James Treadwell, Anarchy

51dBbzOcTBL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_In the first two novels of his Advent trilogy, James Treadwell engineers the transition from a world without magic to a world that’s full of it in rather different ways. His first novel, Advent (2012), unfolds in a corner of England that has remained untouched by new technologies. The old house at the centre of the narrative, Pendurra, maintains its connection with the past by spurning modern conveniences: it has no electricity, as if this were a condition imposed on the building’s inhabitants for their lifelong intimacy with more ancient sources of power. The nearby cottage where young Gavin finds himself after his journey to Cornwall has no phone. Instead, technological communications devices are replaced in the novel by other forms of communication: above all by various conversations at cross purposes, a brand of dialogue Treadwell handles with increasing wit and inventiveness as the book goes on. These exchanges slowly reveal to Gavin the fact that he shares what he thought of as his own peculiar, isolated weirdness with a whole hidden population of haunted people. Marina’s father, for instance, the Master of Pendurra: a seafarer whose absent-mindedness stems from his preoccupation with his long-lost mermaid. The self-appointed guardian of Pendurra, Caleb, who can sense each part of the house’s grounds as if it were an organ of his own body, and pays for his sensitivity to the land with his deeply rooted misanthropy. The local vicar who has lost his faith, but who keeps encountering impossible beings who are not his God. The ‘nutty professor’ who for some reason seems to know all about Gavin’s imaginary friend, Miss Grey. Even minor characters turn out to be as haunted as Gavin is, or more so. At one point the boy hitches a lift with a passing boatman, who turns out to have been searching for the old seafarer’s mermaid for years. The state of being strange is far more familiar – and far less comfortable – than conventional fantasies have allowed us to believe.

Both of the first two books, in fact, describe a steady trajectory from comfort to discomfort, from the familiar to the terrifying, only to discover that the terrifying is just on the other side of what we’ve always known, embedded in it, woven from the same materials. Pendurra may be a ‘typical’ setting for a fantasy, but we soon learn that it isn’t a charming, rambling edifice like T.H. White’s Malplaquet, or Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe, or the house of Professor Kirk in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.[i] It’s scarily labyrinthine, impossible to heat, and all too easily co-opted into serving as the headquarters of a megalomaniac magician from early modern Germany. Even before this co-option, Treadwell enjoys recording Gavin’s discomfort when he finds that the bathroom is as uncompromisingly old-fashioned as the rest of the building. Absence of technology is delightful to contemplate from the warmth of a centrally-heated house, but a little frightening in practice, especially when the outside temperature falls below freezing and the roads get cut off by a sudden fall of snow. And if discomfort is represented in the first book by sub-freezing temperatures, the second drops those temperatures to Arctic levels, even as the time of year moves forward from winter to spring.

In tracing the shift from the familiar to the strange, Anarchy (2013) takes the opposite tack to Advent. Far from being cut off from the authorities by an antiquated communications set-up, like Gavin and Marina in Cornwall, the central character of the second novel embodies authority, and shows a corresponding relish for keeping things in order. But she is also a secret anarchist, like the policemen in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Constable Marie-Archange Séverine Gaucelin-Maculloch, whose name identifies her as an awkward fusion of angelic superhero and rigid disciplinarian, of French Catholic faith and Scottish pragmatism, is not just a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but a self-confessed techno-junky. She likes nothing better at the end of the day than to immerse herself in the internet, connecting with strangers, trawling through oceans of unmediated data in search of the unexpected, the desirable, the necessary. Her experience of the outbreak of magic in the modern world is largely mediated through machines: the voice of her girlfriend in Toronto impossibly coming through to her on the official police wavelength; the voices of the dead lamenting their own demise on a powerboat’s radio; cryptic messages flashing across her computer screen, telling her vous êtes ici as if to insist that, despite her isolation in a marginal island community, she remains an integral part of the web of seemingly disconnected events which are unfolding across the world as magic spreads. In Anarchy Treadwell shows himself an expert in the sheer spookiness of the new media, which are slowly but inexorably dismantling our social and mental structures by offering their users an anarchic plethora of sights and sounds, a multi-dimensional ocean teeming with unfamiliar forms of life that exist in the same ecosystem as ourselves, yet operate according to wholly different imperatives. Anarchy is where we already live, and our efforts to persuade ourselves we are somehow in control are as heroic as they are ridiculous.

Anarchy-Advent-Trilogy-James-TreadwellFor Treadwell, even old technology is spooky. Electricity and engines offer some of the strangest and scariest moments in the book, as when a young shaman switches off the lighthouses on the busiest stretch of the Canadian coast, or a god invites the girl Marina to contact the person she most wishes to speak to, living or dead, on a broken payphone, or a demon renders a boat’s engine inoperative without a word or a touch. Caught up in this global decommissioning of the objects she relies on, Marie-Archange Séverine embodies at once the helplessness, ignorance, resourcefulness and courage of the ordinary human being. Her nickname, Goose, is as telling as her Christian names and surname. It’s a handle that’s at once silly and haunting, conjuring up both mindless honking and the biennial miracle of long-haul migrations across uncharted wastelands. Goose, accordingly, has two sides to her personality: the lostness of the modern, transferred to a remote outpost where Skype is her only access to the family and lover she has left behind, unwilling to acknowledge the permanence of her migration by unpacking her things; and a passion for physical exercise, which drives her in her kayak towards the choppy waves beyond the bay, or propels her out of the door of her apartment on long, punishing runs. It’s her participation in both these worlds – the virtual and the corporeal – that makes her so attractively normal, in contrast to the alienated trilogy of youngsters in Advent. When she is unhappy she turns to her laptop, and loss of wifi access drives her to distraction. When things get out of hand she uses her strength rather than her intellect, ripping phone wires out of the wall, commandeering boats, barely restraining herself from punching a zombie. Her interaction with her colleague, the placid, hockey-addicted constable Jonas, is one of the novel’s chief pleasures, showcasing Treadwell’s easy control of different dialects, Séverine’s French Canadian clashing with Jonas’s First Nation idioms, as it does later with the British English of a corpse possessed, or the wonderfully unexpected Cornish dialect of a young castaway. These perfectly observed dialects in Anarchy bring home to us the strangeness of a world in which people can familiarize themselves with an unlimited range of linguistic varieties thanks to radio, satellites, movies, cable TV. Goose is a native of the global Babel, and her consequent deracination is one of the things that links her to her equally deracinated readers.

In the maelstrom caused by information overload, which transmutes itself as the book goes on into a maelstrom of information loss, physical exercise, for Goose, represents control; a control that has been denied her in other aspects of her life (her posting, for instance, to a small, indifferent community; her position as a woman in the testosterone-fuelled police force; her relationship with parents from irreconcilable cultures). Ironically, though, her unusual fitness and strength also represent her limitations. As things in the community around her spiral out of control she punishes her body more and more, discovering how much tougher and more enduring the Northern wilderness is than her efficiently muscled limbs. Treadwell’s charting of this process is meticulous: at each stage of the book he seems to invoke her encounter with the terrible alienness of the North with greater economy and precision, until her penultimate journey of the novel has her steering a boat through the night under the direction of a zombie, more intensely conscious of the sea and islands around her than she has ever been before because she is more totally at their mercy. At the same time, Treadwell traces her progress from an assumption of her own power and technical expertise (as an athlete, a cop, a techno-junky) to a reliance on intuition, the mysterious instinct for performing a certain action at a certain moment which most accurately embodies our quotidian relationship with the world. So many of our decisions are taken for no particular reason – or for reasons that seem sufficient at the time but have little to do with systematic logic – that to say that any person has an instinct for right action makes little sense. Definitions of rightness and wrongness depend on circumstances, on changing cultural values, which is why the supernatural creatures in Treadwell’s stories are so frightening, since their physical and emotional circumstances are so palpably different from ours. But the chief impression Goose exudes is that of integrity: a sense that she carries her values in her mind and body, held in a kind of wholeness that cannot be invaded by hostile outside forces. For all her confusion in the face of radical change, the reader knows that her mind and body will work to defend what she deems worth defending – the young, the vulnerable, the local community – even past the point of what is possible. And this is exactly what happens in Anarchy when Goose finally faces up to the irruption of magic into her world: she does the impossible, without drawing on special powers, without even using her expertise as a policewoman or an athlete. It’s an unexpected climax for a book that reads at times like a thriller, and all the more moving because of its unexpectedness.

16130506This notion that the impossible can be achieved by anyone is the magical thought that Treadwell’s second book leaves us with. Séverine is no hero, and she gets things wrong repeatedly, but she does the impossible anyway, and is therefore heroic, as ordinary people so often are. Further, her heroism goes unobserved, except in the end by her friend and colleague Jonas. No cameras film her bravest actions, because all cameras have ceased to function; no witnesses testify breathlessly to her courage, and their words are not recorded by reporters, since the newspapers and cable channels are defunct. She undergoes her climactic moment of suffering alone, as everyone does, without ever losing her commitment to the idea of community; and that’s something cameras, websites and newspapers can find it harder to convey than books.

Treadwell’s trilogy is, in fact, among other things a eulogy of reading. When Marina leaves her mansion for the first time she takes a book with her, as a guarantee that her journey will have a beginning, a middle and an end. The road she travels reminds her of a story: ‘It occurred to her,’ Treadwell tells us, ‘that it was actually quite like reading. When you opened a book, especially if you hadn’t read it before, you were somewhere else, somewhere you knew hardly anything about, wondering what would happen. Everything was strange and surprising’. For Marina, of course, it is stranger than for most of us since she knows so little; but the experience of reading the best fantasy is very much like hers, since the rules of it are at first unknown. At the same time, one unvarying rule is that books have endings, and that people do too. Séverine is no reader, but she becomes obsessed, as the novel unfolds, with the question of how stories and people end. Confronted by a demon, she asks it what became of a shipload of missing persons at an earlier stage of her narrative. ‘What happened on that ferry?’ she demands. ‘There were supposed to be eighty-plus people on that boat. Where did they go?’ ‘That would be more than eighty stories to tell,’ the demon answers, and goes on to remind her that ‘Everyone’s story ends in death’. But reading the end of a story does not kill the reader, and when Séverine’s moment of crisis comes she doesn’t believe she can die, telling herself endless fantastic tales about last-minute rescues and miraculous escapes, because she can’t quite divest herself of the conviction that she’s the witness of her own adventures rather than their protagonist, that she can close the book any time and turn her attention to something else. Fantasies are our salvation in the face of despair, and Treadwell insists on showing us exactly how they help and do not help both the naïve teenager and the self-reliant policewoman.

Treadwell’s fantasies, then, partly concern themselves with the boundaries between the fantastic and the real, and with demonstrating how fantastic fiction can make these boundaries as clear to its readers as any form of realism. This is because human beings are always fantasists, in part because of their reliance on promises and forecasts in the teeth of the evidence that the future may not bear any relationship to the remembered past, an assumption that comes under intolerable pressure in Treadwell’s narrative. One of the most ambitious of human promises concerns an afterlife, and it’s one particular version of the world on which this promise is predicated that gives rise to Treadwell’s wittiest allusion to postwar British fantasy. Roughly in the middle of Anarchy, a woman – Gavin’s stepmother – finds her way into a snow-filled valley that reminds her of Narnia. Entering it, she thinks, is ‘like walking into another world, folded secretly inside the real one, which had been ringed off from what used to be reality by the unnatural winter and the reports of monsters and marvels’. Appropriately, the valley is inhabited by a Christian missionary-cum-aid worker, who sees everything in terms of his faith, reading the extraordinary snowfall as a personal message to him from God, despite the random cruelty of its effects upon his neighbours. A latter-day C. S. Lewis, the man’s interpretation of the snow has evidently been placed there to mock the books that seek to bind fantasy to some systematic allegorical function, as Lewis tried to do in his Narnian chronicles (though the continuing power of those books derives, I suspect, from their refusal neatly to accommodate their intended function). By the end of this short episode the Christian has been exposed as the ultimate escapist, his ‘essential’ work for the people left stranded by the cataclysm nothing more than a means of blinding himself to the breakdown of his relationship with his family, who have sensibly fled the neighbourhood, leaving him to his pointless mission – pointless because the people he claims to be helping would have been better served by retreating to the camps set up by the government.

The woman who meets him continues on her way more or less untouched by the encounter. But not quite untouched; she has received essential sustenance and rest in his valley of illusions, and leaves it equipped with the supplies and information she needs to survive the next stage of her journey. Treadwell is not censorious about fantasists – after all, he is one of them – and there is generosity as well as cruelty in his treatment of this Lewis avatar. Rather, he is fascinated by the sheer variety of palpable fictions with which we protect ourselves, by the resilience of our conviction that they are not fictions, and by our ingenuity in replacing them with new imaginings when the vacuity of the old ones has been brutally exposed.

More surprisingly, perhaps, his trilogy is an intense evocation of the corporeal experience of inhabiting a particular time and place at a time of crisis. As such, it speaks to all of us, and deserves our attention.

[i] For Malplaquet see T. H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946); for Green Knowe, Lucy M. Boston, The Children of Green Knowe (1954) and its sequels.

THE RECENT WEATHER

Fantasy at Glasgow would like to apologize unreservedly for the recent weather in the West of Europe. The fact is that work on the new Fantasy Hub has intensified since our last report, and that a few weeks ago our digging activities woke an irascible weather goddess from her millennial slumbers under the Adam Smith building. Since then she has been hurling wave after wave of storms at the City of Glasgow, though we understand that the meteorological conditions have also affected adjoining areas. We are doing everything in our power – or rather, in the power of the powers we are capable of summoning up – to soothe her fury, and hope to be able to restore normal weather service in the near future.

Of course normal weather service in Glasgow isn’t anything to write home about, but we hope that eventually a patch of blue sky may be visible from time to time, at least. One day a week, perhaps. If we’re lucky.

Our team of witches, diviners, dowsers, druids and wind whistlers are working round the clock to placate the enraged divinity. Should you hear an eerie chanting while walking home from the campus, be assured that this is nothing more fearsome than the choir of sea nymphs we have recruited to soothe her shattered nerves with the charm of music. Should you bump into a wizened crone wielding a tree branch, be aware that this is a dowser and should not be disturbed on any account – she is doing her best to restore a reasonable measure of water to the city streets, and any sudden disturbance may well unleash her pent-up inner fluids. We apologize for the druids. What can we say? Always and everywhere, we apologize for the druids.

But what can I do, you ask, as an ordinary citizen? The best help you can give us is to stay at home by a roaring fire with a whisky clutched in your fist and a cat on your lap. This will show you are unaffected by the weather, or even enjoying it, and will take the edge off the goddess’s pleasure in tormenting us. If you do have to walk down the streets, try to skip and grin and look generally cheerful. This too will indicate pleasure in the current downpour and discourage the angry goddess in her efforts to make us miserable. Perhaps with enough discouragement she may be persuaded to desist. If you are a druid, however, please don’t try to look cheerful. Fierce warriors have fainted and eternal optimists committed suicide at the sight of a druid’s smile, and a druid skipping in his robes is simply insanitary.

Our most recent efforts have involved a relay of emeritus professors from the School of Decaying and Illegible Manuscripts lecturing the goddess from a window in Special Collections on their favourite textual cruxes. We are hopeful that this is having a positive effect; at 6.47 this morning she was seen to yawn and rub her eyes. Unfortunately when an irascible weather goddess yawns a hurricane ensues, but please be comforted, as you are whisked off over the rooftops, that the wind that’s blowing you away may prove to have been a prelude to quieter times to come. And should your brief journey through the air prove fatal, remember that the grave is a placid place whose inhabitants have very seldom been heard to complain about the damp.

From the Fantasy Hub Development Committee, then, to all who work at the University of Glasgow: be safe, stay dry, and try to look cheerful, unless you’re a druid. Oh yes: and buy loads of whisky.

[Please note that an alchemical photograph of the goddess is forthcoming; it is currently being developed in our Dark Room.]

James Treadwell, Advent

51r87c3q1ML._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_This is the first part of a review of James Treadwell’s fantasy sequence The Advent Trilogy. I’ve written two parts of the review and am not yet sure when the last part will be finished. I decided, though, that I should get these thoughts into circulation while they’re still reasonably fresh in my mind, because the ideas they’re playing with are ones I’d like to develop in other parts of this blog.

One of the characters in the first novel of Treadwell’s trilogy, Advent (2012), is a fey thirteen-year-old called Marina who has always lived in a state of artificial isolation. Ensconced in a Cornish mansion without running water or electricity, she knows so little about the world that she has hardly heard of China and doesn’t know the word for tractor, though she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of European myths and the botanical names of plants. Into the mansion stumbles Gavin, a boy of fifteen with an ill-kept secret: he has an ‘imaginary friend’ who has recently become his tormentor. This spectral presence is a woman he calls Miss Grey, and the torment springs from his unguarded references to her, for which he has been labelled – and labels himself – weird, different, probably disturbed. The third member of the youthful trio at the centre of the narrative is a Chinese-English twelve-year-old, Horace Jia, whose own big secret is that he spends his leisure time not playing computer games and football but visiting Marina in her hidden fastness, impressing her with his superior knowledge, honing his skills in moving through the tangled undergrowth of the woods like a hunter.   Three lonely adolescents who see themselves, or are seen by others, as in some sense distinctive or special. The scenario is familiar enough, though not the unsettling intensity with which Treadwell invokes their loneliness, the deep unhappiness their difference brings them.

The familiarity is deliberate. A number of myths underpin Treadwell’s trilogy: Troy, Faust, the Flying Dutchman, Ragnarok, the sexual exploits of the pagan gods, the folklore of the English countryside – combined in the sort of eclectic fusion we have come to expect from fantasy writing since the 1960s. But there are also frequent acts of homage to specific fantasies from post-war Britain. Advent opens with Gavin on a train to rural England, a situation that invites comparison with the opening of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), which so brilliantly alerts its readers to its own rootedness in the specificities of place by having them accompany the young protagonists on a railway journey to a very particular station in rural Cheshire. The destination of Gavin’s train is Cornwall, the setting of the first book in Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965); and when later in the novel Cornwall gets covered in a record-breaking fall of snow, accompanied by a soundtrack featuring the raucous calls of crows and the ancient quasi-pagan carols still sung in churches at Christmas, knowledgeable readers will instantly recall the freak snowfall that transforms the English landscape in the second book of Cooper’s series (The Dark is Rising, 1973).

From these indirect allusions to celebrated fantasies for children, and from the age of the principal characters in Advent, it might be assumed that Treadwell’s trilogy is meant for young readers, although it makes no concessions to such an audience in terms of vocabulary or incident. The publishers have reinforced the link with a young adult readership by issuing the sequel with a comparison to Philip Pullman on the cover – Pullman being a writer who writes for children but has famously enjoyed a global crossover success among adults. Such crossovers between different readerships have of course become common enough in the last two or three decades; but the idea that a fantasy with kids in it must be meant for kids – or indeed that fantasy itself is only fit for the young – forms part of a world view which Treadwell is seriously concerned to challenge.

The experience of having been shaped by a form of literature – and so a state of mind – that has been branded by one’s culture as marginal or of low social status is familiar to the kinds of readers who will seek out Treadwell’s books, drawn perhaps by the phrase ‘magic is rising’ on the cover of Advent, another evocation of Cooper. And that experience is also clearly central to Treadwell’s sequence, although it is transferred from the experience of reading fantasy to that of seeing the world in fantastic terms – in terms, that is, that run counter to the scientific and social systems which govern the communities we live in. Gavin’s visions of Miss Gray, who is invisible to everyone else, identify him (he thinks) as unique. Marina’s massive ignorance, like that of Miranda in The Tempest, gives her a perspective on the world that can be instantly discounted as unrealistic. Horace’s truancy from school to visit the fascinating recluse identifies him as out of sync with his peers. So does his ethnicity, since he’s the only Chinese kid in the school he attends. Each of these youngsters has been rendered solitary by their marginality.   And marginality extends to the books’ geography: the first novel is set in the West Country, at the edge of rural England, the second among the sparsely-populated islands of Western Canada. These are places where the roads run out, settlements beyond which the terrifying strangeness of untended nature begins: the Atlantic Ocean, the northern forests. Moreover, Treadwell’s central characters are not native to these peripheral locations, and several share the split cultures of the Chinese-English schoolboy. The protagonist of the second novel is half French Canadian, half Anglo, just as the First Nation people among whom she finds herself exist in a state of uneasy suspension between ancient religious and social affiliations and the pressures of colonial capitalism. Meanwhile Marina and, it emerges, Gavin have an even more radically split genealogy, their birthright straddling the incongruous elements of myth and the mundane. As a lonely teenager one couldn’t wish for a more satisfactory justification for one’s sense of not belonging.

But not belonging is a condition by no means confined to the young people in Treadwell’s novels. The old people in his trilogy are as isolated as the young: a ‘nutty professor’ who has resigned from her Oxford job (Treadwell 2012: 44); a reclusive hippy who busies herself with crystals and charting ley lines in a cottage without a phone; a retired seafarer who spends his life yearning for the sea-woman he has lost for ever. And the most ancient characters in the book are more isolated still.  The sixteenth-century magician Johann Faust, who casts his shadow across the trilogy, considers himself radically out of place in his own era, when the increasingly rationalistic population has turned its back on the magic arts he practises. And of course he is yet more out of place in the present day, to which his sorcery propels him. So too are the supernatural creatures he conjures up. The longer you read Advent, the more you come to realize that the lonely children in it are by no means unique or distinctive. Isolation is an all too familiar phenomenon, and one of the novel’s achievements is to show it spreading like a virus through South-West England, stranding more and more individuals in tenuous pockets of warmth surrounded by the menacing snow.

The loneliest person in Advent is the Trojan visionary Cassandra, whose shadow stretches yet further across time and space than that of Faust. Cursed by the god Apollo with the gift of telling truth about what’s to come, while mortals are cursed (or blessed, it’s not clear which) with the inability to believe her, she inhabits a linguistic space that sets her apart from all other users of language: free to communicate in any tongue she chooses, yet wholly unable to drive home her intended meaning. And Treadwell has intensified Cassandra’s legendary solitude by having her survive her murder by Clytemnestra and live on through successive ages till she re-encounters Faust, whom she first met when he used his magic to visit Troy (‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?’ he asks in Marlowe’s play; but in Treadwell’s book it’s Cassandra’s face, not Helen’s, that he notices). By the time of this re-encounter in the sixteenth century Cassandra’s identity has been lost in time, though her story is still recalled by scholars and poets as historical fact. By the twenty-first century her story, too, has been largely forgotten, or remembered only as a cultural curiosity, an emotive metaphor to be played on for artistic purposes, with no basis in empirical reality. And it’s as a metaphor that Treadwell uses her: a potent stand-in for fantastic fiction, and for those who are in its thrall.

Fantasy is the Cassandra of literary genres. It arises at the point in cultural history when belief has fallen away; it’s the literature of the impossible, whose effects depend on the reader’s consciousness that what they’re reading could never have taken place. In this it differs from ancient myth, which told tales of the gods people still believed in, and religion, which continues to inspire belief; even the most fanatical fantasy enthusiasts would have to admit that their role-playing games derive part of their charm from the certainty that they represent nothing that ever was or will be. At the same time, fantasy has something to say to those who read it – otherwise they wouldn’t bother. It tells some kind of truth to them, and they are often disappointed at the inability of non-enthusiasts to grasp this. Treadwell’s trilogy forces that fantastic truth on its readers; at first incrementally, as his characters begin to realize they are not as uniquely isolated as they thought; then in the form of a global cataclysm, to which the title of his second book points. It’s about the anarchy that would ensue if the fantastic mingled with what we take to be real, if the impossible irrupted into the rational. In this, his sequence is as witty as it’s disturbing, revelling in the discomfiture of the sensible adults who find that everything they assumed to be true has been inverted, that one set of rules they did not fully understand – those that govern technology – has been supplanted by another, about which they know nothing at all: the rules of magic. Even what some adults think they know about magic turns out to be – well – a fantasy. When Marina’s father fell in love with a mermaid and married her, he thought he remembered that stories with magic in them always ended in a certain comforting formula. But ‘happily ever after’ is a catchphrase from the period when the fairy tale was being infantilized, transferred from the family fireside to the middle-class nursery by Charles Perrault. The real supernatural beings who start to emerge from the past in Treadwell’s trilogy are both amusingly and horrifyingly different from the fairies of the nursery, and bring with them no guarantee of happy endings. Intensely physical, reeking with unfamiliar odours and bristling with lethal weapons – claws, teeth, thorns, verbal bargains – these beings defy us to believe that the virtual world in which we spend so much of our time is more real than they are, mock us with our misplaced confidence that we know what’s happening. The truth they bring with them is the fact of our collective ignorance, and this is why it’s so appropriate that children should inaugurate the trilogy, which reduces all its adult characters to a state of childish bewilderment.

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Treadwell’s books, then, are ambitious, making grand claims for the value of the medium they work in – a value that consists in its capacity to make us question certain kinds of knowledge. And they share this ambition with other works of fantasy and science fiction at the beginning of the new millennium. Over the last two or three decades, the fantastic has become encyclopaedic. As if driven by a millenarian urge to sum up what matters most to them, writers of both genres not only proselytize about the books and stories they love – name-checking them in prefaces and on their websites – but endeavour to rewrite them for a new age, affirming in the process their status as legitimate records of the state of things, ways of describing the world that cannot be discarded without depleting it. Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Adam Roberts (who does science fiction rather than fantasy): each of these writers seems to have set himself the task of reworking all the prose fiction, comics, films and albums that formed them, and of doing so in such a way as to insist on their urgent applicability to global politics and history, then and now, while retaining the strangeness, charm, anarchic inventiveness and humour that made serious-minded people dismiss these art forms as frivolous when Gaiman and company were growing up. Faced with the substance of these writers’ oeuvres, only the lazy-minded could continue to insist that fantasy is escapist or science fiction naïve. Confronted by such dazzling rethinkings of where naivety and escapism lie – for these writers, in the realm of the ‘real’ rather than the fantastic – even fantasy-haters may find their perspective changed, its polarities reversed as what they have always thought of as marginal gets transplanted into the centre, the genre they considered escapist points up their own escapist tendencies.

This reversal of polarities is exactly what happens to entire populations in Treadwell’s trilogy. In the British fantasies he references – Garner’s and Cooper’s novels for young readers – the young protagonists really are in some sense special or different. The hero of Cooper’s novel The Dark Is Rising, Will Stanton, discovers on his eleventh birthday that he’s one of the Old Ones, a secret organisation of immortals dedicated to combatting the malevolent plots of the book’s antagonists, the Dark, through the use of magic. Whenever an action involving the Old Ones takes place in the novel, the mortals in the vicinity get frozen in time, allowing those rare beings with a connection to the deep past to go about their mysterious business undisturbed. Alan Garner’s young protagonists in his celebrated fantastic novels from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to Red Shift (1973) have a special relationship with magic that sets them apart from the surrounding population, condemning them to loneliness and, in the later books, psychological damage. But Treadwell’s achievement is to co-opt entire communities – the world itself in the second volume – into the traumatic alteration of the rules that govern reality which is triggered by the unleashing of magic on ‘developed’ nations. And he does this by stages, so that the conversion of one kind of magic – the technological kind that gives us light at the flick of a switch and permits us to communicate instantaneously with the other side of the planet – into another kind, wherein monsters roam the landscape, people get possessed by spirits and the dead speak to the living through whatever instruments happen to be available – this shift appears to be the natural extension of a process that is already taking place in his readers’ lives.

To be continued…

Mervyn Peake and Trees

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Peake was a lover of trees. Some of the most famous pictures of him, taken when he was living on the island of Sark between 1946 and 1949, show him in communion with them: suspended in a copse of saplings holding a book; standing in a trance-like state on moorland with a branch like an antler clutched to his head. Like Hope Mirrlees’s Dr Endymion Leer he seems to have thought of human beings as existing in an intimate but troubled relationship with trees, sometimes rooting themselves to the spot in a temporary state of arborification, sometimes utterly at odds with the seasonal transformation of the deciduous woodlands. His 1939 poem ‘Autumn’ (one of two he wrote with this title) charts his own metamorphosis into a male Daphne, seduced into an arboreal condition by the peculiar fusion of stillness and movement, chill air and blazing colours that marks the approach of winter:

O now the cave-cold breath through me
Blows dank from every forest tree,
And suddenly my soul floats free,
And lo! I am a crimson tree.

From the same year, perhaps, and written in the same season, ‘The Sap of Sorrow Mounts this Rootless Tree’ commemorates instead Peake’s sense of alienation from his rooted neighbours, as he feels the ‘sap of sorrow’ rising in his body at the moment when the sap of the autumn trees is sinking earthwards:

My fingers like cold twigs unfoliaged
Stretch impotent for blossom, and my breast
Aches under pallid bark to be assuaged
With fruit and flower and to burn at rest.

‘The Torch’ describes an abrupt nocturnal encounter with the ‘ghostly tracery’ of a gigantic tree by torchlight – an experience Peake embraced; while ‘May 1940’ ironically congratulates the woods on having escaped the painful condition of sentience at a time of global conflict:

Be proud, slow trees. Be glad you stones and birds,
And you brown Arun river and all things
That thrive in silence through these hours of maytime –
Be glad you are not fashioned in God’s image.

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All these poems date from the first years of the war, when the post-romantic yearning to mimic the trees’ slowness and calm indifference must have seemed both as intense and as absurdly impracticable as it had ever been in history. So when I was editing Peake’s Collected Poems for Carcanet – setting the poems as far as possible in chronological order and thus transforming them into an erratic verse commentary on his life and turbulent times – it seemed natural to assume that his poem ‘With People, so with Trees’ was written at about the same time. Maeve Gilmore’s fine anthology of her husband’s works, Peake’s Progress, assigned it to 1940, and I had no other evidence for its date; so I accepted her dating, despite the fact that Peake’s Progress often assigned inaccurate years to poems I could date with some certainty on the basis of other evidence. Here is the poem in full, as it was printed in Peake’s prize-winning collection The Glassblowers (1950):

WITH PEOPLE, SO WITH TREES

With people, so with trees: where there are groups
Of either, men or trees, some will remain
Aloof while others cluster where one stoops
To breathe some dusky secret. Some complain

And some gesticulate and some are blind;
Some toss their heads above green towns; some freeze
For lack of love in copses of mankind;
Some laugh; some mourn; with people, so with trees.

This week, however, I was re-reading Peake’s second novel, Gormenghast, which was written largely in his three years living with his family on Sark, and was published in the same year as The Glassblowers. Enchanted by the sequence of self-contained episodes like miniature stage plays that make up the novel’s early chapters, I found myself reading about young Titus’s day and night of truancy on Gormenghast Mountain, and came across this passage at the beginning of Chapter Sixteen:

Far below Titus, like a gathering of people, stood a dozen spinneys. Between them the rough land glittered here and there where threads of water reflected the sky.

Out of this confusion of glinting water, brambles and squat thorn bushes, the clumps of trees arose with a peculiar authority.

To Titus they seemed curiously alive, these copses. For each copse appeared singularly unlike any other one, though they were about equal in size and were exclusively a blend of ash and sycamore.

But it was plain to see that whereas the nearest of these groups to Titus was in an irritable state, not one of the trees having anything to do with his neighbour, their heads turned away from one another, their shoulders shrugged, yet not a hundred feet away another spinney was in a condition of suspended excitement, as with the heads of its trees bowed together above some green and susurrous secret. Only one of the trees had raised its head a little. It was tilted on one side as though loth to miss any of the fluttering conversation at its shoulder. Titus shifted his gaze and noticed a copse where, drawn back, and turned away a little on their hips, twelve trees looked sideways at one who stood aloof. Its back was to them. There could be no doubt that, with its gaze directed from them it despised the group behind it.

There were the trees that huddled together as though they were cold or in fear. There were trees that gesticulated. There were those that seemed to support one of their number who appeared wounded. There were the arrogant groups, and the mournful, with their heads bowed: the exultant copses and those where every tree appeared to be asleep.

The landscape was alive, but so was Titus. They were only trees, after all: branches, roots and leaves. This was his day; there was no time to waste.

It’s pretty clear that this passage is closely related to the poem. They share not only a central idea (the link between human beings and trees) but a common vocabulary: people, copses, aloof, groups, gesticulate, secret, heads [] above [] green. Such a density of shared words and thoughts makes it likely, I think, that they were written at about the same time. The world’s foremost Peake expert, Peter Winnington, tells me that Peake was working on this particular chapter of Gormenghast between February and October 1948; so it seems reasonable to date the poem to that period too. It’s always satisfying to be able to pin a poem to a particular moment in a writer’s development, so that it becomes a kind of melodic, moving postcard from the past, a portal onto the dreams and passions of a specific day, month or year.

But the differences between the poem and the passage are as interesting as their similarities. The poem fuses the human and the arboreal so that the landscape constantly shifts between the urban and the sylvan, largely thanks to the pairing of terms in successive phrases: ‘people/trees’, ‘men/trees’, ‘green towns’, ‘copses of mankind’, ‘people/trees’. The passage from Gormenghast, by contrast, keeps a distance between the two life forms. The trees are carefully located in a mountain landscape populated by ‘brambles and squat thorn bushes’; they are of a specific height and a particular combination of species, ‘about equal in size and […] exclusively a blend of ash and sycamore’; and while they are clearly anthropomorphized they are never wholly fused with human beings as they are in the poem’s ‘copses of mankind’. Hence Titus’s ability to dismiss them at the end of the passage: for all their mimicry of action they are finally ‘only trees’ made up of ‘branches, roots and leaves’, not brains and active limbs, and his sense that there is an urgent need to move on (‘there was no time to waste’) confirms his radical (or deracinated) difference from them.

This divergence between tree and human is important in the novel’s context. At this point in the narrative, Titus is far away from home in an alien landscape, and the episode serves as one of several rites of passage in the book. I say ‘rites’ but am conscious of the irony, since each of these ‘rites’ places him further at odds with the castle’s stultifying dependence on ritual. Shortly after his encounter with the copses the boy undergoes a kind of second birth as he forces his way through a barrier of vegetation into a landscape that has never been touched by the castle’s shadow: ‘he fought the muscled branches, until the upper part of his body had forced a gap which he kept from re-closing with his aching shoulders’. On the other side of this gap he finds a ‘phantasmic gathering of ancient oaks’ somewhat like the tree Peake saw by torchlight, standing like ‘dappled gods’ on a ‘sea of golden moss’. For some reason this majestic arboreal landscape begins to frighten as well as fascinate him; and his fear and fascination intensify when he learns that the hidden oakwood has an inhabitant: a slender, barely human creature which ‘floated through the golden air like a feather, the slender arms along the sides of the gracile body, the head turned slightly away and inclined a little as though on a pillow of air’. The creature, which so closely resembles the many airborne, naked beings Peake sketched or paintpeake1ed throughout his life, turns out to be Titus’s foster sister; but she is also the first being he has met who lives ‘by other rules than those of Gormenghast’, and who ‘would no more think of bowing to the seventy-seventh Earl than would a bird, or the branch of a tree’. Half bird, half tree, she becomes for Titus an emblem of freedom from the stultifying rituals that bind his official life; and this association explains the simultaneous terror and joy he experiences in the woods where they first meet, embodying as they do the almost blasphemous concept of a world ungoverned by ancient ceremony.

But the passage with the copses does something else besides anticipate the imminent meeting between Titus and his feral sister. It encapsulates, too, the radical difference between the first Titus book, Titus Groan, and the second, Gormenghast. Titus Groan is a book about solitude, whose theme is the different solitary secret worlds inhabited by the denizens of the great ancestral castle of the House of Groan; worlds which are stealthily invaded by the young rebel Steerpike as he thrusts his way through the castle hierarchy in quest of power. Gormenghast, by contrast, is about communities and convergences: the professors of Gormenghast’s school, the ink-stained and hyperactive schoolboys who are their charges, the repressed but determined Irma Prunesquallor and her party, the gigantic Countess with her canopy of cats, who slowly metamorphoses into the monumental hub of the castle community. Titus Groan is about dust and stone; Gormenghast about the secretive flora and fauna that take root in the cracks and crannies of that vast edifice, defiantly proclaiming their kinship with the beasts and plants of the wilderness beyond. In addition, Titus Groan concerns the aristocracy and its servants, while Gormenghast opens with the discovery of a repressed middle class that suddenly manifests itself in the castle’s labyrinthine architecture. This middle class often moves in groups of two or more – a philosopher called ‘The Leader’ and his disciples, a doctor and his sister, a bevy of schoolteachers – yet they find it difficult to get along together; obscure rituals as implacable as the castle’s Book of Law prevent them from acting naturally in one another’s company. They are constrained by the strict hierarchy into which they were born, the rules that govern their professions and social function, the laws of good conduct, gender, age, and saving face. Yet get along together they do, by one means or another, and as the book unfolds the sense of a close-knit community in the castle grows until it has become something unified and organic, independent of though nurtured by the stones, which combines to hunt down the threat to its survival which Steerpike has become.

In the second Titus novel, the groups of the castle’s inhabitants are sometimes described in terms that closely resemble the passage about the copses. Consider this description of the professors, released from their pedagogic labours at the end of a summer’s day, liberated to take up attitudes of indolence without any concern for the strenuous if futile efforts to assert authority that dominate their hours in the classroom:

But for the most part, the professors stood in groups, or were seated on the lower steps of the stone flights, where they waited to take their turn at the ‘stile’. They were in no hurry. Here and there a savant could be seen lying stretched at full length along one of the steps or shelves of the stone stairs. Here and there a group would be squatting like aboriginals on their haunches, their gowns gathered about them. Some were in shadow, and very dark they looked – like bandits in a bad light; some were silhouetted against the hazy, golden swathes of the sun shafts; and some stood transfixed in the last rays as they streamed through the honeycombed roof.

There’s an incipient wildness about the professors at rest which makes them more like natives of the mountain landscape discovered by Titus than servants of the Groans. They squat ‘like aboriginals’, they look ‘dark’ in the shadows, they resemble brigands, they worship the sun. Their physical accomplishments are startling: one of them in the next paragraph is seen walking down the flight of steps on his hands. The chief professor, Bellgrove – who has just been made headmaster – looks like a lion, albeit a worn-out and ineffectual one, and sits among his colleagues in a similar attitude of relaxation, ‘his knees drawn up to his blue jaw, which they supported, star[ing] abstractedly at a group which stood out in silhouette against a swarm of golden motes’. These men are only fully themselves, it seems, when released from the daily ritual of the school. Certainly it’s only then that they are relaxedly a crowd, not an ill-assorted accumulation of misfits, as they are in the Masters’ Common Room. Their resemblance to the copses confirms the potential for some sort of liberation that lurks behind their gowns of office, and sometimes takes possession of those gowns as they rise like wings behind the professors when they break into a run.

The professor with the greatest potential for liberation, it seems, is Bellgrove; and he discovers this potential when he meets Titus after the boy’s night of truancy on Gormenghast Mountain. Titus is punished for his escapade with a week’s imprisonment in a building called the Lichen Fort; and it is here that he is visited by the free spirits of the castle: his rebellious elder sister, Lady Fuchsia; Dr Prunesquallor, with his manic laughter and equally manic imagination; and the Headmaster, who comes in his official capacity to see how his pupil is ‘getting along’. Face to face alone for the first time, Bellgrove and Titus come to a sudden understanding: neither needs to maintain the pretence of observing the conventions that normally govern relations between an elderly teacher and his pupil. Constrained at first by an ineradicable sense of his place (‘Words and gestures obey their own dictatorial, unimaginative laws; the ghastly ritual, that denies the spirit’), Bellgrove slowly comes to recognize that he and Titus occupy common ground, ‘a world apart, a secret place to which they alone had access’. By the end of the visit the two have settled down to play marbles together; and they are later joined in their game by Prunesquallor. The scene ends with the two adults transformed into jubilant animals, the ‘high trill’ of the Doctor’s laugh becoming ‘the cry of a hyena’, Bellgrove’s voice fulfilling the promise of his name by ‘belling forth’ like that of ‘an old and happy hound’. Titus has been the agent of this transformation; and one can’t help thinking he managed it by bringing back with him from the mountain some echo of the sublime indifference to ritual he found there in the shape of the bird-like, tree-like Thing.

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Peake wrote a lot more tree poems during his time on Sark: ‘If Trees Gushed Blood’; ‘What is That Noise in the Shaking Trees?’; ‘The Birch Saplings’, which compares a stand of saplings to ‘breastless girls’ and predicts that ‘their slenderness / Will wake no pity in the surging seasons […] No love in the totalitarian weather’. All three of these date to around 1946. But perhaps the most exuberant of his tree poems was probably written in the same year as ‘With People, so with Trees’:

CONCEIT

I heard a winter tree in song:
Its leaves were birds, a hundred strong;
When all at once it ceased to sing,
For every leaf had taken wing.

The joy and pain of the leaves’ winged liberation in this poem (the trees are denuded and silenced when the birds take flight) anticipates the joy and pain of Titus’s eventual escape from Gormenghast. The young earl’s flight involves the loss – along with the totalitarian law that has bound him since infancy – of everyone he loves: Bellgrove, Prunesquallor, Flay, Fuchsia. It also involves the loss of the prison where he once played games with his two adult visitors, where ‘the marbles crashed against one another, spun in their tracks, lodged shuddering in their squares, or skimmed the prison floor like shooting stars’. Gormenghast and the forests of Gormenghast Mountain are alive with such contradictions.

The Empire of Corpses by Ryotaro Makihara

tftf3ffsv3ctfopnyfaq The movie Empire of Corpses, which had its world premier outside Japan in the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 11 October, had everything that attracts me to anime in insane profusion: a vast sprawling plot, an ornately beautiful cataclysm at its climax, an impenetrable philosophy which inexplicably roots itself in your mind for days afterwards, and a magnificent soundtrack. That these elements don’t really cohere – there are gaping plot holes which one can only ascribe, like the holes in Takashi Nakamura’s Tree of Palme or Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, to the likelihood that it has been cut down from an even vaster and more insanely ambitious director’s edit – hardly diminishes its attractions. And it made me think quite hard about two things: the powers that drive the subgenre called Steampunk and the passionate love affair between anime and books.

The first of these is something many people have written about, but Makihara’s film drove it home to me: how well Steampunk is named, since the term for the genre incorporates the energy source of an era. Steam isn’t always, though, as central to the plot of a Steampunk narrative as it is in Steamboy, which is full of massive metal components being propelled at appalling forces in all directions by compressed superheated water vapour, to devastating effect on the London landscape. Indeed Adam Roberts’s novel Swiftly, which takes as its premise the notion that all the lands discovered by Jonathan Swift’s egomaniac traveller Lemuel Gulliver have been colonized by various global empires, contains no steam at all. Why invent the steam engine, after all, when you have Brobdingnagians to lift your heavy loads, Lilliputians to do your delicate work, and Houyhnhnms and Yahoos to stock your armies? The power that drives the British Empire in Roberts’s mid-nineteenth century is slavery, and the pattern of the enslavement of smaller species by larger ones – and of more or less organized rebellion against oppression – seems to be repeated throughout the physical universe.

In Empire of Corpses the empires of the world are powered by the dead. Soulless hordes of staggering zombies have replaced the working classes as the components of every industrial enterprise and imperial war machine on the planet. What has become of the actual working classes we aren’t told, but by the middle of the movie it seems distinctly probable that they have been turned into zombies before death, through the horribly aggressive method, depicted in the movie’s opening shots, of inserting an oversized syringe into the brainstem – thus overriding their personalities with an artificial compound of music and opium (a witty take on Marx’s famous conflation of religion with a hallucinogenic drug). The premise satisfies because it brings together a number of themes associated in viewers’ minds with the nineteenth century: decline of religious faith, religious and moral hypocrisy, alienation of labour, men conceived as mechanisms, a morbid fascination with mortality, an inhuman ruling class who preach the highest ideals (one especially ambitious proponent of zombyism insists that filling the world with walking dead will bring universal peace at last – an assertion it’s hard to deny). And the fact that the movie’s central character shares the imperialists’ obsession with reanimating corpses for what may well be entirely selfish motives is equally satisfying. John Watson – yes, that John Watson – is literally hell bent on restoring his dead friend Friday to life; and his exploitation of Friday’s zombiefied corpse as a servant, bodyguard and amanuensis while ostensibly working for his benefit makes a neat point about the ease with which selfless high ideals can mutate into a cover for self-interest – a situation Makihara implicitly extends to the whole of the British Empire (and every other imperial power) in this movie.

But Empire of Corpses also reminded me of anime’s love affair with books, and that’s what lingered in my mind after the end credits (which are well worth watching to the end – Japanese audiences, I’m told by my colleague Saeko Yazaki, consider it rude to leave the cinema before the screen goes blank). Not only is the film stocked with literary figures – John Watson, Friday from Robinson Crusoe, the brothers Karamazov, Captain Nemo (or at least his ship), Mary Shelley’s eloquent creature (as well as James Whale’s dumb one, who unaccountably makes an appearance towards the end) – but the plot is unabashedly literary in character. The quest throughout is to recover Victor Frankenstein’s lost notes, which are said to contain the secret for reanimating the soul as well as the body – thus enabling zombies to speak, as Friday cannot. The villain – James Bond’s M – aims to overwrite the minds of the intransigent subjects of the British Empire with a more docile model of consciousness; in other words, he’s more interested in soulless zombies than articulate creatures of the sort Frankenstein created. Watson, by contrast, hopes to find a way to overcome Friday’s muteness by having him write down everything that happens to him as the two of them traverse the globe in search of that earlier set of notes. Dead Friday, then, writes living Watson; M seeks to rewrite the imperial citizen as a docile animated corpse; Frankenstein’s creature seeks to rewrite the android woman with the consciousness of his uncreated bride – acts of writing, over-writing, co-writing and rewriting fill the plot, till one could be forgiven for losing track of the characters’ motives altogether.

All these acts of posthumous writing and rewriting are rendered poignant by the fact that this movie is an adaptation of the last novel by Satoshi Ito – Project Ito – who died of cancer while writing Empire of Corpses, leaving it to be finished by his friends. The clearly homoerotic relationship between Watson and Friday – which precedes his quasi-homoerotic relationship with Sherlock by a decade – looks like a passionate tribute to a much-loved writer by friends and fans, who are determined to continue his project in spite of his death (there are two more full-length animes planned, which will make this movie into the first part of a trilogy). Indeed, one could say that this bid to film Ito’s work is powered by his death, lent passion by it; the zombie empire in the film can be read as a metaphor for grief, which so easily becomes a struggle to keep a lost one’s memory alive, to defy death’s tyranny, to promote the words that are all that survive of a writer’s mind after her demise. Reading a dead writer’s words is an act of reanimation, and this film indulges in this particular form of Frankensteinian re-creation with flamboyant enthusiasm.

Of all forms of film, anime is perhaps the one that’s most obsessed with books. It’s not just a matter of the dozens of adaptations of novels with which it’s stocked, from Isao Takahata’s TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps to Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty, from Satoshi Kon’s swansong Paprika, based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, to Nakamura’s post-apocalyptic versions of Pinocchio (A Tree of Palme) and Peter Pan (the TV series Fantastic Children). There are also the shows that dramatize the love of books itself, such as Koji Masunari’s OVA Read or Die (itself adapted from a series of light novels), featuring a bespectacled, shy librarian with superpowers that enable her to make anything out of paper, from full-size planes to bullet-proof shields; Mizuho Nishikubo’s Giovanni’s Island, in which two young brothers are sustained through the Russian occupation of their island home by their passion for Kenji Miyazawa’s novel Night on the Galactic Railroad; or Yoshifumi Kondo’s masterpiece Whisper of the Heart, whose heroine finds herself drawn to a boy in her high school by their mutual love of reading. Hayao Miyazaki (who scripted Whisper and Arrietty) is famously literary in his inspirations: Treasure Island underlies Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, Andersen’s Little Mermaid haunts Ponyo, while the success of his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle added insult to injury when his son Goro enthusiastically mashed together the Earthsea books in the critically panned Tales from Earthsea (for which I have a not-so-sneaking admiration). The labour of drawing characters, backgrounds and successive frames by hand for animated movies seems to yoke them to other forms of visionary, labour-intensive activities such as those of the solitary novelist, the mangaka or the attentive reader.

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Reading and writing have never been more violent than in Empire of Corpses, nor so perversely erotic. I say ‘perversely’ because the central character has necrophiliac tendencies, which finally find an outlet in his willingness to embrace corpsedom himself (no spoilers here) to get close to his departed friend or lover. Is the film suggesting that reading books by dead authors (and Friday becomes a dead author by virtue of his note-taking) is, like orgasm, a kind of death? It certainly seems to suggest that encountering the past through books resembles a battle with enraged zombies – an idea which surely has some weight in these zombie-obsessed early decades of the twentieth century. The film’s greatest perversity, though, is the absence of female characters. The only prominent woman in it is an android with outsized breasts who spends half her time wielding a flamethrower and the other half flailing around in agony as Mary Shelley’s creature strives to convert her into a vehicle for the resurrected soul of his lost bride. There are some Victorian imperialist attitudes that aren’t worth reviving – and others that have shuffled on into the twenty-first century, gnashing their corpselike teeth in a vain attempt to fend off the forces of feminism. A shame that this film chooses in the end to align itself with the latter.

William Morris, The Well at the World’s End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes

willowes03Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926) is one of a trio of fantasy masterpieces written by British women in the 1920s (Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and this), in the run up to the universal franchise of 1928.

This is by far the least known of the three, but it shares the strangeness of the other two. In some ways, in fact, it’s the strangest of all, because of the way its strangeness creeps up on you. If you’re told it’s about a woman who becomes a witch, you may get the wrong impression: you may assume that it’s about exuberant rebellion, wild midnight dances, the exultation of passionate sexuality and occult powers, but it’s not like that at all. At the beginning Laura Willowes (the name Lolly is thrust on her as a badge of her spinsterhood, a suitable sobriquet for an ageing maiden aunt) assumes she’s part of an unchanging story, the comfortable quasi-aristocratic life in a large house at the turn of the twentieth century – a house to which she literally holds the keys. But the narrative changes: her father dies, a move takes place, she finds herself no longer the protagonist of her own quiet drama but a patronized nanny-figure, lady companion and family servant in her brother’s Bloomsbury household, inhabiting a world of urban polite society she despises, and cut off from the seasonal ebb and flow that delightfully shaped her early years. Her sudden decision to move to the countryside in her late forties – and the way her forties creep up on her in this book is brilliantly observed, as startling as the arrival of The Victorian Age in Woolf’s Orlando – is prompted less by rebellious feelings than by a not wholly understood urge for something very specific, a place, a name (the village she moves to is called Great Mop, itself illogical since there is no Little Mop that anyone’s heard of). And this urge, which doesn’t conform to any of the conventional narratives by which women of her time are expected to explain their motives, becomes the theme of the rest of the book.

Laura doesn’t make ‘friends’ in Great Mop, though she is charmed by the inhabitants. She doesn’t find it beautiful – some of the parts she spends most time in are decidedly ugly. She doesn’t fall in love – the one man she likes there is instantly forgotten as soon as she’s out of his company, and she finds his hens more interesting than he is, since carrying them makes her feel like that magical figure, the ‘henwife’, in old tales. Even when she makes the discovery that most of the inhabitants take part in a nightly Witch’s Sabbath, and is invited to take part, she fails to find that social event any more amusing than her brother’s Bloomsbury parties (though she’s temporarily attracted to some of the participants, which didn’t happen in London). Her powers as a witch don’t work conventionally – and it’s not a witch’s powers that interest her in any case, so much as the witch’s capacity to ignore or forget what others think of her. Finally, when she meets the Devil, patron of witches, her response to him is deeply ambiguous. After all, he’s a powerful male, and powerful men have been a nuisance to her – though she was clearly strongly attached to her powerful father. We’re left at the end of the book not entirely sure what to think of her situation. It’s precarious. She’s liberated in one sense, yet still bound to a male potentate; freed from limiting narratives apart from the most terrifyingly limiting narrative of all, that of the Devil’s right to take eventual possession of her immortal soul. She comforts herself with the thought that neither she nor the Devil have any idea what happens after death (how can he know, since he’s immortal?). But the sense of precariousness remains after you’ve read the final sentence.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was Townsend Warner’s choice of the Devil as the presiding genius of Lolly Willowes’s ambiguous liberation. It would have been easy to choose Pan instead, and it’s clear that the Devil in this book is very Pan-like. On both occasions when she meets him he adopts the appearance of a rustic man, especially at home in the woods (and for him woods are everywhere: ‘Once a wood, always a wood’, he insists at one point, which explains for Laura the strange feelings she has sometimes got from certain places in the city). Pan was everywhere in fiction between about 1895 and the 1920s: sometimes terrifying (Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890-4)), sometimes unsettling (Forster’s ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904), Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912), Dunsany’s The Blessing of Pan (1928)), sometimes comforting and cuddly (Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908)); and he could be used to refer to what was otherwise inexpressible (Forster’s story was about the awakening of homosexual desire, while Stephens’s Pan helps a young woman to free herself from the Irish church’s contempt for the desiring body). But Pan belongs to a dead religion, and from this point of view was a safe figure, safely fantastic, safely impossible, and with an impeccably classical pedigree to justify his inclusion in a respectable middle- or upper-class narrative.

The Devil, on the other hand, is part of a narrative that still had a fierce hold on early twentieth-century British society. He is democratic, in that people of any background may be afraid of him. And he is scary even to non-believers, since the practitioners of Devil-worship have had a universally bad press. Laura’s decision (or is it even a decision? It seems to be thrust on her without her volition) to commit herself to him is therefore disturbing because we genuinely don’t know, as readers, what to make of it. Has she been trapped into making a terrible mistake? Will she free herself from her contract, and if she doesn’t, will she suffer the consequences? Townsend Warner clearly wanted these questions to live on in the reader’s mind after the book has ended, perhaps precisely because the question of women’s freedom and equality with men had not yet found an answer, and wouldn’t find it in 1928, despite the official declaration that they were free at last to participate in the democratic process. The Devil is in the details of such declarations, she might have said (whose definition of democracy were women being invited to collude with?). And it’s in the beautifully observed details of the book, especially of Laura’s always unconventional reactions to the things, events, and people she encounters, that its brilliance lies.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE

Gnome%201Staff and students at the University of Glasgow may have observed that a certain amount of building work is taking place around the campus. Sometimes this has even interfered with our fantasy seminars. Yesterday, for instance, a haunting and semi-melodious series of whistles was heard outside my office window, interrupting our discussion of the works of James Stephens and Flann O’Brien as everyone secretly fingered their good luck talismans or made the sign to avert evil on the palm of their hidden right hand. These whistles proceeded, I believe, from the lips of a passing gnome (see right) who was carrying a mound of dwarf bread to the construction site (dwarf bread is of course more durable than most kinds of stone). She has been duly reprimanded.

I must apologize unreservedly for this unavoidable nuisance. The fact is that we are in the process of building a gigantic Fantasy Hub in the vicinity of the University Library, which entails (among other things) laying down elaborate networks of chymical piping connecting us up to the Wyrld Wyde Webbe, an arcane alternative internet service for connoisseurs of the impossible; hence the elaborate system of tunnels that are being dug beneath adjoining roads. We have also been digging Cavernous Vaults for storage (some spell books have to be preserved in giant lead casques inscribed with protective runes), while simultaneously laying foundations for the crenellated towers of the Hub, which will dwarf the brutalist pile of the library and complement the Gothic flamboyance of the main university building. No expenses have been spared in resurrecting Victorian architects to help lend an authentic air of neo-Gothicism to our construction – though I’m afraid some of the necromantic processes involved are very noisy.

Work is still at an early stage, and consultation of the Fantasy Community is important to us. If there are crucial elements that need to be incorporated into the hub, please let us know. We are not at liberty to disclose the plans we have at present, but if you come up with something we haven’t thought of we will openly acknowledge your innovation and make every effort to persuade the goblins, dwarves and elementals on our construction staff to build it into the edifice.

Thank you for your attention.

Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the Mist as Fantastic History

I wrote this piece for a Festschrift for Peter Conrad. I’m sure he won’t mind me posting it here, with affectionate thanks for the inspiration he’s given me down the years.

tumblr_mzlxx9IVKk1s6h2wzo1_500I’d like to write a book of the kind Peter Conrad writes: nimble, quizzical, funny, learned, surprising, audacious, drawing together a vast range of heterogeneous material, brimming with passion for literature, and saying something clear and precise about the world from which literature emerges, the artefacts, arts and actions with which it intersects. I’m conscious, of course, that this wish of mine may well remain what it is – a beautiful fantasy – and that if the book ever comes into being it will hardly merit even one of the adjectives I’ve used to describe it. All the same, I’d like to give the dream some substance here at least, in connection with Peter, who has given life to so many strange dreams.

My book, then, will be called A Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century, and will take as its premise the notion that the best way of writing about the century just past is through its fantasies: the literature that turns its back on what really happened, or might have happened, and focuses instead on what certainly did not happen and never could, foregrounding the impossibility of what it represents, its flamboyant violation of the laws of physics, biology, history, reason, economics, or any known earthly culture. This is because during that century more writers than ever before discovered that the fantastic was the only mode by which they could frame an adequate response to the cataclysmic events and transformations they had experienced or encountered. The passage from my non-existent book that follows presents Hope Mirrlees’s novel Lud-in-the Mist (1926) as a prime example of how fantastic fiction can write the moment of its composition with uncanny accuracy. In it, Mirrlees discovers a strange new voice that perfectly articulates the mood of the unsettled decade that followed the First World War; and by reading it we can lift the veil that obscures that time, learn something new about what we have lost and gained as we move steadily away from its complications.

Lud-in-the-Mist flamboyantly repudiates its writer’s historical moment, locating itself in a non-existent country called Dorimare which has undergone no industrial revolution, suffered no Great War, but remained an improbably stable bourgeois republic – an anti-monarchist Merry England whose interregnum has endured for two or three hundred years – since the revolution that ousted its final monarch, the ‘laughing demon of destructiveness’ Duke Aubrey. Dorimarite culture is ‘baroque’, that is, closely related to the culture of seventeenth-century Europe, when Richard Corbet wrote his celebrated ballad ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’ in nostalgic recognition that a new age of science had come into being: an age in which the machinery of the world was understood in radical new terms, so that the world itself began to operate differently, as John Crowley has shown us in his haunting sequence of alternative historical novels, Aegypt. At that point in time, the Dorimarites too said farewell to their fairies. Duke Aubrey fled to Fairyland, which borders Dorimare, and since then all contact with the fairies has been cut off, their names reduced to imprecations and insults, their staple diet – the fairy fruit that got slathered over the heroines of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ – banned as an illegal substance because of its unsettling effects on its consumers. Fairy fruit intensifies emotion: eating it in excess has ‘tragic results’, leading to ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dances, and wild doings under the moon’. Even the mention of the stuff causes acute embarrassment to the placid, pragmatic burghers of Lud-in-the-Mist, the country’s capital. By banning it they congratulate themselves on having banished tragedy too from among their ranks, along with the excesses and illusions of all other forms of art. Freed from fairies and the narcotic consumables they traffic, the bourgeoisie of Lud-in-the Mist settle down to a life of comfortable and slightly self-mocking respectability, very much like the middle classes of 1920s England.

Except that like the middle classes of England, the Dorimarites are living a fantasy. Fairy artefacts are everywhere in Dorimare, as an anonymous antiquarian has the temerity to point out in a potted history of the country, which is burned by the censors as soon as printed. Fairy fruit continues to be smuggled over the border, and can be obtained by anyone who wants it; and the law that forbids it is a tissue of fabrications, alluding to the fruit as contraband fabric, a kind of silk, as if to symbolize the veil that the Luddite burghers have chosen to draw across their own eyes, a voluntary intensification of the mist from which their city takes its name. The chief deception to which they subject themselves is the belief that things don’t change. They encapsulate each other’s characters in oblique little inside jokes that get trotted out on each social occasion, as if to preserve the citizens in verbal amber, safe against the ravages of time. They practise annual rituals, such as parties to welcome the famous Moongrass cheeses every April, as if to impart regularity to the wayward seasons and guarantee their own continued prosperity. And when they die they have themselves buried in the Fields of Grammary, a picturesque urban cemetery whose stones eulogize the careers of the graves’ tenants in amusing epitaphs, reducing their long lives to a few short rows of carven platitudes much like the jokes of the burghers in their complacently self-effacing tone.

But the fantasies by which they live have a way of exposing what they are designed to conceal. The names and oaths of the Luddites – so the anonymous antiquarian assures them – derive from fairy originals; and if this embarrassing etymology may be suppressed by destroying the antiquarian’s potted history, the names remain: Pugwalker, Pyepowders, Mumchance, Gibberty, Leer; funny, suggestive, embarrassing to their owners, and highlighting for the twentieth-century reader the fictionality of what she’s reading, its silliness, its kinship to the realm of childish fantasy from which serious modern adults, like the Luddites, are so keen to divorce their activities. And although the ancient oaths of Dorimare may be controlled by a strict adherence to the conventions of good manners (although one of the commonest oaths in the book turns out to be a fairy password, opening doors to illegal secrets concealed behind hidden doors and old silk arrases); and if books can be burned by the hangman (although Mirrlees’ book contains its own etymological clue to the target of its satire in its title – King Lud was the founder of London, says Geoffrey of Monmouth – so that the resources available to the unknown antiquarian are clearly available to Mirrlees’s readers as well as the Luddites); there nevertheless remain the wordless languages spoken by the Silent People which figure so largely throughout the text, and which expose the relentless changes that suffuse the Luddites’ apparently stable universe – its interwovenness with death, desire, disease and the pervasive dread of some unidentifiable disaster – in ways that can never be suppressed.

The Silent People come in many guises. Fairies are the Silent People, and their banishment has made them yet more silent. But the dead too are the Silent People, and they refuse to be kept down or rendered dumb, whether by cosy epitaphs or other respectable methods of cleaning up history. They come back as decrepit labourers who can only speak in riddles, or as visions of the dead Duke Aubrey brought on by fairy fruit. A murdered farmer speaks by way of a pair of embroidered slippers, a set of old lawcourt records, a printed herbal and a herm; and his murder is exposed by a former Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist who has been declared ‘officially dead’ – the means by which the city corporation passes a motion of no confidence in its highest elected official – thus becoming one of the Silent People himself. And there are other kinds of Silent People too. Houses, for instance, which hide and yield so many family secrets. The working classes, who maintain an imaginative bond with the fairies long after the bourgeoisie have severed all ties with them, but whose insights into fairy business are never heard in official circles. Children, too, who must be seen and not heard, and who are therefore Silent People, at least in theory. Yet children keep bursting out with obscene or nonsensical exclamations throughout the novel; and they also keep bursting out of the bonds by which Luddite society seeks to restrain them. After eating fairy fruit, the pupils of Miss Crabapple’s Academy dance away to Fairyland, which for the Luddites is tantamount to dancing themselves to death. Young Ranulph Chanticleer evades the attentions of the chaperone set to guard him during a convalescent sojourn in the countryside, where the boy has been sent to recover from the effects of his own consumption of fairy fruit. He too runs away to Fairyland and death. And in both cases – those of the runaway girls and the convalescent boy – the loss of the children is regarded by the bulk of the Luddites as an embarrassment more than a catastrophe, an exacerbation of the young ones’ habitual rudeness in saying what should be left unsaid, and in changing persistently, unfazed by their elders’ commitment to perpetual stasis. Tragedy, after all, was banished along with the fairies, to be replaced by more mundane reactions to a loved one’s death, such as queasiness (one mother vomits repeatedly after her daughter’s departure) or blushing (the families of the Crabapple girls seem more disconcerted by the shameful cause of their disappearance than by the disappearance itself). To respond to the children’s elopement as one would to a tragedy would merely aggravate the disgrace they have brought on their families, not cathartically exclude it.

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But if children can be ignored, the countryside cannot, and neither can those little patches of countryside the Luddites tend within the city limits, their formal gardens. Both are filled with Silent People in the form of vegetation, whose seasonal cycles provide, with the changing moon, the favourite subject-matter of the vanished fairy artificers whose products survive throughout Dorimare in attics and forgotten corners. And the language of vegetation speaks out on every page of Mirrlees’s novel about the things the Luddite burghers wish to deny: change, desire, disgrace, betrayal, self-deception, approaching death. Trees, for example, remain silent or ‘dumb’ except for two great explosions of chromatic articulacy in spring and autumn, when the leaves come out (‘those of the birch are like a swarm of green bees, and those of the lime so transparent that they are stained black with the shadow of those above and beneath them’) and later decay. And in the early morning when flowers first emerge from the darkness, they announce the ubiquity of transience and illusion, stained as they are with ‘a yellow like that of primroses, a blue like that of certain wild periwinkles, colours so elusive that one suspects them to be due to some passing accident of light, and that, were one to pick the flower, it would prove to be pure white’. No wonder if after watching the slow revelation of these evasive plants – and noting that ‘a star was quenched with every flower that reappeared on earth’ – the adolescent Ranulph is seized with a sudden passion and runs off to Fairyland, where such things as transience, illusion and passion are, he thinks, unheard of. He wants to escape from ‘things happening,’ he tells his father, such as ‘summer and winter, and days and nights’. His wish to escape from these things by going to Fairyland, however, seems misguided; its people may be silent but they dedicate themselves to making things happen in the present and exposing the happenings of the past.  The proof is in the Fairy Fruit, whose consumption is what made him aware of the seasonal mutability that surrounds him.

Nathaniel Chanticleer, Ranulph’s father, shares the boy’s susceptibility to sudden passions. In his own adolescence he heard a Note accidentally struck on a fairy instrument, like Arthur Sullivan’s Lost Chord, and ever since has lived in a state of intense anxiety about the prospect of imminent change. It has generated in him, in fact, ‘a wistful yearning after the prosaic things he already possessed… as if he thought he had already lost what he was actually holding in his hands’. Nathaniel suffers, in fact, from what fantasy is often accused of over-indulging in its readers: continuous nostalgia, against which he braces himself by frequent visits to the cemetery, where he reads about the lives of dead citizens who have succeeded in evading catastrophe (if their epitaphs are to be believed) and now rest in peace. But Nathaniel cannot be comforted by false visions of the past; it’s nostalgia for the present that infects him. His nostalgia is in fact an acute form of realism, a consciousness that catastrophes have happened – the famine that killed the family of the labourer Diggory Carp, for instance, and drove him to suicide, or the murder of Farmer Gibberty – and may happen again. It’s this awareness that ensures he is well prepared for the great catastrophe of losing his son, and does not merely accept it, as the other Luddites accept the loss of their daughters. Instead he chases after the boy into Fairyland, another Orpheus chasing his Eurydice into the land of the dead.

When he gets there, he is confronted by two alternative visions of death. The first is the image of an eternal, changeless Dorimare, whose vegetation is frozen in enamelled perfection, like a painting of the way the burghers of Lud would like their land to be: a place where everything ‘had the serenity and stability of trees, the unchanging peace of pictures’. The second is a ‘black abyss’, a nothingness into which his son has plunged, and into which the father throws himself in a desperate bid to save him. In doing so he throws himself out of the text, as it were: that abyss exists in the reader’s world just as surely as it does in Dorimare. There have been few more convincing depictions in English fiction of a heroic resistance to fantasy, a refusal to immerse oneself in the narcotic dream to which the bourgeoisie have collectively capitulated. And it’s nostalgia, the sense of imminent loss, that gives Nathaniel the courage to stage that resistance, to confront the abyss, and to snatch something from it against all the odds: a child of his to grow to maturity and take his place when he faces death for the final time.

It’s also Nathaniel’s peculiar brand of nostalgia that enables him to stage a second revolution at the end of the novel, when he rides back from Fairyland in triumph with his rescued son, having previously liberated the Crabapple girls too from their captivity among the dead. The fairies march into Dorimare beside him, as does Duke Aubrey, triumphantly reclaiming the land that expelled them – although there are hints that the new regime may take a more democratic form than the old ones (fairy fruit, for instance, will be available to all; in the Dukes’ time it was food for the elite, and illegal in the time of the republic). Is this a reactionary revolution, a peculiarly English inversion of the events that took place in Russia less than a decade before the book’s publication? Hardly. The historical Luddites attacked the new mechanized looms that threatened their livelihoods, and it seems harsh to accuse them of conservatism. Mirrlees’s Luddites, on the other hand, the fat and prosperous citizens of Lud – she calls them Ludites as if to emphasize the ludic wit of the comparison – seek to destroy the hand-crafted tapestry of their own past in the interest of permanent prosperity (for themselves, that is, not the working classes they despise). Nathaniel’s revolution forces on them the recognition that the past is always with us, physically, emotionally, breaking through the flimsy screens and veils by which we strive to obscure it – just as the blood of a murdered man was once believed to burst out of his corpse when the murderer passes. And the humiliation of the bourgeoisie that this recognition entails opens the way for open dialogue between themselves and the Silent People they have tried to ignore: intermarriage with vagrants and workers, exchange of cultural artefacts such as songs, the legalization of narcotics, embracing the dead. Open dialogue of this kind seems a radical concept even now, so many decades after Mirrlees was writing.

130761_1We cannot repress our tragedies, our desires, our bouts of lunacy without doing ourselves serious harm – so Freud assures us. And even when we seek escape in literary fantasy, the sort of charming, whimsical fantasy this book embodies, we cannot long rid ourselves of the consciousness that we live at the edge of the abyss; especially when the fantasy ends with a quasi-Brechtian warning: ‘the Written Word is a Fairy […] speaking lying words to us in a feigned voice’. This Cretan paradox sweeps away the land of Dorimare in an instant, returning us to the moment when the book was written, less than ten years after the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Flu. No middle-class urban idyll, no matter how charming, could bury those historical maelstroms in genteel silence, or restore the world that followed it to pastoral stability. Lud-in-the-Mist is startling because of the directness with which it discloses these discomfiting facts to its reluctant readers, while seducing them with passages of unparalleled loveliness and subjecting them to occasional peals of derisory laughter. That’s why I shall choose it as the cornerstone of my fantastic history.

 

 

 

 

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It

il_fullxfull.369714374_fvnuAs a child I was disturbed by Nesbit’s books. I don’t know what disturbed me: perhaps the bewildering fusion of carefully observed everyday details and fantastic incidents, and the reckless way she played with conventions, from gender roles and class relations to the rules of fairy tales. It may have been her acute consciousness of the material consequences of impossible events: the necessity of having money and food to get through them, the likelihood of getting into trouble because of them, and the deeply-ingrained dirt they would leave on your clothes and hands. It was also, I think, a matter of tone. Reading her again I can see how I would have missed a lot of her jokes, and taken seriously things an adult reader would think of as witty, never quite knowing how to respond to any given sentence or situation. Yet as an adult one can also appreciate how she slides between emotional registers and literary tropes with effortless ease, never letting a reader of any age settle down in the comfortable knowledge that she knows where she is being taken. Perhaps this formal and stylistic flexibility is what’s made her so hugely influential, sparking the synapses of writers as different as John Masefield, Mary Norton, C. S. Lewis, Edward Eager, Nicholas Stuart Gray and Diana Wynne Jones. Her fusion and diffusion of literary tropes and genres made it possible for her stories to go off in any direction she chose, and these are invaluable qualities for a fantasy.

Five Children is about wish fulfilment, like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or Stevenson’s ‘The Bottle Imp’; but unlike those stories it’s aimed at children, so that the disparity between what’s wished for and what’s obtained is exacerbated by the disparity between the social and economic rules that govern adults and children. This disparity is pointed up by the impossibility of telling any grown up at all about the fact that wishes are being granted, for obvious reasons (what adult apart from Conan Doyle believes in fairies?); a communication gap that remains in place throughout the novel, so that the unfortunate kids are never able to get advice of any kind from adults, not even the Psammead, who makes a point of not advising anyone. That’s an attractive subversion of the widespread tendency in contemporary children’s literature to moralize: if the truth only gets you into trouble then morals, too, are a matter of perspective. So is commercial value: the children wish for gold and can’t spend it, partly because they’re seen as too young to have any. And so is adulthood: they accidentally wish their baby brother grown up, and get a chance to see for themselves the childishness of adult behaviour. Size, too, is relative: when one of them grows to a giant’s dimensions he finds himself even more confined and restricted by the economics of his situation than he was before (he becomes a fairground attraction and ends the day almost crying of boredom). This is a brilliant comment on the confining lunacies kids are encouraged to accept as reasonable in their journey towards becoming active participants in the capitalist system. (And it’s nice to think that this episode was written very close to H G Wells’s brilliant take on giant children, The Food of the Gods, which uses size for even more explicitly political purposes, testifying to Wells’s lifelong fascination with the works of Swift…)

But besides this basic adult/child division there are also disparities in the rules that govern masters and those that bind servants, which get highlighted when the children wish for the servants not to be aware of any of the wishes they come up with – a condition that leads to a number of wonderfully absurd situations. Servants don’t dream, the children believe, except in the strictly regulated terms described in dream interpretation manuals; they simply follow routine unquestioningly. This conviction finds its most absurd expression in the episode when the kids wish for a castle under siege, and see the servants sitting in the courtyard feeding the baby as if nothing has happened. But the book also undermines their view of service repeatedly. In the absence of the children’s parents, servants in the middle-class household are the adults with whom they interact most closely – especially Martha; and Martha rescues them from bullies and the police, sees through their schemes with ease in every chapter, and eventually goes off to get married to one of the men they have encountered on their adventures with a forcefulness and independence that take them completely by surprise.

The episode that best explodes their theories about class difference doesn’t involve Martha. It’s the chapter where they inadvertently ask that their baby brother, the Lamb, be ‘wanted’ by everyone, which leads to his being kidnapped by an aristocratic lady in a carriage, immediately followed by a battle over him in her absence between the coachman and footman. There’s little distinction here between the effects of the lady’s desire for the child and that of her servants – except that the servants show some awareness of the child’s material needs, something the lady has no notion of and never mentions.

The same episode brings out the pervasiveness of racial prejudice in Victorian England. It ends with an alarming encounter with a group of gypsies, which seems at first to confirm every accusation that’s ever been leveled against travellers. The ‘ragged’ gypsy children make ‘dust-pies in the road’, the gypsies themselves have ‘dust-coloured’ hair, and the whole episode is permeated with an atmosphere of terror by memories of the age-old clichés about gypsies abducting children along with other kinds of private property. But the encounter only takes place after we’ve witnessed the equally determined efforts of an aristocratic household to abduct the Lamb; and it closes with a brusque dismissal of the anti-gypsy prejudice, as well as an odd little confirmation of an aspect of gypsy myth that ties them (alone of all adults) to the magical world of the Psammead. Like all the Psammead’s enchantments, the desire for the Lamb gets cut off at sunset; and at once the gypsies are astonished by the fierceness with which they’ve been striving to gain an additional toddler for their community, and distance themselves from the Lamb as fast as possible. Only one woman remains attached to him, though her attachment changes from a desire to possess him to simple good will. She sweeps aside anti-gypsy myth with admirable economy: ‘I don’t know what made us go for to behave so silly. Us gypsies don’t steal babies, whatever they may tell you when you’re naughty. We’ve enough of our own, mostly. But I’ve lost all mine.’ And she follows up this quiet revelation of tragedy by bestowing on the Lamb another wish: a Sleeping Beauty blessing, the stuff of fairy tales rather than racist horror stories. The alert reader will remember that such a blessing was what Jane thought they should ask from the Psammead at the beginning of the chapter, until Anthea pointed out that the creature’s gifts only last till sunset. So if the gypsy’s enchantment is effective, it will prove to be the most valuable gift the children have received in the course of their adventures.

Complications are what this story is all about: complicating simple assumptions, and demonstrating the knotty complications that tangle up every transaction at the turn of the twentieth century. One such complication is the theory of evolution and its consequences. The Psammead or Sand Fairy invokes evolution both in its appearance (it looks like a monkey with antennae) and its great antiquity: when it was young all you ever had to wish for was a Megatherium, because feasting on meat for a week or two was the height of anyone’s aspirations. The children, by contrast, live in an age when there are so many competing things to wish for that it’s inevitable any one wish will clash with a dozen other desirable things or situations. The complexity of this environment is for the Psammead a mark of the world’s decline; and the children’s adventures tend to support the creature’s opinion. Each of their wishes ends up by highlighting the problem of food – the Megatherium question – by making it difficult to get their dinner (i.e. lunch); and this forces them to conceive elaborate and sometimes disastrous schemes to feed themselves, as against the exhilarating hunts of the good old Neolithic era. A great example is the chapter where they wish for wings, which ought to render them angelic – except that angels don’t need feeding, according to Milton, and the children have to compromise their own angelic nature by convincing themselves it’s right to steal if it’s to stave off starvation. The chapter concludes with them imprisoned at the top of a church tower; most of their adventures, in fact, lead to some form of imprisonment, and in each case this could be taken as symbolic. The locked church tower could stand for the arbitrary restrictions imposed by religious doctrine; and this interpretation would seem to be supported by the final section of the chapter, where the vicar regales the children with moral thoughts on their misadventure which we, the readers, never get to hear. Meanwhile the gamekeeper who freed them from the tower praises their pluck for committing theft without ‘peaching’ on some presumed grown-up accomplice. This clash of values – vicar against gamekeeper, spiritual against secular, middle class against working class – points up a disconnect between the gamekeeper’s understanding of the material conditions under which the oppressed must operate and the lofty abstractions that sustain the rich. It’s clear that the children’s understanding of the world is much closer to the gamekeeper’s than the vicar’s – though the vicar’s wife is also closer to the keeper, since she’s concerned not with giving lectures but providing refreshments.

The complication of early twentieth-century existence means that everyone who negotiates the bifurcating paths and competing values of the everyday must possess certain qualities; and Nesbit’s characters tend to describe these qualities in terms of military strategy. This brings us, as all discussions of Nesbit bring us, to the question of gender. One of the brilliant things about her books is that they concern groups, not heroes: clusters of children whose dynamics constantly shift in response to changing situations, so that no one member of that group is ever dominant (though it should be said that Anthea is clearly the child whose perspective dominates in Five Children). Here the group is evenly divided between boys and girls, with the Lamb as an androgynous extra (he wears a dress, like all Victorian toddlers) and the Psammead as the androgynous catalyst for their adventures. And each child takes command of at least one chapter – except for Jane, who, as the youngest after the Lamb, never takes the lead after her disastrous wish on the very first day. If they’re an army, it’s a democratic one, a band of freedom fighters working to subvert the quasi-military discipline that’s being imposed on them by the society within which they operate.

Something I noticed this time round was the way the position of commander-in-chief is exchanged among Nesbit’s characters. When Cyril plots to steal food from the vicarage using their wings Jane exclaims admiringly, ‘How clever of you!’ and he answers with becoming modesty: ‘Not at all […] any born general – Napoleon or the Duke of Marlborough – would have seen it just the same as I did’. During the siege of their house, transformed to a castle, Robert ‘consented to be captain of the besieged force’; and when Anthea conspires to get the Lamb to safety in the episode with the miniature Indians ‘she could not help seeing that she had acted with the most far-seeing promptitude, just like a born general’. The last commander-in-chief is the children’s mother, who on her return from a protracted absence responds to a crisis in the ‘dashing and decided way’ of a ‘born general’, as Cyril points out. Two boys, a girls and a woman share the honours of the book’s generalship between them, and in the process subtly modify the reader’s understanding of what it is to be a general. To negotiate the bewildering demands, conflicting desires and unforeseen accidents of the everyday in the new century, Nesbit implies, takes the tricksiness, skill and pluck of a professional strategist. But in Nesbit’s world, even a general’s qualities can hardly prevent things spiraling out of control. That was a prophetic perception, coming as it did a decade and a half before the outbreak of global warfare.