[This is the third and last of three variations on the old fairy tale of Childe Roland and Burd Ellen, and should be read after the other two. The first variation can be found here, the second here.]
Burd Ellen squatted barefoot on the cold stone floor, ears straining to catch the sound of a human footstep.
The King and the Queen were talking to her all the time now, sometimes in an urgent whisper, sometimes in short sharp barks like the sound of a fox on a winter’s night. Sometimes their voices rose to a high-pitched screeching and she had to turn her head aside and cover one ear to listen for the footstep with the other. All she had heard for a long time now was the sound of the wind in the stone-flagged passage, the scrape of twigs across the stones of the outside wall.
She kept her head turned away from the King, with his bright inhuman eyes staring out from inside a thick white tangled nest of hair, and the Queen, with her translucent leaf-green flesh and twiggy fingers. Each of them squatted at the entrance to a burrow, over there at the base of the wall that faced the entrance, and whenever she looked towards them they began to gesture at her with their eyes, their fingers, their sinuous tongues. She thought they were squatting, at least. All she could see of them were their heads and arms and shoulders, scattered with earth, dead leaves caught up in the hair and eyebrows. They could just as easily have been standing upright in the burrows, hips wedged between the rocks that formed the foundation of the Tower.
There were three burrows in all: the King’s burrow on the left, the Queen’s on the right, and a third burrow in the middle, a dense black hole, its edges fringed with thin fine roots, the peripheral roots, perhaps, of the jungle of withered ivy that cushioned the curving outer walls of the funnel-shaped building. Three burrows or tunnels, leading where? Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, as the Priest in the village might claim? The man’s house, the woman’s house, the place that was neither? She could not tell. All she knew was that the middle burrow was waiting for her, and that one day she would give in to the elfin gestures and the high, fierce barks and deafening screeches, and crawl on her hands and knees to that root-fringed hole, helpless as a rabbit crawling to the jaws of a hungry fox.
She was thinking furiously. There must be another way out.
What was it the old women had said, she with the coat of brindled feathers and the short sharp nose like a bantam’s beak? ‘They will come for you with steel through the Elfin hills, one by one they will come, the eldest first. Every man or woman or child they meet must be slain on sight with the steel they hold. Their heads must be struck off and their bodies left on the ground to rot, untouched by human hand. No word must be uttered on the journey, no food eaten. If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free. If not, you must stay among us in the Elfin hills for seven long years, till the time for the teind comes round and the stream runs dry.’
Till the time for the teind comes round, she thought: the tax paid by the elves to hell, in exchange for an eternity of play. I have been the teind all my life, she thought, at my father the Baron’s house as well as in Elfland: the tax paid as part of a game I had no part in. There must be a way out, as there was from my father’s house when the elves came calling.
Some time later, squatting on stone in her clammy dress with her dew-moist hair hanging round her shoulders, the thought came to her: it’s in the words, of course, the words she spoke. It’s always in the riddling words, the good way out, if you can hear it.
But instead of the riddling words the clang of steel came to her ears, so alien a sound in this world of stone and air and water that she sprang to her feet as if pulled by wires. As she listened, it occurred to her that she had heard this sound before, here in this Tower, carried in through the passage of stone from the world beyond. She stood there a moment, thinking still. How many times had she heard it? Once? Twice? Thrice? If three times, they had all come for her, and not one had passed the test.
That did not bear thinking about. It was time to stop her thinking.
With a kind of spasm she came to life and began to run. She ran down the stone-flagged passage, feet slapping the uneven flagstones, cold cutting her feet like knives, and out into the blazing brightness of early evening. It was always early evening here, the time before the dark overwhelmed the senses and the streams ran dry.
He stood there, the youngest boy, leaning on his sword. His chest heaved with the effort of his journey, his damp brown hair was plastered across his forehead. His always too-serious face, with its brooding brows and glittering eyes, lit up when he caught sight of her, and he let his sword droop till it clanged against a stone.
‘I came for you, Ellen!’ he cried ecstatically. ‘I killed them all and I came for you! We can go home!’
Beside him, a rowan tree stretched anguished arms towards the sky as if in supplication, and a crow on one of its branches gave a croak.
Ellen knew what they were saying. The task is undone, boy, you should not have spoken before it was finished; you will die. But what had the henwife said, exactly? ‘No word must be uttered on the journey, no food swallowed.’ If he did not stir from where he stood – if he took not another step towards her – then his journey might be over and he might have the right to speak at will. ‘Stay where you are!’ she cried, and held up both her hands in an urgent gesture. He swayed a little, either for weariness or from an impulse to run on. But he stayed rooted to the spot, as she’d hoped he would. He had never been one for embraces, her little brother. He stood there swaying like the tree, and spoke again in a low hoarse whisper.
‘Come on, Ellen,’ he said. ‘We should go home. Mum and Dad are waiting.’
A flurry of barks broke out behind her, sharp and fierce, and a gust of musk assailed her nose. The King and Queen were waiting too, and growing anxious: the little chicken they had caught was flexing its wings. She listened, but she heard no footsteps from the Tower; they too were rooted to the spot, waiting for her answer. What must she say? ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’ – so the henwife said. Follow what instructions, exactly? And what is free? Certainly not the return of a girl to the granite house she had run away from. Then what else?
She stood there staring at her brother, face to face, both damp and desperate, both poised on the brink of unknown action. She studied his face, as if looking there for the response he needed her to give. She saw the desperation in it: a desperation hatched with the boy at birth, which had grown with him as he grew, and of which this particular desperation, the desperation of a rescue so nearly accomplished and yet so easily brought to grief, could only ever be the first of many more forms of desperation if she came with him, if they made it home. She looked at the child as if in a mirror, and began to wonder who it was who must rescue whom.
All at once the answer came to her. A weight of stone seemed to lift itself from her narrow shoulders.
She smiled and took a step towards him. Now she was standing within the ring of steel, the circuit that would be described if he lifted his sword and swung it round in a deadly arc.
‘It’s all right, Roland,’ she reassured him. ‘We can go home. But first you need to chop off my head.’
The boy’s weariness was such that it took three or four seconds for her meaning to sink in. She watched as it became clear to him: first the horror blooming in his eyes like a great black rose; then the fuller understanding, the denial, the shock of acceptance. ‘If they follow these instructions, child, you will be free’. He had not yet followed the instructions to the letter; he had not yet struck off the head of every man or woman or child he had met in Elfland, not yet left every severed corpse on the stony ground. But surely, his eyes began to plead, surely those words could only refer to the things called elves? Elf men, elf women, elf children, we call them by those names no matter how monstrous their proportions, no matter how twisted their twiggy limbs. But no, the words were clear, the instructions issued by the wicked old man on the Blasted Heath. Every man or woman or child, the man had said, just like the henwife. The same instructions from different lips. And now from hers.
She tried to help him by smiling confidently. She even craned her neck a little as if to show him where to strike. But she trembled as she did so, and she could feel the colour draining from her cheeks as the stream ran dry. The barks from the Tower were strident now, beseeching, urgent, and a hole in the ground seemed a pleasant prospect compared with the parting of her flesh by the whistling steel. Yet still she smiled and nodded and trembled, doing her best to make the trembling seem the response of a coatless body to the mountain breeze, doing her best to make the smile seem bright and real. The hills were growing greyer, in any case, and she could hardly see her brother’s eyes. Perhaps he could not see her trembling or her smile? Perhaps if he could he did not care? He was a strange and distant boy, and though she had always thought his distance sprang from the loveless house he lived in, perhaps he really did not care for her, despite the flush of rare delight that had crossed his face when she left the Tower…
All at once he gave a sob – the first she had heard from him – and raised the sword.
For a long time the blade hung motionless in the air.
She studied it from the corner of her eye, even as she continued to smile with confidence at its bearer, even as she told herself it was best to look straight at Roland, not at the instrument of death he held aloft in his shaking hands.
His eyes were glittering still, she noticed. Was it the glitter of grief and fear, or of ill-concealed delight in the act of killing? She could not tell. She peered through the dusk with sudden urgency to see which it was – and as a result she never noticed when the sword began to trace the arc of its downward swing.
The Dark Tower loomed in the early evening light. The hills that surrounded it were tall and grey and featureless, no brighter on the one side than the other, you could never have said which way was west. There was nothing else in the stony valley where the building stood; no trees, no gorse, no heather, not a blade of grass. A cold wind blew between the hills, but for the longest time there was no one there to feel it.
Three young ravens sat on a boulder by the entrance. From time to time they shuffled closer to each other, casting nervous glances at the blackness of the doorway. They seemed apprehensive that something might come out of it, but more apprehensive still to sit further off, out of harm’s way. The wind ruffled the thick dark feathers on their necks, and they lifted their feet one at a time to give them respite from the chill of the boulder’s surface. They seemed to be waiting, but not to know what they were waiting for.
A shriek broke out from the sky above the hills directly in front of them. The birds looked up.
Dropping out of the sky, cutting lazy circuits through the air like a swinging blade, a fourth bird flew down towards them, wings spread wide. Its primary feathers groped at the sky like giant fingers, its hooked beak yawned to release another passionless shriek. With a thump it landed beside the rock, scattering pebbles: a buzzard with a great barred chest, disheveled plumage, huge brown eyes. A pair of bells jangled at its legs as it struck the ground, and the ravens could see the soft leather straps that attached each bell to one of its ankles. For a while it stood there preening, lifting first one wing then the other towards its beak and combing through the feathers with scrupulous attention, bells jangling all the while. Then it stopped preening and simply stood, looking round itself with interest, though it barely spared a glance for the nervous ravens.
The wind blew. The buzzard stood. The ravens watched, as if for a signal.
All at once the buzzard spread its wings and flew to the Tower. Without pausing it flew through the entrance into darkness, its wingtips skimming the granite jambs as it swept by. The ravens followed one by one, each letting out a plaintive croak before it flung itself into the dark as if into the sea. Now the valley was still and empty once again; but the building boomed and clattered and throbbed with the beat of eight strong wings, and a series of screeches broke through the roof, like the sound of a birdbone whistle being blown by a fool on the Blasted Heath.
Inside the Tower a violent storm had broken out. The King and Queen were screeching and groping for the birds with twiggy fingers. The birds were battering at them with their wings, slashing with their beaks, tumbling over one another in their frantic efforts to find a good way out.
The smallest raven landed on the flagstones near the hole between King and Queen. It stepped uneasily towards the hole, one eye fixed on the screeching monarchs, the other on its wheeling, tumbling siblings as they bounced off the walls of the upright cylinder of stone. But it had no eye to watch the buzzard, and just as it reached the fringe of roots and gathered itself for a final hop – the hop that would take it down, down, down, perhaps to Elfland – the buzzard seized it by the ribs and dragged it clear.
The raven croaked and writhed and flapped in the buzzard’s grip, but the raptor would not let it go. Up and up they spiraled, towards the ragged eye of light in the Dark Tower’s roof. With a final beat of its wings the buzzard surged into the waning light of day. The dimness inside the Tower grew dimmer still as the struggling pair passed through the gap, then dimmed twice more as the other two ravens followed, croaking. A final screech flew after them as they rose above the Tower. Then silence fell, and the ruin lay lifeless as the valley in which it stood.
High above the place where the Tower had been, the smallest raven squirmed itself free from the buzzard’s claws and fluttered away. The other two ravens flew alongside it, croaking comfort. The buzzard wheeled.
Below the four great birds, a sea of trees tossed in the wind, and heather shook its stubby branches on the purple hills.
The sun shone from the leaves, the blossoms, the rocks, the clouds, the streams, the birds.
Nicholas Stuart Gray is a name which is mostly missing from histories of children’s literature, but which rouses strong passions in those who admire his work. He started out as a respected children’s playwright, his first play being performed in 1949, and worked on many productions throughout the 50s and 60s with his close friend the stage designer Joan Jefferson Farjeon. The plays are all based on fairy tales, though they also include a version of the great medieval fairy poem Gawain and the Green Knight. Not much is known about his private life apart from the fact that he describes himself in blurbs as a ‘Highlander’, that some of his books are set in Sussex and Devon, and that he went on cycling holidays with Joan Jefferson Farjeon in Provence. I discovered him by chance in the early 80s when a friend lent me a copy of his first novel, Over the Hills to Fabylon (1954), about a magical moving city ruled by a paranoid monarch (think Howl’s Moving Castle with a cast of thousands). After this my grandmother took to buying me his books one by one for birthdays and Christmases: The Seventh Swan (1962), The Stone Cage (1963), Mainly in Moonlight (1963), The Apple-Stone (1965), Grimbold’s Other World (1965), and my favourite, Down in the Cellar (1961), magnificently illustrated by Edward Ardizzone. There are several more I haven’t read, and it’s time the whole oeuvre was brought back into print to delight and move new generations. I’m not the only one to think so. This blog post stems from a rereading of Down in the Cellar after Gray’s name was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Gaiman, which led to an outpouring of praise for him from Ellen Kushner, Katherine Langrish, Garth Nix and Terri Windling, among many others. That’s a roll call that should make publishers sit up and take note; and I hope a few words about Down in the Cellar will add fuel to the flame.
Gray’s book is an unsettling fusion of disparate elements that locate it precisely in the time and place of its composition. The plot is misleadingly simple. Four young siblings – Bruce, Julia, Andrew and Deirdre Jefferson, who share their family name with Joan Jefferson Farjeon – are staying in their uncle’s rambling Rectory in the South Downs when they find an injured man in a disused cave. The man tells them he is on the run, and they decide to hide him in a half-forgotten cellar of the Rectory, which they happen to have stumbled across a few days earlier. Having hidden him in the cellar and done their best to tend his wounds, the children suddenly find themselves under siege by a range of threatening forces: from the Rector’s stern but affectionate housekeeper, Old Mim – who is afraid the cellars have rats in them and wants to call in the ratcatchers, like Mrs Driver in The Borrowers (1952) – to the local police, who are on the lookout for a runaway whistleblower; from a conspiracy of unpleasant grown ups who belong to the ‘Spinners and Weavers Club’ – clearly a witch’s coven – to the sinister, barely-visible ‘Green Lantern people’ who infest the hills and fields around the Rectory. All these forces show a keen and unwelcome interest in the cellar and its occupant, while the stranger himself gets increasingly ill as the book goes on, his condition worsening despite the best efforts of Bruce, the eldest Jefferson, who plans to be a doctor or a vet when he grows up ‘Depending on which examination is the easiest’ (p. 9). The novel, in other words, mixes together elements from the Scottish Border Ballads, horror stories and spy thrillers (two of the people tracking Stephen are foreign agents who want to assassinate him for betraying state secrets), as well as children’s fantasy fiction of the sort popularized by Edith Nesbit in the 1900s. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over the narrative in the form of the cave, which was constructed as a shelter to protect the villagers from German flying bombs; while the atmosphere of paranoia generated by the search for the injured man, led as it is by policemen and assassins, locates the action in the decades-long stand-off between superpowers which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This modern political context competes for centre stage in the book with a legendary past embodied in the ‘old Roman Camp’ (a prehistoric barrow frequented by the Green Lantern people) and an ancient fairy hill which once stood where now the Rectory stands, and whose entrance may still be concealed in a wall of the cellar. This fusion of ancient and modern narratives, none of which is fully articulated – the Cold War is never mentioned, the words ‘fairy’ or ‘Sidhe’ (i.e. people of the hills) are never uttered – gives the whole story an air of uneasy mystery. At no stage are we offered a full explanation for what is happening in the narrative, or how the competing strands of it fit together, and this refusal to elucidate is what makes the book so strange, with a strangeness that speaks to the uneasy historical moment when it first saw print.
This is a crosshatch novel, in other words – to borrow John Clute’s term from the Encyclopaedia of Fantasy. The word was repurposed by China Miéville in The City and the City (2009) to describe districts claimed by two or more competing cultures or political authorities at the same time. As I’ve suggested, the first sort of crosshatching one can see in the novel is the literary variety. It’s indebted to a range of authors for specific elements in its make-up: Edith Nesbit for the first person narrative from the point of view of a child protagonist; C. S. Lewis for the rambling house where the children stay with an elderly scholar, the village Rector; John Buchan for the spy story element, which comes to the fore when the children are pursued through the night by a pair of grim-faced labourers, clearly assassins in disguise; and John Masefield for the Spinners and Weavers Club, led by the silky Mr Atkinson, which closely resembles the coven led by Abner Brown in The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). The crosshatching of time, meanwhile, in the novel – which fuses the unimaginably ancient with the historical and the modern – is foregrounded by the chronologically ambiguous spaces in which the action unfolds. The bomb shelter, for instance, keeps slipping between time periods in the children’s imagination as they approach and enter it. Julia is afraid to go in because it was constructed ‘ages back, and things might have come to live there since’ (p. 29). Andrew suggests that its inhabitants might be troglodytes or ‘cave-men’, and when Bruce claims that the shelter could have made quite a pleasant modern refuge if well stocked with ‘oil-stoves and […] people’, his brother points out that ‘the cave-men would have lit huge fires and roasted bears for their dinner’ (p. 31), and speculates that the person hiding there might be a ‘left-over cave-man […] drawing bison on the wall’ (p. 31). For the youngest Jefferson, Deirdre, the location has an emotional and supernatural resonance rather than a historical one, as the place where ‘Sad people’ come when they need to cry (p. 30). The strange young man they find in an inner chamber of this shelter resembles by turns a Dickensian ‘escaped convict’ (p. 36), a ‘hunted Cavalier, or a Jacobite in hiding’ (p. 37) – like someone from the work of Captain Marryat or Buchan – and a supernatural being, when he gives a laugh ‘of the sort a ghost would make, if it wasn’t trying to be frightening’ (p. 40). The liminal status of the cave perfectly suits the liminal status of the young man hiding in it, who is stranded between different ideologies (as we deduce later), different countries, and different realms of possibility – that is, between the everyday, the world of espionage and the supernatural, the last of these being in the end the only space available to him as a means of escape from his predicament. He is also caught between the living and the dead, since his younger sister (we later learn) is dead – killed in a car crash – yet he keeps mistaking Deirdre for her. This explains his status as simultaneously one of the ‘Sad people’, who make their way to the cave as a place of mourning, and a kind of ghost suspended between a lost past and an impossible future. Neither healthily stable nor unquestionably doomed to imminent termination, his life is precarious, and might be cut short at any moment either at the hands of the various enemies who are looking for him or by the fever that takes hold as his injury worsens. The fever is a perfect metaphor for his precarious situation and unstable identity, and it worsens as that precariousness and instability grow more intense.
Crosshatched spaces like the cave keep cropping up throughout the novel. There is the cellar of the title, the ‘dark and cobwebbed underworld’ (p. 7) where the children act out games across time and space – Boadicea against the Romans, King Solomon’s Mines, the Babes in the Wood, representing history, adventure romance and fairy tale respectively, all blended and blurred together in the subterranean twilight – and where they later hide the young man, Stephen. The cellar occupies the space where once there was a hill – ‘It was supposed to be a magic one, with sort of people living inside it, and things’ (p. 86) – which was then dug out to make a sandpit and afterwards leveled to provide foundations for the Rectory, that pillar of the eighteenth-century establishment. In former times the cellar served as a storage place for horse’s harness, sacks, wine and other necessities, but by the time the children find it there is nothing left there of any value apart from abandoned odds and ends they use in their games. The nearby village is another liminal space, divided between very old houses like the chemist’s, ‘with its beams showing among the narrow, pink bricks’ (p. 137), and new buildings like the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe, which is a crude pastiche of an older structure: ‘This building also had beams showing, but they were quite new, and rather obvious as they were stained black against the white-washed wall of the front’ (p. 140). The fakeness of the Tea-Shoppe means the children don’t ‘care for it’ much, and also makes it the ideal meeting place for the Spinners and Weavers Club, whose harmless hobbies serve as a front for their machinations against the fugitive, Stephen. A third crosshatched place is the Roman Camp or mound, which is equally associated with the practical Romans and the elusive Green Lantern people. This is a ‘hump like a gigantic mole-hill’ (p. 163), under which the youngest Jefferson is imprisoned at one point by its supernatural occupants, and where the members of the Spinners and Weavers Club converge to barter with the three older Jefferson children for her release. The mound’s joint connection with the Romans and the ahistorical fairies is rendered confusing by the actions of the Spinners and Weavers as they gather round it. As the eldest Jefferson, Bruce, points out, his younger sister ‘said they wove circles and spells. I knew nothing about spells… who does? […] But these people were certainly weaving circles’. The link between magical and physical weaving sets the boy’s thoughts ‘whirling’ or spinning in his head (p. 167), making it hard to focus on the problem of how to win back his imprisoned sister from the mound that impossibly contains her. Is rational thought or a spell the appropriate instrument for her salvation – or should one try a combination of the two? Crossing a Cold War thriller with a fairy story makes the answer uncertain, especially for Bruce, who does not believe in fairies, yet finds himself faced with what seems incontrovertible evidence that they have stolen away his sister.
The solution to Bruce’s dilemma comes from an unexpected quarter: a pair of young and irritating children, Robin and Karen Meddings, who inhabit the most radically crosshatched building in the village. If the Jeffersons find the Home Made Cake and Tea-Shoppe repulsive for its fakery, the Old Forge is more repulsive still, as Bruce explains:
It’s all got up with wrought-iron gates, and lanterns, plaster doves on the roof, and… believe it or not… a plaster deer on the lawn! […] Where the blacksmith used to have his furnace, they have an anvil standing in the fireplace. And the room is packed to bursting with warming-pans, and horse-brasses, and candlesticks wired for electric light, and a wheel hung from the ceiling for more electric light. It’s like a tea-shoppe. We were only asked in once. Julia says we shouldn’t have laughed. Honestly, we didn’t do it loudly, I thought. (p. 23)
The Meddings children who live in this mocked-up Forge are, for Bruce, as fake as their home’s interior décor. They are always simpering and deferring to one another, behaviour that conceals the fact that they are no more angelic at heart than ‘normal’ children like the Jeffersons:
It’s not as though they really meant it. They only do this act when anyone’s watching. I saw Robin once snatch a sweet from his sister, just as she was putting it in her mouth. And she screamed and kicked him. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was normal. Then they saw me, and started bowing and smirking to each other sickeningly. They may grow out of it. (p. 24)
Bruce’s distaste for the Meddings children’s hypocrisy, as he sees it, makes him treat them ‘’orribly’ (as Robin puts it) whenever he meets them. At one point Robin and Karen have the misfortune to show up at a point when tensions are at their highest – with the cellar under siege by its enemies – and Bruce lets off steam with a fierce tirade against the youngsters as if they embodied all the sinister forces ranged against him in one small package: ‘“Silly brats!” I shouted at them. “Dotty idiots! Showing-off asses! Don’t stand there staring, in front of your silly house. ‘Old Forge’, indeed! It’s an old forgery!’ (p. 135). On this occasion Bruce only succeeds in upsetting his own siblings as well as the Meddingses, making it one of his many moments of physical and social clumsiness in the narrative. Indeed, his resentment of the Meddings children may well stem from the fact that they seem at ease in an adult social context which he finds completely unfathomable, and which he is always failing to negotiate owing to the difficulty he has in concealing his feelings or finding words to convey his meaning.
At the same time, his association of Robin and Karen with Stephen’s enemies is hardly surprising, since all of them are adepts in the art of concealment. Not only does the Spinners and Weavers Club meet in a Tea Shoppe that closely resembles the Old Forge in its faux-medieval aesthetic, but the Spinners and Weavers themselves are past masters in the art of interweaving truth and falsehood, just like the Meddings children as Bruce sees them. When Bruce meets the Club’s leader, for instance – Mr Atkinson – he at once gets caught up in a complex web of lies and half-truths. Yes, Mr Atkinson is an old university ‘friend’ of the Rector’s, as he claims, but the word ‘friend’ is a misnomer, since the Rector later confesses ‘I didn’t like him very much’ (p. 90). Yes, Mr Atkinson has been given permission to sketch in the parish church, but he can’t be sketching a ‘crusader’s tomb’, as he insists (p. 82), because there isn’t one. The old man keeps addressing Bruce as ‘little boy’, which is both true and false, since Bruce is indeed young, but has no conception of himself as ‘little’ and so feels humiliated by the description. And Bruce does indeed have a ‘secret’, as Mr Atkinson insinuates (p. 81) – he is hiding Stephen – but the old man has secrets too, and the lie about the crusader’s tomb suggests that he will not willingly part with them. The same mixture of truth and falsehood characterizes the other members of the Club. The woman in the chemist’s shop, for instance, is really the sister of the chemist, as she claims, but she is also as ‘nasty’ as he is nice, and seems all too eager to weigh the Jeffersons ‘on a long hook’ – a metaphor with a potentially ‘gruesome double meaning’ (p. 139) – and to supply them with her own home-made and possibly lethal ‘tonic’ in place of their usual medicine. One member of the Club at the Tea Shoppe has her hair dyed blue as if in token of her fakery, while another has ‘what looked to me like a hundred huge false teeth’ (pp. 140-1), and owns a dog that may well be a wolf. In addition, the members of the Club are somehow linked to the ‘so-called labourers’ working at the church (p. 141). Their motives in tracking down Stephen are unclear, but the unclearness itself is of a piece with the disparity between their semi-respectable, everyday appearances and the obvious malice of their hidden agenda.
The whole world through which the Jeffersons move is in fact packed with menacing double meanings and false appearances. This leads Bruce a number of times into mistaking friends as enemies: Old Stanley the poacher, for instance, whom he identifies at first as one of Stephen’s pursuers (p. 63) but later finds to be a useful ally against them; or Lady Ariadne Hodgson, whose deep voice and unfriendly appearance make the children think of her as a ‘witch’ (p. 126), but who makes peace with them by giving them a box of toffees, which she cannot eat herself because of her false teeth (so that she too is revealed as a confusing mixture of the fake and the authentic). Robin and Karen Meddings, too, are transformed into friends from their initial status as diminutive enemies. Yet like Old Stanley and Lady Ariadne, the Meddings kids retain their dual nature as a fusion of the true and the false, the real and the imagined, and their transformation could be said to entail a belated recognition on the part of the Jeffersons that they themselves inhabit a context composed in equal parts of dreams and logic, facts and falsehoods.
The transformation of the Meddingses takes place on the night when Deirdre, the youngest of the Jeffersons, gets imprisoned in the crosshatched space of the Roman mound. Taunted by Deirdre’s captors (the Green Lantern people) and their allies (the old men and women of the Spinners and Weavers Club), the three older Jeffersons find themselves on the verge of surrendering Stephen to his pursuers in exchange for the little girl’s safety. At this precise moment they hear footsteps approaching through the darkness, which make the Spinners and Weavers vanish. Bruce at once seeks a ‘reason’ for the coven’s disappearance, and his sister Julia suggests that the footsteps may belong to that embodiment of authenticity and ordinariness, the housekeeper Old Mim. Instead they belong to the Meddings children, embodiments of middle-class ‘forgery’, who are walking up the hill holding hands in the ‘phony’ way Bruce finds so disgusting, and carrying a gift he thinks irrelevant: ‘a big, and very rusty horse-shoe, all covered with mud’ (p. 169). All three of the older Jeffersons, frantic with worry, unite to shoo these kids away and reject their gift; but they are wrong to do so, as Robin insists. The horseshoe is physical proof that the Old Forge and its inhabitants are not in fact the products of fakeness:
‘It’s one the blacksmith made […] We dug it up in the garden this afternoon, when we were planting a chocolate. In our garden. So ’tisn’t all forgery and that, either! This is proper iron, what a proper blacksmith made.’ (p. 169)
The horseshoe shows that the Old Forge is a ‘proper place where a proper blacksmith made proper iron and things’; the name of the house has a meaning just as authentic as that of the Rectory where the children are staying. And the gift is authentically useful to the Jeffersons. Being made of iron and twisted into the familiar U of the horseshoe, with its age-old connotations of protection and good luck, it proves highly effective in the bewildering nocturnal world in which the siblings find themselves stranded. Andrew Jefferson suddenly has the idea of embedding it in the mound as a kind of padlock, thereby imprisoning Deirdre’s gaolers – who like other members of the fairy community cannot pass cold iron – and enabling Andrew to demand his sister’s release in exchange for their freedom. Like the Meddingses themselves, whose presence drove away the Spinners and Weavers, the Meddingses’ gift subdues the powers of Deirdre’s captors, confirming the younger children’s participation in the Jeffersons’ adventures, despite all of Bruce’s attempts to keep them at arm’s length and to claim that the supernatural events going on all round him have a perfectly rational explanation.
In the process, the enduring presence of magic underneath the Sussex landscape is confirmed – the resistance of its ancient charms to all the rapid changes of recent decades. The disused shelter, the forgotten cellar, the Roman mound, even the gnome-ridden garden of the Old Forge each retain an active link to still potent traces of the past, despite the patina of newness that covers them. Indeed, the shelter and the Old Forge could be described as acts of homage to the past, an acknowledgment of its continuing potency framed in terms of the kitsch and the obsolete. The Forge’s plaster gnomes have an ambiguously ‘real’ equivalent in the living gnomes mentioned at one point by Bruce’s younger sister: ‘Deirdre said she didn’t mind gnomes, but she didn’t like the lantern-men who’d gone over the hills, looking and looking’ (p. 65). And as the supernatural hunters and seekers converge on Stephen’s hiding place in the cellar, ‘looking and looking’, Bruce’s desperate efforts to keep things rational prove increasingly ineffective, until he is forced to enlist the Meddingses in the struggle against Stephen’s enemies. After all, Robin and Karen come from a background that freely accommodates the impossible: gnomes and fairies, magic rituals, the resurgence of the past, the power of cold iron. Their parents are ‘artistic’, despite their affection for warming-pans and horse-brasses: the mother is a TV scriptwriter, the father an actor, and both are therefore adult participants in the same imaginative games enjoyed by the Rectory children (p. 22). And the Meddings children themselves mean well, despite their mannerisms and the intrusiveness of their efforts to win the approval of the Jeffersons.
Meaning, in fact, is a central theme of Gray’s novel; in particular, the way meanings change in different contexts. This theme is pointed up by a stylistic quirk of the first person narrative voice, which is that of Bruce, the oldest of the Jefferson siblings. The Jeffersons could be said to inhabit a crosshatched space of their own, whose function in the narrative shifts repeatedly in response to changing situations, and who therefore provide an ideal vehicle for thinking about the complex process of making meaning in the 1960s. Their surname, as I mentioned earlier, recalls the ‘professional name’ of Gray’s good friend Joan Jefferson Farjeon, which she adopted to underline her descent from a celebrated dynasty of American actors. The Jefferson children, too, are inveterate actors, transforming the cellar they find into a private stage sealed off from the rest of the Rectory by a symbolic curtain. Their days are passed in a blend of the imagined and the real quite as complicated as anything they encounter in the outside world, and for them the cellar embodies that potent mixture, changing its significance with each new game they play, from the heathland of Ancient Britain to a fairy tale forest to King Solomon’s mines, depending on which of them is in charge of their activities. Bruce’s voice as narrator mimics the voice of Oswald Bastable, narrator of Edith Nesbit’s The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. Like Oswald, Bruce is an eldest brother with multiple siblings, though Gray adjusts the number to take account of the diminishing size of the average family in the 1960s. Where Oswald is one of six, Bruce is one of only four – two boys, two girls – and is older than his twin sister Julia by just half an hour, which suggests another adjustment in terms of equality between the sexes (although he draws heavily on his male privilege to assume the role of ‘masterful leader’ on most occasions). The characters of these four children are carefully differentiated: Julia is the aspiring novelist with the novelist’s capacity for imaginative empathy; her younger brother Andrew is a passionate reader of non-fiction and decidedly ‘clever’, though imaginative too, as his trick with the horseshoe shows; while five-year-old Deirdre, saddled with a name from Irish mythology, is inevitably a seer, inclined to imagine ‘too much’, as we learn towards the end of the story (p. 200), and vulnerable as a result to the machinations of the Green Lantern people she alone can visualize with absolute clarity.
Bruce, meanwhile, is a literalist, or so he claims. He keeps insisting he has no imagination – although he willingly joins in with his siblings’ games – and his ambition to become a doctor underlines his concern with the practical needs of the mind and body. His literalism expresses itself in his prose style, which is full of comic clarifications aimed at removing ambiguity from his declarations, but managing only to draw attention to the sometimes bizarre alternative constructions that could be put on his words. From the beginning to the end of the narrative he works to elucidate his meaning, repeatedly using the phrase ‘I mean’ whenever he thinks a word or phrase may be ambiguous: ‘The cellar ran all about under the Rectory. It hadn’t been used for years. The cellar, I mean’ (p. 7); ‘we dropped it… the book, I mean… and it got trodden in with the cider’ (p. 12); ‘This turned out to control the milking-machine, in some obscure way. The switch, I mean’ (p. 14); ‘We’d found some candle-ends in a tin box down there. In the cellar, I mean. […] I took a box of matches from the bathroom, leaving twopence in its place. Just for a start, that was. The matches, I mean’ (p. 17). In most cases here the clarifying phrase ‘I mean’ serves to point up the chaotic situations the children get themselves into: the book of instructions for making cider getting mixed up with the cider itself, the confusion over the function of the switch for the milking-machine, the complex self-justification rendered necessary by an act of minor theft from the Rectory’s stores. Their activities defy all Bruce’s attempts to reduce them to grammatical and rational order – to bring the uncontrollable, so to speak, under verbal control.
In the same way, the eldest Jefferson is always seeking to find rational explanations for things, assigning new, mundane meanings to them as new evidence emerges, but invariably reaching a point where conventional reasoning fails to account for what’s going on. When strange lights begin to appear in the cellar – Deirdre says they come from the gates of the fairy hill – his reasoning becomes fragmented and frantic: ‘There had to be a reasonable explanation for it all. Otherwise one might be forced to believe in Spoilers, and witches, and suchlike. Which was impossible. So there must be the explanation. The trouble was, I couldn’t think of one’ (p. 105). The bewildering events at the Roman mound challenge his logic still further. As the children make their way home after rescuing Deirdre, Bruce observes that ‘No one said any more about the lantern-men for the time being. To my great relief, as I could think of very little to say that made any sense’ (p. 174). Barred from the belief in the impossible that his three siblings increasingly share, his sense of incomprehension grows until the final chapter, ‘The Gate’, when the entrance to the fairy hill is finally opened in the cellar. Here all three of his siblings are able to see that something magical is taking place, but Bruce cannot, since he has been vouchsafed only transient glimpses of the supernatural throughout the narrative. To the end of the story he continues to insist that ‘It was all imagination’ (p. 197) despite the accumulation of evidence to the contrary. When his brother Andrew tells him ‘The cellar’s full of sunlight’, he can only answer: ‘Well, it wasn’t. Not that I could see’, and add: ‘I felt for a moment that I was going mad, rather than the others’. This from the boy who observed in the opening chapter that he might need to become a ‘brain specialist’ to take account of the imaginative eccentricities of his two youngest siblings, who may both be ‘mad’ (p. 9). In the final chapter, in fact, he recognizes that it may be his own senses that are faulty rather than theirs: ‘If I was really the only one who had seen nothing special, then perhaps I was duller than the rest… which was sad, but quite possible’ (p. 196). In the course of the story the boundaries of the possible have grown permeable, and Bruce’s certainty about his position – as rationalist, as the eldest and as the most ‘masterful’ member of his family (p. 62) – has been shaken to the roots.
The shaking of Bruce’s rationalism is in fact quite literal; he is constantly getting knocks on the head in the course of his adventures, rendering him temporarily disoriented and subject to visual disturbances. His first encounter with the cellar is a violent one: suspended upside down inside a cupboard, he is pushed by Andrew, falls (presumably on his head) and rolls down ‘about ten steps’ into the hidden room. Later the children set up a booby-trap to deter unwelcome visitors, and Bruce promptly forgets it is there, falling down the stairs a second time and being hit on the head with a broom (again by Andrew) at the bottom (‘Things went rather dim for a while’, he comments wryly, p.99). Later still, in a neighbour’s barn, Bruce bangs his head ‘so hard on a beam that it rang like a bell. My head, I mean’ (p. 149); and when the Spinners and Weavers Club converge on the children by the Roman mound he trips over a hummock and falls flat on his face, which prompts Mr Atkinson to comment: ‘Poor little boy […] it’s bumped its poor head, and now it’s all muddled’ (p. 165). This adds to Bruce’s difficulties in distinguishing between the real and the illusory: ‘My head was spinning. I suppose I’d banged it just once too often that night. Even now I can’t be quite sure how much of all this really happened, and how much I imagined. I may have been dreaming, though I was not asleep’ (p. 165). In response to all these knocks, the inside of Bruce’s head becomes a crosshatched space, its contents muddled to the extent that memories can no longer be disentangled from waking dreams.
At the same time, the distinction between the imagined and the real, the dreamed and the remembered, keeps getting blurred even outside Bruce’s head as the book goes on. For one thing, the children’s games keep turning real. Deirdre is constantly telling adults about their clandestine adventures, and although she is never believed – her stories are variously described as ‘horrible inventions’ (p. 160) and wild ‘fantasies’ (p. 175) – her elder siblings are always on tenterhooks in case she lets slip something too believable about the all-too-material runaway Stephen. At one point, seeking to distract their enemies’ attention from the cellar where Stephen is hiding, the children pack a suitcase full of fake medical supplies and set out across country, drawing the two fake labourers after them towards a neighbouring farm. Here the classic children’s game of doctors and nurses becomes a component part of a genuine crisis: the Jeffersons are in fact genuinely tending to a sick fugitive, and only the location of the man and the supplies they carry are illusions. The Roman mound is the focus of a real adventure when Deirdre is trapped underneath it, but it’s also a reminder of the games the children played in the cellar earlier, which involved Romans and Britons, with Bruce inevitably playing a rational Roman while Julia stood in for the impetuous British queen, Boadicea. Not long afterwards the stuff of games is repurposed again as the children prepare to repel Stephen’s massed ‘enemies’ from the cellar. The dustbin-lids and rusty scythe-blades they used as Roman and British weapons in Chapter 2 get recalled and reused in Chapter 13, when Bruce describes them as ‘the weapons of happier days’ and adds forlornly, ‘We didn’t really think they would be much use’ (p. 192). The horseshoe brought to them by the Meddings children changes from an element in a game – Robin and Karen were burying a chocolate when they found it – into a key part of Deirdre’s rescue from the mound. Later the Jeffersons recall the power of cold iron when pondering ways to protect the Rectory, placing iron objects in all the windows and doors to repel the Lantern people. Repeatedly, objects and concepts that were first given new meaning by their involvement in imagined scenarios acquire a serious, even urgent function in the decidedly unplayful context of the hunt for and defence of the fugitive.
As the process of ‘realising’ the imaginary goes on, both of the older Jefferson siblings, Bruce and Julia, feel increasingly stressed by the mounting complexity of the situation. This is one of the ways Gray’s novel differs from some analogous work by his contemporaries, such as Alan Garner’s debut novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which was published the year before. In that book, the child protagonists Colin and Susan are left more or less unscathed by their adventures. The svart alfar or Dark Elves, the terrible journey through the mines, even the death of their friend, the dwarf Durathror, at the hands of the Morrigan – none of these incidents seems to have got much emotional purchase on their psychologies (though the psychological effects of mixing with magic get much more intense in Garner’s later novels). Down in the Cellar, by contrast, leaves one with the sense that Bruce’s mental health, and that of his twin sister, is genuinely suffering as they struggle to manage a state of affairs that would have challenged the psychological equilibrium of any adult. Bruce’s fierce diatribe against the Meddings children is a symptom of this mental stress, which reaches its climax when he bursts into tears under interrogation by the Chief Constable, Mr Wheatley, who has come in person to lead the search for the missing man. ‘Everyone was amazed,’ Bruce says at this point, ‘including me. But I couldn’t help it, it just happened’; and in response, the police and his family members ‘stared at me in horror, while I stood with my mouth open, and tears running into it, hiccupping and sobbing for breath’ (p. 186). Yet Bruce’s siblings mistake this torrent of emotion for a cunning ruse, another bit of playacting designed to disrupt Mr Wheatley’s investigations. Afterwards Andrew asks admiringly, ‘How on earth did you do it? They were real tears!’, and Julia admits ‘I didn’t honestly think Bruce had it in him’; while Bruce himself decides to say no more about ‘the reasons for my break-down’ (p. 187). One good reason for this reticence, perhaps, is that his breakdown springs from the breakdown of reason itself; first, in that his own reasons for protecting the fugitive may not stand up to police scrutiny, and secondly because the events since Stephen entered their lives have been so confusing. Bruce’s outburst is allowed to stand for what his siblings think it: another game that has suddenly been saddled with a serious purpose.
One could read Gray’s novel as what’s glibly called a ‘coming-of-age’ story, as if children grew to adulthood at some definable moment in their lives, or as if maturity itself were something stable. The book suggests instead that the process is complicated, since responsibility emerges from within the context of childhood play, while play and serious adult concerns have the same ingredients. But there’s something else that might be read into Gray’s narrative of transition. Bruce’s isolation at the end, as the only unimaginative Jefferson, is intensified by the fact that he alone of the four siblings is blessed or cursed with the ability to remember Stephen and all they went through to hide and defend him. The three younger children are asked to forget the strange young man by the Lady of the Hill, as she leads him away through the hidden gates to her underground kingdom. The least imaginative Jefferson, Bruce, is left with a memory of Stephen’s face, now indistinguishable from a private dream since none of his siblings shares it. By the final page of the novel the two youngest children have already switched their attention to other things: Deirdre declares that when she gets older she may marry Robin, the older Meddings child, while Andrew adds: ‘Come to that, I may decide to marry Karen’ (p. 203). Bruce, by contrast, recalls specific details of Stephen’s appearance: ‘I remembered Uncle’s old dressing-gown that Stephen had taken with him. And the heap of chalk-stained clothes he’d left behind’ (p. 203). For Bruce, in fact, Stephen himself is always physically interesting, indeed attractive, as well as mysterious. When he first sees the fugitive he describes him as ‘a handsome sort of person, though unshaven and grimy, and all smeared with chalk’ (p. 35). Later on, when tending to him in the cellar, Bruce thinks that Stephen may be complimenting him on his own appearance: ‘How kind you are, and how beautiful’, the sick man murmurs (p. 109), and the startled Stephen thinks to himself, ‘I hoped I was fairly kind, but no one would describe me as more than average good-looking’. On another occasion Bruce is struck for a second time by the stranger’s good looks; now he has grown a beard, he observes, ‘He looked like an actor in Shakespeare or something. Actually, it suited him. It was rather romantic. As he was asleep and couldn’t hear, I said this to Andrew. And he agreed’ (p. 180). Bruce seeks reassurance from his brother that his perception of Stephen’s appearance is accurate, and duly records that his brother agrees, as if to exonerate himself from the charge of paying too much attention to what a man looks like. Then towards the end, when the Hill-Lady finally comes to take Stephen to safety, Bruce is still more impressed by the young man’s beauty: ‘He was much handsomer than anyone we’d imagined from stories’ (p. 200). Stephen, in other words, has drifted in Bruce’s mind from being a figure out of fiction, to the author or actor of fictions, to a real, live human being, whose face is better than anything he could have conjured up in his childhood imaginings. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that the young man’s departure has such an acute effect on Gray’s narrator. As Stephen limps out of the underground room where the siblings have tended him, ‘A sort of grief came over me in a wave’, Bruce tells us (p. 200), and Stephen stops and looks at him as if in response. What Stephen says at this point is an observation that might well have come from a man addressing a young male admirer on parting, at a time in history when same-sex desire was effectively outlawed. ‘You mustn’t mind, Bruce,’ he tells him; ‘It’s not easy to see a thing through, when you aren’t sure what it is you’re seeing’. In the 50s and early 60s same-sex desire might well be something a growing child could not be certain he was seeing or feeling, a state of mind that was wholly unacknowledged in his education or family life. As he passes from the cellar into the hill, Stephen leaves Bruce with a story he can never tell in full, at least with any expectation of understanding, a story he does not fully understand himself, and part of that story may well be what first attracted him to Stephen. Gray’s fairy tale, in other words – like the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde and Hans Christian Andersen, four of which provided themes for plays by Gray – could stand in for the experience of first discovering yourself to be gay in early adolescence.
Gray’s other fiction lends support to this reading. His first short story collection, for instance – Mainly in Moonlight (1965) – is full of stories of young men who are rejected by their communities and find a new place for themselves in an all-male household. The first story, ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentices’, involves a boy called Martin rescuing another boy called Avenel and bringing him back to live with him in the house of his male teacher, Alain. ‘The Hunting of the Dragon’ involves another rescue of a boy by another boy, after which the rescuer, Prince Michael, feels comfortable with his own identity for the first time in his life. ‘According to Tradition’ tells of a pair of princely brothers the younger of whom ends up as the married king of his country, while the elder chooses to defy tradition and go live with the fairies – led by a handsome witch-king – because he ‘could never be at home’ living by the conventions of ‘mortal men’ (p. 104). ‘The Lady’s Quest’ tells of a prince who hates the convention that only men are allowed to embark on dangerous quests. His sister Alexa tells him that ‘you would make a better girl than I do’, he tells one of his father’s soldiers that his men are ‘lovely’ (p. 119), and his best friend Gregory is ‘not quite at home in the company of ladies’ (p. 125). The story culminates with the two young men being rescued by Alexa, and though Gray hints that both have become fascinated by the women they have met in the course of their adventures, there is no indication that either boy intends to do more with this new interest than learn at last ‘to be at ease in the company of ladies’ (p. 129). Very few of Gray’s fairy tales end in marriage; many are about young men who feel deeply out of place in the world they were born into. In one of the most poignant stories, ‘The Star Beast’, an intelligent creature of uncertain gender from another world – its hands are ‘slender, long-fingered, with the fine nails of a girl’, its body ‘like that of a boy – a half-grown lad – though it was as tall as a man’ (p. 71) – is mistreated until it starts to behave like what it has been called by all the people it meets: an abused animal. Both Bruce and Stephen of Down in the Cellar fit easily into this collection of displaced boys and men.
The novel ends with Bruce hearing a sound in the cellar that reminds him of some lines from the Scottish Border Ballad Tam Lin: ‘About the mid-hour of the night / They heard the bridles ring’ (p. 203). The sound, so clearly out of place under the Rectory, offers one final confirmation that it was indeed the ‘Hill-Lady’ who took Stephen into the hill before erasing all memory of him from those who saw him, apart from Bruce. The displacement of the ballad from Scotland to the Sussex Downs, alongside the displacement of the sound from the open air to an enclosed cellar, emphasizes the theme of displacement that runs through the novel; and this displacement is invoked by a number of references to Scotland throughout – from Bruce’s name, which invokes the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce, or Andrew’s, which he shares with Scotland’s patron saint (Deirdre’s name, by contrast, is Irish), to Julie’s observation to the police that the fugitive ‘is probably in the north of Scotland by this time’ (p. 78). The children themselves are displaced, in that they are outsiders from London in a Sussex village, while their parents are on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand. Stephen comes from an unnamed country where a different language is spoken; he can clearly never go back there, and as the novel goes on it becomes clear that there is also no place for him in England. For most of his life Gray was a Scot in England, and the cultural crosshatching he practises in Down in the Cellar, as well as the sense of alienation that fills it, may well have been deeply familiar to him.
As a version of Tam Lin, Gray’s novel does not run ‘According to Tradition’ any more than his other fairy tales tend to. The handsome Tam Lin had to be rescued from the fairy queen to save him from the fate of serving as a human sacrifice to Hell – the famous fairy ‘teind’. The rescue involved great courage on the part of his earthly lover, Janet, who clung to him as he changed shape into a variety of wild animals, as well as a burning coal and a naked man, never letting go until the spell that bound him was finally broken. One of the stories in Mainly in Moonlight, ‘A Letter to My Love’, culminates in an ordeal very like Janet’s, where a young woman clings to the body of a man in need of rescue as it changes from lizard to woodlouse, from slug to lump of ice (pp. 68-69). Stephen, by contrast, must be given over to the Hill-Lady if he is to survive. ‘Poor Bruce’ must let go of him instead of clinging on, give him up instead of winning him, and can expect ‘no sort of reward’ for all his struggles on the stranger’s behalf, all the mental and physical pain he has undergone for him. Tam Lin in all its versions is about a difficult romance, from Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock (1984) to Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (1991) and Sally Prue’s Cold Tom (2002). Romance is the lifeblood of the story, and Bruce’s sense of loss at the close of the novel – the ‘sort of grief’ that ‘came over me in a wave’ (p. 200)– suggests an emerging awareness that he is being bereaved of the romance that he identified with Stephen from the moment of his discovery in a disused cave.
Among other things, Down in the Cellar is a story about finding that the mind is a strange and complex organ, and about how words, places, communities and relationships participate in its complexity. In it, the imaginative and the rational exist in partnership, memory and fantasy cohabit, new desires transform the world, the body affects the mind and the mind the body, while the lightness of games is always giving way to the heavy weight of responsibility, which in turn reveals an unsuspected affinity with childhood play. It’s a fine example of the way fantasy for children responds to the particular challenges of political and social history. And it’s an argument in itself, I think, for reprinting Gray’s fiction for children.
 Gray’s other illustrators included Joan Jefferson Farjeon, Charles W Stewart (who also worked in theatre design), Charles Keeping and himself.
If you really want to immerse yourself in fantasy Brussels, you can’t do better than read its comics, and above all the work of Schuiten and Peeters. You should discover, if you can, not just the Cités obscures series but their many side-projects too, which include exhibitions designed to create the illusion that there are portals, openings or passages between our world and certain parallel universes, of which the ‘Continent obscure’ is the most complex and best known. The Continent is a kind of alternative Europe, permanently devoted, it seems, to the architecture and technology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Interestingly the Continent seems to exclude any version of Britain, as if Schuiten and Peeters were already anticipating Brexit from the moment they started the Obscure project in the early 80s. But if London, Birmingham and Edinburgh are absent from their parallel universe, the place is simply teeming with versions of Brussels: from the art nouveau monster-city Samaris in the first volume of the series, which draws unsuspecting travellers inside its walls to feed on their personalities like a vast carnivorous plant, to the City of Urbicande, which gets taken over by a three-dimensional grid of giant poles or girders, made up of ever-expanding cubes which eventually construct a kind of pyramid over the city, like the pyramid Poelaert wanted to build on the highest point of his Palais de Justice. The buildings of Samaris are no more than frail facades, which invokes the ‘façade retention’ technique of Brusselisation, while the network of Urbicande can be read as a working model of a faceless bureaucracy that has failed to tailor itself to the needs of actual urban environments – the Brexiteer’s version of the European Union. But the growing grid can also be seen as liberating, since it constantly forms new passages between one place and another as it grows, temporarily connecting the prosperous south bank of the city to the impoverished north bank in defiance of the wishes of the totalitarian city council. There are, in other words, at least two perspectives on it, just as there are on the EU’s vision of a unified Europe.
La Tour is set in a version of Pieter Breughel’s two famous paintings of the Tower of Babel – a structure so vast that it may never be completed, where maintenance workers live like parasites in desolate forgotten corners of the building, striving to preserve them against the decay that is setting in before the process of construction has come to an end. Breughel painted his Tower in Antwerp but died in Brussels, where the bulk of his greatest masterpieces were executed. Brüsel concerns itself with the difficulties of the owner of a flower-shop, Constant Abeels, as he struggles to relaunch his business at a time when the City of Brüsel is itself being restructured on an epic scale in response to constantly changing instructions from a corrupt developer, Freddy de Vrouw. Meanwhile the city is falling prey to Kafkaesque bureaucracy – which makes one suspect a punning reference to Terry Gilliam’s great dystopic assault on bureaucracy, Brazil, in the album’s title – as well as a rising tide of polluted water, the very element which the city planners aimed to suppress by paving over the river Senne. As love letters to the European capital, these two albums are as fascinated by its failings as by the overweening vision that continues to test its resources to the limit, and to lift the hearts and minds of its devotees.
Another work, La musée Desombres – comprising a booklet and CD, which I haven’t yet managed to get hold of – is about a museum in our own world whose exhibits look like ordinary paintings by the artist Augustin Desombres, but actually serve as passages to the Continent. The way these passages work is explained in the album L’enfant penchée, one of whose plotlines features Desombres making his way from his dilapidated studio-museum in northern France to the Obscure universe, where he becomes the lover of Mary von Rathen. There’s nothing particularly Brussels-like about the Desombres story apart from the notion that a museum could serve as a conduit between alternative universes, which is surely what the citizens of Brussels believe, else why devote so much money, thought and time to their construction? As the series unfolds it becomes clear that many such conduits or passages exist, and that this may explain the significant overlaps between the culture of the Continent and our own. It may be the resemblances between architecturally unique structures on both worlds that make them suitable to serve as passages. Given their anachronistic purposes, museum buildings are particularly complex and resonant examples of urban architecture, which is presumably why a museum-rich environment like Brussels has so many parallels in the world of Brüsel.
Indeed, there is something akin to a museum in the organization of several albums in the series. Many Franco-Belgian BDs privilege the writer rather than the artist, in that the writer produces the story and the artist illustrates it. With the Cités obscures, by contrast, it’s often the pictures that come first, with the writer producing narratives in response to the artist’s images, much as a museum curator produces a verbal narrative to forge a coherent relationship between objects that have ended up side by side in the museum building, often through historical accident rather than design. Some of the most effective albums in the series were developed this way. L’archiviste started out as a projected collection of posters to be published by Casterman for sale on an individual basis. Converted into an album, it became an account of research carried out by an isolated archivist, perhaps in our world, into a random set of images pertaining to the world of Urbicande and Samaris. This transforms the poster series into a kind of two-dimensional display cabinet, its contents curated by the archivist as he struggles to make sense of the images and compile a report on them for his superiors. Le guide des Cités masquerades as a Lonely Planet-style guidebook to Schuiten and Peeters’s parallel universe, its accounts of the societies, structures and notable personages to be found there helping to supplement the stories told in more conventional albums. It began as a pair of articles for a literary magazine, Les saisons, but ended up as a full-scale Baedeker, transforming the cities it describes into an open-air museum to be rambled through by imaginative tourists. Souvenirs de l’éternel présent is based on Schuiten’s sketches for a planned movie to be directed by Raoul Servais in the 1980s, while La route d’Armilia started life in a commission to create a comic in Danish containing representations of an Obscure version of Copenhagen, which had to be finished in time for the opening of an exhibition of Schuiten and Peeters’s work in the Danish capital. The album also incorporates images from other projects, including posters for a glazier, a watchmaker and a Wagner festival. The constraints imposed on these narratives by the initial circumstances of their production means that they are full of startling unexplained images. A woman clinging desperately to her vacuum cleaner as she dangles over an unfathomable gulf in Brüsel (is she really the star of a commercial, as one witness claims, or is she in deadly danger, as her expression leads us to believe?). Four explorers approaching a shining crystalline mountain (‘Qui peuvent-ils être? Que cherchent-ils?’), with a garden enclosed in a natural glasshouse at the summit. A city full of towers, the tops of which morph into baroque sculptures of naked men and women, their anatomies pierced by windows much as the monumental woman in Salvador Dali’s ‘The Burning Giraffe’ is pierced by drawers. An empty artist’s studio with no artist in it, full of paintings whose central images have been ripped from the canvas by some violent censor. Decontextualized, as unattached to any narrative as an anonymous artwork given to a gallery or an ancient artefact of unknown provenance found in the storerooms of a museum, each of these images exists in a kind of suspension or limbo, available to be read and reread in any way that suits the reader. The subjects of these pictures – buildings, vehicles, machines – have lost all connection to the conditions under which they were fabricated or the purpose for which they were first intended by their makers, and they share this lack of context with many buildings in modern cities, which get repurposed – like the Horta buildings in Brussels – or awkwardly juxtaposed with newer buildings. We must invent our own narratives to account for such juxtapositions, just as Peeters must invent a narrative in each album to account for the wayward juxtapositions in Schuiten’s pictures. The reader’s efforts at supplementary storytelling may be assisted by seemingly authoritative handbooks, like Le guide des Cités, or newspaper articles as in the album L’Echo des Cités – which is made up of pages from the most significant inter-urban news outlet of the Continent – or history books, like the forbidden volume found by the child Aimé in Souvenirs de l’éternel présent, which describes the cataclysm that reduced the City of Taxandria to the graveyard of architectural fragments it has become. But guidebooks, articles and history must in turn be augmented or given life by the imaginations of their diverse readers, which invariably run aslant to one another, since they were formed in response to different pressures and conflicting desires.
One of Schuiten and Peeters’s recurring protagonists, Mary von Rathen, encapsulates this obliqueness or perversity in our various responses to the worlds we encounter. At eleven years old, Mary is struck down by a mysterious ailment after a fairground ride, a condition that leaves her walking at a permanent angle to the ground, 45 degrees aslant from the upright that governs every other person’s posture on the planet. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that she is in fact subject to the gravitational pull of a different planet or sphere, and it takes the rest of the album to restore her to a sense of equilibrium within her native world, the Continent. As a result of this ailment Mary becomes an attraction in a circus: Laetitia the tightrope walker, whose balancing skills are rendered astonishing by the 45 degree angle at which she perches on her cable. Fundamentally at odds with her fellow human beings, dismissed by nearly every adult she encounters as a troublemaker, freak or fraud, her personality quickly becomes as perverse as her posture; after all, she is a young girl in a patriarchal culture modelled on the Europe of the fin-de-siècle, and it’s only by contradicting everyone she meets that she is able to pursue her desired trajectory towards an explanation and perhaps a solution to her gravitational problem. Aided and abetted by fellow marginals and outcasts – the journalist Stanislas Sainclair, who as a dwarf has only with difficulty escaped being branded as a ‘freak’, like Mary herself; the aged inventor-scientist Axel Wappendorp, whose real achievements don’t prevent many of his countrymen from dismissing him as a madman; the artist Augustin Desombres, whose paintings are responsible for upsetting the equilibrium of the Continent as a whole, and of Mary in particular, by forging imaginative connections between his native Europe and the parallel world she lives in – Mary eventually recovers her balance, and grows up to be a famous visionary and activist, briefly restoring social, economic and political stability to the industrial city of Mylos where she was born. A slant perspective here becomes the basis for non-violent revolutionary action, and Mary joins the ranks of enigmatic women who have provided the radical counterbalance to bureaucratic authoritarianism since the beginning of the series: Sophie in La fièvre d’Urbicande, Milena in La Tour, Tina Tonero in Brüsel, Hella in La route d’Armilia, Minna in L’ombre d’un homme and all the rest. All of these rebellious women are outsiders in the quasi-imperialist architectural fantasies of the Continent, invariably reduced to symbols, tools or erotic objects by the men who meet them, or banished completely from the city streets, as happens in Taxandria. Mary and her sisters confirm that one person’s Paradise is another’s Inferno, a saying that could apply just as well to the unified Europe of the European Union as to the fragmented alternative Europe of Alaxis, Xhystos and Pâhry.
One album in the series strikes me as saying something especially pertinent to Brexit, invoking as it does the symbiotic relationship between the underlying problems and visionary possibilities of a united Europe. Superficially, La route d’Armilia tells a simple story. A young boy is entrusted with the formidable task of carrying a crucial ‘formula’ to the City of Armilia at the North Pole. Without this formula the Continent is out of balance in some fundamental way: weather conditions are getting more extreme, communications systems are breaking down, compasses are going haywire and those who rely on them are getting hopelessly lost as a result. The formula must be carried as quickly as possible to the North Pole using the fastest conveyance in existence – an airship or zeppelin – in order that the machine there that governs the planet’s equilibrium may be recalibrated and order restored. The airship’s mission is not too urgent, however, to permit the occasional digression on the way. As it traverses the north-west corner of the Continent from its starting point in Mylos to København, and from there across the Arctic wastes to its destination, the airship’s captain is prepared to turn aside from time to time to offer help to a stranded vehicle, or to allow his passengers a better view of the cities over which they pass. The journey provides, in fact, a rich mixture of adventures and wonder, like the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne on which it is modelled: from the discovery in the hull of a young stowaway called Hella, who becomes the boy’s fast friend, to an encounter with a giant land-cruiser, which has lost its way owing to the disruption of its instruments by the problem at Armilia; from an outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel just as the zeppelin is passing overhead, to the loss of the document containing the precious formula, and foul weather in Polar regions – again produced (it seems) by the problem at Armilia – which smothers the zeppelin in ice from stem to stern and almost causes it to crash. Through portholes in the cabin the two children watch in awe as the Obscure Cities glide majestically by, their hypertrophied buildings dwarfing the dirigible, which steers between them as between the peaks of the Himalayas. Its progress is described through the diary of Ferdinand, the boy, and records his rising panic as he realises, after losing the document containing the formula, that he cannot recall the words of the formula itself. Hella, meanwhile, boosts his confidence with sound advice and unflagging cheerfulness, as enthused by every wonder on the journey as Ferdinand himself. The improbable climax of their trip is a hurried visit to København, where the quirkily beautiful towers of real-life Copenhagen have been expanded to many times their actual size and number, and where the famous Tivoli gardens are dominated by a roller-coaster twice the height of the highest buildings in New York. On the way there, they pass over Bayreuth – a city whose streets empty themselves completely whenever an opera is performed – and Brüsel, whose buildings make the skyscrapers of Chicago look like toys. This is Europe as a scattering of upwardly mobile city states, multiple polders whose swarms of flying machines inspired by the inventions of the fin-de-siècle artist Albert Robida. Between these urban centres the landscape is more North American than European, with desert dominating the territory between Mylos and Muhka, forests and mountains between Brüsel and København, and icy waters and mountains north of that. There is little agriculture in sight – apart from a field full of sheep at the aerodrome where the airship commences its journey – and no connecting roads or railways. The Continent here is exclusively devoted to adventure and wonder, with no space in it that doesn’t do service to these two urges.
In fact, the single-minded dedication of the Continent to the fulfilment of Ferdinand’s adolescent fantasies begins to look increasingly suspicious as we read on. When the airship first takes off, the boy expresses the hope that the sheep he can see from the porthole, which are utterly unfazed by the silent rise of the giant dirigible, will not set the tone for the rest of the voyage: ‘J’espérais un peu plus de sensations. Pourvu que ce voyage ne soit pas trop tranquille!’ (p. 7). Sure enough, pleasing or frightening things happen at every stage, as if in response to the premonition he expresses shortly afterwards: ‘Ah, comme je sens que ce voyage va me plaire’ (p. 11). In fact, Laroute d’Armilia makes no secret of its own artificial nature. The pages of Ferdinand’s journal are penned in a neat italic script, with hand-drawn images carefully arranged around them for maximum decorative effect and emotional impact. It is embellished with attractive motifs: the tiny circular sections of map that announce the airship’s arrival in each new city – Porentruy, Muhka, Calvani, Genova; the narrow strips of landscape-drawing that occur on almost every page. A brief study of these strips confirms that they’re frequently repeated. One image of a desert landscape appears many times between pp. 7 and 25, an image of forested hills recurs between pp. 28 and 45, while a single picture of icy mountains and waters shows up again and again between p. 47 and the final page. The repeated images are, of course, a neat way of suggesting that the zeppelin is moving across vast geographical spaces, but they also suggest a certain lack of interest in minor details of the Continent, perhaps even an ignorance of them on the part of the journal’s author. What matters to Ferdinand are the highlights of his voyage, which occur with remarkable frequency. He visits three cities, for instance, in just one day, the 27th May, and makes no comment at all on what he sees between them. It’s as if the map of the journey provided on p. 10 has been compressed in certain places to ensure a regular provision of excitement en route to the North Pole.
Other aspects of the narrative reinforce the impression that things are being arranged for Ferdinand’s benefit. The girl Hella, for instance, shows up very early in the journey as if in response to a child’s desire for someone his own age with whom to share his enthusiasms. There seem to be no other passengers on the airship, no supervising adult to help the boy discharge his crucial duty of delivering the formula. Like the young protagonists of many children’s adventure stories, Ferdinand is unencumbered by parents, having been entrusted with his mission by an absent ‘uncle’ who seems to have absolute faith in his nephew’s capacities. Smaller details are even more strikingly arranged for Ferdinand’s convenience. He has bunk beds in his cabin, for instance – as we learn on p. 46 – as if the captain has anticipated from the start the need for a second child to be berthed alongside Ferdinand, in the kind of bed young people like best. The menu on p. 11, which illustrates ‘les nourritures délicieuses’ served in the airship’s dining room, is decidedly childish: chicken and chips for the main course, three different kinds of dessert – including chocolate cake and banana split – while the only drinks available are ‘Colibri Orange’ and ‘Zeppo Cola’. Tasty meals continue to provide significant highlights in Ferdinand’s account until the final page, when he and Hella are showered by the grateful inhabitants of Armilia with ‘nourritures merveilleuses et […] machines inconnues’, as if it were Christmas. Meanwhile there is a strong element of play about the journey. When Ferdinand loses the document containing the formula and seeks to dredge up its contents from the depths of his memory, every new phrase he comes up with reads like a crossword clue, a riddle or a piece of nonsense: ‘LE SINISTRE ARLEQUIN MANGE TOUS LES MIDIS UNE TONNE DE LIMAÇONS’; ‘TAQUINE TANTE ADÈLE SOUS LE LIT DU MAÇON’; ‘MIDI VIENT DE SONNER: CHARLES QUINT DANS LA TENTE A LIMÉ SON MINISTRE’; while the formula itself, once retrieved, sounds just as playfully inconsequential as these alternatives (‘À QUINTE LA SINISTRE, À MIDI LA DÉTENTE, SONNE LE LIMAÇON’, pp. 59-60). The very notion of entrusting the formula to a child suggests a playfulness about the airship adventure which is radically at odds with its apparent significance for the safety of the Continent.
At the same time, there are darker elements to the story, hints that some sinister force may be at work to foil Ferdinand’s mission – as suggested by the presence of the word ‘sinistre’ in two versions of the formula. Early on, the boy’s sleep is disturbed by a nightmare in which the hull of the dirigible opens up to reveal an armillary sphere (pp. 12-13): a representation of the workings of time in space which occurs many times in Schuiten’s artwork, and on which the City of Armilia seems to be modelled, as we learn when the expedition finally reaches its destination. In the boy’s nightmare, the many circles and rings around the sphere in the zeppelin’s hull revolve with ‘une folle energie’, as Ferdinand calls it. All at once they grind to a halt, unleashing a flurry of sheets of paper: ‘On aurait dit les pages d’un livre s’ils n’avaient été entièrement blanches’. The sheets quickly cover the sphere, turning it white, and Ferdinand wakes up drenched in sweat as if half smothered by the paper avalanche. Next day he finds the stowaway Hella cowering in the hull of the airship, where the sphere hung in his nightmare. She tells him she has escaped from the factory in Mylos where the canvas that covers the hull was fabricated, and Ferdinand is horrified to learn that the airship was constructed with child labour (‘Quoi? Une enfant de votre âge employée dans les fabriques[!]’, p. 17). He takes her to his heart at once as a fellow sufferer from bad dreams: ‘votre cauchemar est terminée,’ he tells her, ‘Désormais, vous êtes mon invitée à bord de cet appareil’ (p. 17). But later the connection between Hella and nightmares gets reasserted, when after another restless night (‘J’ai mal dormi’, p. 24), he is suddenly struck by the idea that the stowaway might be a spy, employed by some unknown enemy ‘pour me ravir la formule’. In a panic he conceals the document containing the formula in the hull of the ship – the third item so far to be hidden there. Not long afterwards Hella accuses him of mistrusting her, and to prove her wrong he hurries to fetch the document from its hiding place; but to his horror it has disappeared. Ferdinand starts to reassure his friend that he can remember the formula in any case, having learned it by heart; but ‘les mots, soudain, se sont étranglés dans ma gorge’ (p. 35), as he realises he has forgotten it completely. This is a cue for further nightmares:
La nuit, les mots se sont mis à danser dans ma tête comme des farfadets malfaisants. Ils couraient en tous sens, sautaient, grimaçaient, ricanaient; ils glissaient comme des ombres, échangeaient leurs habits, se cachaient sous des masques (p. 37).
The sense of play that dominates the journal is here transformed into a piece of carnivalesque puppet theatre staged by some demonic descendant of the Belgian puppet-master Toone. For the first time the heroic adventure of which Ferdinand has made himself hero begins to look as if it might end badly, the smooth arc of its trajectory disrupted by the malicious twirling of sinister marionettes.
At this point the significance of those blank pages in the zeppelin’s hull gets a little clearer. If the boy’s memory remains a blank, the whole journey he is recording becomes futile, its purpose lost, and he might as well stop writing. From now on, nightmares begin to invade the children’s waking hours. As the zeppelin enters Arctic regions, Ferdinand and Hella are aroused from sleep when the vessel suddenly tilts in a gust of wind, unbalanced by the weight of ice that covers it. Later the boy’s efforts to recall the formula wake him a second time, startling everyone with his shouts, and he is forced to pretend that he has had ‘un simple cauchemar’ (p. 51). As conditions in the cabin deteriorate, hunger, cold and lack of sleep ensure that these ‘simple’ nightmares spread to other members of the expedition in the form of mirages: the steward thinks he can see horsemen on the icepack below the vessel, the helmsman thinks they are flying over a desert. Alternative narratives threaten to disrupt the story of Ferdinand’s mission, until by the end of the journey the blank pages from his nightmare could stand for the possibility of writing anything on the blank pages of the world, since there is no structure to the universe, however strenuously one might struggle to impose an imaginative shape on its shapelessness, coherent rules on its primordial chaos. By this stage the constant disruptions to the airship’s voyage seem to enact the disruption of the Continent by the breakdown of the Armilian machine.
Yet in the album’s final pages all these nightmares and metaphysical torments get swept aside in a few swift strokes. On arrival at Armilia, Ferdinand is about to confess the loss of the formula to the city’s chief scientist, Professor Pym, when Hella suddenly hands the boy the missing document and he is able to read it aloud to Pym as his uncle intended. Hella later explains that she purloined the document as a ‘blague’ or joke, because she found Ferdinand too serious, too confident that he alone could save Armilia and the world. By concealing the paper from him she has made the journey a true collaboration between them; by restoring it she has reinstated playfulness as the mission’s dominant mode. Hella’s action confirms what Ferdinand once suspected – that she is not to be trusted; but it also identifies her as the perfect playmate, a trickster who performs practical jokes on her friend to ensure that his journey is everything he wsihes it to be, full of incident, danger and difficulty as well as of wonder. The potential complexity of the boy’s conspiracy theory has been rendered childishly ‘simple’, which is how Hella describes the motivation for her joke; the sinister has been rendered amusing. And when Ferdinand begins to complain about Hella’s behaviour, the girl closes the album by shouting another version of the formula, this time a clarion call to replace what is sinister with ringing laughter: ‘QUITTE CET AIR SINISTRE! DIS, L’AMI, DÉTENDS-TOI ET RIONS SANS FAÇON!’ In doing so she identifies herself as a bearer of her own formula, which celebrates the triumph of play over the rigidity of proverbs, inflexible rules and rote learning. Indeed, her playful philosophy seems to be shared by the Obscure Continent itself, since Professor Pym has to imaginatively decode the riddling formula delivered to him by Ferdinand before it can be used to fix the damaged mechanism of Armilia (p. 60). Her trick on Ferdinand is entirely in the spirit of the universe he seeks to save – at least in the journal’s version of that universe – which suggests that she herself is in some sense the formula he needs to restore its equilibrium.
By the time this happens, however, the album’s readers are well aware that the playful plot in which Hella plays a part masks another, grimmer plot from which she is excluded, and which runs parallel to Ferdinand’s adventures in the airship. This second narrative is delivered in a style much closer to that of the conventional BD: a series of panels designed to be read from left to right, with dialogue conveyed in speech bubbles (there are no speech bubbles in Ferdinand’s journal). It kicks off in the first two pages of the album, where a pair of factory inspectors walk through a titanic industrial complex talking about a recent downturn in productivity, and promising to trace the source of the downturn as soon as possible. Ferdinand’s journal begins on p. 7 – effectively the third page of the album – with no indication as to how it might relate to the men’s discussion. From time to time, however, a return to the visual style of the opening pages reminds us of the unfinished factory plotline. At the bottom of p. 23, for instance, three consecutive panels show us a child in a strange kind of helmet, who is drawing a sketch of the land cruiser encountered by Ferdinand in the six previous pages. Who is the child in the helmet, we ask ourselves, and how does he know about the other boy’s mission? On p. 42, two more panels with speech bubbles show the factory inspectors for a second time: one of them says he has finally found the source of the downturn, while reaching for a handle fixed to the lid of a metal pod. These two panels interrupt Ferdinand’s narrative, cutting across the middle of a page of his journal, but they are quickly swept aside by the magnificent vista of København as viewed from the airship that takes up the opposite page, and then forgotten in the whirl of exciting events that follows. All at once Ferdinand announces in his journal that his adventures have been interrupted for a second time. ‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’ he writes, and then inexplicably, ‘Vite!’ (p. 53). Turning the page, the reader is confronted by the longest sequence of BD panels yet, all set in the factory. A speech bubble in the first panel announces ‘on le tient’ – ‘we’ve got him’. In the second we see the helmeted child from p. 23, crouching inside a metal pod whose lid has just been opened. The two inspectors glare down at him, pointing out to each other the cables he has disconnected to give himself light to read by. Scattered round him is a heap of books, and the inspectors express outrage at the thought of a worker reading fiction on company time. One inspector strikes the boy with one of the ‘bouquins’ (‘how do you like books now?’, he asks him viciously), then hurls the lot into a nearby furnace. At this point, the perspective of the panels opens out to show the boy as just one of a row of helmeted children in identical pods, each linked to the production line by a couple of cables at the back of his helmet. Under his helmet every child has additional cables embedded in his skull; we learn this on p. 54, when the boy’s helmet is knocked off by the book as it strikes his head. Disconnected from these cables the children will die, or so they believe: another child named Anton proudly explains as much when questioned by the inspectors. ‘Nous avons besoin des machines comme ils ont besoin de nous,’ he recites with a vacuous grin. ‘Si nous cessons de travailler, elles s’arrêtent et si elles s’arrêtent, nous mourons’ (p. 56). Anton, at least, remembers exactly what he has been taught by rote, trotting out the correct answer at the precise point in the other plotline when Ferdinand is most anxious about having forgotten his own instructions. And the words he parrots reflect a philosophy of work which is the polar opposite of the philosophy of play embodied by Hella in the journal.
At the same time, there are clear parallels between the factory plotline and Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia. In both plotlines something has gone wrong in the day-to-day functioning of a mechanised process: in the factory the production line has some sort of glitch, while the world itself is off kilter in the journal, due to the malfunction of a ‘machine inconnue’ based at the North Pole. Child workers are involved in both plotlines, with one child in each – Hella and the boy in the pod – showing a remarkable ability to imagine themselves into the positions of the moneyed classes to which they have presumably never had access. In both narratives a child forgets certain critical instructions: the rote lesson or the formula. And at the centre of both plotlines is the airship – though we have no way of knowing this in the factory plotline before the last few pages. In the final BD section we see the two inspectors walking away from the pods that house the child workers, congratulating each other on how they have handled the miscreant, the boy who reads (pp. 62-3). As the men leave the factory, the largest panel on p. 63 finally reveals what’s under construction there: an airship like the one in the journal. The inspectors agree that such a product ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’; and the exact nature of those sacrifices is visible all round them as they walk, in the rows of adult factory workers – skulls sprouting cables like the skulls of the children we saw earlier – whose withered faces testify to the premature aging brought on by lifelong imprisonment at their stations. Here is another link between the plotlines. Ferdinand’s journey to Armilia, too, involves certain sacrifices – the voluntary sacrifices of the romance hero, hunger, cold and fear – while the factory workers are unwilling sacrifices to industrialism, plugged into the production line without hope of release. Ferdinand’s adventure, in other words, touches on the workers’ lives in the factory at numerous points; but where the factory is a prison, the journal gives its child protagonist freedom and space, and where the factory workers seem wholly passive – and permanently alienated from the product of their labour, the zeppelin – the child protagonist has agency in abundance, and enjoys the dirigible as a privileged guest.
In fact, however, the factory workers are not wholly passive. One worker has acquired a degree of agency against all odds, and this agency suggests another link between the plotlines: their shared concern with secrecy and playfulness – or more precisely with the clandestine plot as a means of finding space for liberating play. Not long before we learn what the factory is making, we find out that the child worker who likes to read is also writing the journal, and that his name is Friedrich. His clandestine work of creation runs parallel with the factory’s production of luxury goods denied to workers like himself. And the inspectors never find this out; to the end of the book it remains a secret between the album’s reader and the writer-artist in his pod. As we’ve seen, just before the inspectors open the pod the word ‘Vite!’ appears in the journal, and we later deduce that this signals the moment when Friedrich conceals what he has been writing. As soon as the pod is closed again, the boy takes the unfinished journal from its hiding place and goes on writing. Ferdinand’s adventures, in other words, are permitted to continue, in defiance of Friedrich’s near exposure as a creative spirit – a young rival to the inventor Axel Wappendorp, or the authors whose books he owns. Between the opening and closing of his pod, Friedrich has made another involuntary sacrifice – his books have been burned; but his own manuscript survives unscathed, and as a result the dirigible can proceed on its way to Armilia, and the story of the formula can achieve a satisfactory ending. If Ferdinand was a hero, Friedrich is doubly so, for both resisting oppression and imaginatively conjuring up Ferdinand and Hella as his unfettered alter egos.
Friedrich’s secret writing activities provide one more point of contact between the factory narrative and the journal plotline, while also suggesting another interpretation of Ferdinand’s nightmare of the armillary sphere in the airship’s hull. The whole journal is composed under threat of discovery by the inspectors; so the writing process it involves is effectively a spy story, much like the one that has Hella as its heroine. And the blank pages that smothered the sphere represent the possibility that this writing process will be cut short before it’s complete; that its time line will be arrested, just as the movement of the sphere was stopped by the paper storm. Friedrich incorporates this fear into Ferdinand’s journal in the first words he writes after the burning of his printed books: ‘Après ces nouvelles épreuves, plus cruelles encore que les précédents, je retrouve ces notes que j’ai craint de ne jamais pouvoir reprendre’ (p. 58). At this point he mentions the various mirages suffered by the airship’s half-frozen crew, but he concludes by expressing hope that the story will achieve closure all the same: ‘Tous, nous sentons que nous allons bientôt toucher au but et ce sentiment nous redonne du courage’ (p. 58). And his optimism proves well founded. When Ferdinand’s story comes to an end, it marks Friedrich’s triumph over the inspectors, and the implication is that this triumph also comes at the cost of further glitches in production, since the inspectors have never succeeded in identifying the source of the downturn they mentioned at the beginning – his writing activities, in other words. The mission of Ferdinand and Hella, which he has invented, can be read as a parable of the liberating power of writing, and as such it serves as both a metaphorical and literal act of sabotage against the oppression of industrial capitalism.
Friedrich’s triumph through the completion of his writing project is anticipated at the very moment of the inspectors’ interruption of his creative labours. As the two men prepare to leave the factory building on p. 57, satisfied that they have terrorised the recalcitrant worker into submission, the BD format of the factory plotline finds itself invaded for the first time by the journal narrative. Just as Friedrich closes his pod – supposedly to resume his duties – a BD panel shows a narrow strip of cloudy sky. In the next panel Friedrich pulls out the journal from where it was hidden in his overalls, and in the next the airship appears among the clouds. Friedrich begins to write, and in the final panel at the bottom of the page the airship is nearer. By this time the implication is that the inspectors and the factory have been supplanted in Friedrich’s mind by Ferdinand’s mission. The reader presumes that the following page will continue the journey to Armilia, which is indeed what happens. And the same supplanting of the factory plotline by the plotline of the journal occurs in the last three pages of the album. On pp. 62-3, we see the inspectors leaving the factory, delighted by their success in putting Friedrich in his place. But on the final page – p. 64 – all restrictions on Friedrich’s imagination have been lifted. Not only has Armilia been repaired and the balance of the world recovered, but the airship has been refuelled and reequipped for the homeward journey, so that its young passengers, reconciled, can set off on new adventures unrecorded by any later albums in the Obscure series. The creative process, in other words, remains alive and fructifying at the end, unbounded by the factory structure, or the album’s two plots, or even the meticulous planning of Schuiten and Peeters. The possibilities available to it are as unconstrained as the imaginations that developed the ‘machines inconnues’ and the soaring buildings of the Obscure Continent, or the dreams of the reader after the reading process is over.
The trajectory of the album from constriction to liberation, from dictatorship to playfulness, can be traced in its visual representation of the sky. Entirely obscured by smoke in the opening pages, partly hidden by clouds in the BD strips on p. 57, by the final page it has been swept clear of clouds altogether, showing cloudlessly blue above the airship as the vessel takes off from the Arctic wastes with the Continent made freely available to its newly refurbished engines. In Ferdinand’s journal (Friedrich’s manuscript), weather conditions were at first affected by the dysfunction of the strange machine located at Armilia. The correction of this meteorological imbalance in Friedrich’s story would seem to involve the effective erasure of the factory that barred him, along with the rest of its workers, from sight of the sky, and the handing-over of the factory’s products to the wage-slaves who helped to shape them.
The crossovers between the two plotlines of La route d’Armilia invite us to ask another question. How far is Friedrich’s story, about Ferdinand’s journey to the North Pole, a work of fiction or a record of something that in some sense ‘really’ happened? The books Friedrich has in his pod, and from which he presumably derives inspiration for his own composition, represent a mixture of genres, from science fiction (Jules Verne’s Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras) to autobiography (Souvenirs d’un explorateur by the Polar adventurer Roald Amundsen), from fairy tale to Gothic short story (Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Karen Blixen’s Winter’s Tales). Odder still, all these books come from our world; even the works of fiction, in other words, are ‘real’, in the sense that they are not the products of Obscure authors. And one of the books is Brüsel, an album from the same series as La route d’Armilia. In the Continent, Brüsel is presumably a work of non-fiction, like Amundsen’s Souvenirs in our own universe. The books, then, could be seen either as evidence of the existence of passages between our world and the Continent, or as passages in themselves, allowing us access between one kind of ‘reality’ and another. Their presence in Friedrich’s pod is from one point of view an anomaly: how could a child worker have acquired them? How could he even have learned to read? But it is also evidence of the power of books throughout the Obscure series to crop up in places where they are least expected, and to have an impact well beyond what might be expected wherever they happen to crop up. The burning of the books by the inspectors, in other words, is no guarantee that they will cease to affect the environment into which they were impossibly introduced; and their continued presence is in fact implied by Friedrich’s continuing story. His character Ferdinand, after all, is named after two heroes of Jules Verne’s, the Arctic explorer Captain Hatteras and the aeronaut Robur from Robur the Conqueror (the boy’s full name is Ferdinand Robur Hatteras, p. 16) – just as the name of Ferdinand’s contact in Armilia, Pym, recalls the name of another fictional explorer from our world, Edgar Allan Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. The fiction found in Friedrich’s pod, in other words, continues to bear fruit, and attract new fiction to itself, after it is burned (Poe’s novel is not among the volumes mentioned by the inspectors when they confiscate Friedrich’s library). The mere existence of a book in one dimension makes it available, perhaps, in others. And this implies that Friedrich’s liberation through his writing – a work of fiction – may be in some sense, or some dimension, ‘real’.
Its reality is obliquely implied, in fact, by Schuiten’s artwork. On p. 23, where we first see Friedrich working on the journal, Schuiten shows us the boy’s sketch of the land cruiser designed by Axel Wappendorp, with the airship overhead. Both the land cruiser and the airship are crudely drawn, as one might expect from a child of Friedrich’s age, though the boy’s handwriting is identical to the hand we have been reading as we followed the journal. In the panel that shows Friedrich’s sketch we are also shown the illustration he is copying from an unnamed book, which shows the land cruiser almost exactly as Schuiten drew it on p. 19, except that the illustration is in black and white, whereas Schuiten’s picture is in colour. The panel that shows Friedrich working on the journal, in other words, suggests the existence of three or four different levels of ‘reality’ on which his story operates. On one level, there is Friedrich’s reality, in which the volume from which he copies his picture of the land cruiser offers him an accurate representation of a real machine designed by the real inventor Wappendorp. On the second level there is Friedrich’s invented narrative in the journal, which is presumably inspired by the books he has been reading. On the third level there is Schuiten and Peeters’s version of Friedrich’s work, which converts his childish images into a more ‘realistic’ style, while conserving the exact appearance and wording of his written script. All these levels of reality are equally real – or equally fictional – from the point of view of the album’s reader, though we might be inclined to privilege one level of reality as more ‘real’ than another within the fictional universe. But this privileging of one level of reality over another is called into question by the care Schuiten has taken to represent the boy’s story about the land cruiser in ‘realistic’ terms – far more realistic than the picture the boy draws in his pod. The implication would seem to be either that Schuiten is representing Ferdinand’s adventures as Friedrich visualises them, or that he is representing them the way they ‘really’ happened, as Friedrich cannot, owing to his youth and lack of technical expertise as an illustrator. If the latter is the case, then Friedrich is a visionary or medium rather than a novelist. Another possibility exists – that the boy has been copying out Ferdinand’s adventures from some historical account not mentioned by the inspectors – but this does not explain the overlaps between Ferdinand’s story and the story of Friedrich, especially the point when Ferdinand anticipates the arrival of the inspectors themselves (‘Mais que… Quel est ce bruit?’, p. 53). The whole album, in other words, continually plays with questions of what’s real and what is fabricated. And Schuiten and Peeters continue to play on these fine distinctions between fact and fiction, the real and the fantastic, in later volumes of the Obscure series, sometimes with specific reference to Ferdinand’s adventures.
In Le guide des Cités, for instance, the story of Ferdinand and Hella is implied to be a myth or a work of fiction which may or may not have some basis in fact. The tale presumably forms the basis of an opera mentioned under the entry for the composer Dieter Dennis/Didier Denis, Les enfants d’Armilia (p. 154). Meanwhile the entry for Armilia in a later edition of the guide mentions that there is some uncertainty among historians as to whether or not a boy named Ferdinand Hatteras was really responsible for correcting the malfunction of the Armilian machine at the time of the worldwide crisis it brought about. The latter entry seems to confirm that certain details La route d’Armilia are deemed to be ‘true’ in the archives of the Obscure universe: Armilia did, it seems, break down at one point, and the consequences of its malfunction affected the Continent in its entirety. The album L’archiviste, meanwhile, concerns itself with the way legends and myths of the kind that Ferdinand’s adventures represent can have material effects. The archivist’s official task in this book is to demonstrate once and for all that the Obscure Continent, whose existence is mentioned in numerous baffling references throughout his archives, properly belongs to the section he works in – the section devoted to myths and legends. In other words, the archivist has been instructed to prove that the Continent doesn’t exist. Instead he finds himself increasingly convinced that it is in some sense real, and says as much in his report, which results in his dismissal. The album ends with his clandestine return to his old office, where he sits waiting for what he knows will happen next: the arrival of representatives from the Continent to take him away to the place he now sees as his spiritual home. At this point the archivist has become one of the inhabitants of the Obscure Continent by virtue of being represented in one of the volumes of the series; he has been absorbed into the archive he was studying, just as Ferdinand is absorbed into the archives of the Continent after Freidrich has invented him and Schuiten has drawn him. Like La route d’Armilia, then, L’archiviste provides testimony to the potency of reading, writing and drawing in the Obscure universe; and this potency is confirmed in a number of other albums. In L’Echo des Cités, for example, a young orphan – younger even than Friedrich – mysteriously learns to read, and is inspired by a book to organize a pilgrimage of children from his orphanage to an inter-urban book fair, the City of Books, which takes place near Brüsel. The same album records the miraculous rescue of ‘Les naufragés du Battista’ – the castaways from the vessel Battista – by the appearance of a titanic library in the open ocean; here they are able to disembark and wait in safety for the arrival of a relief expedition from the Continent. The fact that this expedition is led by a fictional character from a book in our world – Michel Ardan, the protagonist of Verne’s novel De la Terre à la Lune (1865) – and that the castaways themselves are from a ship named after a legendary figure – Giovanni Battista, protagonist of La Tour – who is himself named after a historical Italian illustrator, Giovanni Battista Piranesi – illustrates the complex interplay between books and ‘real life’ that permeates these volumes. The situation is rendered more complex still by the fact that the newspaper in which these events are reported, L’Echo des Cités, has begun to acquire a reputation for inaccuracy by the time the reports appear. Its editor, Stanislas Sainclair, is said to be something of a fantasist, and his paper is eventually shut down to be replaced by a more reliable organ, edited by Michel Ardan, who supports his reportage with photographic evidence (Ardan himself is a celebrated photographer, formerly employed by Sainclair, who supplied snapshots both of the ‘naufragés du Battista’ and the titanic library where they fetched up). However, Ardan himself is a work of fiction, which leaves us back where we started. Is there no egress from this Borgesian labyrinth?
There is not, of course, and this is precisely the point of the Obscure series. Throughout the series, the question of what’s real and what’s fantastic is a question of power, and each album subjects the power of determining between them to playful questioning. The designation of certain things as fictional – as frauds, fabrications or distractions from the ‘real’ – is a way of asserting the authority of the designating parties. Calling Mary von Rathen a fraud because of her disability, which means she walks at a 45-degree angle to the ground, is a way to suppress her and dismiss what she represents: an anomaly that renders questionable all the assumptions of the Continent’s scientists and technicians and of the politicians who rely on their services. Dismissing Friedrich’s books as ‘saletés’ – filth – is a way to keep Friedrich and the other child workers in their places. Identifying Sainclair as a fantasist enables one to supplant his version of the world with something better tailored to the interests of rival editors, ambitious politicians, urban developers, or all three. Meanwhile, telling the stories of people like Mary von Rathen, Stanislas Sainclair, Constant Abeels, Friedrich, Hella and others whose narratives have been suppressed or sidelined is a means of fulfilling the remit of fantasy as Rosemary Jackson sees it: of expressing ‘the unsaid and the unseen of culture’, and identifying the ‘reality’ of the powerful as fundamentally fantastic. One might argue that every album in the Obscure series sets the fantasies of the authorities at odds with the fantasies of small-time rebels and resistance fighters, but this doesn’t adequately summarize the forces at work within them. A return to La route d’Armilia will help us to paint a more convincing picture.
Like every album in Les Cités obscures, La route d’Armilia involves a play-off between three opposed yet complementary forces – like three orbital paths around an armillary sphere – each of which is equally dependent on the technological and architectural resources of the Continent. The first force is that of the powerful, as embodied in the owners of the factory and their inspectors, who aim to take absolute control of these resources for their own exalted purposes. This in turn involves taking absolute control of the populace, shutting them in, setting them to work under rigidly constrained conditions, diminishing and anonymising them, terrorising them, and erasing anomalies from their ranks, such as Friedrich, the boy in the pod. For the exploiters other people are no more than puppets, suspended from cables rather than strings, and they justify their exploitation of these mindless automata by characterising themselves as visionaries, whose projects will bring enormous benefits, at least to the powerful, and therefore ‘mérite bien quelques sacrifices’ (p. 62), albeit on the part of the puppets, not themselves. Examples of these quasi-fascistic exploiters include the authoritarian members of the ‘Commission des hautes instances’ of Urbicande, the developer Freddy de Vrouw of Brüsel, and the nationalistic maréchal Radisic of Sodrovnie in La frontière invisible.
The second force at work in the Continent is made up of creative open minds, like those of the child worker Friedrich, the children of Armilia Ferdinand and Hella, the inventor Axel Wappendorf, the leaning girl Mary von Rathen, the flower seller Abeel Constants, the adventurer Michel Ardan, and the editor Stanislas Sainclair, whose dream is to present all the cities on the Continent to one another in all their strangeness and wayward glory. Dedicated to embracing a world which is out of kilter, adapting themselves to its ebb and flow through the qualities of balance, play and heavier-than-air flight, and concerned to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by all means possible, these creative minds delight in disruption even as they struggle to harness it for the widest possible benefit. Champions of liberty as against the tendency of their cultures to privilege coercion and confinement, anomalies are for them opportunities to exercise and expand their imaginations rather than impose their philosophies on the world by force majeur. These men, women and children, too, are visionaries, and for this reason they are susceptible to exploitation by unscrupulous visionaries of the first order discussed above. Freddy de Vrouw for a while takes Constant Abeels under his wing; Mary von Rathen finds herself controlled by a succession of men before taking her fate into her own hands; the brilliant ‘urbatecht’ Eugen Robick is an employee of Urbicande’s Commission before he breaks free of their oppressive influence; Axel Wappendorf depends on wealthy, unscrupulous officials and entrepreneurs to bring his inventions into existence, and so on. The figures who embody this second, creative force are not too effective as revolutionaries – although they regularly get caught up in revolutions and rebellions – but their receptive delight in the properties of the strange world they inhabit sets them frequently at odds with the capitalist, industrial and military masters of the Cities they live in.
The third force at work in the Continent is the most interesting: it’s the force of spontaneous change, as represented by the disruption of time and weather brought about by the broken machine at Armilia, the unexplained outbreak of vegetation in Brüsel, the dreams and nightmares that plague the passengers and crew of the airship as they approach the North Pole. In every album some similar crisis occurs, a phenomenon that has no bearing on the plots of the powerful or the projects of lonely visionaries or rabble-rousing radicals – a change of rules that alters the nature of the particular urban polder in which it takes place. The growth of the network or grid of Urbicande has no human source or explanation. The rise of the waters of the Senne in Brüsel defies all the efforts of the powerful to suppress it, while it both disrupts and abets the machinations of insurrectionists and visionaries. A sudden outbreak of stones and sand in the Brüsel of La théorie du grain de sable is as unsettling for Mary von Rathen and Constant Abeels as for the city authorities (the difference being that Mary, Constant and their friends learn to embrace the disruption where the authorities strive against it). Each of these crises emphasizes the autonomy of the Obscure Cities themselves, as organic phenomena whose sheer scale and ambition overwhelms every attempt to take control of them, while at the same time spurring the puniest of human beings into herculean struggles to respond appropriately – with respect and courage and imaginative ardour – to their unparalleled size and beauty. The European Union is something like this: a project that began with a dream of economic cooperation, which would encourage cooperation on political, philosophical and artistic levels, and ended by developing into an organic entity (no longer a project) which cannot finally be contained, controlled or properly measured, and may indeed be all the stronger and more delightful for this loss of containment, control and measure; a dream that sometimes morphs into a vision or a nightmare; an architect’s model that reduces human beings to tiny, semi-translucent sketches, yet liberates them to think in terms of vast, navigable spaces and endless journeys, their very tininess and translucency capable of extending their capabilities beyond all previous limitations.
The United Kingdom has shut itself off from this mysterious and absurd region of possibilities, transforming itself into a magically fenced-off polder that resists the playful to-and-fro that characterized its relationships with other European polders between 1973 and 2020. But passages exist that will bring us back to the games we used to play with them, either through the workings of our imaginations or in some other way we might consider more ‘real’. We can look for these passages in Brussels, city of comics, museums, fantasists and migrants. We can send for others via the internet, in the form of the albums of Schuiten and Peeters. Or we can dream them up for ourselves, and playfully open new passages to Brüsel, Mylos and Armilia from the precarious safety of our own front rooms. And after those passages have been opened, who knows what new friendships and imaginative networks might be formed?
 Accounts of some of these exhibitions can be found in the volume Voyages en Utopie (see list below).
 The appendices of my edition of La fièvre d’Urbicande (see list below) offer a range of further readings, none of them comprehensive.
 It’s also inspired by the architectural engravings of Piranesi, as was made clear by the exhibition ‘Rêves de pierres’ in Villeneuve-sur-Lot in 1999 and later in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, between October 2000 and the end of January 2001. See Voyages en Utopie, p. 25.
 This is a point made by Thierry Groensteen in his article ‘La Légende des Cités’, on the website dedicated to the Cités obscures, Alta Plana. Groensteen points out that some albums in the Obscure series bear a closer resemblance to a ‘catalogue muséographique’ than to a conventional BD. https://www.altaplana.be/en/dossiers/neuviemeart/la-legende-des-cites
 AT NOON EACH DAY THE SINISTER HARLEQUIN EATS A TON OF LIMAÇONS; TEASING AUNT ADÈLE UNDER THE BUILDER’S BED; THE CLOCK HAS STRUCK MIDDAY: CHARLES THE FIFTH HAS FILED HIS MINISTER IN HIS TENT; SINISTER AT THE FIFTH POSITION, A TRUCE AT NOON, SOUND THE LIMAÇON.