[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.
As the UK bids farewell to the European Union I find my thoughts turning to fantasy on the European continent, and in particular to the most fantastic city on that continent, Brussels. This is a kind of polder in Belgium, as John Clute defined the word in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Derived from the Old Dutch term for ‘a tract of low-lying land reclaimed from a body of water and generally surrounded by dykes’, Clute takes ‘polder’ to mean an ‘enclave […] of toughened Reality, demarcated by boundaries from the surrounding world’. The boundaries need to be maintained by powerful magic wielded by some figure who recognises the need to keep them in place. ‘A polder, in other words,’ Clute sums up, ‘is an active Microcosm, armed against the potential Wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. There could hardly be a better word for Brussels, in its capacity either as imaginary capital of Europe – set up to oppose the Wrongness of totalitarianism, corruption and international conflict – or as a cultural centre, protector of artistic innovators and eccentrics from Pieter Brueghel the Elder to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Horta and Magritte. The figure maintaining the integrity of Brussels through magic remains obscure, but the magic is there for sure, as well as the notion of the city as a focus of anachronisms, a meeting place between multiple strands of history and the very modern social and economic problems it works haltingly to resolve.
Brussels is a linguistic as well as a cultural polder: a French-speaking capital city stranded in the middle of Flemish-speaking territory. Different rules apply here. Spatially it’s confusing, with its jumble of ancient, decrepit, out-of-date, modernist, postmodern and ultra-modern buildings, many of them highly eccentric, all locked inside a labyrinth of streets, both cobbled and tarmacked, to which no map provides an adequate key. It’s here that the Belgian Revolution started in 1830, the only political coup ever to have been triggered in an opera house. The work that got it going, La muette de Portici (‘The Mute Girl of Portici’), by Daniel Auber and Germain Delavigne – whose lead, bizarrely for an opera, is a voiceless woman performed by a dancer – is often described as the first Grand Opera, and the people of Brussels were so inspired by it that they rose against their Dutch oppressors and established the Kingdom of Belgium as an independent state in emulation of its central characters. The eccentricity that transformed Grand Opera into Revolution continues to mark the people of Brussels to this day, and a quick glance around the city will confirm its omnipresence there, embodied in the bizarre architectural structures and peculiar statues with which it is so well stocked.
Its eccentricity is also embodied in the extraordinary diversity of strange museums in the capital. There is no other city in the world that has half so many museums per capita (that’s a claim I’ve just invented, but I bet it’s true). From the Museum of Beer to the Museums of Freemasonry, Jazz, Chocolate, Clocks, Trams, Musical Instruments, Lace, and Fantastic Art, each of these institutions embodies an obsession, and many are housed in buildings which are themselves museum pieces (the Museum of Musical Instruments is a great example). The monumental Musée des Beaux-Arts near the royal palace, with its unparalleled collection of Flemish masters, was immortalised in an Auden poem [link]; he summed it up as the place where Icarus can be found, the boy who fell from the sky while everyone else went quietly about their business. That’s exactly what you’d expect to happen in Brussels. The city has been an artistic as well as a commercial centre for many centuries, providing a generous home for movements such as Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Expressionism and Surrealism, and between them the museums testify to the sheer oddness of the creative gestures the Bruxellois have found most congenial. Some museums also testify to its violent past: the Museum of Central Africa, for instance, full of traces of the Belgian atrocities in the Congo which underpin Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in the Parc du Cinquentenaire, which when I last saw it was crammed with German helmets from the Second World War with bullet holes in them, mute reminders of the importance of the project of a unified Europe. Perhaps the strangest of the museums is the Wiertz Museum, dedicated to a painter of vast lurid pictures which he left to the state on condition they be displayed for ever in his majestic studio. Wiertz’s subjects include the body of Patroclus being torn apart as the Trojans and Greeks fight over it, a cholera victim who has been accidentally buried alive clawing his way out of his coffin, a half-naked man blowing his brains out with a pistol, and a young woman smirking at an undead skeleton. There is hope that Wiertz himself might one day become a museum exhibit; his body was embalmed according to Egyptian custom and stored safely in an underground vault.
I came to know Brussels in the early 1970s when my father went to work there as an official in the European Commission. He lived in a high rise just down the road from the Berlaymont building, many storeys above the street and accessible only by a small lift or many flights of narrow stairs; when he moved there, the larger items of furniture he owned had to be hauled in through the sitting room window. The kitchen of this flat had a chute with a metal flap on it through which you could post your rubbish, which went crashing down from storey to storey till it came to rest in a noxious refuse bin in the subterranean basement. If you visited the basement to take out rubbish that didn’t fit in the chute you had to dare the automatic lights, which turned off after several seconds leaving you stranded in the dark; you then had to grope your way to one of the switches, which glowed like the eyes of Morlocks in the George Pal movie of The Time Machine, and activate the lights again – for a few seconds, until they switched themselves off and plunged you once more in abysmal darkness. When we children stayed with my father we went to the Berlaymont every weekday for lunch, being introduced to such typically Belgian delicacies as ‘filet américain’ (a plateful of raw mince) and roast chicory wrapped in ham and doused in a thick cheese sauce. There were no Brussels sprouts in Brussels back in those days, which broke my father’s heart because he loved them more than any other vegetable; just chicory in unimaginable quantities. The most remarkable thing about the Berlaymont canteen in the 1970s was that it was the only place in the country where you could get a truly terrible meal. On special occasions we would go out to a proper restaurant such as Chez Léon, near the celebrated Grand Place or central square, to eat moules frites – mussels with chips – which is the Belgian national dish, the shellfish in question being doused in every kind of sauce you can possibly imagine and many you can’t. You can’t talk about Brussels, in fact, without talking about food and drink. The food there is as various and eccentric as the architecture, and somehow perfectly adapted to it, as full of curlicues and flourishes as the Maison du Roi in the Grand Place: a confection of Gothic revival balconies and images which houses the Brussels City Museum and is also known as the Broodhuis or Bread Hall, though it looks more like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake than a conventional loaf of bread. You see? Food and buildings exist in a symbiotic relationship chez les Belges.
On successive stays in Brussels I fell in love with some of the city’s bizarrer architectural manifestations, such as the futuristic Atomium (1958), constructed in the shape of an iron crystal – and extremely dilapidated when I first visited it – and Joseph Poelart’s Palais de Justice (1866-1883), the largest building constructed in the nineteenth century, which is essentially a monstrous portico with no rooms attached to it (though there are some very impressive staircases both inside and out). Some claim that Orson Welles wanted to shoot his version of Kafka’s The Trial among its halls and corridors, while Poelart himself is said to have gone mad while building it – just as the architect of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum is said to have been driven to distraction by the discovery that his masterpiece had been constructed back to front, throwing himself off one of the building’s many towers in a fit of pique. At an early age I also became aware of the practice of ‘Brusselization’, which involves buying fine old buildings and allowing them to decay until they are completely irreparable, then tearing them down and building something hideous in their place. When I first went to Brussels the city was full of these carefully neglected ruins, which lent the streets an air of melancholy, as if some calamitous architectural disease were eating away at its vital organs. The effect was enhanced by the mania for preserving historical façades while tearing down the buildings they once fronted. The many ornate frontages with nothing behind them except scaffolding and gaping brick-fringed holes in the Belgian soil added to the impression that Brussels was a kind of conspiracy, a front for something deeply suspicious and possibly inhuman which was working towards the universal destruction of mankind.
Conspiracy theories like to portray human beings as helpless sentient puppets manipulated by monstrous unseen hands; and Brussels has a hidden gem ideally suited to the tastes of inveterate seekers-out of Rosicrucian plots and anarchistic machinations. This is the Toone puppet theatre, a tiny, shadowy cave tucked away in an inner courtyard off one of the narrow medieval streets that worm the vicinity of the Grand Place. The theatre doubles as a bar draped with superannuated puppets, like corpses in a painting by the manic Belgian etcher and painter James Ensor. It has been in existence since its foundation by Antoine ‘Toone’ Genty in about 1830. Disturbingly, all the puppet masters since have adopted the name of Toone, as if they were clones of their great precursor, carved by him out of wood and brought to life by some perverse blue fairy; or a succession of boy apprentices carefully trained in the supernatural art of bringing life to inanimate objects, each of whom got possessed by the spirit of Genty at a certain point in his professional development. One memorable Toone production I saw in my teenage years involved Lucretia Borgia’s murderous attempts to set herself up as ‘Papesse’ – a female Pope much addicted to poisoning her rivals. Another was a particularly violent version of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, all acted in the Brussels dialect, a unique fusion of Flemish and French which ends up sounding very much like English. The Toone Theatre is yet another polder within the larger polder of Brussels, its inhabitants dusty people made of wood, cloth, wire and string, with unsettling painted eyes. It’s a museum too, of course, as well as a bar and theatre. I think perhaps every building in Brussels is also a museum. And a bar. And possibly a theatre too, now I come to think of it.
When my father moved to Auderghem, a former forest village in the south east of the city, we spent many afternoons among the etiolated trees of the Forêt de Soignes, where charcoal burners and hunters once plied their trades and where the tracks of deer can still be traced after each fresh fall of snow. Our favourite spot was a former monastery called Rouge Cloître: a cluster of buildings surrounded by woods, within whose precincts a succession of excellent restaurants and cafés have been set up over the years, none of which have lasted more than three or four seasons. One modest café there only ever served quiches, but they were the finest quiches in the whole of creation. Parokeets flew screeching through the nearby branches, Siberian chipmunks whisked along the tops of the crumbling walls, while huge carp surfaced in the ancient fishponds, some of them attached to the fishing lines of the many anglers who crowded the banks. When in town I drank at the famous bar À la mort subite – Sudden Death – near the city centre, an ornately decorated chamber thronged with indifferent lounging cats. There and elsewhere I discovered the astonishing diversity of Belgian beers, from Gueuze, Kriek and Hoegaarden to the much more potent abbey brews, blond, dark and russet. The abbey connection suggests that beer is something of a religion in that part of Europe. There’s a Scottish connection, too; when I moved to Glasgow in 1992 I learned that Scottish beer was more highly regarded in Brussels than in Scotland, and that at least one variety – Gordon’s Highland Scotch Ale – was still being brewed exclusively for the Belgian market in Edinburgh (production was transferred to Belgium after the millennium). I have never been to the Beer Museum, but I’ll wager it’s full of astonishing facts like this one.
All these details give some sense of the eccentricity of a city whose best-known symbol is a little boy having a pee, who gets dressed up in a different costume for every day of the year (there’s a museum for his costumes, of course: the ‘Garderobe Manneken Pis’). But I promised to talk about Brussels and fantasy, and for me the epitome of fantasy in Brussels has always been the comics. By comics I mean, of course, the bandes dessinées or BDs of the Franco-Belgian school, known to francophone commentators as the ‘ninth art’ (the eighth is television; I forget the rest). My father’s flat near the Berlaymont Building was crammed with BDs, and later so was his house in Auderghem. He had all the Tintin books, mostly in French with a few English titles thrown in; he also had the whole of Asterix, an Enki Bilal, some Lucky Lukes, and more. I read everything dozens of times, poring over the relationship between words and pictures, the transition from panel to panel, the colour schemes, and slowly discovering new puns, allusions and even plotlines as the years went by and my French improved. After a few years I began to collect BDs of my own: most notably Thorgal le Viking, by the Polish artist Grzegorz Rosinski and the prolific Belgian scenario-writer Jean van Hamme, and the Cités obscures series by the Belgian artist François Schuiten and the French novelist and scholar Benoît Peeters. My taste in comics was largely determined by my taste in drawing styles. I loved pictures I could study for hours on end and return to again and again, stumbling across new details and more ingenious juxtapositions, or simply marvelling at the skill that had been lavished on each panel, page or double spread. Such were the drawings of the French artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, which led me to his masterpiece L’Incal, scripted by the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Brazilian writer-artist Leo drew me to his series Les mondes d’Aldébaran with his careful representations of peculiar alien animals, each of which is sufficiently close to some terrestrial life-form to disturb and amuse in equal measure. Régis Loisel’s flamboyant penmanship made me enamoured of La quête de l’oiseau du temps, scripted by Serge Le Tendre, while the rich textures and three-dimensional solidity of Juan Díaz Canales’s anthropomorphic dogs, goats, polar bears and rhinoceroses led me to the neo-noir adventures of the feline private eye Blacksad, written by Canales’s fellow Spaniard Juanjo Guarnido. Recent discoveries are the Valérian books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (I was alerted to these, of course, by Luc Besson’s film), the Orbital series by Serge Pellé and Sylvain Runberg, and Sillage by Jean-David Morvan and Philippe Buchet. The ten-volume Décalogue, conceived by Frank Giroud and drawn by several artists, delighted me by setting the first of its volumes in Glasgow, so that I had the pleasure of seeing the buildings I knew best magically embedded in the panels of a Franco-Belgian comic. I collected volumes or ‘tomes’ of BDs each time I went to Brussels to visit my father, often in the local Carrefour supermarket, sometimes in the Museum of Comics near the Grand Place – more accurately, the Centre Belge de la bande dessinée.
The Comics Museum is housed in a former department store designed by Victor Horta, so one could say that the BD industry has been built into the landscape of the city, entwined with the vegetable inventiveness of Belgian Art Nouveau. Another of Horta’s buildings houses material relating to the comics of François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters; this is La Maison Autrique, which contains a permanent display of Schuiten’s pictures honouring the Horta legacy. The Maison plays a central role in one of the final albums of the Cités obscures series, La théorie du grain de sable. Museums occur, in fact, with remarkable frequency in Franco-Belgian comics. Captain Haddock’s house, Moulinsart or Marlinspike, is effectively a museum stocked with family heirlooms going back many centuries, standing shoulder to shoulder with mementoes of the Captain’s travels with his young friend Tintin. So is Professor Tarragon’s house in Les sept boules de cristal, its contents based on research carried out among the Incan holdings of the Cinquentenaire Museum in Brussels. There is an actual museum in L’oreille cassée, and many more in Edgar P. Jacobs’s Blake and Mortimer series and Jacques Tardi’s Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec. Schuiten and Peeters’s Mémoirs de l’éternel présent includes a museum dedicated to forbidden things, mostly clocks and timepieces whose very existence suggests that the City of Taxandria hasn’t always existed in the eternal present, as its government insists. Bande dessinée, in other words, is as besotted with miscellaneous collections of displaced antiquities, forgotten or rejected customs and extravagant artworks as the city which is the BD’s spiritual home. The strange juxtapositions accidentally achieved in the display cabinets of scholarly collections are the stock-in-trade of the ninth art, and it’s with juxtapositions that my next blog post on Fantasy Brussels, dedicated to the comics of Schuiten and Peeters, will be concerned.
[This essay was first published in Peake Studies,Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23, and can also be found online here, beautifully typeset by Peter Winnington. Among other things, it’s a supplement to my edition of Peake’s Collected Poems.]
Mervyn Peake was pre-eminently a war poet. Of course not all his poems concern themselves directly with armed conflict, but the condition of warfare infects the tissue of his major verse, shaping and distorting it whatever its primary subject. He began to publish poems in 1937, during the long approach to the Second World War, each step of which they record, from the bombing of Guernica to the September Crisis; and he wrote the bulk of his verse between 1939 and 1945. Even his post-war poems continue to worry away at the themes and traumas of his wartime experiences. How could it be otherwise, when he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1942 after two fruitless years in the army, and later witnessed the aftermath of war in France and Germany, above all at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? Like many who lived through it he internalized the global crisis, making it part of his inward landscape. He may even have laboured at times under the horrible illusion that the war had sprung fully-fledged from his imagination, like a monstrous version of the winged horse that springs from the floor of a station concourse in his poem ‘Victoria Station. 6.58 p.m.’. It is this possibility I would like to look at here, with the help of a few fragments of poetry I was not able to include in my edition of his Collected Poems.
Peake’s imagination, after all, could be a fearsome place. From the beginning to the end of his writing career it preoccupied itself with violence, to the extent that artistic creation and physical aggression seem at times to be locked together in an intimate symbiotic relation ship inside his head. The relationship may be encapsulated in the duel scene between two rival lovers in Titus Groan, where the men, both sculptors, hack away at each other’s naked bodies in a knife-fight that parodies the process of carving a work of art from a block of wood. Peake wrote this fight during the war, when it might be thought his imagination was unusually concerned with bloodshed. But one of Peake’s earliest surviving poems, a long Masefield-inspired narrative called ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ (1929), constructs a story from an act of still more horrible brutality. In it, a tyrannical ship’s captain flings an old sailor into the furnace of his vessel, in grotesque anticipation of the Nazi atrocities. The old sailor has his revenge; through a titanic act of posthumous will-power he makes a new body from the ashes of his old one, and visits the captain three times at night, killing him on the third visit after driving him insane. Clearly then, from the start of his career Peake was willing to make poetry from violence; aggression was part of his imaginative make-up. One wonders whether this had anything to do with his childhood experiences in China. He was born in 1911 during a savage civil war, which his father recorded in a series of graphic photographs; and as he grew up, his father’s work as a missionary doctor brought Peake into close proximity with pain and death. From an early age he watched him perform surgery, including amputations, and saw long lines of maimed or diseased patients entering and emerging from his clinic. Did these youthful encounters with dismemberment and debility haunt his dreams, reconstituting themselves from the material made available by war, as the old dead sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ repeatedly reconstitutes his body from the grey dust which is all that remains of him after his death?
Certainly hauntings of one kind or another are a recurrent motif in Peake’s writing. A poem of 1939, ‘We Are the Haunted People’, figures the helpless lookers-on at the outbreak of war as visited by the shadows of ‘dark deeds’ on the continent – deeds that sow the horribly fertile seeds of propaganda and destruction. Then in Titus Groan (1946), the young earl’s father Lord Sepulchrave is a perpetually haunted soul, his brain thronged with imaginary owls, which eventually merge with the real owls in the Tower of Flints who tear him apart when he brings them Swelter’s corpse to feed on. And towards the end of his working life, Peake represents himself as troubled with apparitions just as terrible as the ones that killed Sepulchrave and the tyrannical captain. A manuscript of Titus Alone from the early 50s contains this fragment:
Out of cloud the face emerges
Every night before I sleep
It is pale as when cold surges
Burn like frost upon the deep
It is pale this head of horror
Save for where its chin shines red
With the blood
The ghostly head, like the ashen body of the old sailor in ‘The Touch o’ the Ash’, is linked with the ‘cold surges’ of the sea; and it would seem that the nightmare recurred with increasing frequency as Peake’s final illness took a grip of him. After his hospitalization in 1958 he wrote the poem ‘Heads Float About Me’, in which phantoms float about the corridors of Holloway hospital terrifying Peake, while being ‘haunted’ themselves by ‘solitary sorrows’. And the most frightening thing about these disembodied heads is that they ‘deny the nightmare / That they should be’. They are real, not just a nightmare; or else they embody something real, ‘the horror / Of truth, of this intrinsic truth / Drifting, ah God, along the corridors / Of the world.’ Since childhood Peake had known the worst of nightmares to be true, not merely fiction; and his experiences in the Second World War drove home ‘this intrinsic truth’ with terrible force.
Two previously unknown drafts of poems he wrote about the Blitz during or shortly after the War give powerful, though quite different insights into the interaction between Peake’s fantastic imagination and the fantastic works of art being shockingly produced by global conflict. The first reminds us of something that Peake was intensely aware of: until he visited Bergen-Belsen in 1945, war’s atrocities were some thing he could only imagine, as he studied the astonishing shapes it left in the urban landscape – the visible marks both of its terrible impact and of its absence, the fact that he has missed the moment when that impact took place. His poems ‘The Shapes’, ‘London 1941’ and ‘The Craters’ (all published in his first collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941)) scrutinize the contours war leaves behind – the mournful beauty of shattered buildings, the emotional impact of the gaping pits and quarries dug by bombs; but for the events that produced them he had to turn to black-and-white newsreels and the colourful pictures furnished by his own imagination. And finding a way to imagine these events responsibly – to disengage them from what might be seen as his predisposition to glamorize violence, to revel in horror, and to delight in extremes of physical suffering for their own sake – was something, I suggest, that he found difficult. The two new drafts offer an insight into his difficulties.
The first of the drafts, ‘I was not there’, is a sketch for a poem first published in his prizewinning 1950 collection The Glassblowers and reprinted in Selected Poems (1975) and Peake’s Progress (1980). In all its published forms the title is ‘When Tiger-Men Sat their Mercurial Coursers’. And it was always printed without its final verse, so that nobody till now has known it had anything to do with the war. Indeed in Peake’s Progress it appears in a section called ‘Other Worlds’, as if to reinforce its nostalgic escapism. In one of his poetry notebooks, however – tentatively dated to around 1946, though many of the verses it contains were written earlier – the poem is given a different title, and a fourth stanza, which fuses the other worldly with the experiences of the Blitz which Peake never lived at first hand:
I Was Not There
When Tiger-men sat their mercurial coursers,
Hauled into granite arches the proud fibre
Of head and throat, sank spurs, and trod on air
I was not there.
When clamorous Centaurs thundered to the rain-pools,
Shattered with their fierce hooves the silent mirrors,
When glittering drops clung to their beards and hair,
I was not there.
When through a blood-dark dawn a man with antlers
Cried and throughout the day the echoes suffered
His agony, and died in evening air
I was not there.
Even when Paul’s voluminous dome reflected
The apple-green and lilac fires; or swelling
Like an enormous Ethiopian breast, raw crimson
Weltered behind its rare
Sweep of plumbed midnight – when the air was madness,
When water shot like blood from serpent hoses,
And excellence was wrested from a nightmare
I was not there.
In this version, the notion of absence – of missing things – is enshrined in the title, whereas the title of the printed version laid emphasis on the visions Peake could conjure up so vividly despite never having seen them. And in ‘I Was Not There’, the central lack or loss is trans formed from a simple threnody for unwitnessed moments to a complex meditation on the relationship between the imaginary and the imagined, two spheres that get fused in Peake’s dreamscapes (and dreams are specifically evoked in the penultimate line). It’s worth reminding oneself here that much of Peake’s war was a time of frustration, as the young conscript was shunted from one army training camp to another in a quest to find some military role for him, while his appeals to have his real talents turned to good use through employment as a war artist were repeatedly turned down. Exclusion from the centre of things here extends from the source of his imaginative energy – the horses and man-horses which figure everywhere in his poems and pictures, and from which his conscription diverted him so fruitlessly – to the dazzling vision of St Paul’s Cathedral under bombardment, miraculously intact among the ruins of the City of London. The poet’s absence becomes an exclusion from ecstasy, both homoerotic and heterosexual, and one might detect in the poem at once the rage of the artist denied access to his art, the intense sexual frustration which is an integral component of military service, and the psychological disturbance generated by war’s perverse conversion of erotic energies and male bonding rituals into integral components of the military machine.
The first three stanzas record scenes of gigantic masculine energy. Each is marked by violence: the restraining of a horse as the rider hauls its head and throat into a semblance of architectural rigidity; the shattering of the peace of a mirror-like pool; the death (as it seems) of an antlered man, whose agony gives new voice and feeling to the old metaphor of the ‘blood-dark dawn’. Each stanza records the encounter between disparate elements: in the first, man and horse, concrete and air; in the second, centaur and water, clamorous thunder and silence; in the third, the antlered man and the air to which his suffering transmits itself. But the previously unknown fourth stanza is much more shocking. The disparate elements – the lights of the blazing city and the cathedral’s racialized darkness; the breast-like dome and the phallic hoses – are fused with more drastic violence than in any of the first three verses. The ‘raw crimson’ of the sky sounds like a wound, and the hoses like severed arteries, hideous pastiches of male and female genitalia. The wresting of excellence from a nightmare makes the agonized sexual act recorded here sound as though it has been forced on its participants, so that the work of art Peake imagines being created by the Blitz is also an act of violation, a dual rape. The stanza makes explicit what is only implicit in the first three stanzas – that the male energies being described there are erotic ones, which culminate in the orgasmic roar of a rutting stag, and that the sexual acts they describe are aggressive. The extent of that aggression is intensified by that fourth stanza, and rendered unnerving by the introduction both of an implied woman and of a racial dimension into the picture. The myth or legend of the first three stanzas thus becomes contaminated, forced to align itself with the abominable motives behind aerial bombardment.
Many works of art produced in wartime, perhaps, have this sense of being the products of force or compulsion. One thinks of Peake’s well known poem about a Belsen inmate, which is filled with guilt about the cold artist’s eye he brings to the business of sketching the death agonies of a young girl, with a view to working it up into a great finished painting at some future date. The fourth stanza of ‘I Was Not There’ is in some ways worse than this, in that its celebration of the ‘excellence’ of the fire-surrounded dome seems guilt-free. The fact that three clearly fantastical scenes have preceded it liberates the poet from the severe judgement to which he subjected himself at Belsen. Regretting that one was not present at the death of a legendary stag-man is unproblematic; regretting one’s absence from a real-life inferno is not; and it’s not clear from that fourth stanza whether the poet is ready to acknowledge the difference. It would be interesting to know if it was Peake himself or someone else who decided he should cut it when the poem went to press.
The second of our two drafts comes from an early version of Peake’s long narrative poem, The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, a revision of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which Peake famously illustrated) written on Sark in about 1947. I suggest in my introduction to the Collected Poems that this is the work in which Peake finally laid what he called his ‘war-ghosts’ to rest, sloughing off his sense of complicity with the global atrocities being perpetrated as he laboured to produce his art. He achieved this exorcism, I think, by having the beauty of the Blitz witnessed by two innocents: a new-born baby (albeit an infant possessed of astonishing powers and unexpected knowledge), and the sailor who finds it in a gutter after a bomb has killed its mother. The innocence of these two witnesses is reinforced by the fact that both are denizens of a different element from the one in which they find themselves. The sailor is a figure from the maritime adventure stories Peake loved as a boy; his language makes him sound like a combination of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, the teenager and the murderously avuncular pirate, both of whom are badly out of their depth in wartime London. Cut off by fire from his beloved water, the sailor is confronted by real scenes more savagely absurd than anything in Stevenson’s fiction. And the baby, too, hails from the sea: the sailor calls it ‘little fish’, and when it suddenly gains a voice it reveals that it has shared many of his nautical experiences in previous lives. Together the pair reinvent the burning city as a scene from their seafaring past, turning blazing buildings into ships, flames into sea-flowers and red-hot ashes into the wide red mouths of figureheads. The baby’s comradeship gives the sailor courage to face his death, and by the time the ballad ends the ghastly beauty of the ruined metropolis has been retrospectively brought under control, tamed, as it were, by being harnessed to children’s fictions, without having its impact softened or diminished in the process.
Yet there is something missing from the poem: a specific absence at its core that becomes glaringly obvious once it’s been pointed out. As the pair take shelter in a shattered church, the sailor mounts the pulpit and announces that he is going to tell the baby a story. ‘Now listen to me while I sing you a tale,’ he announces, and goes on:
For the things I’ve forgotten for many a year
Are shouldering into my mind,
Of the time when my heart was a wave that heaved
To the gale of my sea-mad mind.
The infant at first seems keen to hear the narrative, but soon afterwards remembers that it has got plenty of sea-memories of its own, and asks instead to join him in a song. The early draft of the poem formerly held in the Bodleian Library, however, shows that the sailor did at one point begin to tell his tale; and it also shows why the full tale never got told. Here is the relevant section of the draft.
We had been at sea for a month or more
With the rich black coal below
But the storms had swept the bridge away
And the ship was a sheet of snow.
And the shining engines were red with rust
And the winter water lay
In mucky pools all over the coal
In the hold of our ship that day –
And there was no wind, and there was no warmth
And there was no water or food,
And our anchor was plunged in the freezing sea
As deep in the snow we stood.
The masts were gone and all was gone
But a thick white layer of snow
Like a poultice laid from end to end
With the two black dots to show
Where the last two men alive stood stiff
At the side of the ice-bound rail,
When out of the sea with a splash and a shout
Came a thing with a bright green tail.
Its cheeks were red as a sunset fierce,
And its hair streamed out behind
In a tangle of jet-black weed and its eyes
Were as yellow as lemon-rind.
Then up it lifted its great big head
From out of the murky sea
And opened the great salt merman curve
[Of] his mouth that was big as three.
‘And are you the crew of this ship of snow
That has so molested me
By dropping of your anchor at the door of my cave
At the bottom of the winter sea?
‘You have dropped your anchor across my door
And my wife is trapped inside
With our five blue chicks that are crying out their hearts
For a taste of the morning tide.’
Then the two stiff men cried, ‘Sorry we are
To have so disturbed your home,
But our captain it was who ordered us
To lower our anchor down.’
And our captain is dead and the crew is dead
And we are the last to go,
And we have no strength for to work the crank
And to haul back the anchor now.
‘We’re as frozen up as the engines are
And as cold as the ice on the rail.
But where O where did you get that hair
And that beautiful bright green tail?’
The merman he heaved himself aboard
And he swished the decks with his tail
And the white snow flew up into the air
And over the frozen rail.
‘Now I’ll answer you this and many things more,’
He said, ‘but I first must know,
With your arms so weak, what the deuce can be done
About the anchor that you’ve plunged below?’
His cheeks shone red and his yellow eyes
Were as bright as sovereigns in his head.
‘There’s only one thing can be done about this,
So listen to my words,’ he said.
‘You’ll never get home, and you’ll never find food
And you’ll have no strength to stir,
And you’ll freeze to death by the afternoon
If you go on standing here.
‘You must dive with me through the cold black sea
To my cave where your anchor stands,
And there you must marry a mermaid chill
With little white fins for hands.
‘And there you must marry a mermaid sweet
With a tail as long as your arm.
O it’s then you’ll have the strength for to move away
Your anchor from
And the rest is missing. By this point Peake must have known very well that his readers will have forgotten the Blitz, the baby and the sailor, as they mull over the problem of the trap the sailors find them selves in, and meditate, perhaps, on the relationship between this story and the old song ‘O ’twas in the broad Atlantic’. Peake has written himself into a dead end, and he dealt with it in the most sensible way he could: by stopping and going back to take up his tale at the point where the false trail began.
This wasn’t the first time Peake had written himself into a hole, and on one occasion the hole had been very like this one. His unfinished early novel Mr Slaughterboard comes to a halt with another ship jammed in mid-ocean, impaled this time on a needle of rock improbably rising to within a few feet of the surface miles from the nearest shore. The most notable feature of this ship, the Conger Eel, is its magnificent library, the Room of Books, where the Captain pores over the volumes he loves in the company of his eyeless servant Smear, and wonders what it would be like to add his own name to the illustrious register of dead authors. The closest he comes to doing so is by casually butchering his men, killing them off singly and in batches in the name of what he calls ‘art’. His brutality is unpleasant, but not especially disturbing, because it’s so obviously divorced from the world beyond the pages of Peake’s fiction. Smear’s eyelessness confirms his own and the captain’s determined self-segregation from the concerns and moral systems that govern other communities. As Peake puts it, ‘They formed their own Universe. Untouched by the workings of other minds, solely dependent upon themselves, they formed a cosmos of existence, a reality that moved and thought between the sea and the sky’. The marooning of the ship enables them to achieve their highest ambition: to be disconnected for ever from all inhabited countries, free to dedicate themselves to the workings of their own mental cosmos without reference to anybody else’s; and the Captain celebrates the moment with another bout of aesthetically-motivated slaughter. And this final orgy of killing again fails to disturb the reader because of the grotesqueness of the crew they slaughter, whose physical peculiarities mark them out as denizens of the Room of Books, like the Captain and Mr Smear.
But by the time he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, it was not so easy for Peake to justify casual slaughter in his writings, and the notion of aesthetically-motivated murder had become deeply disturbing. This shift in perspective was given visual expression in a series of pictures he drew in 1940, as a means of advertizing his skills to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. The series purports to be a portfolio of pictures by the artist Adolf Hitler, and has as its frontispiece Hitler’s self-portrait, staring in horror out of the page at what was presumably once a mirror – but is now the reader, who seems to have been made complicit with the dictator’s crimes by becoming the focus of his gaze. At the time Peake drew this series he had not yet seen the horrors of war at first hand, and had to rely on reports and his own imagination to flesh them out. But he wrote The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb after witnessing the aftermath of atrocities on French, German and British soil, and the relationship between his wild imaginings and the world they obliquely reflected had undergone a radical change. No longer motivated primarily by a yearning to be absorbed into the world of books, his habitual use of the fantastic possessed a new urgency that fills the later pages of his novel Titus Groan. The merman fragment offers an opportunity to consider the nature of that urgency.
Mr Slaughterboard’s ship and its occupants are things of fiction, which get transfixed in the course of a sea story that moves with seeming inevitability towards this goal. The story of the merman, by contrast, is dredged up from the sailor’s memory by what seems its polar opposite: the devastated London cityscape through which he wanders. The elements of fire and water have already become perversely fused for the sailor a few stanzas earlier, as the burning streets reassemble themselves into a bright pageant playing out his personal history: ‘And the ships of brick and the ships of stone / And the charcoal ships lurched by / While his footsteps clashed on the frozen waves / That shone to the scarlet sky.’ It is this pageant of fire and water, heat and cold that triggers his recollection of the merman incident, and he narrates it to the baby as a means of explaining the specific resonance that the London flames have struck in him, the particular ‘frozen waves’ he has in mind.
It’s clear enough why he sees these two traumatic moments of his life as related. The extremes of physical suffering produced by both environments – the Arctic seas and the wartime conflagration – are the same. In both cases, the miraculous emergence of a living person from a dead world is the same (the talking baby and the merman), suggesting against all likelihood that extremes of temperature may provide a congenial habitat for intelligent beings. And in both cases the being in question offers the sailor an uncanny escape route from what’s clearly an inescapable situation. In fact, both baby and merman can be read as the hallucinations of a dying mind, as it struggles to find an alternative to the intolerable inevitability of death. As the cold or heat becomes too intense to bear, the sailor discovers in each forbidding zone a native inhabitant, whose physical attributes – nakedness in the baby’s case, brilliant hues in the merman’s – proclaim their indifference to the flame or frost that is killing the sailor. This is a very different use of fantasy from Mr Slaughterboard’s exuberant self-indulgence; its escapism is a psychological necessity rather than a piece of adolescent whimsy, and the quest to find some sort of moral explanation, or even absolution, for the unjustified torment to which its protagonists are subjected, starkly contrasts with Mr Slaughterboard’s tormenting and slaughtering of his crew, which invites no moral justification at all.
The merman story is sung in a church ‘To the tune of a bleeding hymn’; its impulse is religious, and marks religion in this context as a story that’s built from memory and fantasy, and from the desperation that fuses the two. The sailors in the narrative are frozen stiff until they are indistinguishable from the frozen vessel on which they’re stranded. There’s clearly no way out of their predicament except through death; and it’s in this extreme situation that a manifestation of the fantastic emerges godlike from the waves, adding the brilliance of oil colour – Peake’s painterly palette of greens, reds and yellows – to the whites, blacks and greys of the Arctic seascape. The merman also brings with him, godlike, both an accusation of guilt and a promise of forgiveness. Those who suffer invariably convince themselves that they deserve to suffer, so as to preserve some sense of the crude but safe moral coordinates with which they have been raised; and the merman brings a rationale for the sailors’ suffering in the form of a crime they have committed. The ship’s anchor has trapped his wife and children in their underwater cave, and the sailors will not be released from their torment until the anchor is raised again, the door of the cave opened and the family set free. Like Adam and Eve, or like conscripts accused of a crime against humanity, the sailors respond by transferring responsibility for their actions to a higher authority. It was the ship’s captain who ordered the anchor to be lowered, and the captain is now inaccessible, cut off from retribution, like most of his crew, by death. Like Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity, too, the sailors are incapable of atoning for their inadvertent crime under their own steam, as it were; they lack the strength to raise the anchor. Having confessed and sought to exonerate themselves, the men wait for divine judgement.
The merman’s judgement comes in the form of a solution to their impasse: they are to wed themselves to the elements that are killing them. First they must plunge into the inhospitable sea, then bind themselves by nuptial contract to an alien being: a ‘mermaid chill / With little white fins for hands’. Having performed this dual act of self-negation they will, he claims, gain the strength to raise the anchor, as if sexual and contractual union with a hostile environment has made everything within it easy for them. The merman anticipates their naturalization in the Arctic wastes in the fragment’s final stanza, where the once chilly mermaid is described as ‘sweet’, and her most alien feature – her tail – is measured against the familiar length of a sailor’s upper limb. In this way the fusion with ice and steel that was killing the sailors at the beginning of the extract is replaced by a marriage with cold black water and fishiness, that will inject them by some undisclosed means with the merman’s virile energy. Religion becomes the process of accepting – or rather of actively, passionately embracing – the causes of pain and destruction that you are too frail to fight. And it becomes, too, a fantasy, a dream born from desire, whose resistance to the remorselessness of wartime logic offers the only satisfactory solution to a problem insoluble by any other means.
But the merman isn’t necessary to The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, as Peake recognized when he chose to stop writing about him. The sailor in wartime London has already found a god before he begins to tell this story – a miniature god which gently points out that it contains within itself all the sailor’s memories, desires and dreams – and this is the baby. While the sailor is gearing up to tell the merman story in the ruined church, the baby suddenly manifests its superhuman powers for the first time, responding to the sailor’s offer to narrate with a shrill cry of assent, then levitating in front of the pulpit, ‘Where it hovered with its hands clenched tight at its breast’ just next to an open Bible, like a latter-day version of Robert Southwell’s Burning Babe. The moment is a natural next stage in a process that began with the miracle of the baby’s discovery – when the sound of its heart in the midst of destruction astonished and awed the sailor. This miracle was reinforced by the sailor’s perception that the child is absurdly, insanely out of place (‘All bare and cold in that gutter of gold / You had no cause to be, / No more than it’s right for the likes of you / To be born in this century’); and led at last to his decision, after entering the church, to ‘worship’ the child for its ‘brand-new look’, its ‘fists like a brace of anemones’, and the miraculous ‘ticker’ it keeps in its fragile chest. The baby, then, provides an emblem of war’s absurdity, the incongruous juxtapositions it generates, and the fantasies that are the only apt response to these. And the comfort it dispenses is quite different from, and more imaginatively satisfying than, the strange sub-oceanic marriage offered by the sea-god as a solution to the sailor’s woes.
For one thing, the child refuses to adopt a position of judgement over the sailor – or of superiority to him – as the merman does. It refers to him as ‘sailor, saviour’, as if sharing its divinity with the dying man. Despite his scepticism, it extends to him the promise that he will share its ability to regenerate after death; and it gives him the benefit of its awareness that appalling events like the Blitz are nothing new, that they have precedents in history, and that therefore the sailor need not be erased from the earth with the disintegration of his body under the impact of the last flying bomb; after all, the baby is proof of this, with its new wrinkled arms and its astonishing memory for adventures, seascapes and people it has encountered in previous lives. Its only advantage over him, in fact, is that it remembers having ‘seen it all before’, and can therefore give him words of counsel as he drifts bleeding and blistered, with lacerated feet and unrecognizable face, towards his own particular death.
More importantly, perhaps (and this is a comfort Peake needed as much as his Stevensonian seafarer) it reassures him that his fantasies – the visions of miracles which Peake always associated with his heart – have as much validity as a response to the world, and above all to the World War, as any historical, philosophical or political narrative lodged in the archives at the British Library or the Imperial War Museum. ‘For, sailor,’ it says, ‘there’s nothing that is not true, / If it’s true to your heart and mine, / From a unicorn to a flying bomb, / From a wound to a glass of wine’. It’s the sailor’s imagination, after all, that first made the baby’s environment bearable for it, as he showed it ‘the coloured lights’ of the burning city, ‘And the golden shoals of the falling stones / And the scarlet of the streets’ – thus making loveliness out of horror. It’s the sailor’s imagination which permits him to conceive of a loving afterlife, and to believe in the love he has found in this one, despite the fact that ‘There is no proof’, rationally speaking, of either. And it’s his imagination that gives the sailor his final, joyful vision, which transmutes the urban devastation into a maritime adventure far more dazzling than the merman narrative:
‘The masts are bright with silver light,
The decks are black with grass
And the bay’s so smooth that I can see
The blood beneath the glass.
‘And here’s a child, and there’s a child
Running across the bay.
They laugh and shout, “Look out! look out!
We haven’t long to stay!”
‘And here’s a man who somersaults
Across the mid-mast air.
The long-shore flames leap out to sea
And drag him by the hair.
‘And the guns that shine with oil and wine
Are smothered in sea-flowers deep,
And in the throat of every gun
A mermaid lies asleep.
‘And the figurehead with mouth so red
Is drinking up the sea…
O little babe, why won’t you leap
Aboard, and sail with me?’
So the mer-people do find a place in The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, after all, nestled in the mouths of cannons in an imaginary warship. And Peake’s wayward imagination, too, finds a role for itself with relation to the war. What may have made the War Artists’ Advisory Committee so reluctant to employ him was a perception that his work was better suited to conveying the unreal than recording ‘facts’. The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb, including the unprinted fragment about the merman, demonstrates the vital relationship between the material conditions of war and the fantasies to which it gives rise. Peake’s fantasies are composed of searing frost and scorching fire, of metal, stone, coal, glass, and all the matter that makes up a bomb or the destruction it causes. And they are anchored, above all, in the body, in its bones and internal organs, its flesh, skin, limbs and bowels. His position as artist can be summarized in one more unpublished fragment from the early 50s:
Neither a sage nor plowboy dumb, I stand
A marvel and a clod in either hand
And in my breast a vacillating heart
Without Peake’s solid clods and marvels, fused together by his vacillating heart, our picture of what it was like to live through the calamitous nineteen-forties would lack one vital and little-explored dimension. The fragments unearthed here, with the evidence they give of the extent to which even Peake’s most extravagant fantasies are bound up with war and its aftermath, suggest that further exploration of fantastic writing in wartime would be well worth undertaking – no matter how inhospitable the land- and seascapes into which that exploration might take us.
 Approximate dates for Peake’s poems are given in my edition of Peake’s CollectedPoems, Fyfield Books (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008).
 Collected Poems, p. 165.
 See Peake, Titus Groan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp. 281-85 (‘Knives in the Moon’).
 For‘The Touch o’ the Ash’ see Peake’s Progress, ed. Maeve Gilmore, corrected by G. Peter Winnington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 45-61.
 See G. Peter Winnington, Vast Alchemies: The Life and Work of Mervyn Peake (London: Peter Owen, 2000), pp. 38-39, which gives an account of operations witnessed by Mervyn as a boy in China; also Malcolm Yorke, A Life of Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold (London: John Murray, 2000), pp. 24-26.
 UCL MS Add. 234, Box 4 (iv), sig. 32r. At the time of writing the manuscript was on loan to the library of University College London; it now forms part of the Peake Archive in the British Library.
 ‘Heads Float About Me’ can be found in Collected Poems, pp. 214-5.
 For details of the 1946 notebook – now in the Peake Archive at the British Library – see Peake’s Collected Poems, Introduction. ‘I Was Not There’ occurs on p. 14 of Notebook 2 (as I call it in my notes), and is typed.
 The Belsen poem is ‘The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’, Collected Poems, pp. 133-4.
 The full text of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is given in Collected Poems, pp. 178-201. The manuscript from which I took the text of the merman fragment was at the time on loan to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Bod. Dep. Peake 5, fol. 33v-34v); it’s now in the Peake Archive in the British Library. I have added some punctuation. The rest of The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb is quoted from Collected Poems.
 See ‘They Move with Me, My War-Ghosts’, published in Peake’s first poetry collection, Shapes and Sounds (1941); also in Collected Poems, pp. 93-94.
 Mr Slaughterboard can be found in Peake’s Progress, pp. 63-94.
 Twelve of the 25 pictures are reproduced in Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art (London and Chester Springs: Peter Owen, 2006), compiled by Sebastian Peake and Alison Eldred, ed. G. Peter Winnington, pp. 66-69. An account of the series can be found on p. 65.
 Writing to Peake about his prospects of becoming a war artist, Sir Kenneth Clark observed that on the whole he seemed to be ‘much better away from facts’ (18th October 1940). Peake’s attempts to adapt his ‘non-factual’ artistic talents to the needs of the War Artists’ Committee – first by painting surreal representations of the Blitz, then by offering his services for the production of propaganda – can be traced through his (as yet unpublished) correspondence with Clark.
 The fragment was formerly held in UCLMS Add. 2.34, Box 4 (ii), fol. 30v, and is now in the Peake Archive. This contains an earlier draft of Titus Alone than the one in Box 4 (i), which gives as its earliest date December 1.
 Quite a bit has been written about fantasy in wartime since this was written; see for example Sara Wasson, Urban Gothic in the Second World War: Dark London (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
As the first post of 2020 I’m providing here a link to a podcast I did with the Fantasy/Animation project last year. The project is the brainchild of Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant; warm thanks to them both for inviting me to participate. While you’re at their website take a look around at all the other wonderful podcasts they’ve made available!
I chose to talk about Laputa because at the time I thought it was my favourite film by Studio Ghibli. I change my mind about this every so often, but Laputa will always be up there in the top five.
This blog is called The City of Lost Books, and has concentrated on quite a few little-known texts in recent months: the fantastic novels of Margaret Irwin; the only novel by the modernist art critic Herbert Read; William Morris’s brilliant last romance The Water of the Wondrous Isles. Few books, however, can have been more justly neglected than Clifford Mills’s Where the Rainbow Ends (1912), and few books can have been more popular before they fell into oblivion. Based on a ‘fairy play’ co-written by Clifford Mills and John Reginald Owen (writing as John Ramsey) and first produced in 1911 with music by Roger Quilter, the book was a bestseller from its publication in 1912 to the 1950s. For forty years or so the play was as much a staple of Christmas in Britain as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), on which it was partly based. Princess Elizabeth went to see it at Christmas in 1937, when she was eleven. Being a blatant piece of British imperialist propaganda, however, it didn’t survive the sixties, and had more or less vanished from sight by the time I read the book version at the age of seven or eight, in my grandmother’s Salford flat in 1970.
The book made a huge impression on me, not least because it made me profoundly uncomfortable. This was not because of its imperialist, militaristic propaganda – I was rather enthusiastic about things military at the age of seven – but because of its penchant for sadistic violence. Mills’s delight in subjecting her child protagonists to extreme mental and physical torments was obvious to me, and the deaths of her villains were unusually gruesome. Most dreadful of all, there was a boy in it who expressed his willingness to be transformed into a monster, in an episode that haunted my nightmares for several years. Another book I read at my grandmother’s flat was the Penguin translation of Homer’s Odyssey, its cover carefully protected with a transparent plastic dustjacket, and although that story too had people being magicked into beasts they didn’t consent to their transformation, and were in any case restored to human shape soon afterwards by the wily Odysseus. Mills’s doomed boy, by contrast, actively chooses his metamorphosis, and remains stubbornly committed to becoming a monster on the last occasion we see him. Through him Where the Rainbow Ends introduced me to a kind of fantasy I hadn’t encountered anywhere else, in which children’s behaviour could be as horribly punished as the wickedness of adults, and the bed you made for yourself was very much the one you lay in. Again, children had been punished with transformation in other books I knew, most notably Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who became a dragon because he refused to fit in. But Eustace learned his lesson in the process, whereas the boy in Where the Rainbow Ends learned nothing at all. This couldn’t happen, I thought, in books for children, and I dwelt on it with morbid fascination when Clifford Mills showed me that it could.
One of the things I liked about the book was that it did a good job of representing the pain of being separated from one’s family. The story begins with two middle-class English children who have lost their parents in a shipwreck six months before, and who are now being looked after by an abusive aunt and uncle, aided and abetted by a houseful of nasty servants, formerly the servants of the children’s beloved Cousin Matthew, also recently deceased. The children, Rosamond and Crispian, have been separated from their parents for several years – two in the case of Rosamond, four in Crispian’s – because the parents stayed behind in India when the children went to boarding school in England; it was on the journey from India to England that their Mother and Father were drowned. I can’t remember if I had yet gone to boarding school when I was staying at my Grandmother’s, but I certainly started a few weeks after turning seven, and the idea of long-term separation from one’s parents would have been familiar to me in any case from the fact that my older brother started there a year before I did. The British Empire, it seems, was built on the principle of separating children from their parents, and trained the children in question to respond by cultivating a sense of plucky independence underpinned by strict adherence to certain rules.
One such rule was the hackneyed notion that boys don’t cry, and Mills’s novel begins with Crispian breaking this rule, as I myself had done on many occasions. I appreciated this touch of honesty on the part of the author, though not the response of Crispian’s sister: Rosamond overhears him sobbing for their mother, and forces herself not to intervene for fear of shaming him (‘Boys’ tears, she told herself, were not to be seen – except by Mothers – sometimes’, p. 10). Suddenly, however, she thinks of a way to cheer him up, which is by consulting a book Cousin Matthew used to read to them at bedtime. This is the ‘Rainbow Book’, and it is introduced into Mills’s story in the very first sentence: ‘Rosamond had suddenly remembered the “Rainbow Book”, and this is how it happened’ (p. 9). That sentence involves a double act of magic, first in adopting a tone which implies that everyone knows about the ‘Rainbow Book’, and secondly in giving that book the same title as the book we’re reading. The ‘Rainbow Book’ is Where the Rainbow Ends, and mentions a land where all lost loved ones can be found again; it also includes detailed instructions on how to get there. This made me think that perhaps the book by Clifford Mills called Where the Rainbow Ends might contain similar instructions; that it might in fact be some kind of guidebook. The title retains something of the glamour of this promise for me even now. And of course the book is meant as a guidebook, giving clear instructions on how to attain the pluck of its central characters, although one is unlikely to get much chance to show that pluck in a similar context.
One way of achieving pluck, Mills suggests, is to harbour suitable ambitions. In the case of middle-class boys like Crispian, the best ambition is to join the Navy and become an Admiral; in the case of girls like Rosamond it is to get married. Crispian’s ambition sets him apart from the wayward boys in Peter Pan who want to be pirates (remember how John is gently mocked for his imperialist sentiments?); he is clearly meant to be exactly the sort of material the British forces need as naval cadets and future officers. Rosamond, on the other hand, is pretty much like Wendy, but with an added spirit of adventure which makes her the motivating force behind all the book’s important moments. Not only is she the one who remembers the existence of the book called Where the Rainbow Ends, but she also decides to go and find the land described in it, then inspires her brother to come along as back-up. She later locates the magic carpet of Faith which will take them on their journey; and summoning the genie of the carpet is simple for her, since she has read The Arabian Nights. So is giving him instructions (though perhaps she has learned this from having had servants all her life); and when he offers each of the children two wishes, as genies do, she uses hers with impressive effectiveness. The first wish makes her Uncle and Aunt start their dinner all over again so that she and Crispian will have time to prepare for their travels. Her second wish summons Saint George to act as the children’s bodyguard on their adventure. Much later on, Rosamond thinks nothing of plunging into the Dragon Wood by herself to rescue a younger girl; and later still she is the one who thinks of the way to defeat the Dragon army, sewing the flag that will claim their Castle for England and summon Saint George (who has the unfortunate trait of being unable to appear anywhere except where the cross of Saint George is flying). This, then, is one of the book’s few redeeming features: it has a resourceful and active heroine, which makes it an excellent counterbalance gender-wise for Peter and Wendy, where most of the physical action is given over to Peter and Captain Hook. Along with C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a few others, it’s one of the books that trained me as a child to accept a girl as principal protagonist, something my male friends and some of the books I read had a tendency to drum out of me.
I’ve mentioned the play Peter Pan a couple of times, as well as the novel that followed, Peter and Wendy, which was first published in 1911, the year before the novelization of Where the Rainbow Ends. The fact that the second novel followed so closely on the first is probably not a coincidence, since Mills’s play had followed the pattern of Peter Pan from the beginning, above all in its efforts to accommodate special effects and character types of the sort that Barrie’s play had made hugely popular with spectators of all ages. Peter Pan involves flying, of course, and Crispian, Rosamond and their two companions – Crispian’s school friend Jim Blunders and his little sister Betty, whom Crispian summons with his own two wishes – not only get to fly on Faith’s magic carpet but are later carried off to captivity (like Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz) by the winged henchmen of the principal villain. Peter Pan has a cheeky, wayward flying boy in a leading role, and his place is taken in Where the Rainbow Ends by the fairy Will o’the Wisp, who is in love with the Lake King’s Daughter and dances very nicely with her, but whose most important function is to inform the children’s parents that Rosamond and Crispian are on their way to rescue them. Peter Pan has pirates, where Mills’s play has dragons. Peter Pan has incompetent adults – Mr Darling and his dark double, James Hook – while Where the Rainbow’s End has villains who are both incompetent and sadistic, Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, neither of whom have Captain Hook’s redeeming qualities. The villains in both get eaten (more on that later). Peter Pan contains a dog called Nana, always played by a human actor; Where the Rainbow Ends has a lion cub called Cubby, also played by a human, who seems to subsist on a kind of tonic called Colonial Mixture, composed in ‘Equal parts of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand Iron mixed with Indian and South African Steel’ (p. 19). The small print on the label also says that the tonic is ‘Poison to Traitors’ (p. 205), which means that when Uncle Joseph drinks it the effect is much like the effect on Tinkerbell of drinking Peter’s medicine in Barrie’s play. In other words, it’s fatal, and in Mills’s play there is no one to clap their hands and bring him back to life. So the play goes one better than Peter Pan in every department by ensuring that there are no ambiguities at all; the heroes are totally heroic, the villains utterly villainous (indeed it’s implied that the Dragon King is the devil himself), and the destruction of the villains is correspondingly spectacular and hideous. These differences help to point up the relative complexity of Barrie’s play, whose purported hero, Peter, is pompous and merciless, its villain conflicted, and their respective fates (from an adult’s point of view, at least) more or less equally painful.
What Mills’s play has which has no equivalent in Peter Pan is the patron saint of England, a certain Saint George, whose presence in it for forty years provided a role for the current male heart-throb of the English stage. Saint George has something of Aragorn’s modesty about him; when Rosamond wishes for him he first appears in the garb of a pilgrim, evoking that much-loved Christian romance The Pilgrim’s Progress, and informs the children he is rather out of fashion these days, having stopped fighting with Saint Denis of France some time ago and taken to galloping around instead ‘with my true brothers [the patron saints of] Scotland, Ireland, Wales and kindred kind beyond the seas’ (p. 71), doing deeds of valour for the needy colonies. Meanwhile he has been neglected at home, and is inclined to blame this on the honorific people have saddled him with, ‘Saint’, since ‘a halo is such a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). Rosamond and the other children, however, find him ‘ripping’ (p. 67), and he wins their hearts by telling them the story of the Battle of Agincourt, a victory over the French which was actually sponsored by his friend Saint Crispian (Crispian’s namesake), but which Saint George observed from the sidelines with great interest. Saint George’s connection with Agincourt aligns him, of course, with Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who was given to yelling the names of Saint George and Saints Crispin and Crispian as he charged across the bloody fields of France. Mills has him talk Shakespearean English, too; he is constantly breaking into the rhythms of blank verse. ‘Dear English maid,’ he tells Rosamond as he prepares to leave in a flash of lightning (I don’t remember any lightning in Peter Pan!), ‘No foe of yours that is not foe of mine. No dangers yours that are not shared by me. No wrong of yours that I will not redress’ (p. 74). Heady stuff, when addressed to a girl of eleven or twelve, and guaranteed to supply her with a substantial dose of extra pluck. I found it thrilling, too, at the age of seven, though I don’t remember being filled with anything much like patriotism by Saint George’s flashy appearances and disappearances. I thought of him as a superhero, as no doubt did the many generations of boys who thrilled to the adventures of the patron saints in Richard Johnson’s perennial nursery classic, The Seven Champions of Christendom (1597).
Unfortunately, reviving Saint George and his red cross flag has had a tendency, historically speaking, to involve large doses of racism; and Mills’s novel is not exempt. Not for nothing does Saint George change Henry V’s battle cry from ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George’ to ‘God for George, England and the Right’ (p. 74). The genie, for instance, is ‘of Ethiopian darkness, but not at all repulsive looking’ (p. 51), while a French merchant called Bertrand who offers to buy the defunct Cousin Matthews’s effects is said to have a shrewd eye for a bargain because ‘his great-great-grandmother had been a Jewess’ (p. 79). Despite these racist throwaway remarks both the merchant and the genie are clearly meant to be attractive figures, though the genie’s principal charm is his obedience (he is the children’s ‘faithful friend’, p. 94), which is particularly unsettling when he refers to himself as a ‘slave’ (p. 51). Bertrand, on the other hand, is both gallant and courageous, and has nothing but contempt for the treachery to family and nation shown by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda. His function in the play, in fact, is to point up their nastiness, since even his foreignness and suspect ancestry cannot blind him to their perfidy. The presence in the novel of these two characters amply confirms Mills’s quasi-fascistic views, as does her assumption that England’s glory depends exclusively on its military victories, ‘Crecy and Poictiers, […] Waterloo and Trafalgar’ (p. 224), and her certainty that the pirate-poet Sir Walter Raleigh was the ‘pattern of chivalry’ (p. 49) because he only sank Spanish ships. Her views on class are equally repugnant. The sole working-class character in the book, the page boy William, is an insufferable sneak who delights in taunting Crispian and Rosamond on their penniless state since the death of their parents. Sometimes it’s worth reminding oneself of fantasy’s potential to sow the seeds of fascism, and of how enthusiastically the British were capable of embracing fascistic ideas well before the rise of Nazism.
The literary virtues of Where the Rainbow Ends are of a piece with its moral and ideological vices. Foremost among these is its capacity for building dramatic tension in each of its three constituent parts. The first ‘act’ of the novel sees the children informed by their wicked Uncle and Aunt that their schooldays are over for lack of funds and that their beloved Cousin Matthew’s library will be sold to pay their bills, and with it the guidebook to ‘Where the Rainbow Ends’ as well as the magic carpet that might have taken them there. It is then a race against time to use the carpet before Uncle Joseph, Aunt Matilda and the page boy William can hold them back. The second ‘act’ sees them confronting the dangers of Dragon Wood, their chief obstacle here being their friend little Betty Blunders, who is clearly designed to embody all the female failings Mills has banished from the lively personage of her heroine, Rosamond. Betty ignores the advice of the guidebook by entering Dragon Wood at nightfall in pursuit of the alluring Will o’the Wisp, just at the point when the monsters and beasts are waking up. Although she is quickly rescued by the boys, the presence of those beasts and monsters ensures that the rest of the night – and of the book’s second ‘act’ – is as full of terrors as a night can be. The third ‘act’ begins with the capture of the children by flying dragons and their incarceration in the Dragon King’s Castle, where they are due to be executed at any moment. Escape involves the rapid sewing of an English flag by Rosamond – who has had the good sense to bring along her sewing kit – and its hoisting by the boys on the Castle flagpole, a deed that brings Saint George to the rescue in the usual flash of lightning, with predictable results. The Dragon King is transfixed by the Saint’s doughty blade, and the rest of the dragons are hurled howling into a bottomless abyss, like Milton’s fallen angels. Fortunately at this point in the story not a single dragon seems to remember that it can fly, so they all perish. The way is therefore cleared for the children to press on to the place Where the Rainbow Ends, where Rosamond and Crispian’s parents are waiting, having survived their shipwreck after all. The children find their way to the correct location without any difficulty, despite having dropped their precious guidebook in the lake when the Dragons seized them. Their reunion with their parents is suitably moving, and caused seven-year-old me to break the injunction not to cry every time I read it.
Another redeeming feature of the novel (if it has any) is its clear sense that the British Empire is in steep decline. Saint George no longer lives on English soil, but spends his time overseas because the Colonies are more interested in him than his countrymen are. The older generation of English patriots are similarly located elsewhere, unable to make their way back from distant parts to their homeland; Rosamond’s parents Captain and Mrs Carey spend the whole novel loitering in ragged clothes on a distant shore, like Prospero and Miranda on their desert island, persecuted by a witch out of Macbeth and a fairy out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the unreliable Will o’the Wisp) as well as the constant threat of dragonish assaults straight out of Milton. Mrs Carey has even become a legend or fantasy herself, being referred to by Will as Mother Vera – Mother Truth – which effectively makes her Mother Carey, a sailor’s legend who is referred to by (among others) Charles Kingsley in The Water Babies (1862-3) and John Masefield in Salt Water Ballads (1902). England, then, is always elsewhere in this novel, a little like Narnia in the Narnian Chronicles, and its identity is always under threat of erasure. Captain and Mrs Carey have been replaced in the household by Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, who regard the English flag as ‘That Jingo bogey – that pretty bit of bunting – that child’s plaything’ (p. 119), and whose only concern is to cheat their nephew and niece out of their inheritance. Meanwhile the heraldic Lion of England is represented in this novel by a half-grown lion cub, Cubby, and the next generation of English human beings (as embodied in the page boy William and the indolent youth known only as the Slacker) threatens to follow the children’s uncle and aunt into self-obsession and indifference to the national interest.
The most striking representation of this tendency can be found in the Dragon Wood, a place where everything that is inimical to imperial orderliness resides. It is full of foreign beasts, a category from which Cubby is excluded despite being a lion (he is a specifically English lion, we are told (p. 18)). There is a black leopard which injures Crispian and Blunders, a pack of hyenas whose voices Crispian remembers from his time in India, and miscellaneous other carnivores. The Wood has supernatural creatures in it, too, including Will o’the Wisp, who is always ‘mislead[ing] night wanderers, laughing at their harm’, like Shakespeare’s Puck, and a bunch of nastier elves and gnomes who are given to pinching errant strangers black and blue like the false fairies in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Worse still, it is a place of metamorphosis, where a person’s identity is constantly on the verge of getting compromised. One of the trees in it was once a ‘high-born Dragon’ who dared to eat the Dragon King’s food and was punished for this by being transformed into a stump with arms, which is constantly hungry for the flesh of passers by. Another monster is the thing that gave me nightmares:
Out of the reeds a loathsome creature, half man, half worm was crawling, slowly dragging its flabby useless limbs along the ground. Its face was ashen, its worm-shaped head hairless. It had a great, gaping, loose-lipped mouth and its eyes, that were for ever turning restlessly from side to side, shone like arc lamps. Lamps they were indeed, that warned others of the deadly trail of slime it left as it crawled – slime that clogged the feet of those who encountered it [–] but to the creature itself they gave no light, for it was blind. Slowly it dragged itself from the marsh and entered the thicket while the boys stood transfixed with horror. (p. 171)
Crispian recognizes this creature, too – he calls it ‘a Slitherslime’ – and there is a dreadful revelation to come about it. After its disappearance into a thicket the two naval cadets meet another boy who seems to live in the Dragon Wood, unharmed by its monstrous denizens. The boy is English, and like Crispian and Blunders once set off to find a lost loved one – his sister – in the place Where the Rainbow Ends; but he got distracted by the pleasures of the Woods, where one can get endless supplies of tasty fruit, spend one’s time fishing in well-stocked trout streams, and watch the gnomes playing cricket (p. 177). Now he lives there in permanent indolence, protected by the toll he pays the Dragon King, which involves passing on to him unopened all the letters he gets from his mother (delivered by passing pilgrims on their way to Heart’s Content), and wearing on his breast the Dragon King’s crest in place of the cross of Saint George.
Worst of all, he is degenerating physically. Already ‘round-shouldered and walk[ing] with a slouch’, he has a ‘livid’ face (p. 172), and the end of this degenerative process, he tells Blunders, is to become the slug-like creature they have just encountered, which helpfully reappears to underline the horror of this fate just as the boy makes reference to it: ‘For a moment in hideous helplessness it turned its restless worm-like head with the blazing, sightless eyes towards the boys, then, with a horrible whimper of distress it slithered off into the marshes’ (p. 180). Horrified by this vision, Blunders automatically repeats Nelson’s famous slogan from the Battle of Trafalgar – ‘England expects every man to do his duty’ (p. 182) – and at once the Dragon Light that protects the indolent youth begins to grow dim. The boy promptly swears to stay in the Wood for ever, the Dragon Light rekindles, and away he flees through the trees ‘laughing and crying hysterically’ (p. 183), never to be seen again.
The curious thing about this episode is that it sets up an indolent version of England as the antithesis of the cadets’ beloved imperial power. The indolent youth – known as the Slacker – introduces himself as an English subject, enjoys peculiarly English pursuits such as fishing and cricket, and offers the cadets fruit that look ‘just like ordinary English apples’ (p. 179). The decay of England lurks in the inner spaces of English national identity, like a maggot in a healthy core, just as the Slacker’s sluggish future form is foreshadowed in the round-shouldered debility of his body; only a subtle shift of emphasis in one’s clichéd fantasies of the ideal English existence is needed for England to become a breeding ground of the Dragon’s minions. If being English is a fantasy, as its association here with Shakespeare’s plays, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Milton’s Paradise Lost suggests, then an alternative fantasy could easily supplant it, and this play is filled with alternative fantasies, many of them derived from the very same sources that supplied material for the fantasies of imperial England.
The nastiest of these fantasies by far are those of Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda, which are both greedy and sadistic. At the beginning of the novel Aunt Matilda wears a ‘cruel smile’ as she tells Crispian he can no longer go to the naval college he has been attending, then forbids him to wear his cadet’s uniform the following day: ‘Aunt Matilda knew that this would hurt Cris. She knew that a naval boy loves his uniform, not so much for the look of it but because it is a uniform of noble traditions and a thing to live up to and be proud of and it did hurt Cris horribly to be told in that cold and heartless fashion not to wear it again’ (p. 30). Uncle Joseph is even worse. When he finds the children gone from his house on a quest to find their parents – which would deprive him of the family home he has feloniously inherited with the help of his expertise as a lawyer – he chases after them armed with a whip which he plans to use to ‘tickle them with for running away’, after tying their hands and feet with rope and gagging their ‘pretty mouths’ (pp. 122-3). Fortunately Saint George removes the whip from him before he can use it, but Uncle Joseph later succeeds in catching Rosamond, whereupon he ties her to the Enchanted Tree, gags her, and leaves her alone in the Dragon Wood to be eaten by hyenas. As he abandons her to her fate he can’t resist a final gloat: ‘“What a pity, isn’t it?” he said […] “Brother Crispian is in the wood and you can’t call to him to come and rescue you, and I’m afraid when he does pass this way you won’t be here, hyenas are so fond of little children”’ (p. 193). Later still the hyenas come after Uncle Joseph and Aunt Matilda instead, and the lawyer climbs a tree to escape their jaws, leaving his sister on the ground in her impractical evening gown to be devoured with ‘piercing […] shrieks’ (p. 202) – though fortunately off stage, both in the play and in the novel. He doesn’t escape his own fate long, however. Overcome with hunger he finds Cubby’s bottle of Colonial Mixture in his pocket and proceeds to drink the contents, having failed to read the small print on the label (‘Poison to Traitors’). He has no time to feel much more than the first pangs of this poison before the hyenas come back for him, having made short work of his sister’s bony body. Like the Slacker he is destroyed by what he consumes to sustain him, trapped into the very fate he sacrificed his family ties to evade.
Set up in opposition to Uncle Andrew’s fantasies of selfishness, torture and material gain, the fantasy of England restored to imperial glory is all about emotional reunions with lost relatives; as I said before, the final scene of the novel had a tendency to reduce my seven-year-old self to a tearstained wreck. There’s something disturbing, though, about this final vision, as well as about the story that leads up to it. This ending asserts that not only can the British Empire be buttressed by affectionate young patriots, but that death itself can be overcome; and this not in the form of a life to come but through resurrection in this world – or so it seems. The scene begins with a reunion between a nameless English mother and her lost ‘little one’ on the beach Where the Rainbow Ends. Carried to the blessed location by an English ship, then ferried ashore by the boast of ‘faith and Hope’, the woman suddenly sees her infant rushing towards her:
and, seeing the little one, sinks to her knees and with eyes that almost fear to believe looks into the little face she has for so long seen only in her dreams. Scarce daring to breathe, her yearning fingers glide over the golden curls to the white brow upon which they cluster. Wistfully her hungry gaze meets again the laughing look of dear blue eyes; she longs, yet fears to kiss the smiling roguish baby lips raised to hers, lest, as in those cruel dreams which so long have mocked her grief, she will wake to find her poor arms empty.
But upon the child’s face is no sorrow, no surprise. Closer it nestles into the dear, remembered arms.
‘Mummy,’ the little one coaxes, ‘Mummy darling – now – tell again the story of little ten toes.’ (p. 248)
The reunion is clearly not meant to be subjected to rigorous theological analysis, but the implication is, I think, that the mother in this scene is alive, that she has taken a journey analogous to that accomplished by Rosamond and Crispian in their quest to find their parents, and that when she has reached the place Where the Rainbow Ends she has been reunited with a child she had lost – presumably to death, since she has not seen it except in dreams for an extended period. What happens next? The last we see of the mother and child is an image of them running up the golden sands in jubilation; but a little later we witness the reunion of Rosamond and Crispian with their lost loved ones, Captain and Mrs Carey, on the same beach; and shortly afterwards all four surviving members of the Carey family are on Hope’s boat again, with the Blunders siblings, heading towards the English ship by which the Carey parents were earlier rescued from the Witch’s Cove where they were wrecked – a ship now ‘bound for England’ (p. 254). Moments later Saint George manifests himself at the stern of the boat, duly accompanied by the English national flag:
He was coming with them back to the dear land to which they were sailing; to fight once more the dragons that sought his country’s downfall – coming back, not to be lifeless stone in cold cathedral, but to live henceforth and for ever in the hearts of children of his race. (p. 255)
Of course, we are to understand that Captain and Mrs Carey were never really dead, they were merely shipwrecked on their way home from India; their deaths were a dreadful illusion which their children had been forced to live with for several months. But what of the nameless mother reunited with her dead child? The place Where the Rainbow Ends promises to restore ‘all lost loved ones’ to their relatives – that was the promise made by the book in the opening chapter. There was no mention there of the golden shore being in the afterlife, and in the final chapter there seems to be no prohibition on taking your recovered lost loved ones back to England along with the equally lost and recovered patron saint of England. The distinction between the saint in stone and the saint in living flesh reinforces the assumption; if you have sufficient faith in God and your country (which are here more or less the same thing, thanks to the happy accident of the country’s flag happening to be the emblem of the Christian faith), your lost loved ones will come back to life, whether they were dead or merely missing, and all will be well not just for a while but in fact ‘for ever’. That’s an irresponsibly massive pledge to make in a play for children. It also seems to make nonsense of an earlier passage in the novel where Uncle Joseph realizes he is about to die without benefit of patriotism, and hence alone:
Not one of a vast brotherhood who, though separated by continents, feels still bound and upheld by a thousand ties of national hopes and ambitions; not as the humblest patriot, who dying in a distant land, feels yet around and about him like a royal mantle those best traditions of his country he has given his life to uphold. (p. 204)
The final chapter holds out the possibility that those who die as part of the ‘vast brotherhood’ of patriots can be brought back from the dead. This investment of the nation with powers of resurrection beyond the divine is perhaps the most grandiose assertion about national identity I have ever encountered. God barely rates a mention in Where the Rainbow Ends; his place is almost entirely ceded to England, presumably because the name of God, like the title of saint, may be felt by many patriotic Englishmen to be no more than ‘a misty unsoldierly decoration’ (p. 72). The unsettling nature of Mills’s fantasy, then, is not just about its sadism; it’s also about the claims it makes on the reader’s world. Children reading a book like this are being encouraged to apply its assertions about the country Where the Rainbow Ends to their own ‘race’ in particular (there are no French, Jewish or African lost people, it seems, on the golden beach). They are being encouraged to think that the dead can be brought back to life through nationalistic fervour. It’s hardly inaccurate to describe a sentiment like this as fascistic, and to describe Mills’s book as engaging in a deeply irresponsible use of the strategies of fantasy.
Philip French once suggested in The Observer that the Christian writer C. S. Lewis might have been influenced by Where the Rainbow Ends when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950). Given what I’ve just said about the book’s theology, one might imagine this would be improbable; but in fact there’s every sign that the book had a strong influence on Lewis – but not, I think, on the first of the Narnian chronicles. Certainly there are a lion and four children in both Where the Rainbow Ends and The Lion, but I can’t see much more to link them apart from a common zeal for battle and the presence in both of a wicked witch. Much closer, though, is the link between Mills’s book and The Magician’s Nephew (1955). Both involve a quest for the recovery of a parent, taken on by a boy and girl with the help of friends. Both contain tempting apples (the Slacker offers one to the cadets, Digory is offered one by Queen Jadis) and moments of exhilarating flight, on a winged horse in Lewis’s novel, a magic carpet in Mills’s. The apple in The Magician’s Nephew gets replanted in England and so becomes the English apple which is mimicked by the Slacker’s fruit. Meanwhile Digory’s father is away in India, and makes his way home at the end of the story against all odds, like Captain and Mrs Carey. But the most obvious link between the books is embodied in the figure of the wicked uncle. Uncle Joseph lives with his sister, exactly like Lewis’s Uncle Andrew, although Uncle Andrew’s sister Letitia (Aunty Lettie) is much nicer (and tougher) than Aunt Matilda. Both uncles are tall and thin, and given to wearing top hats, which like the rest of their clothing get subjected to appalling wear and tear – Uncle Andrew’s by his adventures in company with Jadis, the witch-queen of Charn, and Uncle Joseph’s by his underground journey in company with the devilish Dragon-King, during which his garments are ‘considerably damaged’ by ‘sparks and lava dust’ (p. 115). Both uncles have a singular contempt for children (remember Uncle Andrew’s willingness to use Digory and Polly for his experiments in magic). Both have a commercial side to their personalities, with Uncle Joseph scheming to deprive his niece and nephew of their inheritance – ‘Riverdale and the fortune that accompanied it’ (p. 199) – while Uncle Andrew devises grander projects to do with the newly-created land of Narnia: ‘Bring a few scraps of old iron here, bury ’em, and up they come as brand new railway engines, battleships, anything you please. They’ll cost nothing, and I can sell ’em at full prices in England. I shall be a millionaire’ (p. 103). Finally, both uncles meet their doom at the hands, or rather paws, of savage animals. As we’ve seen, Uncle Joseph is first poisoned by drinking the tonic of an English lion cub then eaten by hyenas; while Uncle Andrew is first frightened half to death by a fully-grown lion, then pursued across the Narnian landscape by a crowd of baying beasts, which he thinks are hungry for his blood. Andrew is lucky enough to be mistaken; his death is only symbolic, and being less wicked than his prototype he is allowed to repent of his wickedness and become ‘a nicer and less selfish old man than he had ever been before’ in the final pages of Lewis’s novel (p. 171). His transformation can be taken to begin at the moment when the animals plant him in the earth of Narnia, mistaking him for a kind of tree. Unlike Mills’s Enchanted Tree, which started out as a dragon and retains a dragon’s hunger, Uncle Andrew’s planting eventually bears fruit in repentance and personal reform, which he carries back with him from Narnia very much as Digory carries back the fruit that will heal his dying mother.
Uncle Andrew’s reprieve can be read as a kind of symbolic reprieve for Where the Rainbow Ends, which is transformed by Lewis from a piece of imperialist propaganda to a creation myth for an Edenic secondary world. Lewis’s concern in the Narnian chronicles with revitalizing religious faith in the Britain of the 1950s is balanced in The Magician’s Nephew by an anti-imperialist spirit which runs more or less counter to the politics of Mills’s play and book. Lewis pits the Empress Jadis of Charn and her minor-league disciple, Uncle Andrew, against the lion Aslan, who raises ordinary London Cabbies to the status of kings but insists on their remembering how to ‘use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth’ (p. 129) and how to treat their subjects as they would wish to be treated themselves. The newly-crowned King Frank is exclusively concerned with protecting Narnia against its enemies rather than expanding its borders – though the assumption that he deserves ‘natural’ authority over both talking animals and his wife, Queen Helen, will annoy most modern readers. Lewis endows his main female character, Polly, with something of Rosamond’s force of personality, though on the whole women are relegated to a secondary position in his narrative compared with that of Mills; even the quest for the healing apple is Digory’s rather than Polly’s, though elsewhere in Lewis’s work he was happy enough to include girls among his principal questers (Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Jill in The Silver Chair).
At the same time, here as elsewhere Lewis takes it for granted that the fantastic genre he writes in is in some sense a feminine one. Uncle Andrew has inherited what magic talents he has from his godmother, Mrs Lefay, whose name suggests an association both with fairy tales and Arthurian legend. She it was who bequeathed her godson a box from Atlantis containing dust from another world (Philip Pullman took note), which he uses to manufacture the rings that convey the child protagonists, Digory and Polly, to Charn and Narnia. Uncle Andrew, however, has learned nothing from this about the potency of female storytelling. When Digory points out that Mrs Le Fay’s gift suggests that ‘all the old fairy tales are more or less true’ (p. 28), and that one of the things that happens in fairy stories is that wicked people like Uncle Andrew get their come-uppance, his uncle retorts that such notions are no more than ‘Old wives’ tales’ and that Digory only believes them because he was ‘brought up among women’ (p. 29). One of the women Lewis himself got his ideas from was Clifford Mills, and this makes me wonder how many other better remembered writers owe a debt to her unsettling fantasy of death reversed, treason savagely punished, and imperial degeneration temporarily halted.
Where the Rainbow Ends has a place in the history of British fantasy, and I think it’s best not to forget it, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. Fantasies can be damaging, it reminds us, as well as enriching; and even damaging fantasies can sometimes have unexpectedly enriching effects. Where the Rainbow Ends shaped me to a certain extent as well as Lewis, and it’s crucial to analyse that shaping process if we are not to be controlled by it. I can’t honestly, however, recommend that you read the book for yourself.
 Clifford Mills was Emilie Clifford (née Bennet, married Harold Mills Clifford in 1889), who adopted a variant of her husband’s name when writing. Besides Where the Rainbow Ends she wrote two other successful plays, The Basker (1916) and The Luck of the Navy (1919), both of which were performed on Broadway. The Luck of the Navy was filmed twice, in 1927 and 1938.
 Clifford Mills, Where the Rainbow Ends (London: Forgotten Books, 2015); all references are to this facsimile edition.
 Philip French, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – review’, The Observer, Sunday 11 December 2005.
 C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (London etc.: William Collins and Sons, 1989). All references are to this edition.
[This is a poem I wrote for some Dutch friends, former neighbours in Glasgow who now live in Rhode Island. Our two families always celebrated the Dutch festival of Saint Nicholas together, and we still send each other poems every year. Saint Nicholas came from Turkey, though for some reason he always sails to the Netherlands via Spain. His day is 5 December, but his journey from Spain takes a week and you can follow its progress on Dutch TV.]
Saint Nicholas has far to go
Across the waves from Spain.
His little boat is powered by snow
And wind, and spray, and rain.
His little helpers, so they say,
Are blue, and green, and pink;
Saint Nicholas’s hair is grey;
His face is black as ink.
Saint Nicholas was once a girl,
But now his form is male.
He watched his silver beard unfurl
As slowly as a snail.
For centuries he watched it grow
And watered it with tears,
While sun, and rain, and wind, and snow
Marked out the passing years.
And now it flies behind him as
He skims across the waves
With piles of presents in his arms
For refugees and slaves.
And when he sees your waiting shoes
He’ll fill them full of dreams,
Where every shoe’s a bark canoe
And every street’s a stream.
And every stream runs dimpling down
Through hills, and heaths, and trees,
To join the green, red, yellow, brown,
There where the boats dash to and fro
With Nicholas and his friends:
Whales from the lands of ice and snow,
Birds from the ocean’s ends;
And as the waters rise and rise
And as the skies grow dark,
Studded with little blinking eyes,
The boats will form an ark.
The ark will forge through froth and foam,
The birds and whales will hum,
And nudge the vessel gently home
In some strange time to come.
And where it lands its wooden sides
Will root themselves and grow,
And strange new creatures leap or glide
Into the evening glow.
And as they peer about in fear
Dreading another storm,
Saint Nicholas will reappear
In some bizarre new form.
He’ll try to make them understand
They’ve nothing left to lose;
And then he’ll sink down in the sand
And give them back their shoes.
And some of them will put them on
As hats, or masks, or shells,
While others jump aboard and sail
Them off like caravels.
And others still will walk away
With shoes on both their feet,
And build a little town of clay
With trees on every street.
And every house will be an inn
For folk from overseas,
With food and drink and clothes within
For slaves and refugees.
And every night they’ll lay their shoes
Outside the door with care,
So folk with nothing left to lose
Will know they’re welcome there.
And every morning they’ll look out
Through panes of coloured glass
And hum this little song about
The new Saint Nicholas.
Herbert Read’s novel The Green Child (1935) can be described as an exercise in political detachment, charting the journey of an emergent anarchist into revolutionary disengagement from political and religious systems of all kinds. This journey towards disengagement is embodied in the novel’s eccentric structure. Constructed as three novels in one, its narrative transports the reader from a kind of fantastic autobiography in the first part – many details of which derive from Read’s recollections of his childhood in rural Yorkshire, as given in his memoir The Innocent Eye (1933) – to a South American utopia in the second, to a surrealist underground dreamscape in the third. Each part, as has often been pointed out, closes in death: the apparent death by drowning that ends the first part, the faked assassination of President Olivero that ends the second, the death by petrifaction that ends the third. The novel also opens with a death. Its first sentence announces ‘The death of President Olivero’, and the rest of the narrative can therefore be read as an afterlife experience – an invocation of the experience of dying, the point at which a person’s life is said to flash before their eyes. Admittedly we’re told in the first paragraph that Olivero ‘arranged his own assassination’, but the phrase is ambiguous enough to suggest that he could either have faked his own death or committed what is in effect assisted suicide.
If, then, we can think of the book as an extended account of death and the process of dying, we can also read it as a critique of the various versions of the afterlife offered by world religions and philosophies. Instead of achieving spiritual enlightenment, its protagonist finally accomplishes the total abandonment of both body and spirit; a condition to which he progresses by way of an increasingly intense scrutiny of material things and a growing appreciation of simplicity in people, politics and aesthetics, cognate developments that help him recognize the basically geometric principles that underpin the structure of the universe. The materialist religion or philosophy he embraces in the end could be seen as articulating a political as well as a philosophical position: that only in freeing ourselves from the grand narratives of history, religion and authoritarian politics can we achieve a just society or personal contentment. The book also implies, however, that freeing ourselves in this way is an option unavailable to us – unless by some great good fortune we should find ourselves living among the Green Children, safely hidden in a sealed-off subterranean civilization which has in effect rejected narrative altogether.
All three parts of the novel seem designed to illustrate fantasy ‘in the abstract’ as described in English Prose Style. They are, for instance, emancipated from time in that they occur out of chronological order, shifting from one timeline in part one (beginning in 1861) to an earlier timeline in part two (beginning in 1830 or so) and back again to the first timeline in the third of its three unequal sections. This emancipation from time is further emphasized by the fact that the narrator admits at one point that he has falsified all the dates in it ‘for reasons which will be obvious when this narrative has been read’ (p. 21) – the chief of these being that the protagonist kills a man in the opening section. The three parts are emancipated, too, from place, in that they encompass much of the known world and beyond, drifting from England in the first part to Poland, Spain, Argentina and the invented republic of Roncador in the second, to a nameless underground country in the third. The narrative voice changes too, from third person to first person and back again to third. Like the chapter on fantasy, then, The Green Child is always unsettling our expectations, refusing to let us relax into a familiar genre or a consistent set of narrative conventions.
Still following the various aspects of fantasy as described in English Prose Style, the first and third parts of The Green Child are ‘arbitrary’ in the sense that impossible things happen in them: a stream runs backwards, a man turns to stone. The middle narrative is more conventional, as one might expect given that it describes a community rather than the adventures of an individual; but this section too is in some sense arbitrary in its imitation of the picaresque ramblings of adventure romance, full of disconnected incidents, improbable coincidences, unlikely achievements – not least of these being the easy establishment of a happy society within a few years, in defiance of the rest of human experience. Finally, all three parts of the book are ‘objective’ in that they are deeply concerned with practicalities of various kinds; above all, with working out in meticulous detail the logical implications of the miscellaneous impossibilities and unlikelihoods they contain (the reason why the stream is flowing backwards, the logistics of the utopia described in part two, the supporting philosophy which justifies the man’s petrifaction in the final section). They are ‘objective’, too, in their resistance to a detailed account of the protagonist’s feelings; the book is about his actions and thoughts, not his emotions, even though the first and final parts describe his obsession with a woman. The book ends, indeed, with the total annihilation of emotion in the protagonist as he slowly turns to stone, ‘a consummation / Devoutly to be wished’ in Read’s universe. One gets the impression that the chief reason why turning to stone represents Read’s personal form of Nirvana is that it stands at the polar opposite of all spiritual systems; it can’t be aligned with any extant form of religion or philosophy, and so detaches the petrified protagonist once and for all from the encumbrances of nationalism, authoritarian internationalism and history that seemed to be embroiling most of humankind in the 1930s.
The entire structure of the novel, with its repeated disruptions of continuity, could be said to spring from the presence in it of the Green Child who gives the book its title. In this it builds on the technique of the story Read identified as ‘the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’: the Green Children of Woolpit, whose narrative (as we’ve seen) grew or accrued organically and quasi-logically from the central event it documented, the discovery of the Green Children themselves. The surviving ‘Green Child’ features in the first part of Read’s novel, while the second part lays out some of the reasons why she had such a powerful impact on the protagonist when he met her. The third part reveals the context that shaped her: the culture of the Green People whose influence takes the protagonist beyond his obsession with an isolated representative of their culture. The figure of the Green Child, I would suggest, embodies Read’s concept of fantasy: that is, ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ in the form of a concrete, dispassionately imagined object, here a person, which has been emancipated through circumstance ‘from the order of time and space’. And this reading of her seems to me to be supported by the frequent references to fantasy and the fantastic that punctuate the first section of the text in which she features.
These references are present from the book’s first page. At the beginning the protagonist, an Englishman known by the Spanish name of Olivero, finds himself drawn back to the village of his birth after long absence by what he calls ‘sentimental nostalgia’, an emotion that represents the place to him as ‘withdrawn [by time] to a fantastic distance, bright and exquisite and miniature, like a landscape seen through the wrong end of a telescope’ (p. 9, my emphasis). His home town, in fact, has acquired the quality of a fantasy, emancipated from space and time by the operations of space (that is, geographical distance) and time (that is, the lapse of years), though not yet freed from the emotional resonances that make him yearn to go back there. Later he describes the half-remembered village as ‘bright in its crystal setting’ (p. 10), anticipating the emphasis on crystals among the Green People in the third part of the novel, and notes how his yearning for it skews his sense of what is real, distracting him from the lands he travels through on his journey back from Roncador to England. Indeed, Olivero longs to emancipate himself from time altogether: ‘To escape from the sense of time, to live in the eternity of what he was accustomed to call “the divine essence of things” – that was his only desire’ (p. 10). Yet a return to the English landscape where his ‘personality had first been liberated’ threatens to restore to its location in space and time a scene that has been detached from space and time by his thirty years’ absence. Fortunately, however, his arrival in the village instead brings him face to face with the fantastic in concrete form, first in the shape of a river which runs in the opposite direction from the river he remembers from his youth – runs, in fact, uphill – and then in the shape of the Green Child he comes across as he seeks to trace the river to its source. These two fantastic elements are linked, and Olivero’s obsession with both – he is as determined to explain the phenomenon of the upward-flowing river as he is to crack the mystery of the Green Child’s origins – identifies him as a man who runs against the stream of human history, and whose return to the place that shaped him will never rid him of his revolutionary tendencies.
The Green Child, it turns out, is pitted in this novel against the violence of power, technological, colonial and economic. The stream leads Olivero first to the mill where he grew up, which has since stopped functioning, then to a more modern, larger mill nearby, which he suspects of having some agency in changing the direction of the stream. Possessed of the mill is a man called Kneeshaw, a name Read used in a poem early in his career to describe a conscript who is maimed in the First World War – a cog, so to speak, in the violent machinery of the twentieth century. In The Green Child, too, Kneeshaw is associated with both violence and machinery. As a child, Kneeshaw was a pupil of Olivero in the village school, whose wanton destruction of a clockwork engine was the direct cause of Olivero’s abandonment of the teaching profession and departure from the village. As an adult, the object of Kneeshaw’s violent attentions is the Green Child, the mysterious girl with green skin who appeared with her brother in the village soon after Olivero’s departure. Kneeshaw later married her, with her guardian’s blessing, receiving with her from that guardian the money needed both to care for her and to modernize his mill. Kneeshaw’s lifelong devotion to the Green Child, then, is for him bound up with his lifelong devotion to the running of his modernized mill, and just as the mill is driven by the stream, so is Kneeshaw’s obsession with the Green Child driven by his desire to humanize her and hence make her wholly his – his machine, so to speak, as well as his possession. Given the Green Child’s greenness, which implies an association with nature, this linkage of her with machinery – nature’s opposite – might be expected to culminate in an outbreak of violence.
The green girl, meanwhile, cultivates an instinctive detachment from Kneeshaw which is directly opposed to his apparent desire to make her like himself. She refuses to sleep with him, eat the meat he brings her, or do productive work in his household. She also refuses to stop wandering round the countryside – not wantonly, like the original Green Child of Woolpit, but arbitrarily, without any perceptible purpose, mostly sticking to the banks of the similarly wandering and arbitrary stream. She is cold where Kneeshaw is hot, objective where he is subjective (her distaste for him is not personal, since she is equally detached from all living creatures) and random in her behaviour, where his behaviour is strictly functional. She is emancipated from time, in that she both ages much more slowly than an ordinary person and retains the childlike title by which she was known from the moment she wandered into the village. This sets her against the strictly time-bound schedule by which Kneeshaw’s business operates. It is hardly surprising, then, if as the marriage wears on Kneeshaw’s response to her intransigent strangeness becomes increasingly aggressive. He tries to lock her in an attic until she conforms, thinking that he will be able to force her to observe the timekeeping he lives by (instead she nearly dies, like a plant deprived of light and water). When Olivero comes across him he is attempting to force a cup of hot lamb’s blood between the Green Child’s teeth, convinced that this is the only way to give her strength enough to be of use to him. Kneeshaw’s instinctive association of the Green Child with the proverbially innocent and sacrificial lamb predicts the likely end result of what Read calls his ‘tormenting’ of her in the latter stages of their marriage (p. 33).
Along with all their other differences, the couple are separated by their different levels of complexity. Divided as Kneeshaw is between the industrial machinery that makes him prosperous, the hot blood that gives him strength and his frustrated sexual desire for the strange woman he has married, along with a perverse veneration for her, he is a highly complex figure. Read describes him as the victim of ‘primitive instincts’, but insists that this is not the same as calling him simple; he compares Kneeshaw’s conflicting loyalties and desires to the ‘complicated taboos of savage races’, savagery here being as much aligned through Kneeshaw with the complexities of industrial engineering at the heart of the British Empire as it is with any of that Empire’s colonized territories. Kneeshaw represents, in fact, the machinery of imperialism, its dehumanizing effect on its human instruments, and the violence with which it imposes conformity with the customs and contradictions that sustain it. The Green Child, on the other hand, could be taken to stand for everything that must be suppressed to let the Empire flourish. Above all, she stands for simplicity, and as the book goes on the writer’s preference for what is simple over what is complex becomes increasingly apparent.
One aspect of the Green Child’s simplicity is her resistance to being tied down to any conventional narrative. Her physical coldness connects her with the upward-flowing river, and she prefers above all else to spend her time in its water, so that ‘without shame or hesitation [she] would throw off her frock and float like a mermaid, almost invisible, in the watery element’ (p. 31). This association with mermaids follows on from Read’s description of her fleeing from Kneeshaw’s embraces ‘as from a hot-breathed fawn’, which associates her with the unwilling nymphs of classical legend who prefer metamorphosis into trees or reeds to the aggressive attentions of male deities. Mermaids or sirens are traditionally promiscuous, while fleeing nymphs are chaste, so the two connections could be said to cancel each other out. Later Read describes her as walking like a ‘fairy’ (p. 43), and later still as possessing a ‘green naiad figure’ (p. 45) and a face as ‘radiant as an angel’s’ (p. 46), aligning her with multiple myths or legends in quick succession while confining her to none. In the same way, Read’s novel resists generic classification, as if infected by the Green Child’s elusiveness. The book could be read as an adventure story or romance with Olivero as its globetrotting hero; but the Green Child’s refusal to behave like a conventional heroine effectively cuts it off from this literary model. As a ‘child’, even in her thirties, she preexists any cultural associations, prejudices or implied conditioning, and we never witness her reaching maturity and so settling into a consistent role or character. She never speaks, although we are told she is capable of speech; she may understand what Olivero says to her but he can never be certain (‘she turned an unmoved and perhaps uncomprehending face towards him’, p. 43). In the third and final section of the novel the couple confirm their resistance to generic containment by losing interest in one another altogether, in defiance of romance convention. All the Green Child’s personal traits, in fact, link her with the whimsicality Read sees as integral to fantasy, and suggest that Olivero’s yearning for her – and Kneeshaw’s too – is a hankering after the qualities Read associates with the fantastic in his criticism.
She also seems to bring out the fantastic in the behaviour of her male admirers – even those who are most resistant to fantasy. When Olivero first sets eyes on her, helpless in the clutches of her powerful husband as he seeks to force hot blood into her mouth, he rushes to the rescue with the impetuousness of a romance hero, but his rescue soon becomes absurd. To reach her he must scramble through a half-open window, and he gets stuck half way, with ‘the upper half of his body outside the window, his legs waving wildly inside the room’ (p. 19). ‘This mishap,’ Read informs us, ‘which in any normal circumstances would have been merely comic, gave a still further fantastic turn to the scene of horror inside the room’ (p. 19, my emphasis). Later, Kneeshaw reveals himself, too, to have been affected by the fantastic when he relates to Olivero, despite his usual taciturnity, the story of his marriage. This unwonted eloquence comes to him because ‘tragedy’, as Read tells us, ‘drives us beyond natural behaviour, on to a level where imagination and phantasy rule’ (p. 25, my emphasis) – and fantasy, the product of the imaginative faculty, is described in English Prose Style as a mode of rhetoric or eloquent speech. Olivero, on the other hand, has been a devotee of fantasy since his youth. As a schoolmaster his favoured teaching technique was to dispense with formal learning and encourage his pupils to ‘become absorbed in […] fantasy’ (p. 23, my emphasis) – that is, in ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – through unsupervised play. This was his motivation in providing them with the clockwork train made by his father, just as Kneeshaw’s hostility to fantasy was expressed in his smashing of the toy engine. The two men’s attraction to the fantastic person of the Green Child stems, then, from opposite perspectives, one of which is determined to liberate fantasy from its entrapment in systems, the other committed to subjecting it to the systematic mode of operation it resists.
The clash between these two perspectives reaches its apex when Olivero leaves the mill, after freeing the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s clutches, and returns to his former occupation of studying the stream. Seeing a phenomenon he does not understand in the troubled water of the millpond – ‘a continual interweaving of irregular ribbons of water, gushing and spouting in every direction’, like an enactment of fantastic arbitrariness (p. 39) – he decides to deactivate the millwheel so as to study the water in an undisturbed state. Kneeshaw immediately notices that his mill has been rendered unproductive and hurries to reconnect the wheel to its machinery. In the process he discovers that Olivero is still lurking on his property and attacks him in the hope of destroying him, as he destroyed the engine thirty years before. Instead it’s Kneeshaw who is destroyed, drowned by Olivero with the help of his own reactivated millwheel (repurposed, in effect, as an inquisitorial instrument of torture) in a scene that recalls the linkage of technology with violence in the work of H G Wells: ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’, perhaps, in which a colonial subject electrocutes his overseer in an act of ritual sacrifice, or more fittingly ‘The Cone’, in which a jealous husband murders his wife’s lover by hurling him onto a red-hot piece of industrial machinery. The parallel with Wells’s ‘The Cone’ is reinforced by Kneeshaw’s stubborn refusal to die quickly; he resurfaces from the pond after his first dunking to stare with hatred at Olivero, his killer, just as the lover in Wells’s story continues to cling to the red-hot Cone like a bad conscience until his killer succeeds in knocking him off. Even the difference between the situations in the short story and the novel reinforces the link between them. Kneeshaw the industrialist is killed by his wife’s lover with the help of cold water, while Wells’s lover is killed by the industrialist husband using a rigid structure of hot steel. Symbolically, Kneeshaw’s killing completes the liberation of Olivero’s personality which began when the boy Kneeshaw smashed the toy engine, smashing with it Olivero’s attempts to use the school system to liberate children’s imaginations from the rigid structures of conventional learning. The killing liberates, too, the Green Child from Kneeshaw’s efforts to make her conform; afterwards she is free to follow the stream again, this time in Olivero’s company. It is in fact the first in a series of liberating sacrifices that take place in each successive section of the novel, each designed to free one or more people from the constraints that bar them from the radical indulgence of ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’.
If the first part of The Green Child is modeled on Read’s favourite fairy tale, the second serves as a pastiche of the sort of colonialist adventure story he might have enjoyed in his adolescence. It recounts in the first person – as narrated to the Green Child after her liberation – Olivero’s adventures after abandoning his life as a village teacher. The trajectory he traces from teacher to adventurer recalls John Masefield’s adventure novel Lost Endeavour (1910), in which a schoolmaster called Little Theo becomes first a pirate, then the prophesied king of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas. According to the prophecy that identifies him as king, Theo is supposed to lead his subjects to freedom from European imperialism; but his project ends in failure, as the novel’s title indicates. Olivero’s accidental recruitment as a South American political leader is far more successful, ending not in political failure but triumph tempered by personal dissatisfaction; but like Little Theo’s adventures it involves the championing by an Englishman of the rights of indigenous people, and in this it sets itself in opposition to one of Read’s other literary influences, the South American romances of the Argentinian-American writer W. H. Hudson, most famously the author of Green Mansions (1904). Hudson’s novel involves the discovery of a girl with strangely-coloured skin, Rima, who is the last survivor of a mysterious civilization somewhere in the mountains of Venezuela. Rima speaks Spanish but can also communicate in bird-like whistles, leap through the branches of gigantic trees, and make friends with the birds and beasts of the rainforest, like a female Mowgli or Tarzan. She is eventually burned to death as a demon by the more aggressive indigenous people who live in the jungle she has made her home. Hudson had a deep affection for the descendants of Spanish colonists in Argentina, Venezuela and modern Uruguay, but expressed nothing but contempt for the indigenous peoples they displaced – with the sole exception of Rima’s lost community, who he represents as a race apart, like the lost relatives of She-who-must-be-obeyed in Rider Haggard’s She. Read’s Olivero, by contrast, embraces the cause of those same indigenous people, who endear themselves to him chiefly (it seems) because of their simplicity – their willingness, that is, to be content with simple pleasures, which makes them uniquely suitable for moulding into the citizens of an ideal state. Read’s decision to have his English protagonist first liberate these ‘simple’ people from dictatorship and then govern them for twenty-five years as a democratically-elected dictator is of course offensive in the extreme from a postcolonial perspective; but read as commentary on the political situation in 1930s Europe – like More’s Utopia, which directly responds to the tyranny of the English monarch Henry VIII – its offensiveness can at least be contextualized, though hardly mitigated.
Where Read’s novel differs from the stories of colonial adventure he’d have read as a boy is in the steadfast refusal of the central character, Olivero, to associate himself with the country of his birth. This reluctance to subscribe to the discourse of nationalism manifests itself first in his friendship with the employer he works for in London after leaving his village in Yorkshire, a Polish Jew called Klein. Read describes Klein in terms that invoke the anti-Semitic stereotypes that were becoming increasingly prevalent in the 1930s: ‘There was something like a snake in his appearance – a squat reptile, a tortoise’ (p. 48). But if the snake comparison evokes both personal deviousness and the tendency of the Christian church to blame the Jews for everything from Adam’s Fall to Christ’s crucifixion, Klein quickly frees himself from those particular racist clichés. For one thing, he is not much good with money, and employs Olivero to manage his financial affairs. For another he is a generous and trusting employer, and sends Olivero off on the next stage of his adventures by handing him a large amount of gold to take to his mother and sisters in Poland, along with plenty of extra cash to take Olivero wherever he wants to go after that. Klein’s trust, in fact, enlists Olivero as an honorary member of his family – an adoptive son – reinforcing Olivero’s sense of sympathy with his employer’s ‘simple commercial mind’ (p. 50). At the same time, like many sons Olivero also finds himself at odds with his adoptive father’s values. He loathes the ‘dull unimaginative work’ he must do to earn his keep in Klein’s employment, and instead harbours hidden ‘fancies’ for ‘those countries and cities where the longest human experience had left the richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ (p. 51). The word ‘deposits’ makes beauty and wisdom sound like subterranean veins of precious ore laid down over aeons, and links them not so much to specific societies as to long-term human habitation in the same spot, a process that results in a kind of crystalline abstraction of the qualities Olivero cherishes most. It’s in quest of this alternative treasure that he sets out on his travels, enacting the apparent arbitrariness of fantasy as he moves from place to place in search of ‘beauty and wisdom’.
The journey marks the young man’s final break from Englishness, and with it from the narrative that has shaped his life so far, emancipating him, in effect, from space and time. On arrival in Spain he finds himself arrested on suspicion of harbouring revolutionary sympathies, based on the books he has in his position – mostly written by thinkers who inspired or were inspired by the French revolution (Voltaire, Rousseau, Volney). Ironically his spell in prison brings him into contact with the very revolutionaries he is supposed to be aligned with; he learns fluent Spanish from them as well as practical politics, and is transformed in the process from Oliver to Olivero, from a local schoolmaster-turned-accountant to a fully-fledged internationalist, convinced that the simple principles of liberty, equality and fraternity deserve to form the basis of all societies, not just France. On release from prison Olivero finds himself en route to Buenos Ayres, where by a series of improbable coincidences he is mistaken by a revolutionary society for an expert in politics, whose experience will help topple the dictator of a small country, Roncador, and replace its corrupt regime with a just government. This Olivero duly does, in the process transforming Roncador into a version of the ideal republic imagined by Plato. By this stage in Read’s narrative Olivero is in effect another embodiment of fantasy, and the republic he establishes is a fantasy too, distinguished by its strict adherence to the principles laid down in English Prose Style.
Like the Green Child in the first part of Read’s novel, Roncador is particularly notable for its simplicity and objectivity. Its inhabitants are ‘simple-minded’ (p. 98), unconcerned with anything beyond tending the land to the best of their abilities in the interest of keeping themselves and their families in a state of health and modest prosperity. The country they inhabit, too, is simple in the extreme. Roncador is situated on a plateau connected to the world by just one trade route, a river. It contains just one small city – also called Roncador – whose design is described as ‘simplicity itself’ (p. 72). The needs of this city and its citizens are few, and can therefore be supplied by a ‘simple economy’ (p. 105). With these ingredients Olivero succeeds in establishing a society governed in the simplest way, by himself alone, which he sees as a work of art on the basis that ‘A sense of order is the principle of government as well as of art’. In it, ‘Not only inanimate things – money, equipment, goods of every kind – but even human beings, are so much plastic material for creative design’; and if this sounds a trifle sinister it needs to be remembered that Olivero is elected as the new dictator of Roncador by democratic means, that his government regularly issues invitations to further elections (though nobody chooses to stand against him), and that he has no wish to improve his material situation, leading a life as simple as that of his subjects, and ‘aided by subordinates who had no ambitions of their own, and who were pleased to exercise obediently and with understanding the authority I delegated to them’ (p. 108). Roncador’s stability and breach from history emancipates it from time; its economic, cultural and geographical independence from its neighbours emancipates it from space; and its equal division of its time between rationally organized work and various kinds of play affirms its simultaneous commitment to both the ‘cold logic’ of Read’s fantasy and the arbitrariness it celebrates.
Three elements in Read’s Roncador narrative attest to its neat division between logic and ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’. The first of these elements is the personality of the Roncadorian soldier, General Santos, who helps Olivero accomplish his revolution. A saintly representative of his people (as his name and title suggest), General Santos is as committed to his family and the tending of his farm as he is to the military discipline by which he protects them and his country from outside threats. General Santos is descended from the Spanish colonists, but has married an indigenous woman, so that he balances the concerns and qualities of both cultures. His farm is both meticulously organized and filled with life and energy; the General and his wife have no less than nine human children, as well as a large extended family of hummingbirds, the creatures that enliven the landscape of Roncador throughout its length:
He opened the cages and they flew out with shrill little cries, fluttering round the General, who had furnished himself with quills filled with syrup, into which the hovering birds dipped their tongues. Others flew about his ears, hovered round his mouth, buzzed and fluttered about his head and hands. When tired of playing with them, he put the quills away; and then he gently waved his hands in the midst of them, at which signal they all returned to their respective cages. (p. 76)
The colourful and seemingly random spectacle of the hummingbirds ‘fluttering round the General’, as disciplined in their behaviour as they are chaotic in their movements, confirms the man’s equal dedication to the arts of playfulness and social order, whimsicality and logic; a dedication which ensures that after the revolution he immediately forswears all civic or military authority and retires to the confines of his farm for the rest of his days.
The second element is the assassination of the dictator. This is a necessary act of brutality, Olivero thinks, if a just republic is to be established; but its logical necessity must be tempered with an element of fantasy – ‘the fantasy of a natural event’, as he puts it (p. 80) – so as to render it impersonal, transforming it into an apparently random yet symbolically eloquent occasion, like the killing of Aeschylus by a turtle dropped on his head from an eagle’s claws, which was interpreted by the Greeks as a manifestation of the will of the gods. Olivero accomplishes the killing with the help of another soldier, ‘an Indian named Iturbide’, named after the real-life revolutionary who became Emperor Agustín I of Mexico. Planned to take place during a church festival, the assassination combines great skill with apparent arbitrariness. Iturbide agrees to take part in the ‘simple and innocent’ game (as Olivero calls it, p. 80) known as the sortija, which involves riding at full speed towards a ring suspended in a wooden frame and trying to pierce it with the point of a lance. His task is to miss the ring and pierce the Dictator, a seemingly random mishap which must be immediately followed by the imposition of order, as Major Santos leads his most trusted troops to arrest the Dictator’s officials and impose the laws of the new republic. Once again logic and reason mix with the arbitrariness of play to create a situation where free play is made available to all citizens by means of meticulous organization.
The third element that embodies the republic’s blend of rationality with caprice is the suppression of a band of violent marauders led by a man called General Vargas, four years after the revolution. Olivero treats the expedition against Vargas as an experiment to see how ‘men of imagination’ cope when the need for action arises; he theorizes that such men could do well because of their ability ‘to act as if death were a fantasy’ (p. 112). The most striking aspect of the expedition is its use of the river in the attack on Vargas’s forces; a gesture which combines the seeming logic of poetic justice – since the river is the most important commercial highway in Roncador, and Vargas represents a threat to its legitimate traffic – with the free-flowing, apparently arbitrary movement of water, which in the first part of the novel was specifically linked to the Green Child. Olivero’s forces position themselves with their guns in a pair of boats of the kind used for transporting goods; they then allow them to drift in the current, their clumsy ‘log-like’ movements concealing their carefully calculated purpose, until the guns come within range of the marauders’ camp. The attack is of course destructive, resulting in loss of life on both sides; yet it is also artistic, in that it is executed on a night of unusual beauty, and ends exactly as Olivero intended: ‘The forest behind us began to stir with life; a choir of birds filled the air with liquid or piercing notes; monkeys began to chatter in the overhanging branches’ (p. 113). It is presumably no coincidence that Olivero later arranges for his own ‘assassination’ and departure from Roncador to take place on a similar night, using the river as his path to freedom and a light canoe as his mode of transport.
Each of these three elements or episodes is marked by the resistance of its key actors to any cult of personality; and here as elsewhere Read offers us a model of objectivity, of resistance to nationalist rhetoric and unrestrained emotion. General Santos refuses to profit personally from the revolution; he is not the hero who brings it about (that honour is Iturbide’s), and he plays only a temporary role in the new republican government. Iturbide, too, is content to remain anonymous despite the heroic nature of his actions at the Festival; as soon as he has killed the Dictator he gets concealed from view by the General’s troops, and he never afterwards claims any credit for changing the course of his country’s history. The suppression of Vargas’s marauders is described by Olivero as a ‘brief and insignificant episode’, but results in Olivero’s becoming ‘for the citizens of Roncador the embodiment of their national glory’ (p. 117). But he quickly recedes again into relative obscurity, since his ‘public works […] had no such epic value’. The ‘stability and happiness of our state’, as Olivero puts it (p. 118), admits of no tension, no narrative development, no long-range spatial movement or complex plans; it is, in fact, wholly emancipated from the orders of time and space. The Roncadorians spend their days ‘peacefully going about their work in the estancias, or […] walking in the gardens, sitting in the shade of the fountains, everywhere mirthful and contented’ (p. 119). To stir such people to a renewed concern with narrative would be, he feels, to unleash unwarranted ‘conflict, […] anguish and agitation’ on them, since these are the ingredients narrative thrives on.
Olivero himself, however, is still psychologically committed to narrative, and so not as exempt from the orders of space and time as he might wish. He equates the timelessness of the republic with an irksome ‘flaccidity, a fatness of living, an ease and a torpor’ (p. 119), and yearns to go home to England, thus completing the circle of his own story. He also wishes to find out more about the Green Children who arrived in his village in the very year of his departure from it: ‘I longed to know,’ he admits, ‘how that mystery had been solved, what had become of them in the course of the years’ (p. 120). At this point he thinks of the children, it seems, in terms of that most linear of narratives, a detective novel – which, as Todorov points out, cannot be read out of order without destroying the tension that precedes the solution of the central mystery. Only his encounter with the Green Child herself, as narrated in the book’s first part, reveals to him the fact that there’s no ‘mystery’ about her; that she is what she is, a fantastic phenomenon without a solution.
Olivero himself acknowledges that his mind is responsible for his dissatisfaction with his stable republic. His ideas seek an outlet in action. They respond to ‘tension in circumstances’, and without the continual flow of new ideas brought about by tension he quickly succumbs to crushing boredom. The third part of Read’s fantasy involves a final attempt to escape from the tension of narrative, which in turn involves an escape from the mind itself. To do this Read exploits and reverses a number of narratives that were widely familiar in contemporary culture. The first is Plato’s narrative of the cave from The Republic, which seeks to account for the nature of reality; but where in Plato’s dialogue the inhabitants of the cave are victims of illusion, and reality (in the shape of the Ideals) exists elsewhere, Read’s cave – that is, the underground caverns from which the Green Children originally wandered – are themselves the Ideal. The second narrative he reverses is the discourse of Freudian psychoanalysis, which seeks to account for the nature of the mind. Another novel published in the same year as The Green Child, Joseph O’Neill’s SF classic Land Under England (1935), deals with caves in a more conventional manner. Here the horrors encountered by the protagonist on an underground journey represent a confrontation with the Freudian recesses of his own unconscious, where the id takes the form of deadly monsters, brainwashed soldiers and a maniacal father figure, all of them associated with the fascistic tendencies of British imperialism. Read’s subterranean realm, by contrast, is the location of logical materialism and egalitarian order. Its materialism stems from the fact that the inhabitants spend their lives surrounded by rock, and so take rock as their ideal, yearning for the day when their bodies will be hardened into rocklike solidity after death in a ritualistic reenactment of the crystallizing process that produces stalactites. Read’s subterranean utopia, in fact, involves escape from the torments of emotion, and in it fantasy, the capricious impulse to generate works of art, is only an occupation to beguile the time on the way to perpetual stasis. The transformation of humans into crystal that occurs at the end of this third section is an escape into the abstract, where the abstract represents the simple principles that underlie the vast complexity of the universe. It’s the crystallised corpses of the Green People themselves that turn out to be the ‘richest deposits of beauty and wisdom’ Olivero went in quest of on his worldwide travels.
As well as the well-known narratives of Plato and Freud, the final section also represents Read’s final engagement with W H Hudson, whose influence was so pronounced in the first two sections. If the Green Child and Roncador are responses to Hudson’s South American romances, with the former a version of the wild girl Rima and the latter a fusion of Argentina in The Purple Land and Venezuela in Green Mansions, the third and final part is Read’s response to Hudson’s utopia, A Crystal Age (1887). A Crystal Age concentrates on the repeated misunderstandings that arise between a Victorian man called Smith, who is somehow hurled into the future by a landslide, and the dwellers in an idealized House where he finds shelter. The people of the House are totally dedicated to telling the truth, to the extent that it shines through them, so to speak, as if they were images in a living stained glass window. Indeed, the House itself is as full of exquisite stained glass as any building decorated by Morris and Company, its transparent surfaces providing a metaphor for its total integration with the ecosystem of which it is part. Its occupants, too, have a crystalline coolness about them. They are totally free from emotion; none experiences passion of any kind or takes a sexual partner, and indeed all are effectively sexless, like drones in a beehive, with the sole exception of the so-called Father and Mother of the House, who between them conceive all the House’s inhabitants. Inevitably, Hudson’s Victorian visitor falls in love with a girl of the future, Yoletta, whose ‘crystal nature’ cannot at first comprehend the meaning of his exclusive devotion to her, since erotic desire has long been forgotten by most of her people (p. 161). Although Yoletta slowly learns to return his devotion, the time traveller is so tormented by his unfulfilled yearning for her body that he eventually drinks a potion which he hopes will cure him of passion and make him a drone, like the other men in the community. Unfortunately he has misread the label on the bottle. The potion is in fact a poison, and he dies – ironically enough, soon after learning that the Mother of the House had intended him and Yoletta to take on the role of sexually-active Father and Mother after her death. This final and most tragic misunderstanding stresses the vast gap of time and culture that separates Hudson’s period from the Crystal Age of perfect harmony with beasts and people, and the evolutionary changes that will be necessary before a Victorian man could survive in such a state.
Olivero, however, is made from sterner stuff than Hudson’s visitor. Trained by his adventures to adapt himself to new conditions, he quickly and wholeheartedly embraces the customs of the Green People. His first entry into the caverns where they live contains all the ingredients of a conventional romance; as she sinks into the pool that leads to her ancestral caverns, the Green Child holds out her hand to him as if in gratitude and affection, and Olivero responds with ‘a cry of happiness, as if a secret joy had suddenly been revealed to him’ (p. 46). But the culture to which he finds himself admitted is even more crystalline than Hudson’s House, not least in its resistance to the organic palpitations of emotion. The walls of its caves are ‘of a crystalline formation’ (p. 126), and each is hung with rods or wind chimes made from crystal, the largest of which are stalactites carefully grown in workshops to give out harmonies in conjunction with the smaller rods suspended alongside them. For the inhabitants of the underground crystal halls, sex is a childish occupation, not taken any more seriously than swimming or other kinds of play, and they freely exchange partners in their youth, much to Olivero’s disgust: ‘He was angry and jealous when he saw [the Green Child, now known as] Siloën walking arm in arm with one of the youths, and hid his convulsed face when he saw her making love with others’ (p. 136). But he quickly becomes ashamed of these ‘terrestrial sentiments’, and moves on to higher levels in the Green People’s culture, whose relative importance is represented literally by their situation on higher and higher platforms in the cave system. First come the workshops where crystals are fashioned into musical chimes or abstract sculptures; then the level where the older men stroll endlessly together indulging in philosophical conversation – largely about rocks and crystals; and finally the level of solitary contemplation, where he spends his time in the company of a pet beetle – chosen, presumably, for its appearance as a being half organic, half inorganic, a kind of living mineral. Later still Olivero retires to a solitary cave, where he spends his time in meditation on the shape of some unusual crystals until death takes him. By this stage in the book conventional narrative, as marked by plot development, interaction between characters and dialogue, has been left behind, and Olivero has espoused wholeheartedly the Green People’s key philosophical principle: ‘Everything solidifies; that is the law of the universe’ (p. 144). His own eventual solidification – achieved by immersing his corpse in a mineral-rich pool or ‘petrifying-trough’ – also marks his final union with the Green Child, who dies at the exact same moment that he does and is immersed in the trough by his side. Instead of a sexual union the pair are unified as sculpture. The final sentences of the novel celebrate the couple’s conversion into art, as
these two who had been separated in life grew together in death, and became part of the same crystal harmony. The tresses of Siloën’s hair, floating in the liquid in which they were immersed, spread like a tracery of stone across Olivero’s breast, twined inextricably in the coral intricacy of his beard (p. 153).
The conclusion of Read’s novel, then, represents one logical consequence of his definition of fantasy. Objectivity can be best achieved by becoming an object; so too can emancipation from the orders of space and time. Arbitrariness is present in this final section thanks to certain aspects of Olivero’s growth towards the selflessness of the contemplative hermit. The artificial crystals he studies in his lonely cave, for example, incorporate subtle deviations from the shapes of natural crystals, each deviation having been situated in it by a master craftsman, in the half-serious interest of discovering some new order outside the order of nature. ‘Such orders outside nature did not really exist’, according to Siloën’s people, ‘but it amused men to imagine that they did’ (p. 145, my emphasis). To this end the Green People’s artists love to test the ‘liberty’ or emancipation of the mind from nature’s order by exploring alternative orders through the art of ‘crystal formation’, enjoying ‘at one extreme the baroque fantasy of the cubic system, at the other extreme the classic simplicity of the hexagonal system’ (p. 138). The disinterested playfulness of this artistic activity, wholly unconnected to figurative design and hence to human history, wholly materialist in that we are told it is never theorized (Siloën’s people have no words for abstract concepts), places the final section of The Green Child as far beyond the nationalist and racist narratives of fascism as anything else being written in the 1930s.
The inhabitants of Read’s underground utopia live in the depths of the earth, for ever exempt from ‘terrestrial sentiments’ of the kind experienced by Kneeshaw in his courtship of the Green Child. The abusive relationship between that unhappily married couple illustrates what happens when such simple people come in contact with the complications and contradictions of the passion-ridden flesh. In that first section of Read’s novel the Green Child came across as supremely fleshly, without a hint of the mineral rigidity to which she finally aspires. Her body, for instance, responds with subtle changes of pigment to her every change of mood. Anger is marked by a ‘clouding of the translucent flesh’, joy by ‘an increased radiance of the flesh’, sorrow by ‘blanching’ (p. 35), while after a period of imprisonment ‘her flesh had turned from its green translucent colour to a waxen yellow, the colour of ripe golden plums’ (p. 34)). At this point her translucence is the only aspect of her that resembles crystal, and Kneeshaw’s first encounter with this translucence makes her sound like a soft-tissue version of the stained glass in ACrystal Age:
The Green Child was standing against the light of the kitchen window, peeling potatoes, and the light shone through her bare arms and fingers and her delicate neck, and her flesh was like flesh seen in a hand that shelters a candle against the air, or the radiance seen when we look at the sun through the fine web of shut eyelids. (p. 30).
Read’s representation of her here is designed to stress her vulnerability as well as her difference, and recalls Hudson’s description of the girl of the House, Yoletta, as possessed of a ‘crystal nature’. Everything the Green Child feels and thinks is visible, so that she barely needs to make use of ‘vocal or facial expression’ (p. 35). Yoletta, however, lived in her native environment, while Siloën is stranded among the machines and passions of aggressive strangers. As an expression of the predicament of a thinking person in what Eric Hobsbawm calls the ‘age of extremes’ there couldn’t be a much more potent metaphor. And as a solution to that predicament, the end of Read’s book is quietly tragic. It’s only by becoming something other than human that the problems of being human can be resolved. It’s only by forgoing the state of being organic that the ‘heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’ can be stilled. It’s only in a surrealist fantasy that utopia can be achieved. That’s what Read’s book implies, and what he may have found horribly confirmed by the events of the Spanish Civil War, which broke out only two short years after his book was published.
I promised in my last post to discuss how Mervyn Peake might be read as in some sense a follower of Herbert Read. There isn’t space to do that properly here. For now, it’s enough to point out that Peake found escape from his wartime predicament by turning to a place outside the orders of space and time – that immemorial castle, Gormenghast – whose residents are slowly merging with the stones they live among, and whose dedication to ‘fanciful invention’ is much more pronounced than Olivero’s. Those residents are materialists, like the Green People. Their religion is bound up with the walls that enclose them, they resist emotion, and their lives are recounted in a narrative which is barely at times a narrative at all, but everywhere ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’. Among these residents is a young woman called Fuchsia, who is startlingly different from the rest. She is passionate, devoted to the family and friends she loves, frustrated at her confinement in a house of rituals, besotted with storytelling, art and drama. She shows her emotions in every gesture, without recourse to words, which she finds difficult. And she is finally unable to reconcile these radical differences of hers with the largely indifferent, chilly and ritualistic building she inhabits, with its tendency to erupt in sudden violence, banishing rebels and revolutionaries from the shelter of its massive walls, as Read’s Olivero found himself banished from his village.
But Peake wrote that book in the Second World War, and needed much more space than Read to exorcise the radical strangeness of that context…
James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: BLS Editions, 2018)
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994)
W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)
W. H. Hudson, South American Romances (The Purple Lane, Green Mansions, El Ombú and Other Stories) (London: Duckworth, 1930)
John Masefield, Lost Endeavour (London etc.: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1910)
Joseph O’Neill, Land Under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987)
Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (London: Mandarin, 1992)
Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)
Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)
Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)
Perhaps the most celebrated theoretical account of fantasy was given by J R R Tolkien many decades before the genre became an established presence on the shelves of bookshops. The first version of Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ was delivered as the Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of Saint Andrews in 1938; it was later expanded and published in 1947, and published again with minor changes in 1964. A decade before Tolkien gave his lecture, however, another essay on fantasy was published by an academic with very different convictions and interests. Herbert Read was an art critic, literary commentator, socialist and thinker who (among many other things) provided a critical framework for the importation of surrealism from France to England in the early ’30s. Read’s essay on fantasy makes up one of the chapters in his book English Prose Style (1928), which was highly regarded by (among many others) Graham Greene – the editor who helped Mervyn Peake publish his first novel, Titus Groan, at the end of the Second World War. English Prose Style was reprinted many times; the edition I’ve read is the seventh impression, dated 1942, and has been changed quite a bit from the 1928 version. I’d like to suggest here that Herbert Read’s essay, together with Read’s only novel, The Green Child (1935) – which is based on a ‘fairy story’ that takes a central place in his chapter on fantasy – gives us a context in which to understand Mervyn Peake’s place in the development of the genre.
I shall suggest, too, that Read’s essay gestures towards a thread or current of fantasy that runs somewhat counter to Tolkien’s version: an experimental, materialist fantasy which has less to do with tradition, historical scholarship and religious faith than with finding a means of articulating the sheer strangeness of the twentieth century. Building on the important recent work of James Gifford, this post represents a first attempt on my part to sketch out what such a fantasy might have consisted of if writers had chosen to follow Read’s version of the genre rather than Tolkien’s. And it will end by considering (as Gifford does) whether it might be helpful to think of Peake as in some sense a follower of Read’s. We haven’t any evidence that he was one, or that he even knew Read’s work – though it seems very unlikely he did not. Peake did know the surrealist painter Leslie Hurry, after all, and in 1939 drew a sketch of the surrealist painter Ithell Colquhoun, who was admired by Walter de la Mare, another friend of Peake’s who wrote quasi-surrealist prose and whose verse was published alongside the poetry of Herbert Read, as well as the poetry of a third friend of Peake’s, Dylan Thomas – also connected with surrealism. Read’s novel The Green Child, meanwhile, was reprinted in 1945 by Grey Walls Press, which later published The Drawings of Mervyn Peake, and reprinted again in 1947 by Eyre and Spottiswood, the publishers of the Gormenghast sequence, with an introduction by Peake’s friend and editor Graham Greene. It is tempting, then, to see in Read’s essay on fantasy, and in The Green Child, forerunners of Peake’s Titus novels, at least on certain levels. And that’s how, by way of thought experiment, I propose to think of them here.
Read’s book on prose style is concerned less with what he calls the ‘interest’ of literature – its contents, that is – than the formal techniques by which it achieves its effects. It is divided into two parts: ‘composition’ and ‘rhetoric’. Composition is concerned with the ‘objective use of language’: the building blocks of prose, so to speak, including words, sentences, metaphors and paragraphs as well as its overall arrangement (‘disposition’, in the terms of early modern rhetorical theorists). Rhetoric is concerned with persuasive techniques, of which fantasy is one. The part of the book that deals with rhetoric begins with chapters on ‘exposition’, which might be glossed as explaining or expressing oneself in an apparently logical manner, and ‘narrative’, which describes rather than explains, and deals with either events or objects, making it ‘either active or passive in character’ (p. 104). Fantasy is assigned to the third chapter of the second part of English Prose Style, the part of the book that deals with rhetoric. For Read, it is a persuasive technique that has not yet been given much attention, and is more closely allied with exposition than with narrative. It is, in other words, a way of writing that gives the appearance of being logical and detached, not emotionally charged as narrative is. This is unexpected, to say the least, because of the definition of fantasy that opens the chapter, which suggests that it is very far from logical.
The opening paragraph separates fantasy from the mental quality of phantasy, which means the imagination – the faculty of ‘forming mental images of things not actually present’, as Tolkien calls it (p. 46), following the Oxford English Dictionary. Fantasy, by contrast, is ‘caprice, whim, fanciful invention’ – the process of making things up. It is not, however, a random or passing whim or caprice; it involves sustained invention, Read insists; and this, being the place in which he diverges from dictionary definitions, would seem to lie at the heart of his conception of fantasy. He thinks of the imagination or phantasy as being driven by ‘sensibility’ – emotion or affect – whereas fantasy is more closely akin to rational thought; it is ‘cold and logical’ in the way it develops its initial whims or caprices, whereas the imagination is ‘sensuous and instinctive’. In saying this, Read claims to be building on the famous distinction between imagination and fancy in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. This means that Coleridge’s book is mentioned both in Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Stories and in Read’s chapter – though Tolkien is more concerned with the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, which he wishes to replace with a different concept, ‘secondary belief’, involving a more complete mental commitment to an invented world than Coleridge’s phrase implies. For Read, by contrast, Coleridge’s definition of fancy exactly describes what Read thinks of as fantasy.
The main difference between Read and Coleridge is that Read is far more interested in fancy than imagination, whereas imagination is the faculty Coleridge favours, as Read himself points out (pp. 150-1). Fancy, Coleridge says, is concerned with ‘fixities and definites’, which Read takes to mean it is in some sense ‘objective’, dealing not with ‘vague entities’ but with ‘things which are concrete, clearly perceptible, visibly defined’. For me this implies that works of fancy or fantasy are less concerned with the creepy feelings aroused by half-seen ghosts, gods or monsters than with unexpected objects: the tea set on the table of the Mad Hatter, Mr Tumnus’s umbrella and parcels, Bilbo’s Ring. What makes these objects fantastic or fanciful is that they are evoked, in Coleridge’s terms, through an act of memory – everyone remembers having seen a tea set, an umbrella, a plain gold ring – but memory ‘emancipated from the order of time and space’. Carroll’s tea set is fanciful because the Mad Hatter’s tea party is continuous, not governed by the conventional schedule, and because the tea never seems to run out. Mr Tumnus’s umbrella is a thing of fantasy because it’s being used to ward off the everlasting snow of Narnia and is owned by a classical faun, half man half goat. Bilbo’s Ring removes him from sight and therefore to some degree from space, extends his lifetime artificially, and shortens the distance between himself and Sauron’s terrible Eye. Fantasy, then, Read tells us, is unlike exposition or narrative in that it ‘deliberately avoids the logic and consistency of these types of rhetoric and creates a new and arbitrary order of events’ (p. 138). This statement seems directly to contradict his earlier statement that fantasy is ‘cold and logical’ (p. 137); but it’s worth noting that in his earlier account of exposition Read explains that he does not use the term ‘logical’ ‘in any precise scientific sense’ (p. 92). Instead he affirms that logical exposition is ‘the art of expressing oneself clearly, logic being implied in the structure of the sentences employed’ (p. 92, Read’s emphasis). The logic of fantasy, then, is ‘implied’ rather than actual, a function of grammar rather than of rigorous syllogisms. Meanwhile its emancipation from the order of time and space – in other words, from those particular ordering principles that underpin the world we live in – frees it from the values we have been conditioned to accept. And this emancipation is an act of will rather than the involuntary detachment from coherence that takes place in a dream or hallucination. Admittedly, the will too is conditioned or given direction, Read accepts, by ‘our mental and physical environment’ (p. 138). In other words, it’s not entirely under our control. Even apparently arbitrary sentences will be driven by what Coleridge calls the ‘law of association’, that is, by the way our culture and our individual experiences have conditioned us to position things in relation to one another. But the fact remains, Read insists, that sentences in a work of fantasy or fancy ‘do sometimes present [an] arbitrary appearance’, and that this apparent arbitrariness is brought about through the ‘conscious choice’ or will of the writer or speaker.
For Read, the emancipation of a narrative from the order of time and space is often achieved, ironically enough, through the operations of time and space. The only form of literature he sees as perfectly exemplifying fantasy or fancy is the fairy tale, a form of collective verbal property that has gradually lost its links with any particular time and place by being handed down from one generation to the next, and by being transferred from one location to another, changing as it goes as if in a game of Chinese whispers. The theme of each tale remains constant, he affirms, ‘but there is a gradual accretion of subsidiary details’, and a gradual loss of emotional investment – of sensibility, that is, or affect – so that the ballad or folk tale eventually becomes ‘a clear objective narrative’ which is ‘encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details’ (p. 139). The claim that fairy tales accrue concrete details as they get passed down seems to me a little odd; could one not just as easily argue that certain details get lost over time, and that this gradual loss of details is what makes any given tale seem arbitrary? Tolkien too claims that new ingredients are always being added to what he calls the ‘soup’ of story – the communal source of imaginative nourishment for succeeding generations – but he doesn’t suggest that the new ingredients add up to a steady accretion. The best-known fairy tales, after all, aren’t overburdened with details, as they surely would be if accretion were continually in process. The oddness of Read’s claim is compounded when he offers as an exemplary fairy tale a narrative that has little in common with the fairy tales of Andrew Lang, or Joseph Jacobs, or any of the major collectors who helped to naturalize the term in the English language. It’s the story of the two Green Children, and it provided Read with part of the plot of his only novel.
The story concerns two young children who were found in a specific, extant place – St Mary’s of the Wolf-pits in Suffolk, now known as Woolpit – near one of the pits that gave the place its name. The children had green skin, and were taken for questioning to a local dignitary, Sir Richard de Caine, who lived at nearby Wickes. The children did not speak English, so at the time of their discovery nothing much could be learned about them except from their actions. At first they would eat only beans, a detail described in Read’s account with great specificity: when the beans were placed before them the children ‘opened only the stalks instead of the pods, thinking the beans were in the hollow of them; but not finding them there, they began to weep anew’ (p. 139). The little boy died soon afterwards, but the girl lived on as one of the knight’s servants, gradually becoming used to ordinary food and losing her green appearance. She was ‘rather loose and wanton in her conduct’, the narrator tells us. Interrogated about her birthplace, the girl insisted that everyone there was green and that the sun did not shine there; instead the land existed in a state of perpetual twilight. While minding sheep, she said, she and the boy had wandered into a cavern filled with the ‘delightful sound of bells’, and got lost in an underground warren of caves and passages. Emerging at last into the open air, they found the sunlight so dazzling and warm that they lost their senses. They were woken by the noise of their approaching captors and tried to flee, but were caught before they could find the entrance to the cavern.
So the story ends, without a trace of the ‘eucatastrophe’ or uplifting ending (conventionally signalled by the formula ‘and they lived happily ever after’) which was for Tolkien one of the defining elements of the fairy tale tradition. The story has no perceptible moral purpose, and much of its narrative seems to build on the one seemingly impossible detail it contains: the fact that the children had green skin. Their diet of green vegetables ‘explains’ the greenness of their appearance, and this greenness in turn ‘explains’ the girl’s wanton behaviour (the colour green being often associated with sexual promiscuity in medieval and early modern culture; leeks, for instance, were emblematic of randy old people, because they had white heads and green tails). Greenness also suggests pastoralism, as represented in the children’s work as shepherds, and a plant-like link with the earth, which explains the children’s discovery in a pit and their connection with underground caves. The story, then, gives every impression of having a logical structure, even if the logic is founded on something that seems unreasonable or at least unprecedented: the existence of green children. It perfectly exemplifies, then, Read’s description of fantasy as coldly objective (think of the way the boy child dies without being mourned, even by his sister) and seemingly logical (though of course there is no real logic in any of the spurious ‘explanations’ I’ve just suggested). It is some way, though, from exemplifying a conventional fairy tale.
One reason for this is the fact that it does not seem to be wholly detached from the order of space. It’s carefully located in an actual parish in Suffolk, and has the name of a knight – perhaps a real one – attached to it, a man who lives in a neighbouring parish and whose identity could therefore be traced, in theory at least, with the help of old records. The possibility for such research promises to pin the story down in time as well as space. At the same time, there are unexpected gaps or absences in the narrative. The story gesturestowards the presence in the world of the people known as fairies, without going so far as to name them. The green children could easily have been explicitly identified with those people if the narrator had wished; after all, fairies famously live under the hills of Ireland and Scotland, they are associated with the colour green, and their well-known predilection for strange food – such as green beans contained in the stalk of the plant instead of the pod – makes it dangerous for mortals to eat from their tables. The term ‘fairy’, however, is never used in Read’s version of the story, and this renders the experience of reading it much stranger than it would have been otherwise. The narrative, then, is both attached to a specific place and time and detached from a traditional folkloric tradition. And its structure is not quite story-like, either. To say that it has ‘no moral’ is to say that it doesn’t really have an ending; one of the children dies, the other becomes ordinary, and we never hear what became of her after her naturalization as a human being. In choosing this not very fairy-tale like story as an example of fairy tale, then, Read seems deliberately to be detaching it from any familiar frame of reference. It hovers between fiction and history, between common ingredients of folklore and a set of circumstances that are wholly unaccountable by any known frame of reference – circumstances rendered stranger still by arbitrary details, like the implied existence of unusual beans or the ‘delightful sound of bells’ in the cavern.
Read goes on to assert that ‘a story such as this is the norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, including fairy tales which are ‘literary inventions’ where the ‘will or intention of the writer has to take the part of the age long and impersonal forces of folk tradition’. His example of such a literary invention is Robert Southey’s story of the Three Bears, whose heroine is now a little girl called Goldilocks, though in the original version she was a nameless wicked old woman. The story doesn’t have much in common with the story of the Green Children, however; it involves intelligent bears who live in a house and eat porridge, it does not locate itself anywhere specific, and it has a conventional story structure, with the heavy stress on patterns of three (three bears, three bowls of porridge, three chairs, three beds, three trials for the wicked old woman) which is omnipresent in the oral tradition. What attracts Read to Southey’s tale is its lack of moral intention or indeed any identifiable purpose, which sets it in contrast to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, which has a clear didactic purpose, or rather several. Read also admires its ‘objectivity’ or lack of sentimental bias – we’re not expected to sympathize too deeply with either the woman or the bears – and its arbitrariness: the central premise concerning bears that live in houses, eat porridge and own household furniture has been randomly plucked, as it were, from thin air. The instructive purpose of The Water Babies, by contrast, attaches it too securely to the culture of its author to make it a perfect fantasy, and the same is true, as far as Read is concerned, of Alice in Wonderland, which is not so much moralistic as cultured; ‘the intelligence active therein is too sophisticated, too “clever”’ (p. 144). Read doesn’t explain what he means by this, but he may be referring to the knowing parodies it contains of familiar poems – ‘How doth the little crocodile’, ‘You are old, father William’ (the latter based on a poem by Southey) – or to the conventional Victorian manners which are constantly being violated by the people Alice meets, or their use of sophistry or chop logic, a form of discourse that depends for its comic effect on a recognition of its playful violation of conventional reasoning processes. Alice is anchored to its time and place by its sophistication and allusiveness, just as Kingsley is anchored to his time and place by his didacticism, which puts him into direct dialogue with the educators, legislators and churchmen of his period.
What becomes clear about Read’s examples of fantasy in this chapter is that they are so diverse as not to have anything much in common at all, apart from the capriciousness with which they introduce manifest impossibilities into their narratives (although one example, a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses, doesn’t even contain these). Utopias like W. H. Hudson’s The Crystal Age are for Read too satirical and moral in their aims – too specifically directed at targets in their own time, as Hudson himself acknowledged in his preface to a late edition of his first book – to be ‘pure’ fantasies. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine is very nearly fantastic, but too enamoured of the conventional rationalizing discourse of science to be fully so (and Tolkien thinks the same thing; what stops it being fantasy for Tolkien is the presence in it of the pseudo-scientific device of the time machine itself). A text Read does identify as a perfect literary fairy tale – an extract from a story by the Russian writer Aleksei Mikhailovich Remizov, translated by the great fantasy novelist Hope Mirrlees and her partner Jane Harrison – is to my eyes decidedly sentimental, and hence hardly ‘objective’, which is one of the features of fantasy Read insisted on earlier. Its sentiment is extended to a fallen star, however, so perhaps he sees it as an exemplary fantasy because of its emancipation from familiar assumptions about the difference between people and objects: ‘The poor little star was dozing by the hare’s form, and the thaw of a little tear rolled down her star cheek and then froze again’ (p. 145). The Thousand and One Nights is the ideal fantasy epic, the text Read would most like to have seen emulated in English – though not in the manner of William Beckford’s Vathek, which for Read adheres too closely to the original to be easily distinguished from it, and was in any case written in French. Read’s list of examples ends with a passage from one of Philippe Soupault’s surrealist short stories, ‘The Death of Nick Carter’, which is ‘still too allusive’ to be a pure fantasy, too enmeshed in details that root it in a particular time and place. By the end of the list of fantasy passages – a list that was greatly extended between the first edition of English Prose Style and the one I’m citing – one could be forgiven for having lost all sense of there being a ‘norm to which all types of Fantasy should conform’, which Read tells us is exemplified in the story of the Green Children.
It seems clear that this is entirely deliberate on Read’s part. Read’s conception of fantasy as having the appearance of arbitrariness and being emancipated from the orders of time and space would surely be undermined by a list of examples that were similar in subject or technique, or that fell into a consistent narrative form, involving for instance multiple repetition of the pattern of threes that structures Southey’s story of the three bears. His examples, whether of ‘perfect’ fantasy or of imperfect near-fantastic passages, are constantly flinging the unwary reader in new directions, which emphasizes the seeming arbitrariness of each new set of inventions. Their variety tends even to obscure the set of criteria by which he sets out to limit the fantastic; almost the only thing they have in common is their arbitrariness. Read himself admits that very few of the passages can be described as wholly emancipated from time and place, while it’s hard to see some of them as displaying anything like cold logic or objectivity. Fantasy emerges as a rhetorical strategy that refuses stability and conformity and embraces innovation as vigorously as it can without rendering itself incomprehensible.
There’s a gap, then, between the theory of fantasy Read advances in the first half of the chapter and his examples of it in the second. The gap is anticipated in the introduction to English Prose Style when Read makes a distinction between the titular terms prose and style ‘in the abstract’ and any examples one might offer of each (p. ix). ‘In the abstract’, Read tells us, means ‘a priori, without the prejudice of particular examples, and as a preliminary to a more minute analysis’. This makes ‘in the abstract’ sound like a reference to one of Plato’s Ideals, the original things or concepts of which everything in the world is merely an imperfect shadow or copy. Fantasy, too, as it is explained by Read with the help of Coleridge’s fancy, is given to us ‘in the abstract’ at the start of the chapter he dedicates to it; it’s an a priori ideal rather than a concept that can be arrived at by considering examples of it, which will only serve to ‘prejudice’ those who examine them. Where Tolkien’s fairy story is a kind of narrative that emerges out of the past, in other words, Read’s fantasy is a kind that may not yet exist; already-extant instances of it will invariably fall short; perfect examples of fantasy as Read conceives it are yet to come, and need to be traced from imperfect past examples into the literature of the future rather than from the present into the annals of history and the shadows of prehistory, as is the case with Tolkien’s fairy stories. Read was already beginning to be famous, at the time when he first wrote the introduction, for his facility in tracing future directions of art and literature in the work being produced at the time of writing; and in the 1930s he wrote some of the most celebrated essays on abstract art of what we now call the Modernist period. The examples he supplies of fantasy deliberately move through time from the deep past of the Thousand and One Nights to the fourteenth century, when the story of the Green Children was first recorded, to the recent experimental prose of Joyce, Remizov and Soupault (published in English in 1922, 1926 and 1927 respectively). For Read the most perfect examples of fantasy, as of modern art, came from overseas – the Thousand and One Nights is the standard to which he urges English-language writers to aspire – and the best English passages are provided only as evidence that such an achievement might be possible in his native language, not as rivals for the Persian or Arabic epic. His chapter, then, is a call to artistic action as much as an analysis; a work of rhetorical exhortation as much as of scholarship.
The sense one gets, in fact, from Read’s discussion of fantasy is that he’s less concerned with establishing its properties and formal techniques than with the political possibilities it embodies. If rhetoric is about persuasion, fantasy for him is specifically about persuading the reader to imagine liberty, and hence must give the appearance or air of being liberated in terms of its form and content. The key to this concern with politics is his stress on the highly political term ‘emancipated’ in Coleridge’s definition of fancy. Emancipation from the order of time and place is hardly a lucid statement of stylistic technique, but it can certainly be read as a statement of a political position; or rather, not a position so much as a strategy. Read’s own politics, while remaining strongly attached to the Left, were changing constantly in terms of his affiliation with different movements. In his youth during the Great War, for instance, he was attracted to the anarchism of Kropotkin, but he later flirted with Marxist Communism, Trotskyism and Guild Socialism, and even spoke in 1934 of welcoming the notion of a ‘totalitarian state, whether in its Fascist or Communist form’ (though he was thinking of totalitarianism here as an ‘economic machine to facilitate the complex business of living in a community’). Read eventually returned to anarchism in response to the Spanish Civil War of 1937. Common to all these shifts of ground, however, was a refusal to be pinned down to a singular position, a formulaic narrative – and in particular the refusal to submit himself to authority, whether of an individual or a party (apart from his half-flippant comment about totalitarianism). Read was always in quest of the ideal society, the ideal way to live in a community as an enfranchised or liberated subject, and embraced anarchism in the end as a means of continuing that quest indefinitely instead of being bound to a party line by the dictates of some unaccountable central government. The same quest or impulse propels the narrative in his only novel, The Green Child, which can be read as the ultimate example of the ideas on fantasy expressed in the continually changing pages of English Prose Style.
The Green Child shall therefore be the subject of my next blog post.
James Gifford, A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (Victoria, BC: BLS Editions, 2018)
W. H. Hudson, A Crystal Age, Fourth Impression (London: Duckworth, 1919), Preface (from 1906)
Herbert Read, English Prose Style, 7th Impression (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1942)
Herbert Read, The Green Child, introd. Graham Greene (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1969)
Herbert Read, The Green Child, illus. Felix Kelly (London: The Grey Walls Press, 1945)
J R R Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 3-81.