Poetics of Loss: John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and British Fantasy in the 1920s

51Cljz3wlbL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The close of the Great War saw an astonishing eruption of fantasy fiction written in English; above all fiction by women, or fiction by men about women, as if the appalling loss of male life in Flanders had thrown the other sex into a strong and strange new light. These include some of the greatest fantasies of the twentieth century: Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919), which tells of witches defending London against a German air raid; David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), about a woman who spontaneously turns into a vixen and is hunted down by a pack of hounds; Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), about a community that decides its lord should marry an elfin bride, with drastic results; Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), about the uneasy relationship between the imaginary country of Dorimare and its nearest neighbour, Fairyland; Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926), about a put-upon spinster who abruptly moves to the country, meets the devil and becomes a witch; and most famously, perhaps, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), about a young man in the reign of Elizabeth I who unaccountably lives on for hundreds of years, becoming a woman in the process. In each of these books the strange, the magical, the incomprehensible manifests itself in an everyday environment, exposing the fact that the world is governed by laws unknown to governments or academies, and destabilizing that world by consequence, revolutionizing it, transforming it into a dream or work of art, breaking down habitual relationships between the sexes, opening up new possibilities of resistance to the expected and the controlled.

00037752-540x540It was in this context that John Masefield wrote what I think may be the finest children’s book in the English language, The Midnight Folk. It was published in 1927, after Lolly Willowes and Lud-in-the-Mist but before Orlando, and it seems to me to tell us a great deal about the impetus behind this eruption of postwar fantasy. All the books I’ve listed were written for adults, while Masefield’s was written for children; but it has a close familial tie to the loosely connected series of novels he started to publish after the war, and was first published in exactly the same format as the rest, so that it presents itself as equally available to readers of all ages. The hero, little Kay Harker, is clearly a relative of the titular hero of Masefield’s most successful adult novel, Sard Harker (1924), and the place he lives in is what Muriel Spark calls Masefield Country, a web of imaginary villages, towns and landmarks based on the Herefordshire where the poet grew up – a landscape that features in many of his books and poems. And The Midnight Folk also has close affinities with the fantasy novels I’ve listed. There’s a fox in it which recalls the fantastic-realist fox in Garnett’s novella, as well as Masefield’s own creation Reynard the Fox (1919); there’s an abundance of witches, as in Living Alone; there are haunting songs and half-buried memories, like the ones that disturb the burghers of Dorimare in Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist; the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the magical are permeable in it, as they are in The King of Elfland’s Daughter; and the chief antagonist of the novel, a governess who has a dual identity as the head of a coven of witches, has a name that simply must be meant to recall the best known writer on witchcraft in the 1920s, Sylvia Townsend Warner. The governess is called Sylvia Daisy Pouncer; and since the hero of the story is called Harker, it’s hard to imagine that Masefield hadn’t been listening or hearkening to the warning issued by a woman called Warner about devil-worshipping Pouncers in the English countryside. The Midnight Folk is an integral part of the landscape of postwar British fantasy fiction, and any observations we make about it may well throw light on the sparkling wave of magical texts on whose crest it rode.

01_boue_passPublished almost ten years after the end of the war, this nevertheless has the unmistakable air of a war book – a book born from a period of mass slaughter, which involves a quest for some sort of healing or recovery. It’s largely populated by women, children and animals, and many of the men in it are ghosts, afflicted by a profound melancholy brought on by their part in a calamitous loss – though here it’s the semi-symbolic loss of the treasure of Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Harker treasure. There are ruins everywhere in Masefield’s narrative – ruined stables, sunken ships and towns, forgotten cellars – and all are haunted by memories of men who came to a premature end: smugglers, highwaymen, murderers, mutineers, Arthurian knights on hopeless missions. Kay, too, is a victim of loss, like Masefield himself: he has lost both parents, and the treasure he seeks throughout the narrative could be read as a metaphor for everything he lost with them. Among these things are his old toys known as the ‘Guards’ of his home, Seekings House. Thrown out by the governess because they might remind him of his dead parents, the Guards’ absence leaves the house open to noxious influences, notably witchcraft, and their sporadic appearances throughout the book – glimpsed by Kay in the course of other adventures – give them a mournful resemblance to the generation lost at Gallipoli and the Somme (places which Masefield visited in person). On one occasion, near the end of the book, the resemblance is striking: ‘They were going very slowly. Two of them carried lanterns, one of them had a coil of rope slung about his neck, all four were plastered with the rather pale clay of near the river’. When they sit down to rest, ‘one of them seemed to fall asleep at once’ while the others ‘were dazed stupid with tiredness and nodded forward as they sat’. It’s at this point that Kay recognizes his old toys Eduardo da Vinci and little Brown Bear, transformed by their labour into sappers left over from the work of digging trenches in Belgium – like the aged sappers encountered by the heroines of Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (1944), who have been steadily digging their way through Europe since 1914. Kay’s is a postwar world, and Masefield was intensely aware of the wounds that war inflicts on people and places, having served in the Red Cross as an orderly in 1915.

One of the most remarkable things about Masefield’s novel is its form. Like many of his novels it’s a work of continuous prose, not divided into chapters or even parts, which gives it something of the hallucinatory feeling of a consciousness drifting in and out of sleep. The lack of clear boundaries between blocks of prose (apart from the occasional gap to indicate a break in time) declares the book’s resistance to conventional social and literary categories. Like Kay, like Kay’s relative Sard Harker in the earlier novel, like Masefield himself, the book is interested in everything – all trades, all crafts, all modes of speech – and has little patience for class hierarchies, except insofar as these affect the language and behaviour of the astonishingly varied cast of people and animals that populate its pages. The story it tells is delivered through a range of different voices, from songs – the book is full of fine lyrics, as one would expect from a future poet laureate – to spoken utterances in different dialects: Sir Piney Trigger’s northernisms, his daughter’s piratical rhetoric, Abner Brown’s American English, the Rat’s sibilant, slavering discourse, Roper Bilges’s constant transformation of nouns into verbs – ‘I’ll rabbit them rabbits’ – and so on. Kay gathers clues to the whereabouts of the Harker treasure from Atlases, newspaper cuttings, notes scrawled in the back of a discarded book on gunnery, scratchings on the tin door of a broken lantern – objects he gathers from many sources in the course of his adventures. Each of these objects democratically contributes its share to the unfolding narrative, confirming Kay’s wisdom in seeking out knowledge by way of the pathways opened to him by his eclectic interests and wandering imaginings rather than through the drab routine of the school curriculum.

The book’s seamless weave also indicates its lack of interest in drawing clear distinctions between good and evil. Well, that’s not quite true; Kay and his friends in the book are well aware that they’re dealing with wicked people when they deal with Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, Abner Brown and the coven of witches. At one point Kay comes across a potion in Sylvia’s cupboard for turning little boys into Tom Tits, and fears this will be his fate as he continues to hunt the treasure which Sylvia Daisy is also tracking. But Kay and his friends are irresistibly drawn to wickedness; they find it charming, like Sylvia’s voice when she sings while playing the piano after Kay has gone to bed. When Nibbins the cat first wakes Kay at midnight and takes him to spy on the witches who have taken over his home, a song they sing nearly tempts the cat back to his former role as a witch’s familiar:

 Nibbins’s eyes gleamed with joy.

“I can’t resist this song,” he said, “I never could. It was this song, really, that got me into this way of life. […] it has nine times nine verses; but you ought to stay for some more Whoo-hoos. Doesn’t it give you the feel of the moon in the tree-tops: ‘Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl?’ Come along quietly.”

6a014e5fb9e8aa970c01bb0871e7b1970dSoon afterwards Kay and Nibbins are mounted on broomsticks and heading for a witch’s meet at Wicked Hill, and later in the book Kay becomes wholly witch, stealing a hat and cloak and mask from Sylvia’s cupboard and getting vital information, thanks to his disguise, from an enchanted brazen head which she has engaged to find the treasure. Some of the objects employed by the witches in their spells are explicitly good ones: a wishing basket Kay also steals from Sylvia can only be used ‘for good things’, Nibbins tells him, which means that the coven don’t use it much. And even the witches’ wicked spells have some good results, in spite of their intentions. On one occasion they summon up a series of spirits in the hall of Seekings House to guide them to the treasure, and among these is a young woman on a flying horse who resists their orders angrily. Shortly afterwards she appears at the window of Kay’s bedroom and carries him off on her horse to visit a wicked old bedridden woman, the inimitable Miss Piney Trigger or Susan Pricker, who smokes and drinks champagne and sings piratical songs as she drifts towards her end. Despite her impenitent wickedness, Miss Trigger or Pricker becomes one of Kay’s allies, both before and after her death; and so does the fox, Rollicum Bitem Lightfoot, who is addicted to singing nasty songs about eating rabbits, in ‘a most unpleasant voice’, while hanging up the skins of his many victims. One of Kay’s helpers, the odious Rat, even swaps sides in the novel’s sequel, The Box of Delights (1935), to no one’s surprise; he is clearly only interested in getting rewards for the help he gives, and will sell his soul for a rotten haggis even in The Midnight Folk – Kay is simply lucky that (thanks to the wishing basket) he can get one for him, thus cementing his temporary friendship. The corollary of being interested in a great range of things is to have sympathy with a great range of outlooks; and like Kay, Masefield finds it easy to sympathize with criminals and other wanderers from the straight and narrow. The end of the book confirms the ouroboran links between good and evil by bringing Kay a new governess: the woman on the flying horse, who seems to have forgotten her supernatural origins but is nevertheless as bound up with enchantment and witchcraft as Sylvia Daisy. Seekings remains a house of magic long after the coven has been kicked out of its doors.

William_Blake_-_Jerusalem,_Plate_1,_Frontispiece_-_Google_Art_ProjectAs well as Chaucer – whose Canterbury Tales was the inspiration behind Reynard the Fox, and whose vibrant animal personalities in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Parliament of Fowls lie behind Rollicum Bitem, Nibbins and the rest – Masefield was a huge admirer of the visionary poet William Blake, and wrote about him brilliantly. One of the things that fascinated him about Blake was his iconoclastic willingness to invert the moral structure of the Christian universe, making Satan the creator and abominating the adherents of inflexible moral systems. For Blake, Masefield tells us,

 codes of all kinds, religious, moral or legal, tend to benefit all minds that are creeping and compliant and to repress the resolute independent thinker, the real free soul, who has worth and is Godlike. And from this, he came to the thought that the eighteenth-century codes, of religious morality and law as well as of art and science, were bent anywhere on repressing impulse, instinct and energy, and that this is exactly what Caiaphas and Pilate in all lands do. From this, being an immoderate thinker, as poets often are, he came to exalt energy, instinct and impulse wherever he found them and soon decided that Satan had many Christian qualities and that current Christianity was often devil worship. [Recent Prose (1924)]

MDF_13539429982Masefield’s Sard Harker features a villain who poses as a priest but worships the devil, and who binds the hero and heroine at the novel’s climax, enslaving them physically just as Blake said men and women of his time were mentally enslaved by the mind-forged manacles of industrialism. The leading villain in The Midnight Folk, Sylvia Daisy, isn’t objectionable to Kay because of her witchcraft – or indeed because of her appearance: ‘big, handsome and with something of a flaunting manner, which turned into a flounce when she was put out’. Her wickedness consists instead in her sadistic fondness for codes and strictures: for ‘loathsome’ Latin irregular adjectives like acer, and for punishing Kay when he gets his pyjamas and slippers wet on secret nocturnal expeditions. It consists, too, in her hypocrisy: she is the one who has eaten the food that’s been stolen from the Seekings House larder, a crime she promises to investigate. She also claims to have imprisoned Blinky the owl so as to return him to Lady Crowmarsh, from whose estate she snatched him in a foiled attempt to find out what he knew about the Harker treasure. Imprisonment, robbery and ruthless interrogation are her stock in trade, but her nastiness consists in her glib self-exculpation for these activities. Kay’s allies, on the other hand, are always setting him free and indulging his impulses: taking him to visit the weather cocks on the church tower, distracting him from his homework with tales of piracy on the high seas, inviting him to leave the safety of a diving bell to swim with mermaids, encouraging him to ride on the bowsprit of a sailing ship or fly with rooks in the shape of a bat. Each of these adventures is also instructive: he learns about sunken cities, nefarious dealings on sea and on land, the best way of chopping off a knight’s head and the story of the treasure, which is itself (besides being an emblem of the losses he and his family have sustained) the perfect metaphor for the complex way the world is constituted – the many meanings it contains, the multiple signifieds for which each sign or object in it can stand.

The Harker treasure means different things to different people. For the church in Santa Barbara from which it came, it is a symbol of devotion, of the church’s commitment to establishing God’s city on earth – a notion that fascinated Masefield throughout his life; indeed, in Sard Harker the South American city of Santa Barbara becomes, for the protagonist, an embodiment of the heavenly city on earth, Blake’s Jerusalem. For Captain Harker, to whose care it was entrusted by the church at a time of revolution, the treasure symbolizes a promise he made and broke: to keep the precious objects safe in his ship, the Plunderer, and return them when the fighting was over. For Abner Brown it stands for wealth: ‘If we find it,’ he tells the witches, ‘the share of each one of us will be some thirty-five thousand pounds’. For the mermaids who come across it when the Plunderer sinks, the golden images of the saints are beautiful people, worthy inhabitants of the drowned golden city they show to Kay when he swims among them. For the farmer Old Man John who digs it out of the mud it’s a symbol of Catholic heresy, ‘sin-and-heathen idols’, and needs to be kept out of circulation in his cellar to protect men from covetice. There is no single grand narrative that contains or limits the treasure; it slips from meaning to meaning as it gets transferred from hand to hand, and the central struggle of the narrative is to impose the meaning on it that one particular interest group subscribes to.

This, at least, is the central struggle from the point of view of the witches and the ghost of Captain Harker. The former want it for themselves, the latter wants to make good his broken promise by restoring it to the church. For Kay, by contrast, the value of the treasure is its story, which gets pieced together as he listens or hearkens, taking on new implications as it gets taken up by each new storyteller in his or her peculiar dialect. By the end of the book the treasure has been enriched by his imaginative engagement with this host of storytellers, and no one version of it has supplanted the rest; if he returns it to the church this is in order to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion rather than because the church’s reading of it means more to him than the other versions. Kay’s indifference to the official church perspective is confirmed by his attitude to the church building where he is taken every Sunday (another example of Sylvia Daisy’s rank hypocrisy). For the adults present, the church is a place of worship; for Kay, who is ‘much too young to understand or follow the service’, it’s a set of stories he weaves from the material objects around him. He spends much of the service puzzling over an image in a stained glass window, which from a distance looks like a ‘yellow, lop-eared rabbit’ which he calls Bunkin, but from up close seems disappointingly to be ‘a hat with spikes’. For him the irregular stones on the church walls contain pictures of Henry VIII and a sailing ship, ‘which filled in a lot of time’, while the ‘chief pleasure’ is provided by the ‘carved and painted figures arranged along the wall-pieces of the chancel-roof’, about whose identity even adult scholars are uncertain. The 32 figures are divided up by certain experts into twelve apostles, seven cardinal virtues, nine worthies, and four archangels, with proper reverence for the ancient traditions of the medieval church; but for Kay during dreary sermons they become ‘the Condicote and Muck Zennor Rugby football teams (with an umpire each)’, or the Australian cricket eleven of 1882 facing the team of Cambridge University, or the start of the 1839 Grand National ‘with Mr Mason on Lottery, and Mr Martin, in his pink sleeves, on Paulina’. The church, then, is a space to be appropriated by the dreams and desires of those who enter it; at one point even the coven visits it, to see if they can get some clue about the treasure from Captain Harker’s monument. And the same is true of all the other major spaces in the novel.

bf4a8b86b0945f4bb5011ad6c5d90018Seekings House, for instance, accommodates the treasure seekings of the witches as well as of the dead Captain Harker and his little great grandson. Captain Harker’s ship, The Plunderer, changes its affiliations several times, beginning as the Captain’s vessel, being seized by the gunner Roper Bilges and his confederates for the treasure she contains, snatched from Bilges’s command by Twiney Pricker the sailmaker, then from him by the rest of the crew, and finally embraced by the mermaids as an underwater pleasure garden after her sinking. The ship’s name, in fact, anticipates her capacity for being appropriated or plundered by successive owners – just as the name of Seekings House affirms its restlessness, its refusal to settle into architectural or moral stability. Even Kay takes command of the Plunderer at one stage, when a model of his ancestor’s vessel drifts away from the wall of his bedroom and takes him on a night-time voyage to the place where her original sank – becoming in the process the model ship of a boy’s dreams, crewed by mice and stocked with improbable delicacies. Objects, then, as well as buildings, vessels, and people, change their uses and associations as the book goes on. A lost toboggan becomes a stairway to Kay’s underground lair; magic broomsticks and witches’ costumes serve two masters, Sylvia Daisy and Kay; even the object of Kay’s adventures gets transformed at one point, from a hunt for the Harker treasure to a quest for the treasure of Benjamin the Highwayman, who used to live in the ruined stables of Seekings House. The alternative functions of objects fascinated Masefield. The ship, for instance, in his poem Dauber (1912), is both a workplace for the sailors and a subject for the youthful artist of the poem’s title. Neither reading of the ship is privileged in the poem over the other; the artist takes his berth as a sailor in order to paint the ship he sails on as a workplace viewed from inside, by a sailor who is also a painter, one who knows the craft he paints. By the end of the narrative, Dauber has been accepted as a member of the crew by his fellow sailors, at the cost of his life; when he falls from the masthead during a storm he thinks it is another sailor who has fallen, and the mistake shows how far his perspective on the ship has changed. The crew never likes his paintings, but the story of Dauber is his legacy, the poem standing in for the body of work the young man never completed. For Masefield, then, as for his hero Blake, a work of art is a manifestation of energy, and the reduction of any person, object or word to a single meaning, to a fixed place in an ordered code, to one perspective or function, is anathema, the death of creativity and imaginative freedom.

hilder4It’s for this reason, maybe, that so many of Masefield’s great poems are narrative poems, and so many of his best novels adventure stories, of the kind mockingly referred to in the title of his novel ODTAA (1926), which stands for One Damn Thing After Another. The headlong energy of The Midnight Folk is provided by the adventure of hunting; the hunting of treasure, of course, but also of animals and, more disturbingly, people. Hunter and hunted change places regularly as the book goes on – just as they did in Sard Harker, where the hero tracks a kidnapped woman through the hallucinogenic landscape of South America, where he finds himself hunted in his turn by bandits and killers. In The Midnight Folk, Rollicum Bitem the fox hunts rabbits at one point and is hunted by gamekeepers and the coven at another. Twiney Pricker, who becomes Piney Trigger, hunts the treasure and is then hunted to his death by Abner Brown’s grandfather. Kay the treasure hunter finds himself hunted by the coven, and riding for his life (appropriately enough) on the fox’s back. One centrepiece of the book is a manhunt for the highwayman Benjamin, who is one of Kay’s heroes; the passage where Benjamin’s mare falls and breaks her back, prompting her master to give ‘a little cry, like he’d been shot through the heart’, is one of the most moving Masefield wrote. Benjamin too is a kind of fox; the place where his mare falls is a ‘big foxes’ lie […] all full of scrub and stubbed stuff’, and it’s inevitably here that the highwayman is captured. He is tried and hanged; but his story, too, is finished by Kay, who finds the watch he stole from the local squire and returns it to the squire’s descendants. In doing so he heals another wound: Sir Hassle Gassle is said to have mourned the loss of his watch ‘to his dying day’, so his descendant is delighted to get it back. In any case the watch did the highwayman no good, since he could not sell it, and in the end it killed him; so that like the Harker treasure, Benjamin’s treasure stands for failure, as well as for the excitement of the chase: the chase that led to Benjamin’s death, the hunt for the watch that led to its restoration.

by William Strang, etching, 1912
by William Strang, etching, 1912

Masefield was fascinated throughout his life by failure, and above all by failures that lead to unexpected triumph. His favourite stories, to judge by the frequency with which he returned to them, were the story of Arthur – whose light burned brightly in the dark ages before being extinguished in combat, and who crops up in a gorgeous episode of Kay’s adventures – and the tale of Troy, another heavenly city whose fall produced the greatest narrative poem in any language. One of Masefield’s finest sea stories is called Victorious Troy (1935), and concerns a ship dismasted in a typhoon which is safely brought to harbour under the command of a teenage boy. This ship becomes a work of art as Masefield tells its story, exactly as Dauber the painter bequeathed an unexpected work of art to the world when he fell to his death: the poem about him. As early as 1910 Masefield wrote a fine novel called Lost Endeavour, about a treasure hunt that ends in disappointment; and the year before The Midnight Folk he published one of his best-known poems, ‘The Rider at the Gate’ (1926), whose chorus ends ‘The house is falling, / The beaten men come into their own’. The theme of triumph emerging from failure is at the heart of The Midnight Folk, and it’s given particular poignancy by the lost generations of the First World War that would have haunted the minds of its first readers. Young Kay, with his Arthurian name which also conjures up the notion of keys that unlock doors – the door to the future among them – affirms the continuing vitality of his homeland through his interaction with every aspect of its past and present, every class and kind of its inhabitants, living and dead. He also bequeathed a new kind of children’s fiction on the world, in a book that influenced his successors far more than it has been given credit for. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to hunt it down.

[This was written for a Symposium in honour of Professor Marianne Thormählen of the University of Lund. I’m very grateful to Birgitta Berglund, Sara Håkansson and Kiki Lindell, who organised the Symposium, for inviting me to speak at it; and to Marianne for her friendship and support over many years.]

Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (2014) and Touch (2015)

20706317Last year I was lucky enough to be at the University of Kansas when Claire North, aka Kate Griffin, aka Cat Webb, won the John W Campbell Award for her novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. The award is for science fiction, and the novel has some SF elements – notably the quest for something called a ‘quantum mirror’, after a portal that permits travel between alternative universes in the TV series Stargate. But the central premise of Fifteen Lives is pure fantasy: the notion that there is a certain group of people in any given historical period who get reborn repeatedly – perhaps for ever – as themselves, at the same time and in the same location and community as in all their former lives. Crucially, with each rebirth they remember everything they’ve experienced in their accumulated pasts; in other words, for each of them it’s Groundhog Day with a life instead of a day as the unit of reiterated time. With each rebirth, too, they get to chart a different course through their historical period, and this gives them the opportunity to get to know it as nobody else could. They become increasingly encyclopedic chronicles of the years they live through, incorporating into their bodies, so to speak – though always with a certain inevitable bias – all the wars, alliances, achievements, disasters, financial and cultural exchanges that occur within the limited tract of time they are able to encompass. It’s a dazzling concept, and handled with dazzling skill, above all in the elegant control North exerts over the complex mesh of plots to which the premise must inevitably give rise. And remember, the book deals only with the first fifteen of what could potentially be an infinite number of parallel lives – in Borgesian terms, a biography of Babel. The mind reels at the thought of including any more of these simultaneous life stories.

For the duration of the book, the titular Harry August – who was always born in 1918 and usually died before the end of the century – becomes our guide to the epoch immediately before our own, an often detached but always perceptive and concerned observer of the times that shaped us, the community of twenty-first century readers. Since Harry is an enthusiastic traveller, the different paths he takes through each of his lifetimes give his story an unparalleled (so to speak) geographical sweep – by his fifteenth life there seems to be almost nowhere he hasn’t been – and involve him with almost everyone imaginable, so that in spite of his attempt at detachment he’s knit up with his time, involved in it as none of his readers could ever be, and learns from this uninvited and undesired intimacy how far we are each of us complicit with historical, social and political events over which at the same time we have no control.

618698KrJJL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The notion of complicity, and of the increasing difficulty of determining which side you should take in any conflict, is beautifully summarised by the fact that Harry’s nemesis in most of his lives is also his best friend: a man whose company he enjoys and who he continues to seek out in life after life even after he has decided the man is something of a monster. If the quantum mirror is the central SF trope of the novel, a Stevensonian pair of mirrored characters is at its heart, and at times it’s easy to see these men as devoted lovers – except that the ouroborans (people reborn repeatedly as themselves) tend not to cultivate love much after their first few efforts at it, perhaps for obvious reasons.

You could see the book as a metaphor, if you wanted. A metaphor for art, for example – especially the art of the novelist, who discovers so many narratives using for the most part the material of her own lifetime. I think Fifteen Lives may be Cat Webb’s fifteenth novel (I’m relying here on Wikipedia), which would be a neat thing if it were true. It could be a metaphor, too, for the multiple lives each of us leads. We can divide these up chronologically: this was the period when we lived here and were doing this; this the period when we lived there and changed our profession, even our personality, quite radically. Or we can do it according to the different spheres we move in. Claire North/Cat Webb is a lighting designer in one part of her life, a novelist in another, and she speaks interestingly (as I found in Kansas) on the extent to which the two activities/personas tend to stay separate while occupying the same corporeal space.

Harry_AugustFifteen Lives could also be a metaphor for the way we protect ourselves from harm by taking control of our emotions as the years go by. How many close friendships can we cultivate in a lifetime? How much love are we prepared to give out? How do we choose which part of our experience to invest in, emotionally speaking? This too is something Claire/Cat spoke on very well in Kansas: the need for a writer not to invest too much in the finished artefact, the published novel, but to move on to a new project as soon as the last one has been completed. From the reactions to this statement at the John W Campbell conference I don’t think this is a universal practice among novelists, but it strikes me as excellent advice if you can manage it. And Harry works with astonishing commitment to detach his emotional reaction to his best friend’s monstrosity from the need to get physically close to him over several lives so as to thwart his plans. One of the triumphs of the novel, though, is the extent to which he remains emotionally close to the man, too, despite all his efforts to bring him down, despite all the appalling things his friend has done to him, despite all his intentions of staying distant. He is involved in him as much as in everyone else; like it or not, they are responsible for one another, joined at the head and tail like the symbol of the ouroboros after which their sort of being is named. Claire/Cat knows a great deal about the difficulty of the emotional detachment she recommends.

There’s another aspect of the novel she stressed at the conference: that it is also a metaphor (she didn’t use the phrase) for the disconnect between a person’s age and her abilities, between the way a young person (especially a woman) is addressed by her society and the often substantial knowledge and experience she is conscious of within herself. Cat published her first novel at 14, so must have been made acutely conscious of this disconnect; she displays an understandable weariness when people exclaim for the umpteenth time over her remarkable youth (after all, what does one mean by ‘youth’ exactly – and how long does it last?) and its seeming incompatibility with the brilliance of her prose and the sheer number of her accomplishments. From another perspective, she told us about being treated like a simpleton when she first worked as lighting technician for a major theatre company after graduating with excellent qualifications and plenty of practical experience from RADA – a treatment she probably received because she was a woman as well as a neophyte in the profession. I think everyone (especially every woman) will have experienced these things in their early years; I remember very clearly the frustrations of being sixteen, and of having everything to say (I thought) and no one willing to hear it. The ouroborans experience these frustrations in lifetime after lifetime, as six-year-olds, for instance, with the brains of individuals many centuries old, and have to find ingenious ways to circumvent the problem – by sticking together with others of their kind in ouroboran communities, or playing games with their less experienced adult carers, or conducting elaborate secret lives with every means at their disposal. Childhood and youth are nightmares to them, to be hurried through as quickly as possible in order to reach what their particular period considers to be the age of responsibility, the age for taking back some semblance of control over the current version of their multiple destinies.

The way the novel is written is a marvel. It’s not linear; blessed or cursed with an infallible memory, like Severian in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, Harry experiences all times as simultaneously present, and calls up relevant experiences from any of his lives as analogies for any given episode in his narrative. The effect is to explode any sense of linear progression as the dominant mode of the twentieth century, though clearly technological and scientific progress is to some extent linear, discovery building on discovery in a manner North describes with great skill. The point is, though, that these linear scientific discoveries don’t correspond to a linear development of the human psyche; each individual develops at a different rate, whatever is happening to the changing scientific landscape through which they move – and this disconnect, too, is exquisitely evoked by the novel’s unconventional form.

touchAt an event on the day after the John W. Campbell conference, North read an extract from her next book, Touch, and it was clear at once that this novel, too, would be concerned with the peculiarly twenty-first century experience of being everyone, of knowing everyone, of experiencing no degree of separation from anybody else in the world – or at least of living under that illusion, thanks to social media, reality TV, translation apps and cinema subtitles, the many manifestations of pseudo-democracy we experience from day to day. It was also clear that Touch could be seen as equally concerned with the novelist’s craft, and with that craft as a metaphor for the irrepressible human urge to inhabit another person’s skin. Here the central concept is that of the ghost – one of a small community of human beings who are gifted or cursed with the ability to transfer themselves from one body to another by the simple act of touching, however lightly, the smallest quantity of a person’s naked flesh. Once again, there are science fictional elements to this narrative: we learn of a research project that seeks to unveil the underlying scientific principles behind this mysterious power of transference. But we never learn these principles, never find out whether such principles could ever be discovered, so that the pure impossibility of the ghosts’ powers permits them to assume the status of metaphor, to be concentrated on for their philosophical ramifications rather than as a thought experiment in conjectural physics. Touching is what stories aim to do; they enable us to touch other lives, to inhabit other bodies, and they aim to touch us, to make us emotionally invest in the people whose skins we temporarily occupy. And this touching – like the ever more complex interweaving paths traced through time by the ouroboran Harry August – helps to remind us, by its sheer promiscuity – the sheer accumulating number of diverse bodies the protagonist enters in the course of the novel – how far we are part of each other, responsible for and complicit with one another’s thoughts and feelings and actions.

This is what novels are for, of course: to enable us to be other people, in the way we were when we were children being soldiers or queens or nurses or parents. The ghost who narrates Touch, who is known as Kepler, never loses the childish passion for this sort of role-playing. Each new person she encounters is like one of the planets discovered by the stargazer in Keats’s sonnet ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’: ‘Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, / When a new planet swims into his kin’ – hence perhaps the name she is known by.[1] She is fascinated by the possibilities that person represents, and above all by the kind of beauty which might be found in that particular life – and Kepler finds beauty in all kinds of lives, especially those of the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, emotional or intellectual misfits, perpetual wanderers. The beauty she finds in these people makes her ‘love’ them – that’s her word for it, though she is challenged for it on several occasions in the novel: aren’t you talking about your own idea of these people rather than the people themselves? Is love the right word for what you feel for them? – and as with Fifteen Lives, love is clearly one of the preoccupations of the novel (what does anyone mean by it? Isn’t it often as destructively selfish as it is gloriously self-denying – and sometimes both at once, as if the same concept held two opposite ideas in tension?). Her love for the people or bodies she inhabits – called by ghosts ‘skins’, as if to indicate how shallow their understanding of each vehicle must necessarily be – leads her to research their backgrounds assiduously before ‘becoming’ them, to assume their names and genders along with their bodies, and to resist the term by which she herself is known (‘don’t call me Kepler’, she tells people repeatedly, and corrects them when they give her the wrong gender for the body she currently occupies). If Kepler is a stand-in for the author, who usurps lives and professions not her own, then she would seem to be a responsible and sensitive example of the species.

51ZLLb9W+kL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_She certainly sees herself as a responsible ghost, always leaving the body she inhabits in better condition than she found it, with money, good clothes, a social position, perhaps a qualification that can take them places if they are able or willing to take advantage of it. Some of the skins are even willing vehicles, renting out their bodies to her under certain pre-agreed conditions, and afterwards, in some cases, going on to make a business of the practice, renting themselves out again and again to other ghosts for profit. But the relationship between herself and the skins remains problematic: the skins are always the powerless element in a game between two people in which one holds all the aces. At one point in Kepler’s life she acts as what she calls an estate agent, identifying and researching skins for ghosts to occupy, as if human beings could be treated as so much living space. One of her clients asks for a body to inhabit for a lifetime, and she complies with this request, with appalling consequences for the skin concerned: a young man who loses his youth, maturity and middle age as a result of a bargain for which his consent was never sought. Clearly such a situation sets Kepler’s kind apart from novelists; inventing a narrative doesn’t involve taking over an individual’s life at such appalling cost to that individual. But if we think of the situation in terms of writing novels it can help to draw out the extent to which novelists are colonists. They steal other people’s time away from them for hours and days, and appropriate unfamiliar cultures, sexes, age-groups, jobs and family relationships for their own purposes – an appropriation which, irresponsibly used, can lead to the perpetuation of ugly stereotypes and insidious prejudices. North brilliantly brings this problem home when she has Kepler inhabit, for a time, the body of a North African nurse about whom she knows nothing at all except his name. She has to guess at his language and nationality, and all her guesses turn out to be wrong; even a ghost who has spent so long researching and being other people will end up reproducing her own ingrained assumptions about a stranger she has not investigated properly prior to taking on his flesh.

zpage014Keats’s famous sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is helpful when considering the colonialism of creativity as well as its astronomical sweep and passion. In the sonnet, Keats compares his feelings on reading Homer’s work in Chapman’s translation to those of the conquistador Hernán Cortés gazing on the Pacific for the first time,

[…] when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats here describes himself discovering new poetic territories thanks to Chapman, but links the discovery, through the name of Cortés, with the violent overthrow of the Aztec Empire by Spain in 1519-20. As a result, the ‘realms of gold’ he mentions in the sonnet’s first line – by which he means the world of poetry – become tainted by association with the aggressive acquisitiveness of sixteenth-century seekers after the gold of Moctezuma. Reading becomes a colonial act, and so perhaps (by association) does Keats’s own verse, which further extends the ‘realms of gold’ into already occupied territories (he colonizes classical myth, for instance, in Endymion, the Old Testament in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Homer’s epics in this sonnet, and so on). There are, then, two distinct processes of discovery at work in Keats’s poem: discovery as performed by astronomers, which involves observation only, with no effect on the thing observed; and discovery as performed by colonists, which involves destruction as well as observation of the thing found. Kepler thinks of herself as engaged in the former, but is clearly for much of her many lives involved in the latter too. Keats’s poetry is a two-faced creature, both professedly impartial in its observations and fiercely self-serving in the uses it makes of them, bountiful in its imaginative revelations and possessive in its desire to direct those revelations towards the advancement of the poet’s interests, the progress of his chosen narrative arc. The same is true of Kepler, who is both the benefactor of her skins and their exploiter. Like all her kind she is two-faced, a fact acknowledged by another ghost she meets who calls himself Janus, the literally two-faced Roman god of doors, ambiguity, Doppelgängers and difficult choices.

Kepler’s doubleness is exposed by the fact that she, like the ouroboran Harry August, has a double: a dark twin or abusive lover figure called Galileo, whom she chases through the pages of the novel just as Harry August chased his enemy/lover through the pages of Fifteen Lives. The beautiful intricacy of the novel’s plot, too, exposes Kepler’s doubleness. Like Harry August’s, her story is not told chronologically, and at first the endless jumping around between lives present and lives past comes across as a random, virtuosic demonstration of sheer delight in her many identities as a ghost, a delight shared by North herself, who clearly relishes the glorious diversity of the stories she has let herself get caught up in. The sense of randomness is magnificently encapsulated in one skin she inhabits, a stylish young woman who turns out to have a severed finger in the bottom of her purse; there is never any explanation for this finger, and it remains embedded in the text as an instance of the many loose ends to which a being like Kepler must of necessity be subjected. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that many of the threads of it are interconnected, and that the connections between Kepler’s many lives finally make her responsible for her evil double, Galileo. She is Galileo’s creator just as surely as Victor Frankenstein was the creator of his monster, both in the sense that he sewed him together from disparate elements and in the sense that he was responsible in loco parentis for souring his experience of being alive – for turning him monstrous. Kepler made Galileo, we learn, in an act that was intended to be one of parental affection but was in fact one of selfishness; an act she did not initiate but in which she was deeply complicit. Complicity, then, is a theme of this book as surely as it was of Fifteen Lives; and between them, the two books imply that it’s a universal theme of the globalized world we all inhabit, about which North’s two protagonists know so much, and about which we learn so much in our turn through the vicarious experience of occupying their multiple bodies.

The relationship between Kepler and Galileo also exposes the Janus-like double nature of love, the most intimate way we have of touching each other. Love is the favourite theme of novelists as it is of poets, and in this book it has a disconcerting habit of inverting itself; Kepler possesses the bodies of people who hate her on several occasions in her search for Galileo, and as is her nature she comes to love each of these formerly hating bodies, delighting in the evidence of past traumas etched into their flesh, in the problem of how to bring out the best in them and hand it on when she finally leaves their private space. Galileo both hates and loves Kepler, as does Janus – as does Kepler herself, whose transitional existence is both a joy to her and a hell of loneliness, since no body knows her, no body is her own. The reason hatred is so close to love is that it involves an obsessive focus on the person who is hated, an acknowledgement that they exist, that they have an identity like no other. It’s inevitable, then, that Kepler’s hunt for her nemesis will turn at its climax into a complicated act of love-making, in which life and death, affirmation and assassination are woven together like the self-devouring snake of North’s previous novel.

lossy-page1-220px-Scheherazade.tifMore explicit in Touch than in Fifteen Lives is the association between the novel form, as it’s practised in the twenty-first century, and the ultimate storytelling fable: that of the Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Scheherazade is of course a two-faced narrative, involving both protracted and vigorous life in the form of a collection of interwoven tales that have endured for centuries, and the fear of death, which is an ever-present fact throughout the collection (the storyteller tells her stories to avoid being executed by a tyrannous Sultan). Both Touch and Fifteen Lives are such a collection, made up of multiple interlaced stories fleeing from the threat of encroaching annihilation: a mysterious apocalypse in Fifteen Lives, which gets closer with each successive life Harry leads, and an organization called Aquarius in Touch, whose name invokes the dawn of a new Golden Age of peace and love – albeit one that involves the extermination of all ghosts without trial or mercy. Touch, however, includes the added Scheherazade-related touch that the ghosts are themselves generated from the passionate urge to defer the moment of death. Each new ghost is formed at a time of trauma, when some human being finds his or her life prematurely ended and proceeds to jump as she dies into a new body, as the only available means to avoid annihilation. The urge to survive is what finally drives all their subsequent jumps between body and body, despite all the various rationales given by ghosts for particular transitions. Writing, too, is a way of eluding death, generating texts which are a form of afterlife more readily understood in a secular age than the notions of heaven or reincarnation.

The connection between Kepler and Scheherazade is further developed by the way the story transforms itself from time to time into an orientalist fable. In one of her lives Kepler falls in love with a woman, Ayesha, who is the third and youngest wife of an Egyptian merchant. To consummate her love for this woman Kepler enters the body of her husband, and in this form she lives with Ayesha happily for several years, while the merchant she occupies continues to amass his fortune, thanks in large part to a profitable trade in slaves (so: more complicity). When the French take Cairo, Kepler is forced to flee the city in the merchant’s body, at his wife’s request, so as to save the life of Ayesha’s merchant husband. In her absence Ayesha bears the child they conceived together and dies in childbirth; but the ghost remembers her as a woman who loved her deeply, despite being fully aware of her identity as an errant spirit which usurped a life to which it had no right.

Many years later, in a Paris café, Kepler comes across a descendant of her child by Ayesha: a young Algerian artist who retells the story of Kepler’s relationship with her ancestor in the manner of Scheherazade herself. In this retelling, Kepler becomes a creature from the Thousand and One Nights, a jinn or genie:

Fire of the desert, the knife-wind, he comes, he comes riding the sands, and his name is a thousand eyes without expression, elf’ayyoun we’ain douna ta’beer, youharrik elqazb doun arreeh, and his voice is stirs-the-reeds-without-wind, and his sword is starlight, and his eyes are hot embers of a fallen sun.

As the Algerian storyteller ends her tale Kepler stares at ‘this child, who had come from the flesh of Ayesha bint Kamal and Abdul al-Mu’allim al-Ninowy; but also from my soul’. It’s a moving moment in which storytelling creates a link between past and present, between flesh and spirit, between woman and woman, between France and Egypt and Algeria; but it’s also a moment of appropriation, when an artist – North herself – ventriloquizes a narrative style that has been frequently appropriated by imperialists – most famously by the British adventurer Richard Burton. Burton, an atheist, not only translated the Thousand and One Nights unexpurgated into English but undertook the Hajj, despite his lack of faith; his interest in the sexual lives of the various peoples he encountered on his travels gave him a scandalous reputation in the nineteenth century. Kepler’s love for Ayesha, then, is rendered two-faced by the manner of its commemoration in a French café. It is an orientalist adventure, in which Kepler satisfied his lust by adopting a disguise, as Richard Burton was said to have done; and it is a moving tale of mutual affection consummated in spite of overwhelming odds. The story itself revives a forgotten love affair from the past – but it also fictionalizes it, omitting some if its darker features, such as the means by which the merchant husband, Abdul, got his living (the slave trade). The story’s authenticity as an oriental tale spoken by a North African is undermined by its presence in a novel by a British writer. The story encapsulates, in fact, the many perceptions about the two-faced trade of telling stories that North offers us in the course of her astounding novels.

But the connection with the Thousand and One Nights is present everywhere in the text, and above all when Kepler is jumping from skin to skin in flight or pursuit, as in this passage where she changes bodies on a crowded train:

I slipped from skin to skin, a bump, a shudder, a slowing-down and a speeding-up, a swaying of the carriage, a stepping on another’s foot, I am
a child dressed in school uniform
an old man bent double over his stick.
I bleed in the body of a woman on the first day of her period,
ache down to the soles of my tired builder’s feet.
I crave alcohol, my nose burst and swollen from too much of the same.
The doors open and I am young again, and beautiful, dressed for summer in a slinky dress and hoping that the goosebumps on my flesh will not detract from the glamour I seek to express.
I am hungry
and now I am full,
desperate to pee by the carriage window,
eating crisps in the seat by the door.
I wear silk.
I wear nylon.
I loosen my tie.
I hurt in leather shoes.
My motion is constant, my skins are stationary, but by the brush of a hand on the rush-hour train
I am everyone.
I am no one at all.

There has never, I think, been a better evocation of the skipping generation of the present, the rhythms of its exuberant motion, its delight in diversity, its constitutional incapacity to stay rooted in one place, its desire for closeness and fulfilment, its fear of committing itself to any one manifestation of either state. Of course it would be in a rush hour train that a being like Kepler would feel most at home; a train full of individuals crushed together, rushing through a tunnel to some destination in a vehicle over whose motion they have no control. Kepler and the book she appears in are a constellation of entities rather than a single entity, subject to gravitational pulls from their fellow entities while steering their own complex courses through many kinds of space. In this they share their nature with North’s readers, who go to her books hungry for novelties and find far more there than they bargained for.

May her hectic novels continue to weave their spells around us until – well, until she chooses to take another shape, another name, a new way of writing, a different style.

I suspect we’ll choose to follow her, wherever.



[1] I also wonder if North was thinking of another Kepler – one with two ps who specializes in writing about Doppelgängers: see C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self (University of Arizona Press, 1972). I’m grateful to Matteo Barbagallo for drawing my attention to Keppler’s work.

Paul Kearney, The Wolf in the Attic (2016)

Wolf In The Attic mockupPaul Kearney’s new novel draws together a number of familiar threads in contemporary fantasy, but makes something new and beguiling out of them. The plucky heroine, Anna Francis – who turns twelve towards the end of the book and roams wild across the Oxford landscape – recalls Philip Pullman’s Lyra; except that she’s a Greek exile, with recurring memories of the Graeco-Turkish War of 1919-22 which engulfed her home city in flames, killing her mother and brother and sending her into exile with her troubled father in a chilly northern country. She’s not at home in Oxford as Pullman’s Lyra was, and is subjected to racist abuse by the hostile locals; the fact that she is home schooled also deprives her of Lyra’s motley network of friends. J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis – as Ronald and Jack – provide her with a welcome substitute for the company of her peers, but they compete for her attention with issues of politics, economics, gender, class and race that they largely ignored in their fantasies. Ancient conflicts emerge from the shadows in the course of the book, and Anna gets caught up in them much as Will Stanton does in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising; but they too seem to share in the complexity of British culture between the wars, making the clear moral division between Light and Dark impossible to maintain. Wytham Wood – the place that once inspired William Horwood to write epic stories about itinerant moles – here gets transformed into an outpost of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, full of shadowy monsters and half-forgotten perils. One gets the impression that Kearney has hugely enjoyed running themes and people from the books he loves up against the radical changes in social and political consciousness that have taken place since they were written.

lewis and tolkIt’s as much fun, then, spotting the ways this novel disrupts those older fantasies as picking out references to familiar elements in them. Kearney traces – and partly reinvents – the roots of Tolkien’s fascination with hobbits, Ents and skin-changers (such as Beorn in The Hobbit), as well as Lewis’s interest in portals between worlds, Greek myth of the kind he elaborated in Till We Have Faces, and the problems and possibilities of the Christian religion. Christianity finds itself in dialogue with older religions – much as it was in Tolkien’s beloved Beowulf – and there is a magnificently convincing representation of the old Archfiend, Satan himself, as a Holdstockian mythago, as much at home in the world of the pagan blacksmith Weyland as in the cosmic wanderings of the first two books of Paradise Lost. Herne the Hunter, who featured so memorably in The Dark is Rising, gets caught up here with Gowther Mossock of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and an archangel from either the Bible or Pullman’s His Dark Materials in a struggle for souls with this quasi-biblical damned spirit. What’s impressive about Kearney’s achievement is his success in combining so many disparate elements into a seamless new whole, the disparate threads that have gone into its composition barely noticeable until you’ve finished reading. For fantasy lovers this book combines the pleasures of the boardgame or the quiz with those of the thriller, the predictable with the surprising, and ends by leaving you with the hope that it’s just the start of something larger.

the-wolf-in-the-attic-9781781083628_hrA neat example of Kearney’s method is his references to knives, which run through the text like a crimson thread from first to last, changing allegiance and signification with each appearance. Anna encounters one first on the rough common grasslands of Port Meadow, where travellers fight to a bloody denouement and suck her into a world where casual death by violence is as commonplace as it was rare in the imagined worlds of Oxford’s two most celebrated fantasists. Approaching the scene of the fight Anna wishes she had brought her knife – ‘a little Watts penknife Pa used to keep for scraping out his pipe’ – but it’s as much because this represents her only protector – her father – as for any practical use it might have had (‘I don’t think it’s big enough to cut a Turk’s throat,’ she tells herself, associating all dangers at this point with the people who destroyed her family). Already she’s conscious that knives may have two different functions – symbolic and practical – and that weapons in themselves are ineffectual if not suited to the task in hand (a ‘stupid little knife would be nothing’ to the swords and spears of the Homeric heroes, she tells herself later). But the knife that does the killing in Port Meadow demonstrates something else about weapons like these: that they can be double-edged, turning against their owners with fatal consequences. And not long afterwards her own knife gets used in transgressive acts: first to cut an opening to a part of the house her father doesn’t know about (‘Not a weapon, but a tool,’ she tells herself as she traces the edges of a hidden door that leads to the attic); and later still to perpetrate a second murder, then to expose it. This second death-by-stabbing teaches her that trusted friends can be double-edged too, turning against their companions with the kind of racially-motivated, casual cruelty that would come to characterize the new decade of the 1930s. The same little penknife reveals to Anna the kind of man her father was – a double-edged figure, very different from the melancholy Greek hero she idealized in her childhood (though this is something his occasional violence had already taught her). And at the end of the novel Anna uses it herself in an act of violence, a near mirror image of the one she witnessed on Port Meadow. All these developments confirm the impossibility of passing absolute judgement on any given action: the drawing of a knife, the drawing of blood, a bloody war between families or nations. And the centrality of the knife to Kearney’s narrative forges further links with folklore and fantasy: the second volume of His Dark Materials, for instance (The Subtle Knife), or the iron-shaping powers of Weyland the Smith, whose entry into ancient Britain announced the arrival of powerful strangers wielding weapons no weapon of bronze could hope to compete with. That’s a lot of symbolic weight to be packed into a single recurring image, and Kearney carries off the trick with real aplomb.

The aspect of the narrative that most clearly marks out its difference from the works of Lewis and Tolkien is its concern with the body. Kearney pays attention to many aspects of the body those men could never have brought themselves to mention: the need to relieve oneself at awkward moments, the effect of period pains on one’s efforts to effect a cross-country getaway, the impossibility of resisting the urge to blush, the problem of getting clean in a waterless wood, the necessity of cutting long hair when it gets too filthy to be washed or combed. Bodily changes are his subject; but where Lewis’s shape-shifters are invariably morally shifty – think of the werewolf in Prince Caspian – Kearney’s are neutral, tied in like the menstrual cycle to the changes of the moon, and so symptomatic of the role played by transitions in human experience. Lewis’s children in the Narnian chronicles ‘grew out’ of fantasy, learning to replace those allegorical representations of religious concepts with direct encounters with the concepts themselves. Kearney’s Anna finds instead that her fantastic encounters are directly tied in with the process of her own maturation. It’s her growth to adulthood that makes her useful to the ambiguous beings who inhabit the Oxfordshire woodlands. Constancy, in Kearney’s novel, is the property of dolls, not people, and Anna carries a reminder of this about with her throughout the book in the form of her own doll Pie: Pie is short for Penelope, the wife who stayed constant to Odysseus through all the years of his wanderings. Constancy is also the property of the dead, and Pie was given to Anna by her older brother, who died fighting the Turks. The centrality of change to the text is an implied critique of the ages-long constancy of Tolkien’s Elves and Ents, of Lewis’s Aslan. Even the most ancient communities in Kearney’s book are subject to change, dwindling in strength and potency as they drift though time – and each change of body the shapeshifters among them undergo robs them of vitality, changing their human bodies more swiftly than the ordinary ageing process. Changelessness as applied to mortals is a myth, and not a particularly helpful one in an age of such radical change as the twentieth century.

Wytham Wood

At the same time, the book shares with Lewis, Tolkien and other British-based fantasists a deep delight in the English countryside – a delight which is most fully felt by his Greek protagonist (and Lewis, who felt it too, reminds Anna that he is an Ulsterman, and so understands her sense of exile). Kearney’s depiction of snow recalls Lewis’s account of it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His evocation of the Berkshire downs rivals Garner’s of Alderley Edge for the pleasure it takes in rendering the familiar contours of the land mysterious. His Wytham Wood echoes the Wild Wood of The Wind in the Willows, another British fantasy he references, this time through Anna’s passion for the books of Graham and Nesbit. Like Tolkien’s, his characters lament the rapidity of the changes that are stripping such woods from the landscapes of Britain, Europe, the world. There will come a time, one of them predicts, when all will be gone. Then books like these will be the imaginative scars that mark the places where the woods once grew – like the scars that her adventures leave on Anna’s body, or the scars left by her lost loved ones on her mind. Anna will become one of the Cassandras of our generation, her fears for the future of her beloved hills and valleys only believed when they have been fulfilled. But her courage, her heroic resistance to having her changes dictated and used by others, also suggests that the erasure of the beautiful places can be withstood. That’s a fantasy worth cultivating.

Synchrony in Howl’s Moving Castle

howl-moving-castle-1Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the would-be creator tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the conviction that adults can never really understand what makes their offspring tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them wholly redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.

One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades. The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists. So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider parent-child community. Sociologists have also investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation (that is, psychological and social synchrony) between members of a group, an army, church or organization. Less threateningly, perhaps, there have been studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between the generations. Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.

But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of the family or household may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to a household’s different inhabitants by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like to think about two texts that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between members of a household community while enabling them to work together. These are a celebrated children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1985) and the equally celebrated film adaptation of that novel by Hayao Miyazaki (2004). And it seems to me that these two works of art approach the problem of synchrony in rather different ways, as I’ll try to explain.

howls-moving-castleThe concern of Diana Wynne Jones with the complex chronology of domestic and other communities, where the time zones of the young, the middle aged and the old converge and clash, is evident throughout her work: from Seven Days of Luke (1975) and Dogsbody (1975), in which the lives of immortal beings (gods and stars) intersect with those of children, to The Homeward Bounders (1981), whose young protagonist finds himself ageing at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and Fire and Hemlock (1985), about the friendship between a young girl and a grown man, which changes as the girl gets older.[1] Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle represents synchrony not merely as a prerequisite for the successful cohabitation of different generations within the same building or society, but as a psychological condition achieved with difficulty by individual men and women, aspects of whose personalities develop or mature at different rates, thus effectively establishing different time zones within a single mind and body. It’s this perception, among other things, that seems to have drawn Miyazaki to the novel, as permitting a new departure in his own lifelong exploration of temporal interfaces in domestic and social space.

Grandma-sophieThe protagonist of Wynne-Jones’s novel is a teenage girl, Sophie Hatter, who lets herself be seduced by the rules of fairy tale into believing that her destiny is predetermined by her position as the eldest daughter in a family. This conviction comes easily to her because she lives in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’ – a land of fairy tale in action, where witches are as common as bakers.[2] Since she’s the eldest child, so the tales affirm, nothing interesting can ever happen to her: it’s always the youngest child who sets off on adventures and who gets the prize. In addition, her sole surviving parent is a stepmother, who Sophie assumes must therefore be tyrannous, if not wicked. As a result, Sophie’s lifelong entrapment in the family hat-making business (which she doesn’t enjoy) is for her as certain as if she’d already lived through it, and she behaves and dresses as if she were already the elderly spinster she expects to be. So when she’s transformed into a real old woman by a jealous witch, who has mistaken her for one of her attractive younger sisters, Sophie embraces her new condition with some enthusiasm. Before the transformation she was in effect an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body; after it she’s a young girl trapped in an old woman’s body; and since her life and story are now effectively over, she leaves the hat-making business and wanders out into the world to seek her fortune.

Sophie, in other words, is the victim of a particularly oppressive social form of synchrony – of ensuring that individuals know and retain their place within the community – which works hand in hand with ideology; synchrony as imposed on female children by the gender roles assigned to them by fairy tales and other narratives. Fortunately, however, the world – and the old women who play a vital part in it – proves to be very much more mobile than Sophie’s enslavement to fairy-tale convention leads her to expect. The delightful metaphor for this mobility is the Moving Castle of the title, and its erratic movements across Ingary can also be seen as standing for a more complex form of synchrony than the one that governs traditional fairy tales and hackneyed fantasies.

When she stumbles across the Moving Castle by accident, Sophie discovers in it a peculiar all-male household quite unlike the ‘conventional’ nuclear family (if such a thing exists, which Wynne Jones would have us doubt). It’s composed of the teenager Michael, an apprentice wizard; Calcifer, a stubborn but friendly fire-demon, whose magic keeps the Castle moving; and the wizard Howl himself, a dashing charmer whose one aim in life is to dodge the responsibility to which Sophie has always been a willing slave (hence Howl’s construction of this unusual mobile home). Including Sophie, these four householders span a tremendous age range, from the apprentice, who is fifteen, to the demon, who has lived for millennia. But they are none of them restricted in their movements by their apparent or actual age. In financial matters Michael behaves with a responsibility beyond his years, keeping some of the household money hidden from Howl to prevent him wasting it. Calcifer is as dependent on the other members of the household as an infant, confined to the Castle’s only hearth as a baby is confined to its cradle until somebody is willing to lift him out. Howl behaves like a spoiled adolescent, obsessed with his appearance and refusing to let Sophie clean his room. And Sophie, who makes herself Howl’s housekeeper because she can’t imagine herself as capable of anything else, becomes increasingly energetic as the novel goes on, despite her extreme old age: dashing across the landscape in seven-league boots, plotting to foil Howl’s various affairs, and rearranging the Castle so extensively that it eventually becomes her own home – quite literally, since Howl moves the building into the hat-shop at one point to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste.

Age, then, in the Moving Castle, is no trap but a matter of attitude, and attitudes are always changing. Even the physical strength of the individual inhabitants’ bodies varies as much in response to hormones, cold germs and lashings of self-pity as to the motions of the heart (and Howl’s young heart is just as compromised, we learn in the end, as Sophie’s elderly organ). The movement of time determines nothing about a person’s character; it isn’t time that induces emotional or intellectual maturity, but successful interaction with other people, a capacity to adapt one’s personal needs to the demands of a community (and to resist those demands, of course, when they become oppressive). Household synchrony at its best, then, is for Wynne Jones a matter of careful and prolonged negotiation, enabling competing narratives and attitudes to achieve compatibility with one another, to co-exist – with frequent setbacks and digressions that prevent the negotiating process from becoming either consistent or linear. Her book is a celebration of domestic negotiation as a form of perpetual motion, like all her novels.

The identities of the Castle’s four eccentric tenants are as flexible as their ages. Michael disguises himself as a red-bearded man, or a horse, each time he leaves the building. Calcifer, in his capacity as (quite literally) the hearth of the Castle, changes the building’s appearance as well as its location with his demonic powers. Sophie successively takes on the roles of Howl’s assistant, his aunt, his mother, and (eventually) his partner, as the book goes on. And Howl has a different name and role in each community he visits. The Castle’s magical front door opens on a range of locations depending on the opener’s wishes: Kingsbury, Porthaven, Market Chipping, and (oddly) modern Wales; and in each place Howl has a distinct identity: as reluctant royal wizard, well-intentioned local magician, demonized ladykiller, and idle waster, all of them with alternative costumes and reputations as well as names. These conflicting roles of Howl’s converge and overlap in the interior of the Castle; and as a result the Castle provides an active illustration of the sheer dynamism of the domestic space to which Sophie has confined herself. All political and social action, all adventure, all identity originates in the creative melting-pot of the household, and the relationships between householders are forever mutating; responding to and influencing the mutations that take place in the world beyond. Nobody need be fixed, the Castle implies, in any role, whether by age, sex, birth, or any other factor – unless the community they inhabit, the household and the society it is part of, and above all their own state of mind, exert all their energy to imprison them in a single unchanging function. Nobody dominates the household, either. Control of the Moving Castle alternates between Howl and Sophie, with Michael and Calcifer taking the reins when the need arises. And the shape of the community inside it is always changing, as new members join the strange little family through Sophie’s influence. It’s a political as well as a temporal interface, a functional democracy, where the needs, pleasures and pains of old and new inhabitants succeed one another as the focus of attention according to the demands of the time.

424248_3164633998754_1352491418_3259108_263889306_nTo put an end to this condition of perpetual motion is the aim of Howl’s and Sophie’s arch-nemesis, the Witch of the Waste. Attended by a bevy of robotic page-boys, the Witch specializes in locking her victims into forms designed to limit their capacity for mobility and self-determination: a scarecrow, a dog, a skull, and of course the old woman Sophie. Each of her victims proves unexpectedly vigorous in resisting their containment; and each derives his or her vigour from Sophie’s boundless energy, which releases them one by one from their bondage through her capacity to ‘talk life’ into things – sticks, scarecrows, skulls, the dog’s inarticulate tongue – and transform them into dynamic components of her own and other people’s narratives or stories. The Witch needs only one more victim, Howl, to complete the construction of her ideal man: a crude puppet-being fashioned from parts of the complex actual people she has metamorphosed into objects or animals. She aims to set up her ideal puppet as King of Ingary – with the Witch as queen – transforming the land in the process into a barren desert bereft of material for the tales of which it should be composed, like the wasteland where she has built her own immobile fortress. Sophie’s resistance to the Witch is achieved through her ability to enable the Witch’s victims to work together as a community in spite of their differences, in spite of the instability of their personalities, in spite of their uncertainty about their individual identities. Her household is a domestic democracy rather than a monarchy.   And this notion of domestic democracy, or democratic domesticity, is another thing that seems to have attracted Miyazaki to the novel when he chose to adapt it for what was slated at the time as his final film, his swansong to the animation industry and the century in which he was born.

howlsMiyazaki’s movie has been described as less an adaptation than a reimagining, synchronizing the novelist’s concerns with the director’s through a series of daring shifts away from her storyline towards a set of themes that have engaged him for years. The problem of age remains at the centre of the narrative. Once again Sophie’s premature old age is balanced by Howl’s over-extended childhood, and the central problem is how to synchronize their ages, enabling them to cohabit in the Castle of the title. The problem could be said to represent the plight of an ageing film-maker as he seeks to engage the attention of much younger viewers – the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. But in addition, the two time zones that converge in each of Miyazaki’s central characters – youth and elderliness, adolescence and maturity – become symptomatic of a pervasive dualism that extends through every aspect of their environment. It’s with the nature and function of this dualism that the rest of this post will be concerned.

Albert Robida’s Future
Albert Robida’s Dreadnoughts

The principal dualism in the film is a socio-political one, concerning the two alternative futures towards which Ingary may be moving: as a bright, colourful, mutually supportive community dedicated to the arts of peace, or a dark, war-ravaged wasteland, the energies of whose inhabitants are synchronized in a collective drive towards destruction. Suspended between these possible future destinies, the Ingary of the film is an in-between place, drawing on sources in art and history that look two ways. The setting of the movie, for instance, is an alternative turn-of-the-century Europe, where a pastoral landscape of mountains and flower-strewn valleys is overshadowed by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys and half-monstrous, half-comic flying gunships. The model for this landscape is Alsace, the disputed border territory between France and Germany which found itself caught at the epicentre of two world wars.[3] The machines that move around this landscape – from flying kayaks to steam-driven trams and the bomb-filled gunship-zeppelins that patrol the skies – derive from the work of the visionary French artist Albert Robida (1848-1926), who became famous in the fin-de-siècle for his exuberant illustrations of technology as he imagined it would evolve in the coming century.[4] Every visual detail of the film, then, looks two ways, to war and peace, to the past and the future, so that the competition between ages fought out within Howl and Sophie serves as a miniature enactment of the competition over alternative destinies being fought out in the world around them. And the Moving Castle becomes an embodiment of all these dualisms, its erratic movements recalling the jerky progress of a turn-of-the-century nation (in the 1900s or 2000s) towards cataclysm or prosperity, towards life or death – or rather towards both, since the film’s audience is conscious that both will dominate the century they have just emerged from.


Our first view of this building comes with the opening credits, and it’s a very different structure from the chimney-shaped fortress of the novel. Mounted on four metal chicken-legs, Miyazaki’s Castle resembles the hen-footed hut of Baba Yaga the Russian witch, an ambiguous figure who is either child-eater or magical helper depending on the storyteller’s whim; it points, then, to the centrality of ambiguous witches to the narrative. The surface of the Castle bristles with gun turrets and rural cottages, as if to point up the two opposite conditions towards which it may be moving, the military and the cosily domestic. The gun turrets embody Howl’s desire to defend himself from being drawn into war; but they also resemble the gun turrets of the ironclad dreadnoughts of Ingary’s navy, and thus point towards his possible enlistment as a secret weapon in the national defence force. And these ships have been part of the wizard’s life since early childhood. When Sophie visits the lakeside cottage where Howl spent his lonely vacations as a boy, she sees the model of a dreadnought on the table, reminding viewers of how boys are acculturated to play at war by the toys and games on offer. Howl’s Castle, then, fuses two influences from his upbringing, the isolated cottage and the ever-present warship, and Sophie’s adventures in housekeeping there have a direct influence on the direction in which the country, as well as the Castle and its occupants, is moving.

airships-howlThe first major change Miyazaki makes to the novel, then, is to place war at the heart of his film’s narrative, embodying its centrality in the eccentric mobile fortress. You might remember that the military is one of the areas in which sociologists have identified the extensive use of synchrony; by moving in concert, soldiers can be trained to subsume their interests to the interests of the group, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves so that collective actions can be successfully completed. One of the things you’ll notice in Miyazaki’s movie is the coordinated movements of the flying airships, with their flapping wings, and the fleets of human-faced bombs that drop out of their bellies. Clearly certain forms of synchrony encourage only conformity, and total conformity can be as disastrous to a community as total individualism. Some other form of synchrony must be found for the household, if it’s to become a successful centre for resistance to conformity with collective aggression.

Howls20Moving20Castle01065_from_we-The second change Miyazaki makes is to the villain of the story, who gets split in two, like everything else in the movie. The movie’s Witch of the Waste starts out as monstrous as she is in the book: a towering, fleshy presence who conjures Sophie into decrepitude in a spontaneous fit of jealousy. But she is soon supplanted by a much more devious enemy called Madame Suliman. Howl’s former tutor in the magic arts, Suliman deploys her formidable powers, ostensibly in the service of Ingary, as a combination of spymaster, bomber command and military general; and she is eager to secure her most promising pupil as her successor in all these capacities. Her character, then, combines aspects of Miss Pentstemmon (Howl’s kind old tutor in Wynne Jones’s novel), and the novel’s Witch of the Waste, who wishes to fix Howl in an unchanging form as her puppet husband. Like the Witch, Madame Suliman repeatedly tries to invade Howl’s domestic space – the Moving Castle – by a range of methods: direct assaults on the Castle doors by her servants, the blob men;[5] enlisting Sophie’s mother to deliver a magical spy-worm to the building; and above all, by drawing Howl deeper and deeper into armed conflict, on defensive raids from which he returns to domestic life with increasing difficulty, often still locked in the form of a monstrous flying demon he assumes when fighting. Howl’s repeated transformations make him more and more like the flocks of identical flying fortresses that threaten Ingary. Sophie’s challenge in the movie is to compete with Madame Suliman in the effort to synchronize her heart with Howl’s well-protected organ, which he has hidden in the hearth of the Castle for security, guarded by Calcifer. The two women stand for alternative versions of his destiny, his social role: as imperialist warmonger or affectionate family member, as obedient marcher in step with the military or as participant in the mutually supportive domestic community. And the richness of the film consists in its implicit acknowledgment that he could well end up as both.

08-howlsOne of the ways in which this perception is conveyed is through the refusal of the film to set up clearly demarcated opposing sides, of the kind Wynne Jones creates by installing the Witch of the Waste as Howl’s antagonist. Characters literally metamorphose into new shapes as the film goes on, taking on aspects of each other’s appearance and actions, and changing sides in a conflict whose causes and participants are never certain. The blob men who begin as henchmen of the Witch of the Waste seem to switch allegiance half way through, hiring themselves out to the more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, after her easy defeat of their first mistress in a showdown at the royal palace. Meanwhile, the defeated Witch becomes a member of the eccentric family circle that occupies Howl’s Castle – a kind of second Sophie, as if to acknowledge Sophie’s complicity with the spell with which the Witch aged her. So too does the asthmatic dog Heen, who starts out as Madame Suliman’s spy but ends as the playmate of Howl’s apprentice Merkl (a younger version of Wynne-Jones’s Michael). In Heen’s place, Sophie’s stepmother becomes Suliman’s spy, delivering the spy-worm to the Moving Castle under pretence of a family reunion with her long lost stepdaughter. Meanwhile another member of Howl’s household, the scarecrow Turnip, turns out in the end to have been an enchanted prince from the neighbouring country with which Ingary is at war. Enemies and friends, in the world of Miyazaki’s later movies, can be indistinguishable – which serves both to point up the painful futility of the conflicts that break out between them, and the possibility, against all odds, of bringing them at last into synchronistic alignment.

Witch's_henchmenThe most disturbing ambiguity of affiliation is that of the blob men. As the servants of Madame Suliman one might expect them to form part of Ingary’s army, and indeed when they attack the Castle they wear Ingarian military uniforms. But they also share a civilian uniform – of top hats, masks and tarry bodies – with the winged monsters who emerge from the bellies of the flying gun-ships as they attack Ingary. Madame Suliman, then, seems to be fighting on both sides of the conflict she presides over. For her it’s nothing but a game: the kind of war-game that might delight the young pages who surround her, each of them designed to look like Howl, as if to illustrate her desire to add him to her collection of pretty boys. Madame Suliman exposes her attitude to conflict at the end of the movie when she tells the pages, ‘Let’s put an end to this idiotic war’, implying that she could have done so at any point in the preceding action.[6] She is sinisterly playful, indulging a second childhood in old age as she conducts the affairs of the country from the comfort of a padded wheelchair in her flower-filled conservatory. Yet even Suliman cannot be dismissed as a mere monster; she is too humorous, too detached and too attractive to be so easily summarized, especially because it’s never entirely clear if all her machinations are actually causing damage to the people caught up in them. Her body, like Howl’s and Sophie’s, or like Ingary itself, is a space where different elements converge, each in turn becoming dominant as she wearies of the game she has been playing and moves on to a new one. So she too harbours the potential to be subsumed into a new model of domestic cohabitation.

21e63264e1ed9b48c5cf7c5b5e92a182War itself slips between identities as the film goes on, becoming sometimes a game, sometimes a hideous nightmare, in response to the changing moods of its conductors. At the beginning it’s a carnival, a form of collective play for the people of Ingary, whose lives are filled with toys: fancy hats from Sophie’s hat-shop, fancy cakes from the bakery where her sister works, national flags, charmingly silly steam-driven vehicles. It’s conducted by dashing soldiers in bright uniforms, post-adolescent show-offs who steer motorized kayaks around the sky like teenagers in sports cars. At the harbour, the civilians celebrate with childish enthusiasm the deployment of the national fleet. Sophie’s own stepmother adds to the air of flippant collusion with warfare by wearing a hat decorated with naval cannon in honour of the dreadnoughts. At first, then, war is full of light and colour; but it soon grows dark and violent, swallowed up in the bomb-torn night whose reds and blacks threaten by the end to dominate the movie’s palette. Lightness, then, and light, are capable of giving birth to heaviness and gloom; and in this war follows the trajectory along which Suliman is keen to steer her pupil Howl.[7]

tumblr_lk11muJQKe1qe0xgwo1_500From the beginning, Howl shares Suliman’s moral ambiguity. Rumour has it he devours the hearts of the girls he seduces; and although he first makes his appearance in a very different role – snatching the girl Sophie from the clutches of a pair of soldiers – even at that point he’s a source of danger, pursued by blob men who threaten Sophie more than the soldiers did. Not long after this, Sophie undergoes her transformation at the hands of the Witch, leaves home and joins Howl’s household as an elderly cleaner. But when she starts to clean up, she accidentally switches the blond and black hair dyes in his bathroom; and the transformation of Howl’s hair from blond to black signals his potential to transform himself from hero to villain, like a cowboy changing hats. This prospective switch of moral allegiance is foreshadowed by his reaction to the hair-dye incident. Howl goes into a titanic adolescent sulk, during which he generates both copious quantities of green slime, as in the novel, and a host of shadow-monsters closely resembling the blob men. This extravagant reaction, with its echoes of the sinister sorcery of the Witch and Suliman, is rendered more disturbing by the fact that immediately before this scene we witnessed Howl in action for the first time against the invading air force; an experience he seems to take far more lightly than Sophie’s assault on his cosmetics.

Howl.full.150241Howl’s lightness, then – his excessive concern for his appearance and the pleasures of flirtation – represents the flip side of his increasingly frequent forays into the darkness of war. If boys are the perfect recruits for a nation’s armies, Howl’s insistence on retaining his adolescent traits – his filthy, toy-strewn bedroom, from which he bars the cleaner Sophie; the ‘secret garden’ of his childhood, where his cottage retreat is hidden;[8] his love of fancy clothes – is what renders him vulnerable to Suliman’s efforts to draw him into her war games. The connection between his boyish lightness and his attraction to war is made most vividly when he shows Sophie the secret garden. At this point he looks much younger than he did earlier, gesturing towards flowers and mountains with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood. But the appearance of a flying gunship prompts him to begin the change into a winged monster, smiling as he launches a magical attack on the gunship with one claw-like hand. The monster and the boy cohabit in Howl, both of them symptoms of his heartlessness – that is, his staunch defence of his emotional secrets, his carapace of bright insouciance, from external assault. If the literally light-hearted Calcifer guards Howl’s heart in the hearth of the Castle, safely hidden from intruders, it’s for Sophie to lend him the weight he needs to launch into a mature relationship.

o-oSophie, on the other hand, needs to achieve synchrony with Howl if she’s to escape the weight of self-inflicted reponsibility that binds her to an aged body. Their first meeting shows her what is missing from her life as a girl: the lightness Howl possesses in abundance. Wearing her trademark sober clothes and unflattering hat, she timidly skirts the carnival crowds as she crosses the city, dodging into shadowy back-streets to avoid the limelight. It’s in one of these alleys that Howl rescues her from the soldiers; and he later saves her from the blob men by launching them both into the air without the aid of wings, then walking with her, arm in arm, along an invisible pavement in the sky, visually acting out the light-heartedness of first love. After that, Sophie continues to see the airborne Howl as the carefree young man of this meeting, and works, as he grows darker and more monstrous, to align the chaotic interior of his Castle with the brightness of his first appearance. In the process she discovers lightness and colour in herself, which are reflected in the light and colour she brings to Howl’s shabby domicile – as well as in her increasingly frequent unconscious shifts from old age to youth. For a woman burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and wedded to the shadows, Sophie succeeds in bringing an abundance of brightness to the Castle’s gloomy interior. She smashes a hole in the wall with a flying kayak while escaping from Suliman’s troops, and inspires the wizard to shift the Castle to the many-windowed, sunlit hat-shop to keep his household safe. Her final transformation of the Castle, when she rebuilds it from scratch by removing Calcifer, with Howl’s heart, from the fortified hearth and carrying both outside, culminates in the reduction of the building to an open platform, its defences stripped away, its inhabitants exposed to the elements. And although this transformation begins at night, so that its implications are hidden by the mountain gloom that surrounds the platform, when the dawn comes it’s clear that Sophie’s housekeeping has finally exposed Howl and his remarkable family to the open scrutiny from which he has so sedulously been keeping them hidden.

1446593538-5260766be0110108a38b58383f966fe3The synchrony between Howl and Sophie reaches its culmination in the reconstructed Moving Castle of the final frames. Winging its way across an open sky, on flapping wings not so very dissimilar to the wings of the airborne gunships, the flying fortress is now dominated by cottages rather than gun-turrets, gardens rather than protective armour. It represents, then, Howl’s opening up of his childhood secret garden to a wider community, his entry into full socialization – an entry in which the rejuvenated Sophie fully participates. But the gun turrets still poke out of the castle roof, and though the flying gunships are heading home they have not been destroyed or dismantled. The difficulty of achieving synchrony in personal relationships – between generations of a family or different people in the same generation – is clearly equivalent here to the difficulty of achieving synchrony between rival nations: a harmonising of different interests to the mutual advantage of both parties.

Howl-5Flight has been rendered joyful rather than threatening in the final frames of Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie face forward into the future from the bows of the Castle with the self-assurance of young lovers, whose relationship has been literally tested in the fire. But the future towards which they are facing – whether it’s the twentieth century, when the film is set, or the beginning of the new millennium, when the film was made – will surely share the synchronies of their relationship: its darkness as well as its light, its war as well as its peace, the premature ageing brought on by anxiety as well as the exuberance of childhood prolonged into maturity. And the Moving Castle remains a poignantly rickety structure in which to confront such a future.

[1] For a full account of Diana Wynne Jones’s recurrent themes, see Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (London: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 9.

[3] See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (San Francisco: Viz, 2005), p. 12.

[4] For Robida, see The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 49.

[5] The term ‘blob men’ is used in The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 212 and elsewhere.

[6] The quotation is taken from the script of the film as translated by Jim Hubbert, The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 252.

[7] For an extended discussion of the concept of lightness (as against weight) in twentieth-century history, see Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Penguin, 2009), Lecture 1, ‘Lightness’, pp. 3-29.

[8] The term ‘secret garden’, with its invocation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is used in Hubbert’s translation of Miyazaki’s script. See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 240.

The Political Imagination: Irish Fantasy Writers and the Easter Rising

crock of gold 005I should begin with an explanation. I’m interested in fantasy as a form of history, and I’m writing (very slowly) a book called The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century. The question at the heart of it is: why did the twentieth century see so many writers turn to fantasy and the fantastic as their preferred response to an era of unprecedented social, political and technological change? By fantasy I mean here the literature of the impossible: writing that makes use of events or creatures that not only never existed but clearly could never exist, since their occurrence would break the rules by which our lives are governed: the rules of physics, biology, psychology, verisimilitude and so on. To read fantasy is to enter into a contract whereby writer and reader engage in the Coleridgean suspension of disbelief in its most extreme form, not merely accommodating coincidences and improbably elegant patterns in human affairs but such wonders as flight on broomsticks, fire-breathing dragons, the revival of corpses, and the spontaneous metamorphosis of an ordinary man into a giant cockroach. Fantasy is not science fiction, in that SF implies some sort of rational explanation for the impossible events it relates – though there’s no hard and fast line between the two genres. But to me the most important fact about fantasy and the fantastic is that we know full well it couldn’t happen – and yet we have persisted in seeking out such narratives of impossibility until the twentieth and (so far) the twenty-first century have seen a higher proportion of such narratives printed than any previous era. Why?

James Stephens

The Easter Rising is an interesting test case for this project because it saw the direct first-hand involvement of two major Irish fantasy writers, each of whom approached it from very different political viewpoints, and each of whom wrote a powerful account of their experiences – in one case while the Rising was going on, in the other over twenty years years later. The first of these writers was James Stephens, a committed nationalist, a regular contributor to Arthur Griffiths’s newspaper Sinn Féin, and a close friend of one of the leaders of the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh. Stephens’s novel The Crock of Gold (1912) became something of a household item in Ireland, and was influential on Flann O’Brien and C. S. Lewis. The second fantasy writer present at the Rising was Edward Plunkett, better known as Lord Dunsany, widely celebrated in fantasy circles as the author of short stories and novels of unrivalled brilliance which influenced such diverse fantasists as H. P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin. Dunsany was a Unionist and a Captain in the British Army at the time of the Rising. But one of the things that emerges from the accounts each writer gives of the events of Easter 1916 and the fantasy texts they relate to is that drawing clear political lines in pre-Free State Ireland is to a great extent impossible – a form of impossibility, indeed, that the fiction of Stephens and Dunsany is concerned to resist.

The impossibility of drawing clear political lines makes itself particularly felt in the case of Dunsany. He was a Unionist, but his family name of Plunkett was intimately associated with the nationalist cause. His uncle, the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, began as a Unionist but ended as a prominent advocate of Home Rule, while another of his close relatives, Joseph Plunkett, was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Dunsany’s friend the poet Francis Ledwidge was another nationalist, who wrote one of the most celebrated verse responses to the Rising, ‘Lament for the Poets’, which transforms the leaders – three of whom were poets like himself – into blackbirds whose songs have been extinguished for ever. Dunsany’s religious affiliations, too, were mixed. He was raised a Protestant, but many of his relatives were Catholic, including George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count and the father of Joseph. A similar criss-crossing web of political and religious affiliations could be traced for Stephens, and it’s this socio-political complexity that is most startlingly foregrounded both in their fantasy narratives and their accounts of the Easter Rising.

Joseph Plunkett


oct20-2004 Ledwidge Pics
Francis Ledwidge

Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin (1916) derives much of its power from its status as reportage. The text commentates day by day on the unfolding events of the week of turbulence, and opens and closes with more carefully-written sections composed in the week that followed. These final sections are interrupted from time to time by news of the executions of the leaders. The first chapter tells how on Easter Monday Dubliners woke up to find that armed conflict had broken out in their city, unannounced and unsuspected. They spent the rest of the week effectively cut off from the rest of the world, without news or fresh supplies of food, forced to turn to one another for the smallest titbit of information or unfounded rumour as to what was going on. The effect of these things – the irruption of the astounding into the everyday and the lack of information – is deeply surreal. At times, indeed, it borders on the fantastic, corresponding more or less to what Farah Mendlesohn defines in Rhetorics of Fantasy as ‘intrusion fantasy’, where the impossible manifests itself in ordinary surroundings, like the bug in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margharita. Stephens was already a master of intrusion fantasy when he wrote his pamphlet: The Crock of Gold records the arrival in Ireland of the Greek god Pan, while The Demi-Gods (1914) tells of three angels who accompany some travellers on a road trip around the Irish countryside. Both novels involve expert transitions between moods: comic dialogue between a Philosopher and his wife, or between children and a bunch of Leprechauns, is interspersed with fine lyrical writing and occasional excursions into poignant moments of social realism. It’s not surprising, then, if he brings out the patchwork of incongruous moods and startling encounters that makes up the experience of that week in 1916, and punctuates his narrative with encounters with the wildly improbable – though nothing more so than the Rising itself.

Stephens planned to spend that Easter Monday teaching himself the notes of the scale in order to play the dulcimer: a percussion instrument most famously associated with Coleridge’s hallucinogenic masterpiece ‘Kubla Khan’. Instead he finds himself wandering the city streets, witnessing at first hand the attitudes of citizens of all classes to the strange conflict they are caught up in. The theme that emerges from these wanderings, and that returns again and again as the story unfolds, is the imagination. People imagine the causes and progress of the insurrection from many different perspectives. Stephens himself imagines what it might be like to be inside one of those houses under continuous fire by heavy machine guns and artillery. Visionary lunatics imagine nothing but defeat for the British army and victory for the Volunteers; in particular, Stephens twice encounters a ‘wild individual who spat rumour as though his mouth were a machine gun or a linotype machine’. In the final chapter Stephens even gives his own definition for the word ‘imagination’, with the quirky self-assurance of the old Philosopher in The Crock of Gold. ‘Imagination,’ he says, ‘is intelligent kindness’ – though that’s clearly what he thinks it ought to be rather than what it is, since he is the first to acknowledge the role in the Rising of other kinds of imaginings. Extremist bigotry in the North, for instance, has ‘imagined into our quiet air’ – the air of Ireland – ‘brigands and thugs and titans’, an illusion that brought about the formation of the Ulster Volunteers. It was imagined humiliation that drove the Irish Volunteers to insurrection, convinced that the British Army were about to deprive them of their weapons. Nevertheless, Stephens defines the imagination at its best as ‘intelligent kindness’, and it’s the lack of this quality that he sees as the single most important cause of the insurrection, the most disastrous failing of the British Government in its ongoing dialogue with the Irish people.

It’s the lack of political imagination, he tells us in the foreword of the book, that prevented English Statesmen from finding a solution to the question of how Ireland is to gain her independence – something the English are as keen as the Irish to bring about, or so he believes. ‘In their dealings with this country,’ he observes,

English Statesmen have seldom shown political imagination; sometimes they have been just, sometimes, and often, unjust. After a certain point I dislike and despise justice. It is an attribute of God, and is adequately managed by Him alone; but between man and man no other ethics save that of kindness can give results.

He explains what he means by ‘kindness’ a few sentences later. For him it’s a combination of generosity and the capacity to feel what another person feels by an emotional and intellectual effort; an effort that involves looking closely ‘through the smoke that is rolling from the North Sea to Switzerland’ and comparing what they see with what they would feel under similar circumstances. Stephens later seems to draw on the etymology of the word ‘kind’ by allying it with kinship or familial closeness:

Should the English Statesman decide that our friendship is worth having let him create a little of the political imagination already spoken of. Let him equip us […] for freedom, not in the manner of a miser who arranges for the chilly livelihood of a needy female relative; but the way a wealthy father would undertake the settlement of his son.

A better account of kindness – and of imagination as its instrument – is given in the narrative that follows. In it Stephens allows himself with startling generosity to inhabit the mindset both of opponents of the Rising and of its supporters – and of the many people who aren’t sure, or won’t reveal, what they think about it. All are his neighbours, many are his friends, and Stephens moves among them listening to their stories with the same curiosity and ready sympathy that the Philosopher shows as he walks the country roads in The Crock of Gold. Stephens’s class background made this easy for him – he was born poor and moved among the poor as well as the rich throughout his life. His novels made it easy too, since in them he seeks to represent the widest possible range of people and their stories in the interests of bringing Ireland together in a new kind of imaginative unity. It’s this kind of political imagination, it seems to me – the kind that enables men and women to see into each other’s souls, as he puts it in the introduction to the Insurrection – that he sought to instil in his readers as he wrote his pamphlet.

Much of Stephens’s best journalism was given over to brief character sketches of Dublin eccentrics; and he uses the same technique in the Insurrection. The sketches with which it’s filled bring out two things with equal skill: the rapidly changing mood of the Dubliners, and the city’s fragmentation. On the first day, for instance, Stephens watches as a man insists on moving his lorry from the barricades despite all the warning shouts of the insurgents, and afterwards walks towards their rifles ‘with one hand raised and one finger up as though he were going to make a speech’. The man is shot in the head at point blank range. ‘At that moment’, Stephens tells us, ‘the Volunteers were hated’; the sympathy of the bystanders is with the man, who refuses to be intimidated into losing the vehicle by which he makes his living. In the following chapter we hear about women who lob bricks and bottles at the Volunteers who are fighting a troop of lancers: ‘Would you be hurting the poor men?’ the women shout, and ‘Would you be hurting the poor horses?’ Here the sympathy is with the lancers because of the absurdity of deploying cavalry in a street fight: at this point they are the weaker side. Later Stephens tells of a Volunteer who ‘held a lady’s umbrella in his hand, and whenever some person became particularly annoying he would leap the barricade and chase his man half a street, hitting him over the head with the umbrella’. He sees a wounded Volunteer lying on a bench, raising his hand from time to time in an appeal for help. The man can’t be helped because his position is covered by snipers. Each of these sketches brings our sympathy back to the insurgents. And inevitably, as time goes by, the mood of Dublin fluctuates like the reader’s. At first the most voluble citizens are against the Rising – not too surprisingly, Stephens points out, given the huge number of their compatriots who were fighting at the time with the British army against the Germans. But as the Volunteers continue to hold out against all odds, a sense of pride in their achievement begins to take over, and with it an increasingly vocal sympathy for them. On the third day the sun was shining:

Almost everyone was smiling and attentive, and a democratic feeling was abroad, to which our City is very much a stranger; for while in private we are a sociable and talkative people we have no street manners or public ease whatever. Every person spoke to every other person, and men and women mixed and talked without constraint.

By this point urban reserve has broken down, a kind of forecast of what the insurrection will achieve in Stephens’s conclusion: a new consciousness among the Irish of their collective identity. The talk, however, is wary, and people are careful not to express opinions on one side or another. As a result, the exceptions stand out. Stephens meets a working class woman who swears incessantly at the men of Dublin for failing to rise in support of the insurgents, and who asks Stephens courteously for a light before returning to her swearing. He later speaks to a working class man who gives a detailed analysis of the role of the Labour movement in the insurrection. Later still he gives a moving sketch of a man called Skeffington, who took no part in the insurgency but was shot by the British army for expressing support of it:

He was the most absurdly courageous man I have ever met with or heard of. He has been in every trouble that has touched Ireland these ten years back, and he has always been in on the generous side, therefore, and naturally, on the side that was unpopular and weak. It would seem indeed that a cause had only to be weak to gain his sympathy, and his sympathy never stayed at home.

Skeffington was beaten up repeatedly by his fellow citizens for his outspokenness, and eventually suffered a brutal death at the hands of the British. By this stage in the account it’s hardly possible for any reader not to be siding with the insurgents – the outspoken ones, the ones who talk frankly about what everyone else knows well but doesn’t dare to express: the need for sympathy with the weak, the need to be rid of colonial masters who have no touch of Stephens’s ‘kindness’ about them. And it’s only a short step from this sympathy with individual victims of the British army to recognizing the enemies of that army as friends of the nation.

874fb8f5ab62d87a63f1000bfad99848In the last few chapters, Stephens’s account undergoes another change in political emphasis. By Friday food was getting short, and he describes how he meets a girl whose family had eaten nothing for three days. When her father brought home two loaves of bread they rushed at him, she says, ‘and in a minute we were all ashamed for the loaves were gone to the last crumb, and we were all as hungry as we had been before he came in’. The father got nothing, and the girl concludes that the poor people of Dublin are against the Volunteers who have robbed them of food. On the following day Stephens meets a young boy who is cradling a large ham. ‘He had been trying for three days to convey his ham to a house near the Gresham Hotel where his sister lived. He had almost given up hope, and he hearkened intelligently to the idea that he should himself eat the ham and so get rid of it’. Hunger takes a grip as the insurrection draws to an end; it’s a familiar condition among the poor, and plays a central role in The Crock of Gold as well as his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). It’s an Irish problem, though not one of the two big Irish problems Stephens names in his final chapter, those of independence and religious conflict. And the sketch that closes Chapter Seven – devoted to Saturday, the penultimate day of the insurrection – announces the arrival of another form of business as usual. Stephens sees four policemen marching into the street, the first he’s seen all week. ‘Soon now’, he observes sardonically,

the military tale will finish, the police story will commence, the political story will recommence, and, perhaps, the weeks that follow this one will sow the seed of more hatred than so many centuries will be able to uproot again, for although Irish people do not greatly fear the military they fear the police, and they have very good reason to do so.

The oppressive presence of the Dublin constabulary breaks through the chaos of war both as a sign of the transition to peace and as a reminder of what caused the war in the first place.

After the generosity and ecumenism of Stephens’s previous sketches, his account of the marching policemen stands out for its unambiguous hostility, its refusal to sustain the tone of impartiality that governs the rest. And the pamphlet ends with another unambiguous statement: this time, of solidarity with the insurrectionists. In response to his eye witness account Stephens asks the Irish people to use their eyes; to examine themselves and the state of their country, instead of allowing themselves to be distracted by the smoke that lies beyond, on the battlefields of the Great War. ‘Our eyes,’ he says, ‘must be withdrawn from the ends of the earth and fixed on that which is around us and which we can touch […] I believe that all but local politics are unfruitful and soul-destroying’. Here in Ireland, he goes on, ‘is the world, and all that perplexes or delights the world is here’. ‘The Volunteers are dead,’ he concludes, ‘and the call is now for volunteers’. This conclusion takes the narrow focus of the pamphlet – Dublin with its closed borders, unable to get information about what’s going on beyond their limits, forced into close attention for seven days to the suffering of its own inhabitants – and turns it into a strength. Instead of ending, the story of the insurrection is here extended to include Stephens’s readers; instead of being restricted within a narrow compass of time and space, the Rising opens out to include a new generation of volunteers. The local is transformed into the national, and the fate of a little nation is made into a matter of international significance. And in the process Stephens reproduces in this pamphlet the intellectual, emotional and poetic trajectory of his most celebrated fantasy, The Crock of Gold.

plate2The Crock begins as a local affair, when a quarrel breaks out between the farmer Meehawl MacMurrachu and a family of local Leprechauns whose special bird, the robin, has been killed by the farmer’s cat. The quarrel escalates when the Leprechauns steal the farmer’s washboard, and the farmer in response steals the Leprechauns’ crock of gold, on the advice of a local Philosopher. In reply the Leprechauns kidnap the Philosopher’s children and inveigle the farmer’s daughter out of his household and into the clutches of the Greek god Pan. Worst of all, they call in the police to arrest the Philosopher for the murder of his brother – who committed suicide in a fit of existential pique at the start of the novel. In the process they elevate the quarrel from a local matter to an affair of national and even international importance, since the Irish police are willing tools of the British Empire. The Philosopher’s arrest sparks off an insurrection, though it’s of a very different kind than the insurrection in Dublin.

The spatial trajectory of the Crock of Gold is one of expansion, moving from the Philosopher’s tiny cottage in a deep dark wood, where his children are surprised and delighted by the appearance of a single sunbeam, to the exhilaration of the open road, as the Philosopher marches to meet the goat god in an effort to liberate the farmer’s daughter from his beastly attentions. The emotional trajectory of the story, too, is an opening out. At the beginning the Philosopher and his wife are always at odds, the Thin Woman of Inis MacGrath expressing her displeasure with his obstinacy through the medium of lumps in his stirabout and rheumatic pain (as a member of the Shee she can manage both techniques of retaliation) while the Philosopher resorts to the maddening tactic of never hearing a word she says. Neighbours are always feuding, and Pan’s arrival in Ireland is an expression of a more widespread sense of loneliness and isolation, a loss of enchantment that is spreading across Europe. The Philosopher’s journey, by contrast, brings him in contact with a wider community of Irish men and women, who exchange pleasant conversation with proper ceremony, and are as liberal with their food as with their stories. His journey also extends his philosophy. He has always constructed his wisdom from the examples of birds and beasts, ants, goats, dogs and crows, and the journey puts him in contact with a wider bestiary than he could have encountered in his woodland cottage. Each fellow traveller he meets offers a new perspective on some particular problem – marriage, friendship, labour, childhood, poverty, hunger and old age. By the time he has found his way to the Irish deity, Angus Og, he is at one with the road and all the many different people he meets there. He is also, not incidentally, reconciled to his fairy wife. The resemblance to what happens to Dublin in Stephens’s Insurrection is fairly clear.

The difference is that Dublin begins in a far more fragmented state than the Philosopher’s world does. Its differences of opinion, its feuds, the perpetual hunger of its poorer citizens and the threat posed by the colonial authorities has left the Dubliners bereft of sympathy, forgetful of the time honoured customs of exchange and courtesy that rule the road. The world they inhabit is the world of the police; and it’s the intrusion of these same police into the Philosopher’s community that finally draws its attention away from feuding and petty differences and incites it to collective action. The police who arrest the Philosopher for his brother’s murder obey a different economy from the farmers, Leprechauns and women of the Shee who cohabit with him. The rural economy of fair exchange – whether of friendship or enmity – is replaced in the policemen’s minds by an economy of justice: the justice Stephens tells us in the Insurrection he dislikes and despises. It’s a justice that doesn’t much care who gets punished for a crime so long as punishment happens; which deems the only fitting form of punishment to be violence; and which leads its proponents into chains of logic that tend always to violence instead of wisdom or kindness – the precise reverse of the Philosopher’s genial form of inductive reasoning. Such justice gets meted out in the Insurrection to the martyr Skeffington, the leaders of the Rising, and the wounded Volunteers who are shot in the street, in obedience to the reasoning that drives Ulster extremists to plant brigands and thugs in the rest of Ireland. The narrowness of this reasoning is magnificently embodied in the squalid yard of the barracks where the Philosopher is incarcerated; and the dead ends to which it leads are summed up in the monologues he hears in the cell there, in which desolate urban voices tell of their loss of jobs, love, hope and kindness as a result of illness and old age.

crock of gold 002The final chapter of The Crock of Gold, called ‘The Happy March’, enacts the same kind of generous opening out as happens in the final chapter of the Insurrection. A combined army of the ancient Shee, summoned by the Thin Woman and Angus Og, flood down from the hills in a weaponless dance that liberates men and women from the many restrictions of mind and body:

Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale […] And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass […] and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods…

There’s an absurd optimism about this ending – a self-evident burst of myth-driven wish fulfilment. The end of the Insurrection is more measured in its optimism, but it’s driven by a similar urge to liberate those who’ve been imprisoned in body and mind. And the later work has the great advantage of having been written after Stephens had witnessed the effect of the Easter Rising on the Dublin citizens, who were forged into a democracy by it, for a while at least. For Stephens the aftermath of the Rising would be the Happy March of the Irish nation, the realisation of the closing vision of The Crock of Gold. And the Rising had given him hope that such a vision could be more than fantasy.

Lord Dunsany

As I said earlier, Lord Dunsany was a Captain in the British Army when the Insurrection broke out, and since he was on leave at his home near Dublin at the time he thought it his duty to report for orders to GHQ. His journey to the unit he had been assigned took him directly into the path of the Volunteers, who started shooting at his car, wounding his chauffeur and hitting Dunsany in the face with a ricocheted bullet. The Volunteers took Dunsany prisoner, apologised for shooting him, and transported him to the hospital in Jervis Street. There he was nursed by nuns, who described the bullets flying past the window as ‘nasty little things’ and cooked him lamb chops sent through the barricades by a fellow Meath man, a nationalist, who felt the patient needed some protein at a time when food was running short.

Being stranded behind enemy lines, so to speak, seems to have had a profound effect on his imagination. The most direct reference to the experience comes in his quasi-realistic novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933), in which a young Catholic aristocrat very much like Dunsany, religion aside, is confronted by four men who wish to assassinate his father for political reasons. It’s never stated exactly what the men’s politics are, but one of them later rises to prominence in the Free State government. Despite their political differences with the boy’s father, the four men are soon on friendly terms with the boy himself, and before they leave the leader gives him some advice on shooting geese – and on shooting men. He tells him to aim a foot ahead of a walking man at one hundred yards. A few years later when he wrote his account of his injury in his autobiography, Patches of Sunlight (1938), Dunsany observed sardonically that none of the men who were shooting at him could have had this advice themselves, since their ‘neglect to aim three inches in front of my neck as I went across the street’ meant that all their bullets went ‘where I heard them, just behind it’. The advice given by one political faction to the child of another in Dunsany’s novel, here given back to his old enemies by Dunsany (though he adds that it would be ‘unsporting’ to take advantage of it), confirms the complexity of cultural connections I mentioned at the beginning. But there’s a far more persistent element of his Dublin experience that finds its way into his fantastic fiction, and that confirms this cultural complexity in a far more potent fashion.

Again and again in stories and novels he wrote afterwards he returns to the idea of one culture overrunning another like a flood overwhelming a plain. One occurrence of the metaphor comes in his short story collection Tales of War (1918). The first story, ‘The Prayer of the Men of Daleswood’, concerns a group of soldiers from a small Kent village whose army unit suddenly finds itself stranded behind enemy lines. In the brief period before their annihilation the men realise that if they all die there will be no memory left of the aspects of their village they consider important; so they decide to inscribe a memorial on a chunk of chalk, commemorating the things about it they love. As it turns out, however, they can’t agree on what to write: about the woods with the foxgloves in them, or the valleys full of mint and thyme, or the old houses with their ‘queer chimneys’; and in any case they have no belief that they can express what they want to say when they’ve agreed to say it. In the end they inscribe a short prayer: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. A few hours later their unit is rescued, the chalk smashed to pieces, and the incident forgotten. Their time behind enemy lines recalls Dunsany’s in the hospital – Dunsany was a man of Kent as well as an Irishman, and had plenty of time to think about what would be left of his memories as he listened to the artillery pounding the street outside the hospital windows. From what he wrote in his own memoirs, much of what he considered important resembled the transient, seasonal things loved by the men of Daleswood; things beyond war and politics and history, like shooting geese on a marsh in spring.

e984534952b06189c53b6187f07d068bDunsany’s most celebrated fantasy novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), takes up the theme of one culture overwhelming another in the form of a magical union of two nations. The tale tells of the men of Erl, a village named for Dunsany’s mother (one of whose family names was Erl or Ernle), and their yearning to be remembered, like the men of Daleswood. The elders of the village conclude that the shortest route to being commemorated in history is through magic, and therefore urge their lord to marry his son to Lirazel, the daughter of the King of Elfland. The upshot of this wish, after many years of negotiations with magical things from beyond the borders of the ‘fields we know’, is that the King of Elfland extends the boundaries of his country to include the village; in this way he ensures that he will not lose his daughter to a mortal husband and that she will not pine away with desire for the beauties of the mortal world. The analogy with the Union of Ireland and England is easy to draw, and many have drawn it; but the stranding of Erl alone in all the country behind magical borders makes it a better model for Dunsany’s personal situation. It recalls his experiences in the Rising, where he found himself among hostile strangers who were also his friends and relatives, and his lifelong cultural situation split between England and Ireland, united by his love of both and his desire to keep them together against all odds. The King of Elfland has a rune that confirms the union of Erl and Elfland for all eternity; Dunsany merely has the rune of his writing. The theme of isolation is in fact central to the novel, embodied in the young lord Alveric, who wins and loses the Elf Princess and then spends years in a Quixotic quest to recover her, wandering the fields we know with a motley band of lovers, poets and madmen, vainly searching for the borders of Elfland that are hidden from him till the final pages of the novel. The union of nations that occurs at the novel’s end is also a family reunion, bringing together Alveric, Lirazel and their son Orion, and thus enacting a happy if fantastic solution for the strange splits and rifts that had come between the different branches of the Plunkett dynasty.

11586565335The final occurrence of the metaphor of overwhelming comes in The Curse of the Wise Woman, when the old woman of the title summons occult forces to move the bog of Lisronagh to overwhelm the industrial peat-cutting machines of a syndicate, whose operations threaten to destroy the bog completely. The old woman, Mrs Marlin, is a visionary, who has dealings with the past in the form of the half forgotten Land of Youth, Tir-nan-Og, and whose visions of the future include an Irish Empire that dwarfs Britain’s: ‘And the ambassadors from foreign lands, coming to greet us, will pass up our rivers, and anchor under the walls of the Irish cities, and see their ships go dark from the shade of our towers and humble from the glow of our cities’ pride.’ Her powers when she exerts them against the syndicate prove to be formidable, and involve all the transient things that unite the Irish in spite of politics: among other things the land, the weather, a love of language, a delight in the past, a passion for the future. ‘I could not distinguish words or even what language she spoke in,’ the narrator tells us as he watches her curse slowly take effect:

And then the great lights appeared, the lights I had often read of but never seen, the will-o’-the-wisps over the deeps of the bog; and, strange as they looked out there on that desperate night, it was stranger to hear her crooning to them, welcoming them one by one, so far as I was able to make out from the tones of words that I could not hear.

 Mrs Marlin disappears when the bog moves in response to her curses, drowning in a sea of peat along with the machinery. But she leaves behind two things: the memory of a wonderful past as recorded in songs and stories, and the hope of an extraordinary future, to be written in a strange new language the young narrator has not yet learned. Dunsany shared with Stephens a political imagination; and like those of Stephens his books are intended to return it to its source, the Irish people, as well as to extend their local knowledge to a worldwide audience. It’s time to do justice to the vast ambitions of these two fine writers.

Warm thanks to Kirsty Lusk for letting me read her brilliant MA dissertation on Dunsany, and for providing much additional information; and to Thomas Clancy for asking me to give this paper to the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow.

Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! (1989)

185px-Guards-Guards-coverTerry Pratchett is a craftsman. He takes the mechanics of old stories – fairy tales, legends, fantasies high and low, anecdotes, clichés – and subjects them to careful scrutiny, puzzling over the desires and difficulties that drive them, pondering the question of how they might be adapted to the peculiar circumstances of a modern urban society. Behind him is ranked the massed knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of voracious reading, and the strangeness of this readerly access to the echoing halls and crowded taverns of the past – and of the passages and corridors that take us there, the twisty labyrinthine imagination – never ceases to trouble and delight him. From the Discworld books I plucked Guards! Guards! more or less at random for analysis in the classroom, wondering what it is he has brought to so many readers over a career that was cruelly cut short, and yet delivered an unrolling epic comedy on a scale no one else had dreamed of.

Two elements drive the novel’s plot: the standard story of the dragon and the hero who slays it to rescue the lady, and the story of the unheroic rank and file (here reduced to the ‘rank’, one suspects because of their attitude to personal hygiene) known as the Guards, whose main function in narratives is to be fooled, ignored or randomly slaughtered. Combining the two elements gives rise to an essentially political question: what kind of society perpetuates these particular clichés, one ancient, the other more or less modern (though Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram unseated and casually slew innumerable anonymous knights in Malory), and how do they sit in a world that claims to value democracy and gender equality? How do they sit, indeed, as working models of anything at all? What desires do they cater for? What possibilities for better social structures do they tend to suppress?

One answer, of course, is that both fantasies pander to a certain view of masculinity. Men fight to show their manhood, as the young adopted dwarf Carrot (who is over six feet tall, and rather stooped from having been raised – no pun intended – in the dwarfish mines) has been led to expect, since he sets out on his journey armed with a battered sword and a reinforced codpiece. The hero fights and wins; the Guards fight and lose; the hero thereby confirms his greater share of testosterone. Carrot’s codpiece confirms one of the flaws in this male rite of passage: that even the strongest warrior can be floored by a well-aimed kick in the testicles. The lone hero is ridiculously vulnerable under any circumstances, and the concept of the lone hero facing up to an armour-plated flying monster that breathes fire merely serves to reinforce that vulnerability to a ridiculous extent. Pratchett slightly tips the scales in the hero’s favour by ensuring that his dragons, too, are flawed, despite their scales: their habit of breathing fire involves an insanely volatile digestive system which is vulnerable, in its turn, to spontaneous chemical explosions at awkward moments. The traditional über-masculine hero and the traditional dragon, in other words, are imaginative confections, ill suited to the rough-and-tumble of real city life in any era. Why then do we persist in imagining them, rather than turning our attention to more practical fantasies – such as the unheroic Guards in Pratchett’s book, who prefer not to fight at all, thereby preserving every portion of their bodies, not just the family jewels?

guardsguards11The same thing, of course, could be said of the law – which Hope Mirrlees identified in Lud-in-the-Mist as one of the most inventive products of the human imagination. As well as his sword and codpiece Carrot owns an ancient lawbook, and seeks to put its precepts into practice against all odds, even (at one point) placing a prone dragon under arrest while reciting the charges against it with meticulous reference to the entries in his volume. The city of Ankh-Morpork, to which he travels to enlist in the City Guard, has little respect for either law or order. Indeed its cynical and efficient ruler, Lord Vetinari, has built his success on the principle of encouraging lawbreakers to police themselves in order to protect their own interests – not so much organized crime as crime legitimated, without reference to conventional legislation of any kind. The thieves have their own official guild, which ensures that the proper quantity of robberies is committed each year, and the guilds of assassins, merchants and beggars are equally well integrated into the machinery of the commonwealth. As a result the upholders of the law, the City Guard, have been rendered redundant by the time Carrot joins them. Undaunted by, indeed wholly ignorant of this redundancy, the young man flings himself enthusiastically into the task of enforcing long-forgotten regulations; and in the process he reminds not just the rest of the Guard of the value of what they stand for, but the city as well, whose lapse into absolute pragmatism and self-interest gets arrested – no pun intended – by his quiet assumption that he can do the impossible: uphold the good and protect the weak.

There is something endearing, of course, about Carrot’s idealism, and the city is soon endeared by it – though this is partly because Carrot is immensely strong and, thanks to his codpiece, more or less indestructible by any being of a similar size. He reduces even the troll Detritus to a tearful wreck in a barroom brawl, though here, too, there’s a sound practical reason for his victory: the troll is unfortunate enough not to own a reinforced codpiece. Carrot can stride through areas of the city barred to other Guards, thanks not just to his ignorance but his size; and he can take lodgings in a brothel not just because he doesn’t know what a brothel is but because he affords welcome protection to its workers. Carrot is not just an idealist, he’s a practical asset. And not just because of his strength. His willingness to see the best in everybody helps to forge communities where before there were only loose agglomerations of people banded together for mutual protection. Carrot, then, is not just a stick to beat the wicked, like the traditional hero, but a carrot to tempt them. He has value, which is sometimes measured in carrots – or at least in carats, which are rather less useful than the currency Carrot deals in, honesty, commitment and affection. By the end of the book we have discovered that Ankh-Morpork contains very little gold (the dragon that threatens it is disgusted by its absence); but Carrot imports or restores a new set of valuables – not private parts or a crown, but the simple truths it was in danger of forgetting.

Carrot stands, in fact, for several truths of some importance: that the hero cannot manage on his own; that the qualities traditionally associated with masculinity aren’t enough to sustain an individual, let alone a community; and that the best intentions are useless – indeed highly dangerous – unless they have a solid material basis, a foundation in pragmatism; that is, unless they incorporate a recognition of what can practically be accomplished with the ingredients available. Guards! Guards! is an extended meditation on the precise combination of ingredients required to enable a society to function without falling into either tyranny – totalitarian control by a single authority – or anarchy – not organized anarchism but a Hobbesian struggle for survival. There are a number of characters in it who represent certain points on the scale between the two conditions; and indeed the sheer number of characters that represent these points is what makes each of Pratchett’s later fantasies such a complex feat of narrative engineering.

paul-kidby-night-watchIt’s worth pausing to consider the narrative form within which these characters operate. A Pratchett novel is made up of a series of short chapters written from different points of view. At first the reader has no notion how these points of view – most of them those of misfits, obsessives and eccentrics – fit together in the machinery of plot; and a final understanding of the role of each element is never achieved until close to the end. No one plot strand takes precedence over any other. It’s a democracy of narratives, a cityscape of storytelling, and enacts Pratchett’s philosophy of collectivism; the notion that any major event involves collective rather than individual action – the precise reverse of the philosophy that drives the fairy tale of the Hero and the Dragon.

Motifs and allusions form part of this assemblage, and like the multiple strands of plot reveal their function in the overall machine only near the dénouement. Guards! Guards! includes, for instance, at least a couple of references to that old chestnut of a movie Casablanca. On p. 94, Captain Vimes of the Guards thinks to himself about the dragon that is stirring up trouble in Ankh-Morpork: ‘Of all the cities in all the world it could have flown into […] it’s flown into mine’. At this point, for Vimes the dragon is a solitary problem and an ungendered one; it bears no relation to any other aspect of the narrative, as far as the Captain is concerned. Towards the end of the novel, however, another quotation from Casablanca shifts the focus to another narrative strand, and draws attention to what has changed in the interim. Having accepted an invitation to supper from the dragon-breeder Lady Ramkin, and enjoyed her company, Captain Vimes searches for a way to express his growing fondness for her. ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ is what he comes up with (p. 285). The context for this second reference to the movie is, of course, quite different from that of the first; and it indicates a radical shift in perspective. By this stage in the book the marauding dragon is no longer a neuter ‘it’; the monster has become a female, and ceased to be a monster by teaming up with Vimes’s pet marsh dragon Errol, bred (of course) by Lady Ramkin. As a breeder of dragons, Lady Ramkin has shown an interest in the giant scaled intruder from the start; it is for her a splendid example of the draco nobilis, and therefore related to her marsh dragons. For her, then, the giant dragon is no isolated terror but the member of an identifiable species, linked by blood and habits to the diminutive creatures she rears in her shed. But the dragon’s breed also associates it with Lady Ramkin herself, who is both a member of an ancient breed – the aristocracy – and the kind of large-scale, dominant woman who used in the past to be branded a ‘dragon’. The dragon-breeder’s attitude to the dragon has brought it in out of the cold, so to speak: integrated it into a community, given it a home. And Vimes’s second quotation from Casablanca confirms that something similar has happened to Lady Ramkin. Thanks to the dragon, her status as an eccentric outsider living in isolation in her dilapidated mansion has changed – as has that of Vimes himself, who at the beginning of the novel was a broken-down drunk with only the shreds of an official function. When he parrots Humphrey Bogart, Vimes is looking at Lady Ramkin and really seeing her, perhaps for the first time – not merely (against romance convention, given her size) as a desirable woman, but as a person with many qualities: ‘style and money and common-sense and self-assurance and all the things that he didn’t [have]’ (p. 284). He is looking at her, in fact, as the emblem of the city he loves: ‘she had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city’. The second Casablanca reference, in fact, identifies the moment when both Vimes and Lady Ramkin settle at last into the urban community – thanks to the dragon who first flew into and threatened that community (‘Of all the cities in all the world…’), and later found, like them, that it had brought her love.

Vimes’s reference to Lady Ramkin as a city reverses the cliché he first uttered in a drunken mumble in the novel’s opening pages: that the city is a woman, who both acts like a ‘lady dog. Puppy. Hen. Bitch’ and also has moments when she opens ‘her great big booming rotten heart to you’, catching you off balance (p. 8). Captain Vimes’s trajectory from solitude to companionship, from half-affectionate resentment at the city to contentment with what it offers him, is the point of the novel, which uses it to illustrate the necessity of coexistence in a complex society, and offers itself as a fable of the techniques that make coexistence possible. His journey to companionship identifies Vimes as a true member of the Guard, all of whom are in the end bonded to the city as well as each other. Sergeant Colon shares his house with a wife he never sees, since she works the day shift and he works nights; they communicate through written notes, but their companionship seems to work well for both of them. Lance Constable Carrot, who begins the novel yearning for the dwarf lover he left behind in the mountains, ends it in a contented relationship with one of the workers at the brothel where he first found lodgings. Corporal Nobbs is a member of a Morris dancing club, which shares its quarters with other clubs – including the secret society that summons the dragon. The Guard is a collective, and seeks companionship outside its ranks (or the rank) as a logical extension of its duty to protect and serve the urban community.

64216In this communitarian impulse, the Guard stands in opposition to the other strand of myth that shapes the narrative. The legend of the Hero and the Dragon depends on exclusivity and uniqueness: the hero is unique in his strength, the princess offered to the dragon is unique in her birth, virtue and beauty, the dragon unique in its monstrosity. And in this novel, the conventional dragon myth is the product and province of self-centred loners. The anonymous Supreme Grand Master of the secret society that summons the dragon, who scorns the other members of his circle and looks forward to the time when he can rise above such dross (his name, when we discover it, turns out to mean Lone Wolf). The members of the society themselves, each of whom harbours a grudge against his fellow citizens. The dimwitted hero selected by the Supreme Grand Master to defeat the dragon, who has been carefully bred in seclusion to think himself special. The dragon itself, as the Supreme Grand Master conceives it: a lonely being, bigger and nastier than any other creature. All these people perceive themselves, and the dragon they summon, as solitary animals – despite the fact that solitude, for Pratchett, is more or less impossible, since no one can survive for long without the help of others (and solitude in this respect is not the same as loneliness, which is suffering born from the fact that being alone is not a natural state for human beings). Solitude is often the chosen state of the selfish rather than the condition of the disenfranchised. It can be a fantasy as recklessly extravagant as dreaming of dragons. To seek to make that fantasy concrete, for instance by seeking to demonstrate your own uniqueness through an act of reckless daring, can be highly dangerous – to yourself as much as to the community you plan to foist it on. Certain kinds of fantasy, in fact, are pernicious, and no practitioner of fantasy fiction can afford to forget it.

There’s a third element in the novel besides the gregarious Guards and the self-segregating Supreme Grand Master: and this is the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, ruler of the city. Vetinari stands (among other things) for cynical pragmatism: the notion that men and women are ruled not by ideals but by self-interest, and that they can only be controlled by appealing to their concern for their own well-being. It’s on this principle that the Patrician founded the Guild of Thieves; if crime cannot be wiped out, why not make it pay? And of course he has a point. At various moments throughout the novel the citizens of Ankh-Morpork find themselves consenting to atrocities, happy to tolerate tyranny if this will ensure their continued survival. When a king emerges to kill the marauding dragon they forget democracy and make themselves monarchists. When a dragon seizes the king’s throne they put on tunics embellished with a dragon emblem. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler sells his sausages with equal enthusiasm on every occasion: at the ritual sacrifice of an innocent woman to the dragon, at the coronation of the king who purportedly killed the dragon, and at the dragon’s installation as the king’s successor. For the Patrician, this makes ordinary citizens like C.M.O.T. Dibbler ‘bad people’; people who will ‘follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity’, out of a ‘kind of humdrum, everyday badness’ (p. 274). He counts himself among them, which is what distinguishes him from the solitary tyrant (or tyrant’s vizier) the Grand Master wishes to become. Lord Vetinari is thoroughly democratic in his dismissal of the moral fibre of humankind. And he also sees what he calls ‘badness’ as functional. Good people, like Captain Vimes of the Guard, need bad people like himself because they know how to plan ahead, as the good do not. He demonstrates the fact aptly by fitting his prison with a lock on the inside, for the eventuality that he might one day be locked into it, and by making friends with the city rats, ahead of the day when he loses the support of his human followers. Planning like this would have been branded obsessive lunacy or visionary madness by anyone who had known about it before it was confirmed as ‘pragmatic’ or ‘well-planned’ by the Grand Master’s coup d’état, and the Patrician’s imprisonment.

The truth is – as this last sentence implies – that inhabiting a city, and the planning that makes it possible, is not a matter of simple pragmatism, whatever the Patrician may claim (and he admits as much a short while later when he confesses he needs idealists like Captain Vimes). Dreams are necessary, as well as practicality, if the city is to retain its resilience, its endless capacity to reinvent itself in response to every twist and turn of an arbitrary fortune. The adaptability of the citizens of Ankh-Morpork is a testament to their imagination as well as their unerring instinct for survival. They aren’t absolutists – not committing themselves to any one philosophy, since this would limit their capacity for self-defensive metamorphosis. But they are perfectly capable of seeing things from a new ideological perspective when this becomes necessary. And they are also perfectly capable of defending their interests against real oppressors, again when this becomes necessary and not before. A healthy community, in fact, depends on a volatile balance of dreams and pragmatism, much as a dragon’s fire depends on a volatile mixture of chemicals in its various stomachs; and this is the place to return to Carrot, who is the gold standard by which to measure that balance.

As a personality, Carrot has all the qualifications to become a unique hero of the sort the Supreme Grand Master needs to fight the dragon and win the kingdom. A member of the Grand Master’s secret society lists these qualifications before Carrot has even entered the narrative: ‘There used to be some old prophecy or something […] “Yea, the king will come bringing Law and Justice, and know nothing but the Truth, and Protect and Serve the People with his Sword”’ (p. 17). Sure enough, Carrot arrives a few paragraphs later carrying a sword he has inherited, wielding Law and Justice in the form of a book, literal-minded enough to believe he knows what Truth is, and determined to Protect and Serve by joining the Watch. Later in the book, some of his fellow Guards notice something else about him that makes him kingly: ‘“Something odd about that boy,” said Colon, as they limped after him. “He always manages to persuade us to follow him, have you noticed?”’ (p. 253). But by this time Carrot has been integrated into their company; he has changed them and they have changed him. No longer so strait-laced about Law and Justice, Carrot has instilled in them a new sense of responsibility towards their fellow citizens. He may be leading them towards danger like a hero, but before doing so he has asserted the interdependence of the Guards by citing the first part of the famous catchphrase of the Three Musketeers, ‘All for one!’ – to his comrades’ confusion. He has brought them dreams, they have brought him pragmatism, and their qualities have become fused, making all of them stronger. Throughout the book the conventional reader is waiting for the moment when Carrot will be exposed as the true king of Ankh-Morpork – perhaps a few minutes after he has slain the dragon. That moment never happens. The dragon is not slain – it gets a happy ending. Kingship is abolished. The myths are changed. Things are arranged much better than they were in those old stories about winged lizards and expendable nobodies.

tumblr_static_tumblr_static_arig1ne892gockooskw0o4g08_640Of course, the rearrangement of the stories involves a good deal of magic, though to a different end than the magic of the sword that killed the dragon. One kind of magic involved is the old cinematic magic of the million-to-one chance: the last-minute escape or rescue in a thriller, which is just barely believable, because it could work, but so unlikely as to resemble divine intervention. Another is the magic of the imagination, which conjures dragons into existence as we read. On the final page of the novel, the image of two dragons flying out across the void that circumscribes the Discworld represents just about as magical an ending as you could wish for. The magic that propels the lizard lovers is the special kind Pratchett has engineered out of the components of his tale: a utopian, urban, pragmatic kind of thaumaturgy, unseen outside his books, at least before he wrote them (it has spread since). The sense of community it fosters, too, may last beyond the final page. Or, to paraphrase Pratchett’s last two sentences – themselves paraphrased from the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – perhaps it won’t. But then again, what does?

Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (1967)

61F+j+HLN1L._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_Among the strangest of all the strange things about The Magic Toyshop (1967) is the fact that it is set when it was written, in the mid 1960s. These were the days when the electrified Bob Dylan shucked off the ‘easy answers’ and ‘easy imagery’ of his early protest songs and became, as Carter put it, a ‘prophet of chaos… clanging and vulgar, neon and plastic and, at the same time, blackly, bleakly romantic’; while the trial of the Rolling Stones could be portrayed as an act of sartorial warfare, with ‘the judge, in ritually potent robes and wig, invoking the doom of his age and class upon the beautiful children in frills and sunset colours, who dared to question the infallibility he represents as icon of the law and father figure’.[1] Over the years, when I’ve asked students to tell me when The Magic Toyshop takes place, they’ve located it at the beginning of the twentieth century in the early days of the decline of the British Empire; or plumb in the middle of the Victorian era, when Dickensian crossing-sweepers begged for alms from top-hatted villains outside Old Curiosity Shops where Little Nell lay dying in a welter of saintly sentimentality. I myself hardly noticed the references to cars and televisions and central heating when I first read it. And Carter clearly intended to generate this chronological confusion: it’s the topic of the book. Her cast of eccentric characters sit on a precarious fulcrum between past and present, like the Western Archipelago itself, like the postwar world, struggling and failing time and again to release themselves from the nightmare of history.

By problematizing the historical location of her novel, Carter put her finger on the pulse of the decade. The precision of the book as an evocation of its period lies in its amazed recognition that 1960s England was still to a great extent 1860s England, that the modern was still struggling to break through the putrescent morass of decaying Victoriana: junkyard relics whose dusty, worn-out, randomly heaped-up contents invade every urban space like Philip K. Dick’s kipple, encumbering every effort of the nation’s exhausted inhabitants to move into another mode of social living. What some now see as acts of massive cultural vandalism in the 60s – the driving of motorways through the heart of great Victorian cities, the wholesale demolition of richly ornamented public buildings, the erasure of parks, fountains, monuments and astonishing feats of industrial engineering – were perceived by many then as a struggle to the death against an oppressive past that refused to die, a grim self-image that pervaded British society from the topmost level of government to your own front room, monstrously perverting every effort to achieve rational change. The Magic Toyshop stands now as a record of this struggle between old and new, the radical young and the reactionary middle-aged. In it, as Carter said of Dylan’s new sound, there are no easy answers, no easy imagery. And the situation seems to have delighted her as a writer as much as it horrified her as a political agitator. It gave birth to her own uneasy imagery, and she went on returning to this clash of timeframes and ideologies in novel after novel, story after story, essay after essay.

Magic-Toyshop-for-display-520x245The Magic Toyshop has the shape of a Victorian novel. Our innocent but plucky young heroine, nicely brought up and well to do, suddenly finds herself orphaned and penniless, struggling to maintain her identity in the grimmest of working-class households, bravely taking on the burden of responsibility for her helpless younger siblings, wearing her fingers to the bone in appalling conditions, consorting with rough men and women who turn out to have hearts of gold, repelling the unwelcome advances of her evil uncle before winning through to freedom and independence with the heroic assistance of a brave young man. The elements of this plot are so deeply familiar that in themselves they constitute a reminder of how far our Victorian heritage continues to permeate our culture – a situation of which Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events takes full advantage. In Carter’s novel, as in Snickett’s series, each element of the conventional plot undergoes a metamorphosis through the agency of pastiche. Melanie’s wealthy middle-class background, for example, is no idyll – or if it is, it’s a very silly one. The working-class environment to which she’s transplanted isn’t horrible in itself, but only because it’s dominated by an abusive patriarch. Melanie never really takes on the burden of caring for her siblings, although she toys with the idea of doing so when Mrs Rundle puts it into her head. The work Melanie does hardly wears her fingers to the bone; it’s mostly monotonous, and sometimes enjoyable. And so on. But the presence of the familiar Victorian plot keeps reminding us that this book is a fiction, one of an infinite number of fictions by which we measure and judge the lives we lead. And as such, it takes its place among an enormous range of texts – stories, poems, songs and myths – to which Carter alludes in the course of her narrative, as if to demonstrate that we’re constructed from head to toe by the stories we tell ourselves: from the fairy tale of Bluebeard’s Castle which Melanie can never get out of her head, to the poems of Donne and Keats from her school anthology, quotations from which open and close the book; from the Irish songs that comfort the ‘Red People’ in Uncle Philip’s menagerie to Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Through the Looking Glass, which supplies Finn’s Pleasure Ground with its chessboard pavement, gives Aunt Margaret her unruly head of hair – borrowed from Carroll’s White Queen – and invites Melanie to wonder if she is being dreamed by Mrs Rundle (p. 95) as Alice is dreamed (perhaps) by Carroll’s Red King. And everywhere in the novel there are references to Shakespeare, the English ‘national bard’ whose words have taken root in the thoughts and conversations of all Carter’s characters as if in confirmation of the playwright’s dubious status as spokesman for all humanity. It’s worth lingering for a while on the significance of this wide range of textual reference.

If our minds are shaped by old fictions – from the ancient, such as the story of Bluebeard, to the Elizabethan – Donne, Shakespeare – and the late Victorian – Frances Hodgson Burnett, the younger Yeats – then how we tell stories acquires an importance that’s hard to exaggerate. The twists Carter gives to all these tales and allusions become the signs of the times, the markers that indicate potential transformations we will undergo as we launch at last into the new and unexpected narratives that will shape our future. One of the questions this book asks is: will these new narratives succeed in breaking free from the cycle of repression and oppression that has stunted our growth in the course of the twentieth century? – that has left the bulk of the world’s population, at a time of unprecedented technological innovation, locked in a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, needlessly imprisoned in a state of intellectual and political disempowerment, and ignored or humiliated by their self-appointed rulers? Another question she may invite is: which parts of the old stories are worth retaining, and which need to be rejected as the instruments of tyranny, the tools rather than the indicators of a corrupt social hierarchy? As one might expect, she doesn’t answer these questions – she doesn’t pose as a reader of tea-leaves, as Francie does very briefly when he tells Melanie that someone will soon be leaving on a journey. But we can better understand the terms of the two questions if we look at some of the odd things she does to the familiar novelistic situations she sets up.

scan0001Here are a few of them. For one thing, the book is full of absurd and excessive touches. The nanny who cooks only bread pudding and who has changed her name to Mrs Rundle by deed poll. The puppet in Uncle Philip’s workshop which bears an uncanny resemblance to Melanie when she put on her mother’s wedding-dress and climbed a phallic apple-tree – an incident he cannot possibly have known about. The twelve-year-old boy who is so uniquely obsessed with sailing ships that he eventually disappears into his own fantasy. The dog that beats its tail in time to music, and which is spotted at the end of the book running upstairs with a basket of flowers gripped between its teeth, in exact mimicry of the portrait of it that hangs in the kitchen. The severed hand of a child that appears in a kitchen drawer, then disappears without explanation. Any reading of The Magic Toyshop has to account for these bizarreries in one way or another; if not, it won’t be an honest response to Carter’s text.

One way of accounting for them is to say that they’re there to remind us, over and over again, that what we’re reading is fiction; that we shouldn’t let ourselves be seduced into accepting it as a slice of historic truth, as we might if it posed as ‘realism’. Bertolt Brecht did something similar in his drama, which he designed as an instrument for exposing the fantasies and fabrications by which the ruling classes maintain their grip on power. Into each play Brecht incorporates a series of devices that make us step back and recognize our position as a theatre audience, capable of analysing the action dispassionately without having our judgement impaired by an excess of imaginative sympathy. Analytic detachment is built into Carter’s novel by the fact that her characters – especially our heroine, Melanie – are so detached from things themselves: ‘She thought vaguely that they must look very striking, like a sot from a new-wave British film, locked in an embrace beside the broken statue in this dead fun palace’ (p. 106).[2] The dog, too, in her uncle’s household, might have been invented simply to surprise us into reassessing our relationship with the narrative. At several points in the story Melanie is not sure if she is looking at the dog or at Finn’s painting of the dog; and the moment in the last chapter when it appears with the basket of flowers might be meant to make us recognize the sheer absurdity of trying to distinguish a painted animal from a ‘real one’ – when the real one is itself only a fabrication constructed from words on a page. The absurdist elements in Carter’s book help to prevent us from abandoning our reason in sentimental sympathy with the plight of our lovely heroine, as we are constantly invited to do by Victorian narrators. But each has, too, a specific function at the moment when it occurs. Each one helps to point up other, less obvious absurdities, which permeate the culture of the 1960s.

tumblr_inline_n06lw0skKR1soxkr5Take Mrs Rundle, for example, whose fake title articulates her desire to rewrite history so that she will have fulfilled her destiny as a woman – according to the Victorian conventions by which she lives. She is described entirely in terms of popular fiction: the plays of J. M. Barrie and the comic theatre of the 1950s: ‘She had hairy moles and immense false teeth. She spoke with an old-world, never-never land stateliness, like a duchess in a Whitehall farce’ (p. 3). And she prays in church ‘astonishingly’ for a fake memory to go with her fake name: ‘Please God, let me remember that I was married as if I had really married […] Or at least […] let me remember that I had sex’ (p. 8). Mrs Rundle is clearly ridiculous; but she’s no more ridiculous than, say, Melanie’s father, who insists that his family go to church as a means of forgetting his own class origins: ‘Born in Salford, it pleased him to play gently at squire now he need never think of Salford again’ (p. 7). Indeed, he has so immersed himself in his public role as a successful writer that his own daughter cannot imagine him ever abandoning his tweeds, his tobacco and his typewriter ribbon – even when dying in a plane crash or making love. And his wife, Melanie’s mother, is not much more substantial: she is a set of clothes, and in the course of the novel anything else about her rapidly melts away into oblivion before the more robust presence of the new family Melanie finds in South London.

The rural idyll in which Melanie lives at the beginning of the novel is, in fact, an elaborate fake. So, too, is the ‘naturalness’ of the class system that all this fakery is constructed to preserve; or the illusion of permanent prosperity her first family lives under, which tricks Melanie’s father into failing to save money against a rainy day; or the moral system that assures Melanie she is being ‘punished’ for stealing her brother’s unwanted Biggles books when the false eyelashes she buys with the proceeds prove impossible to apply. The happy family home, too, of the novel’s opening pages, is an elaborate forgery. The loving parents who die, for instance, are total strangers to their children. They know so little about their son that they buy him Biggles books on the basis of his appearance – because he looks like the kind of boy who will enjoy such texts – not of his tastes or wishes. And the three children in this idyllic home spend all their time apart, in separate rooms – in Melanie’s case, at least, behind a locked door. The world they inhabit is the epitome of middle-class individualism, where other people are simply irrelevant to a person’s existence except as an unfocussed backdrop for their private internal dramas, and where money is never thought of except as a kind of atmosphere, a pervasive presence whose loss is unimaginable. Their move to Uncle Philip’s household makes them sociable, as they never were at home.

Mrs Rundle’s name identifies her as the nexus of a network of fantasies that envelop Melanie in the novel’s opening pages. So it’s interesting that she should prove the most enduring element from Melanie’s earlier life later in the novel, reasserting her claim to remembrance by sending the children practical, warming Christmas presents at a time when they have nothing else – and when their parents have left them nothing of themselves at all. Uncle Philip has the role of the moustache-twirling, sadistic, self-satisfied stage villain of Victorian melodrama in this novel; but his contempt for Melanie’s father has a sound material basis:

‘I never could abide your father,’ [he tells her.] ‘He thought ’isself too good for the Flowers by a long chalk, he did. A writer, he called ’isself. Soft bastard, he never got his hands dirty.’
‘But he was awfully clever!’ protested Melanie, stung with defiance at last.
‘Not so clever he thought to put a bit by to take care of you lot when he’d gone,’ Uncle Philip pointed out reasonably. ‘And so I’ve got his precious kids all for my very own, haven’t I? To make into little Flowers.’ (p. 144)

For Uncle Philip, children are there to be shaped into puppets, to perform scripts of his own devising. This is pernicious; but in the rural idyll that opens the novel, too, Melanie is little more than a puppet, shaping and reshaping herself in front of a mirror, but each time coming up with a male fantasy of which her father might approve – in other words, bodying forth a script devised by some higher authority. It’s worth considering, then, how far her life before and after her symbolic Fall in the Edenic garden of her father’s mansion may be described as an exile from Paradise. Or should it rather be described as the first step in the direction of a potential escape-route, a route that would have been closed to her if she had remained her father’s daughter? This view seems to be supported by Melanie’s reaction to a customer who enters the toyshop about half way through the novel. ‘She was an expensive woman,’ we’re told, ‘all in suede, come by car from north of the river. She represented a type of customer they persistently attracted, whom Uncle Philip especially loathed’ (p. 95). Melanie finds she shares Uncle Philip’s loathing, serving her with reluctance and mentally branding her ‘mean bitch’ when she buys the cheapest toy on offer. And as she leaves the shop, we’re told: ‘She was the sort of woman who used to come for the weekend at home, sometimes, with a suitcase full of little black dresses for cocktails and dinner… Melanie could easily have grown up into that sort of woman’. In the course of Carter’s novel, Melanie’s class sympathies shift, and it’s the analytical advantage this profound shift gives her that opens up new possibilities of escape for her from the restrictions and absurdities of middle-class fantasies about women, in which she is so sensuously enmeshed in the book’s first chapter.

81026Melanie’s reaction to the ‘expensive woman’ also shows how she is starting to make an internal map of London, despite her limited experience of the city. Her division of it into two halves, North and South, with different class affiliations, is one Carter returns to throughout her writing – as in her final novel, Wise Children, whose narrator tells us: ‘Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. There’s been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed throughout the city’ (p. 1). Melanie’s recognition of the suede-clad woman as a migrant from the affluent North marks a stage in her naturalization as a citizen of the capital.

But let’s return to Mrs Rundle one last time. As we’ve seen, her name is one of many fantasies that dominate Melanie’s rural childhood; but it’s also representative of the most potent female fantasy of all, the myth that marriage represents the ultimate fulfilment for a woman. And this myth takes a terrible grip on the novel, monstrously seizing hold of and imprisoning all the female characters we meet. On her wedding day, Melanie’s mother disappears in a ‘pyrotechnic display of satin and lace, dressed as for a medieval banquet’ – we’re never told whether as a guest or as the decorative main course. After this ‘epiphany of clothing’, she never really re-emerges from under the weight of her extravagant garments, and a memory of clothes is all that’s left of her after her death. On her wedding day, Aunt Margaret loses her voice and acquires a straight grey frock and a jewelled choker as emblems of her slavery. Melanie practises repeatedly for her wedding day in the course of the narrative: first with her visions of a ‘phantom bridegroom’ in some ‘extra-dimensional bathroom-of-the-future in honeymoon Cannes. Or Venice. Or Miami Beach’ (p. 2); then when she dresses up in her mother’s wedding dress and finds herself assaulted by a monstrous apple-tree, emblematic of the violent and oppressive masculinity her daydreams have not yet equipped her to deal with. Later she is dressed as a reluctant child-bride by Uncle Philip in an effort to enslave her in his egocentric fantasies, as he has enslaved her aunt; and she’s assaulted again, this time by Philip’s puppet-swan. And finally, new visions of marriage usurp her visions of the future. No longer convinced by the notion of a ‘fancy’ marriage to her phantom bridegroom, she dreams in the end of a working-class marriage full of red-headed children, poverty, squalor, and a replacement Philip in the person of Finn, who appears to her in the role of husband when he takes over Uncle Philip’s chair in the kitchen. Is the vision she has at this point an accurate reading of her future? For her, at this point in the book, it’s the ultimate nightmare, and Finn seems to her less the mythic hero of old Ireland than the end of the road; but he also ends Philip’s swan, burying it in the ruined Victorian pleasure garden where it belongs, then coming to Melanie for comfort, crawling into her bed at night like a child in search of warmth and approval. There’s a potential here for balance and equality between them, if they can find a way to break the vicious cycle of birth, marriage and death that shaped them.

92d2164a1a02f330fdb8a82c6223fcf6-1The most monstrous manifestation of marriage in the book is the moment when Melanie sees the severed hand of a little girl in the kitchen drawer. It’s the hand of a child bride as Philip might have imagined it:

It was a soft-looking, plump little hand with pretty, tapering fingers the nails of which were tinted with a faint, pearly lacquer. There was a thin silver ring of the type small girls wear on the fourth finger. It was the hand of a child who goes to dancing class and wears frilled petticoats with knickers to match. From the raggedness of the flesh at the wrist, it appeared that the hand had been hewn from its arm with a knife or axe that was very blunt. Melanie heard blood fall plop in the drawer. (p. 118)

The little girl’s hand might suggest to us that this is the moment when Melanie recognizes that her connection with her past has now been violently cut off; after all, the hand belongs to the kind of girl she once was, a child from a prosperous background for whom nothing was too fancy. But the vision also invites us to think of marriage, since the fourth finger is the place for a wedding ring, being the finger ‘from which a vein leads to the heart’ (p. 120). So marriage too would seem to be a form of severance or cutting off. Above all, perhaps, it is a means of infantilizing women. The silencing of Aunt Margaret renders her childish; and Uncle Philip imagines his child-bride Leda as a child when she is violently wedded to the swan, and attempts to represent Melanie as younger than she is when he incorporates her into his appalling Christmas show, his pastiche of the Christmas story in which another virgin, Mary, was impregnated by another winged visitor from heaven. It’s not surprising, in other words, that the moment when Melanie finds the hand is the moment when she recognizes for the first time her affinity with the Jowles, and especially Margaret. She has become one of Philip’s many imaginary brides – among them Mary Queen of Scots and Philip’s own sister, Melanie’s mother, whose wedding picture he keeps in his room as if from an incestuous desire to share her marriage with the brother-in-law he despises – and as such she has become Margaret’s honorary sister, able to exchange glances of solidarity and understanding with her despite her dumbness.

The severed hand is just one of several emblems in the book of arrested development: of organic growth stopped in its tracks, which is one way of describing the Victorianism of 1960s England. Uncle Philip’s house in particular is full of such emblems: the fact that it is a toyshop, and one self-consciously modelled on a Victorian business, indicates his dedication to the infantilizing of its inhabitants, stopping them dead at a primitive point in their personal evolution. Presiding over the building is a cuckoo clock containing a real stuffed cuckoo: the herald of the Spring symbolically murdered on one of its annual visits and incorporated into the machinery that measures Uncle Philip’s inflexible timetable. On the shelves of the shop are toys that diminish the members of Philip’s ersatz family by mocking them: monkeys wearing Margaret’s and Francie’s clothes and playing Irish music on their own instruments, the fiddle and flute; a Noah’s ark with a miniature Finn on board, which is bought and taken away in cruel mockery of the ‘real’ Finn’s inability to liberate himself from Philip’s clutches. But the toyshop is no more infantilizing an environment than Melanie’s father’s house. There her little sister Victoria first learned to act like an infant, despite being five years old – the age when most children start school. Melanie imagines her continuing as an infant for the rest of her life, hidden away like a second Mrs Rochester in an upstairs room of the family house and ‘pushing her indecent baby face against the bannisters to coo at unnerved guests’ (p. 8). The world of post-Victorian England babifies its female citizens; and the Victorian origins of this process are indicated by Victoria’s name. The British Empress is alive and well in the 1960s, but dwindled to the stature of a cooing toddler and with no prospect of achieving anything more impressive than a baby achieves for the rest of her insignificant and slightly embarrassing existence – despite all the potential for intelligent action cooped up in her diminutive head.

magic toysh firstIf Victoria is an infantilized Queen, the magic toyshop itself is a kind of shrunken, worn-out replica of the lost British Empire, containing within itself all the essential components of that vast edifice – rather as the Crystal Palace, to which the novel alludes in its usual slantwise fashion, contained representative products from every corner of Britain’s global demesnes. The Jowles are the last sorry remnants of the colonies, flamboyantly Irish in their every word and gesture, playing traditional music, embodying famine, donning Easter Rising trilbies, spouting fatalistic rhetoric and nurturing a dark family secret which is merely one more affirmation of the many cod Irish myths they personify. The silent stoicism of Francie and Margaret under Uncle Philip’s tyranny makes them horrifyingly complacent with it, as they watch Finn’s defiance escalate towards its suicidal climax. Melanie is equally complicit, acquiescing to the various roles imposed on her in the toyshop, allowing herself to be absorbed into the Jowle family, finally letting herself be rescued from a fire by Finn – who often wears a second-hand fireman’s jacket – at the book’s conclusion. Each of them has allowed him- or herself to become Uncle Philip’s toy, his puppet, incapable of thought except in the terms he permits them to think in.

Yet by the time he rescues Melanie, Finn has taken the last and boldest step in his career as an insurrectionist: he has destroyed Uncle Philip’s swan, which is as much a token of mythical Ireland, thanks to Yeats, as it is of patriarchal oppression. Melanie has abetted him in this revolutionary act. Finn has regained his voice and so has Margaret; the two of them have kissed as they parted with ‘stately formality […] like fellow generals saluting each other the night before a great battle where one of the is like to die’ (p. 197). The revolutionary promise of the name Melanie gave the Jowles when she first came to the toyshop – the Red People – has been fulfilled, and a departure from the cycle of oppression even looks feasible. The final sentence of the novel finds Finn and Melanie standing on the edge of an uncertain future in another garden, facing each other with a wild surmise (p. 200); and the phrase both conjures up the spectre of colonialism and entertains the possibility of change. It comes from Keats’s famous sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, in which he exults over gaining access to the works of the epic poet in translation (Keats’s family couldn’t afford to have him educated in Greek, which at the time was the preserve of the British elite). The young poet compares the experience of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey to that of a Spanish conquistador confronted by the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the New World:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Cortez is of course the embodiment of colonial oppression – another Uncle Philip. Yet Keats’s poem is a celebration of success in overcoming the disadvantages of his educational background – an effusion of pleasure in new knowledge, and in the promise of further knowledge yet to come. That such knowledge might include ‘new planets’ as radically different from the old as Utopia was different from Europe has been the hope of imaginative writers since the sixteenth century – and Utopia, too, was located in the New World. Carter’s final phrase contains, then, the hope of new knowledge – even as it reminds us of the poetry Melanie imbibed at school, not all of it dedicated to the celebration of oppressors or of marriage. It sums up the hopes and fears of her epoch as quirkily and vividly as the rest of the book does. And one might surmise, too, that it instructs her readers in the state of mind they should entertain when approaching her experimental fiction.

[1] Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 323 and 107.

[2] Quotations are from Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2009).

T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone (1938)

SwordstoneThis post should begin with an explanation. The version of The Sword in the Stone being discussed here is the first British edition, which differs from the first American edition mainly in the chapter about Robin Hood. It differs still more from the version that opens The Once and Future King, which incorporates two episodes from The Book of Merlyn (the final book of the sequence, posthumously published in 1977). That’s the reason many readers will find episodes discussed here that aren’t in the version they read. I’m still convinced that the first British edition is the best, but then that’s the one I read in my childhood…

MTE4MDAzNDEwMjQ2NDY5MTM0No writer before T H White, I think, had been so flamboyantly anachronistic in fantasy. The Sword in the Stone (1938) is rooted in anachronism, steeped in it, inhabits it as its element. The clash of periods is embodied in Merlyn, the ancient wizard, who not only lives backwards (like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass) – meaning he is a little confused as to the conventional order of events – but seems to have lived for hundreds of years, since he remembers all the major incidents and changes of fashion between White’s lifetime and the fifteenth century. But Merlyn represents only one small strand of the book’s enmeshed anachronisms. Another is the date in which it’s set. The technology described in the narrative is clearly that of the late medieval period, when Sir Thomas Malory wrote the Morte D’Arthur, despite the fact that the roots of the Arthurian legends are usually traced to around the fifth century. Robin Hood turns up in the guise of Robin Wood – a less outrageous anachronism, since the earliest surviving rhymes of Robin Hood are from the fifteenth century, when Malory was writing, though by the end of the following century he had been firmly relocated to the reign of King John (1166-1216). White’s sources, then – the works of Malory, the rhymes of Robin Hood, the educational tracts, technical manuals and natural histories he draws on – are as enthusiastically blind to what we’d now call historical accuracy as he is. They were reader-facing – primarily concerned with the tempestuous times their writers and their first readers inhabited, rather than with the often impossibly remote times when the events described took place. Malory’s Arthur resembles a participant in the English Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the noble Houses of Lancaster and York which was being waged in Malory’s lifetime. And White’s version is clearly the product of the late 1930s, when dictatorships were flourishing in Europe and the Second World War loomed on the horizon.

IMG_1832The pre-war period is most clearly alluded to in White’s own illustration to Chapter Nineteen of the first edition, where the giant Galapas has the Nazi swastika and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle embroidered on his clothes. White lived in an age of murderous bullies – Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini – and he was not alone in using children’s fiction to combat their aggression. A few years later Eric Linklater penned a sort of wartime companion piece to The Sword in the Stone, The Wind on the Moon (1944), in which a pair of badly-behaved sisters rescue their father from a dungeon very like that of Galapas, where he has been incarcerated by a tyrant called Count Hulagu Bloot. Like White’s protagonist, the Wart, the sisters turn into animals (they spend most of the first part of the novel as kangaroos), and enlist beasts to help in the rescue – most notably a Golden Puma and a Greenland Falcon, who they meet in a local zoo. And as in The Sword in the Stone, the comparison between animals and humans elicited by this interspecies contact is not very flattering to the latter. When the girls-as-kangaroos admit to being children the Falcon thinks it’s brave of them to ‘admit such a lowly origin’; and both the Falcon and the Puma assume that as children they have little experience of ‘freedom’. In fact the girls, unlike the Wart, never know what it is to be animals, despite their transformation, because they never meet a real kangaroo, never learn how you see the world when you have a pair of powerful legs, a muscular tail, and no limits to your freedom of movement. Anarchic though they are in their behaviour (the title of Linklater’s book refers to their periodic bouts of naughtiness, which happen, their father says, whenever there’s a wind on the moon), they never really escape the condition of being young girls, with all its restrictions. Instead it’s the falcon and the puma who forego their freedom to help them in their quest to free their father, and one of whom pays a heavy price for giving its assistance.

SwrdStne-07The Wart’s transformations, by contrast, enable him to immerse himself in the state of being an animal; and his immersion is a form of technical as well as social, political and moral instruction. This is because White’s animals are first and foremost highly sophisticated pieces of technology. Each of them has a specialist function or set of functions, as is brought out in the episode where a scholarly badger explains to the Wart ‘why Man has become the master of all the animals’. Having created the embryos of all living creatures, God invites them to choose the tools that will be attached to their adult bodies, whereupon each species makes its selection at the eternal throne: ‘They were allowed two or three specialisations, so that some chose to use their arms as flying machines and their mouths as weapons, or crackers, or drillers, or spoons, while others selected to use their bodies as boats and their hands as oars’. Only Man chooses no accoutrements at all and remains a ‘naked tool’ all his life, though a user of tools; always having the potential to be something, never fully achieving that potential; ‘able,’ as God points out, ‘to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys’, like a half-made thing – though in compensation he is half of something astonishing, a deity. Having correctly guessed what God wanted when he allowed the embryos to choose – that is, acknowledgement that his creatures should be contented with the way he made them – Man is duly placed in charge of the rest of Creation. But the notion of beasts as technological marvels has already become clear in the course of White’s novel, and their specialisms don’t diminish them in White’s eyes; they are perfect, in their various kinds, as Man is not. Swimming as a small fish, Wart finds, is both an efficient and a tricky accomplishment. Flying as a bird is as hard as flying an aeroplane – which White could do, as he explains in his memoir England Have my Bones (1936) – and as delightful. Deploying the tools of a badger properly – the forks of its arms, the weapons of its mouth – needs experience and craftiness. Being a snake is technically easier than being (say) an owl (though it’s not that easy to know how venom works), but it also entails the learning of endless stories to fill one’s dreams in the months of hibernation, a by-product of the snake’s seasonal operating system. To be an animal involves no less ingenuity than to be a human being, though the ingenuity is of a different kind.

White’s use of anachronism does something similar for the Middle Ages to what his account of the technical difficulties of being a fish does for the beasts: it helps to shatter the sense of superiority the twentieth-century reader is apt to bring to his or her reading of old texts. White makes Malory our contemporary, just as the critic Jan Kott sought to do for Shakespeare. William Morris did something similar in his late romances, which show an admiration for the technology of the fifteenth century – in particular the making of clothes, a central theme in The Water of the Wondrous Isles – very like White’s. Morris’s romances, however, root themselves firmly in the past through their language, which expertly mimicks the language of Malory’s knights and ladies even while rendering them utopian, representatives of a perfection that never existed and has not yet been achieved. White loved his Malory as much as Morris did, but he wasn’t wedded to the past; as I said, he learned to fly as well as to hawk, and wrote well about both experiences (for the former see the fine passage on flying a helicopter in The Master (1957), chapter 22, for the latter see The Goshawk (1951)). His knowledge of new technology surfaces quite often in The Sword in the Stone, most particularly, perhaps, in the section where the Wart learns to fly as an owl. And he writes about the technology of the Middle Ages with the same care and attention as he does about the more modern problem of propelling yourself forwards and backwards underwater, another skill the Wart has to master, this time as a perch. Quite simply, he doesn’t give you a moment to consider the arts of jousting, hawking, or hunting any less complex than the art of landing a helicopter. His anachronism brings his middle ages alive, both as a location where real skill and artistry can flourish and as a place you can laugh about with pleasure rather than superiority. His knights, peasants and scholars may be funny but they can’t be mocked, because their lives are clearly quite as complex as the life of the twentieth- or twenty-first century reader.

merlin_lgAnimals and human beings live in a symbiotic relationship in The Sword in the Stone, best expressed in King Pellinore’s relationship with the Questing Beast. The Beast exists only to be hunted, and pines away when Pellinore decides to accept Sir Grummore Grummursum’s invitation to sleep in a feather bed for a while and forget his lifelong quest. The quest itself is not violent but playful; Pellinore’s attempts to catch the Beast are doomed to failure, not just because his tools are inadequate – he’s dressed in full plate armour that restricts his vision, his dog is better at tying him up in its lead than following a scent, the King himself knows very little of the art of hunting – but because the Beast itself is so good at hiding its tracks (it walks backwards, scuffs the ground with its tail, and performs a dozen other tricks to confuse its already confused pursuer). But the very inequality of this relationship – in which the Beast is so clearly the superior intelligence – is what makes it innocent, the ideal representation of the quest celebrated in so many chivalric romances. The knight rescues the Beast from the depths of despair by consenting to abandon his feather bed and return to the chase; the Beast reciprocates by rescuing the knight from the dungeon of the giant Galapas; and witnessing these things presents the Wart with a model for chivalry which will never be matched in all the history of the Knights of the Round Table which he later sets in motion.

More serious symbioses occur elsewhere: in the relationship between hawker and hawk, which explains the immense pride of Hob the austringer when the Wart succeeds in bringing home the errant goshawk, Cully; in the relationship between the professional huntsman Master Twyti and his dogs, so movingly demonstrated at the death of his favourite hound; in the appointment of a boy to live in Sir Ector’s kennels with the hounds; in Master Twyti’s passion for the humble hare, which he describes with as much admiration as if it had been the rarest of mythical creatures (and indeed it is mythical, since Master Twyti’s hares can change sex, ‘which […] no beast in the earth did except it’). This takes us to another point White makes about animals: that the medieval attitude to them was as intellectually challenging as our own scrupulous efforts at taxonomy and empirical observation. For medieval people beasts, like history books, were designed to be made respectful use of by human beings, for moral and philosophical purposes as well as for food. Scientific accuracy about their behaviour wasn’t important; what mattered was how they were read. White knew this from the medieval bestiaries (he translated one, magnificently, in 1954), where the panther’s ability to attract its prey with the sweetness of its breath was likened to Christ’s ability to draw humanity to him, while the beaver’s practice of biting off its testicles and flinging them at hunters became an exhortation to pious men to fling their sins at the devil as a means of discouraging him from his pursuit of their immortal souls. No matter that panthers don’t hunt with their breath, or beavers castrate themselves; the memorable strangeness is what matters, and the morals, often surprising, which that strangeness calls to mind. White even includes a scene in The Sword in the Stone where the local priest exerts all his intellectual energy to find a suitable moral to a story from that peculiar compendium the Gesta Romanorum, in which beasts and people alike become arcane books whose contents must be expounded by the learned for the benefit of their unlearned listeners, who could never have imagined how a white cow could stand for the Church or a pack of noisy dogs be a mob of slanderers. An actual bestiary makes its appearance in the second book of The Once and Future King, Queen of Air and Darkness (originally The Witch in the Wood, 1939), when the Orkney boys, Gawain, Gaheris and the rest, use its instructions to catch a unicorn. But those boys inhabit a world like ours, where the reading of animals such as the unicorn’s body is not practised, so they can’t think of anything to do with it once it’s caught but kill it and cut off its head. The deed foreshadows the loss of innocence that always threatens and finally destroys King Arthur’s Round Table. Later in the same book, King Pellinore accidentally beheads the boys’ father, King Lot of Orkney; and this innocent accident (the old knight was chasing the Questing Beast, as usual, and had nothing further from his mind than assassination) sparks off a feud that leads to his eventual murder, one of a series of murders by the Orkney brothers that escalates with horrible inevitability till it evolves into the final battle between King Arthur and the Orkney boys’ half-brother Mordred.

This brings us to the third theme that runs through The Sword in the Stone alongside exuberant anachronism and instructive animals. The theme is cannibalism: the process by which human beings convince themselves that it is acceptable to treat other human beings like beasts – but without the respect that’s due to beasts according to the medieval rules of the chase – and eat them for dinner. All the episodes in the book that don’t involve beasts contain cannibals: Madam Mim, who keeps boys and beasts in cages ready for the table; the Anthropophagi, who trap the two most animal-friendly humans in the book – the Dog Boy and the wild man, Wat – and plan to devour them; Galapas the giant, who keeps ‘several corpses of human beings hanging up in [his] game cupboards until they should be ready to eat’, and wants to wring a ransom out of another animal-friendly man, King Pellinore. In the version of The Sword in the Stone which he revised as the opening section of The Once and Future King, White abolished the Anthropophagi but replaced them with a witch, Queen Morgan Le Faye, who lives in a castle made of meat, apparently under the illusion that its malodorous walls and roofs will be as attractive to passing strangers as fragrant gingerbread. In The Queen of Air and Darkness Merlyn becomes a vegetarian – though with a lingering and guilty love of hawking – because all human carnivorousness, at least, has become for him a form of cannibalism. To know animals as Merlyn knows them is to find it impossible to eat them, as the Wart discovers when he meets one of the wizard’s pet hedgehogs in the form of a badger. Conversely, to kill men is effectively to be a cannibal; which means that White, like Merlyn and Arthur, found himself living surrounded by cannibals for much of his life.

6a00e54fcf73858834017d3cde93e0970c-800wiWhat this brings home is the sense of a fully-functioning holistic ecology that runs through The Sword in the Stone in all its versions. The anachronistic Middle Ages of the book – rooted as it is in historical sources – is a time when rules of courtesy and scrupulous good conduct govern the relationship between men and beasts, between men and women, between men and men. The later books of The Once and Future King expose the fragility of this ecology; but the Wart’s discovery of its principles in his childhood lays the foundations for his efforts to establish a similar ecology when he ascends to the throne as King Arthur, the king that was and will be. That title – The Once and Future King – identifies the element of utopianism in White’s book; the idea of a way of life from the past (the Wart’s childhood, a reimagined Middle Ages) that may furnish a model for the future, as it did for Morris. White’s, though, is a tragic utopianism, not the Good Place (eutopia) of Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) but the No Place of More’s bittersweet satire, rendered the more painful because of the affection in which we hold its protagonist after living with him through his education.

sword-stone-live-action-movie-disneyThe Wart represents a community – the birds, beasts, trees, stones and human friends he assembles in his adventures, whose imagined presence helps him draw the sword out of the stone at the end. He assembles this community in much the way that Merlyn assembled the assorted hedgehogs, mice, owls and assorted clutter in his cottage; or as Pellinore assembled the various materials – horse, dog, quarry, equipment – which he needed for a lifetime of questing. Arthur seeks to keep his community close by him when he becomes king, by inviting King Pellinore and Sir Ector to join his Round Table, and by opening a menagerie for the animals to retire to when they get old. But we know, and he learns, that he will never establish a similar community among his human subjects. The attempt, though, is worthwhile – as he says of his adventure with Galapas when he and Merlyn are about to be chopped to pieces by the giant dictator.

Mind you, Merlyn disagrees:

‘Good-bye,’ whispered the Wart. ‘It was worth it.’
‘Good-bye,’ said Merlyn. ‘I don’t think it was at all.’

Most readers of White, I suspect, will agree with the Wart. But then, most readers don’t live backwards.

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (1973)

UnknownChristmas is the time when fantasies break loose, invading spaces they don’t usually occupy: your living room, offices, public thoroughfares, rubbish bins, most of the screens of the local multiplex cinema. But the fantasies of Christmas aren’t always comforting. This was always a time for ghost stories, tales designed to convert the shiver of cold into the shiver of fear. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) is a Christmas story. And festive stories invariably present the feast as under siege, haunted like Scrooge by the possibility of losing touch with its cheer for ever under pressure from a clutch of enemies: the Mouse King in Hoffmann’s Nutcracker (1816), the Wolves in The Box of Delights (1935), the goblins and the Nazis in Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters (1920-1942), the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the vagaries of the market in The Mouse and his Child (1967). In all these cases the threat to Christmas can be traced, with a bit of imagination, to sources outside the text: the Napoleonic wars that turned all young men into passive instruments in other men’s hands, like nutcrackers; fear of poverty; the shadows of the First World War, the Second World War, the War in Vietnam. Susan Cooper’s novel The Dark is Rising (1973), however – the second instalment in the sequence of that title – is unusual in that it never gives the assault on Christmas a face. The main antagonist, the Rider, seems to have been casually thrown together to provide the forces of the Dark with a focus, but he’s never really threatening, never even really present in any convincing way. At one point he confronts the protagonist, Will Stanton, in the role of a decoy, distracting attention from the real source of the Dark’s assault on the house where Will is staying, which is always inside, always located in the person or thought you’ve invited into your house and into your mind. The most drastic manifestation of malevolence in the book is the cold, and it’s tempting to see this as an allusion to the Cold War that was raging at the time; after all, Will’s favourite brother Stephen is in the navy and therefore on the front line of the global standoff. But the Dark’s lack of a face is what sets this book apart, and to set a name on it is to diminish the narrative, to make it smaller and less strange than it is while you are reading.

file_20414_0_darkisrisingteaseI was unsettled by this book when I read it as a teenager. For me, Will Stanton lived in my house: a big 1930s former Telephone Exchange, made of brick with metal windows, in a Surrey village (in fact Will lives in Berkshire). There was a church nearby, like Will’s, where I sang in the choir; a local Jacobean manor; large dogs bounding around in the hallway sweeping precious objects off tables with their muscular tails; and so many members of the extended family present that it was easy to creep off and find a place to be on your own (in my case, usually to read a book like The Dark is Rising). I loved the heavy snowfall that envelops this familiar landscape at the beginning of the novel, transforming Will’s world into a suitable backdrop for magic, just as I’d seen the Surrey landscape transformed from time to time. I loved the use of rooks as agents of evil – they had always struck me as uncanny birds, and there were masses of them in the yews along Vicarage Road. I loved the metamorphosis of a modern English woodland into a vast medieval forest: my own district, the Weald of Surrey, could easily be taken for an unbroken forest when you looked out across the wooded landscape from Jenner’s Field, where we walked the dogs. And I loved the seamlessness of the regular shifts in the narrative from the familiar domestic magic of Christmas to the inconceivably ancient magic of the Old Ones. But the book made me uneasy all the same, unlike any of the other festive tales I’ve listed.

wpid-photo-7-dec-2012-1336The shifts in Cooper’s book between past and present, present and past, reminded me of the way John Masefield executes similar transitions in his novels for children. Indeed, while I was reading it this time round I noticed how deeply Cooper was indebted to the second of Masefield’s children’s books, The Box of Delights: from the catchphrase of her novel, ‘the Dark is rising’, which echoes Masefield’s (‘the Wolves are Running’), to the triggering of magic at the beginning by the presence of an old wanderer from another epoch; from the unseasonably snowy weather to the focus on songs and music throughout the narrative (an entire choir gets itself kidnapped in The Box of Delights). Masefield’s old wanderer is called Cole Hawlings, and he gives Kay an object that makes the boy and his family the target of repeated attacks by the forces of evil, led by the smooth-tongued Abner Brown. Cooper’s wanderer is called Hawkin – the echo must surely be intentional – and he too gives something to Will, an object that again makes Will and his family the target of repeated attacks. In both cases the object in question endows its young possessor with certain powers. Cole Hawlings is later kidnapped or ‘scrobbled’ by Brown’s gang, just as Will’s sister is ‘nobbled’ by the Dark in the final act of his adventure, to be used as a bargaining tool for the objects of power the boy has been collecting. And both books feature Herne the Hunter, that mythical figure – part man part stag – from Windsor Forest, whose most famous literary appearance is in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where he is impersonated by that fat old con artist Sir John Falstaff. The big difference, though, is that Masefield’s novels are warm-hearted affairs, full of genial characters like the wicked old lady in The Midnight Folk (1927) who sings smugglers’ songs while quaffing rum in bed; or Kay’s cousin little Maria in The Box of Delights, who was expelled from three schools and owns a pair of revolvers with which ‘she shoots old electric light bulbs dangling from a clothes-line’. The Dark is Rising, by contrast, plunges Will into the cold: not just a bout of unseasonably bad weather, but a chilly supernatural community that seems to regard ordinary human beings as lesser creatures, to be sacrificed when necessary for what they consider the greater good. I found this idea unsettling, as I say, and it was only with this rereading that I’ve managed to put my finger on why.

The Old Ones are part of the problem. They’re a select club of seemingly immortal guardians of the Light which you cannot join by choice: choice is only involved, we are told, when you decide to betray them, as the mortal man Hawkin does, and as the Rider may have done at some point (although time doesn’t work in the same way for Old Ones like him). The man Hawkin is punished by being made to live on for centuries carrying a Sign which must be passed on to the last of the Old Ones – despite the fact that his betrayal arose from a situation beyond his control, when he was placed under more pressure than an ordinary man could bear. This brings out another troubling aspect of the Old Ones’ club: everything they say and do seems to have been preordained. Will has already always been ‘the Sign-Seeker’ when he first finds out he’s an Old One on his eleventh birthday. The inevitability of his role is consolidated by the fact that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son – always traditionally the most magical of situations to be born in. Yet he can make mistakes, and presumably fail in the quest he has been assigned: to collect six powerful Signs that will help the Old Ones in their struggle against the Dark. Each of the Signs manifests itself to him only after he has been tested, and the last of these tests involves the sacrifice of a member of his family: he must refuse to hand over the Signs in exchange for the life of his sister Mary. Without any choice of his own, then, Will is expected to transfer his loyalties, at the age of eleven, from his family to a weird cult from outside time, and in the process put his relatives in danger. In the process, too, he must learn to consider them inferior to himself. ‘Ordinary’ people have no part in the struggle between Light and Dark, and he must keep secrets from his family – even from his much-loved brother Paul, who suspects more than anyone else that something outlandish is going on in Will’s life. Worse still, Will must manipulate Paul like a puppet in order to save him. During one attack of the Dark he switches off Paul’s mind, leaving him ‘tranquil and empty, unaware’ as if in a coma. And when the attack is over he wipes his memory. That’s a terrible power to have – messing to that extent with people’s minds; and people who possess such a power are clearly dangerous; it wouldn’t take much to think of them as profoundly malevolent (as Hawkin does when he decides to betray the Old Ones). Cooper’s book has been called Manichean, in the sense that it sets Good and Evil against each other in equal struggle. But the two sides are not so easily distinguished; at least, they weren’t to my mind when I first encountered them as a teenager. I would have rejected them both, I thought, if I’d been in Will’s position.

The_Dark_Is_RisingThis was largely because of a particularly disturbing scene in the book that takes place on Christmas Day. The Dark attacks the parish church in the form of a storm of the mind, a psychological assault too powerful, we’re told, to be borne by ordinary mortals; yet the local rector tries to face it down with the power of prayer: ‘he stumbled a few paces nearer the church door, like a man struggling through waves in the sea, and leaning forward slightly made a sweeping sign of the Cross’. The watching Old Ones comment dispassionately on this useless act of defiance: ‘“Poor brave fellow,” said John Smith in the Old Speech. “This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being in his church”’. It’s an odd situation, I remember thinking, where ancient pagan magic is identified as operating independently of any religion. The rector later assumes it was the sign of the cross that repelled the Dark, but the Old Ones tell him he is wrong, because the protective Signs Will carries, each of which contains a cross, are much older than Christianity. As a teenage reader I thought it strange that any religion should be asked to consider its central tenets and symbols as relevant only to the historical period when they were formulated or took place; after all, medieval theologians found foreshadowings or ‘types’ of Christ everywhere in texts written before his birth. I think I also suspected that the separation of the forces of magic from the forces of religion leaves magic effectively unshackled from history itself, without any connection to ordinary people. In the days when magic was most widely practised it was inseparable from religion, as the historian Keith Thomas demonstrated in Religion and the Decline of Magic, published the year after The Dark is Rising. If Cooper’s magic isn’t religious, then it’s not related to the history of the world; it’s something separate, set apart, a narrative with which we have no intellectual or imaginative points of contact, practised by people who live among us but with whom we have no available means of communication.

That was what bewildered me, then: the sense of a supernatural community that was unshackled from the narrative of history. The Old Ones can move freely back and forth in time – sometimes without a conduit, sometimes by way of a pair of magic doors in the air like the one Aslan sets up at the end of Prince Caspian (1951). For this reason, the oldest of the Old Ones, Merriman Lyon, knows the future as well as he knows the past. He knows, for instance, what Will’s singing voice will sound like when it breaks: it ‘will be baritone,’ he comments at one point; ‘pleasant, but nothing special’. There’s a crushing weight of judgement here, as well as knowledge: Merriman has no doubt whatever that his assessment of Will’s future musical talent is correct. Would a mortal agree with him, I wondered? And what else does he know? Is everything in Will’s future life accessible to the Old Ones? If so, where does that leave the mental faculty after which the youngest of the Old Ones might have been named: free will? Nowhere, I suspected – and I still suspect this, though it doesn’t worry me now so much as assure me of the novel’s originality, its experimental daring, its willingness to risk alienating its readers.

The shocking length of the Old Ones’ perspective is brought home to us when Will finds the sign of stone in the wall of the church, soon after the episode with the rector:

The glowing thing came out of the wall easily from a break in the stucco where the Chiltern flints of the wall showed through. It lay on his palm: a circle, quartered by a cross. It had not been cut into that shape. Even through the light in it, Will could see the smooth roundness of the sides that told him this was a natural flint, grown in the Chiltern chalk fifteen million years ago.

To be part of a story this old is to have one’s past and future cut, or rather grown, in stone. Some of the other signs Will finds in the book touch human history: the sign of fire, for instance, has an Old English phrase on it meaning ‘Light had me made’; the signs of iron and bronze may or may not have been made by Wayland the Smith, who at least resembles a man. But the sign of wood seems to have grown inside the tree from which it’s taken: ‘There was no irregularity to it at all, as though it had never had any other shape than this’; and the sign of water, which comes to Will from the hand of a dead king, ‘is one of the oldest,’ Merriman tells him, ‘and the most powerful’. And there are additional signs all over the Berkshire landscape. Near the beginning of the novel, a hillside has the Old Ones’ symbol on it ‘cut through snow and turf into the chalk beneath the soil’; near the end, an island surrounded by water is divided in four by streams, making the Sign as if of its own volition. The story of the Old Ones is embedded in a past and present that has nothing to do with human beings, and as this becomes more obvious (a sign cut in a hillside is a human thing; an island spontaneously forming a familiar shape just isn’t) the notion of being an Old One becomes increasingly alien: almost Lovecraftian in its alienness, I’m tempted to say. These people show affection for one another, especially towards the end of the book. They show occasional concern for human beings: Merriman rescues Mary after Will has effectively given her up for the sake of the Signs. But the secret knowledge they share, absorbed from a magic book that gives them a hundred years’ experience in a few minutes, means that they occupy a different plane from ours – and there’s something desperately lonely in this thought, especially for the youngest of them, Will, who by the end of the book has only been an Old One, at least to his knowledge, for less than two weeks. He’s irrevocably changed by then. He speaks from time to time in a strange new voice, far removed from the vocabulary and content of a boy’s; there’s no indication that he’ll have any say about his future; and there’s no one in his family he can confide in. No wonder I was disconcerted by the novel’s ending, which leaves Will stranded like Robinson Crusoe on an alien shore.

DarkRising6Few novels, then, could be more accurately described as about the process of ‘coming of age’ (‘coming of extreme old age’ would be even more accurate). There are no formal rites for this process in many modern cultures, and Will’s father points this out near the beginning: ‘We should have some special kind of ceremony’, he suggests, to mark his youngest son’s arrival at ‘double-ones’. That ‘ceremony’ comes soon after in the form of a fall of snow; but the snow outstays its welcome, evolving from a Christmas card decoration or a child’s plaything to a country-wide menace. It’s snow that’s out of time, coming too thickly at the wrong time of year, staying too long, melting at last into a flood that’s as deadly as the cold was. And it helps to represent ‘coming of age’ as a fundamental shift in one’s perception of time. The child exists in a single temporal framework, concerned with the moment-to-moment gratification or frustration of her own desires and expectations. The adult recognizes countless claims on her time: the claims of the workplace, of family and friends of different ages, of government, the market, the changing body, learning, history, desire and so on. The Dark is Rising dramatizes the child’s encounter with this crazy congeries of time frames, in which one has to choose which time frame to prioritize at any given moment. It dramatizes too the fact that this is no real choice: that you find yourself all at once in a frantic race to get things done against the clock, without the leisure to consider which clock you’re following. It represents this, with terrible honesty, as a chilling encounter as well as an exhilarating one. And setting this moment of transition at Christmas was a stroke of genius: the time when emotional warmth clashes with the chill of fear or isolation; when elaborate plans get overthrown by unexpected reversals – of weather or of political or social crisis; when work and school come to a stop, and all generations with their different time frames converge in one place, so that time itself for a while goes haywire. All this at a time when the insanity of Cold War lay in the background, a shapeless fear in people’s minds, which surfaced from time to time in uncontrollable waves of fear, and whose antagonists couldn’t easily be sorted into good and bad, right and wrong. That’s a heady combination of temporal ingredients, and Cooper sets them against one another with the timing of a fine musician. One suspects that the prominence of music in the book is no accident, though most of the music in it seems to be performed solo, not as the polyphonic fusion of rhythms one might have expected.

I’m grateful to have had her complex book as part of my own coming of age in the 1970s.

Stella Benson, Living Alone (1919)

Stella BensonFantasy flourishes in wartime. Perhaps this is because it’s so clearly impossible to reconcile the orderly narratives of history, as taught in schools, newspapers and family anecdotes, with the mechanized slaughter of thousands in a chaos of bullets and shrapnel. Tolkien’s private mythology found fertile soil in the mud of the trenches. Lord Dunsany forged his post-war persona as a latter-day Don Quixote on the Front near Ypres, and perhaps also on the streets of Dublin, when he was wounded in the Easter Rising. And the feminist Stella Benson found a means of expressing her experiences as a worker on the Home Front in a remarkable novella, Living Alone (1919), which is more clearly a product of wartime than any other fantasy I can think of. Despite its willfully eccentric contents – an illiterate soldier who is also a wizard, a woman who keeps company with a cheeky East End Cupid, a boarding house for lonely people run by a witch, a magic battle fought on broomsticks over London – it gives an extraordinarily vivid account of the absurdities and frustrations of life in the metropolis during the Great War. It’s all there: rationing, the policing of the poor by charitable committees run by the middle and upper classes, ubiquitous propaganda, taking shelter in a church crypt during a bombing raid, middle-class women working the land, a policeman threatening to read the Riot Act to an unruly crowd. The presence of magic through all these events seems to represent a state of mind that’s easily acquired during wartime, combining a sense of incongruity, horror and profound disconnect in the face of state insanity dressed up as reason. But it also represents a celebration of the beauty that continues to flourish, against all odds, in the face of conflict, and which vaunts itself most strikingly in the cruelest month of the year, T.S. Eliot’s April, the month when the novel begins.

$(KGrHqZ,!nQE-)r!ncRbBPypIbH7Tg~~60_35Benson kept a detailed diary all her life, and her novels are said to be drawn in part from its pages. Living Alone certainly gives the impression of a prolonged self-analysis, coupled with precise observation of the minutiae of seasonal change in the capital. The central character, Sarah Brown, shares Benson’s initials, her proneness to pulmonary illness, her passion for dogs, her distaste for physical contact with her fellow human beings. She is self-effacing, at first not even being named as a member of the committee we meet in the opening chapter, and always convinced of her own incompetence and inability to participate, even in the magical events she is one of the few to witness. The committee, which is dedicated to the questionable task of instructing the poor in the art of saving, uses her as its general dogsbody because she is willing but not terribly efficient. She works the land but is too sick and weak to weed a row of beans. She falls in love but knows from the start that the man she loves will have no interest in her. This gives the novel an air of wistful cynicism, the tone of a tome which is all too aware that many of its readers will dismiss its contents as so much drivel. This is not least because the narrator, Stella Benson, shares Sarah’s self-effacing tendencies, dismissing her own book as not a ‘real’ one (‘This is not a real book’, the preface tells us), just as Sarah thinks herself not a ‘real woman’ because she can’t get interested in what other women think important: their bodies, clothes, marriage, money, romances featuring two or more persons, conversation. The witch’s boarding house after which the novel is named – the House of Living Alone – is likewise ‘not a real house’ to those who believe no self-respecting hostel could fail to charge a decent rent. Neither narrator nor protagonist will have an appreciable effect on the world, according to the two S.B.s. But in recording the things that have no appreciable effect – dancing in the garden, sitting on clouds, the aesthetic impact of atmospheric conditions, a journey on horseback through an Enchanted Forest – the book also conjures up an atmosphere of quiet resistance to the inflexible assumptions about ‘reality’ entertained by successful people, a resistance which has been practised through the ages by lonely and ailing adepts of the imagination.

after (Percy) Wyndham Lewis, lithograph, 1932
after (Percy) Wyndham Lewis, lithograph, 1932

When I read that Stella Benson was a suffragette and that this novel had witches in it, I imagined witchcraft as a metaphor for liberation, singing the pleasures of unhindered aerial acrobatics in the teeth of official opposition to female self-empowerment. I wasn’t far wrong. The witch, who has no name or origin, is always exposing the absurdity of the establishment figures she meets with her wide-eyed astonishment at their hypocrisies, and the passage where she dances on the lawn in the early morning is supremely lyrical. But Sarah Brown never makes friends with the witch – friendship is another of the things she cannot do well – and her efforts to protect her from a punitive law backfire at the end of the book, resulting in their permanent separation. Having access to magic in this novel is largely a recipe for isolation, and in this it’s a direct precursor to Sylvia Townsend Warner’s celebrated novel about witchcraft, Lolly Willowes (1926). Warner, too, expresses scepticism about women’s capacity to take advantage of their natural affinity for magic without being drawn back into the power schemes of men. Her protagonist, Laura, is well aware that her witch’s powers may have been granted to her by a male, the Devil himself, and remains wary of what he might demand of her in return. Laura’s attraction to witchcraft springs from her wish not to participate in the world prepared for women, the world of marriage, social visits and placid subservience. She likes the fact that witches live alone, deriving their energy from their dreams, their work, their animal companions; so Satan’s involvement in awaking her powers would be unwelcome even if it didn’t involve the perpetual damnation of her immortal soul.

Sarah Brown doesn’t get mixed up with Satan, largely because she remains an observer of magic throughout the novel, not a practitioner: a member of the ‘magically-inclined minority’ for whom the book is intended, to quote the preface, not ‘magic’ herself. As a result the book ends with a greater sense of loneliness and loss than Lolly Willowes, as Sarah begs the witch not to leave her friendless and ill on the shores of America, a land she sweepingly condemns as having been drained of magic by its citizens’ commitment to capitalism. Her self-imposed status as an outsider finds its ultimate expression in this ending, which strands her as an expatriate on hostile shores, like Benson herself, who spent the rest of her life abroad after leaving Britain at the end of the war.

0893768739e31d8e4fc642d6564bc495Sarah’s loneliness is the more pronounced because it’s not the only available state of being for the ‘magically-inclined’. A fellow lodger in the witch’s boarding house is a working-class woman, Peony, who has been haunted in recent years by an imaginary friend: a boy she calls Elbert, whose poor vision, perpetual youth and propensity for loosing his toy arrows in all directions identifies him as Cupid, child-god of desire. Like Cupid, the boy brings nothing but trouble. It’s Elbert who gets Peony sacked from her job on the assumption that he’s her illegitimate son, and who later brings her a lover called Richard, a soldier home on leave with a gift for magic. Richard’s presence in her life means that Peony will for ever be identified by charitable committees as an ‘unmarried wife’. A magic husband and a supernatural child, however, ensure that Peony will get a fairy tale happy ending. Men like Richard never get killed at the Front, she tells Sarah, and magic children never desert you, for all the periods of loneliness you suffer during their periods of absence. These periods of loneliness derive in part from doubt: at one point Peony begins to suspect that young Elbert is the Devil himself and flees from his riotous influence. Pretty soon, though, she succumbs again to his charm and makes peace with her well-founded fear that he will one day hurt her. The ‘hurt’ the boy brings her is unemployment and the status of a pariah – an unmarried wife. But she also escapes the fear that attaches itself to beloved males in wartime: that a boy will grow up to be conscripted, that a conscripted man will have his life cut short by a bullet. She ends the book scandalously ensconced at a place called Higgins Farm in Faery, ‘a fine place,’ as she points out, ‘for a boy such as Elbert to be born in’. So one person in the book, at least, gets an improbable happily ever after – though there is some doubt as to how permanent it is, given that at one point Sarah sees a castle that has been abandoned after the prince who owned it was conscripted.

The ‘everlasting boy’ Elbert, as a chapter heading dubs him, represents a singular characteristic of magic people in Benson’s world: their youth. For Benson (or her narrator) magic people are differentiated from everyone else by the fact that they have been born for the first time in this life, whereas everyone else has been born and reborn many times over, giving them a sense of wearisome overfamiliarity with the cruelties and contradictions of human culture. To magic people, by contrast, ‘magic alone is commonplace, everything else is unknown, unguessed, and undespised’. As a result they see and behave like children. The witch dances in the early morning ‘in a very far from grown-up way, rather like a baby that has thought of a new funny way of annoying its Nana’. The magic man Richard cannot strike a match on his trousers. Peony reverts to a state of childlike wonder when Elbert shows her Euston Station looking like a faery mountain, with the passengers in it like ‘the Little People they tell of, that lives inside ’ills, an’ on’y comes out under the moon’. When the witch is injured in hand-to-hand combat over London she chooses to heal herself in Kensington Gardens, where that other everlasting boy, Peter Pan, spent his infancy before emigrating to Neverland. Richard invites Sarah Brown to work at his faery farm on condition she agrees not to be ‘clever’, and instead lets herself surrender to the childish emotions of surprise and pleasure. Flying over those enchanted fields, even a warplane loses its sense of duty and turns childishly playful: ‘It leaps upon imaginary Boches, it stands upon its head and falls downward until the very butterflies take cover, it stands upon its tail and falls upward, it writes messages in a flowing hand across the sky and returns to cross the t’s’. Only after a prolonged display of skittishness does the plane abruptly recollect the ‘European war that gave it birth’ and return to its flightpath, cheered on by the faery farm workers.

Like the warplanes, Sarah Brown is no native of the fields of faery. She is too conscious of the distance that lies between herself and the young, fresh vision of the magic people, too racked by chest pains to let herself get carried away for long by beauty, love or laughter. As a result, she shares the committee’s consternation in the opening chapter when the witch decides to show them a glimpse of youth in its purest form: a ‘forgotten April’. The narrator, her namesake Benson, shares their consternation too:

Oh, let us flee from April! We are but swimmers in seas of words, we members of committees, and to the song of April there are no words. What do we know, and what does London know, after all these years of learning?

Old Mother London crouches, with her face buried in her hands; and she is walled in with her fogs and her loud noises, and over her head are the heavy beams of her dark roof, and she has the barred sun for a skylight, and winds that are but hideous draughts rush under her door. London knows much, and every moment she learns a new thing, but this she shall never learn – that the sun shines all day and the moon all night on the silver tiles of her dark house, and that the young months climb her walls, and run singing in and out between her chimneys…

Benson conjures up April several more times in the course of the novel – most notably when the witch dances barfeoot in the garden, or when Sarah is picking beans on the faery farm – but she never fails to remind her readers of the artifice of her acts of conjuration, insisting on its ‘not realness’ even as she makes it feel real with dazzling feats of verbal legerdemain. ‘This is a book of fine weather’, she tells us at one point, ‘a book written in Spring. I will not remember the winter and the rain’. Later she reminds us: ‘But no rain fell. Rain cannot fall in this book of fine weather’. Jerked out of our dream of reading, we’re reminded of the physical book we are holding in our hands, just as we are at the end of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist when she tells us that the written word is a will-o’-the-wisp which is not to be trusted. The finest weather in the book occurs in the Enchanted Forest:

Just as the sun upon a stormy day makes golden a moving and elusive acre in our human woods, so the night in the Enchanted Forest comes and goes like a ghost upon the sight of lovers of the night. For there you may step, unastonished, from the end of a day into its beginning; there the summer and the winter may dodge each other round one tree; there you may see at one glance a spring hoar frost and an autumn trembling of airs, a wild cherry tree blossoming beside a tawny maple.

But a few pages later Benson reminds us – even as Sarah thinks it – that the ‘Enchanted Forest is only an accumulation of dreams, and from every traveller through it it exacts toll in the shape of a dream. By way of receipt, to every traveller it gives a darling memory that neither death nor hell nor paradise can efface’. The Forest isn’t real, though it can live on in the mind more vividly than any real-life recollection. It’s been brought alive by an act of strenuous creation, and both Brown and Benson are keen to inform us of the imaginative labour that has gone into its devising.

A little later Richard tells Sarah, as they walk back to the ordinary world through the Enchanted Forest, another theory of magic to match the earlier one about magic people who are born for the first time. Like fantasy, he tells her, magic flourishes in wartime: ‘So gross and so impossible and so unmagic was [the war’s] cause, that magic, which had been virtually dead, rose again to meet it’. As a result there is now

more magic in the world than ever before. The soil of France is alive with it, and as for Belgium – when Belgium gets home at last she will find her desecrated house enchanted… And the same applies to all the thresholds in the world which fighting-men have crossed and will never cross again, except in the dreams of their friends. That sort of austere and secret magic, like a word known by all and spoken by none, is pretty nearly all that is left to keep the world alive now…

By this measure, Stella Benson’s unreal book is a real contribution to the war effort – even if she, like her double Sarah Brown, cannot make much of a physical contribution owing to illness. Her book keeps the world alive by giving names to dogs and suitcases and hot water bottles, by celebrating early morning dances and spring weather, by finding a place for Cupid in the anti-romantic mess of international conflict, and by setting up a boarding house for lonely people in a city that only has room for those of its citizens who serve the collective well-being as defined by an imperialist bureaucracy.

1926 witchvBut Stella Benson isn’t quite a believer in the realness and efficacy of magic. Her fantasy is fragile, a thing fashioned of words and learning, themselves alien to the kind of magic it describes (Richard is illiterate, the witch and the boy Elbert have no names). Her book is a form of compensation for not having magic, a conjuration of it, not the thing itself. And once you notice the fragility of wartime and post-war fantasy like hers, you can see it everywhere. Lord Dunsany’s most celebrated novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), contains a seeker after magic, Prince Alveric, whom the world thinks mad – and his apparent madness doesn’t in itself grant him access to the place he is seeking, Elfland. The protagonist of Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Nathaniel Chanticleer, fears magic as much as he desires it, and is by no means contented when he finally succeeds in having his country overrun with fairies. As we’ve seen, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s heroine in Lolly Willowes (1926) has little confidence in her ability to practise witchcraft uninterfered with by men or devils. It’s only when we get to 1928 and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography that we finally get a hero or heroine who feels at home with the magic he or she gets mixed up in. The brutal logic of guns and bombs may have made magic rise again to meet it, as Richard claimed, but it left the ‘magically-inclined minority’ profoundly shaken.

This is not surprising, really, and Benson shows us why. At one point in Living Alone, during a bombing raid, the nameless witch finds herself sitting on a cloud beside a German witch who has been fighting to protect the bombers. She engages her in conversation, asking: ‘As one Crusader to another […] do you think it does much good in the war against Evil to drop bombs on people in their homes?’  But she never succeeds in convincing her fellow witch of the futility of urban bombing campaigns. The two women find it easy enough to communicate despite their linguistic differences, but they can’t get through to each other. Living alone must sometimes have felt like the universal human condition in 1919.

Luckily, things have changed in the twenty-first century.