James Treadwell, Anarchy (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Treadwell, Advent (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Mervyn Peake and Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WITH PEOPLE, SO WITH TREES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCEIT

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

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

William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (1896)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

E. Nesbit, Five Children and It (1902)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kirsty Logan, The Gracekeepers (2015)

51-ajQT1ggL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ursula K. le Guin created an archipelago – drew it first, then wrote about it – as a means of exploring what divides people from each other and how fractured parts can be made whole. Her wanderings through the map of Earthsea, from book to book, exposed a world of cultural differences between its inhabitants. Kirsty Logan’s archipelago in The Gracekeepers, by contrast, seems homogenous. Throughout her world there is a single entrenched division between island-dwelling ‘landlockers’ (who hold the keys to dry land and refuse to let non-landlockers near it) and seagoing ‘damplings’. The former never leave the earth, the latter set foot on solid ground with reluctance and difficulty. The same military vessels police land and sea; the same religious revivalists trawl the islands and waters for converts; apart from the revivalist cult, their faiths don’t vary much (the landlockers worship tree-gods, made bitter and vengeful by the loss of their habitat, while all the damplings bury their dead in maritime ‘graceyards’). The islands don’t have names: they are labeled like the outlying districts of London, North-East 19, South-East 11, North-West 22, as if they have been reduced to suburban uniformity. And though the climate of these islands seems to vary (the Southern ones grow pomegranates and bananas, the Northern specialize in animals) the impression is that they don’t cover a great area; or if they do, that the small amount of land they add up to – and the constant communication between them by means of merchants and messengers – has erased distinctions between them. The same attitude to gender, for instance, prevails from North to South: ‘as ever on the islands, the men and women were separate, with all the children on the women’s side’. There is too little earth left after the deluge to make extremes of difference possible. Everyone conforms.

Life is short, too, especially for damplings. The dangers of a seaborne existence are many, and deaths frequent; few adults live much past forty, and the rituals associated with death have become correspondingly formalized, the length of a family’s grieving process being determined by the number of days a caged bird called a ‘grace’ can live without being fed. The graces are kept by Gracekeepers: landlockers who live alone on islands so small they are almost boats. A Gracekeeper is an exile, cast out by an island’s people for some transgression large or small to spend her life in solitude serving the despised seafaring communities by burying their dead. In their solitude they commit many more transgressions – mostly small ones – safe from the prying eyes of their fellow islanders, unvisited by military men or revivalists. Existing in suspension between land and sea, the rules of either don’t much matter when you’re faced with daily evidence of how briefly they apply.

Everything has shrunk: the amount of land, the range of cultures, the length of a person’s life, the duration of grieving when a life ends. This is a book about smallness, full of small houses, small boats, small minds, small islands, small transgressions. Even the myths of the past have shrunk: a dilapidated circus boat is branded Excalibur, home to a small troupe of only thirteen individuals. One of its occupants calls herself Avalon, after the island where Excalibur was forged and Arthur went to recover from wounds sustained in his final battle. The name Arthur derives from a Celtic word for bear, or from the Greek Arcturus, ‘guardian of the bear’. The circus ringmaster is often likened to a bear, but he’s a depilated specimen with bad skin, burdened with an unfaithful wife and an ungrateful son, just like the original Arthur. Husband and wife address each other as ‘king’ and ‘queen’, but they only have ten subjects besides their son, and their demesnes get steadily smaller as the book goes on.

The ringmaster, known as Red Gold, has a rival for the title of bear guardian: the girl North, who dances or acts in the ring with a nameless bear, and who is destined, in Red Gold’s eyes, to marry his son and re-establish his family line among the landlockers. All the profits of the circus have been sunk in a house on an island where North and Red Gold’s son will live out their days, surrounded by children. North, meanwhile, dreams of the impossible. She is pregnant, and wishes only to keep her child, to keep her bear, to stay unmarried and to go on living in the circus. Red Gold’s dynastic pretensions imperil the baby and North’s place in the floating troupe; Avalon’s hatred of the bear puts its life at risk. North’s dreams are hardly transgressive, but the rigidity of Red Gold’s plans – and of the homogenous culture that dominates Logan’s global archipelago – means that for most of the book they seem inaccessible.

At the same time, she lives in a quasi-transgressive environment, like that of the Gracekeepers. The floating circus troupe ekes out a precarious existence by embodying the fantasies of rebellion and non-conformity the landlockers dare not practise. The acrobats – who pose as an incestuous brother and sister – execute terrifying leaps, soarings and plunges to demonstrate their mutual attraction, in defiance of gravity as well as the law. The equestrians balance on powerful moving animals like pretenders to royalty. The clowns mock the military – the most shocking of their acts, since the military of the archipelago is more or less all-powerful – or offer themselves up as scapegoats to the landlockers’ wrath, dressed as the capitalists whose greed is blamed for the inundation that shrank the world. Maypole dancers writhe in ribbons, performing promiscuity. And the girl North dances or cavorts with her bear, miming a cross-species sexuality which flies in the face of any recognized religion. The circus breaks the rules, and even its king and queen – the hot-tempered Red Gold who decides the programme and issues the orders, the dampling Avalon who dreams of becoming a landlocker – even they don’t conform, as the secret of Avalon’s own pregnancy reveals. Red Gold’s dream of settling his son and daughter-in-law in a cottage on dry land is a transgressive one, challenging the rigid division between land- and sea-dwellers that supposedly defines his world – just as he himself did when he chose to move from his original home on land to become a dampling.

The circus is not homogenous, either. Each member of the troupe has her or his agenda, from the clowns who yearn for anarchy to the self-absorbed boy Ainsel, Red Gold’s son, who dreams of ruling a kingdom on a wooden throne. The differences between the performers are emphasized by the fact that each group or act lives in a separate coracle, attached by chains to the circus boat Excalibur. And Logan neatly embodies their divisions by devoting separate chapters to each performer’s point of view. Even the clowns Cash, Dosh and Dough, Red Gold and the seemingly empty-headed Ainsel get their own chunks of narrative, so we can see at first hand how slant their aims are.

In fact, despite the cultural homogeneity of Logan’s archipelago its inhabitants are as divided from each other as the people of Le Guin’s Earthsea. The isolation of the banished Gracekeepers, who live each on a tiny island seeing nobody but the mourners who seek them out to perform the ritual of the dead, is shared by the landlockers and damplings we encounter in the other chapters, who sometimes yearn to make connections with friends, neighbours, lovers, but invariably fail to do so, or find those connections arbitrarily snapped by the force of circumstance – a sudden storm, a misunderstanding, a drastic mistake. The two central characters in the book, the circus dampling North and the Gracekeeper Callanish, are so obviously fellow spirits that the reader expects them to fall in love as soon as they meet. But they meet only twice, and fleetingly, before the end of the book – first as children and then as a Gracekeeper and her client; and for much of the narrative they can only dream about being together, not imagine it as possible. Judging from readers’ comments online this has been a problem for some of them, who wanted something more like a traditional romance. For me, though, it underscores the point of setting the story in an archipelago. A meeting of minds and bodies isn’t easy, such a geography tells us; it needs a good sense of direction, strength of will, and a generous helping of sheer luck to bring people together. Living separately, on the other hand, is a piece of cake. It’s unpleasant and inconvenient, but it doesn’t need effort, because protecting one’s own boat or island is simply a matter of repelling all boarders without troubling to consider things from their point of view.

North and Callanish represent a possible future for Logan’s island world, through their mutual association with the mysterious sea-people: webbed and gilled humanoids of the ocean whose sex is ambiguous, like seahorses. The circus people specialize in gender ambiguities, which links them, too, with the sea-people; but despite their regular performances of dissidence they are necessarily conformists, subject to policing by the military and locked from land by the customs of the islanders. North’s and Callanish’s attraction to each other and to the sea people breaches the boundaries of land and sea, overcomes rule and ritual, and points to a possibility of limitless movement which is also a feature of archipelago stories. Islands may be divided from each other by water, but they’re linked by it, too, and the image of a submerged city that recurs throughout the narrative – its bells tolled by currents – makes the sea into a potential three-dimensional living space rather than a wasteland. The ocean is linked to death; it kills damplings and terrifies landlockers; but the bells that ring beneath its surface, the people who emerge from it to impregnate human women, make it a source of life, pleasure and potential too. North and Callanish, when they finally converge, work out a new relationship with the sea which promises to serve as a model for communities of the future. The community they form is a tiny one, surrounded by enemies. But the fact that children like them are being born and raised on land and sea, against all the odds, suggests that they will eventually and inevitably inherit the land, the sea, and even the deep waters which are currently forbidden to human beings by biology as well as custom.

This is a novel about the world; but it’s also a novel about Scotland. Callanish is named for a village on Lewis famous for its ring of standing stones; her name makes one think of Logan’s islands as a vastly extended version of the Western Isles. The rigid rules that govern them recall the hackneyed view of island life as governed by an austere Calvinism – a view that neither does justice to the vibrant communities that inhabit them, nor to the rapid changes they have been undergoing for centuries, nor to the diversity of their history as represented by the stones. (The oversized ‘coracles’ in which the circus performers live recall another aspect of island history: the saints who sailed from Ireland to bring God’s word to the people of the far North West.) Other names in the book invoke other aspects of Scottishness: the boy Ainsel, for instance, has his narcissism exposed by the fact that his name means ‘my own self’ in Scots. Red Gold’s full name is Jarrow Stirling, dividing him between one border – the boundary between Highlands and Lowlands where the City of Stirling stands – and another, the Scottish borders (Jarrow is located in north-east England). North’s name insists on the northern orientation of the novel. In one sense, then, it’s a meditation on the state of the North today, the second such fantasy I’ve read in recent months – the other being Neil Williamson’s weird extravaganza The Moon King, set on an island whose annual social and political cycle is governed by the waxing and waning of the moon that’s tethered to the titular ruler’s palace. The connections between these two Scottish fantasies are fascinating, and surely not coincidental.

By this I don’t mean that Logan is indebted to Williamson – the time of a novel’s gestation makes this unlikely, and in any case the two books have very different tones. But the fact that both represent their imagined Northern civilizations as caught between change and rigidity, anarchy and dictatorship, conformity and rebellion, and that both adopt the idea of islands cut off by seas inhabited by sinister and alluring merpeople as a central premise, makes one see them as arising from a similar analysis of the current state of Scotland. Simultaneously inward and outward looking, servile and attracted to radicalism, rule-bound and endlessly inventive, passionate for self determination and afraid to take the political steps that might lead to independence, the inhabitants of Scotland find themselves haunted by mysterious forms of alternative life – represented in both novels by the people of the sea, whose very existence ridicules the notion of rigid borders and national identities – without knowing quite how to react to them beyond the usual human response to otherness: unthinking violence. Both books are not altogether complimentary to the nation that spawned them; after all, like everywhere else it’s got plenty of bigots, thugs, exploiters and narcissists. But both books also offer in the end an exhilarating vision of hope: of expanded horizons and the potential for a strong egalitarian community, whose new self-confidence will make it willing to explore the unknown as well as treasure the familiar. And both books make one quietly proud of the current state of Scottish fiction.

 

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin (1872)

PS220If ever there was a taproot text – in John Clute’s terms, a fantasy that branches out into a thousand other fantasies – this is it. From the moment when the Princess Irene runs off into the uninhabited regions of the ‘great old house’ she lives in – triggering memories of the exploration of the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – the book rustles with the ghosts of books to come. The goblins of the title are precursors of Tolkien’s cheery goblins in The Hobbit, and of their nemesis, Gollum; the boy Curdie’s wanderings through the rocky labyrinth of the mines anticipate the astonishing journey through stone accomplished by Susan and Colin in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; the songs Curdie sings to intimidate the goblins share their doggerel rhythms with the songs sung by the elves in the Last Homely House, later Rivendell; Irene’s old-young great great grandmother, whose light guides lonely wanderers on the mountainside to safety, is the forebear of Galadriel and Aslan; the faith of Irene and Curdie’s scepticism predict the games of faith and scepticism played out in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The butler serving the goblins wine in the king’s cellar conjures up the drunken butler of the King of the Wood-Elves, again in The Hobbit. The bizarre domestic animals of the goblins, with their distorted bodies and eerily human faces, conjure up the murderous sphinxes in Dave McKean’s movie Mirrormask or the tormented toys of Toy Story. And in its meditations on class the book as a whole reads like a direct source of Wells’s The Time Machine, where the wealthy have become effete, mindless children and the working classes cannibalistic cave dwellers. But MacDonald’s morals are more sophisticated than those of most of his successors. His fairy tale is designed to shame his readers into rethinking their assumptions about class, race and gender, yet one always gets the sense that he includes himself in the ranks of those who need shaming. He doesn’t stand on an eminence dispensing wisdom to less enlightened inferiors; he shares the wisdom he’s been given by women – always women – wiser than himself.

The moral complexity of his book is clear from the moment he tells us about the goblins’ origins. These are not creatures who have been the way they are since the dawn of time; they are products of the Darwinian age, unlike Tolkien’s orcs but very much like Gollum. ‘There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or other, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought too severe taxes upon them, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country’. The goblins hold a very reasonable grudge against the descendants of those who ‘caused their expulsion’ from ‘their former possessions’. And they continue to evolve as the book goes on, beginning as comic weaklings, and growing increasingly menacing as their revenge matures towards fruition. Things don’t stay stable in MacDonald’s world, and the most unsettling thing about this instability is that his grotesque antagonists are so closely allied – physically, mentally, geographically – to his heroines and heroes.

The Goblins’ plot to seize the house where Irene lives is a plot to recover their own. Their desire to abduct Irene is a violent expression of the desire to reunite two communities that were violently separated. Humans made the goblins, and the proximity between the two species seems to be confirmed by Curdie’s obsession with them, and by the fact that his guiding thread at one point leads him straight into the arms of the goblin royal family. Even their distorted animals are terrifying because of their parodic humanity: ‘what increased [their] gruesomeness was that, from constant domestic, or indeed rather family association with the goblins, their countenances had grown in grotesque resemblance to the human’. MacDonald hints here that there has been interbreeding between goblins and animals, as we know there has been between humans and goblins (that’s why the goblin Queen has toes). In his post-Darwinian universe the grand hierarchy of species – the Great Chain of Being – no longer exists, and anyone can become anyone or anything else, given time, habit and inclination.

The structure of the book reinforces this idea of the potential for slippage between one condition and another. There are three principal families in the book: the princess’s dysfunctional family, in which the father is mostly absent and the mother dead; Curdie’s family, whose male members labour underground or work secretly after working hours to expose the plots of the goblins; and the goblin royal family. All three families are dominated by their women: the great great grandmother who watches over Irene; Curdie’s mother, who seems in effect to be the great great grandmother’s younger sibling; and the goblin Queen, who conspires to overthrow the other two families while concealing their close family resemblance by hiding her human toes inside a pair of granite shoes. Threads link the families: the cord or ‘clue’ Curdie uses to find his way to and from the maze of tunnels bored by the goblins, and which leads him to them time and again; the magical thread spun by Irene’s great great grandmother, which leads her first to Curdie and later to Curdie’s mother. The threads insist on the links that bind princess to miner, miner to goblin, goblin to princess.

The ruling classes and their servants struggle to contain the younger generation, twelve-year-old Curdie and eight-year-old Irene, in the places to which their class and age should properly restrict them. Irene is confined to her bed, Curdie cooped up in the mine, or in a locked room in the great house where the princess lives, or in a hole in the goblin palace. (The great house and the goblin palace don’t treat him very differently – he’s even shot by the princess’s guard, who think at first he’s a goblin, then a thief, unable to rid their minds of settled assumptions about the habits and intentions of the poor). The same urge to cabin, crib and confine – on the part of others, on the part of themselves – is what twisted the goblins’ bodies and minds into ‘gruesomeness’. But Curdie and Irene resist enclosure, running up and down the mountainside, scurrying through tunnels, staying up all night, making friends with unsuitable strangers. And in the end their energy breaks down the artificial barriers that divide the kingdom. Irene is found by Curdie in his mother’s arms; Curdie is invited by Irene’s father to share a communal meal in the great house, with the other miners, like long-lost relatives. By this time the nature of class has already been questioned by the narrator, who insists that ‘there is some ground for supposing that Curdie was not a miner only, but a prince as well’; just as the princess is, for Curdie’s mother, ‘a good girl […] and that’s more than being a princess’.

The book ends with a deluge which underscores the point. Curdie and Irene live in a seemingly solid landscape – the most solid imaginable, a land of mountains. But under and through and across the mountains, water flows. It menaces the miners, sustains the gardens of the great house, and forms an essential part of the goblins’ plots against their former rulers, as if the water were somehow an expression of the class system. But at the climax of the novel, when the goblins unleash what is intended to be a watery vengeance on the humans, the flood goes awry thanks to the miners’ intervention. Instead of overwhelming the mines as the goblins had hoped, the floodwaters sweep through their own tunnels – exposing their kinship to the miners in the process, as they are drowned by the very same element which is most feared by their fellow stone-workers. But the water also bursts out of crevices in the mountainside, and threatens to overwhelm both the miner’s cottage where Curdie lives and the great house of the princess. Both these structures are buildings, so both are vulnerable to the same physical threat to their foundations. The members of the princess’s household seek refuge with the miners’ families; and later it’s the miners who drain the great house so they can go home. When the house is drained it turns out to be full of goblin corpses, the symbolic remains of a rigid class system that has now (perhaps) been overthrown. The feast thrown for the miners by the King announces a new entente cordiale between the workers and the ruling classes, whereby both are respected by their opposite numbers and all deserving citizens are assumed to have princely blood.

But MacDonald doesn’t leave the goblins rigid and unchanging. The surviving goblins undergo another metamorphosis: ‘Their skulls became softer as well as their hearts, and their feet grew harder, and by degrees they became friendly with the inhabitants of the mountain and even the miners’. This process turns them into people ‘very much like the Scotch Brownies’; so they end the book as Scots, just like MacDonald. It’s typical of MacDonald to acknowledge his own kinship with the antagonist-victims of his narrative.

Fluid identities, then, are key to this book, as they were to Phantastes. And the most fluid of identities in the book belong to the women. Irene’s great great grandmother and Curdie’s mother don’t seem to be restricted to the class or time into which they were born. They aren’t rigid in their judgements of others. They don’t bully or patronize the children in their care when they fail to follow instructions. But they’re also concealed from sight, as if in acknowledgement that MacDonald’s culture wasn’t yet ready to accommodate them. The great great grandmother stays hidden in the attic, and cannot be seen even by Curdie until he too has learned to cultivate the flexibility she embodies – no other man sees her, except the King on one occasion. The mother stays hidden in the cottage. In the book’s final chapters it’s Curdie who is most active, plunging through flooded rivers, carrying Irene to safety, and riding the King’s own charger in a successful mission to save some horses from a flooded stable. It’s a reversal of the usual class structures of Victorian romance, but not of the gender structures that were challenged earlier in the novel – as when the Princess rescued Curdie from the goblin dungeon. MacDonald was a visionary and a radical; but he was not so much of a fantasist as all that.

George MacDonald, Phantastes (1858)

PhantastesGeorge MacDonald’s Phantastes has always read to me like a journey into the heart of a Victorian house: the sort of journey experienced by the young heroine of his children’s book The Princess and the Goblin when she wanders through endless corridors full of doors till she finds the secret stairway leading to the forgotten room where her great great grandmother lives, surviving on pigeon’s eggs, air and wisdom. The middle-class Victorian house was insistently alive. Furniture was elaborately carved with foliage; cabinets full of pottery were displayed, often in the shapes of animals and people; cornices sprouted acanthus leaves and ceiling roses blossomed; book covers and frontispieces swarmed with flowers, beasts and trees. Phantastes opens with the unlocking of a desk in a study, whose interior turns out to contain a living being, a miniature woman of the kind you might find on a Victorian mantelpiece or casual table. A little later the narrator’s room, with its grass-like carpet, its foliage-carved table, its green marble washstand, morphs into the forest glade it was designed to resemble, like Max’s room in Where the Wild Things Are. The journey through Fairy Land that follows alternates between houses of different kinds – cottages, palaces, towers – and a pathless forest. But the forest is the kind of wilderness encountered in old romances, and calls books to mind rather than places, with its fairies, dryads, monsters and knights errant. Each chapter is headed by an epigram, duly attributed to its author; and the narrator’s adventures are punctuated by acts of reading, beginning with the fairy tale read to him by his little sister on the night before he opens the desk. In fact, the story never leaves the house in which it began, and the narrator keeps emerging from his adventures like a reader lifting his head from a book in which he has been immersed, to catch a fleeting glimpse of the life he led before he started reading – then plunging back into the story, where all the action that really matters to him is taking place.

One could say, in fact, that the story never leaves its narrator’s head – that it’s a kind of pre-modernist experiment in Woolfian stream of consciousness. As its title suggests, this book is the fantasy par excellence, because it concerns itself with the imagination, analysing its operations with the seriousness and concentration of a scientist. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, where the word originates, ‘Phantastes’ is the part of the brain where the images collected by the senses are stored before being processed by the understanding and stowed away in the orderly cabinets of the memory. It’s an uneasy faculty, whose physical form is a gloomy young man with ‘hollow beetle browes’ and ‘sharpe staring eyes’ who claims to be able to foresee the future. The room he inhabits in the front part of the human head is painted with ‘infinite shapes of things’, including non-existent beasts like centaurs and hippodames (sea-horses); while the buzzing flies that fill it have a more worrying significance, since they represent:

…idle thoughts and fantasies,
Devices, dreames, opinions unsound,
Shewes, visions, sooth-sayes, and prophesies,
And all that fained is, as leasings, tales, and lies.

The linkage of fantasy or imagination with ‘lies’ and ‘opinions unsound’ articulates an anxiety about the imagination which is very specific to the period of the Reformation when Spenser was writing, when each religious faction saw this faculty as responsible for spawning the hordes of dangerous fictions that threatened to obscure and even obliterate the Gospel truth. Spenser’s House of Alma – the human body – is under siege by a ‘troublous rout’ who are associated both with the Catholic Irish, who resisted the Reformation, and with the troublesome flies that buzz around Phantastes’s chamber (the rout resembles a ‘swarme of Gnats at eventide’ rising out of the ‘fennes of Allan’). The imagination, then, spills out of its confines in the head and floods into religion, politics, social struggle. As well as receiving images the imagination bodies them forth (as Shakespeare put it), populating the world with the strange physical and philosophical fusions that bedeck its interior walls. It paints as well as being painted, colouring what its possessor sees until the absurdest propositions and most doubtful doctrines seem to be empirically demonstrable – objectively true. And all this without recourse to the more settled, rational portion of the brain, the understanding. No wonder Spenser and his contemporaries worried about its potential influence on religious doctrine and political dissidence.

Yet despite its suspicion of the imagination Spenser’s Faerie Queene is also a love song to it, as the Romantic poets recognized when they adopted variations of Spenser’s stanza form in place of the couplets beloved of the eighteenth-century poets. And MacDonald shares the Elizabethan poet’s view of the potential deadliness of the imagination, precisely because he finds it so infinitely seductive, and because he believes so strongly in its capacity to reshape the world by casting its own interior light upon it. When he first crosses the border into Fairyland the narrator discovers he has fairy blood, thanks to the empirical evidence of his vision. He can see fairies as only fairies can, both the pretty flower fairies of the Victorian decorative tradition and the hideously clawed tree-dwelling ogres of Gothic legend – both the benign woman of the beech tree and the vampiric woman of the alder. It’s his fairy vision, perhaps, that enables him to see the female ‘spirit of marble’ in a cave and release her from her prison, as a great sculptor might have done – in which case having fairy blood is equivalent to being a verbal or visual artist. But this vision can be distorted, as it is when he later releases a quasi-Jungian shadow from a cupboard, which interposes itself between his eyes and anything beautiful he encounters, rendering it ‘commonplace’ and ugly and encouraging him to damage it and drive it away. His vision’s capacity to shape the world, then, can operate in two directly opposite ways, that is, to beautify or defile it. The same is clearly true of art, for MacDonald – especially the verbal arts; and this is why he represents the act of reading in his novels as such an adventure.

Like The Faerie Queene, then, MacDonald’s narrative is full of beautiful visions and deadly traps, and it is difficult for the narrator to distinguish between them. This is not, however, true of MacDonald’s readers, who often have the horrible feeling that they could warn the young man against the dangers he is running into if he’d only listen. This is because the implied reader of Phantastes has been educated in the ways of romance, and above all of the fantastic romances of the middle ages and the early modern periods, which underwent so many reprintings in the nineteenth century. Romance writers like Spenser expected their audiences to take an active part in the narrative, identifying the nature of each new menace or potential ally through a host of clues embedded in the language of the poem or story. MacDonald’s implied reader knows exactly how to do this – and ironically so does the narrator, who is always recognizing retrospectively that he should never have fallen into what was in the end a thoroughly familiar act of folly. But the traps he springs on himself are as attractive to him as the elusive beauties he is always pursuing; it’s as if the possibility of the former is what makes the latter so alluring. Indeed he himself – MacDonald’s narrator – has two sides to him, as his name suggests, since ‘Anodos’ can mean (according to my rather dodgy source in Wikipedia) either ‘pathless’ or ‘ascent’.

In fact Anodos has more than two identities. If the structure of the book is like a nest of Chinese boxes – a mind within a book within a desk within a library within a house – then the narrator has a plurality of nested selves. He is both Anodos and Anodos’s shadow; but he’s also the Percival-like knight who has been disgraced, and who sets out to erase the stains of his disgrace through a lifetime of struggle. He reads about this knight at the beginning, in a cottage on the border of Fairyland, and keeps meeting him throughout the rest of the book, as if he is meeting his future self or some imagined alternative version of his current self, an alter ego. Again, Anodos is both the heroic young man in the last ‘act’ of the novel, one of three brethren who kill three monstrous giants, and the monstrous egoist who preens himself on this victory and sets out to capture and imprison weaker knights, like another giant, as further proof of his power. He is both the squire who humbly devotes himself to the service of Sir Percival in this final section and the youth who can clearly see the nature of a corrupt religion when the knight cannot, and gives up his life to destroy it. He ‘is’ effectively all the male characters in his story, in the same sense as a male reader or artist ‘is’ all the characters or shapes he conjures up.

It would be easy to conclude that all the female figures in the book are also constructs of the male reader-artist’s brain; but the book is dedicated, it seems to me, to the task of liberating them from him – of developing what may eventually turn out to be a grown-up relationship between the male narrator and the women he either meets or imagines. I suggested recently that William Morris’s The Well at the World’s End dedicates itself to creating a civilized relationship between men and women, as against the kind of hierarchical relationship between them privileged by Morris’s culture. The same could be said of Phantastes, since the narrator is again and again sent on his way by female potentates: the miniature woman he finds in his father’s desk (some kind of manifestation of Anodos’s dead mother?); the beech woman who is waiting to become a ‘real woman’, perhaps in the sense that she is waiting for the narrator to stop fetishizing women, making idols of them; and above all the great great grandmother figure he finds in a cottage on an island, who sends him out on successive adventures in an effort to shape him. As Iuean Ledger has pointed out to me, most of the readers in Phantastes are women, and we’ve already established that reading is for MacDonald an energetically active art. The evidence for this view of reading is in his tremendous essay on ‘The Fantastic Imagination’, where he says of his own stories: ‘It might be better that you should read your own meaning into [them]. That may be a higher operation of your intellect than the mere reading of mine out of [them]: your meaning may be superior to mine’. And the women in Phantastes are always reading their own meaning into things, to the consternation of the narrator, who cannot follow the operations of their intellects any more than he can follow the fiercely agile motion of their fleeing bodies.

He never succeeds in catching up with the marble woman he releases near the beginning of the story – I think because he never quite succeeds in thinking of her as anything other than his own creation, with the result that he is always looking for her in the wrong place. And the end of the story finds him alone, unpartnered, looking tentatively towards his future in England, but unsure as to whether he will be able to ‘translate the experience of my travels […] into common life’. The danger of the male imagination in this book is that it makes women what it wants them to be and cannot see what they are as independent beings. It also makes men into what they see themselves as being, which robs them of their own independence, their capacity for change. The real identities of men and women are multiple and mobile, and manifest themselves at odd moments throughout the narrative, as when the narrator encounters his alter egos (the shadow, Percival, the giant knight), and is thrown into confusion, no longer certain who he is. The constant shifting of a person’s identity is a recurring theme in MacDonald’s work: the impossibility of pinning a person down, of defining them without degrading them, is equally a concern of his celebrated story ‘The Golden Key’. But Phantastes is also about something else: the difficulty of achieving dialogue. And that brings us to the vexed question of MacDonald’s prose style.

It’s an awkward, knotty style, made up of many short clauses separated by far too many commas. There’s very little conversation in it (as Alice complains about the book she’s listening to at the beginning of Alice in Wonderland), which sometimes makes it hard to digest. But the absence of conversation also reinforces the impression one gets of inhabiting the inmost recesses of a person’s skull, peering out through the eyes without paying much attention to the evidence of the other senses, except sometimes for the hearing (MacDonald is a passionate lover of music). And the convolutions of each sentence reinforce the impression that MacDonald or his narrator is reporting back on inexplicable experiences he has really undergone, struggling to convey them with precision because they matter to him, although their meaning is elusive.

Here’s an example:

‘All this time, as I went on through the wood, I was haunted with the feeling that other shapes, more like my own in size and mien, were moving about at a little distance on all sides of me. But as yet I could discern none of them, although the moon was high enough to send a great many of her rays down between the trees, and these rays were unusually bright, and sight-giving, notwithstanding she was only a half-moon. I constantly imagined, however, that forms were visible in all directions except that to which my gaze was turned; and that they only became invisible, or resolved themselves into other woodland shapes, the moment my looks were directed towards them.’

The striking thing about this passage is all the buts, althoughs, notwithstandings, ors, and howevers with which it’s filled, as the narrator strives to explain to us the precise meteorological and luminescent conditions that make it surprising he couldn’t see anything precisely, or that what he saw when he did succeed in getting things into focus was nothing like what he had expected to see. The words ‘haunted’ and ‘imagined’ act here as lenses held up to the reader’s eyes in a kind of thought experiment, as a means of demonstrating how the state of a person’s mind affects their vision. MacDonald didn’t have to write like this; The Princess and the Goblin is a masterclass in stylistic clarity. It was only by using this style that he could give Phantastes its peculiar tone, which is that of a scientist trying to describe an experience for which all his training in logic and empiricism has not prepared him.

It’s satisfying, then, to think that the book was published the year before On the Origin of Species.