W. W. Tarn, The Treasure of the Isle of Mist

UnknownHere’s a charming oddity: a children’s book published in 1919, written before the outbreak of the Great War by the celebrated classical scholar Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn for the entertainment of his only daughter. In later life his daughter became Otta Swire, the Hebridean folklorist, who lived in Orbost House near Dunvegan in the north of the Isle of Skye; and the novel features Otta herself under the name of Fiona, with her father as ‘the Student’ (her mother, Flora MacDonald, has unaccountably vanished from the family circle). Tarn writes in his introduction to the 1938 edition that he told the story to the fifteen-year-old Otta in the winter of 1913-14 when she was ill, and it’s the age of the story’s protagonist that sets it apart from other children’s fantasy literature of the period. It’s very specifically a book about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and as such is an early precursor of the young adult fiction that came into its own in the 1970s. It’s also a precursor of later children’s fantasy in several other ways worth mentioning.

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The Professor in Mistress Masham’s Repose

In the first place, it’s a learned book, two at least of whose characters are eccentric scholars with a taste for philosophy – something that links them with the two philosophers in James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912). The Student, who spends much of his time regaling his daughter Fiona with sage advice in the comfort of his reading room, also anticipates the scholarly gurus of later children’s fantasy: in particular the poverty-stricken Professor in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946) – himself a reincarnation of White’s Merlin – and Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). His conversations with his fellow scholar, an entomologist whose scientific interests focus exclusively on ‘one particular family of coleoptera’ (47), unmistakably resemble the dialogue at cross purposes of Stephens’s Philosopher brothers:

the two would sit, one on either side of the fire, each smoking at a tremendous pace and talking hard on his own subject. Neither ever expected an answer from the other; neither ever got one. But they had silently established an unwritten law that when one had talked for three minutes by the clock on the mantelpiece he was to stop and let the other have a turn; and when at last they said good-night, each felt they had both had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. (48)

Crucially, too, like Stephens’s Philosophers, both men are thoroughly democratic in their quest for knowledge. The beetle scholar finds the most modest creepy crawly in creation fascinating, while the Student embraces everything in his conversation, from human evolution to the relationships between men and birds, from the grand wars and controversies of ancient history to the complex web of global myth and legend. His mind is a kind of living Golden Bough which sees connections between the stories and deeds of all people, whatever their apparent ‘primitiveness’ and whatever age they lived in. And it’s his impartial concern for insignificant people – indeed, his somewhat paternalistic sense of responsibility for them – that sets Tarn’s story in motion.

7389550-LThe story takes its origin from a moment in the Student’s youth – recollected in the book’s first chapter – when he altruistically defended a wandering hawker from an unprovoked attack by Bashi-bazouks – irregular Ottoman soldiers – in the town of Verria, in what is now Macedonia. While on the one hand this episode might be seen as an instance of anti-Turkish xenophobia, a typical Boy’s Own Paper exercise in imperialist machismo, on the other it could also be read as a courageous act of defiance against a colonial oppressor (Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire), especially in view of the fact that the hawker’s race, class and nationality, like his age, remain a mystery. The Student’s defence of him, then, can serve as an instance of his innate humaneness and impartiality, the equivalent in action of his universal interest in the knowledge of all races and nations, and of his desire to communicate this knowledge impartially to the young of both genders, especially his daughter. And the sudden reappearance of the hawker at the beginning of the novel places this sense of democratic impartiality squarely at the centre of the narrative that follows.

The hawker is never named, but his identity as a magical wanderer between nations and epochs – he seems to be immortal – allies him not only with the Flying Dutchman or the Wandering Jew but with those mysterious wanderers of later children’s fiction, the Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlins in John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (1935) and ‘the Walker’ Hawkin in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973). I’ve pointed out elsewhere that the names of Hawlins and Hawkin link them; this book suggests that both names might take their origins from the hawker, whose name denotes his trade (at the beginning of the book he is selling buttons). Tarn’s wanderer might also be read as a figure for the migration of myth and folklore from one culture to another – or for the affinities between cultures embodied in the more or less identical myths and legends that have sprung up independently in different cultures across the globe. Tarn’s own interest in the links between seemingly disparate cultures found an outlet in his book on the relationship between ancient Greece and Asia, The Greeks in Bactria and India (1938), stimulated by his more celebrated work on the life and times of Alexander the Great. His hawker changes identity several times as the novel goes on, and in the process becomes a hinge connecting what Tarn calls ‘All the lost peoples and nations and languages’ of the world. As a result, of course, he also becomes associated with the dead, like Peter Pan (who is said at one point to lead children to whatever happens after death) or the fairies in Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926). And he thus becomes associated with Tarn’s and the Student’s learning, which concerns itself first and foremost with the dead – but seeks too to bring them alive by any means possible, in the case of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist through the medium of a fantasy or modern-day fairy story told to a decidedly modern girl.

Prince-Caspian-C.S.Lewis-bookplate-10-e1453974023829It’s Tarn’s concern with the links between cultures that connects his novel in yet another way with The Crock of Gold. The book combines classical with Celtic and other elements of myth and folklore, in a manner that anticipates Lewis’s exuberant fusion of elements in the Narnian chronicles. James Stephens introduced both Pan and Angus Og into his novel, and his fellow Irishman Lewis introduced both Bacchus and the knights, witches and werewolves of medieval romance in the second novel in the Narnia sequence, Prince Caspian (1951). Like Lewis, Tarn summons up the memory of Dryads and Naiads, the Grecian spirits of trees and the sea, in one episode of his novel, adding to these an Oread – the spirit of a mountain – whose heart is wakened, as the tree spirits are wakened in Prince Caspian, by the courage of a young girl. Unlike the novels of Stephens and Lewis, however, this is a book that’s deeply rooted in the specificities of an actual place and time. It’s very definitely set in and around Orbost House, as Tarn points out in his introduction, and these local associations were intensified in the 1938 edition by restoring the actual names to features of the island landscape to which he had given invented names in 1919. A major attraction of the book is its very accurate representation of the details of the Skye landscape in October, its flora and fauna, the constantly changing weather from which the island gets its name, the habits of its human and avian inhabitants. He delights in assigning birds and other creatures their Scottish names: ‘scart’ for a young cormorant, ‘solan’ for a gannet, ‘finner’ for a fin whale, ‘glede’ for a kite. These details, combined with the magical happenings which Tarn represents as native to the Hebridean context, link the novel to the folkloric narratives of place that proliferated in children’s fantasy after the Second World War – in particular the work of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. That some of these links with post-war fantasy might be attributed in part to Tarn’s influence is suggested by the fact that it was a popular book between the ’30s and ’50s, reprinted by Oxford University Press – which probably appreciated its scholarly content – at least three times in the period (it’s the 1959 edition in which I’ve read it).

Despite its links with later fiction, the book is decidedly of its period in certain respects. Its heroine embarks on a small-scale adventure of a very familiar kind in the first half of the twentieth century – a treasure hunt – with the rather unhelpful assistance of a younger boy known only as The Urchin; and though there are hints that this adventure is part of a larger story, and though it would have been easy for Tarn to have raised the stakes for which Fiona is playing, there’s little sense at any point that either she, the Urchin, their families or the culture they live in are in much danger; indeed at one point she becomes upset by the lack of concern her father shows over the Urchin’s sudden disappearance, an indifference on his part which assures the reader that the mystery will be soon explained. (For the ‘dramatic increase in the import of the adventures’ in children’s fantasy after the Second World War see Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), chapter 5, p. 102.) Fiona always has an adult guide of some sort in her adventures, her father being the chief of these; and Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn have demonstrated how universally such adult guides were provided for child adventurers in pre-war fantasy. The Student’s control over events is reinforced by the fact that he happens to be a landowner (albeit an impoverished one), with hereditary rights over much of the territory where Fiona stages her treasure hunt. More significantly, Fiona’s adventures are clearly informed every step of the way by her father’s passion (which is also Tarn’s) for ancient history, palaeography, natural history and philosophy. The hunt takes her into a fairy land possessing all the components which James Frazer or Jane Harrison would have expected. It culminates in a trial attended by all the vanished peoples the Student – Tarn himself – strove to resurrect through his research. And the trial involves an ethical question of the kind the ancient Greek philosophers would have relished, depending on a riddle straight out of folklore: what is the greatest treasure a human being could seek for? The answer we’re given is a scholar’s answer: the search itself. And having found it, Fiona also finds herself on the path to the kind of mythical/folkloric learning for which the girl she was based on, Otta Swire née Tarn, became famous.

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The trial scene in A Matter of Life and Death

The trial that culminates the story makes for an intriguing climax. It has a great deal in common with the trial at the climax of Powell and Pressburger’s best known movie, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), taking place as it does in a fairyland whose symbol is the flower of death – ‘the pallid asphodel whose home is in those other meadows where walk the pallid dead’ – and which is populated by the world’s dead (the movie deals with the trial of a British airman by spirits in the Second World War, and there is extensive reference in it to the medical effects of concussion, as there is in the book). The fairy witnesses present at the novel’s trial are both a motley throng to rival anything in a painting by Joseph Paton or Richard Dadd and a truly global assembly, which could only have been conjured out of the omnivorous mind of a true internationalist:

There were fairies of the Old Stone peoples, brave-eyed, clad in pelts of the sabre-tooth, bearing the blade-bones of bisons on which were carved pictures of the mammoth and the reindeer. Fairies from Egypt, clad in fine white linen with girdles and aquamarine, with fillets round their brows from which the golden uraeus lifted its snake’s head, bearing blossoms of the blue lotus. Fairies from Babylon, glowing in coats of scarlet or of many colours, their eyes deep with immemorial learning, bearing clay tablets on which were signs like the footprints of birds. […] Fairies of the Tuatha-dé, with all the youth of the world in their eyes, clad in robes of saffron, crowned with rowans and bearing harps. (118-9)

The casual learning employed in gathering this particular fairy host together fuses childhood dreams of fairyland with the dreams of scholars as Tarn describes them near the beginning of the novel. On meeting the Student the supernatural hawker tells him that as well as buttons he also peddles in dreams, but that he can do nothing for scholars because they already possess all the dreams a man could wish for: ‘You need no dreams, for your life is one. For you, the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’ (14). Instead, then, of offering the Student a gift from his pack, the hawker offers a gift to Fiona, whose fondness for the Student is the one great ‘justification’, as the hawker puts it, for her father’s existence. But by the end of the book the kind of magic offered by the hawker – the quest for a supernatural treasure – would seem to have supplanted, for Fiona at least, by the equally potent magic of manuscripts, logical argument, the findings of modern science, and archaeological digs. Like the children in Lewis’s Narnia books, the protagonist of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain and the mortal girls and boys of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Fiona realizes in the closing pages that she has got too old to fraternize with fairies. Instead she gains full and permanent imaginative access to the Island of Mists itself, which is the place she lives in, Skye – and all the historical, literary and scientific associations it brings with it. As the hawker tells her, in the course of her treasure hunt:

You have spoken face to face with bird and beast and with the beings who knew and loved the land before your race was. To-day you have the freedom of the island, and of all living things in it; they are your friends for ever. And to the dead in its graveyards you are kin. All that is there has passed into your blood, the old lost loves, the old impossible loyalties, the old forgotten heroisms and tendernesses; all these are yours; and yours are the songs that were sung long ago, and the tales which were told by the fireside; and the deeds of the men and women of old have become part of you. (148-9)

This invocation is a kind of spell bequeathing Fiona and the book’s young readers the magic of learning. It’s a learning that recognizes the link between the living land and the library book, affirmed in the novel by Fiona’s encounter in her garden with a philosophical yellow caterpillar whose close friend is a bookworm in the library of Orbost House. And it’s a learning that effortlessly associates Skye with Macedonia, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ireland – no parochial scholarship, in other words. As I mentioned earlier, the hawker said at the beginning that for scholars ‘the earth pours out hidden treasure, and the impossible comes true day by day’, and book as it unfolds suggests that the ‘earth’ here should be taken both for the globe as a whole, with all its history, and for the local soil from which Fiona digs the caterpillar, and that the ‘treasure’ is as much woodcocks, finners and gledes as it is the knowledge of lost lives and literatures.

The signal that Fiona is well on the way to acquiring such learning and thus becoming a scholar like her father is her ability to ‘influence’ another young mind, in exactly the way her mind has been influenced by the Student’s historical knowledge and humane philosophy. At the climax of the trial she projects her mind into the Urchin’s and persuades him to make the right wish in response to an invitation from the fairies: the wish that his unpleasant Uncle Jeconiah, who is one of the accused, be acquitted and returned to his ordinary mortal existence, despite his earlier blithe disregard for the Urchin’s welfare. This altruistic wish, implanted in the Urchin’s mind by Fiona’s influence, is the precise opposite of what Jeconiah considers his philosophy: ‘do good to your friends and evil to those who stand in your way’ (49). Tarn tells us in the fourth chapter that ‘the philosophy of ethics took its rise, some twenty-two centuries ago, in a reaction against a similar rule’ (49), and Fiona’s rescue of Jeconiah in chapter seven embodies just this reaction. She and the Urchin put ethics into practice, and in the process identify themselves with Tarn’s vision of the vanished peoples of the earth who took ethical behaviour as their touchstone, in contrast to their intellectually and emotionally impoverished descendants in the approach to the First World War.

This is where the unexpected seriousness of the novel comes in. At the beginning the hawker asks the scholar, ‘What good do you and your inscriptions do, anyway?’ (15) – and the answer is that the Student has earned the love of his daughter. He has also earned her respect, to the extent that she absorbs his influence. And she in turn influences others: both the Urchin and Uncle Jeconiah, who is much chastened by his trial, show signs of her transformative power in their behaviour by the end of the novel. Learning, then, is in itself beneficial in Tarn’s eyes, though no doubt this depends on how it’s imparted – affection too is needed. On the other hand, it’s also limited in its impact on the world – and Tarn is too much of a philosopher not to see this. The effect on Uncle Jeconiah of his unexpected trip to fairyland, and of Fiona’s and his nephew’s rescue of him, is only temporary: ‘I expect that sort is incurable’ (141), the hawker comments as he watches the man’s wretched attempts to tell his nephew a fairy tale like the one we’ve just read. More poignantly, Fiona’s impact on the Urchin, too, would seem to be limited; and that’s a particularly painful thought when one thinks about the date when the story was first told, in the winter before the outbreak of the Great War.

curlew-flying01llThere are, in fact, three treasures referred to in the book’s title. One is the mysterious gift of the hawker, which turns out to be what he calls the freedom of the isle. Another is a hoard of doubloons, brought to Skye in a ship from the Spanish Armada wrecked on its coast. The first of these treasures is desired by Fiona; the second by the Urchin, inspired by the tales of pirates and British naval victories he has been raised on as a young imperial male. The Urchin decides that the second of these treasures belongs to him, and persuades the Student to sign it over to him should the doubloons be found in one of the caves on the Student’s land. And the boy plans to spend it on something quite incompatible with Fiona’s treasure: a gun. He will use the gun, he tells Fiona, to shoot curlews, and the girl is horrified at this proposition: ‘You little wretch,’ she retorts at once, ‘You won’t kill my curlews while I’m about’ (26). Later, when the Urchin disappears and she goes in quest of him, a living curlew puts in an appearance: ‘a grey bird with a long bill, who on hovering wings wheeled three times in the air above her and gave his full spring call, the most wonderful sound the hills ever hear’ (84). Here the bird is clearly associated both with fairyland (circling three times – the magic number; giving its spring call in October as a sign for Fiona) and with the island, in particular its hills. The Urchin’s murderous intent towards the curlews, then, pits him directly against his mentor, who follows birds instead of shooting them. So too does the Urchin’s habit of flinging stones at other birds (it’s his injuring of a shore lark with a stone that gets him abducted by the fairies, the birds’ protectors). Fiona’s influence is evident in the remorse he feels when he hurts the shore lark; but the question is, is ‘his sort incurable’, like his Uncle?

This, then, is the third treasure of the book’s title: the boy himself, for whom Fiona feels ‘responsible’ in his father’s absence. The Urchin and his Uncle are both in quest of the Spaniards’ treasure rather than the island’s, and the Uncle’s greed for it is a symptom of his materialist, self-serving philosophy – but what is the boy’s? Both the Urchin and his Uncle are put on trial by the fairies for crimes against the island – in the Uncle’s case those of ‘stealing a treasure and being a worthless character’ (128), which marks the distinction between the fairies’ sense of ‘worth’ or value and the values of capitalism; in the boy’s for wounding one of the island’s avian ‘lieges’ (125). In the course of the trial Fiona persuades the boy to forgo his desire for the Spanish treasure and wish instead for his Uncle’s acquittal. But once the Urchin has made his wish, which is in fact hers implanted into his mind by an act of telepathy, he is granted a wish of his own; and he wishes, as he did at the beginning of the novel, for the gun he would have bought with the treasure if he had found it. At the end of the book he is clutching the gun (bought for him, tellingly, by his Uncle) as he listens to the awkward fairy tale which is being related by Jeconiah in fulfilment of the terms of his release. As soon as the Urchin gets some cartridges, he tells the novice storyteller, ‘you won’t keep me here’ (140); in other words he’ll stop listening to stories and set off for the hills instead, looking for birds to shoot. Fiona’s influence, and that of the fairies – the myths and legends of times past – goes only so far and no farther. Given the date of the story’s composition – 1912-13, with the shadow of the guns of war hanging over Europe – the consequences of her lack of influence may well be tragic (the Urchin might well be of age to join up by 1918). Tarn would have been well aware of this by the time the book was published the year after the Great War ended.

The dreams of scholarship, then, for Tarn, are fragile and marginalized, like the island’s ecosystem. At the same time, they may have an effect. When the two mortals – the boy and his uncle – have been acquitted at the end of the trial, there follows a period of companionable peace between Fiona, the Urchin, the King of the Fairies, and the Counsel for the Defence, who is also the Fairy Chancellor; a peace that’s embodied in the act of storytelling:

And the two children sat at the King’s feet on the steps of beryl throne and watched the dancers; and the Chancellor sat between them, and held Fiona’s hand, and told them such stories as they had never heard before, till between laughter and tears they nearly fell off the steps of the throne, and the Chancellor laughed and cried with them for sheer joy of his own story-telling; and if there were three happier people in the world that night I do not know where they were. And the night itself passed away as a dream that men dream, and its hours seemed to them but as a few minutes – and then across the music and the dance cut the shrill scream of a peacock as he greeted the day […] and the beryl throne dissolved in mist, and the figure of the King above them, pointing, grew dim and huge, and spread and grew, a purple shadow that hung over them… and they were standing alone in the fairy ring on Brandersaig, under the purple sky, with the white mist wreathing itself about their feet, and the pale November dawn coming slowly up out of the sea. (136-7)

The concentration of terms associated with the island of mist in this passage – where fairyland dissolves into the Skye landscape, its King becomes the ‘purple sky/Skye’, and the vapour that features in the island’s name envelops the children – reinforces the link between the physical landscape and the trial of human ethics that has taken place within it. Fairyland here resembles a dream, evanescent and temporally disorienting; but so too does the island, which can change its appearance as readily as Fairyland can, and is equally full of wonders. So too do philosophy, history, literature – all the branches of human knowledge with which Fairyland has been identified. As long as Skye exists, then, as the embodiment of Tarn’s dream of scholarly peacefulness (and we might remember here that the story begins with the Student rescuing a stranger from soldiers with the help of an unloaded revolver), there is hope that the dream too can be recaptured and sustained, for a while at least, from time to time.

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Thanks are due to Professor Farah Mendlesohn for drawing my attention to Tarn’s book in her fine essay, ‘Peake and the Fuzzy Set of Fantasy: Some Informal Thoughts’, Miracle Enough: Papers on the Works of Mervyn Peake, ed. G. Peter Winnington (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013), pp. 61-74.

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