and here). It’s the second ever guest blog post on The City of Lost Books, and is written by Taylor Driggers, who is currently completing a PhD at the University of Glasgow on Becoming Psyche: Quest(ion)ing Myths of the Divine Feminine in the Desert. Taylor’s own blog, Dancing in the Desert, can be found here.]
Recently I attended the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic held at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow on Friday, the 10th of May. I was part of a cohort of scholars, writers, industry professionals, and fans who came together with the aim of sharing ideas and discussing our hopes and plans for the Research Centre for Fantasy currently in development at the University of Glasgow. If the presentations and conversations on the day were any indicator, the centre shows some promise of being an indispensable resource, although this will crucially depend on a conscious and sustained effort for accessibility, inclusivity, and material support from the institution.
Of the 5-minute talks that comprised the symposium’s two morning sessions, I was particularly struck by Mariana Rios Maldonado’s presentation on ‘Tolkien, Ethics, and the Other’, Ruth Booth’s discussion of how fandom spaces can build relationships between creative and academic communities, and Dale Knickerbocker’s reflections on fantasy as a tool for teaching ideology. I found that the questions raised by Maldonado’s research are strikingly similar to the ones that drive my own work on fantasy and queer religious imaginaries: namely, can fantasy help us contend with difference? How does the strangeness of fantasy allow us to re-think how we relate to others as radically other and create communities based on non-competitive, non-oppositional, but nonetheless disruptive encounters? These questions implicitly informed many other presentations during the day, including Sally Gales’ discussion of how the concept of ‘dead space’—used to describe abandoned spaces where abandoned people often congregate—informs her dystopian fiction, as well as Francesca T. Barbini’s presentation on her company Luna Press’s commitment to publishing accessible SFF scholarship. Maldonado’s talk in particular stood out to me because of its nuance and its radicalism. Drawing on the work of Jewish ethicist Emmanuel Levinas, her research applies an intersectional analytical framework to Tolkien’s common themes of heroism, evil, death, and free will in a way that deftly complicates the usual talking points about representation in Middle-earth.
If Maldonado’s presentation provided a fruitful starting point for theorizing about fantasy’s potential for imagining more equitable communities, Booth and Knickerbocker each offered practical approaches to extending this potential to our own working and networking habits. As a fellow southerner from the American ‘Bible belt’, I resonated deeply with Knickerbocker’s exploration of fantasy as a tool for challenging oppressive ideologies in a classroom setting. As with many of his students, fantasy has been one of my primary outlets for questioning the assumptions and beliefs of the environment in which I was raised. Booth, meanwhile, drew on her experiences as both a scholar and writer of fantasy to demonstrate how fandom spaces, though by no means utopian, create exciting opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. As both these presentations showed, fantasy’s ability to foster ‘[communion] with other living things’, to borrow a phrase from Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-stories’, need not be confined to the private reflections of the reader; it can (and arguably should) also spill over into the public and professional lives of all who engage with fantasy texts. This is the thought that lingers in my mind the most, not only from the morning’s presentations but also from the afternoon discussion of hopes and plans for the fantasy research centre.
Perhaps relevant to my overall impressions of the event is that it occurred during a period of anxiety on my own part about whether I will be able to build a sustainable career in academia. My reflections on it in the intervening days have undoubtedly been coloured by my broader concerns about the institutional structures that govern and shape our research and teaching. To paraphrase words spoken by a colleague during the afternoon roundtable discussion, it’s all very well to speak about fantasy’s potential for inclusiveness of ‘the other’ and its ability to speak to marginal experiences. The challenge is figuring out how we will embody that notion in our professional, creative, and institutional practices. I have been fortunate during my time as a PhD student at the University of Glasgow to be working in a subject area that values and actively cultivates the study of fantasy fiction. Nonetheless, at present, access to academic resources and a research community often come with steep financial barriers of entry, contentions with national borders and immigration policies, and precarious working conditions, and this limits our discipline’s ability to put into practice what many of us preach in our work.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in 2003 that in the face of capitalist exploitation and homogenisation, ‘fantasists are perhaps trying to assert and explore a larger reality than we now allow ourselves. They are trying to restore the sense—to regain the knowledge—that there is somewhere else, anywhere else, where other people may live another kind of life’. It follows, then, that as writers, researchers, independent scholars, and fans of fantasy, we must also seek to live another kind of life in our everyday, primary world existence. The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at Glasgow has an opportunity to imagine more equitable and sustainable ways of pursuing academic research, creative work, and public engagement, and to put structures in place to support that work. Judging by the ideas shared at the symposium, there are many reasons to be optimistic about its ability to do this. It will only happen, however, if we are honest about things as they currently stand in the academy, leverage what institutional authority or power we may have to effect change, and collaboratively come together to unbuild the walls that limit access and inclusion.
[This is the second blog post stemming from the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic, which took place in early May (the first is here). It’s also the first guest blog post on The City of Lost Books. For that reason I’m delighted that it was written by one of our graduates, Marita Arvaniti, who will be beginning a PhD with us in September this year, on Fantasy in the Theatre. Marita raises some important issues here about the economics of academia, among other things…]
What does Fantasy do? What is Fantasy for?
Those were the two main questions that we were called to answer on Friday, May 10th, in a Kelvin Hall seminar room. We were scholars, young academics, students, writers, editors, and fans, brought together by the morning’s talks and coffee breaks and now ready to tackle the second part of the Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic: the Discussion.
All of us were seated around impromptu cardboard tables (“Imagine a table”, suggested Rhys Williams as we struggled to balance the cardboard on our legs and arm rests, and we did), presented with big sheets of paper and markers, and asked to think and talk creatively about fantasy and the fantastic. It was important that everyone gets to talk, that everyone has a voice, but other than that we weren’t given any guidance. At the end of the talk I sneaked a look around the room to see the many different approaches people had taken to filling out their pieces of paper. Huge blocks of text and carefully bullet pointed lists all seemed miles away from my group’s haphazard collection of thoughts and ideas, thrown slapdashedly onto the page.
Our conversation started with a joke. According to our team the thing that fantasy both does and is for was “mental acrobatics”. But the joke soon took on a life of its own as we started to realize its potential. Fantasy makes us perform mental acrobatics every time it presents us with an impossible situation, helping our mind think and move in ways that we are not used to in our everyday life. Fantasy exercises the imagination, makes us more flexible by presenting us with unimagined possibilities that attack the perceived realities of our world that are filled with inequality and hate. Fantasy is also playful: a genre, a mode that has inspired great parodies of itself and nurtured authors like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. Even Tolkien, who protested silliness or buffoonery, has, we decided, ‘something of a B-movie quality about him,’ and where his imitators went wrong was in ignoring that.
In the end, my favourite view of Fantasy as we discussed it is the quote that gives this blog post its title: Fantasy exists badly. It exists as a joke, as a B-movie, as a formulaic sword and sorcery novel, as an all-white, all-male club. It also exists as the antithesis to itself, an oxymoron (I’m sure no other fantasy scholar has made that comment) that was able to provide the ground for the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Nalo Hopkinson, Ellen Kushner, N. K. Jemisin, and Kai Ashante Wilson to thrive.
Fantasy exists badly. With that in mind we moved to the second issue we were called to discuss: What Should a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic Do? And this, dear reader, is where this blogpost becomes less of a paean and more of a cry.
The sad truth is that the truth is sad, to paraphrase Lemony Snickett, and in this, as in all academic conversations I take part in these days, it all boiled down to this: more funding. Paid internships, paid positions in the University for Grad students and PhDs, paid initiatives that will help us all come together and create a centre for fantasy and the fantastic in this wonderful city that a lot of us desperately want to call home. Because the ideas were there. The will was there, driving us all forward to put down suggestions ranging from the idealistic to the pragmatic, from whimsical dreams of the university providing Rob Maslen with a group of (paid) flying monkeys à la the Wicked Witch of the West to serious requests for the one thing that’s not in our power to offer: more funding.
Fantasy academia relies heavily on the force of its cult status, kept alive by the love of people willing to give up their time freely and consistently. It is, for many of us, a passion made into a career, the official endorsement we needed to keep spending our time reading books about dragons, orogenes, witches, and fairies. Sadly, we’ll do it for free.
This is not to say that things aren’t changing. If anything, my writing of this blogpost and taking part in that wonderful conversation in Kelvin Hall proves it. Opportunities such as this amazing Symposium would have been impossible last year, perhaps unthinkable the year before that. But as a graduate of the MLitt Fantasy course who has to watch as some of my most brilliant classmates and friends received rejections despite their brilliant proposals, and deal with my own rejection and what that means for the future of my PhD, I am worried whether that change will come fast enough to help any of us, or whether we’ll do the job that’s in front of us for free, out of a passion that might sustain the mind but will definitely not pay the rent.
Fantasy exists badly and so, for the moment, does fantasy academia. But with this Symposium came an unmistakable hope for change, and a momentum that will drive us forward, if we let it.
[Thanks to the astonishing Dimitra Fimi we had a magnificent Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic at the Kelvin Hall in early May. Speakers included Dimitra Fimi, Rhys Williams, Brian Attebery and Dale Knickerbocker, as well as Francesca Tristan Barbini of Luna Press and writers, artists, academics and fantasy activists from across Scotland and beyond, all gathered together to think about what we might do with a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic here in Glasgow. Our keynote was the inspirational Terri Windling.
Here is the introductory talk I gave at the Symposium. More material from the event will be appearing on this blog in days to come. I hope these posts will give those of you who couldn’t come a sense of being part of the conversation; please join in if you feel so inclined. It won’t be ending any time soon!]
The imagination is the capacity to invoke in your mind the image or idea of something not actually present. The art of fantasy, for me, is the art of invoking the image or idea of something that never existed and never could exist. For it to be true fantasy, that denial of the possibility of the thing’s existence seems to me essential, otherwise fantasy becomes something else – religious faith, perhaps. At the same time, if it’s good fantasy it needs to make the impossible seem possible, breaking down to some extent, for a time, our understanding of the distinction between what’s true and what’s false, or between what’s reasonable and what’s clearly arrant nonsense. Fantasy is the art of lies breathed through silver, as C S Lewis put it – though he was thinking of myths at the time. It makes lies beautiful; it makes lies breathe; and that can be both a good thing and a danger to all who get caught up in it.
What is possible changes over time, and differs between cultures. Cultures too change, making the past an alien country whose inhabitants found many things plausible which to us are completely absurd. It’s essential, then, to study fantasy historically. That’s been a driving force of my approach since I first got the chance to teach a Masters course in fantasy, as Visiting Professor at the University of St Thomas in St Paul, Minnesota, between January and April 2004. After that I came home and set up an Honours course at the University of Glasgow called ‘The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century’. It proved at once that the appetite for fantasy was strong among undergraduates, at least; we’ve had to set a cap on numbers every year since it was founded.
This appetite was noticed by my colleague Alice Jenkins, who urged me to think of setting up a Masters programme in fantasy. I was reluctant at first because of the cost in terms of workload. At the time I was the only member of staff in the English Department who admitted to an interest in fantasy on my webpage, so I would have to devise and deliver the programme more or less by myself. But I went ahead in 2015, encouraging my lovely colleagues in Creative Writing to offer a workshop suitable for Fantasy Masters students, picking out already established courses from across the university – such as the Children’s Literature courses offered by my good friends in the School of Education, Evelyn Arizpe and Maureen Farrell – as suitable options to sit alongside the two core courses I had put together.
I also worked hard to set up events and bring speakers to the programme. Over the four years of the course’s existence these have included the following: Ben Smith and Jon Oliver, Head of Books and Commissioning Editor at Rebellion publishing. The authors Julie Bertagna, Hal Duncan, Kij Johnson, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, Christopher Priest, Arianne ‘Tex’ Thomson and Neil Williamson. The academics Jennifer Attebery, Andrew Butler, Edward James, Will Slocombe and Anna Vaninskaya. Events have included two separate workshops with Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Terri Windling, under the rubric ‘Reimagining Fantasy’. An evening festival of music, light and dramatic performance, ‘Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland’, which involved around 50 volunteers – many of them past and present students from the Fantasy programme – and brought around 800 visitors to the Hunterian Museum. Our now annual GIFCon conference (Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations, for those who don’t know), of which this year’s is the third instalment. And the appointment of Brian Attebery as the world’s first Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Fantasy (thanks for coming, Brian, and for speaking here today!).
The numbers on our MLitt have been high for an Arts programme at that level; around 20 a year, over half of whom are international. Alice Jenkins, now our Head of School, has created two new posts in fantasy – the first such posts in history, I think – which brought us the talents and energies of two world-class scholars, Rhys Williams and Dimitra Fimi. And the programme has attracted interest from around the world, simply by virtue of being the only dedicated graduate fantasy programme in existence.
Has the time come to think of branching out? Of seeing how the art of the impossible enables us to understand the world differently? How might the impossible itself – the concept of what could never exist in the past or the present – point the way to new ways of seeing and doing things in the future? What, as Rhys is always asking us, are the affordances of fantasy?
We’re meeting here today to think about the activities, the thinking and the research that might help us address these questions. And we’re also here to ask a follow-up question. What might a Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic do for us? What might we want it to do? We’d like to respond to these questions with your help, as representatives of many academic disciplines, many kinds of work in the world, many kinds of creativity. We’d like to begin the process of putting together what we’re calling a Manifesto for Fantasy and the Fantastic.
Welcome to Fantasy at Glasgow. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to have you at this symposium.
[This is the text of a lightning talk I gave this week at an event organised by my colleague Dr Saeko Yazaki, ‘Thistle and Sakura: Glasgow-Japan networking event’, attended by Mr Nozomu Takaoka, the Consul General of Japan in Edinburgh.]
My interest in anime is bound up with my interest in fantasy and the fantastic: the art of the impossible, books and films whose creators choose to turn away from mimetic realism to represent things that never existed and never could exist. Anime movies in particular interest me because they’re more immersive than TV shows, and can be more easily watched in my spare time. I’ve taught courses on anime, lectured on it at Masters level, and published a couple of essays on the genre.
The question of what can or can’t exist is answered differently by different cultures, and by different individuals within each culture. Anime gives me the sense that Japan has more available gateways between what’s possible and what isn’t possible (such as the symbolic gateways of shrines) than the Western cultures that have embraced its art.
Animation makes the distinction between the real and the unreal, the material and the immaterial, a seamless one. You can transition from cityscape to dreamscape, from the near and familiar to the far and strange, without even noticing the moment of transition if nearly everything is drawn by hand.
Animation encourages us to think about the ways we affect and transform the things we imitate or dream up. The peculiarities of character drawing, for instance, lend a distinctive flavor to entire movies or TV series. Each frame in a well-made anime is carefully composed, and draws attention to that fact (pun intended).
I like to think of anime as a way of telling history. Thanks to its famous period of isolation, followed by an equally famous accelerated industrial revolution, Japan has gone through faster and greater changes than the Western cultures I know best. Japanese artists seem to me to have used anime to articulate the effect of these radical changes in radical new ways, through memorable stories and evocative images.
I’m also fascinated by the way anime collaborates with other art forms, especially literature. I’m interested in the way Western writing has been adapted to Japanese concerns in films like Panda Go Panda! (Pippi Longstocking), The Castle in the Sky (Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels), Tales from Earthsea (Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea sequence), Arrietty (The Borrowers), and Mary and the Witch’s Flower (The Little Broomstick). Anime’s intimate relationship to books and reading delights me; Whisper of the Heart, for instance, is about writing fantasy fiction, while Giovanni’s Island is about how a book helps two young boys endure terrible things.
In terms of future plans, I’ve invited Jonathan Clements to give a talk here at the University of Glasgow to mark ten years of the Scotland Loves Anime Festival, perhaps the most important anime festival in the UK; that’s on the 10th October 2019. And I hope one day to write a book on anime, if that doesn’t sound too presumptuous coming from a scholar who hasn’t visited Japan and doesn’t speak Japanese. I’ll need a lot of help with it!
The reign of Mary Tudor (1553-8) has never been celebrated for its imaginative writing. Yet perversely enough it has always provided ample material for imaginative rewriting: reinventions of history which seek to construct some sort of orderly narrative out of the chaos of England’s erratic journey towards Protestantism in the turbulent middle years of the sixteenth century. After the accession of Elizabeth I her sister’s reign began to be characterized by Protestants as a period when the religious imagination of the English people temporarily ran amok, drawing them away from the dawning light of the gospel and back to the illusions and conjuring tricks of the Catholic church. And by the early seventeenth century the period was sometimes represented, thanks to the softening mist of nostalgia, as a time of relative innocence, when communities were united in their conviction (however misguided) that they shared the land with benevolent fairies as well as affectionate (sometimes over-affectionate) priests, monks and nuns.
The poet William Warner, for instance, included ‘A Tale of Robin Goodfellow’ in the 1606 edition of his ever-expanding epic Albions England (1606). In this little-known episode from the country’s history, a ‘bare-breeched Goblin’ laments the departure of superstition as the reformed religion took hold, robbing monks and nuns of their livelihood and depriving Robin himself of the dishes of milk and other titbits which had once been considered his due. The over-active imaginations of Marian Catholics, the goblin tells us, meant that for fairies and their infernal accomplices – the Pope and the Devil – it ‘Was then a merry world with us when Mary wore the Crown […] But all things have gone cross with us since here the Gospel shined’. Around the same time the poet-bishop Richard Corbett wrote a celebrated lament for the forgotten customs of the Marian ‘good folk’, such as leaving coins in the shoes of diligent housemaids as a reward for (sexual?) services rendered, stealing away the illegitimate children of priests to be raised elsewhere, or dancing at dawn to cover the tracks of early-rising lovers:
Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.
For Corbett the departure of the fairies has left a glaring absence of convenient excuses for covering up a man or a woman’s erotic adventures, and an England dominated by eagle-eyed, judgmental Puritans is no happy substitute. Corbett is all for the imaginative rewriting of the history of sex between consenting adults, and the relaxed attitude to the sins of the body which such retouching of past misdemeanours would seem to imply.
Corbett’s poem is of course well known, especially to fans of Rudyard Kipling. Less well known is the fact that during Mary’s reign, too, the struggle between Catholics and Protestants was often represented by its chroniclers – both authorised and unofficial – as a heated struggle for the imaginations of English subjects. Like More and Tyndale in their controversy over the translation of the scriptures into English, each side accused the other of fabricating fictions in their efforts to gain control of people’s minds (indeed, the More/Tyndale controversy was reanimated by the publication in 1557 of William Rastell’s edition of Thomas More’s Workes). The Protestant martyrologist John Foxe encapsulates these accusations and counter-accusations in an anecdote he tells about ‘A false fearful imagination of fire’ at Oxford University, in which academics assembled to hear the recantation of a Protestant colleague in St Mary’s church are thrown into panic by a false alarm:
And as in a great fire (where fire is indeed), we see many times how one little spark giveth matter of a mighty flame, setting whole stacks and piles a burning: so here, upon a small occasion of one man’s word, kindled first a general cry, then a strong opinion running in every man’s head within the church, thinking the church to be on fire, where no fire was at all. Thus it pleased Almighty God to delude these deluders: that is, that these great Doctors and wise men of the schools, who think themselves so wise in God’s matters as though they could not err; should see, by their own senses and judgments, how blinded and infatuated they were, in these so small matters and sensible trifles.
The incident offers an elaborate comic allegory, scripted by God himself, of the ‘imaginations’ or delusions spun by Catholic apologists as they labour to ignite an ersatz pentecostal flame in the English church, whether by the force of their own ‘strong opinion’ or by burning Protestants. Imaginary fires like these illuminate the landscape of Marian England alongside real ones, drawing the bewildered populace (so the propagandists would have us think) first to one faith, then to another, and threatening to render the light of religious truth invisible forever.
But the workings of the imagination were also taken to be central to political struggles throughout the period. George Cavendish’s celebrated Life of Wolsey (c. 1553-8) documents Cardinal Wolsey’s efforts to discredit attempts by his enemies to sow suspicious ‘imaginations’ about him in the head of his master, Henry VIII. As his fall is engineered by noblemen close to the king, the Cardinal’s only hope of overcoming ‘the enemy that never sleepeth, but studieth and continually imagineth, both sleeping and waking, my utter destruction’ is to get close to the king himself, ‘that my truth should vanquish all their untruth and surmised accusations’. Cavendish’s Life itself constitutes a sustained effort to counteract what he calls the ‘untrue imaginations’ about the Cardinal set forth in ‘divers printed books’ which have been circulating since his death. William Roper’s Life of Thomas More (c. 1553-8) similarly records the systematic exclusion of the titular Lord Chancellor from the king’s presence, which lends credibility to the ‘slanderous surmises… imagined against’ him by his detractors in his absence. But unlike Wolsey, More collaborates with his enemies in engineering his own withdrawal from political action. The court is a glamorous world of fictions to which his skills as a performer initially grant him access, and his one hope of establishing himself as custodian of the truth is to mortify his imaginative faculties – or at least, to ‘dissemble’ them. In Mary’s reign, by contrast, religious dissidents who did not aspire to the martyr’s crown found that the safest place to practise their religion was as close as possible to the Queen’s person. Edward Underhill, known as the ‘hot gospeller’ for his combative Protestantism, tells us in his autobiography (written after 1561) that for members of the true religion ‘there was no such place to shift [hide] in, in this realm, as in London, notwithstanding their great spial and search; nor no better place to shift the Easter time [i.e. to avoid taking the Catholic mass] than in Queen Mary’s Court’. The closer you were to the body of a Tudor monarch, the less the imagination of the monarch could be turned against you by your enemies, and the less vulnerable you were to accusations of ‘imagining’ or plotting against the prince’s person.
Conversely, the further you were from the monarch’s body the more vulnerable you were to slander, suspicion and rumour. The focus of Mary’s fears was the provinces: from nearby Kent, where Wyatt’s rebellion of 1554 broke out inflamed by reports ‘maliciously imagined and blown abroad’ of an invasion by a Spanish army, to far-off Wales and Cornwall, which were expected to rise in support of the rebellion and which remained the focus of rumours of new rebellions throughout the remainder of Mary’s reign. John Proctor wrote his Historie of Wyates Rebellion (1554), he tells us, partly to discredit the ‘sundry tales thereof… far wide from truth’, and partly to vindicate his Kentish fellow-countrymen from the ‘notable infamy’ which the rebellion had brought them. The fear of insurrection in the provinces was by no means pure paranoia on the part of Mary and her supporters. The great historical verse miscellany The Mirror for Magistrates (1555-1610) – especially those parts of it known to have been composed during or shortly after Mary’s reign – suggests repeatedly that the further you live from London the more likely you are to succumb to dynastic fantasies, based for the most part on what Cavendish calls ‘dark and strange prophecies’ and the ‘imaginations and travailous business’ undertaken either to prevent their fulfilment or to bring it about. In the Mirror the fifteenth-century Welsh prince Owen Glendower bases his claim to the throne of England on the compositions of irresponsible Welsh prophet-bards, while the Cornish blacksmith who led the 1497 ‘An Gof’ rebellion – and whose insurrection prefigures both the Prayerbook Rebellion of Edward’s reign and the Wyatt Rebellion of Mary’s – similarly bases his claim to princely status on the vatic encouragements of ballad-mongers. William Baldwin, the first editor of the Mirror and its principal poet, is of course eager to insist that these examples demonstrate the difference between imagined pretensions to monarchic supremacy and real ones. But as claims to power multiply in the Mirror’s successive tragedies, the possibility of distinguishing between authentic pretensions and imagined ones, between the genuine dynasties traced by historians and the fantastic ones forged by heralds, grows ever more remote. The problem is summed up by Fulke Greville in his account of Sir Philip Sidney’s letter to Elizabeth I on the subject of her proposed marriage to the Catholic Duc d’Alençon in 1579. For Sidney, Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain offers the best of reasons for avoiding such another match between an English Queen and a Spanish monarch, working as it did solely in the interests of King Philip, who hoped by this means to ‘possess this diversly diseased estate with certain poetical titles of his own’. In Mary’s time, according to Greville, plots to seize power were evolved in the diseased imaginations or poetic fancies of ambitious men, generated by the faculty which also generates verses, monsters, insurrections, false genealogies and heresies of all kinds.
The poets of The Mirror for Magistrates would have agreed with Greville. In unfolding the tragedies of princes and great men, they lay heavy emphasis on the origins of these tragedies in the wayward imaginations of their protagonists: their dreams, hopes, fears, delusions. They also locate these origins at or beyond the margins of the Tudor demesnes, from Wales and Cornwall to Ireland, where the elder Mortimer meets his end, and Scotland, where James IV unlearns all the civility he acquired during his childhood residence in England, regressing rapidly to Celtic treachery and barbarism. From the margins imagined sedition spreads with unnerving rapidity to the centre, in the form of gossip, rumours, fake news, scaremongering. William Baldwin records the spread of superstition and violence from Ireland to central London in his late-Edwardian prose fiction Beware the Cat (c. 1553), just as John Proctor records the successive waves of rumour – that the Spaniards had invaded, that Wyatt had taken London – which almost secured the success of Wyatt’s rebellion. At the margins, too, that imaginary entity the nation could be appropriated with alarming ease by factions hostile to the government. When marching through Kent, Wyatt appealed for support from all true Englishmen; the band of ‘white-coats’ who joined his forces offered the statement that ‘we are all Englishmen’ as explanation for their decision; while the later insurrectionist Thomas Stafford, who seized Scarborough castle in 1557, called on the English to overthrow a ‘most unworthy queen’ who had ‘forfeited the crown; because she, being naturally born half Spanish and half English, sheweth herself a whole Spaniard in loving Spaniards and hating English, enriching Spaniards and robbing English’. During the Marian period the task of imagining the English nation achieves a political significance and urgency it had never possessed before, as a result both of the counter-Reformation and of Mary’s Spanish marriage: and a great many of the texts it generated take the concepts of England and Englishness as their themes.
As the historian Whitney Jones has pointed out, this is also a period when literature of all kinds is much preoccupied with social and economic reform, focused in particular around the concept of the Tudor Commonwealth. With the partial exception of Tottel’s poetic Miscellany (1557), every major ‘literary’ text of Mary’s reign addresses social and economic problems and their solutions, from Nicholas Udall’s Christmas play Respublica (1553) to John Heywood’s fabular epic The Spider and the Fly (1556), from William Baldwin’s satirical elegy The Funerals of King Edward VI (1553) to the conduct-book The Institution of a Gentleman (1555). In each case the imagination is taken to be the faculty responsible for social and economic abuse: the imagination which enables the vice Avarice and his cronies to adopt new, misleading names in Respublica, and so to beguile the Lady Commonwealth into allowing them to take control of her affairs: the imagination which seduces the aristocracy and gentry in The Institution of a Gentleman into idleness, lust and tyranny; the imagination which, in Baldwin’s poem, gives the aristocracy such inflated self-esteem that Death has difficulty in distinguishing King Edward’s palace from the palatial residences of his subjects as he seeks out the boy-king to punish him for the sins of his people. At one point in Heywood’s The Spider and the Fly a fly caught in a spider’s web changes places with the spider in order to understand his point of view as an aristocratic oppressor of the commons. They agree, as the prose argument puts it, ‘to change places (each for the time) to imagine and set forth other’s part the best they can […] Wherein the fly anon is so allured to pride and ambition in occupying (for the while) the spider’s stately place, that he at last with an oath affirmeth that spiders are owners of all windows’ – that is, that the aristocracy has a God-given right to the possession of all the land in a commonwealth. Power or stateliness is a mind-altering drug, inducing in its possessor the condition of imaginative ‘vainglory’ which Marian writers – like their Edwardian predecessors – take to be the presiding vice of the time.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the epistolary prose fiction The Image of Idleness (1556) constitutes an extended examination of ‘vainglory’ as it is manifested in one of Mary’s humbler subjects, an elderly gentleman-soldier named Bawdin Bachelor who wants a wife but fails to persuade any woman to marry him. He combats the depression brought on by successive rejections by immersing himself in a fantasy world, designed to boost his flagging self-esteem in the face of adversity:
For doubtless this transitory life is entangled with so many kinds of misery, that unless a man will flatter himself with some kind of vain glory or, contrary to the lively eye of his reason, delight or rejoice in some one trifle or other, the calamity and unquietness thereof will so fret nature that none shall be able to live out half their natural course.
I take The Image of Idleness to be a satire on contemporary social and religious mores, identifying the centrality of fantasy, dissimulation and flattery – especially self-flattery – to Marian culture. The Marian government and the church it sponsors depend for their survival on cultivating the fertile imaginations of their subjects: and the anonymous author of this epistolary narrative subjects the workings of contemporary ideologies to the same witty analysis as Erasmus practised in The Praise of Folly, a book on which The Image of Idleness is partly modelled.
If I were to write a book on the literature of Mary Tudor’s reign, then, it would have the title Marian Imaginations. It would concern itself with the workings of the English imagination in and after the reign of Mary Tudor: from the imagination of the rebel, who spawns fear and paranoia in the provinces for his own ends, to that of the Queen herself, whose imaginary pregnancies bodied forth her desire to alter the course of English history; from the role of the imagination in the story of England as recorded in Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, William Baldwin’s Mirror for Magistrates and Joh Proctor’s History of Wyatt’s Rebellion, to the imaginative rewriting of Mary’s reign by Elizabethan historians such as John Foxe. It would end by demonstrating the profound effect of these various Marian and post-Marian explorations of the imagination on the better-known products of the writerly imagination in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The book will never, I think, be written – at least by me; but as a curious missing link in the history of the human imagination it would, I think, have been well worth writing. So I’m duly placing it here, in one of the obscurer libraries of the City of Lost Books. If you find it here, feel free to rewrite it for yourself…
[This is the talk I gave to introduce a showing of the movie Pop in Q, hosted by the Consulate General of Japan at the University of Edinburgh, 1 February 2019, as part of the Japanese Film Festival, 2019. My thanks to Mr Ben Jones and Ms Murata Yoko for inviting me to take part.]
I’ve been asked to talk today about how I came to love anime, before going on to talk about the movie we’re about to watch, Pop in Q. To do this I have to go way back in time to my earliest childhood memories, when I lived in Singapore in the 1960s, the son of diplomat and a university teacher, and gained privileged access to several anime series which as far as I know have never been officially shown in the United Kingdom. With my brothers and sister I watched Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion (1965) in the heat of the tropics, in a house whose windows had no glass in them, allowing giant bats to fly in and out of the living room freely while the gekkos scuttled across walls and ceilings and enormous red-brown cockroaches bumbled through the air bumping into things. The worst punishment you could get in those days was to be sent to bed without watching Kimba. He lived in the heat, like us, surrounded by eccentric and often dangerous wildlife; he was as brave, clever and strong as we wanted to be, and his adventures had a peculiar flavour about them which no other programme on TV in those days seemed to share. There was a darkness to them; animals Kimba was close to died regularly, beginning with his father, and the little lion cub was always being betrayed and damaged, very often by human beings or by animals who had been damaged by contact with humanity. The darkness of his adventures was matched by the strange shapes of the landscapes through which he moved; they were far gloomier and stranger than the landscapes in other cartoons, an effect intensified by the fact that we had a black-and-white TV. There was a yearning about many episodes, too, for friends, family and places Kimba had lost, and for times gone by that could never be recaptured, though they could be remembered with fondness. These days I’d call it something like nostalgia; a simultaneous sense of the transience of beautiful things (mono no aware) and the importance of happy memories (natsukashii). This unique atmosphere will be familiar to all lovers of anime; it suffuses the form, and Osamu Tezuka, the pioneer of manga who invented Kimba, was one of the masters of evoking it.
As an English boy I was lucky to get access to Kimba, thanks to my time in Singapore, and since then a brief glimpse of Kimba’s face has been enough to send me back to that unique period in my growing up. Anime wasn’t much seen on British TV at the time, but my love of the lion cub – along with Astro Boy, Prince Planet, Ultraman (not an anime, this one) and Marine Boy – meant I was ready and waiting when we finally began to see truly great anime movies in Britain, in the late 1980s. As far as I was concerned the first of these was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988), now widely recognised as a cyberpunk classic. This was a movie that captured the trauma of late twentieth-century life like nothing else; it takes place in a future Tokyo – rebuilt after a devastating incident that destroyed the older version – where gleaming ultra-modern skyscrapers conceal deserted roads and alleyways in which gangs of disaffected teenagers clash on improbably magnificent super-bikes. Into this dystopian present erupts the shadow of the menace that destroyed old Tokyo, in the form of bizarrely ageing children with psychic powers, and one of the teenage bikers – also with psychic powers – whose body begins to morph into a grotesque fleshy monster, as if infected with diseases or radioactive contamination thought to have been suppressed in an earlier epoch. At the heart of the movie is the question of how we can come to terms with the past in the present in order to give ourselves a liveable future, and this continues to be the central question addressed by anime to this day. The question is made intensely personal in Akira by the fact that the destructive monster waging war on Tokyo is a teenager, whose friends are as concerned to save him as to stop him; the boy’s grotesque metamorphosis can be read as a metaphor for mental illness caused by trauma, and the ruptured friendship it embodies invests it with the same sense of nostalgia and yearning that suffuses Astro Boy and Kimba.
The most important anime event in history for many British viewers was the mainstream cinema distribution of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2002-3, and for me, too, this was transformative. As soon as I’d discovered Miyazaki I couldn’t rest till I’d found out more about the Japanese film environment he was part of. I bought DVDs by the dozen, rapidly discovering the work of Isao Takahata, Mamoru Oshii, Satoshi Kon, Shinichiro Watanabe, and later Makoto Shinkai and Mamoru Hosoda, as well as the rest of Katsuhiro Otomo’s output. I became a regular at the best anime festival in the UK, which by great good fortune happened to be based where I lived in Glasgow: Scotland Loves Anime, which for me was always housed in that Art Deco palace the Glasgow Film Theatre and introduced by that guru of anime Jonathan Clements. I relentlessly exploited the knowledge of Japanese friends, including Yushin Toda of Japan Desk Scotland, who it turned out had been offered the chance to work on Akira in the 1980s but turned it down; and my colleague at the University of Glasgow, Saeko Yazaki, who is an expert in Islam but joined with me to put on a public showing and discussion of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) at the university’s Gilmorehill Cinema in 2014. Anime, then, has entered my life on three distinct occasions, though my most extensive engagement with it has been a twenty-first century phenomenon. It’s an integral part of my past and present; it has shaped me from the beginning, and continues to shape me. And this is appropriate, since I would argue that anime engages with the question of time – the complex web of relationships between time past, time present and time to come – with an intensity and consistency which makes it unique among the contemporary arts.
Spirited Away (2001), for instance, deals with a ten-year-old girl called Chihiro who is being relocated to a new town by her parents, cutting her off from the landscape and friendship groups that formed her and filling her with resentment. But on the way to their new home the family – mother, father, daughter – stray into the grounds of an abandoned museum or theme park, which suddenly brings them into contact with the past they seem to have left behind; a world full of diverse spirits (kami, yokai and others), many of them associated with specific places, some of them forming an integral part of Chihiro’s childhood. Once again, Chihiro is left without a choice about what happens next: her parents have been transformed into pigs by a curse and she must work in the spirits’ magical bathhouse, run by the fiercely maternal witch Yubaba, in order to reunite her family and move forward to the next stage of her life. In the bathhouse Chihiro loses contact with her present-day identity when she loses her name as part of her contract as a worker, just as her life in constantly mobile present-day Japan made her lose touch with her personal past and the past of her culture; and the work she has to do in the course of the film is effectively to re-forge her relationships with the past (the spirits), the present (her parents, herself) and the time to come (her move to a new location). Her relationship with a boy called Haku, who also works in the bathhouse and is possessed of magical powers, turns out to be seminal in this process: he is the spirit of a local river who saved her from drowning in early childhood, and her new relationship with him will, it is implied, ensure that she carries forward the awareness of and affection for her origins into the world of work that awaits her as a junior high school student and later as an adult.
Let me repeat what I said earlier: anime – the art of animation as practised in Japan – seems to me to be among the richest and most emotionally satisfying ways of contemplating time available today. Each of the major anime movies – and my experience of anime is largely limited to films – is utterly frank about its concern with past, present and future; and in particular with the question of how to reconcile the rich and complex past of Japan with the explosive technological, political and social changes that threaten to shatter the global present, and by this means point the way towards some sort of liveable future.
Think of Miyazaki’s second feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), in which reconciliation between the declining human population who dominated the planet in the past and the insects and toxic plants which dominate the planet in the present is essential if there is to be any future at all for humankind.
Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor: the Movie (1989) takes as its subject a virus which is infecting the mechas – giant mechanical sentient body-suits piloted by human beings – tasked with demolishing the remains of old Tokyo and constructing a capitalist mega-city in its place. We learn that the virus has been introduced into the construction mechas, the Patlabors, by a nostalgic programmer who was depressed by the systematic erasure of history being practised by the city planners in pursuit of profit; and that the virus can only be halted in its progress by demolishing the building known as the Ark, which is the nerve centre of the project to reconstruct Tokyo. The erasure of the virus, in other words, halts the demolition of old Tokyo in its tracks, and the movie leaves us wondering whether anything will have been learned in the process about the need to nurture the traces of the Japanese past.
Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress (2001) tells the history of Japan in the twentieth century through the memories of a celebrated film actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, who lives in seclusion after her retirement but is visited for a rare interview by one of her most ardent admirers, a TV interviewer called Genya Tachbana. As the interview proceeds, Genya finds himself caught up in Chiyoko’s reminiscences and acting alongside her in all her movies – which have become, in effect, episodes in her life and in that of Japan – from the early days of her stardom in the 1930s to the science fiction thrillers of the 1960s. Every film is linked to an encounter she had in her youth with a communist painter, who she helped to escape from the military police but who also left a mysterious key in her possession. She informs Genya that she became an actress in the hope that the painter would see one of her movies and get in touch, so that she could return the key. In every new film she imagines herself to be pursuing the painter in a bid to give the key back, while she in turn is chased by a succession of enemies: bandits, samurais, soldiers, monsters. Eventually Genya hands her the key, which he found in the ruins of the film studio where they both worked. But the interviewer never reveals to her something else he has found relating to her past: that the painter was arrested soon after she saved him and tortured and killed before her acting career began. Her pursuit of the painter throughout her life, in other words, has been a chase after a chimera – a ghost; but this doesn’t matter, as Chiyoko tells Genya at the movie’s end. She knew full well she might never find the painter, but loved the chase itself, the constant movement from time to time and from place to place that characterizes all the sequences she and Genya have taken part in. The film ends with Chiyoko succumbing to a heart attack, only to re-enter the dream world of her films and blast off in a spaceship, heading for the future, reconciled to the losses and traumas of her past.
Millennium Actress tells us something crucial about anime, which is that it functions as a particularly ambitious and all-embracing form of artificial memory, an unrivalled means of articulating Japan’s history. Few nations have experienced such varied and rapid extremes of social and political change as Japan between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries: a period of total isolation from outside influences, followed by sudden industrialization, an equally sudden and aggressive escalation into imperialism, the rapid militarization of industry, occupation by a foreign power, total commitment to the boom and bust of postwar capitalism, looming ecological catastrophe – crisis following crisis at a rate that seems to defy analysis by conventional historical methods. Most of all, the encounter with the present and the future is embodied for Japan and the rest of the world in the bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which (as J. G. Ballard memorably suggested) the laws of time and space seem to have been shattered beyond recovery, the grand narratives of history to have been cataclysmically interrupted. The difficulty of finding means to express the extremes to which the Japanese people have been subjected finds a solution in the astonishing proliferation of animated pictures – from movies to TV series and OVAs – that have emerged from Japanese studios since the first great TV series of the 1960s, Dr Tezuka’s Astro Boy or The Mighty Atom. Some of these pictures describe the traumas of history directly, such as the accounts of the atomic bomb-blasts and their after-effects given in Moro Masaki’s Barefoot Gen (1983) and Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World (2016); or the wartime firebombing of Tokyo, as recalled in Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988); or Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island (2014), about the Soviet invasion, occupation and forced evacuation of Shikotan in the 1940s. Others concern themselves with the convergence of past, present and future as explored through fantastic narratives, and the need to achieve what might be called synchrony between these elements in order to establish a healthy society. Synchrony in films reconciles or brings together different chronological perspectives – those of young, middle aged and old people, understandings of the world based on past, current or potential future ways of seeing things – in a harmonious conjunction closely similar to a piece of harmonised music. The centrality of the concept of synchrony to anime is perhaps why music plays such a crucial role in the form; it’s widely acknowledged that the composers Joe Hisaishi and Yoko Kanno are as much responsible for the success of the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Shinichiro Watanabe as the directors themselves.
The film we’re about to watch today, Naoki Miyahara’s Pop in Q (2016), rather neatly re-enacts the history of anime movie-making on a miniature scale. It marks itself as shoujo anime – anime for girls and young women – in its emphasis on the experiences of a group of misfit schoolgirls just coming to the end of their Junior High School years, who are about to undergo the terrifying transition to High School and the whole new set of pressures and responsibilities this entails. But it’s typical of much anime in that it casts this moment of transition as a moment of crisis for an entire world. The world in question is the Valley of Time, where the titular Popins live. It’s a small place populated by sentient stuffed toys, but its wellbeing determines the smooth functioning of time itself in every universe – including the one that contains the planet Earth as we know it; and it’s currently being invaded by a host of malevolent monsters called Kigurumi (which means something like ‘furry costumes’ or ‘animal onesies’, bizarrely enough, and should encourage us to look out for the role of costumes as a marker for the changing psychology of the young protagonists as the film goes on). Saving the Valley would seem to be a fairly straightforward task: the girls must learn a dance within a certain set time – the time of the film, which in our world is about an hour and a half, in the girls’ world the few hours before their Graduation Ceremony, and in the Valley itself ten days – and after this they can go home, their task duly accomplished. Ten days is plenty of time, you’d think, to learn a new dance; but the problem is the five girls brought together to dance it have all been made loners or outsiders by some specific trauma in their past, and hence find it difficult to cooperate. One by one it emerges, too, that they don’t in fact want to go home; that they find the childish Valley of Time, with its simplistic opposition between good and evil – as embodied in the Popins and the Kigurumi, both of whom look very like playthings – and its simple landscape of mountains, woods and seas, vastly more attractive than the complicated environment they’ve come from. If the girls don’t succeed in reconciling themselves with their past traumas – and hence with their home world – in time to learn the dance, then there will be no future, not just for them but for anyone at all. As a result, the entire film is constructed as a ticking clock, an instrument for measuring time which is literalised in the appearance of the sky and the various other clockwork mechanisms they encounter in the Valley of Time.
The action culminates in a showdown between the past and future versions of one of the girls, a fight which will determine whether she joins the other four dancers in a symbolic performance of synchrony between past, present and future, or whether she will continue to hold herself aloof, draining the energy from everyone around her in a bid to retain a sense of her own unique importance and worth. This is the challenge anime offers its audiences: to engage emotionally and intellectually with the synchronization or harmonious fusion of the many different elements, with their different time scales, that make up contemporary culture. These time scales include the slow chronology of organic growth, whether of trees or stalactites or people; the clockwork regulation of school and workplace; the precious units of leisure time we preserve for activities we enjoy, either alone or with others; the stopwatch timing of a track event; the extended memories of the old, the organizational efficiency of the mature adult, the endless play-time of the young. If we don’t find a way to enable all these competing time scales to cohabit and cooperate, at least to some extent, we won’t be able to live with each other, and the future of the world looks bleak indeed. Anime movies such as Pop in Q encourage us to believe that cohabitation and cooperation with one another and with the world itself is possible, despite all the obstacles twenty-first century living has put in our way.
One final word: my colleague Saeko tells me that in Japan it’s considered rude to stop watching a film before the end of the credits. In the case of Pop in Q you’ll miss some crucial information if you do, about what the future holds in store for our five heroines…
[This is a version of an essay I published a few years ago. For a fully annotated version see “Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman,” New Hibernia Review, vol. 10 no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.]
During the approach to the Second World War Brian O’Nolan wrote two novels in English under the pen-name Flann O’Brien, both of which are closely connected with bombs. The first of these, At Swim-Two-Birds (published by Longman’s in 1939), sold few copies and got lukewarm reviews, so it could be said to have bombed. The following year Longman’s premises in London were destroyed by a real bomb, and with them the remaining stocks of O’Nolan’s book, and after that it more or less disappeared from public consciousness until it was reprinted in 1960. His second novel, The Third Policeman (finished in 1940), ends with a revelation that might be described as a bombshell. In the last pages of the book the narrator makes the shocking discovery that he has been blown to bits by a booby trap and that he’s telling his tale from beyond the grave. On being offered to the publishers, this novel did more than bomb: it was rejected, and didn’t see print until after O’Nolan’s death.
The link between these two bombs – the real one that destroyed the first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds and the fictitious one in The Third Policeman – may be a brittle one, but it seems to me worth forging. Setting them side by side helps to underscore two things about O’Nolan’s work: the extent to which it is bound up with violence, and the extent to which the imaginary violence it contains has a grounding in reality. The independent Ireland of which At Swim-Two-Birds is an ambiguous celebration was built on armed conflict, and by the time the novel was published that conflict was spreading rapidly through Europe. My contention here is that this novel and its successor express a response to the prospect of annihilation raised by the rapid approach of the Second World War. Everything in them tends to confirm the likelihood both of the outbreak of military aggression and of its cataclysmic effects; effects which may be summarized in the destructive capabilities of bombs, whether conventional – like the bomb that blew up the warehouse – or nuclear – like the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The processes of imagining, constructing and countenancing the use of bombs are carefully mimicked in the pages of these books, and mark them out as prominent examples of what might be called the comedy of cataclysm, of which Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr Strangelove (1964) is the most celebrated example.
O’Nolan’s consciousness that violence is the presiding genius of his time finds its most direct expression in the ruthlessness with which he kills off his narrators. Much of At Swim-Two-Birds concerns the efforts of the fictional characters in a novel to outwit and finally execute the writer who brought them together. And at the end of the book this cast of revolutionary characters – all of whom collaborate in writing part of the narrative they inhabit – is massacred at one fell swoop, when the pages that sustain their existence are burnt by the writer’s servant. In The Third Policeman the threat of death hangs over the narrator from near the beginning of the story, and at the end he finds that he has been dead since the moment he started to live in fear of death. Like Europe, then, both novels contain the seeds of their own destruction, which germinate and come to appalling fruition as the narrative unfolds. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman re-enact the contemporary struggle to the death between dictatorship and democracy, and the outcome O’Nolan envisages – for both the real and the fictional struggle – is a catastrophic explosion.
At the same time, the people who inhabit these novels, whether despots or revolutionaries, are supremely civil individuals, always ready to come to terms with one another or to exchange elaborate compliments. The word “civil” is, indeed, among O’Nolan’s favourites, invoking as it does both the prospect of good company and the potential for an unexpected outbreak of genial civil war. The fictional insurgents in At Swim-Two-Birds are so uniformly courteous that one character in the novel who reads about them complains that he’s unable to tell them apart, condemning their “spiritual and physical identity” and claiming that “true dialogue is dependent on the conflict rather than the confluence of minds.” Strangely, though, it’s the confluence of minds that leads to violence in O’Nolan’s work. For him, people resemble certain chemical substances, which, while independently harmless, may when combined acquire the potential to wreak widespread devastation. This process of destructive combining comes to a head at the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, where the many civil conversations that fill the text culminate in the politest of exchanges between a devilish fairy called the Pooka MacPhellimey and a man called Trellis – the dictatorial author whose characters have mutinied against him. Tormented by the Pooka beyond endurance, Trellis is finally goaded into calling him a “black bastard,” to which the devil-fairy retorts: “The character of your colloquy is not harmonious […] and makes for barriers between the classes. Honey-words in torment, a growing urbanity against the sad extremities of human woe, that is the […] injunction I place upon your head.” From this moment Trellis is compelled to behave like a sweet-spoken saint in adversity, warmly congratulating his adversary on the inventiveness with which he smashes, mangles and bursts the unfortunate author’s limbs and organs. Here the confluence of characters proves agonizing, but it is marked by a verbal fluency that manufactures poetry from pain, wit from wounds, delight from disintegration. For O’Nolan as for Yeats, creation and destruction spring from the same roots, and honest writers of both real and fictional histories are forever condemned to pay horrified tribute to this paradox.
If civility is one characteristic of O’Nolan’s Ireland, another is its obsession with knowledge. The acquisition of – or rather, the appearance of possessing – arcane inside information is the supreme goal of every character he invents. In his celebrated column in the Irish Times, for instance, O’Nolan’s alter-ego Myles na gCopaleen veers from sharing his expertise in the field of steam transport to leading his mighty Research Bureau in its efforts to find new means of circumventing wartime shortages; from collaborating with Einstein in his researches to playing duets with the eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler; from drawing on his personal intimacy with Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova to intervening in the global economy through his directorship of the Myles na gCopaleen Banking Corporation. The knowledge he claims in each of these areas – like all the knowledge professed by O’Nolan’s creations – serves the ends, not of some spurious objective “truth” now discredited by Einstein’s theory of relativity, but of relentless self-promotion. Knowledge in O’Nolan’s work is only ever used to make its possessor look big. And it rarely if ever achieves this objective; partly, no doubt, because everyone is familiar with the rules by which the know-all or egg-head operates, and is thus forearmed against his grandiose pretensions.
In a nutshell, the rules are these:
• Facts, both historical and physical, may be freely distorted or invented, but must always be stated with absolute confidence, no matter how misplaced. • Facts must be conveyed with the help of the most powerful rhetorical tools available. Details of these are given at intervals throughout At Swim-Two-Birds. • The information thus conveyed must be entirely useless, and must do no good either to you or to anyone else. It must not advance your career, improve your health, or help you to win the philosophical compensation prize of getting to know yourself. Your information must, in fact, contribute nothing whatsoever to the well-being of humanity. • On the contrary, your information should if possible kill you, or even damn you to perdition. The possession of it, after all, is very often the result of a Faustian pact, a declaration – implicit or explicit – of one’s willingness to sell one’s soul for worthless knowledge.
The Faustian strain in O’Nolan’s work came to the fore in his play Faustus Kelly (1943), in which a local politician teaches the devil that Irish public life is more authentically hellish than Hell itself, and that knowing how to operate in it is a task beyond even the Prince of Darkness. In The Third Policeman, too, Ireland is infernal, and the protagonist is sent there for his murderous zeal in the pursuit of learning. Knowledge is capable of producing the bombs that dismembered so many bodies in the Second World War; but before it does this devilish work it must demoralize the soul to the extent that it is able to condone the manufacture and use of bombs. And in the Ireland of the thirties and forties, O’Nolan tells us, this demoralizing process is exceptionally well advanced.
O’Nolan’s opus didn’t begin with this jaded view of the contemporary forms of knowledge. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, begins by treating knowledge with respect: in its opening pages, learning of all kinds figures as the chief weapon wielded by activists for democracy and civil rights in the struggle against tyranny. The novel’s protagonist is a student who is writing a novel about an older author (Trellis), who is also writing a novel, though of a very different kind from the one planned by the student. The story Trellis proposes to write will be a “salutary book to be read by all,” filled with smut in order to appeal to the modern reading public and populated only by villains; a book which will “show the terrible cancer of sin in its true light and act as a clarion-call to torn humanity.” Trellis’s view of sin is appallingly limited given the momentous times in which he’s writing, with fascism on the rise and global conflict just around the corner. He is horrified not by stories of massacres, invasions and civil war but “by the spate of sexual and other crimes recorded in recent times in the newspapers – particularly in those published on Saturday night.” And his scapegoats for these crimes are the motley cast of characters he assembles to participate in his “bad book”, all of whom have been stolen unacknowledged from the work of other writers. It is this process of being forced into an uncongenial role to satisfy the whim of an egotistical plagiarist that the characters object to, and that provokes them to insurrection. From one point of view, their rebellion resembles Ireland’s revolt against its self-styled English landlords; after all, Trellis is the proprietor of a pub called the Red Swan Hotel, so he is indisputably a landlord. But Trellis is also indisputably Irish, with parents from both North and South (“his father was a Galwayman, sober and industrious, tried and true in the service of his country. His mother was from far Fermanagh”). So even the rising he provokes is a form of plagiary, a pale imitation of the struggle for independence. In inventing it, O’Nolan – or his student persona – would seem to be making a point about the substitution of one form of despotism for another that has taken place since the achievement of independence. The new despotism is a petty one, dominated by the church and the policing it encourages: a policing to which Trellis is as much subject as the characters he exploits (his views on the “cancer of sin” have clearly been thrashed into him by the Christian Brothers). And for the student novelist who creates both Trellis and the rebel characters, the resolution to Ireland’s continued subjection to tyrants large and small lies in the revolutionizing of the novel form itself: a transformation of the genre into a treasure-house or storage-room for the many kinds of wisdom that are freely available to Irishmen of all classes.
Before beginning the story of Trellis, the student novelist draws up a manifesto for the modern novel that resembles the charter of a new nation, an idealistic declaration of independence for twentieth-century prose fiction:
The novel, in the hands of an unscrupulous writer, could be despotic […] It was undemocratic to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and better service […] The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.
The reference to the exclusion of “persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature” smacks of elitism, and many of O’Nolan’s characters suffer from advanced cases of intellectual snobbery. But in practice the novel written by the student embraces popular culture with the same enthusiasm it shows for the classics of Irish literature. Its “wealth of references to existing works” accommodates fireside anecdote alongside old Irish storytelling, the American Western novel alongside the philosophical disputation, the poetry of the working man alongside lyrics relating to the ancient Irish kings. All classes of Irish society are represented in the student’s book. All are given work to do and rewarded – at least for a time – with “a decent standard of living.” And all classes of Irish society are shown to have their own peculiar branches of knowledge, to be raided at will by omnivorous youth in its quest for understanding and reconciliation.
Certain forms of knowledge are of common and obvious interest to all classes: among them the rituals associated with “intoxicating beverages and their strange intestinal chemistry,” together with their physical consequences (described in a tract by the Christian Brothers which the student author incorporates into his novel); or information pertaining to turf or track (the student also incorporates letters from a Newmarket man who delivers the goods on “cast-iron plungers”). But the respect of one class for knowledge associated with other classes is also evident throughout the narrative. The working class figures who populate the student’s novel, and who form the backbone of the revolutionary movement against the tyrannical landlord-author Trellis, show an enthusiastic appreciation for the story-telling skills of a character from a quite different tradition – Finn Mac Cool, a “hero of old Ireland.” And although the poet they most admire is the “Poet of the Pick” Jem Casey, author of a ballad with the stirring refrain A PINT OF PLAIN IS YOUR ONLY MAN, Casey himself when he enters the narrative is a confirmed admirer of ancient Irish poetry. On meeting the mad king Sweeny Casey announces “By God I know a bloody poet when I hear one. Hands off the poets. I can write a verse myself and I respect the man that can do the same.”
The solidarity between ancient and modern Ireland and the literatures of both is expressed with still greater eloquence by another working class character from the student’s novel:
You can’t beat it, of course, said Shanahan with a reddening of the features, the real old stuff of the native land, you know, the stuff that brought scholars to our shores when your men on the other side were on the flat of their bellies before the calf of gold with a sheepskin around their man. It’s the stuff that put our country where she stands today, Mr Furriskey, and I’d have my tongue out of my head by the bloody roots before I’d be heard saying a word against it.
Here again the respect for knowledge “that brought scholars to our shores” is warmly and forcefully articulated; in the deep past, at least, knowledge was a matter for unqualified celebration. It’s no wonder that the revolutionary Shanahan delights in “the real old stuff of our native land” since what we see of it in the student’s novel is peculiarly democratic: churchmen and laymen, kings, witches, madmen and milkmaids engage in rhetorical or athletic competition without getting aggressive, and boast outrageously without giving offence. But Shanahan adds a qualification to his praise of old Irish poetry as it is practised and purveyed in modern times: “the man in the street, where does he come in? By God he doesn’t come in at all as far as I can see.” In the twentieth century, knowledge is hemmed in by elitism and by “barriers between the classes.” In the world the student inhabits – the world beyond the pages of his novel where he is reading for a degree at University College Dublin, like Stephen Dedalus – knowledge, and the competition between different kinds of knowledge, is in a permanent state of war, of which the Second World War is merely an aggravated symptom.
The student novelist’s uncle is a member of the lower middle classes who is deeply embroiled in the war of knowledge. Like Trellis, he’s a great purveyor of hackneyed wisdom: “A good degree is a very nice thing to have […] The old schoolmasters believed in the big stick […] For what is the love of God but the love of your neighbour? […] Doctoring and teaching, the two of them are marked out for special graces and blessings.” And like Trellis, the nature of his hackneyed wisdom identifies him as the product of a Catholic education, which serves to strengthen the church’s hegemony in Ireland. But he claims to have a stake in this hegemony: he has a “very special friend” in the Christian Brothers, and can pull strings to get the student-novelist’s friend into the order. And his claim to an insider’s knowledge of the Brothers is of a piece with his claim to an inside knowledge of his nephew’s private doings. “I know the studying you do in your bedroom,” he tells him, “Damn the studying you do in your bedroom […] Tell me this, do you ever open a book at all? […] O I know the game you are at above in your bedroom. I am not as stupid as I look, I’ll warrant you that.” For the sake of his own dignity – for the sake of his aspirations to the “self-determination” mentioned in the manifesto for the student’s novel – this lower-middle-class speaker has built up an impregnable defence system constructed largely from rhetoric. He is “Rat-brained, cunning, concerned-that-he-should-be-well-thought of. Abounding in pretence, deceit.” One might add: acutely conscious that there are areas of knowledge from which he has been systematically excluded, and which impart power to the initiated; eager that he should be thought to have “special” access to these areas. He knows what goes on when a student claims to be “studying,” and he knows the inner workings of the church hierarchy. He seeks additional stakes in ruling-class culture by joining an amateur operatic society that performs the work of those representative Imperial Englishmen, Gilbert and Sullivan. His part in their work requires that he wear a papier-maché replica of a policeman’s hat, marking him out as an eager mimic of Ireland’s former “landlords.” Not surprisingly, then, at the beginning of the novel the student-novelist sees him as the would-be tyrant of his household, an enemy determined to gain control over him by every means at the disposal of his devious rat brain.
But by the end the uncle has been reduced to the status of a comic entertainer – the stage Irishman who is O’Nolan’s pet hate and who hovers at the wings of every passage he writes. He is no longer the enemy; when the student passes his exams the uncle presents him with a second hand gold watch in token of his admission into the work schedule of the nation, of which the uncle himself is part. The enemy is the system that sets one class at odds with another in the same society, in the same family even, using knowledge as its instrument. The enemy, that is, is the class system, an import equally from England and from Rome. And by the end of At Swim-Two-Birds the malevolent machinery of that system stands poised and ready to consume the student-novelist and his reader as they reach the closing pages of the book.
The transmutation of knowledge-acquisition in At Swim-Two-Birds from an amicably democratic occupation to a power-struggle, a war, may be traced by glancing at the beginning and the end of the novel. In keeping with the manifesto’s statement that the modern novel should be a work of reference, a sort of encyclopaedia, At Swim-Two-Birds is interspersed with leaves from an actual encyclopaedia that stands in the student-novelist’s bedroom. It’s a Conspectus of the Arts and Natural Sciences, published in forty buckskin volumes in 1854 by a “reputable Bath house for a guinea the volume.” The volumes “bore their years bravely,” we are told, and “retained in their interior the kindly seed of knowledge intact and without decay.” The Conspectus is a democratic project: it exists to make specialist information available to the curious general reader, regardless of social status or education. Accordingly, in the novel written by the student, knowledge would indeed seem at times to be both kindly and freely available. It is bestowed, for instance, in cornucopian abundance on the rebel characters when one of their number takes over Trellis’s narrative, so that they speak in tongues, as it were, on topics as diverse as the colloquial names for chemical elements, the camel’s inability to swim and the correct way to read your gas metre. But at the time they obtain this wealth of knowledge they are also engaged in less attractive pursuits; above all, in subjecting their author Trellis to unspeakable agonies through the disinterested agency of the Pooka MacPhellimey. And the Pooka, too, possesses an abundance of arcane knowledge, which he applies to Trellis with far-from-pleasant consequences:
A number of miracles were wrought as one and together […] Leaden-hard forked arteries ran speedily about his scalp, his eye-beads bled and the corrugations of boils and piteous tumuli which appeared upon the large of his back gave it the appearance of a valuable studded shield and could be ascertained on counting to be sixty-four in number […] In addition to his person, his room was also the subject of mutations unexplained by any purely physical hypothesis and not to be accounted for by mechanical devices relating to the manipulation of guy-ropes, pulley-blocks, or mechanical collapsible wallsteads of German manufacture, nor did the movements of the room conform to any known laws relating to the behaviour of projectiles as ascertained by a study of gravitation enforced by calculations based on the postulata of the science of ballistics […] A clock could be heard incessantly reciting the hours, a token that the free flight of time had also been interfered with; while the mumbling of the Pooka at his hell-prayers and the screaming of the sufferer, these were other noises perceptible to the practised ear.
Half a dozen academic discourses dependent on precision are at work in this passage: the Catholic theologian’s painstaking notation of miracles; the archaeologist’s eye, which appraises the author’s boil-encrusted back in the light of excavations of pre-Christian tumuli; the mathematician’s fondness for numbers and geometrical patterns; the engineer’s pleasure in mechanics and the physicist’s in disruptions in the space-time continuum; the poet’s delight in perfectly rhythmic speech. And all this in the service of quasi-inquisitorial excruciation. The possessor of knowledge, the Pooka, first appoints himself judge, prosecution, jury and executioner, then applies all the weight of his learning to the end of putting the screws on his chosen victim.
We have entered territory, in fact, which will be explored more thoroughly in The Third Policeman. The pattern is one we shall see repeated in an extraordinary range of O’Nolan’s writings. In the trial scene towards the end of At Swim-Two-Birds, for instance, the author Trellis is arraigned by a panel of judges who are his known enemies – the characters in his novel. The courtroom itself is a former music-hall which has been converted to a cinema and is now a bar, both legal and licensed (all the judges have pints of porter in their fists). These many functions for a single space should alert us to something else that is always happening in O’Nolan’s writing: people are always being judged and convicted in every social space in Ireland, from street to pub to church to schoolroom to bed-chamber. The conviction is always a foregone conclusion, and the laws of physics, of nature, of history, of the nation, and of the divinity will be freely transgressed in order to bring that conviction about. When you think about it, a conviction or legal sentence is a kind of punch-line, and all O’Nolan’s characters will violate any principle in order to end an anecdote with style. And the more you read O’Nolan, the more terrible this comic inevitability becomes. One is tempted to say that for him the comic narrative, the shaggy dog story, the anecdote with the devastating punch-line that unleashes a burst of agonized laughter, is the exact model for what was happening to Ireland and to Europe as the 1930s deteriorated into war.
In At Swim-Two-Birds the inevitable fate of the author is postponed by the act of fate we encountered earlier, when his servant Teresa burns the pages of his novel that give life to his antagonists, the characters who are about to sentence him to death. His legal sentence is commuted to a conversational sentence, a feeble bit of wordplay, which the battered author delivers when he has returned to his house and is following Teresa upstairs, observing the motion of her buttocks – decently concealed beneath her skirt – as he goes: “Ars est celare artem, muttered Trellis, doubtful as to whether he had made a pun.” As he returns to his bedroom the power structure reverts to its pre-revolutionary state, with the author supine on his bed manipulating his characters and fooling his readers as he has always done, a perfect imitation of the social hegemony at work, the art of its power foxily concealed from view. We have assisted at the birth of an encyclopaedia, a circle of knowledge, which has now been transformed from the promise of infinite freedom that it held at the beginning of the book to an elaborate trap. And this is the third characteristic O’Nolan ascribes to 1930s Ireland. Urbanity is the first; an obsession with knowledge is the second. The third is entrapment.
Trapped! You see a bore coming down the street – you make evasive manoeuvres – they are half-hearted ones because you know he has spotted you and is bearing down like a heat-seeking missile. And now you are subject to the anecdote: the unloading of a mass of worthless information with just one end – to astonish, to perplex, to invoke reluctant admiration, to establish the superiority of the bore regardless of all outward and visible signs of his commonplace condition. The punch-line is the sprung trap that awaits you at the end of the anecdote, the confirmation of the bore’s victory, and you will seek every means to identify its whereabouts and to shield yourself against its approach. Yet your efforts to protect yourself will always fail, because the bore holds all the cards, you cannot possibly second-guess the tortuous racking to which he will subject language, history, space and time in order to spring his surprise. The punch-line is the ultimate form of occult knowledge, and the best thief in the world is unable either to wrest the secret of it from the narrator who plans to deliver it – or to divert the narrator from his purpose of giving it vent.
This is especially the case with Keats and Chapman, protagonists of a series of shaggy dog stories O’Nolan unfolded in his daily column in the Irish Times. Each story culminates in one of Keats’s abominable puns, often achieved at the cost of appalling physical pain to some unfortunate innocent – usually his unhappy friend Chapman. On one occasion the schoolboy Chapman is glued to the back of his head teacher, solely in order that Keats can say “I like a man that sticks to his principals.” On another he is chewed and mashed by a steel rolling mill in the interests of allowing Keats to observe that he has “been through the mill.” On a third, a man suffers from intolerable adenoidal agonies after an amateur operation performed by Chapman, which leaves the patient with a surgical instrument embedded in his sinuses for more than a week, merely as a pretext for Keats to state at the end of it all: “He had it up his nose for you a long time.” In each of these episodes, elaborate, weighty machinery is set in motion, narratives of an epic length and complexity are unfolded (remember that Keats and Chapman are associated with an Irish epic, the works of Homer), and the material world is disjointed and stretched beyond the limits of its capacity, all in the interest of a jeu de mots the most appropriate response to which is a scream of derision or torment. In this sense, At Swim-Two-Birds is a Keats and Chapman anecdote, the victim of its violence being the author Trellis. Here for once the victim is allowed to have the punch-line (except of course that Trellis is the most tyrannical anecdotalist of all, the novelist, as well as the novel’s victim). But in most of O’Nolan’s anecdotes the victim of physical violence is made the helpless subject of the climactic pun: like the stranger who is murdered, dissolved in an acid bath, then drunk by Chapman cup by cup, solely in order that Keats’s friend might claim that he has drunk the fellow under the table.
Here the anecdote is relatively innocent, if nasty. But there are times when O’Nolan’s anecdotes are not just nasty but horrible, straying into uncharted regions of poor taste.
One example is the Keats and Chapman story where the unfortunate pair are caught in the blast of an American atomic bomb, whose most freakish effect is to “blow the backs off several humans, leaving them alive, conscious, and otherwise intact.” Keats is one of these unfortunates, and the ensuing search for his own missing part among heaps of bleeding backs while uttering terrible threats of vengeance is driven solely by O’Nolan’s need to vent himself of the final line: “‘I’m going to get my own back,’ Keats said savagely, turning over nearby fleshes.’” “Savagely” is just the right word: the comic has seldom got much closer than this to the monstrously mundane logic of the War Room (the anecdote was published in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
But perhaps the most calculatedly offensive of O’Nolan’s anecdotes is “The Martyr’s Crown,” a short story cited by Frank O’Connor as symptomatic of the degenerate state of Irish writing in the 1930s. In it the fight for independence, the heroic deeds of the Irish resistance and the sacrifices of the men and women who helped them in their struggle against the British are enlisted as components of a squalid tale narrated by the most outrageous of O’Nolan’s self-promoters. The narrator is a man called Toole, whose yearning to be an “insider” has reached unprecedented intensity, and who satisfies it by hailing eminent passers-by as if they were his closest friends, thus startling them into acknowledging his cheerful greetings despite the fact that they do not know him from Adam. Toole then turns to any given walking-companion who has witnessed the incident and proceeds to back up his claim to the passer-by’s acquaintance with some elaborate story concerning their mutual adventures. In one case, an elegant young man has the poise to ignore Toole’s greeting with a devastating display of frostiness, and Toole is stung into inventing an unusually elaborate story to explain the youth’s indifference. It’s a tale that includes a bloody ambush (once again featuring explosives – “a class of a home-made bomb that Bart used to make in his own kitchen”), a massacre of the British military (“there was no heads left on some of them”), and an Irishwoman who sleeps with a British captain to save the resistance fighters hiding in her house – all in the interest of providing Toole with the most explosive of punchlines. Of course the young man is proud, the anecdotalist declares triumphantly; too proud to acknowledge his humbler acquaintances. He is the offspring of the union between the patriotic Irishwoman and the British captain. “For seven hundred years,” Toole goes on, “thousands – no, I’ll make it millions – of Irish men and women have died for Ireland […] But that young man was born for Ireland. There was never anybody else like him. Why wouldn’t he be proud?” In “The Martyr’s Crown,” in other words, Ireland’s bloody history serves as raw material for an elaborate rhetorical scheme for fleeting self-promotion on the part of a nobody. The hopes and high ambitions entertained by the Irish freedom fighters have been reduced to this: and if O’Connor was disgusted by O’Nolan’s willingness to transform an epic struggle into a joke, this was clearly just the reaction O’Nolan was looking for. The apt response to Toole’s punchline is a shriek of mingled laughter and derision both shriller and more unnerving than anything elicited by the various lives of Keats and Chapman. And a more muted shriek might be an apt response to the collective political and economic disappointments suffered by the partitioned Irish people in the early years of independence.
All the characteristics of O’Nolan’s writing I’ve discussed so far find their funniest and most appalling manifestations in The Third Policeman. The book is an anecdote told by a bore – a nameless first-person narrator obsessed with the work of an insane philosopher called de Selby. And it’s populated by many additional raconteurs, each of whom is as willing as the narrator to twist the geometries of space, time, and reason in their efforts to arrive at the punch-line they desire. Unlike O’Nolan’s other texts, however, this anecdote goes on interminably beyond the punch-line, and is located in an infernal Ireland where every verbal coup is a body-blow, calling forth ever more horrified cries of astonishment on the part of the narrator, until he observes that such cries have become “almost a habit with me.” In this place as in all of O’Nolan’s Irelands people are constantly being judged and sentenced without due process (there is “no trial or preliminary proceedings, no caution administered and no hearing before a Commissioner of the Public Peace”). And the sentence passed on the narrator himself – as in At Swim-Two-Birds – is death. But here the irrational system that sentences the narrator to death has everyone in its grip. Everyone is either criminal or policeman or both, and is governed by an arcane set of rules which however arbitrary are finally inescapable, even if nobody knows them. Or rather, the rules are eminently escapable; they can always be circumvented, but only apparently and temporarily before reasserting themselves in the most unexpected and disturbing manner possible, like the pun at the end of a Keats and Chapman story. When the narrator hears in the middle of the book that he’s to be hanged for a murder nobody knows he has committed, he cries out in consternation: “Is this all a joke for entertainment purposes?” To this his accuser and would-be executioner, Sergeant Pluck, replies with warmth: “If you take it that way I will be indefinitely beholden to you.” The book as a whole is only a joke if it is taken that way – just as the outbreak of war may only be taken as a joke if you set aside your humanity and all your moral convictions. In this novel the fear of death is never alleviated, the inevitability of the death sentence never questioned; the narrator is locked into the ultimate tyranny, and the sense of entrapment his story generates is only intensified by the supreme civility with which all the characters behave towards one another, the sincerity with which they comfort their victims in the face of approaching doom.
The worst thing about this comic narrative is that it documents a self-imposed tyranny, a self-sprung trap. Like O’Nolan’s other protagonists the narrator is a seeker after knowledge for his own private advancement; and his quest to make his name through knowledge leads to murder. He kills an elderly man called Mathers for the sake of his money, which he needs to finance the publication of his definitive index to the works of de Selby. And this murder for the sake of knowledge precipitates him into the nightmare world of the three policemen of the title; an idyllic rural landscape dominated by a monstrously crooked police station, centre of operations for Sergeant Pluck and his strange and eloquent colleagues. The narrator goes to the station in his quest for Mathers’s vanished millions, voluntarily delivering himself into the hands of the law when he discovers that the cash is not where he expects to find it. The police, he thinks, will direct him to what he feels is his by right – even if his right to the old man’s cash was obtained through manslaughter. And as if in response to his distorted sense of values, he finds himself in a land where all laws are distorted – even the law of perspective; where a man’s own point of view shapes what he sees (hence the emphasis throughout on the eyes of the different characters); and where the unspoken first and second rules of wisdom that obtain in all of O’Nolan’s works have been adopted by the first policeman he meets as a universal guiding principle. “Always ask any questions that are to be asked and never answer any,” Sergeant Pluck tells him, and “Turn everything you hear to your own advantage.” The latter rule is the narrator’s downfall. When Pluck’s superior, the angry Inspector O’Corky, appears at the station to ask why no action has been taken to find old Mathers’s murderer, Pluck instantly replies that the murderer has been apprehended and is currently awaiting execution. The narrator quickly realizes that he himself is the criminal in question; that he has been identified as the killer regardless of the absence of evidence against him, and that he is to be sacrificed for Pluck’s private purposes, summarily despatched to protect the sergeant from a petty reprimand. Pettiness, parochialism and egomania not only dominate this nightmare Ireland but kill people in it, as if to demonstrate the nation’s unwitting complicity in the atrocities being perpetrated elsewhere in Europe. And despite the arbitrariness of Pluck’s sentence, despite the cheerful despotism it springs from, the narrator can hardly deny in his soul that he thoroughly deserves it, and that he has sought it out with all the tenacity of a detective following the trail of clues he has left behind for his own incrimination.
This self-destructive urge in the narrator – the urge that takes him directly to a police station after he has committed a murder – is part of a tendency to self-destruction that seems inherent in every detail of O’Nolan’s narrative. The rich stock of knowledge it contains – the arcane knowledge purveyed by Policemen MacCruiskeen and Fox as well as by Sergeant Pluck and the narrator himself – tends towards one end only: a great big bang; and the novel itself may aptly be described as an infernal machine, a time-bomb that has already gone off by the time the reader discovers its nature. This aspect of the book is best considered by way of its treatment of boxes. The object for which the narrator commits his murder is a black metal cashbox containing the legendary fortune of old man Mathers. While the narrator is murdering Mathers with his spade, his accomplice Divney conceals the box in the old man’s house, and later sends the narrator to collect it from its hiding place. In the meantime Divney has replaced the cash with an explosive device, and we learn at the end of the novel that the cashbox blew up as soon as the narrator touched it, killing him and demolishing the building. As a result, most of the narrator’s adventures in the novel are posthumous ones. For the narrator, however, at the instant of detonation the cashbox simply disappears; and as far as he is concerned, his adventures are no more than an extended search for the object of his murderous desires. It’s therefore only fitting that from the moment of the cashbox’s disappearance the book should be filled with boxes like the one he’s obsessed with: from the nest of impossible containers constructed by Policeman MacCruiskeen – a pointless labour of love like the narrator’s index to the works of de Selby – to the black boxes with coloured wires coming out of them which MacCruiskeen uses to manufacture light out of noise; from the boxes of peat being cut out of the soil by labourers near the police station to the narrator’s many accounts of de Selby’s mysterious “water box” and MacCruiskeen’s inaudible music box with the knobs on. The brain is a box, as Sergeant Pluck reminds the narrator, and so is the coffin that is constructed to receive the narrator’s body after his execution. At one point the narrator finds himself locked in an “iron box” or elevator with a sixteen stone policeman, descending to an underground region where the obscure mechanisms that control the sunlit world above their heads appear to be located. This underground region, too, is full of boxes, from cubical compartments containing anything you ask for, to biscuit-boxes of indescribable shape and colour that tumble from a chute. And the majority of the boxes that fill the book are deadly. The boxes with coloured wires, for instance, which compress ordinary daytime sounds into electric light, are a disaster waiting to happen. Somewhere in their interiors lurks the dreadful noise of a quarry, a cacophony collected by the policemen during the previous summer as fuel for the dark winter evenings; and when this is compressed, MacCruiskeen tells the narrator, everyone in the vicinity will be blinded. The elevator will kill its occupants if they change weight at all during their subterranean visit. The nest of boxes will drive their contemplator mad if thought about for too long. And on the mantelpiece of MacCruiskeen’s room there is a little box that has already driven two men mad: they lost their wits when they examined its interior. Light-, heat- and sound- producing boxes in this novel are dangerously volatile containers – like the “box” that is the brain; and the whole novel trembles with the anticipation of their eventual detonation.
Over and above the boxes, the world the narrator finds himself in after his death is a peculiarly artificial one. Like the technologies and industries of the twentieth century it is driven by elaborate mechanisms: from parts of the human body, such as old man Mathers’ robotic eyes, or Policeman Fox’s face which is “red and gross as if gallons of hot thick blood had been pumped into it,” or Divney’s jaws, which “clicked a few times like a machine,” to the earth itself, which resembles a giant power-plant driven by subterranean engines. As the narrator approaches the entrance to the underground engine-room with Sergeant Pluck he observes that “The world rang in my ear like a great workshop. Sublime feats of mechanics and chemistry were evident on every side.” Metaphors of mechanism are everywhere; from the “mechanical task” the narrator sets himself of finding the black box, to the description of his response to an unexpected encounter with the reanimated corpse of the man he has murdered: “Words spilled out of me as if they were produced by machinery;” from Pluck’s description of the law as “an extremely intricate phenomenon,” to MacCruiskeen’s account of a retractable pencil as “an intricate article full of machinery and a Present from Southport.” And much of this machinery, like the boxes, is potentially deadly. On meeting a fellow murderer called Martin Finnucane early in the book, the narrator learns that life itself is “a queer contraption, very dangerous, a certain death-trap.” And that is just how it turns out for the narrator, who lives always on the verge of a cataclysm that has always already happened. The policemen in their station are constantly preoccupied with the difficult task of keeping the figures on some obscure device in the underground region poised in delicate equilibrium; should they fail in this task, the implication is, chaos will be unleashed and the world will end. As Sergeant Pluck prepares the scaffold for the narrator’s execution the young man watches him “patiently and politely arranging the mechanics of my death.” Later, when the narrator encounters Policeman Fox and learns that he invented the underground region as a ponderous prank, a practical joke at the expense of his colleagues, he loftily dismisses him as an oaf whose mind had been “fed upon adventure books of small boys, books in which every extravagance was mechanical and lethal and solely concerned with bringing about somebody’s death in the most elaborate way imaginable” – books, that is, like the Sexton Blake adventures O’Nolan himself may have written. But of course this is also a perfectly accurate description of the book in which the narrator finds himself. Any more elaborate literary mechanism for accomplishing death could hardly have been contrived by the most devious deviser of detective thrillers. And lethal mechanical extravagances were also of course a feature of the age of war in which The Third Policeman was composed.
O’Nolan’s novel is built into its time, entrapped by it, caught up in its interior workings. As many commentators have noted, the book is full of references to that most deadly and imaginatively stimulating of all energy sources, atomic energy. Sergeant Pluck expounds his own absurd atomic theory to the writer, which involves the exchange of atoms between the bodies of cyclists and the machines they ride, a process that fuses humans with the tools they have made to serve them. And later, Policeman MacCruiskeen discloses the existence of a substance called omnium, which is a fantastically potent version of sub-atomic matter. As MacCruiskeen puts it, “Omnium is the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden inside the root of the kernel of everything and it is always the same,” and anyone who possesses omnium can do anything, transforming any kind of matter to an infinite range of new and astonishing shapes in a trice, on a moment’s whim. This is what Policeman Fox does when he fabricates the underground region out of a lump of omnium he finds in Mathers’s cashbox. Atomic theory and the theory of relativity – which destabilize the laws of time and space as radically as Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen do – are for many people the most “modern” of all forms of scientific knowledge; they were born with the twentieth century and dominated the military and political minds of that century from beginning to end. Both areas of knowledge seemed at the beginning of the century to hold the seed of utopian planetary transformations; both were involved in producing instead the most devastating of weapons, the atomic bomb (or as O’Nolan christened it in 1945, the “abombic tomb”). The presence of atomic theory in O’Nolan’s book, then, links the local crises of the newly-fledged Irish nation with the deepening global crisis at the end of the 1930s in a way that predicts the worst outcome for both. And there is no doubt that O’Nolan could have known about both the best and the worst contemporary predictions for the future as it would be shaped by human interference with the atom.
As early as 1914, H. G. Wells wrote a novel describing both the immense powers for utopian transformation inherent in the atom and the infinite potential for destruction it contained. The World Set Free gives an account of the first nuclear war, in which half-crazed aeronauts hurl bombs from the cockpits of their monoplanes and perish triumphantly in the ensuing conflagration. And a single passage from the beginning of Wells’s novel would have been enough, I think, to have conjured the genially monstrous minds of Pluck, Fox and MacCruiskeen from O’Nolan’s imagination. Here is the passage, from the speech of a Scottish professor named Rufus, an enthusiast for atomic energy:
we know now that the atom, that once we thought hard and impenetrable, and indivisible and final and – lifeless – lifeless, is really a reservoir of immense energy. That is the most wonderful thing about all this work. A little while ago we thought of the atoms as we thought of bricks, as solid building material, as substantial matter, as unit masses of lifeless stuff, and behold! These bricks are boxes, treasure boxes, boxes full of the intensest force. This little bottle contains about a pint of uranium oxide; that is to say about fourteen ounces of the element uranium. It is worth about a pound. And in this bottle, ladies and gentlemen, in the atoms in this bottle slumbers at least as much energy as we could get by burning a hundred and sixty tons of coal. If at a word, in one instant I could suddenly release that energy here and now it would blow us and everything about us to fragments; if I could turn it into the machinery that lights this city, it could keep Edinburgh brightly lit for a week. But at present no man knows, no man has an inkling of how this little lump of stuff can be made to hasten the release of its store…
In The Third Policeman Rufus’ treasure boxes have become a black cashbox, the boxes that can light a city have been perfected, and boxes that release energy little by little exist side by side with boxes that demolish buildings in an explosive instant. Indeed, the passage helps to explain something puzzling about O’Nolan’s novel: which is why a story about death should hum and seethe as it does with the sheer overwhelming energy of the world, its teeming vitality, the life in its every particle. Life and death cohabit in O’Nolan’s Ireland, as they do in Rufus’ atoms, in terrifyingly unstable proximity, ready to set each other off in a vast explosion that will obliterate his little nation and the rest of Europe with it. And the little black boxes that contain these explosive elements are in the hands of madmen and obsessives.
The Third Policeman contains O’Nolan’s most potent bombshells, packed to the skin with comic and tragic elements in equal measure. It is, as I’ve said, an infernal machine, an incendiary device – or perhaps a diagram of the infernal machine that is Europe in the mid-twentieth century. At one point in the book, as he stands on the scaffold beside the writer he is about to hang, Sergeant Pluck tells a story about Ireland’s willingness to seek knowledge through violence. It concerns a man who visits the clouds in a balloon, and is almost lynched when he comes back because he refuses to answer questions about his visit. “That is a nice piece of law and order for you,” says Pluck, shaking his head over the narrowly-averted lynching: “a terrific indictment of democratic self-government, a beautiful commentary on Home Rule.” A little later we learn, in one of the novel’s anarchic footnotes, about the murderous proclivities of commentators on the philosopher-scientist de Selby – something we already know about from the actions of the novel’s protagonist. Exasperated by verbal attacks on his idol de Selby, one commentator – Hatchjaw – sets out for mainland Europe to confront the sage’s chief detractor, a “shadowy” German scholar named Kraus. Hatchjaw is armed, among other things, with “explosive chemicals and the unassembled components of several bombs, grenades and landmines” with which he plans to unleash a “cataclysm” to consume both the German and himself. In each case – the lynching and the cataclysm – violence is narrowly averted. But the point of O’Nolan’s narrative is that all the ingenious trickery and extravagant rhetoric in the world will not finally avert further violence when once it has been accepted and engaged in as a modus operandi – by an individual, a nation or a continent. And the novel’s punch-line involves the retrospective discovery that further violence has not been averted, despite all the twists and turns of the narrator in his efforts to stave it off…
O’Nolan could not have predicted exactly how knowledge-driven violence would manifest itself in the later years of the Second World War. Still less could he have predicted how misinformation and weapons of mass destruction would continue to dominate global politics in the twenty-first century. But if his writings of the 1930s and 40s are undoubtedly the products of an astute analysis of his own place and time, they nevertheless continue to have a shocking applicability to our own disordered decade, here in the 2010s. His jokes cannot be safely contained within the confines of his lifetime, any more than radioactive matter can be safely contained within the slender leaves of a comic novel. They – his jokes, that is – are still very much on us.
In the year C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950, Naomi Mitchison published a very different fantasy novel for children. Unlike Lewis’s book, The Big House is intimately involved with its own particular time and place, and time and place play a central role in its complex plotting. Set in Argyllshire immediately after the Second World War, in a village called Port-na-Sgadan (‘The Port of the Herring’) which is clearly modeled on Mitchison’s home of Carradale, the novel updates and relocates the Border ballad of Tam Lin, transforming it into a multi-stranded political fable. Simply put, it tells the story of a girl called Susan – Su for short – who embarks on a quest to save a long-lost piper from the fairies. In the process Su learns a great deal about the Big House where she lives and its role in local and national history. More specifically, she learns about class struggle, and how the Big House is deeply implicated in the continuing war of attrition that has been waged by the aristocracy on the commoners over the course of many centuries. As it happens, she also learns a few things about how that war of attrition might be brought to an end; and it’s this final element of the novel that marks its most radical distinction from the Narnian chronicles.
Rescuing the piper from the fairies involves travelling back in time, first to the days of the piper’s early life in the Napoleonic Wars, then to the medieval period, when the Big House is markedly smaller than its twentieth-century equivalent. Su’s travelling companion on these journeys is a working-class boy called Winkie, and each journey places the two children, girl and boy, in radically different situations, figured in each case by their different relationships to the Big House. The four siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience Narnia in different ways because of their different personalities (though it’s implied that one of them, Edmund, has had his character somehow ruined by an experimental school he went to). For Mitchison, by contrast, difference is embedded in the class system, which is also bound up with national, regional and gender identities in a complex web of changing relationships which gives her novel a much subtler and darker flavour, so to speak, than the first entry in the Narnia sequence. Its subtlety and darkness explains, perhaps, why it’s less well known than Lewis’s series, but the book is well worth recovering, along with its feisty protagonist, Susan, who provides such a welcome contrast to the relative insipidity of her Narnian namesake.
The Big House falls into three parts or acts, each of which drives a deeper wedge between Su and her companion, Winkie. The first act takes place in the present day, just after the war, at a point in history when the class system has been loosened or at least unsettled by the pressures of global conflict. It also takes place at a time of year – Halloween – when all the social, cultural and supernatural forces that seethe beneath the surface of the local community tend to boil over, thanks to the old traditions observed by all classes in Port-na-Sgadan. The second act of the novel, set in the early nineteenth century, exposes the material roots of the class struggle that brought about the long-standing hostility between the inhabitants of the Big House and their poorer neighbours. The third act takes the children back to medieval times and underlines the arbitrariness of the class system by placing Su and Winkie in reverse positions. In this period Winkie unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the Big House as clan chief, while Su becomes dependent on his good will in her new role as an injured stranger, who happens to be under Winkie’s protection as his houseguest. The final chapter of the novel returns to the possibility of discovering alternative narratives within the dominant narratives of history which is where the book began. In the process it suggests that the relationship between Su and Winkie might mark the beginning of a new and better phase of class relations, or even the eventual end of class antagonism altogether.
The threefold structure neatly invokes the many sets of threes that dominate the traditional fairy tale, and we’re invited to consider this numerical significance by the novel’s playfulness with numbers – although the number seven is more closely aligned with the fairies in this book than the number three. Three is the charm, though, as they say, and Mitchison’s narrative (which is full of magic charms of one kind or another) seems to urge or charm its readership, through their sympathy with the personal charms of its two protagonists, into both understanding and breaking down some of the inequalities that divided British communities in the 1950s. If Lewis is concerned with the spiritual and imaginative wellbeing of his readers, Mitchison is more concerned with their material and political welfare. But she too introduces a spiritual dimension into her narrative thanks to the prominence in all three acts of religion and the pagan supernatural, in the shape of the Christian church and its old arch enemies: ‘Yon Ones’, as Winkie terms them, the fairies or good people. The coexistence of these antagonistic supernatural elements alongside the class antagonism that threatens Su and Winkie’s friendship suggests that Mitchison wishes to stress the presence in any given period of multiple narratives or versions of events; narratives that must be understood and reconciled before the foundations can be laid of a better social order.
As I said, the first act of the novel takes place at Halloween, and represents it as a time when the power relations in the children’s community are temporarily suspended (or turned ‘tapsalteery’, as Winkie puts it, p. 66). The mechanism of this suspension is the Scottish custom of ‘guising’ as practised in this remote part of Argyllshire. In Port-na-Sgadan on All Hallows’ Eve women dress up as men, men dress as women, and all revelers don a ‘false-face’ or facial disguise to conceal their identity. Under cover of this disguise, class hostility can either be temporarily set aside (since nobody knows the identity of the revelers) or given free play (for the exact same reason). As the book opens, Su has just been attacked and hurt by an anonymous group of older schoolmates ‘because she was from the Big House, and in times past the Big House had been hard and cruel to the fathers and grandfathers of the ones at the school, and kept them in fear and, maybe, put them out of their houses, but now the thing had turned round and they had revenged themselves’ (p. 10). Halloween, then, represents a kind of miniature social revolution – literally, a ‘turning round’, when girls can join with boys in acts of violence that would not normally be condoned by either sex (Su is usually only subjected to class hostility at school through ostracism, as we learn later). The notion of turning things round also suggests that Halloween is a season when conventional measurements of time are somehow suspended, as they are in all annual rituals, since such rituals imply that time is cyclical rather than linear, and hence that progress, revolution and reconciliation are equally unlikely ever to be accomplished. Su’s attackers are committed, in fact, to upholding a perpetual cycle of injury and revenge – of feuding, in other words – which repeats itself in all three parts of the novel, and against which Su and Winkie’s friendship stands as the sole hope of future amendment.
The cyclical view of time invoked by the annual custom of guising in turn reminds us that Halloween is a season when other forces are at work besides class politics. It’s a significant date in the old church calendar, for one thing, being the day before the major feast of All Saint’s Day. And it’s also a significant date in the pagan year: Samhain, when fairies and the dead are said to roam abroad and when children in particular are vulnerable to supernatural influences (this may lie behind the custom of guising, concealing as it does the children’s identity from potential fairy kidnappers). Sure enough, on this particular Halloween Su and Winkie meet the walking dead in the form of the piper, Donald Ferguson, who was born in the early nineteenth century before being abducted by fairies and granted supernatural longevity in exchange for his freedom. Halloween is the time of year when the doors of Fairy Land stand open, and Donald has managed to slip through them – pipes and all – and make his way down to the village that was once his home. As he marches along he plays a tune to give himself courage and keeps an eye out for the church, where he hopes to gain sanctuary from ‘Yon Ones’ on premises held sacred by their religious antagonists. Instead Su and Winkie take him to the Big House and protect him from the Fairy Prince by barring the way to his hiding place with a family Bible. Later he and the children seek to know what to do next by choosing a text from the scriptures at random, one for each of them – three in all; and each text accurately predicts the experiences of its chooser in each of the three acts of the novel. All three acts mix pagan and Christian elements in a continuation of the narrative begun at Halloween, thus underscoring for the children the coexistence of different religious as well as political perspectives on each historical period they visit. It’s an ingenious plot structure, which enables Mitchison to offer her readers an understanding of the interwoven processes of history of the sort C S Lewis is simply not concerned to provide.
There is a clear crossover between the political and the supernatural narratives in Mitchison’s text. The abduction of the piper by the fairies, for instance, has a political dimension. Donald Ferguson is a working-class man, and his abductor is a Fairy Prince unwilling to free him from his bondage or enslavement in the fairy kingdom. Yet despite the danger he is in from his fairy pursuers, Donald is at first reluctant to enter the Big House when Su invites him. ‘I will not go the Big House’ he insists (p. 12), presumably because (like his kinsman Winkie) he will not feel welcome or safe in the local stronghold of the ruling classes. His reluctance is justified a page or two later when Su instinctively invites the Fairy Prince into the building as he comes looking for the piper, giving him access to the premises with a formal Gaelic welcome as if in unconscious acknowledgment of their affinity as fellow members of the governing elite (p. 17). It’s because of Winkie’s class background, too, that the boy is so much more au fait with supernatural goings-on in Port-na-Sgadan than Su is. From the moment he meets the piper he is convinced of the continuing presence there of ‘Yon Ones’, as Susan is not; and this may be as much because there is no electric lighting in his house as because his family is more inclined than hers to give credence to oral traditions (‘“It just can’t be true,’ said Su, ‘you know it can’t! It just doesn’t go with electric light!’”, p. 16). Winkie knows many things that don’t ‘go with electric light’. He knows, for instance, about the recent doings in Port-na-Sgadan of the tutelary guardian of the Big House, the Brounie; doings about which Su has never heard, since, as Winkie puts it, ‘“There is things that dinna get told to the Big House ones”’ (p. 30). Moreover, for Winkie the difference between the Brounie, which gives its supernatural assistance to anyone who needs it regardless of class, and the Fairy Prince, who expects unquestioning compliance from his social inferiors, is fundamentally a class difference. This class difference is present, too, in the different level of understanding of the fairies possessed by the travelling folk, the tinkers, as compared to the local working-class people like Winkie, who despise the traveller community. The young tinker Ian Townsley can play a tune on the pipes which makes the Fairy Prince disappear from the Big House kitchen in the first act of the narrative; while in the third and final act Su and Winkie get help from tinkers when they find themselves stranded on the road between past, present and future. Each distinct class – the ‘Big House ones’, the local working-class population and the travellers – has access to a different level of knowledge about Yon Ones, which is in inverse proportion to their access to educational opportunities and the benefits of technological progress, such as electric lighting.
Running alongside the other narratives in the novel – the stories of the class struggle and of the struggle between Christianity and paganism – runs the narrative of the recently ended global conflict. The impact of the War is felt everywhere in the novel, most deeply, perhaps, in the changes that have taken place in the Big House of the title. Like the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the building has diminished in social stature over time, but unlike Lewis Mitchison is keen to stress the role played by war in this diminution. The resident family’s fortunes clearly took a downturn during the Blitz, which destroyed their London home and killed Su’s ‘London aunt’; and since then London has remained the centre of the mother’s activities, because she works at a Ministry (we never learn which one, just as we never find out what has happened to Su’s father). Power, then, has been sapped from the Big House by the concentration of the military, governmental and economic High Command in the southeast corner of the United Kingdom. The absence of servants in the Big House, apart from old Morag, can be attributed to the fact that ‘there’s a war on’ (p. 24) – or at least a peace which continues to be shaped by the demands of war. The war explains, in fact, why the Big House has lost its ruling class glamour. Its once splendid kitchen now serves only the blandest food – potatoes, oatmeal, herrings, milk (p. 18) – because of rationing, which continued in the UK well into the 1950s. The occupants of the house are evidently subject to the same restrictions and regulations as the rest of the population, with the result that the appearance of the piper raises urgent questions in Su’s mind as to where she will find him an official ration book. The war has turned the Big House into a minor component in a nation-wide military machine, and in the process its political significance and authority have receded into the past.
The other classes in the novel too have been affected by war. Many of the men in the village have served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who wear military issue kilts, and when Su first sees the kilted piper she thinks he might be one of them. Presumably the servants at the Big House have been called up for military service or other war work. The fairies, meanwhile, seem to know as much about the war as the human population. When the children enter the fairy kingdom under the Hill in the second act, an enchanted brazen head asks them a riddle whose answer is ‘a bomber’. Not long afterwards the protective spirit of the Big House, the ‘Brounie’, shows a remarkable skill in forging official documents such as ration books and identity cards. The most striking of these supernatural wartime references, though, is the series of spells cast by the Fairy Prince in his effort to reassert his power over the piper, which resemble bomb blasts like the one that destroyed Su’s London home:
Then the Prince lifted his hand, and everything began to shake like in an air raid when they are coming close and you are all on the floor waiting for the next one. And like the falling of a bomb something terrible and blinding seemed to happen, and Su was holding in her arms a coiling, wriggling mass of snakes, or one snake, and its head was looking at her, and it opened a fanged earth-smelling mouth (p. 89).
In this passage it becomes clear that the children in Mitchison’s narrative have undergone wartime experiences that more than prepare them for the perils and terrors they encounter in their dealings with ‘Yon Ones’. Su clings fiercely to the piper as he changes into a succession of terrifying forms, just as Janet clung to Tam Lin in the old ballad to free him from the power of the fairy queen, and we are told before the changes begin that the piper’s wife was unable to complete the same challenge when it was given her many decades earlier. Su’s success, despite her young age, can be explained by her seemingly first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live through an air raid. And this knowledge comes in useful again later in the narrative, when she and Winkie correctly answer the riddle posed by the brazen head: ‘What is the bird that flies but is dead, and the eggs that it lays flying hatch death?’ […] ‘We think it is a bomber’ (p. 74). The head seems profoundly disturbed by their familiarity with the hardware of destruction (‘Sorrow, sorrow on me!’ it cries, ‘Sorrow on yourselves! Children of middle earth, it is over much that you know’); but the children themselves take their wartime experiences very much for granted, like their experiences of injustice in the classroom or of hostility between social classes. C. S. Lewis didn’t see fit to explain why Peter found it so easy to face a wolf with a sword in his hand when he had no experience of hand-to-hand combat; the impression we get is that such exploits just come naturally to properly brought up boys. Mitchison is careful to underline where Su’s courage springs from.
The difference between Lewis’s and Mitchison’s positions with respect to the war finds its most striking expression at the point in each novel when the antagonist offers a child some luxury sweets. Lewis says nothing at all about the sheer level of temptation felt by Edmund when the White Witch offers him Turkish Delight, or about the reasons why he should have succumbed to this temptation at a time of rationing. When the Fairy Prince offers Su and Winkie chocolates, by contrast, in the hope of tempting them to reveal the piper’s whereabouts, their experience of the offering is considered in meticulous detail. Su thinks at first, from the look of the chocolate box, that the Prince is about to offer her a diamond necklace, something she would find easy to refuse. But the chocolates – which evoke pre-war Christmases, a time of plenty and affection as embodied in the London aunt who used to give similar chocolates to her nieces and nephews as Christmas presents, so that the candy invokes an emotional as well as a physical yearning – the chocolates are a much more attractive proposition. They are made, we are told, ‘with the very best chocolate […] and real butter and real almonds and walnuts and Brazil nuts and pistachio nuts, and real fruit and any amount of castor sugar, and not one bit of saccharine or soya flour or flavouring out of bottles’ (p. 18). Like Edmund’s Turkish Delight these ingredients come from far off lands – the term ‘Brazil nuts’ stresses the fact – and the reference at the end of the sentence to the artificial ingredients substituted for natural ones because of shortages serves to intensify the sense of their exoticism and costliness. Even the butter is luxurious, since we learn later in the book that a ration of butter lasts only for a few days of each week, so that ‘it’s always margarine’ by Friday (p. 26). So far so tempting; but Mitchison also stresses the subtly different levels of temptation felt by ruling-class Su and working-class Winkie. ‘[T]here were no sweeties like this in all Europe,’ she points out, ‘and never had been for Winkie, and never would be again for Su’ (p. 18). The children are only rescued from temptation by the sudden arrival of a party of guisers, which means that the chocolates turn abruptly to a ‘scatter of leaves’. There is no suggestion that Mitchison would have judged the children if they’d eaten the sweets, and Su is later quite open about the fact that if she were offered them again she would be more than ever tempted to take some (‘“I do hope they won’t try and give us sweeties again like last time,” said Su, and sighed’, p. 33). Lewis’s moral condemnation of Edmund is the easy judgment of the well-fed. Mitchison, on the other hand, is concerned to stress the genuine difficulty any child would face in refusing a gift like this in a postwar economy.
The division between the two children’s class experiences, as embodied in episode with the chocolates, gets exacerbated in the novel’s second act. Here they travel back in time to the early nineteenth century, in a quest to recover Su’s shadow – stolen from her by the Fairy Prince in retaliation for her successful defence of the piper against his spells. The Fairy Prince perhaps considers himself entitled to the shadow because of the class bond between himself and Su which was confirmed when she welcomed him into her family home; and the period to which the children travel quickly interposes the shadow of class antagonism between the two of them, even before they have properly begun their quest. They live apart in this period for several weeks, and by the time they meet again their divided lives as ruling-class girl and working-class boy have radically changed their bodies – especially Winkie’s. When Su puts her arm around the boy’s shoulders she finds he has grown appallingly thin, and this lends weight to his words when he tells her that since his arrival in this epoch he has always been hungry. As a result, when food is offered as temptation by the fairies for the second time a few pages later, Winkie finds it almost impossible to refuse the gift and has to be forcibly dragged away by his better-fed companion:
‘Do you know,’ said Su, in her best grown-up voice, ‘I am really not hungry just now.’
‘Winkie is hungry,’ said Winkie’s lovely partner. ‘Eat now! Do you think I would harm you, Winkie? Do you think it is in me to harm you?’ And she smiled at him.
Su snatched at his hands. ‘Don’t eat, Winkie. Remember!’ (p. 70)
In this way the different period intensifies the children’s consciousness of the material differences involved in living as members of different social classes, and this awareness also means that their friendship is tested to a new level. Even meeting is difficult for them, and their eventual reunion is only achieved thanks to Su’s returning memory of their friendship in the twentieth century, a friendship that would be next to impossible in the nineteenth.
The friendship between the Pevensie children too is severely tested, of course, in Lewis’s novel; first by Edmund’s decision not to corroborate Lucy’s claim to have visited Narnia, then much more seriously by Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings to the White Witch. But in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe no motive is given for this betrayal beyond the vague allusion to the school he went to; and there is no real reason for Edmund’s actions not to be forgiven and forgotten as soon as he changes his mind. Since the four Pevensies share the same class background it is accepted among them that forgiveness is more honourable than resentment – that it is gentlemanly, to use an ideologically loaded term. In any case Edmund is the brother of Peter, Susan and Lucy, and forgiveness between siblings is ‘natural’. The threatened enmity between Su and Winkie, on the other hand, is structurally embedded in the class system as it manifests itself in each of the societies they live in. It’s embedded in their bodies – especially Winkie’s, which grows stronger and more energetic in the medieval period, when he is Chief of his clan and master of the Big House, just as it grew weaker in the nineteenth century. It’s embedded, too, in their experience of work, a world with which Winkie is already familiar in the twentieth century, as the son of a fisherman, and which becomes a desperate struggle for survival for him in the Napoleonic era. Su, meanwhile, does not work in the 1940s, and experiences the early nineteenth century as a time of uninterrupted play. The medieval period, by contrast, is for her a time of physical and emotional suffering. Winkie shoots her in the arm with an arrow, thinking she is a swan, and she spends the rest of her time there as an outsider among his people, yearning for a return to the modern Big House where she felt at home. She is unable to join in the ‘bower crafts’ of the women in Winkie’s community, and her inability to find a place for herself through work adds to her impression that the medieval period is somehow ‘unreal’ and that her own time is the only one that has any substance. The segregated activities of class and sex drive a wedge between the novel’s protagonists which threatens their friendship by forcing them to confront the alien cultures in which they were raised, the alien perspectives on history from which they have emerged, and the distinct kinds of knowledge they possess in every epoch.
At the same time, their friendship keeps reasserting its reality in each period, reestablishing itself as materially present at the expense of new relationships they have formed. At one point in the second act Su has a talk about class with one of her Big House relatives – a girl called Elspeth – which suddenly reveals to her the distance that separates them in terms of their attitudes to working people. Elspeth considers it perfectly reasonable to punish a man for cutting down a tree on Big House property, while Su is horrified by the savagery of his punishment (he has been forcibly conscripted in the British army and dispatched to the wars). Afterwards Su is suddenly visited by a Gothic vision in which Elspeth and the other children whose room she shares have turned into corpses in a mausoleum:
She rolled round. Elspeth was asleep. And at that she began to think in a horror, that grew worse and worse, how from her own time all these people were dead, and Elspie there was a dead corpse, and Mysie and Helen and all, and here she was left alone with them and she could not bear it, and she slipped quickly out of bed. Here was the room that used to seem so nice and cosy with the glow of the fire and the white linen of the feather beds, and each bed tented with bright curtains into a soft cave for two yellow heads whispering over the day; it was frightening now, it was not properly there! (p. 45)
This sensation that she is experiencing a variety of false consciousness, expressed in the melodramatic terms of early nineteenth-century sensational novels such as Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer, impels her to leave the Big House and meet up with Winkie. The boy then reveals to her the material conditions that have enabled her to live her comfortable life up to this point: the near starvation of his family, the violent suppression of their political ideas, the aggressive punishment of minor crimes to which they were driven by poverty. As he speaks it becomes increasingly clear that the class conflict they have experienced stands on the verge of escalating into full-scale civil war, and that the war being waged on Napoleon is an aspect of the same class conflict.
In the first act, Su rather patronizingly dismisses the ‘terrible great war’ against Napoleon, as the piper calls it, with the observation that her own time ‘had Hitler, who was much worse’ (p. 26). Her assumption is that the twentieth-century experience of war has been far more ‘terrible’ than the piper’s in every way. The piper, on the other hand, sees the Second World War as the continuation of a struggle that has carried on in every epoch: ‘It was always so,’ he observes resignedly. Su and Winkie’s visits to the past confirm both the savage nature of the conflict he mentioned and its continuity through successive generations. In the Napoleonic era, Winkie’s response to the prosecution of his cousin Dougie is to join with Dougie’s brother to give the magistrate a beating or ‘slashing’ of the kind handed out to Dougie before he was sentenced. As it turns out the magistrate involved is an uncle of Su’s in this period, and she must show solidarity with Winkie by joining him on the expedition of revenge against a member of her own family. Su watches as Winkie and his older cousin engage in an awkward and unsatisfactory brawl with the uncle, who is mounted and armed with a whip. Afterwards, she, Winkie and the cousin are chased through the night by the magistrate and his men in another act of retaliation, which will implicitly lead on to further retaliatory acts until the moment at the opening of the novel when Su herself will be attacked by her schoolmates for being descended from men like her magistrate uncle. These experiences are echoed in the third act of the novel when Winkie as chief of his clan is expected to carry on a blood feud with the neighbouring clan, killing a relative of the man who killed his father in a cycle of murder and counter-murder which lays the foundation, we are led to suppose, for the future acts of violence against class enemies which have blighted the lives of Winkie’s and Su’s families. The possibility of breaking out of this cycle of violence seems even more remote than the possibility of rescuing the piper from the fairies or retrieving Su’s shadow from beneath the fairy hill.
At the same time, Su’s growing experience of cyclical violence consolidates her determination to put an end to it. Near the beginning of the story, when the piper gives Winkie a sgian dubh or knife to use on his travels Su is envious of the possibilities for bloodshed it represents: ‘“Oh, you are lucky!”’ she tells him, ‘“You might really be able to kill someone!”’ (p. 34). By the time she and Winkie find their way to the fairy realm after the attack on the magistrate, however, she has changed her tune, and when the High King of the Fairies offers her a wish in place of her shadow, she tells him that her ambition in life is to be ‘someone who can stop wars happening’ (p. 77). In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Father Christmas tells Susan and Lucy that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’ and bars them from the final conflict with the White Witch. Su, by contrast, chooses to set herself against violence, and learns in the process that the struggle for peace and social justice will be just as hard as the path of war. As he tempts her to turn aside from her quest for her shadow the High King of the Fairies gives her a glimpse in a magic mirror of the difficulties such a struggle will involve:
and it seemed to her to be a terrible hard way, and many of them on it were dead or dying, in some cruel and senseless fashion. And at each side there were a thousand pitfalls and temptations, and the end was beyond sight […] and indeed it was more than she had in her at this time to look along it any more. (p. 77)
Later, she learns from the Big House Brounie that her counterpart in the Napoleonic period – the girl whose place she took when she travelled back from the twentieth century, an ancestor of hers – chose a similar path of social justice, and that after a life spent fighting for ‘every kind o’ reform […] in the end she died of a fever that came on her down Gorbals way nursing a poor woman body that had nae kin of her ain’ (p. 80). Running alongside the heritage of violence, then, that mars Su’s family history, there is a counter-tradition of reconciliation and social responsibility whose adherents are as heroic – and often as badly damaged by their heroic actions – as any warrior. This tradition is more or less absent from the Narnian chronicles, despite the presence of female characters among its protagonists, and its absence is made the more striking by its prominence in Mitchison’s novel.
The tradition of reconciliation is embodied from the opening pages of The Big House in the friendship between Su and Winkie. When Su is attacked by older children, some of whom seem to be Winkie’s relatives, the boy chooses to take her side against his family because he feels ‘terrible affronted’ by what has been done to her (p. 10). Later he urges her to replicate this gesture by witnessing his own assault on her magistrate uncle, thus distancing herself from her family in a display of solidarity with Winkie’s kin. Meanwhile there have been several hints that a new kind of bond exists between them; something stronger than friendship or solidarity. This bond is implicit in the very fact that they find themselves together at Halloween. Robert Burns’s poem ‘Halloween’ (1785) associates the season with pagan fertility charms: every Halloween custom it describes involves some trick or spell to find out who will be your ‘future conjugal yoke-fellow’, as Burns put it, either by picking kale stalks or pulling at a thread, or looking in a mirror while eating an apple, or sowing hemp-seed. These are Ayrshire customs, presumably, since Burns grew up near Ayr, but the customs invoked by Mitchison are just as focused on desire and the prospect of some future ‘yoke-fellow’. Cross-dressing draws the revelers’ attention to gender identity – the difference between male and female as established by custom and expressed in clothing – while their ‘false-faces’ invite guessing games about who is behind which mask, and by extension about whose company they are keeping. Winkie and Su join in these games even after they’ve met the piper:
Five people went by, grown-ups, all dressed and with false-faces and laughing. Susan and Winkie argued about who they were. Winkie was sure it was old Mrs. Macdonald from the smiddy’s skirt on the man of the party, and the one with the navy trousers and its head in a flour-bag was Betty who worked at the Manse. Su said no, it was young Mrs. Paterson. ‘It was Betty, right enough,’ said Winkie, ‘I knew her from the way she wiggled her behind.’
‘Well then, if it was Betty,’ said Su, ‘the man would have been Red Tom, and he isn’t that size.’
‘Betty hasna been going with Red Tom this month past,’ said Winkie, ‘she is after a slater from down the way.’ (pp. 13-14)
Part of the evening’s sport, then, is to decide who is ‘going with’ whom. Under the covers of the false-faces boys and girls, men and women can walk out with their chosen partners under a screen of anonymity, and the right guessing of who is walking out with whom serves to confirm the guesser’s knowledge of the local community. As an upper-class outsider Su finds this guessing game more difficult than Winkie; but the boy’s decision to come home with her that night, despite his unease in the Big House, allows the reader to make a good guess as to the strength of his feelings for her. And there are further hints later in the narrative. When the piper meets Winkie in the Napoleonic era and asks him ‘Where is your lassie?’ he causes the boy acute embarrassment, which Winkie expresses in terms that echo the description of his inner turmoil as he stood by Su after the attack: ‘myself feeling so affronted I could have bitten him’ (p. 54, my emphasis). The Brounie of the Big House, meanwhile, keeps referring to Su as Winkie’s lassie; and in the third act of the novel Winkie describes her in the same terms himself (‘I must seek my lassie’, p. 121), even going so far as to promise to marry her if she will stay with him in the medieval period (p. 158). Mitchison’s is a world in which children are not barred from an awareness of current or future attraction to each other. Lewis’s Pevensie siblings, on the other hand, are never put in the position of thinking positively about relations between the sexes, and the one sibling who does think about such things – Susan – is famously barred from a return to Narnia in the sequence’s final book. Lewis may have provided his children with serious adventures for high stakes, in recognition of the serious roles children had taken on in the Second World War, but he rarely contemplates the possibility that they might experience any form of mutual desire or attraction.
Su and Winkie’s relationship, by contrast, takes centre stage in Mitchison’s novel, anticipating the centrality of Lyra and Will’s relationship in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And like Lyra and Will’s relationship, it grows more intense as the book goes on, reaching its culmination in the third act. The act opens with the greatest test of their bond so far: Su has been sent away to boarding school in England, which both removes her from the hostile environment of the local state school and drives a new wedge between her and Winkie, ensuring that they don’t meet at all when she returns to the Big House for the vacation. But before this happens their bond has reached a new pitch of intensity. At the end of the second act Su saves the piper from the fairies for a second time, as Janet saved Tam Lin, by clinging to him as he goes through a range of magical changes into terrifying forms. But unlike Janet, Su emerges from this trial not with a lover but a baby; the last form the piper assumes is that of an infant, and an infant he remains after the fairies relinquish their claim on him. This alteration of the ballad is carefully considered, since the baby dominates the third act of the novel as an embodiment of the difficult but potentially transformative union of ruling-class and working-class culture that might spring from Su and Winkie’s alliance. The difficulty dominates at first. While Su warms to the baby at once, Winkie is deeply unsettled by the suggestion that he might take on the role of the child’s father, and accepts responsibility for him only when it appears that Donald will be raised as a Big House boy with no input at all from the working-class villagers. This is another affront to Winkie’s pride, since it involves making the infant piper a class traitor, a situation the boy finds intolerable: ‘“He isna to be just a Big House one!”’ (p. 97). It’s at this point that the baby assumes a new role as a promise for the future, confirming the connection between Su of the Big House and the fisherman’s son through a common concern for the child’s education:
‘I dinna want to be his father,’ said Winkie, ‘but when I have my own boat I want him to come wi’ me.’
‘But of course he is going to do that,’ said Su […] ‘and so am I. And it’s no good saying I’m only a girl, Winkie, because it won’t work with me. And after all, what Donald wanted was a home, and he may as well have that twice over. Yes, and he is going to play with the tinkers, and sit next to them at the school, Winkie. And you may as well make up your mind to it. (pp. 97-8)
The piper’s transformation into an infant, then, represents a new beginning for his fragmented Argyllshire community, uniting all the narrative strands in the book so far. As well as bringing Su and Winkie closer together Donald offers an opportunity to erode the arbitrary gendering of roles in the workplace and to erase the class hostility between dwellers in houses and the travellers. So when the child’s soul is stolen away in the final act, leaving a foul-mouthed changeling to possess his body, there is an implied threat to the whole community in the exchange. Mitchison’s solution to this threat is to weave the separate narrative strands of her story into single cloth, bringing together the Christian church and the fairies, the fairies and Su, the ‘Big House ones’ and the villagers, the tinkers and Winkie’s people, in a complementary warp and weft which can no longer be separated, and which together make up the concept of ‘home’. The fusion is anticipated in the baby, which has a home ‘twice over’ – in working-class Port-na-Sgadan and the Big House; and the novel’s concluding part can in fact be read as the forging of a home that meets the needs of all its inhabitants, as represented by the infant Donald.
The adventure begins on the night after the stealing of the baby’s soul, when Su wakes to find the Brounie in her room. The household spirit has sought her out to put things right by fetching the soul from the past, where it has been hidden, and once again this involves a journey into history. From the start this second journey involves a fusion of disparate elements, beginning with Christianity and paganism. To make the spell that will send Su back in time the Brounie draws a cross in the dust on the Big House floor, and it later uses the same mark to send Winkie on a separate journey. For the Brounie the cross functions as a potent magic symbol, capable of turning the girl into a time-travelling swan and hurling the boy from body to body across many centuries. But Winkie’s journey ends when he sees the same mark on the cover of a Christian Bible, on which he is being sworn in as the new Chief of his clan after his father’s murder. The medieval period he has arrived in has the rivalry between Christianity and the fairy people at its core; and when Su gets there shortly afterwards she learns from her friend Donaldina the tinker that the power of the Church functions to keep the power of the Fairy Hill at bay: ‘“They are aye taking the babies. They are aye putting their power on to folk for ill, or whiles for good. […] But when we are going to the church we have a bigger power and a stronger sign.”’ The two marks or crosses, then, seem to be at odds; except that the opposition between fairy and church is undermined by Su herself, who is transformed by the Brounie’s magic into a swan maiden, a kind of fairy queen, and whose moment of greatest power again fuses the pagan and Christian crosses into a ‘stronger sign’.
Part of Winkie’s duties as clan chief is to avenge his father’s murder on the neighbouring clan who carried it out. The opportunity for this comes when his foster brother brings one of the hostile clansmen to the Big House, now Winkie’s castle. Winkie prepares to carry out a summary execution; but before this can happen Su intervenes, and her intervention is accompanied by the reappearance of the Brounie’s cross in the hall of the castle: ‘a pattern of brightness came between herself and them, a pattern as huge as the hall, of a cross in the square, and the lines within the cross, and then the joining together of the lines through curves and loops’ (p. 132). Su enlists the pagan cross on behalf of her cause as she begs the boy to spare his enemy; and she finds an unexpected ally in the local priest, who backs up her plea for mercy with a text from the Scriptures, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (p. 133). The priest points out that this is not the first time he has cited the commandment in his efforts to end the feud, but that the clan has always persisted in cleaving instead to the ‘law of the old days’ – the law of retribution. Clearly a power from these same ‘old days’ – the swan maiden, with her pagan sign – was needed before the half-pagan men of the clan were able to hear the priest’s injunction. Later the swan maiden and the priest again join forces, this time to capture the Fairy Queen and compel her to reveal the hiding-place where Donald’s soul is stowed. On this occasion it’s the priest who seeks retribution, and as he prepares to destroy the Fairy Queen with holy water, Su again intervenes with a plea for mercy. Both her interventions prove successful; and as a result Su’s presence in the past turns out to have reconciled – for a time at least – the seemingly incompatible powers of Christianity and the pagan supernatural, combining them into a ‘stronger sign’ than either one of them would have been in isolation.
Meanwhile Winkie’s position as elected chief of the clan, possessed of the fortified tower that stands where the Big House will later be situated, undermines the notion that social status is a matter of bloodline. His kinship with Su has in any case been established in the second act, when they wore the same tartan in the enchanted dance hall of the Fairy Hill. In the final act, for a while, their kinship seems to have been revoked by the Brounie’s magic – even though it was the Brounie who first pointed out the historical ties between them. Many of Winkie’s people, including the priest, are convinced that Su is not even human; after all, they first saw her as a swan, and even after her return to human form her quarters in the castle are often adrift with swan down. Winkie, however, insists on her humanity, and heroically keeps himself and Su together against all odds – above all, against his own interests. He brings her under his roof despite the suspicions harboured by the priest against her, agrees to spare his enemy at her request despite the demands of the feud, escorts her to the location of Donald’s soul despite his initial reluctance to go there, and finally agrees to give up his status as chief, with all the pleasures and privileges it entails, in order to help her get back to the twentieth century. In the process he cements the bond between them. As Su says to him after their return to Port-na-Sgadan, when he again expresses reluctance to enter the Big House with all her family in it, ‘Nobody else did what you did for me’ (p. 168) – in other words, he has brought himself closer to her than any of her relatives. In this final section of the book, then, as in the other sections, comradeship and humaneness outweigh the divisions that are always being imposed between classes, sexes, religions, cultures, families and neighbours. Mutual solidarity and affection win out over the material wealth that makes some people comfortable at the expense of others. It’s a far more complex ending than the one Lewis chose for his first Narnian book – a battle in which the antagonist is killed and all rights are wronged without any residual rancor or regret; then a role as monarchs for all four Pevensie children, a role that seems to have no impact whatsoever on their afterlives in the ‘real’ world of the reader. History is not so painlessly dismissed in Mitchison’s universe.
The last chapter of The Big House has the title ‘Times Within Times’, for what at first seems an obvious reason. In it, Su and Winkie meet a truck driver who is somehow also the prisoner Winkie freed at Su’s request. The driver is able to tell them what happened to the historical chief whose place Winkie took when he went back in time. Meanwhile Winkie and Su themselves embody times within times, since they remember all their adventures in the past, and plan to use these experiences to build their futures. Su intends to follow the difficult path taken by the ancestor whose body she briefly occupied, and work as a lifelong campaigner for peace. Winkie hopes to imitate the Chief whose place he filled. All three of these people in the final chapter – Su, the truck driver and Winkie – contain the past within their bodies, much as the Halloween revelers in the first chapter concealed beneath their masks at once their own personal identities and a link, through tradition, to the Halloween revelers that came before them. The difference is that Su and Winkie are concerned to change things rather than to keep them the same; and the truck driver – who was once a prisoner condemned to death and whose life they saved – represents that resolve as clearly as the baby’s soul they are carrying home with them.
In this book, then, Mitchison uses the past to build not a nostalgic dream of a golden time that never was but an aspiration for a better future. But she also insists that this better future must be built on a knowledge of times past – must contain those times within it, be in dialogue with them, so to speak – if it’s really to better them. The children who hold that knowledge embodied within them – having literally acted out the past using the limbs of their ancestors – find themselves better able to reshape the place where they live into a home fit for all its inhabitants, instead of just some of them. The potential for the Big House to be such a home has been signaled several times in the novel: when Su and Winkie defended the piper against the Fairy Prince in the Big House kitchen; when the Brounie revealed that it considered itself as much a protector of Su’s distant relatives in the village as of the actual residents in the building; and most of all when the piper gets a premonition, in the second act, that the Big House could be a ‘home’ to him as well as to Su. ‘It runs in my mind,’ he tells the children in a moment of vision that links him to bards before him, such as Thomas the Rhymer, ‘that there is a place for me at the Big House’; and he reinforces this premonition with a quotation from scriptures: ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ (p. 85). The verse is one of Christ’s most all-inclusive declarations, uttered just before his death, in which he reassures his disciples that there is room in heaven for all of them (John 14.2). Su at once takes Christ at his word by linking the saying to the fairies: ‘The [Fairy] Hill was full of mansions, too’, she tells the piper, and in doing so once again brings paganism and Christianity into a kind of imaginative union. And by the end of the book, when Su asks Winkie to come back to the Big House the next day – after the book has ended – the building seems to be about to fulfill its destiny of being a place with many mansions or homely locations in it. In the process it becomes a miniature model – like the lavish doll’s house Su enjoys in the Big House of the early nineteenth century – of the ideal community, nation or world, just as Su and Winkie become the world’s ideal future citizens.
It’s perhaps worth ending with a word or two about Mitchison’s style in this particular novel (she has as many styles, very nearly, as she wrote novels, essays and short stories). As may be obvious from the quotations I’ve given, she tells her tale in a flexible, often conversational, sometimes lyrical prose style that drifts in and out of Scots, and in and out of different varieties of Scots – historical and contemporary, middle and working class, old-fashioned and modern (for the 1950s) – in such a way as to invoke the diversity of class and culture which is its topic. It’s worth comparing this to Lewis’s style, which is dominated by an authoritative and implicitly adult controlling presence, and which does not vary much in the course of his narrative. Mitchison’s prose, like her plot, is less tightly controlled, more tumbling and prolix, at least on the surface, and her narrator is constantly being subsumed into the consciousness and (more importantly) the language of her two young heroes. This language, as well as its plot’s multi-stranded complexity, may explain why The Big House hasn’t achieved the international success of Lewis’s simpler chronicle; after all, not many readers outside Scotland will know the meaning of all the terms Mitchison uses. But the house of literature, like the house of memory, has many rooms in it, and I hope I’ve done enough to suggest that this fine book deserves a place in one of them.
All references to The Big House are to the Canongate Kelpies paperback edition of 1987.
An excellent account of the novel can be found in Moira Burgess, Naomi Mitchison’s Early in Orcadia, The Big House and Travel Light, Scotnotes No. 19 (Glasgow: ASLS, 2004).
Hector had been able to hear Roland coming for some time now. Or rather, he had been able to feel him coming, just as he would have heard him coming if he had been human.
Tremors shook the earth each time his brother swung his oversized sword and sent a head flying, followed two or three seconds later by the thump of a headless body on the stony ground. Hector’s roots detected the tremors and carried them up through his slender trunk into the branching channels of his thirsty brain. He’s coming, the wooden synapses whispered. He’s coming to save us, Roland the assassin, Childe Roland with the killer’s eyes and the heart of iron. Hector spread the roots of his toes, feeling for additional clues as to Roland’s whereabouts. He’s coming quickly.
The henwife. The child was approaching the henwife’s hut, and he was tired.
Alexander, now; Roland was surely no Alexander. The eldest brother had only got as far as the henwife’s hut before he gave in. The instructions had been unambiguous – kill everyone you meet in Elfland by chopping off her head – and Alexander had known full well what would be the consequences of failing to follow them. Not only had he heard the stories, he had told them himself in the winter evenings beside the fire, his harp trilling out the tunes that gave them life. But knowledge is one thing, action another. The henwife had undone Alexander, with her crinkled face the colour of fallen leaves and the quizzical look that came into her eyes when she finished giving directions and he raised his sword.
In retrospect it seemed inevitable. How could Alexander possibly kill the henwife, that inexhaustible fund of the songs and stories that filled his dreams? As soon kill his mother, his grandmother, the wizened old wives of the village – collective mothers to his father’s people – who taught him all he knew. As soon kill himself…
And kill himself he did, at least as a storyteller and a musician. Now Alexander’s claws pinched Hector’s branches as the bard, now bird, hopped lugubriously through the thicket of his brother’s thoughts. Pinching was now his only language. He couldn’t speak or sing, only croak like a toad and dance his ungainly dance when the wind got up and Hector swayed. The elves were both cruel and cunning in the punishments they meted out for disobedience.
Hector, on the other hand – Hector the second brother – Hector was made of sterner stuff. He had killed the henwife, as he had killed the goatherd and the tinker and the tinker’s dog. He had killed the tinker’s dog when it barked at him, just to make sure, though the old man had never said anything about beheading dogs or birds or insects. After that Hector had made it all the way to the Dark Tower, blown the slug-horn, seen the girl running out. Even now he remembered the sense of exultation he had felt as she ran towards him, because he too knew the stories, knew from the start that he would have no chance in this one. The eldest brother sometimes prevailed, the youngest brother often, but the middle brother never, not in any version of the story he’d ever heard told. He had had no chance at all. Yet he had come. And here he was, the conditions fulfilled, the last test passed, his sister running towards him. Against all odds he had won her back. In his triumph he dropped his sword, stretched out his arms to catch her, laughed and cried. And even as the sword hit the ground he had felt the changes coming over him.
His boots split open, his toes burst wriggling out of them and started to burrow into the stony earth like eels burrowing into the carcass of a horse. His outspread arms forked and forked again, each bifurcation wrenching apart his bones and sinews. His head split, too, sending tender new twigs of thought in all directions. The last thing he saw as the bark spread over his eyes was the look of horror on his sister’s face as he exploded into vegetation. There had been plenty of days since then to remember that look, as he stood at the entrance to the Tower, a rowan tree rooted among the rocks with a useless raven hopping around among its leafless branches.
There had been plenty of time, too, to think about what he had done wrong.
Kill everyone you meet in Elfland, the old man had said. Not every elf, as Hector had assumed. Kill everyone you meet without exception. For Hector, Burd Ellen had after all never really been in Elfland – she had come here under duress, she belonged in the fields and woods of Daddy’s estate. That was his assumption, based on an understanding of the riddling words of bards and elves. But he had been wrong, for all his wiliness (he was the wiliest among the brothers, the middle brother nearly always was). And now…
Here came Roland, the youngest brother, a child of twelve, armed with the same instructions, those riddling words. He too didn’t stand a chance. For one thing, he was carrying the oldest sword, the blunt one from the back of the stables. His body and limbs were unprotected by cold iron, because there had been no armour in the house small enough to fit him. How to warn him? How to let him know? It couldn’t be done. A tree has no voice, or what voice it has is only ever borrowed – the hissing of leaves in a rising wind – and is in any case only available at certain times not of its choosing. No hope of warning there. But the bird? It’s a bird of omen, the raven, isn’t it? Could his brother give some sort of hint at the old man’s trickery? Could Alexander save Childe Roland, absent-minded, gullible old Alexander with the misty eyes?
From the feel of its claws, the raven was jumping up and down in agitation, croaking no doubt if Hector could have heard it. Flapping its wings as well, he shouldn’t wonder. He could see it in the twigs of his mind, jumping up and down, croaking. Pathetic. The boy wouldn’t see it in a month of Sundays. Childe Roland only ever had eyes for the task in hand, he couldn’t be distracted, that was part of his coldness. Nothing short of a peck on the ankle would get his attention, and then it was more than likely that the boy would strike, with deadly accuracy, at the raven’s head, with his big blunt sword, and Alexander would lose his life all over again.
There was nothing his brothers could do to help him.
And now the footsteps, pounding, pounding on the granite flags of the Dark Tower’s floor. Coming closer at frightening speed. Out into the open. He could feel her presence through his silvery bark, a kind of glow, like the touch of the sun on his woody skin in the afternoon. She had stopped in front of Childe Roland. The boy must be looking her up and down with his killer’s eyes.
The boy would strike.
And suddenly Hector had lost all doubt. The boy would strike, it was who he was, it was what he did. Childe Roland had known from the moment the old man issued his grim instructions what he must do, and he had known too that he could do it, that he alone of Ellen’s three brothers had the eyes, the arm, the steel-cold heart to complete the task. This was what the boy had been born for, after all: to make up for the fatal flaws of his elder siblings. Everything would be all right. The boy would strike, and the head would roll.
Hector held his breath, or would have held it if he’d been human. Instead he stood tall and slim and rigid, waiting for the blow.
And waiting still.
A thump. The ring of steel. In two or three seconds, the louder thump of the headless body on the stony ground…
But the second thump never came, and slowly it dawned on the waiting Hector that the weight and quality of that first thump did not in fact tally with the weight and quality of a person’s head. The boy hadn’t struck. Instead – it was obvious now – he had dropped the sword, the big blunt sword from the back of the stables. He had dropped it; and now another light thump sent reverberations through Hector’s roots.
Could it be possible? Had Roland dropped to his knees? Was he crying, for the first and only time in his life?
A wave of relief ran through Hector’s body, from the tips of his roots to the topmost twigs of his forking arms and his branching mind. A gust of warmth, a tremor like an earthquake, as if instead of the Dark Tower the slender rowan tree that had once been Hector, the second brother, were about to fall. Childe Roland had not struck. The boy was human after all.
And then a wave of cold, from roots to twigs and back to roots.
Childe Roland had not struck, and Burd Ellen was doomed.
There was no one left to save her. No one left to defend her person, body and soul, with a ring of steel. No armour, no swords, no warriors. His sister was finished, and her house was too.
A strong wind blew in from the west. It brought a spray of brackish rain tainted by the sea, and the cries of seabirds, cold and high and far, as if in mockery of human grief. The rowan bent before the wind, its grey bark darkening as the raindrops lashed it. For an hour or so it tossed back and forth, but it wasn’t uprooted. Rowans are resilient, despite the shallowness of their roots.
When the storm was over the tree grew still, and the three ravens on its branches cautiously relaxed their grip and began to look about them. They were getting hungry – they had no idea when they had last eaten – and it seemed to them that there was plenty of carrion nearby.
Roland lowered the slug-horn from his lips. The echoes from its blast were still bouncing off the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains as he took a double-handed grip on the sword that was much too heavy for him and braced himself to strike for one last time.
The thump of footsteps sounded from inside the cavernous entrance to the Dark Tower. He watched as the bare white feet came hurrying towards him. He could not bear to look at her face. If he looked at her face, as his brothers had, he would never be able to do what he had to do.
Already she was standing in front of him, chest heaving from her running, air spilling out of her mouth to warm his cheeks. ‘You came!’ she cried. ‘I knew you would! I knew –’
He took a tighter grip of the hilt of the sword and raised it with an effort. He had done this so many times in the last few hours that every joint in his arms and shoulders screamed in pain. He must look her in the eye before he struck the fatal blow; if he didn’t he couldn’t be sure it would be a clean one. He lifted his eyes. He held her gaze. He saw her expression of joy fade to puzzlement, then to alarm as the blade began its slow descent.
‘What – ’ she said, and then the thud came, followed by the spray of blood, which drenched him from head to foot as she toppled towards him.
Gasping, he lent on the blade and waited for the miracle to happen. He did not look at her body. He wasn’t sure what the process of regeneration would involve: whether the head would come crawling across the pebbles on sinewy feet, or whether it would bounce like Ellen’s ball toward the severed neck, still pumping out blood in a diminishing stream; and by what strange form of alchemical or vegetable coupling the separate strands and bones of the head and neck would knit themselves together. He didn’t want to know. The outcome was all that mattered: regeneration, the return of movement, jerky at first, then smooth. The sound of her voice, bubbling at first in the blood-choked windpipe, then spilling forth clear and loud as it had before.
He didn’t look. He waited, leaning on his sword, watching the crimson pool of blood as it spread towards his feet, feeling the blood drip from his nose and chin, noting how the landscape all round the Tower was stained as if with blood by the setting sun.
It had been a long day.
Someone coughed behind him.
‘So you did it,’ a voice remarked. ‘You followed my instructions. I’m amazed.’
Slowly he turned his head. The old man stood there, as he had before, his crooked hands still resting on the handle of his stick in exactly the pose Roland had adopted after striking off his sister’s head.
‘Amazed, and impressed,’ the old man went on. ‘None of your brothers could do it. That’s why they died. This is a land where instructions must be followed to the letter, and failing to follow them is always fatal. Well done, my child. Well done indeed.’ And he smiled as he turned to leave.
‘Wait,’ Roland cried, with a final effort. ‘It’s not over yet. Ellen – she needs to come back with me. That was the deal!’
The old man stopped, turned, raised an eyebrow. ‘That was the deal?’ he repeated. ‘How so?’
‘That was the deal,’ Roland said again, and felt a flush creep across his face in spite of the cold. ‘“When you come to Elfland, you must cut off the head of everyone you meet. Everyone, you hear? Man, woman or child. Do this and your quest will be successful. Fail to do it and you will die.” That’s what you said when I saw you before, on the Blasted Heath.’
The old man nodded. ‘Why yes, that’s what I said. “Do this and your quest will be successful.” And so it has. You’re alive, child, aren’t you? Your bones are not lying with the bones of your older brothers in the ash pit yonder?’
Roland turned to peer where the old man’s finger pointed, then wished he hadn’t. He felt sick and shaky. He dropped the sword and ran his hands through his blood-roped hair.
‘But Ellen,’ he said.
‘Is dead,’ the old man said. ‘You killed her, child. Look where she lies. How can she possibly come back with you now?’
A bird flapped suddenly on a nearby rock, and the noise drew Roland’s attention so that his eyes flicked to one side. When they flicked back again the old man had disappeared.
The mountains had lost their redness. They were now the colour of rock, like the Tower, the sky, and Roland’s hands. The bird gave a harsh despairing cry and took off, flapping in a zig zag path towards the nearest peak.