Fantasies of Complicity in the Second World War

This essay was first published in the Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature, ed. Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 516-23.

PicassoGuernicaAfter the bombing of Guernica in April 1937, many novelists of the Left in Europe turned away from avant garde experiment and took to realism, shocked into reengaging with the material conditions that underpin mid-twentieth century culture – the ‘objective reality’ of the Marxist philosopher-critic Lukacs – by the casual obliteration of the Basque capital by a fleet of Nazi bombers.1 But this event seems also to have led to an explosion of fantastic narratives of unprecedented inventiveness and complexity, written by novelists of many political shades united only in their opposition to fascism. By ‘fantasy’ and the ‘fantastic’ here I mean literary texts that deal in the impossible, foregrounding their own violation of social, physical and technological codes or laws: a loose ragbag of fictions which embraces what we now call Utopias, Dystopias, works of science fiction, alternate histories, secondary world fantasies and magic realism. With the exception of the first, these categories had not yet been formally defined in the 1930s, nor had the distinctions between them yet taken on ‘overtones of that bitter opposition between high and mass culture crucial to the self-definition of high modernism’, as Fredric Jameson puts it.2 Perhaps as a result, writers of all backgrounds showed themselves willing to experiment freely with one or more of these genres or modes as a means of articulating the dreadful irruption of fantasy into the material world that was Nazism.

51gFydml8eL._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_The notion of Nazism as realized fantasy – the embodiment of a patriarchal, militaristic nightmare – is directly expressed in Katharine Burdekin’s celebrated novel of 1937, Swastika Night.3 Set in a future Europe which has endured Nazi rule for 700 years, the novel describes a chance meeting between an Englishman called Alfred and a free-thinking German Knight, whose family has secretly preserved a heretical history book for many generations. The book demonstrates that the Nazi version of history is no more than an elaborate lie designed to bolster the related myths of Aryan racial supremacy, of martial prowess as the highest human value, and of the natural ascendancy of men over women. The Knight’s presentation of this book to Alfred both reverses and reinforces the Englishman’s entire world view. Alfred has long imagined himself to be intellectually equal or even ‘superior’ to many Germans he knows – a genetic impossibility according to Nazi doctrine – while dismissing his imaginings as puerile daydreams with no possible basis in fact. Now he realizes that this dismissive attitude to his own self-assessment is the product of conditioning: ‘Everything’s fantastic if it is out of the lines you’re brought up on’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 98). The Knight’s book reveals to him the validity of his own fantasies, the bankruptcy of the Nazi intellectual tradition, and the patent absurdity of the Nazi version of history, and this tallies with Alfred’s reading of the material evidence provided by archaeological remains he has found back home in England. The ruling elite are exposed as constructors of elaborate castles in the air, the lone fantasist as an impeccable logician.

Swastika_nightBurdekin’s imagined future – which is itself an impossible vision of how history could unfold, according to the preface to the second edition of the novel (published by the Left Book Club in 1940), since the contradictions of Nazism could never last so long (Burdekin 1940, p. 4) – shares with other fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s an unnerving willingness to acknowledge the complicity of its author’s gender and nation in the rise of Nazism. According to the Knight – whose name is von Hess – envy of the military might of the British Empire served as ‘one of the motive forces of German imperialism’ (Burdekin 1940, p. 78). And both British and German women acquiesced with enthusiasm in their own subjugation. They shaved their heads, the Knight claims, and made themselves ugly so as to bolster the case for Nazi misogyny, in the belief that catering to these anti-feminist fantasies will somehow strengthen their status as objects of male approval and desire. Of course, the opposite has happened, and by the time we meet Alfred and von Hess all male desire for women has long been eradicated, to be replaced by a form of homoerotic desire between men which is merely the corollary to their disgust with the female of the species. What convinces Alfred to accept the Knight’s heretical version of history is a photograph that reawakens the possibility of mutual desire between men and women: the image of a small, dark, paunchy Hitler (as opposed to the blond giant of myth) standing beside a tall, square-jawed figure which Alfred takes at first for a lovely boy, until the Knight tells him it is a girl, a being inconceivably far removed from the cowering shaven gnomes of Alfred’s experience. This restoration of women to desirability makes possible a future for them; Alfred ends the book with the vision of a world where his daughter can hope to exist as something better than a breeding animal whose sole function is the fabrication of boy soldiers for some always-deferred future war in Asia. For Burdekin, a Lesbian who felt unable to write freely about gender politics except under a male pseudonym (she published novels as Murray Constantine), imagining a better future for women may have seemed almost as revolutionary in 1930s Britain as it would have done in a Nazi Britain 700 years later.

n39413Burdekin is of course not alone among fantasy writers of the 30s and 40s in taking British complicity with fascism as her subject. She is also not alone in identifying the particular social group she belonged to (in this case, European women in general) as being specially implicated in this complicity. Before Guernica, the Permanent Secretary for the Irish Department of Education, Joseph O’Neill, wrote a novel about fascism in Britain called Land Under England (1935); and although his recognition of the British capacity to absorb totalitarian ideologies was informed by the experience of British imperialism in Ireland, his particular focus in painting a totalitarian state is his own specialist area, the education of the young.4 A young man retraces the steps of his long-lost father by descending into a hole near Hadrian’s Wall. He finds himself in an underground landscape lit by luminous fungi and infested by monsters – grotesque embodiments of the horrors that lurk in the human mind (O’Neill was a passionate Freudian). Further down, he discovers a race of human beings descended from the Roman soldiers who built the Wall. These people are still recognizably Roman in costume and technology, still locked into a militaristic ideology, but utterly removed from their ancestors in one remarkable way: they have raised the skill of mind-control to an astonishing new level. Every citizen has his or her mind telepathically shaped in childhood to the precise specifications of some designated occupation. Soldiers, labourers and craftspeople are trained up to be incapable of independent thought, while all the mental powers of the ruling elite are directed towards monitoring the psychological state of their slavish subjects. What drove these descendants of Romans to adopt this mental dictatorship was fear: an ungovernable fear of the monster-infested darkness, which drove many of their number to suicide before the techniques of mind control were brought to perfection. The novel’s narrator too experiences this fear, and finds himself on the verge of giving up his mind to the rulers of the underworld as his father has done before him, surrendering his individual will to the requirements of a collective war against the flesh-devouring beasts of the underworld, until the memory of his strong-minded mother and the sunlit world she inhabits provokes him to resist. In O’Neill’s novel, then, as in Burdekin’s, the idea of empowered women stimulates resistance to fascism, which is represented in both cases as a peculiarly aggressive manifestation of patriarchy – the next evolutionary phase, perhaps, of mid-twentieth century phallocentrism.

The underground Romans of Land Under England are clearly fascists – the fasces being a symbol of the ancient Roman republic, adapted for their purpose by the followers of Mussolini. But the Roman model also underlay the British Empire, a link enshrined in the centrality of Latin to the British private school system. For the Irishman O’Neill, the narrator’s father with his obsession with Rome stands for a pernicious obsession with ancient bloodlines among the British aristocracy; his family name is Julian and he traces his descent from the governors of Roman Britain. This obsession is kept in check by his bond with the narrator’s mother, whose Northern English family stands for technological innovation and industrial labour. But as soon as the conjugal bond is broken by the father’s departure to fight in the First World War – which he sees as a war in defence of Roman civilization against the forces of barbarism – the delicate balance between the father’s fantasies and the mother’s practicality is destroyed, so that it later seems natural for the father to throw in his lot with the subterranean warriors. At the end of the novel, the narrator’s now homicidal progenitor must be killed before the young man can return to the surface. As though assisting at a grotesque symbolic re-enactment of Ireland’s emancipation from its paternalistic British oppressors, the young man watches as his father flings himself into a crowd of toadlike carnivores, which ritualistically cut his throat. In the process, the older man’s veneration for imperial Rome is reduced to a suicidal commitment to violence, to patriarchy, to the assertion of his own physical and mental supremacy over all potential rivals. The father once dead, the young man is free to determine his own future, liberated from the nightmare of history – though conscious still of the lurking menace of an army of Roman automata beneath the wholesome English soil, ready to burst out and overwhelm the island if it can find a convenient exit.

md5302235610In describing his fantastic underground society, the educator O’Neill dwells on the agonizing educational processes of the underworld, as teachers ‘root up and destroy the deepest sources of those torrents of vitality’ in young children – curiosity and wakening intelligence – in order to mould them into components of an efficient military machine (132). The Welsh journalist and broadcaster Howell Davies, by contrast, writing under the unlikely pseudonym of ‘Andrew Marvell’, places his own trade of journalism at the centre of his novel of fascist Britain, Minimum Man (1938).5 This ‘story of the counter-revolution of nineteen seventy’ (Davies 1953, p. 5) tells of a reporter’s accidental discovery of a new phase in human evolution: a breed of men and women no more than a foot in height, naked and covered with fur, whose astonishing powers of mind and body enable them to initiate a coup that overthrows the fascist dictator of Britain and installs one of their number in his place. The reporter, a man called Swan, uses his professional skills and contacts first to ferret out information about the origins of this new species (they turn out to have been spontaneously conceived by a rural Welshwoman) and later to help coordinate their anti-fascist coup. But even as he does so he worries that he is merely replacing one dictatorship with another. The phrase ‘Minimum Man’ refers not just to the size of the new species but also to their willingness to strip down every question of morality and social organization to its most basic components – their freedom, that is, from the trammels of history. Uncooperative members of their breed are mercilessly slaughtered for the collective good. Human beings who threaten their safety are casually disposed of. Love is as unknown among them as monogamy. Unencumbered by taboos, they are both capable of imagining better ways to organize society – a miniature woman speculates at one point about the benefits of matriarchy (Davies 1953, p. 95) – and disconcertingly comfortable with their status as harbingers of the end of the human species. Although they throw in their lot with the anti-fascists, their confidence in their own superiority makes them sound fascistic. At the end of the novel the future under their regime is uncertain; but as one human woman puts it – an old partisan who has fought against the Nazis and the Franco regime – if they turn out to be as bad or worse than the dictator they have toppled, ‘I shall fight them… I will not be a slave’ (Davies 1953, p. 214).

82fe901a09b14a9c63d3987fa98a720fHowell Davies conceives, then, of a future quasi-fascistic dictatorship which is like him spawned in Wales, whose cause is aided and abetted by his own journalistic profession, and whose paramilitary coup is staged in the part of London where he lived, Highgate Hill, only yards from the cemetery where Marx is buried. Minimum Man sprang fully-fledged from Davies’s head, and is entwined with Davies’s cultural and intellectual environment, so that his complicity with its imagined conquest of Britain is both profound and complicated. But unlike their knowing creator, his miniature assassin-dictators have a disarming innocence about them: a bluntness of speech and a refusal to countenance the wickedness of human adults which suggest another explanation for his decision to make them the size of newborn infants. They are shocked and disgusted by the perverse social arrangements of the ancient world in which they find themselves; and their insistence on improving it makes them attractive as well as horrifying. This notion of a disturbing innocence in the adherents of fascism crops up quite often in the fantasies of the 30s and 40s. One of Burdekin’s main characters is Hermann, whose unquestioning acceptance of Nazi doctrine comes second only to his passionate love of the Englishman Alfred, and who is described by the Knight von Hess as ‘an innocent man’ despite the fact that he kills a young boy in the early pages of the novel (Burdekin 1940, p. 127). As it happens, his love for Alfred turns Hermann in the end into a passionate defender of Alfred’s one-man anti-fascist insurrection. But in Winifred Ashton’s anti-fascist fantasy The Arrogant History of White Ben (1939) – written under her penname Clemence Dane – the paradoxical innocence of the bloodstained protagonist undergoes no such redemptory volte-face.

UnknownWhite Ben is an ordinary scarecrow – accidentally brought to life by a little girl holding a mandrake – who goes on to become the fascist dictator of England. If this sounds an implausible premise, it is made convincing by the sheer intensity of Ashton’s descriptions of Ben and the countryside that makes him. Ben springs from the fertile English soil, and a litany of flower-names and tree-terms accompanies him on his road to power: morning-glory, mayweed, briony, horse chestnut, campion. He is constructed, too, from the old garments that clothe him: ‘a priest’s vestment, a soldier’s gauntlets and civilian mackintosh, a gentleman’s pleasure-hat’, and the operating-coat of a surgeon killed in the disastrous war of the nineteen-fifties (Ashton 1939, p. 20). ‘Men’s memories’, in fact, are ‘buttoned about him’. And as he marches towards London, gathering followers on the way from among the human debris left behind by the recent conflict, he accumulates a stock of phrases and attitudes from men and women of all classes, so that when he is in London perpetrating his atrocities both the aristocratic Lady Pont and the working-class butler Trelawney recognize their own language spilling from his turnip lips in justification of his crimes against humanity (Ashton 1939, pp. 348-9).

6382780-MBeing a scarecrow, the chief lessons Ben learns from his friends are lessons of fear and hatred, and his career, which begins as a crusade against crows, quickly becomes a massacre of people, since everyone thinks he uses the word ‘crows’ metaphorically. The hatreds of his friends become his hatreds; but unlike them he was assembled with the sole purpose of acting on his dislikes, and he has an uncanny gift for provoking his allies, too, to aggression: especially those acts of mutual self-destruction that are so often deployed by nascent military regimes, pitting friends against friends to consolidate their power. As a result, the love and hero-worship Ben excites in their hearts turn to bitterness and loathing, and he quickly finds himself isolated, a living tool that has been used by England’s new military governors and can now be dispensed with. But when he disappears at the story’s end, worn out by the weight of hatred and expectation that has been laid on his flimsy shoulders, his story is retold as myth. Monuments are erected to his memory, and the tale of his journey from birth to power is retold again and again by those who knew him, with a solemnity that belies the appalling preposterousness of its turnip-headed hero. He becomes once again a figurehead of militarism, the fantastic nature of his existence as a living scarecrow underscoring the vein of fantasy that feeds the fascistic rule of force.

Winifred Ashton was a playwright and screenwriter, and as one reads the Arrogant History it becomes clear that Ben’s career is made up of a series of performances. His awakening is described with the visual precision of a set of cinematic storyboards. The central section of the novel takes place in a country house, and the dialogue in it resembles that of a black comedy, something by Ashton’s good friend Noel Coward, directed in this case to the appalling ends of overthrowing a legitimate government and restarting a recently abandoned war. Ben is forever making speeches, and the fact that his words are not his own (he has picked up every phrase, crow-like, from scraps of other people’s conversation) reinforces his association with Ashton’s professional life among playhouses and film studios. We keep hearing his story in retrospect as having been performed in theatres and music halls – a device that both places a Brechtian distance between reader and narrative and brings the narrative closer to the world of Winifred Ashton. One can imagine her exclaiming when the scarecrow has grown bloodthirsty and bewildered, as Lady Pont exclaims at one point, ‘Oh Ben, Ben, don’t put it upon me!’ (Ashton 1939, p. 315). It’s as if Ashton wishes to feel in her bones, as it were, the truth of the book’s last sentence: that Ben is ‘no more than the wish fulfilment of a backward people, and that he personifies in their folk-lore the natural human instinct to maltreat the harmless and destroy the happy’ (Ashton 1939, p. 420). What was ‘natural’ for her was a sense of theatricality, and she had the courage to see how her own performer’s instinct could translate itself into the instrument of violent oppression.

These four now little-known fantasies demonstrate the extent to which anti-fascist writers of the Western Archipelago were prepared to figure fascism as emerging from the dark recesses of their own brains. Complicity with fascism among certain elements of British and Irish society in the 1930s is of course an attested fact; but there is something startling and, on reflection, impressive about these writers’ readiness to suggest that they cannot so easily exonerate themselves from some degree of participation in the circumstances that gave rise to the fascistic state of mind. Ashton refers several times in the Arrogant History to the psychologically and economically crippling terms imposed on Germany by its enemies at the end of the Great War; terms which planted and cultivated the seeds of resentment that sprang up as Nazism. O’Neill reminds us that every mind contains its monsters – the sources of reasonable or unreasoning terror – and that acquiescence in dictatorship can be a form of self-defence against those monsters. For Burdekin, fear of the other sex can dominate the unconscious of either gender, and Nazism is one means by which patriarchy may choose to express its gynophobic paranoia. And Davies, like O’Neill and Burdekin, sees fascism as springing from the desire to engineer a Darwinian evolution away from a condition of subservience to all these fears and paranoias. Once one has noticed this theme of complicity running through the obscurer fantastic novels of the 30s and 40s, one begins to see it everywhere in the work of better-known fantasy writers of the period. For a while, novels, novelists and Nazism were woven together in a horrible symbiotic knot, and it seems as if fantasy was a form or mode particularly well suited to undertake the controversial task of addressing this symbiosis.

15042-b-obrien_treti.straznikThe brilliant Irish humorist Brian O’Nolan, for example – better known as Flann O’Brien – wrote a novel in 1940 in which the two qualities for which he was most celebrated, wit and knowledge, find themselves fused into the components of a kind of Irish atom bomb, always on the verge of detonation.6 The unnamed protagonist of The Third Policeman murders an old man in order to fund his learned commentary on the mad philosopher de Selby. He then finds his way to a mysterious police station filled with mind-troubling inventions, where he is summarily convicted of the crime he has just committed, despite the total absence of any evidence against him. While awaiting execution he is shown around an underground facility which seems in some obscure way to control the fantastic world he has strayed into; his policemen friends must constantly fine-tune its arcane mechanisms to prevent the whole shebang from exploding and wiping out humanity. All this is told in scintillating comic prose like a more elaborate version of the anecdotes O’Nolan unfolded in his famous column for the Irish Times, the Cruiskeen Lawn. Europe, it would seem on the evidence of this novel, has got itself enmeshed in an appalling practical joke, which will not release its victims until its inexorable logic has been worked out – at the expense of their lives or their collective sanity.

3552261860_06935049d4_oAnother Irishman, the scholar C. S. Lewis, wrote a trio of science fiction novels between 1938 and 1945 as ‘propaganda’ for Christianity – competing with, yet also likening itself to, the other forms of indoctrination that occupied the printing press and airwaves at the time of writing. In a fragment of a fourth novel, The Dark Tower, composed between 1938 and 1940 but not printed till the 1970s, he imagines a parallel world of ‘Othertime’ which is rapidly approaching his own time and place: a world where horned dictators, served by a goose-stepping, brainwashed militia, occupy a tower which is a precise replica of the new library building at the University of Cambridge.7 This tower contains a library, like its English counterpart; but it is a library of atrocities, whose books record knowledge obtained through the torture and death of children. The threat that drives the book’s plot is that the tower and the Cambridge Library will converge, and that when they do their environments will combine, and England be enslaved by the horned dictators. Lewis had read Land Under England, and reacted to its horrible yet potent premise by transposing O’Neill’s fascistic automata into the heart of the community he loved most, that of the British intellectual elite.

Once_future_king_coverT. H. White, who spent the war years in Ireland as a conscientious objector, wrote most of his Arthurian fantasy sequence The Once and Future King (1958) in the 1930s and early 40s, reconfiguring the global conflict as a civil war in his heart’s homeland, medieval Britain.8 Mervyn Peake began the first of his Gormenghast books, Titus Groan (1946), while vainly seeking employment as a war artist, and made its protagonist a young man who is half-heroic and wholly power-hungry, a would-be dictator who poses in succession as artist, actor, clown, adventurer and ladykiller – very much like Peake himself.9 Finally, when Lewis’s friend J. R. R. Tolkien assembled the most influential work of modern fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, between 1938 and 1949, he began and ended it in a fictional Shire that closely resembles the country round his home town of Oxford.10 As the final volume of the sequence draws to a close its hobbit heroes return home to find that the Shire has been taken over by a quasi-fascistic government run by the former wizard Saruman. The hobbits’ journey through the war-torn lands of Middle Earth has, among its other purposes, that of preparing them for this eventuality and teaching them the appropriate response to it: namely, the extirpation of profiteering invaders, the naming and shaming of collaborators, and the demolition of the industrial architecture that has fouled their beloved rural environment. The particular journey of Tolkien’s principal hobbit, Frodo, had as its end the destruction of a Ring that conferred invisibility; and it is only when Frodo finds himself confronted with Saruman on his own doorstep that this invisibility stands exposed as (in part) a metaphor for the secret workings of complicity that can transform even the neighbourly Shire, in Frodo’s absence, into productive ground for totalitarianism.

In twenty-first century parlance, the word fantasy is often used to mean a form of wish-fulfilment, the conscious or unconscious fashioning of simulacra of the sometimes forbidden things we most desire. British and Irish fantasists of the mid-century showed their readers that what they most desired sometimes bore a disturbing resemblance to what they most loathed: innocently murderous scarecrows, sadistic rulers with poisonous phallic horns in the middle of their foreheads, paternalistic instructors with total control over the minds of their pupils, brilliant, athletic, handsome miniature replacements for the bloated and obsolescent human species. They tell a version of the history of the mind in the 1930s and 40s which could not have been told in any other way. It is time we paid attention to this version.



  1. For Lukacs on ‘objective reality’ see his History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Boston, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972). He applies the concept to literature in The Historical Novel (London: Merlin Press, 1989). For the view that modernist experiment peaks in the 1920s and tails off in the 1930s ‘largely because of the dogmatic influence of the Soviet enforcement of socialist realism’, see Jane Goldman, Modernism, 1910-1945: Image to Apocalypse (Basingstoke and Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 28ff. and 214ff.
  2. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London and New York: Verso, 2005), p. 5; but see the whole of chapter 5, ‘The Great Schism’, for a discussion of the relationship between Science Fiction, Utopia and fantasy. On definitions of fantasy see Rosemary Jackson, Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (London and New York: Routledge, 1981), chapter 2.
  3. For Burdekin’s reaction to fascism, and especially the impact on her of the bombing of Guernica, see Daphne Patai’s Afterword to Burdekin’s The End of This Day’s Business (New York: The Feminist Press, 1989). For introducing me to the works of Burdekin and Winifred Ashton I am grateful to my mother, Elizabeth Maslen, who discusses them in her important book Political and Social Issues in British Women’s Fiction, 1928-1968 (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave, 2001).
  4. For O’Neill’s life and works see M. Kelly Lynch’s fine introduction to his last novel, The Black Shore, ed. Lynch (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000).
  5. For Davies’ life and work see Adrian Dannatt’s Foreword to Davies’s novel Congratulate the Devil, Library of Wales (Cardigan: Parthian, 2008).
  6. For O’Brien’s imagined complicity with the bombings of the 30s and 40s see R. W. Maslen, ‘Flann O’Brien’s Bombshells: At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman’, New Hibernia Review, vol. 10, no. 4 (Winter 2006), 84-104.
  7. For a detailed analysis of The Dark Tower and its relationship with O’Neill’s Land Under England see Robert W. Maslen, ‘Towards an Iconography of the Future: C. S. Lewis and the Scientific Humanists’, Inklings Jahrbuch für Literatur und Asthetik, Band 18 (2000), 222-249.
  8. For a fuller account of Peake’s anxieties about complicity, see Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), ed. R. W. Maslen, introduction; and R. W. Maslen, ‘Fantasies of War in Peake’s Uncollected Verse’, Peake Studies, Vol. 10, No. 4 (April 2008), 5-23.



Constantine, Murray [Katharine Burdekin], Swastika Night, Left Book Club Edition (London: Victor Gollancz, 1940).

Dane, Clemence [Winifred Ashton], The Arrogant History of White Ben (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1939).

Lewis, C. S., The Dark Tower and Other Stories (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1987).

Marvell, Andrew [Howell Davies], Minimum Man (Worcester and London: The Science Fiction Book Club, 1953).

O’Brien, Flann [Brian O’Nolan], The Third Policeman (London: Flamingo, 1993).

O’Neill, Joseph, Land under England (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987).

Peake, Mervyn, Titus Groan (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1946).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Fellowship of the Ring (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Two Towers (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1954).

Tolkien, J. R. R., The Return of the King (London: George Allen and Unwin,1955).

White, T. H., The Once and Future King (London: Collins, 1958).

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

White, T. H., The Witch in the Wood (London: Collins, 1939).

White, T. H., The Ill-Made Knight (London: Collins, 1940).

White, T. H., The Book of Merlyn (Austin, TS and London: University of Texas Press, 1977).




Paul Kearney, The Wolf in the Attic (2016)

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

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

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

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

Wytham Wood

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

The Political Imagination: Irish Fantasy Writers and the Easter Rising

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

James Stephens

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

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

Joseph Plunkett


oct20-2004 Ledwidge Pics
Francis Ledwidge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Dunsany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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