Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 3: These Mortals (1925)

[This is the last of three posts on Margaret Irwin’s best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here, and the second here. Enjoy!]

Cover design by John Robert Monsell, Irwin’s husband

Irwin’s second novel, These Mortals (1925), is an adult revisionist fairy tale, one of the few I can think of from the 1920s. The same decade saw the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Coming of the Fairies (1922) and Bernard Sleigh’s The Gates of Horn (1926), both of which purport to describe genuine encounters with the fairy world, tapping into the contemporary passion for the occult which pervades Still She Wished for Company. These Mortals, by contrast, is an anti-occult novel. The focus of attention in it is the world of ordinary human beings as experienced by the protagonist, Melusine the enchanter’s daughter, who is half a fairy and has been raised by her father in an isolation permeated by his enchantments. For her, human behaviour is a source of strangeness and fear more potent than anything supernatural. The book’s achievement is its success in permitting its readers to share her perspective: that is, to acknowledge the perverse combination of delight and destructiveness, desire and self-obsession, which dominates ruling-class culture between the wars – and to be astonished at it, as Melusine is, as an oxymoron more extreme than anything to be found between the pages of the colourful fairy books of Andrew Lang.

If Melusine is delighted and appalled by human culture, ‘these mortals’ take no interest whatever in the occult except as a means of concealing the truth about themselves for purposes of self-advancement. We discover this very early in the narrative when the enchanter’s daughter is introduced to a Prince at the human court. As she approaches him she happens to mention – in all innocence – that she has met him once before, coming out of a brothel. At once the Prince’s mother ascribes this apparent ‘memory’ to the foreign lady’s occult gifts: ‘Our little friend,’ she insists, ‘has the strangest fancies. You have already seen Prince Pharamond in your dreams, my dear? I knew it. The moment I saw your eyes, I said to myself, “She is psychic”’ (p. 42). The use of fairy lore to excuse sexual misconduct recalls Richard Corbet’s famous poem ‘The Fairies’ Farewell’, which implies that monks and nuns in the Middle Ages exploited supernatural stories to cover up their sexual tracks – visible ‘On many a grassy plain’ in the form of the trampled areas known as fairy rings. The question of whether or not fairy tales are ‘true’, as Conan Doyle attempted to prove in The Coming of the Fairies, is less important in Irwin’s text than the far more urgent question of how facts can be suppressed. Like Still She Wished, in other words, her book concerns itself with what has been left out of history – with the events that take place between the official accounts of any given period – and in particular with the question of how and why such omissions have been engineered by the ruling classes.

Melusina

Irwin’s novel is based on the legend of Melusine, long associated with the noble House of Lusignan in France. The legend tells of a romance between a knight and a fairy and their subsequent marriage, which is governed by a strict prenuptial contract reminiscent of the one that governs the marriage of Cupid and Psyche in Greek myth. The knight must not visit Melusine’s bedchamber, especially when she is giving birth or bathing her babies; if he does she will instantly leave him. Inevitably the knight breaks the contract and Melusine departs, but at this point her story parts company with that of Psyche, in that there is no happy ending. After Melusine’s departure she is only ever heard of by the knight’s descendants on the eve of some dire calamity, screaming and howling her heart out as she flies around the roofs of the ancestral castle. At the centre of any novel based on this legend, then, is likely to be a warning about transitoriness. Any moment of pleasure it contains – marriage, sex, a family – will be followed by an inevitable sundering, and the prospects for a Tolkien-esque recovery – a return to the innocent days of romantic wonder and delight, as recorded in fairy tales and adventure stories – are not good.

The most distinctive feature of the Lusignan story is Melusine herself. Instead of legs the fairy has the tail of a fish or serpent, and her children are sometimes said to have inherited similar bodily deformities, as Irwin’s novel reminds us (p. 26). Melusine’s body tells us, in other words, that she inhabits two adjacent worlds – that she lives between them; and her difference from the mortals she calamitously consorts with is immediately obvious to anyone who looks at her. Irwin’s protagonist, also named Melusine, has no tail, but the mortals who come in contact with her know at once that there is something ‘fishy’ about her, and it is this difference that threatens to isolate her from them as completely and permanently as her ancestor.

The title of Irwin’s second novel, like her first, contains a literary allusion. The trickster-fairy Robin Goodfellow in Midsummer Night’s Dream utters the words ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’ after watching the antics of two sets of unfaithful lovers and some amateur actors in a wood. The phrase from Shakespeare’s play, in other words, invokes dreams, magic, and infidelity, just as the ballad reference in Still She Wished invokes fear, loneliness and magic, the key components of the book that follows. ‘These mortals’ also invokes detachment from the human world – Puck is an outsider looking in – as well as active interference in it: not content to remain an ‘auditor’ or listener, Puck chooses to take a role in the performance of his lovers and amateur thespians, with chaotic results. The heroine of These Mortals does the same. She begins as a spectator, riding on moonbeams courtesy of her magic and examining the strange behaviour of mortal lovers from a distance; but she goes on to take a major part in the drama she has been enjoying, bringing confusion on herself and her fellow actors in the process.

Still She Wished, too, had a theatrical dimension; Irwin even turned it into a play in the 1950s. As mentioned in my last post, its three parts are headed with lines from a supernatural comedy by Robert Greene: the phrases ‘Time Is’, ‘Time Was’, ‘Time Has Been’, come from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590), in which they help to remind the reader how the transitory ‘two hours’ traffic’ of a stage performance can embody the transitory nature of life itself (blink and you’ll miss it, in effect they say). In addition, Lucian and Juliana have an obsession with the only piece of prose fiction written by the celebrated playwright William Congreve, and there are other references in the book to the Restoration period that spawned Congreve and other writers of cruel comedy: Lucian quotes Lord Rochester, for instance; Mr Daintree quotes Rochester’s friend Sir Charles Sedley; while Chidleigh is full of the disguises, love rivalries and witty banter that dominated the seventeenth-century stage. Meanwhile, Puck’s transition from spectator to performer gets repeated in the lives of Lucian, Jan and Juliana, who begin by watching the fascinating figures in their visions of past and future and end by chasing after them; and the confusion caused by this shift from viewing to performance ends in tragedy, for Lucian at least.

The threat of a tragic ending is present, in fact, in both books’ titles. Still She Wished refers to a ballad that ends in destruction, while the simple phrase These Mortals invokes the inevitability of death, and might remind us that violent death lurks in the background of Shakespeare’s Dream, especially in the scenes where Robin Goodfellow goads the lovers to hunt each other through the woods with weapons drawn. Both books are satires, like the best-known plays of the Restoration, and like many of those plays they set up situations that nearly bring about disaster. They hover between two worlds, like Melusine herself – the comic and the tragic – and as such conjure up the mood of the post-war period, when an appetite for light entertainment barely succeeded in distracting attention from the era of devastating violence that had just come to an end.

Prospero and Miranda by William Maw Egley

The two novels begin, however, in opposite places. Still She Wished opens in the mundane London of the 1920s, while These Mortals opens in a world suffused with magic, where Melusine passes her days with her enchanter father – named Aldebaran, after the star – like a second Miranda on her desert island. Like Miranda, too, she is given to wondering. She delights in abstruse knowledge of the kind her father delights to provide her with, though she also wishes to know about the things he chooses to leave out of her education. In her leisure time she goes on visits to the wonderful demesnes of mermaids and moon-maidens, and over time she has even gained the power to become a wonder herself, morphing into a moon-maiden on moonlit nights and travelling wherever the beams of the moon will take her. For Melusine, though, the greatest wonder of all is the world of ordinary mortals, whose bizarre arrangements for managing their affairs – ‘their municipal governments, their police and their drainage systems’ (p. 5) – have nothing in common with the fairy tale economy she grew up in. Thanks to a spell rashly given her by her father she sets sail in a boat made of a seashell and travels across the ocean (following the track of the moon on the waves, as is her wont) to a palace just like a building from the fairy tales (and therefore just like Chidleigh, which ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’, Irwin informs us). And here Melusine discovers, like Jan and Juliana before her, how very unlike a fairy tale human life can be.

She can’t say she wasn’t warned. Her enchanter father Aldebaran foreswore the human world, we’re told, because of dis-enchantment; above all, because of his discovery of the fact (well known to all the central characters of Still She Wished) that human beings are profoundly isolated. ‘All the intricacies of their laws, their societies, their towns, and their nations,’ he tells his daughter,

‘amount only to this: that each individual human being dreads solitude and tries to circumvent it. From the moment that you enter the world (should you ever have that misfortune), your immediate concern will be to find a companion, and when you have done so you will believe that you have found yourself. You will discover a hitherto unimagined interest and value in all your actions, thoughts and memories, since you think to share them with another. Only gradually will you discover that it is impossible to do this wholly; that speech often obscures and sometimes conceals our thoughts; that the fictitious contacts of the flesh give an ecstasy which is poignant chiefly in that it reminds us of the incommunicable solitude of our souls’ (p. 6).

Sure enough, this is exactly what happens to Melusine. The court she sails to in her magic boat turns out to be enmeshed in a web of magic ‘stronger than my father’s’ – a phrase that becomes a ballad-like refrain throughout the novel. In it, the appearance of friendship conceals causeless enmity and casual aggression; outward beauty hides inward ugliness; the term ‘love’ is a synonym for self-interest, which always ends in self-damage; simplicity masks extreme cunning, which has a worse effect on its owners than stupidity. And so the multitude of oxymorons that ‘obscure […] and conceal’ the thoughts of mortals expands into a constricting network which threatens to suffocate the palace’s inhabitants, and makes the joy of sharing ideas and bodily sensations quite impossible. Melusine’s first encounter with the court reveals to her that the courtiers’ pleasures make them angry: when she meets Prince Pharamond near the brothel he has a hangover, which has its usual bad effect on his good temper. Later she learns that their happiest memories make them sad (through her magic she summons up the Emperor’s most treasured recollection – an assignation with a farm girl – which merely reminds him how unhappy he is with his wife). She discovers that humans remain bound to each other by unbreakable chains even when they hate each other (the imperial marriage bed is a fermentation chamber of frustration and loathing); that they are incapable of transparency (a quality she learned from the moon-maidens along with their magic); and that their words have multiple meanings she cannot fathom. The human court, in fact, is a particularly noxious fantasy, filled with emotional impossibilities rather than physical ones, which is why court culture is indistinguishable from magic for Melusine, and why she finds it so dangerously alluring, despite all the destructive contradictions it is riddled with.

Melusine brings with her to the court three non-human friends: a cat, a snake and a raven, whose loyalty, intelligence and honesty – as well as the fact that there are three of them – underline their link to the animal companions of the fairy tale tradition. Melusine’s own loyalty is as unswerving as that of her three friends. She goes on admiring the Princess Blanchelys as a goddess, despite the successive acts of betrayal to which the Emperor’s daughter subjects her. She presents this goddess one by one with a series of gifts that get used against her: friendship, sympathy, advice, a magic spell to make men fall in love with its caster, and finally Melusine’s own appearance, handed over piecemeal (first her hair, then her complexion, then her eyes) in a succession of magical transactions which leave their former possessor drab to look at and inwardly despairing. The princess, meanwhile, uses Melusine’s gifts for selfish purposes, thus underlining the radical difference between them. No change, in fact, is worked by magic in this book; it merely serves to make individuals more themselves, and to underline the gap that separates Melusine from the mortals among whom she has been stranded. Spells prosthetically enhance the identity of those who practise them and of those on whom they are practised, so that as the princess gets more magical powers she desires more, just as she always has done with anything desirable. Meanwhile Melusine uses enchantment to make her animal companions more intensely catlike, snakelike, birdlike. With the spell that expanded her shell to the size of a boat she grows them each in succession to huge proportions, thus lending their qualities a power they don’t usually possess in a human context. This brings out the absence of these qualities from mortal affairs, and finally enables the beasts to free her from the various traps constructed by the human court to hem her in, helping her to find a fairy tale ending despite all the efforts of the courtiers to keep it from her. Unfortunately, there is no indication here that such an ending might be available to anyone else in the mortal world, apart from the one man she finds who takes the trouble to get to know her.

Melusine, like her three friends, is always freeing things from entrapment. She frees herself from her father’s protective influence when she sails away from him in her enchanted seashell. She uses the moon-maidens’ magic to disappear from the arms of annoying and dangerous ‘lovers’. She uses a spell to help a stag escape from the hounds at a royal hunt – though since she turns it successively into an otter and a seagull the animal is unimpressed by this act of kindness (like her three animal companions it sets great store by its personal integrity). She frees several mortals briefly from their self-obsession: the woodcutter’s daughter, who begins by exploiting her and ends by liking her; Prince Pharamond, who plans at first to rape her but in the end helps to reunite her with her mortal lover. This lover, King Garth, is a prisoner when she meets him, and she frees him from mental torment when she visits him in his cell. Later she frees herself from a room with no windows in an act of tricksterism worthy of Robin Goodfellow. And later still she ‘frees and enfranchises’ Garth’s baby from her womb, like Shakespeare’s Hermione before her. In the final chapter she liberates herself, King Garth and the baby from the imprisoning palace with the help of her animal companions. Each prison she enters is more formidable than the last, and each Houdini-like escape she effects is more impressive, since it defies ever steeper odds.

Joseph Holland as Theseus and Phoebe Russell as Hippolyta (1888)

The court, meanwhile, specializes in constructing traps; and the most ingenious of these traps is marriage. The Emperor and Empress are locked in a conjugal dungeon, and they seek to imprison their children, their subjects and their guests in similar bonds. Garth, for instance, is a foreign king who gets clapped in jail by imperial command when he refuses to marry the Emperor’s daughter. Melusine gets jailed herself when she is found in his cell, because her presence there might jeopardize the intended union. While in prison, Melusine finds herself courted by the Emperor’s son, Prince Pharamond, who has clearly inherited his parents’ propensity for coupling marriage with entrapment, since he is happy enough to press his suit when she cannot escape it. She gets imprisoned again on the wedding day of the Princess and King Garth. Among these mortals, in other words, a legal commitment to lifelong companionship effectively shackles husband and wife to one another in perpetuity, and shackles everyone around them in a perpetual state of non-interference with their unhappy union. One might be reminded of Theseus and Hippolita in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, locked into a forced marriage, as Theseus reminds his Amazonian spouse in the opening scene (‘Hippolita, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injury’), and seeking to impose another forced marriage on their subject Hermia, while having their marriage-bed blest in the final scene by the embodiments of marital disharmony, King Oberon and Queen Titania. At least in Shakespeare’s play a happy ending could be imposed on everyone involved with a judicious use of fairy magic. The happy ending of These Mortals is much more limited, overshadowed as it is by Aldebaran’s conviction of ‘the incommunicable solitude of our souls’.

In consequence of this conviction, Melusine’s father chooses aloofness as a better alternative to lifelong partnership. Unmarried, it would seem – we never find out the name of Melusine’s mother, though we must presume it was the Fairy of Lusignan or one of her relations – Aldebaran has withdrawn into the role of stargazer, as his name suggests, and teaches his daughter only inhuman things such as the higher mathematics, ‘so high that she could calculate how many peacock’s feathers, placed end to end, it would take to reach the moon’ (p. 1). At the court Melusine meets three more isolated spectators, who pride themselves as much on their detachment from court culture as their knowledge of it. There is the hunchbacked jester, whose body condemns him to non-participation in the sexual intrigues going on all round him, and who hates women as a result, though for a while he accepts the friendship of the enchanter’s daughter because of their common status as outsiders. There is Salacius, the defrocked priest, who is a cynic, misogynist and pimp, with a nasty hold on the feeble mind of Prince Pharamond. And there is Sir Diarmid, who from his name is clearly Irish (he describes his country as ‘a land of sorrows’ and speaks of the ‘Land of Heart’s Desire’ [p. 73], which is the title of a play by Yeats). Like Oscar Wilde, Sir Diarmid spends his time in satirizing the ruling classes of the powerful empire he has made his home. Of these three observers, Sir Diarmid is by far the most complex, in that he demonstrates the impossibility of the detachment he professes. Thanks to his presence at court he is a courtier, and as much responsible for the court’s narcissistic viciousness as any of the aristocrats he satirizes. Like the other two detached observers, the hunchback and Salacius, the chief target of his satire is women; he specializes in destroying them, or more precisely in helping them destroy themselves. And his own effeminacy, reflected in his fascination with beauty, taste and his own appearance, makes his commitment to damaging women the most perverse of the many acts of self-harm that pervade the novel.

The Irishman’s emblem is the mirror he keeps in his room, which Irwin describes in meticulous detail as Melusine studies it, unobserved, in her guise as a moon-maiden:

In another room, to the side of a single window, she saw seven candles, all tall but of different heights, burning before a beautiful mirror. They were as bright within the mirror as without it, so that there seemed a small army of pointed flames tapering upwards, each trying to out-top the others. The frame of the mirror was carved with festoons of painted fruit and flowers and it was supported at the base by Cupids, whose heads were turned to gaze upwards in rapture at the reflection in the mirror. This reflection was so still that Melusine had at first taken it for that of a life-size picture. But a slight upward movement of the head, improving the position, and a rearrangement of the fingers that rested lightly on the long and slender hip, showed her that it reflected no picture but that singularly elegant young man who had introduced himself to her that evening as Sir Diarmid. (pp. 30-1)

Dorian conceals his picture in Albert Lewin’s film version, 1945

The mirror evidently reflects Wilde’s famous picture of Dorian Gray, the enchanted portrait in his novel of 1890, which is also his fiercest yet most admiring attack on the English aristocracy. The seven competitive candles reflected in Sir Diarmid’s glass suggest that its purpose is to lampoon the competitive self-obsession of the ruling classes. At the same time the mirror reflects Sir Diarmid himself, exposing his commitment to and passion for himself. Sir Diarmid’s skill throughout the novel is to make women fall in love with him thanks to his reputation as the ‘glass’ of fashion, the initiator and terminator of all trends. Unlike that would-be trendsetter Saint Aumerle, his power is such that he can draw women into his room, like flies to a web, and make them look into his mirror of cupidity. What they see there, however, is not their own faces but Sir Diarmid’s, as Melusine learns when she watches a woman called Lady Valeria enter his chamber for an assignation:

[Melusine] watched, as she would watch the working of a spell, and saw how the down-dropped lashes of that lady’s eyes rested on her cheeks in two half-moons, saw how they trembled and raised themselves, slowly, inevitably, to the reflection, not of her own face, but of the young man who stood beside her and still held the veil behind her head. (pp. 31-2)

Sir Diarmid’s role as observer and satirical commentator, in other words, does not bring self-knowledge to its female subjects but hopeless desire; an enslavement to the male gaze, and the limited functions imposed on them by a playfully cruel patriarchy. When we meet Lady Valeria again later in the novel she has retreated from the court and become a nun, imprisoned in a religious life to which she is not committed – another form of unhappy marriage. The mark of her imprisonment is her conviction that the night she looked into Sir Diarmid’s mirror was the ‘supreme moment of her life’ (p. 91), which she could neither extend for more than a moment nor properly share with him. As a nun, she goes on unholily praying that it was also the ‘supreme moment’ of Sir Diarmid’s existence, something Melusine knows full well from her observations is not the case. Sir Diarmid, then, is not committed to inculcating any sort of awareness either in others or in himself; only to admiring his own powers as a seducer and taking sadistic pleasure in the pain of his victims. He is, in other words, a second Lucian, a representation of the breathtaking hypocrisy of claiming to be aloof, a satire against satire itself as a fundamentally conservative, patriarchal and redundant exercise.

Melusine, by contrast, is committed to sharing herself and her experiences with others – that metaphysical impossibility, as far as her father is concerned. She shares her sympathy with the hunted stag; she shares a sense of being marginalized and exiled with the hunchback and Sir Diarmid; she would have shared her jewel-encrusted shoes with Princess Blanchelys if she had not felt sure this would prove insulting to that godlike being – and she gives away the shoes not long afterwards to a more needy individual, when she exchanges clothes with a woodcutter’s daughter in order to get close to the Princess’s wedding. She gives her friendship to the Princess, and when that friendship is betrayed she gives the young woman her looks as a means of spending one last night with King Garth. In all these acts of sharing and giving, however, she never loses her sense of who she is. Once she is in love she remains in love and doesn’t waver despite her lover’s infidelity (though King Garth may be excused for this on the grounds of having been enchanted by one of Melusine’s own spells). Once she has given her friendship, too, she doesn’t withdraw it until her friend has definitively proved herself an enemy. Sharing and giving freely, loving loyally and forging lasting friendships, liberating others and herself repeatedly from all forms of entrapment – these are the qualities that make up the enchanter’s daughter. And these qualities bind her to her lover more securely than the imprisoning bonds of marriage.

Othello woos Desdemona, by Theodore Chasseriau

King Garth shares with Melusine both a love of freedom and a love of sharing. Like her he is a traveller from overseas – an outsider – and when they meet in the palace prison he woos her as Othello wooed Desdemona, by sharing tales with her of his past adventures on the boundless ocean. He delights in knowledge, as she does, and his adventures have taught him facts unknown to scholars confined in their libraries, which Melusine receives as ‘marvels greater than any she had learned before’ (p. 68). The King has proved by deduction, for instance, that the world is round, and has used this knowledge to sail with his companions ‘on and on towards the setting sun, until at last they came to a land of green vines and scarlet birds and men whose faces were the colour of burnished copper’ – the New World to which Jan and Donald planned to sail at the end of Still She Wished. He has discovered that the Arctic was once warm enough for elephants to live on, having ‘found a huge curled tusk embedded in the ice’, in a land where ‘rocks of ice as high as mountains had come floating over the sea, gleaming like sapphire and emerald’. In the same region he also learned that there is ‘no land uninhabitable nor sea unnavigable’. As he tells these stories, Melusine learns, among other things, that he shares her passion for sharing: ‘in the ring of his voice she heard his joy in remembered danger and hardship, shared equally with his crew, each bearing another’s burden with no respect to persons’ (p. 69). And as she listens, this love of shared danger gets shared with her: ‘She entered his world and knew his friends and found in their jovial comradeship and courage, their common endeavor, and curiosity to which the sea could set no limit, a charm deeper than any of her father’s’. At this point the enchanter’s scepticism about the possibility of true companionship based on mutual understanding stands on the brink of getting swept aside.

A traveller’s tales, of course, are traditionally unreliable, often told for the purpose of getting a free meal or winning a patron. This is why Desdemona’s father suspected the Moor of being a seducer, whose fantastic stories of ‘men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders’ (Act 1 Scene 3) are a form of witchcraft, a seductive spell sold to his daughter by a devious foreign salesman. But unlike Desdemona, Melusine shares with her foreign lover pleasures of an equally untrustworthy variety. She tells him stories of her visits to the moon-maidens in the nights of her girlhood; visits which may or may not have been dreams or fancies, but which have the material effect of lulling him to sleep (p. 54). She sings him songs that make the ‘roses on the upper earth’ bend their heads to listen, and fall ‘petal by petal through the dungeon grating in their desire to reach this fairy palace’ (p. 69). She performs for him seductive dances that cause the ‘dark confines’ of his prison to become ‘the boundless sea, and she the moonlight playing on its surface’ (an echo of The Winter’s Tale, in which Florizel tells Perdita that her movements are oceanic: ‘When you do dance, I wish you / A wave of the sea, that you might ever do / Nothing but that; move still, still so, / And own no other function’, Act 4 Scene 4). Their exchange is one of affection and desire of freedom freely given, of insubstantial things and visions which are nevertheless capable of affecting the bodies and minds of both recipients. It is an in-between thing, like the desires shared by the protagonists of Still She Wished: they meet under cover of darkness, after the business of the day has ended, in a cell whose occupants are always being forgotten by the officials whose task it is to feed and guard them. They open to each other the doors of their dreams – those inconsequential things – and escape from the official constraints of space and time completely, which is how Melusine forgets to keep track of the moon’s movement across the sky, doesn’t notice it setting, is unable to steal away on its beams, and gets caught by the guards at dawn. Their total participation in one another’s ‘world’ is confirmed by her forgetfulness and entrapment; but it is later also confirmed by the living child they conceive together, whose illegitimate birth both seals it as an unofficial, in-between individual and offers substantial proof of the real effects in the world of their conjoined imaginations, their insubstantial yet productive nocturnal exchanges.

King Garth shares his ability to share with Melusine’s animal companions. Like them, he is comfortable in his body: huge in size, he sports a leather cloak that resembles a hide, moves with speed and grace, and is despised as an inferior being by the haughty courtiers. ‘They thought that he did not notice their smiles,’ Irwin tells us, ‘but he did, though the only sign that he ever gave of it was to shift a little on his feet, swiftly and silently, a movement that somehow served to check his anger by reminding him how easy it would be, in one tremendous rush, to wreak it on these little clever foolish people’ (p. 132). At the same time, this restraint from vengeful action confirms the King’s liberation from the bonds of conventional masculinity. His role in Irwin’s narrative is not that of the heroic warrior he describes in his stories; instead he appears ‘as a prisoner, generally under enchantment, and frequently asleep; all of which [force] him to take a somewhat passive part in this story’ (p. 131). He is courted by Melusine in his cell – he does not do the courting, though he actively responds to her advances. Melusine repeatedly tries to save him, first from his prison cell, then from his marriage, so that when Garth finally turns to heroic action in the book’s final pages, his rescue of Melusine comes across as a reciprocal act, and one which can only be completed with her assistance; the final rescue is hers, when she grows the raven to giant size with her magic and they take to the skies. Their relationship, in other words, is companionable, the ‘jovial comradeship’ and ‘common endeavour’ Garth also shared with his male co-adventurers on his global travels.

Garth’s soporific state through much of the novel helps to strengthen his easy bond with the enchanter’s daughter. From the beginning of the book Melusine is associated with night and sleep, having midnight hair, a silver dress (the colour of moonbeams) and a belt or girdle of purple poppies. The poppy is the flower of sleep, of course, but it is also the flower of commemorative mourning, having been dedicated since 1921 – four years before the novel was published – to the sacrifice of the young men who died in the War (they are only sleeping, the poppies suggest, waiting to be woken when the need arises, like King Arthur). The control over sleep which these flowers symbolize enables Melusine to bring pleasant dreams to other people, especially men. She first shows this with the hunchback, then the Emperor, and finally King Garth, whose incarceration leaves him sleep-deprived, rendered insomniac by the ‘wishes and plans and regrets and fears and hot red rages’ which are all he has left after everything else has been taken from him. Neither the hunchback nor the Emperor is particularly grateful for the erotic fantasies Melusine brings them in their sleep, since they only serve to emphasize the absence of sex from their waking lives. King Garth, by contrast, welcomes the sleep she gives him and the waking pleasures it leads to. With the poppies from her belt she courts him, first freeing him from his insomnia, then approaching a little closer to his sleeping body each night, until she reaches the place where he lies, at which point he eventually wakes (with a little help from her animal companions) and they make love. Melusine marks the limits of each night’s progress with a single poppy, which King Garth preserves in a pouch as a memento of their courtship. The poppy, then, is the symbol of their wooing, as well as the symbol of heroic action – as embodied by Garth – and dreams, as embodied by her.

Like everything else of Melusine’s, however – her spells, her looks, her lover – the poppies get appropriated by the court. After putting Garth under the influence of Melusine’s magic, Princess Blanchelys finds the poppies in his pouch and uses them to put him to sleep for her own purposes: not to bring herself closer to Garth, which is the purpose Melusine used them for, but to get access to her lover Sir Diarmid, as she seeks to initiate an affair on the night of her wedding to the stranger king. As mentioned earlier, Melusine agrees to give Blanchelys her appearance in exchange for three nights with the Princess’s new husband; the Princess agrees, only to plunge the King into a deep sleep, through the poppies’ influence, which leaves him lying each night in stony unresponsiveness at Melusine’s side. While he sleeps, the Princess steals away to meet the Irish knight, whose admiration for Melusine’s looks is what persuaded Blanchelys that she could win him by taking possession of the foreign woman’s hair and eyes and complexion. Instead she finds herself in Sir Diarmid’s bedroom staring into a mirror, like Lady Valeria before her, having encountered at last in him – as he in her – a ‘conceit equal to my own’, as the Irishman puts it (p. 136).

In appropriating dreams and sleep for her own purposes, Blanchelys is treading in the footsteps of her imperial mother. The Empress’s first act on meeting Melusine was to take possession of her dreams, telling the enchanter’s daughter that she must have seen the Prince in her sleep the night before, not with her physical vision, and taking this non-existent nocturnal sign as evidence that the young couple must be destined for each other. For the Empress and her daughter, then, dreams are as functional as magic: tools to fulfil their own desires, and hence to annul them, since few desires can survive being ‘completely satisfied’ (Sir Diarmid’s phrase, p. 135). This mechanistic attitude transforms the victims of their schemes, too, into mechanisms. When the Princess casts a spell over King Garth – the love-spell Melusine gave her – he loses all his animal grace, becoming puppet-like where he was feline, weak where he was strong, unseeing where before his eyes were uncomfortably penetrating. When Melusine first meets the king after his enchantment, his eyes are ‘fastened’ on Blanchelys’s face ‘as by invisible cords’, rendered ‘blind’ by his fixation as he gives a ‘grave mechanical bow’ in response to her words (pp. 101-2). In response to these changes in him, Melusine changes too. She becomes lifeless and mechanical in appearance, drifting down the social scale (she exchanges clothes with a servant to get close to him) while simultaneously sinking into depression, until even the Emperor notices her physical decline: ‘as the figure advanced into the pool of yellow light beneath the lamp, he saw that her hair was not long and black like Melusine’s, nor of that peculiar gossamer fineness; it hung lank and dead and its colour was so nondescript that it looked more grey than anything else’ (pp. 125-6). Her lover shares this decline, as he shares in everything else of hers, lying prone in his marriage bed like a feature of the palace itself (‘He lay as still as a figure on a tomb and his face looked as though it were carved out of grey stone’, p. 126). This loss of the former suppleness and grace of the couple’s bodies brings the novel to its gloomiest moment, when they participate in the bondage suffered by the imperial husband and wife without the benefit of marriage, transformed into features of the building that has trapped them. Their bereavement of life also bereaves them of the shared life they engendered; the Empress orders Melusine’s baby removed from her cell and put up for adoption, clearing the way for her marriage to the would-be rapist, Prince Pharamond. There could hardly be a more devastating representation of the sterility of ruling-class conventions and priorities.

The final blow to Melusine’s identity comes when the court appropriates the darkness that has always been her medium. Her child having been abducted, she finds herself in an obscurity she finds ‘thick and horrible’, and seeks refuge in it as she always has before: ‘Yet because she had been accustomed to meet her lover in the darkness, she waited for an instant in a fantastic hope that his unseen hands would fall on her, that she would be lifted and clutched close against him and find herself at rest’ (p. 139). Instead she finds that the gloom of her cell is ‘empty’, deprived of the life that once filled it – her lover and her son – and taking on instead the texture of ‘palpable iron’, the medium of prisons and machines. The world she once commanded, the world of dreams and sleep and lovemaking, has been reduced to one of the court’s unyielding instruments or tools, confirming her father’s worst predictions about the consequences of entering the world and leaving Melusine, as she thinks, ‘alone in the darkness for ever’ (p. 140).

Meanwhile the Princess has been rejected by her lover Sir Diarmid and returned to her husband, the enchanted King Garth. Her arrival in his bedchamber, however, is mistimed; she gets there before he can be fed the potion containing Melusine’s stolen poppies, and as a result he is able to assess her for the first time in a wakeful state. At this point, of course, Blanchelys has taken on Melusine’s appearance, with black hair, white skin, green eyes, while remaining Blanchelys in terms of her personality, which means that everything she says is loaded with contradictory meanings. The first words she speaks to Garth are ‘I can now give you all that you desire’ (p. 140), and for the reader they ring hollow, since they are the exact words she spoke to her lover Sir Diarmid a few pages before (p. 135). The phrase is also ‘very awkward’, as she puts it, because she utters it to her husband – just as she uttered it to the Irishman – while wearing Melusine’s appearance, which implies that what both men most desire is in fact the enchanter’s daughter. In addition, the phrase implies that Blanchelys has not yet given her new husband ‘all that he desires’, despite the fact that it is three days since their wedding. And the courtly oxymorons pile up with every subsequent phrase she speaks. When she tells Garth ‘I am yours’ she still has two conflicting aspects – Melusine’s appearance and Blanchelys’s personality – which makes the phrase impossible to construe (which ‘I’ is she referring to?). When she tells him ‘I am your wife’, the question arises as to which woman she represents is Garth’s lifelong partner, his legitimate spouse. Recognizing the difficulty, the princess goes on to insist that she has only one identity, not two: ‘I am the Princess Blanchelys’; yet her need to stress her name suggests that the stable selfhood she claims is in fact uncertain. ‘In any case,’ she concludes, ‘I am your love’ (p. 141); and this phrase ‘wakes’ something in his mind: presumably a memory of his love which is not connected with Blanchelys but summoned up by the looks she wears. Her final claim – ‘I have not been false to you’ – may be true in the sense she means it – that is, technically she has not been false to her husband since she never slept with Sir Diarmid; but it’s undermined by all her other false statements. In response, then, King Garth can only pronounce her ‘the false bride’, since all the statements she has uttered to him have been duplicitous. And the last few pages of the book describe his return to action, as a fighting man (like the soldiers who died in the War) whose energies are directed at last not to the false values and selfish desires of the ruling classes but to the liberation of the oppressed, in the shape of his lover.

Viking Berserker Figures, 6th Century

King Garth’s ‘berserker’ rampage through the palace (p. 142), which sees him transformed at last into the Viking he resembles, with his giant stature, his outsized sword and his leather cloak, is presented by Irwin as a quest for memory – a memory that has been suppressed rather than preserved by the purloined commemorative poppies he was fed. Garth leaves the Princess in a bid to find the woman she resembles, ‘whose name he could not remember’ (p. 141), and meets as he searches other figures he cannot name: ‘he did not remember why he knew that face’, we learn as he sweeps past the Emperor, and ‘he did not remember why he hated that face’ (the Archbishop who married him), just as he has no recollection of Prince Pharamond, who fearfully directs him towards Melusine’s cell. When Garth finally finds the enchanter’s daughter she assumes he will not remember her because of her ruined appearance: ‘these are not the eyes you know’, she tells him (p. 142). But she is wrong; ‘this is the true bride’, he informs her, and the phrase finally restores a simple meaning to the words it contains, despite the fact that he and Melusine are not married. Past and present are unified in Garth’s recognition of his lover, and dead memory brought alive in the renewal of their affection.

After their reunion, the lovers no longer have any need of memory or commemoration. They escape from the palace on the raven, grown to giant size, and face the future, liberated from imprisonment by the past in the shape of constricting hierarchies, restrictive conventions, or immobilizing nostalgia. Their shared responsibility for the escape – Garth rescues Melusine from her prison, Melusine rescues Garth and the baby with the growing spell that makes the raven large enough to carry them all, along with the cat and the serpent – confirms that their joint ability to share in one another’s qualities and adventures has been restored. The positions they take up on the raven’s back confirm the equality between them: the courtly onlookers see ‘between its wings the King seated beside a woman who held something in her arms’ (p. 143). And the thing she holds, the child, confirms their concentration on the future rather than the past; a future that puts the prison of patriarchy, one might argue, firmly behind them. After all, the conception of the baby represents a ‘stranger magic than her father’s’ (p. 145), and a stronger magic too, since the enchanter was unable to find the secret of overcoming the condition of isolation he saw as the inevitable fate of the human race.

Memory recedes in the final section of Irwin’s novel. When Melusine mentions the enchantment that bound Garth to the princess the king replies, in puzzlement, ‘What enchantment?’ ‘What Princess’? (p. 144). Still She Wished dedicated itself to recovering the memory of an unknown woman of the eighteenth century – Juliana, whose name coincides with the heroine of Congreve’s novel Incognita, which means ‘the unknown woman’ – bringing her to life through an act of authorial conjuration, so that her memory enriches the life of the woman of the twentieth century who is her double, and who may be seen as fulfilling her predecessor’s lost potential. In These Mortals, by contrast, the past is a trap, just as patriarchal marriage is a trap. Lady Valeria expresses this best, after she has trapped herself in the habit of a nun. Having withdrawn from public life, she laments the lost ‘supreme moment’ in front of Sir Diarmid’s mirror when she thought herself at one with her Irish lover:

‘If I had only known […] how to keep our love there, at that supreme moment. But one does not know that the moment is there; and it passes, and it is only afterwards, at prayers, or while listening to the sweet singing of the nuns, that one knows. And by then it is too late; one cannot recall it except in memory, for the moment was lost, long, long ago’ (p. 91).

The statement provides an elegiac summary of many women’s experiences in the years after the Great War, when so many relationships had been cut short by slaughter, and when the possibility of new relationships (as Jan and her sisters comment in the opening pages of Still She Wished) seems to have been removed by a shortage of young men – and by the inadequacy of so many of the men who survived. For Lady Valeria, memory is the one way to keep hold of the lost moment of past love; a perception rendered bitter by the fact that her memory is a false one, recapturing a moment of apparent unity which the reader knows to be an illusion.

Melusine, by contrast, is for much of the book bereft of memory. At one point she expresses regret that her magic powers are limited because she has no access to her books, and cannot recollect the spells they hold: ‘“Alas,” said she, “none of my books are with me, and my dear father never allowed me to practise from memory. Ever since I happened to raise the many-headed hound of Hell, Cerberus, instead of Venus’ doves, he thought it better to avoid any possibility of mistake”’ (p. 109). Yet despite her limited powers of recall, Melusine accomplishes a wide range of effective enchantments in the narrative, from riding on moonbeams to transforming a stag into an otter and a seagull, presenting a friend with a love spell, and conferring her own appearance on another woman. On the one occasion when she does lapse into a state of nostalgic reminiscence, it is in prison, and her memories are torture to her, just as they were to her lover King Garth in his underground cell:

Now for the first time she knew herself to be alone, and now for the first time she despaired, beating her hands against the darkness until it became palpable iron, bruising and battering them against it, crying on the baby they had taken from her, crying on the Princess who had broken her promise, crying on her father who could not help her, crying on her lover who could not see her, crying that she was alone in the darkness for ever. (p. 140)

Alongside the prison of marriage as the court constructs it, in other words, exists a prison of memory, and to escape it, Irwin implies, involves putting memories aside and devoting oneself to action, honesty, equal companionship, and an unembarrassed delight in sharing the pleasures of body and mind.

If These Mortals adopts a different attitude to memory to Still She Wished, its attitude to the imagination and the fairy tales it engenders is remarkably similar. Sir Diarmid’s mirror reflects the nature of the court, which is to reenact fairy tale narratives while transforming them into mechanisms of torture and cultural traps. If Melusine embodies the liberating and efficacious joys of the imagination – its capacity to persuade us we can sweep through the sky on moonbeams, or escape from our cages on the backs of giant birds – her mirror image, Princess Blanchelys, embodies its capacity to restrict us, bind us, hem us in. This double vision of its own medium, the fairy tale genre, makes These Mortals a forerunner of the ironic fairy tales of Angela Carter, who found so much inspiration for her work in the great fantasy novels of the 1920s: Walter de la Mare’s Memoirs of a Midget, which Carter described as a surrealist novel avant la lettre; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, which finds echoes everywhere in Carter’s work. I don’t know if Carter knew Irwin’s experimental anti-fairy-tale, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did. And I’d like to urge Carter’s readers, too, to discover it.

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 2: Still She Wished for Company (1924)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. This is the second of three posts on her best-known works of the fantastic. The first can be found here. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin, 27 July 1939

Margaret Irwin achieved lasting popularity as a writer of historical novels, in particular for her work in recovering the lives of remarkable women, using her imagination to bridge the gap of years: Mary Queen of Scots, Mrs Oliver Cromwell, Elizabeth I. Her first novel, however – Still She Wished for Company (1924)[1]– considers the relationship between past and present in a different way, through a romance that impossibly spans more than a century. It tells of a young woman of the 1770s, Juliana, who lives in a country house called Chidleigh, and who is hypnotically coerced by her elder brother Lucian into using her considerable powers as a medium to establish a relationship across time between himself and another young woman he has seen in his dreams. The dream-object of his desire turns out to be Rose Janet, known as Jan, a woman of the twentieth century with a fascination for the past, as embodied in a ‘Gentleman Unknown’ she sees in dreams and visions, and who in turn resembles Lucian. Before the connection between Jan and Lucian can be fully established, however, Lucian murders a former medium of his – a French Duke – and becomes a hunted man. But he retains his hypnotic hold over Juliana even in his absence, as he hides from the forces of the law in far-off London. As a result, her visions of the 1920s grow more intense and more frequent, until she stands in danger of getting lost in the space between the past and the future, her soul wandering for ever in quest of Lucian’s twentieth-century ideal woman.  Lucian takes the decision to return home and release her from bondage to him, an act that gets him killed; and at the end of the book we learn that Juliana later got married to a sensible neighbour, drifting back to the dull but happy life she had been leading at the start of the story.

Juliana, then – the go-between in this transhistorical romance – is a woman who lives quite literally between two people, serving as a channel or conduit for their mutual obsession. As the novel goes on, her journeys into the future – which somehow enable meetings between her brother and Juliana’s twentieth-century counterpart (the link between Jan and Juliana is reflected in the similarity of their names)[2]– mean that she spends more and more of her time in a kind of dream state: a condition of suspended animation whereby her mind leaves her body and voyages through time, until her final, most lengthy psychic voyage plunges her into a coma, hovering between life and death like the Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale, waiting for a Prince in the shape of her brother to set her free – though ironically it was this selfsame Prince who put her in the coma to begin with.

Jan, too, exists in a space between alternative states. She has had the advantage of a good education, which enabled her to get work and so to support her impoverished family. She has the freedom to choose a partner for herself instead of having one chosen for her (Juliana is not so free to choose, and spends part of the novel under threat of an arranged marriage to the French Duke). Jan can buy her own clothes, and gets letters from men in far-off places, Germany and India (pp. 23-4). On the other hand she loathes her job, and finds it so stressful that her fiancé is afraid it is making her ill. She cannot afford well-made shoes; she is restricted to moving around a few limited streets in London on an inadequate public transport system, despite her theoretical freedom of movement; and she feels that she is being pressurized into marrying a man she is not sure she loves. Her seeming liberty, in other words, is hemmed in on all sides by geographical, social and economic constraints, and she is caught between the limited opportunities of an eighteenth-century woman and the seemingly limitless possibilities available to twentieth-century middle-class men – making her an embodiment of the uncertain in-between status of women in the years before the universal franchise.

Lucian is also caught in a state of in-between-ness. Despised by his athletic younger brothers for not meeting their crude standards of masculinity; marked out as different by his appearance (he is slim, dark, and of moderate height, where the rest of the men in his family are pink-and-white giants); uninterested in the conversations and pastimes of his fellow aristocrats; he is nevertheless the male heir to the family title and estates with all the financial and social power that these bring with them. Foreign in appearance and by inclination (Paris is the only place that appeals to him in his own period), his name and birth ironically tie him to a family, place and time that he rejects. Like Jan and Juliana, then, he gets his chief pleasure from indulging in private fantasies, absenting himself in dreams and imaginings from a cultural context he finds inimical to his health, and yearning for a place and time he thinks will be more congenial, as embodied in Jan, the woman of the 1920s.

The in-between-ness of these three central characters is reflected in the novel’s plot. The bulk of the book is given over to a kind of lyrical mood music, wittily evoking the mundane details of family life in Chidleigh House while charting the steady growth of Lucian’s influence over Juliana and the concomitant doubling and redoubling of her visions of twentieth-century Chidleigh. Juliana’s visions of the 1920s show her everyday, commonplace events, the sorts of things that happen in between significant occasions such as marriages, births and funerals. Nothing spectacular happens in any of them, apart from the fact that they reinforce Juliana’s and Jan’s increasing certainty that they are being somehow granted access to each other’s lives in defiance of time. But a great deal is always on the verge of happening, so that Irwin’s novel could be said to exist on the brink of deeply disturbing, even diabolical events; the sorts of events that lurk in the background of ‘The Book’. At the same time the narrative occasionally conjures up a fairy tale atmosphere of total mutual contentment, as experienced by Juliana and Lucian when they are at their closest, by Jan and Lucian when they meet in dreams or through the mediating influence of Juliana’s transitions between periods, and by Jan and Juliana when they are most at ease with their earthly lovers – in Jan’s case a practical Scotsman called Donald, in Juliana’s her mature and protective neighbour, Mr Daintree. Both the diabolical and the fairytale elements in the book are in some sense timeless, familiar to successive generations through dreams and nightmares, or through poems, plays and well-known stories. By mixing together these different kinds of narrative – the brooding nocturnes of the Gothic, the pastoralism of the fairy story, the modern realistic romance in the Jan scenes, the novels of Jane Austen in the Juliana ones – Still She Wished for Company transforms itself into a kind of eclectic library of the kind we’ve already encountered in ‘The Book’; a library which both celebrates and warns against the transformative powers of the act of reading, and of the dreaming which it encourages and springs from.

Most of the action takes place in a single late eighteenth-century summer, its events largely unrecorded in the history books, featuring characters whose very names have been forgotten. Juliana’s whole family is said to have died out by 1800, and the novel opens with a wistful dedication by the author to Juliana herself, ‘since there is none now left to remember her’. But traces of the girl and her family survive, both in the pages of Juliana’s journal and in the narrator’s imaginative evocation of their personalities – largely based on the journal – as well as in the occasional ghostly presences detected at Chidleigh by the psychically sensitive in other epochs. One such sensitive soul is Jan, whose story frames the novel. Her mind is always drifting away from the drabness of the present in pursuit of congenial figures from the past: people in early modern paintings, such as the seventeenth-century portrait of the ‘Gentleman Unknown’; evasive ideal women in poems by Walter de la Mare and John Donne, or damned spirits and seductive demons in plays by Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe; and gradually these imagined figures become more real to her until she finds it hard at times to concentrate on her living contemporaries. Juliana, too, is sensitive, her sensitivity being expressed in her acute awareness of geographical spaces overlooked by other people – most notably the avenue of splendid trees that leads from the highway to the house at Chidleigh, whose changing appearance often gives her the strongest clue that she has transitioned between historical epochs. And since many of the things that happen in the novel are explicitly stated not to have been mentioned in her source text, Juliana’s journal, the narrator clearly shares Jan and Juliana’s capacity for transitioning between periods. Meanwhile the narrative helps us, the readers, to become as sensitive as these three women, and its many allusions to other texts suggest that this sensitivity is exactly what literature is designed to engender – in contrast to history, which is strictly concerned with what can be deduced from the material evidence. Literature, in fact, is an in-between medium, throwing light on gaps and occlusions in the official account, and this can make it an unnerving, even a dangerous experience as well as an enlightening one, in this novel as much as in ‘The Book’.

Juliana’s story is sandwiched both between opening and closing chapters from Jan’s point of view and between the two most significant revolutions of the eighteenth century. The summer of Juliana’s experiences as a medium is the ‘dull year of grace 1779’, when ‘nothing pretty or romantic ever happened’. Yet major events took place before and after that dull year: the American War of Independence in 1776, the French Revolution of 1789. Juliana, then, lives very much ‘between the wars’, and her unromantic life exists on the cusp of what could be called the most romantic event of all: the outbreak of the Romantic movement in literature and art. Juliana’s family, however, seems wholly oblivious to the revolution that has just taken place across the Atlantic, and the girl herself is half convinced that things will always stay the same, finding herself torn at times between the desire for radical change and a nostalgic yearning for stability; the latter embodied in her boisterous but profoundly conservative brothers George and Vesey, the former in her radical oldest brother Lucian, who arrives home unexpectedly from Paris at the beginning of the summer to take over the reins of the family estate. Juliana’s split personality encapsulates a cultural split acknowledged in Jane Austen’s novels, especially Sense and Sensibility (1811), where the two sisters Elinor and Marianne stand respectively for the ‘good sense’ cherished by the Enlightenment and the romantic privileging of emotion which has begun to take the literary world by storm. Juliana resembles a milder, more easily manipulated version of Marianne, the romantic sister, and like her ends up married to a much older, more sensible, but attractively sensitive man. Irwin’s prose style in this novel is a pastiche of Austen’s, and Chidleigh House is a direct descendant of an Austenian country estate: Darcy’s Pemberley, Sir Thomas Bertram’s Mansfield Park, and most obviously Mr Knightley’s part-medieval, part-Augustan Donwell Abbey in Austen’s favourite novel, Emma (1815).

Medmenham Abbey, where the Hellfire Club met

Juliana’s divided mind, however, is confronted by far stranger and more sinister forces than is Austen’s Marianne. Her brother Lucian invokes the connotations of Marianne and Elinor’s family name of Dashwood, which was also the name of the founder of the notorious Hellfire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood. Sir Francis is said to have set up the club – also known as the ‘Order of the Friars of St Francis of Wycombe’ – as a means for wealthy men to satisfy their illegal appetites and hedonistic impulses. Lucian, too, is rumoured to have been the ‘chief and head’ of the Hellfire Club (p. 50), and to have made acquaintances in Paris whose aristocratic background and taste for illicit sexual activities link them to an even more notorious figure of the period: the Marquis de Sade. Indeed Juliana’s name invokes (among other things) the protagonists of two of de Sade’s novels, Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797), both of which were being championed by the continental Surrealists at the time of writing. Lucian’s name, meanwhile, summons up de Sade’s atheism, since the second-century writer Lucian of Samosata was notorious among literary historians as an atheist as well as a writer of satires and early science fiction. It also invokes the diabolism of the Hellfire Club, since ‘Lucian’ echoes ‘Lucifer’, just as the young man himself resembles conventional representations of Satan, with his foppish elegance and satyr’s eyebrows. The Master of Chidleigh plans to marry off Juliana to his former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, and to use her before and after the marriage as his own ‘instrument’, his ‘delicate plaything’ – phrases that suggest incestuous erotic manipulation, as well as his willingness to exploit her visionary gifts to bring about a sexual union between himself and Jan. De Sade indulged in fantasies of abusive incest, and Juliana’s physical attraction to Lucian is implied by the fact that her brother is repeatedly set up in the novel as a rival for her respectable suitor, Mr Daintree – most notably when he confesses his jealousy at her tendency to ‘wander’ in her affections between himself and the older man (p. 151). The rivalry invokes the semi-incestuous love affair between Catherine Earnshaw and her adoptive brother Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1847), though Lucian is a very different character from Heathcliff and the Berkshire landscape around Chidleigh has little in common with the Yorkshire Moors.

But Lucian is not represented solely as a demonic exploiter of his sister’s affection for him. His reciprocal liking for her makes him come to regret his use of her as a psychic plaything, and as the book goes on he considers her more and more instead as good company, an emotional and intellectual equal. ‘I think I am learning to prefer my sweet sister to any creature in the world’, he tells her at one point (p. 226), before spoiling the effect by reminding her that Jan is not ‘in the world’, since he has only ever seen her in his dreams. Lucian also stands in opposition to the dominant eighteenth-century models of masculinity, as embodied in his laddish brothers George and Vesey. Both men are constantly making misogynist remarks, drinking themselves stupid, sleeping around, and indulging in blood sports such as cockfighting and bull baiting. Their friend the local clergyman Dr Eden is of a similar stamp, interested only in self-gratification in the company of other men, while the brothers are mirror images of their father, who died of an apoplectic fit brought on by Lucian’s resistance to his will. Juliana’s suitor Mr Daintree, meanwhile, provides another contrast to the masculine norm – a gentler alternative to Lucian – in his genuine admiration for Juliana and his lack of interest in male companionship. At the same time he confesses to having developed an attraction to Juliana in her very early childhood, and his proposal to her when she is seventeen and he is in his thirties means that the distribution of power between them is heavily weighted in his favour. Moreover, his attraction to Juliana, like George and Vesey’s attraction to servant girls and lively noblewomen, is expressed in highly physical terms. He presents her with verses written by a notorious rake, Sir Charles Sedley, and alludes to the ‘exquisite […] pain’ given him by her smile as a six-year-old (p. 142). Lucian, by contrast, claims to see her as a ‘rebel and an adventuress’ (p. 80) as well as a beauty, and has a genuine psychological connection to her, which draws brother and sister together whenever they fix their attention on one another, no matter how far apart they happen to be at the time. Lucian may wish to take advantage of the power over Juliana that his position affords him, but he is also connected to her by their shared dreams, frustrated desires and mutual interests, and it is his awareness of this connection that drives him to free her from his power at the end of the novel.

Arthur Rackham, illustration for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

The bond that links Lucian, Juliana and Jan is not so much a sexual one (though Lucian clearly has sexual designs on Jan) as the conviction that they were born at the wrong time. All three feel painfully aware that they are being suffocated by the conventions of the culture they inhabit; and all three are unusual in being able to gain first-hand experience of alternative cultures and personalities than the ones on offer in their lifetimes. This feeling of displacement, of exclusion from the life one should be living and of attraction to other possibilities, is beautifully invoked in the novel’s opening chapter, where groups of twentieth-century Londoners pause for a moment to gaze at a secluded ‘waterfall garden’ in Hyde Park, staring through railings at the ‘miniature lake just beyond their reach’ where ‘Pale yellow flags and rushes stood deep in the dark water, stirring very slightly now and then’ in response to a breeze (p. 1). Jan, too, stares at the inaccessible garden, but with the impression ‘that she was looking into a garden removed from her, not by a row of iron railings, but by an immeasurable distance. She wished that she were there’ (p. 2). The choice of Hyde Park for this inaccessible garden is surely no coincidence. J M Barrie’s Peter Pan spent his early years in Kensington Gardens, an enclosed space within the larger recreation ground, which makes Hyde Park the starting point for his famous rebellion against the tyranny of time. And Jan’s fancy about the garden’s ‘immeasurable distance’ from her has a fairy tale quality, like Peter’s adventures among the fairies of Kensington Gardens. Jan’s full name, for instance, chosen by her father ‘in a flight of fancy consequent on the reading of ballads’, is Rose Janet, which invokes the Border ballad of Tam Lin, whose heroine summons a fairy lover by plucking a rose and later rescues him from certain death at the hands of the Fairy Queen. (One of the stanzas in Burns’s version of the ballad goes ‘Why pu’s thou the rose, Janet, / Amang the groves sae green’; hence ‘Rose Janet’). For Jan, the world is full of glimpses of magical other worlds like the one afforded by the garden. A sudden downpour makes ‘fairy thimbles’ in the city streets, when ‘huge drops leap up from the pavements in a thousand tiny fountains’, prompting her to ask herself ‘Was this fairy rain?’ And as a child she was convinced that Blake’s famous poem ‘The Sick Rose’ was all about her (since she was then called Rose), and that whenever she fell ill an ‘invisible worm’ was winging its way through the darkness to wreak her destruction. These supernatural glimpses – sometimes ravishing, sometimes terrifying – stand in stark contrast to her drab but necessary day job, to the crowded bus she boards in the first chapter, which symbolically has no room for her, and to her practical lover, a Scottish architect called Donald. Her glimpses, like the secluded garden, exist in the spaces between officially productive zones: in breaks from work, in the city streets, on buses. And she finds echoes of them in the literature she is always quoting: a line from Donne (‘Tell me where all past times are’, as she misquotes it), a half-remembered set of phrases from Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Blake’s verses, two Border ballads, a recent poem by Walter de la Mare. She is familiar, too, with the work of Barrie, though she quotes (or rather Donald remembers her as quoting) from What Every Woman Knows, not Peter Pan (p. 11). What Every Woman Knows is a play about the unacknowledged influence of women on male success in public life, a concept which makes women themselves into in-between figures, overlooked yet secretly powerful fairy godmothers to many generations of male Cinderellas.

Juliana’s detachment from her time, meanwhile, is most often associated with another in-between space: the tree-lined avenue that leads to Chidleigh House. It’s her close attention to the details of this avenue and the parts of the house and grounds ignored by its other occupants (an ornamental bridge where she glimpses one of Chidleigh’s former owners, the boy king Edward VI; the arch which is all that remains from the days when the house was a medieval castle) that informs her whenever she makes a journey between epochs. Half way down the avenue of trees stands her former Nurse’s cottage, and whenever she travels to the twentieth century she finds that the cottage has disappeared and that the thoroughfare where it stood has become neglected. On one traumatic occasion she even learns that the modern owner of Chidleigh has begun to chop down the trees that line the avenue, having built a new driveway to the house and deeming the old approach redundant. For her, neglected and forgotten things emblematize her own neglected and forgotten status, and she longs to use her ability to move between times to preserve them and herself from oblivion.

Jan’s detachment from her time and place is fuelled by her fascination with books, a fascination which she shares with Juliana and Lucian. Lucian makes assignations with his sister in the Library at Chidleigh, where he puts her under hypnosis and sends her off through time and space in pursuit of Jan. When Jan first visits the Library in its twentieth-century form she recognizes it as a place she’s often visited in her dreams, where the schoolboy Lucian sat in resentful solitude and took revenge on his hostile brothers by conjuring up sadistic fantasies about them. All three young people in the book take delight in the same set of texts, and as we learn more about their reading habits it becomes clear that they are able to swap these texts with one another in defiance of logic, as if drawing them from the same set of timeless bookshelves. Jan’s misquotation of Donne’s poem ‘Go and Catch a Falling Star’ in the first chapter is later ‘explained’ by the fact that it comes from the version of the text best known to Lucian, ‘John Bell’s pocket edition of the Poets from Chaucer to Churchill’ (p. 163). Juliana, meanwhile, knows exactly who spoke the words which Jan half recalls from Robert Greene’s play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1590)– ‘Time Is, Time Was, Time Has Been’ (Jan thinks they were written by Francis Bacon) – and which in turn provide the titles for the three parts of Irwin’s novel. And at a sumptuous water party on the Thames Juliana finds herself somehow ‘remembering’ the lines from a Walter de la Mare poem that were earlier quoted by Jan: ‘But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, / However rare – rare it be’ (p. 139). Jan recollects these lines again when she visits Juliana’s tomb in the final chapter, completing the stanza as she does so:

But beauty vanishes, beauty passes,
However rare – rare it be.
And when I crumble, who will remember
This lady of the West Country? (p. 305)

The answer, it would seem, is poets, novelists, playwrights, artists and lovers, whose words and visions echo back and forth across history in anachronistic interchange.  Imaginative sympathy between people in time past and time to come dissolves the boundaries between periods, establishing a trans-historical ‘company’ or fellowship of like-minded people whose mutual affection and common interests provide a kind of compensation for the isolation imposed on them by an uncongenial present.

At the same time, seeking satisfaction in another period has its dangers. Lucian’s friends in Paris take as their role models Dr Faustus and Roger Bacon, both notorious magicians. Dr Faustus damned himself by dabbling in necromancy to summon up figures from the past, while Friar Bacon forged a brazen head capable of seeing into the future, thereby setting a precedent for Lucian’s exploitation of living people as his instruments or tools. The title of Irwin’s novel, too, invokes the deadly consequences of seeking companionship outside the realms of the living. The phrase ‘Still She Wished for Company’ comes from the chorus of another Border ballad, which tells of a lonely woman who sits spinning in her cottage and longs for fellowship so intensely that she summons up a sinister being from the beyond. Limb by limb, organ by organ the being assembles itself by the woman’s hearth until it is complete, whereupon it begins a conversation with its lonely summoner concerning the reasons for its appearance in her cottage. The ballad ends with the monster suddenly roaring at the woman it has come ‘FOR YOU’, presumably in a diabolical quest for her body and spirit. We don’t hear what happened next, but destruction of some sort is implied, just as it is for Juliana when she sinks into a coma under Lucian’s hypnotic influence. The novel as a whole, then, is presided over by the fear of perdition – damnation as well as loss and forgetting – though this is discreetly veiled by the comfortable-sounding phrase on its title page.

There is clear evidence in the narrative of the specific dangers of getting involved with Lucian in particular. His former medium, the Duc de Saint Aumerle, is a shell of a man, and there are strong indications that this is because of Lucian’s influence. As the young lord’s former ‘instrument’ in Paris – the clairvoyant whose powers he first sought to make use of to forge a link with Jan – the Duke’s behaviour and appearance suggest that he may also have been the Englishman’s lover, now cast off and diminished. Aumerle is yet further removed from eighteenth-century ideals of masculinity than Lucian: slighter, prettier, more garrulous, less active. He enjoys cards instead of blood sports, and spends most of the day tucked up in bed, humming tunelessly and working at his embroidery frame before dressing for dinner and coming downstairs to take over the household for the evening. His utter lack of interest in women is hinted at by Lucian’s insistence that his projected marriage to Juliana will be one of convenience, leaving her at ‘liberty’, as her brother puts it, to become an éminence grise at the French Court – and hence of great use to her manipulative sibling (p. 203). The Duke’s valet later confirms his master’s indifference to women. When Aumerle is killed, the Chidleigh household assumes he has been murdered in a quarrel over a girl, but the valet ‘refused to believe that his master would have taken the trouble to walk down to the summer-house for any girl on earth’ (p. 239, my emphasis). Meanwhile the Duke himself describes Lucian’s replacement of him with his sister as the substitution of a ‘young virgin, a pure child’ for a ‘dead instrument’ which has been ‘used till it withered’. The sexualized description of Juliana as a ‘virgin’ reinforces the impression one gets elsewhere in the text that she is in effect Lucian’s new lover, which in turn implies that the Duke was his old one. There may be another hint at this in the Duke’s title; Aumerle was one of the favourites of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a king often depicted in Irwin’s lifetime as a homosexual monarch who neglects his wife’s bed for affairs with men. As a gay man, Aumerle might be seen as another figure out of time, stranded in a world where homoerotic desire is criminalized and very conscious of himself as someone with interests and capabilities no one else is willing openly to share.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid as a Link-Boy

(Lucian’s ambiguous sexuality, meanwhile, is hinted at by his attraction to Jan, with her gender-neutral name and appearance. When Juliana first describes Jan to Lucian he asks her ‘You are certain it was a girl?’ (p. 100), and Juliana acknowledges that ‘indeed she had an odd, boyish air’ (p. 101). And Lucian’s final glimpse of Jan from a London window represents her as a ‘slight, dark figure, not unlike that of a link-boy’ (p. 267). The Englishman’s transference of his erotic attention from the French Duke to this English gamine might be described as the substitution of an androgynous ‘pure child’ for a ‘withered instrument’.)

The Duke objectifies his sexual and social isolation in the cane he carries, which has a handle of his own design carved in the shape of a woman’s head. No one else, he claims, appreciates the artistry of this design of his, which will become fashionable, he predicts, in fifty years’ time. The sheer pettiness of this claim to genius – that he will be remembered after his death as the designer of a trendy walking stick – identifies the Duke as a marginal figure, drained of any claim to interest he may once have had except as a tool to be used for other people’s purposes. In fact, the offensiveness of the cane’s appearance – the woman’s head is said to be ‘Ethiopian’ – suggests that its inventor is behind the times, not ahead of them. The ‘Ethiopian’ motif embodies a perception of African people as commodities which was being challenged in the 1770s and 80s by abolitionists like Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. And the Duke’s status as a French aristocrat identifies him with an entire class which is on the brink of extinction. His death – which occurs when he attacks Lucian in a bid to free himself and Juliana from the young man’s influence – anticipates the general massacre of the French aristocracy in the 1790s in the name of a ‘liberty’ far more wide-ranging than the kind Juliana’s marriage of convenience might have brought her; a calamitous historical event in which he never gets the chance to participate, and hence yet another sign of his diminution at the hands of his former lover.

The Duke, in fact, is himself an object, a pale counterpart of his Ethiopian cane. His face, we are told, resembles ‘a large white egg’ (p. 180), exquisitely shaped but perfectly blank, its porcelain surface confirming its inability to incubate new life. His presence at Chidleigh transforms the household (in Juliana’s eyes) into a collection of mindless automata, dancing mechanically to Lucian’s tunes like the puppets described by Wilde in some of his poems: ‘it occurred to her that all the figures in the great white and gold room were like dolls in some mechanical contrivance, that spoke and looked and bowed when moved by wires’ (p. 181).[3]And Jan and Juliana, too, stand in danger of absenting themselves into the blank anonymity of objects. When Jan’s fiancé sees her staring at the secluded garden in the first chapter he fears that her dreamy attraction to distant times and inaccessible places, which can mutate into ‘laughing disillusionment’ (p. 12), will leave her unable to form relationships with her contemporaries. Juliana’s coma very nearly cuts her off from life itself, confirming the worst forebodings of her fiancé Mr Daintree, who has grown increasingly anxious for her wellbeing as he keeps coming across her in a state of confusion or unconsciousness. Both women are seduced by the charms of Lucian, and risk being diminished or ‘withered’ by the force of his personality like Aumerle before them. At the same time, unlike Aumerle both women are also capable of enchanting Lucian in their turn, drawing him back from the verge of a suicidal rejection of the world he no longer finds delightful. And this capacity for reconnecting with life instead of rejecting or emptying it, of living intensely for the present moment despite their delight in other times and places, is what enables them finally to break the deadlock that threatens to trap them in limbo – either in the repetitive machinery of the everyday or in the void between past, present and future.

From the beginning of their relationship Jan is capable of influencing Lucian’s imagination, which has been deformed by his father’s and brothers’ incessant bullying. Lucian takes refuge from their cruelty in erotic fantasies like de Sade’s: his lonely days of his childhood in Chidleigh Library are spent indulging ‘gorgeous and horrible fancies’ of himself sitting on a ‘throne of carved ivory and gold, watching the tortures’ of his enemies, his ignorant tutor and abusive family (pp. 223-4). Into these fantasies Jan intrudes as a healing presence, transforming his nightmares into playful collaborations and in the process showing him a better, more democratic way of living. Each time she visits him in his dreams, he says, ‘She treated me as an equal companion in an enchanting game, where I had been accustomed to reign as sole despot of my semi-infernal kingdom’ (p. 225, my emphasis). He associates her with harmless fictions: with the heroine Incognita in Congreve’s only novel, whose actual name is Juliana, or with the fairy tales into which she playfully morphs his morbid fancies. With her he explores the streets of future London and visits the railed-off garden in Hyde Park. She provides the substance for his ‘impossible desires’, most notably when he sees her in the street outside his London house after his flight from Chidleigh; and she offers him hope of a new narrative, an escape route from the dead ends towards which his disaffection with his time is taking him.

Couple walking, by Thomas Gainsborough

Juliana, meanwhile, enables Lucian to enjoy the present as no one else can. This ability manifests itself most clearly in the night scene where they walk together on the terraces of Chidleigh House, ignoring outside claims on their attention (Juliana’s mother calling for her, Lucian’s schemes for Juliana’s future) as they concentrate on one another for what becomes a timeless moment. ‘They walked past the tall box hedge again,’ Irwin tells us. ‘Shadows stole out on the milky ground, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, of a head, turned up to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair’ (p. 127). When Lucian tells Juliana at this point that her companionable silence has taken her ‘far away’ she answers, ‘No […] I am here and with you’. And she later notes the moment as one of perfect harmony between them:

They laughed together. She was deliciously happy, not so much because of the French duke whose name she had forgotten to ask, as because Lucian had never been quite so charmingly easy and friendly with her. (p. 154)

Later still, when Lucian returns from London to free her from his hypnotic influence over her, he urges his sister to enjoy the present as she did that night, forgetting the experiences he has made her undergo and concentrating instead on those ‘who love you and not to hurt’ (p. 276). In the process the past is wiped out, his power over her laid aside, and the here-and-now is placed at Juliana’s disposal. As a result, Lucian extends his own present, despite his imminent death and erasure from history as a disgraced peer: ‘You will not quite forget me,’ he insists, ‘no matter what else you forget’ (p. 277). Escape from the blankness of anonymity depends for Irwin on a recognition of equality which could be described as discovering the wished-for ‘company’ of the title, in spite of the unequal distribution of social and political resources in any given epoch. Juliana presumably finds another model of such ‘company’ in her husband Mr Daintree, whose epitaph, as read by Jan in the final chapter, speaks of his reluctance to go on living after her death – her companionship having become for him a necessary condition of life itself.

In the final chapter, Jan too finds herself reconciled to the present as a time of opportunity as well as frustration. Like Lucian, she has till this point been obsessed with her ideal partner, a literary composite assembled ‘chiefly from her casual glimpses in the library […] of La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Congreve’s Valentine, Lovelace without his insatiable vanity; a man of easy ironic wit, assured composure impossible to ruffle, and yet of fancies as fantastic as her own’ (p. 19). Each of these literary influences is in some way damaging to women: La Rochefoucauld and Lord Chesterfield give cynical advice to naïve young people, Valentine from Love for Love and Lovelace from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa are rakes and libertines, while Lovelace is also a kidnapper and a rapist. Jan thinks to have found the embodiment of this ideal in Lucian, not least, perhaps, because she first sees him in a library, like the real-life model for the book-based lover of her dreams. But Lucian relinquishes his rakish designs on her when he releases Juliana from his power, and at this point Jan turns her attention to her living fiancé, the Scottish architect Donald Graeme. Donald is the ultimate modern man, both in his determination to promote himself through hard work and in his admiration for American architecture – qualities unlikely to endear him to a woman obsessed with the aristocracy, whose favourite building is Chidleigh House, a structure that ‘might have imprisoned a princess in a fairy tale’ (p. 287). In the final chapter, however, Donald reveals another side to his nature. When Jan tells him about her visions of the past he doesn’t dismiss them, instead accepting imagination as a necessary faculty which he shares with her thanks to his ambitious plans for the future: ‘Any servant girl who longs to be a duchess, anyone who has dreams of successful ambition, finds their chief happiness in something that doesn’t exist. All artists do. Perhaps most lovers do’ (p. 301). More importantly, he believes that what she saw in her dreams of Lucian was in some sense ‘real’, though it ‘doesn’t exist’ in the here and now. He has become convinced, he tells her, that she has second sight – the ability to see beyond the material present, a concept he knows about thanks to his Celtic roots (Jan awkwardly refers to him as ‘half highland’). This familiarity with the ‘impossible’ enables him to accept her fascination with ‘unreal people’, ‘nonsense’, ‘chimeras’, the ‘company of a dream’, as evidence of her affinity for the arts rather than madness. And this in turn invests Donald himself – despite his practicality – with the quality of a ‘shadow’ rather than a ‘living companion’ (p. 300), something that links him with Lucian, since the companionship between the Master of Chidleigh and his sister became associated with shadows during their walk on the Chidleigh terraces, when their images walked alongside them in a prefiguration of their future as dreams, ghosts, or characters in Irwin’s novel.

A woman with a ‘high-piled tower of hair’, by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Donald, then, earns Jan’s affection by proving himself one of the select dream ‘company’ she has always been obsessed with; a suitable companion for herself, Juliana and Lucian, and more distantly for Mr Daintree, Juliana’s husband. Donald gets linked in particular with Lucian, becoming a kind of vessel for him, in much the same way as Juliana became a vessel for Jan. For much of the book the notion of one person being used by another, of becoming an involuntary vessel for someone else’s personality, is associated with the abuse of power – the kind of possession Irwin would later represent in Mr Corbett’s fascination with the Book. But in the last paragraph of the novel all four lovers are united in perfect equality, with Donald and Jan re-enacting the scene where Juliana walked with her brother on the terraces at Chidleigh:

They were walking by a box hedge as tall as themselves at the end of one of the grass terraces. Then they went slowly down the terrace, the moon behind them. Faint shadows stole out before them, and she, looking down at the milky ground, saw that they were the shadows of a hooped skirt and a sword, of a bent head, ribbon at neck, and a head upturned to meet it, under a high-piled tower of hair. (p. 307)

The scene is notable for the way it erases distinctions between the sexes – the man’s ribboned hair and sword perfectly balancing the woman’s skirt and tower of hair – while erasing the gaps between past and present, as the twentieth-century man and woman about to embark on the ultimate modern journey – from the Old World to the New – find themselves fused with their eighteenth-century precursors. In this way a novel about isolation and loneliness ends by asserting the possibility of a new community that dissolves all barriers by means of a rare and hard-won sympathy among its members.

It’s important to note, however, that this final fusion is not presented as another ideal. Lucian’s association with rakes and orgies, with devil worship and mesmerism, makes him a highly problematic ideal for either Jan or Juliana; while Jan’s fascination with fairy tale princesses waiting passively to be carried off by a lustful prince, or with aristocracy and the rigid class system on which it depends, or with literary rapists, abusers and misogynists, connects her fantasies with the worst tyrannies of the past. Irwin’s past is no better than her present, and her present is almost as problematic for women as the past, so that her characters have to cobble together a better world for themselves out of imaginative fusions of both. Meanwhile Donald’s respect for Jan, Lucian’s affection for Juliana, have to be won with difficulty from both men’s obsession with what they imagine to be better futures; futures which are shown by the end to have distracted them from the present as completely as the women were distracted from the here and now by their imaginative lives. Lucian’s distractions prove in the end as destructive to him as Mr Corbett’s did, while Juliana escapes annihilation as narrowly as did Mr Corbett’s young daughter.  The need for assembling a congenial company of men and women by travelling between periods suggests that such a company doesn’t yet exist, and Still She Wished for Company suggests that the emergence of the place and time for women isn’t yet in sight, either.

Notes

[1]All quotations are from Margaret Irwin, Still She Wished for Company (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935).

[2]Their names are linked through fiction too. Juliana shares her name with the heroine of William Congreve’s seventeenth-century novel Incognita, while Lucian takes to calling Jan ‘Incognita’ (p. 261), which is Juliana’s pseudonym in Congreve’s text.

[3]Compare Wilde’s ‘The Harlot’s House’: ‘Like wire-pulled automatons, / Slim silhouetted skeletons / Went sidling through the slow quadrille’ etc.

 

Margaret Irwin between the Wars, Part 1: ‘The Book’ (1930)

[For me, August 2019 has been Margaret Irwin month. Not much is known, it seems, about this popular historical novelist, but she’s a wonderful writer of fantasy and horror, and over the next few days I’ll be devoting three substantial posts to her best-known works of the fantastic. Enjoy!]

Margaret Irwin started to write books in the 1920s, a remarkable decade for women’s fantasy. Other authors who made a name for themselves in that decade included Stella Benson, Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Elinor Wylie, all of whom wrote fantastic novels – Living Alone (1919), Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), Lolly Willowes (1926) and The Venetian Glass Nephew (1925) – while May Sinclair published a collection of modernist ghost stories in 1923, and Virginia Woolf her most lushly fantastic experiment in prose, Orlando, in 1928. Even male writers took to representing women fantastically in the 1920s, from Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) to David Garnett in his wildly successful novella Lady into Fox (1922), David Lindsay in The Haunted Woman (1922), and Walter de la Mare in his celebrated faux-autobiography Memoirs of a Midget (1921), as well as his finest short story, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1922). The centrality of women to post-war fiction is hardly surprising, given both their unusual visibility during the conflict and the extension of the vote to women in 1918 and 1928 (though I should stress that most of the texts I’ve listed are more concerned with female invisibility than with the belated entrance of women into full citizenship). But why did so many writers choose to represent women’s experiences in fantastic fiction? Margaret Irwin’s first two novels were fantasies, and at the end of the decade she wrote the most anthologized of her short stories, a supernatural horror called ‘The Book’ (1930). These three texts might be said to provide a kind of answer to my question, and one that throws light on the other women’s fantasies I’ve listed.

The 1920s and 1930s have together come to be known as between the wars, as if they were defined by the cataclysmic acts of violence that hem them in, making them a no-man’s land without an identity or direction of its own. The dominant mode of Irwin’s fantasies is in-betweenness. Each story conveys a similar sense of waiting in a state of uneasy suspension to see if something that has just ended will complete its transformation into something else. The transformation hasn’t been fully accomplished by the end of the narrative, and the feeling you’re left with after reading is one of uncertainty, with the protagonist and hence the reader poised or held in prolonged suspension between alternative genres or modes of existence – different philosophies – without any clear sense of which of these, or which combination of these, might best be embraced in order to make sense of the time to come. This mood of suspension pervades all the most prominent female fantasies of the decade. Lolly Willowes ends with its protagonist uncertain about her future, despite her initiation into the powers and demonic connections of being a witch. Living Alone finishes with its desultory heroine wandering off to the United States, uncertain what she will do next. Lud-in-the-Mist leaves many of its female characters either dead or marginalized, despite the transformation of their country through a magical revolution; Orlando’s hero becomes a heroine half way through his unexpectedly extended lifespan, but her happiness at the end of the book is associated with her lifelong association with a quiet and prosperous country estate, out of the political and cultural limelight. Each of these books brings its women into direct contact with potent magical forces, but each also leaves them waiting, half hopeful but with a bass note of well-founded scepticism, for those energies to manifest themselves in genuine social change. And the sense of infinite promise mixed with doubt and even fear pervades the marvellous early narratives of Margaret Irwin.

The best known of Irwin’s fantasies is ‘The Book’, which I first came across in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer’s fine anthology The Weird (2011). The protagonist of the story is a man, but his in-between-ness, like that of the women in the books I’ve listed, is never in question. He is a modestly prosperous middle-class gentleman, with a reliable job, a wife, three children and a dog, and a house in which they all live in close and reasonably democratic proximity. The children in his house all have a voice, and the man’s ‘favourite’ is the youngest, eight-year-old Jean. The egalitarian tendencies of this family are embodied in its solitary set of bookshelves, which promiscuously mingles ancient and modern, male and female, adult’s and children’s texts in cheerful disorder:

The dining-room bookcase was the only considerable one in the house and held a careless unselected collection to suit all the tastes of the household, together with a few dull and obscure old theological books that had been left over from the sale of a learned uncle’s library. Cheap red novels, bought on railway stalls by Mrs Corbett, who thought a journey the only time to read, were thrust in like pert, undersized intruders among the respectable nineteenth-century works of culture, chastely bound in dark blue or green, which Mr Corbett had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days; beside these there swaggered the children’s large gaily bound story-books and collections of Fairy Tales in every colour.

This household, then, embodies the inter-war epoch which saw the vote finally extended to all British citizens of suitable age. Its bookshelves are available to all its members and represent many aspects of European culture, both elite and popular, from fairy tales and Latin poetry to railway novels and detective fiction (Mr Corbett was reading a detective novel in the story’s opening sentence, despite the fact that the ‘pert, undersized intruders’ of popular fiction are associated in the list with his less educated wife). The house is not excessively democratic, however; it is not revolutionary, like Soviet Russia. We learn a few pages later that the servants are assumed by their employers to be uninterested in reading: ‘The maid never touched the books’ Mr Corbett thinks (p. 184). And the books themselves speak to moments of ambition in Mr Corbett’s past. They contain a number of nineteenth-century volumes he ‘had considered the right thing to buy during his Oxford days’ and the theological tomes whose only function (since they are never read) must be to inform the world that Mr Corbett’s uncle was a Dean, a figure of some stature in the Church of England. It is one of these ancient books that gives Irwin’s text its title, apparently infecting Mr Corbett’s mind with a miasma of self-interest, intensifying those early ambitions into an all-consuming obsession with financial and intellectual self-advancement at the expense of everyone around him. I say ‘apparently’ here because his passion for self-promotion is hinted at, as we’ve seen, in the books he owns, and Irwin carefully refrains from allowing us to conclude with any certainty that the effects of the titular Book are supernatural. Here is another form of in-between-ness the narrative contains: the gradual corruption of Mr Corbett’s mind by ‘The Book’ can be as easily ascribed to his own character and upbringing as to supernatural causes, and the tale is a perfect example of Tzvetan Todorov’s ‘hesitation’ between supernatural and natural explanations of seemingly impossible occurrences – a hesitation which suggests that the world itself is somehow suspended between irreconcilable philosophical perspectives, materialist and spiritual, supposedly committed to the former while being unable to shake off the residual influence of the latter, even if only as a means of disclaiming responsibility for its own worst actions.

The Book itself is an in-between object. Its presence on the bookshelves can at first only be deduced from an absence: an unexplained gap between the usually densely-packed volumes, which acquires for Mr Corbett an ‘unnatural importance’ and begins to prey on his mind until it develops an unsettling resemblance to ‘a gap between the two front teeth of some grinning monster’. For Chaucer and his medieval contemporaries a gap between the two front teeth was a sign of lechery, and there’s no mistaking the association between Mr Corbett’s obsession with the Book and erotic desire – in particular pornography. Censorship has ensured that pornography constitutes an absence in many libraries. It has also ensured that obscene passages in nineteenth-century texts were sometimes printed in Latin, barring access to uneducated readers on the dubious assumption that only the well-schooled are disciplined enough to read such passages without succumbing to temptation. The Book, when Mr Corbett stumbles across it, turns out to be in Latin, and he is at first drawn to the illustrations rather than the text, since his linguistic skills are not the best. These illustrations invoke both sexual temptation and its possible consequence, childbirth: ‘an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons’ (p. 186). When at last Mr Corbett decides to decipher the Latin with the help of his young son’s dictionary, he ‘steals’ into the schoolroom like a thief in the night ‘With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose’. The part of the book he reads with most attention is a passage that describes (as he thinks) ‘some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers’ – though he reflects extensively on it afterwards, ‘committing each detail to memory’ as if to preserve it for his own uses. And the guilt that accompanies his clandestine reading of the Book soon begins to extend itself to Mr Corbett’s dealings with his family. He begins to think they suspect him of some unspecified misconduct and becomes infuriated at their ‘low and bestial suspicions and heavy dullness of mind’. The second time he borrows the dictionary from his son he ‘thought the boy looked oddly at him and he cursed him in his heart for a suspicious young devil, though of what he should be suspicious he could not say’ (p. 187). By this stage in the story his family has become a ‘savage tribe’ with devilish suspicions or superstitions, whose language he no longer speaks and whose culture is a closed book to him. Mr Corbett has become a colonial intruder into his own household, and anyone familiar with the habits of colonists will have begun to expect the worst from his bids to penetrate the secret spaces of its other inhabitants.

Mr Corbett’s inability to say what his family might suspect him of can be taken as another significant gap in the narrative, a deliberate exclusion from it of something in him which Mr Corbett himself refuses to acknowledge. The nature of that unsaid something may be hinted at in the phrase ‘low and bestial suspicions’, sexual desire being often associated with wild animals as against civilized men. The same refusal to acknowledge his own half-suppressed desires is implied by his assumption that the outrageous passage he translates so carefully refers to some ritual performed by savages, as against the actions of a self-disciplined Englishman like himself.  Yet Mr Corbett has been having what are obliquely identified as sexual fantasies before ever he lays hands on the Book. The story begins with him falling into the habit of reading familiar books in perverse new ways, all of which can be seen as eroticized or sexual. Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop – its title suggesting the secrets that might be hidden in broad daylight in a packed emporium – becomes for him an index to its author’s sado-masochistic leanings: ‘Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering’. When he turns instead to the classical fiction of Walter Pater he concludes that ‘there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake’ (p. 184). Later he identifies Robert Louis Stevenson as another sadist, Treasure Island exhibiting ‘an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality’ (p. 185). Perverse readings like these can also be readily practised, it turns out, on the books that formed the bedrock of Mr Corbett’s education. In his nightmares after reading Pater ‘the gods and heroes of classic fable acted deeds whose naked crime and shame [he] had never appreciated in Latin and Greek Unseens’, and he wakes ‘in a cold sweat from the spectacle of the ravished Philomel’s torn and bleeding tongue’ (p. 184). Latin itself, the mark of a high-class schooling eminently suitable for boys who are destined by birth to become leaders of men, has been contaminated by association with rape and other ‘naked crimes’ well before Mr Corbett first glances into the manuscript pages of the mysterious tome of the story’s title.

Meanwhile, Mr Corbett entertains the same suspicions of other family members as he suspects them of entertaining about him. When his son in turn suddenly becomes disgusted by a book he used to enjoy (‘Filthy stuff’, he calls it), Mr Corbett’s first assumption is that the boy has been reading a pornographic publication passed on to him by servants or other boys: ‘Mr Corbett was disturbed. Unpleasant housemaids and bad schoolfriends passed through his head, as he gravely asked his son how he had got hold of that book’. His suspicions prove groundless, however. The book the boy finds ‘filthy’ is an expurgated edition of Gulliver’s Travels, with all the obscene bits taken out – though of course in the original Swift’s misanthropic ‘cynicism’, as Mr Corbett calls it, is expressed in graphically corporeal terms. Before long Mr Corbett himself is echoing the boy’s reaction to Swift (and the irony of Swift having been another Dean is surely intentional). By this stage, for him all authors have become ‘filthy-minded’, from the sexually repressed Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte to William Wordsworth with his unwholesome nature fetish, and all of them use literature to articulate ‘what they dared not express in their lives’. Literature itself points to a gap in public life, the gap from which the articulation of erotic arousal has been erased, and it is this gap that the Book of the story’s title comes exclusively to fill in Mr Corbett’s own existence.

As he gets to know the Book better he notices that it is unfinished. There are blank pages at the end, a gap where the perpetual process of learning to which the text pays verbal tribute has been cut short by the author’s death. As Mr Corbett painstakingly deciphers the Book’s contents he sees that these blank pages are being gradually filled with lines of new writing: instructions which permit him to satisfy his clandestine desires in the world beyond the text. At first these lines give him tips on good investments, glutting his appetite for wealth and status. Later, however, they move on to more obviously damaging suggestions, instructing him to kill the family dog and thus pandering to the sadistic pleasure in cruelty which he detected in Stevenson and Dickens. Inevitably the mysterious instructions that appear on the blank pages, which so conveniently chime in with Mr Corbett’s unspoken wishes, imply that he has started to write these wishes into the manuscript, embellishing his work of translation with unwholesome fantasies of his own. His belief that he must obey the lines’ instructions to the letter (if not, he is convinced that something dreadful will happen to him) invokes his respect for authority, as exemplified in his decision to keep his uncle’s books in the first place; and here we come to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the story – its gender politics.

I suggested earlier that the Corbett household has a quasi-democratic air about it, as attested by its bookshelves, or by the fact that Mr Corbett and his wife share the same tastes in lowbrow reading. What Mr Corbett’s new reading habits exemplify, by contrast, is his frustrated wish for power. His perverse analyses of Dickens, Stevenson and the Book make him feel superior – first to his younger self, who he thinks did not read with the penetration he has acquired in his maturity; then to his wife and children, who strike him as dull and narrow-minded by comparison; and finally to his friends and professional colleagues, whose inability to profit from the Book’s financial tips makes him think of them as incompetent. Inevitably, perhaps, his sense of superiority has a gendered aspect. In the 1920s Latin formed an integral part of a middle-class boy’s education – and there is no indication in the story that the girls in his family have access to it. It’s the ancient language of the law, and Mr Corbett gives as his excuse for borrowing the dictionary his need to translate an old law case for professional purposes. And it’s the language of theology, associated with the late Dean’s library. Law and theology, like Latin, have traditionally been the exclusive province of men; in Irwin’s day this was only slowly changing. And in medieval times, when the Book was written, Latin was the language of the Bible, and of the male priests who had sole access to its contents. Indeed, the title of the short story could well be read as referring to the Good Book, and the mysterious Book itself with its pictures of Adam and Eve and the mouth of Hell could well be taken for an annotated copy of the Scriptures. In turning from detective fiction to what he thinks of as theology Mr Corbett is embracing authority, just as he is when he casts aside the demotic Dickens for the more socially elevated Pater.

Mr Corbett’s recourse to the Dean’s volumes, in other words, immerses him in a world where men’s activities are carefully segregated from those of women; a world from which the twentieth century was only just beginning to emerge in the two decades between the wars. The unhealthy miasma he detects in the vicinity of the bookshelves – exuded by the Dean’s library, and perhaps by the Book in particular – could be construed as the stink of the patriarchal past, when women were men’s chattels and it was the absolute prerogative of men to dispose of their offspring as they saw fit. The association of the Dean’s library with pornography points up the various abuses to which patriarchy gives rise – through its tendency to represent women and children as objects, through its privileging of individual male desires over the collective needs of the community, through its restriction of the arcane secrets of sexual knowledge to male eyes and hands. There’s a ghastly inevitability, then, about the fact that Mr Corbett’s perverse reading culminates in an assault on Jean, a female child. Philomela, after all, whose severed tongue Mr Corbett dreams of, was raped by a patriarch – her father, Tereus – and Mr Corbett’s final attack on his own daughter can be read as the consequence of an education designed to reinforce the historical linkage of patriarchal power with sexual violence.

The build-up to the attack is framed precisely in terms of the protection of privileged authority. By this point the Book has become for Mr Corbett ‘the source of ancient and secret power’, and the nightmares his daughter has begun to have about it suggest that she has somehow ‘acquired dangerous knowledge’ herself – perhaps by reading it, which would make her in his eyes a kind of heretic against his own divine status. She has teamed up with the family dog, he thinks absurdly, to conspire against his plans for universal domination; and the thought leads him to quote a line from the Good Book: ‘“All that are not with me are against me,” he repeated softly’. The words are derived from a sentence uttered by the divine son of a patriarchal God (‘He that is not with me is against me’, Matthew 12:30), and Mr Corbett’s easy appropriation of it for his own ends echoes, in effect, many generations of scriptural exegesis on behalf of male supremacy. In a similar spirit he decides to kill the child with a dose of rat poison no one knows he has – a particularly deadly form of secret knowledge, playing on the notion that his mind (like that of Dorian Gray) has been metaphorically ‘poisoned’ by a Book; his murder will be committed, like an act of God, by the unseen hand of a ‘secret power’. In these final paragraphs of the story Mr Corbett has become an activist on behalf of religion itself, which has acted since classical times in the service of male oppression.

In fact, to his credit, Mr Corbett withstands this last temptation. He doesn’t kill his daughter, but dies himself in her place, destroyed either by the shocking revelation that all his recent investments have collapsed (as some people believe) or by the pressure of a hand upon his windpipe (as the coroner’s report suggests). Was he killed by the Book’s disembodied servant, the demonic hand about which his daughter has been having so many nightmares? Or did he kill himself by his own hand, as the lawyers assert, somehow throttling himself to death to prevent himself becoming a similar servant of oppression? The notion that the hand that killed him might have been his own would seem far-fetched, if it weren’t for the fact that his hand has been associated throughout the story both with his reading of the Latin book and his carrying out of its instructions: ‘with his finger he traced out the words that had been written’; ‘He held onto the door handle [of his daughter’s bedroom], but his fingers seemed to have grown numb, for he could not turn it’ (p. 191). The story’s end, then, falls into a gap between two alternative theories of Mr Corbett’s death, and in doing so it defines the interwar period as a time in suspension between the immaterial preoccupations of the past and the material obsessions of the present; or else between the total dominance of the patriarchy, supported by an intensely patriarchal religion firmly rooted in the scriptures, and the ushering in of a new, egalitarian age in the wake of the universal franchise. It’s presumably up to the reader (as it was to Mr Corbett) to determine which.

Lynd Ward, illustration for William F. Harvey, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’

 

Naomi Mitchison, The Big House (1950)

In the year C. S. Lewis published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 1950, Naomi Mitchison published a very different fantasy novel for children. Unlike Lewis’s book, The Big House is intimately involved with its own particular time and place, and time and place play a central role in its complex plotting. Set in Argyllshire immediately after the Second World War, in a village called Port-na-Sgadan (‘The Port of the Herring’) which is clearly modeled on Mitchison’s home of Carradale, the novel updates and relocates the Border ballad of Tam Lin, transforming it into a multi-stranded political fable. Simply put, it tells the story of a girl called Susan – Su for short – who embarks on a quest to save a long-lost piper from the fairies. In the process Su learns a great deal about the Big House where she lives and its role in local and national history. More specifically, she learns about class struggle, and how the Big House is deeply implicated in the continuing war of attrition that has been waged by the aristocracy on the commoners over the course of many centuries. As it happens, she also learns a few things about how that war of attrition might be brought to an end; and it’s this final element of the novel that marks its most radical distinction from the Narnian chronicles.

Rescuing the piper from the fairies involves travelling back in time, first to the days of the piper’s early life in the Napoleonic Wars, then to the medieval period, when the Big House is markedly smaller than its twentieth-century equivalent. Su’s travelling companion on these journeys is a working-class boy called Winkie, and each journey places the two children, girl and boy, in radically different situations, figured in each case by their different relationships to the Big House. The four siblings in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience Narnia in different ways because of their different personalities (though it’s implied that one of them, Edmund, has had his character somehow ruined by an experimental school he went to). For Mitchison, by contrast, difference is embedded in the class system, which is also bound up with national, regional and gender identities in a complex web of changing relationships which gives her novel a much subtler and darker flavour, so to speak, than the first entry in the Narnia sequence. Its subtlety and darkness explains, perhaps, why it’s less well known than Lewis’s series, but the book is well worth recovering, along with its feisty protagonist, Susan, who provides such a welcome contrast to the relative insipidity of her Narnian namesake.

Carradale House

The Big House falls into three parts or acts, each of which drives a deeper wedge between Su and her companion, Winkie. The first act takes place in the present day, just after the war, at a point in history when the class system has been loosened or at least unsettled by the pressures of global conflict. It also takes place at a time of year – Halloween – when all the social, cultural and supernatural forces that seethe beneath the surface of the local community tend to boil over, thanks to the old traditions observed by all classes in Port-na-Sgadan. The second act of the novel, set in the early nineteenth century, exposes the material roots of the class struggle that brought about the long-standing hostility between the inhabitants of the Big House and their poorer neighbours. The third act takes the children back to medieval times and underlines the arbitrariness of the class system by placing Su and Winkie in reverse positions. In this period Winkie unexpectedly finds himself in charge of the Big House as clan chief, while Su becomes dependent on his good will in her new role as an injured stranger, who happens to be under Winkie’s protection as his houseguest. The final chapter of the novel returns to the possibility of discovering alternative narratives within the dominant narratives of history which is where the book began. In the process it suggests that the relationship between Su and Winkie might mark the beginning of a new and better phase of class relations, or even the eventual end of class antagonism altogether.

Naomi Mitchison

The threefold structure neatly invokes the many sets of threes that dominate the traditional fairy tale, and we’re invited to consider this numerical significance by the novel’s playfulness with numbers – although the number seven is more closely aligned with the fairies in this book than the number three. Three is the charm, though, as they say, and Mitchison’s narrative (which is full of magic charms of one kind or another) seems to urge or charm its readership, through their sympathy with the personal charms of its two protagonists, into both understanding and breaking down some of the inequalities that divided British communities in the 1950s. If Lewis is concerned with the spiritual and imaginative wellbeing of his readers, Mitchison is more concerned with their material and political welfare. But she too introduces a spiritual dimension into her narrative thanks to the prominence in all three acts of religion and the pagan supernatural, in the shape of the Christian church and its old arch enemies: ‘Yon Ones’, as Winkie terms them, the fairies or good people. The coexistence of these antagonistic supernatural elements alongside the class antagonism that threatens Su and Winkie’s friendship suggests that Mitchison wishes to stress the presence in any given period of multiple narratives or versions of events; narratives that must be understood and reconciled before the foundations can be laid of a better social order.

As I said, the first act of the novel takes place at Halloween, and represents it as a time when the power relations in the children’s community are temporarily suspended (or turned ‘tapsalteery’, as Winkie puts it, p. 66). The mechanism of this suspension is the Scottish custom of ‘guising’ as practised in this remote part of Argyllshire. In Port-na-Sgadan on All Hallows’ Eve women dress up as men, men dress as women, and all revelers don a ‘false-face’ or facial disguise to conceal their identity. Under cover of this disguise, class hostility can either be temporarily set aside (since nobody knows the identity of the revelers) or given free play (for the exact same reason). As the book opens, Su has just been attacked and hurt by an anonymous group of older schoolmates ‘because she was from the Big House, and in times past the Big House had been hard and cruel to the fathers and grandfathers of the ones at the school, and kept them in fear and, maybe, put them out of their houses, but now the thing had turned round and they had revenged themselves’ (p. 10). Halloween, then, represents a kind of miniature social revolution – literally, a ‘turning round’, when girls can join with boys in acts of violence that would not normally be condoned by either sex (Su is usually only subjected to class hostility at school through ostracism, as we learn later). The notion of turning things round also suggests that Halloween is a season when conventional measurements of time are somehow suspended, as they are in all annual rituals, since such rituals imply that time is cyclical rather than linear, and hence that progress, revolution and reconciliation are equally unlikely ever to be accomplished. Su’s attackers are committed, in fact, to upholding a perpetual cycle of injury and revenge – of feuding, in other words – which repeats itself in all three parts of the novel, and against which Su and Winkie’s friendship stands as the sole hope of future amendment.

Carradale

The cyclical view of time invoked by the annual custom of guising in turn reminds us that Halloween is a season when other forces are at work besides class politics. It’s a significant date in the old church calendar, for one thing, being the day before the major feast of All Saint’s Day. And it’s also a significant date in the pagan year: Samhain, when fairies and the dead are said to roam abroad and when children in particular are vulnerable to supernatural influences (this may lie behind the custom of guising, concealing as it does the children’s identity from potential fairy kidnappers). Sure enough, on this particular Halloween Su and Winkie meet the walking dead in the form of the piper, Donald Ferguson, who was born in the early nineteenth century before being abducted by fairies and granted supernatural longevity in exchange for his freedom. Halloween is the time of year when the doors of Fairy Land stand open, and Donald has managed to slip through them – pipes and all – and make his way down to the village that was once his home. As he marches along he plays a tune to give himself courage and keeps an eye out for the church, where he hopes to gain sanctuary from ‘Yon Ones’ on premises held sacred by their religious antagonists. Instead Su and Winkie take him to the Big House and protect him from the Fairy Prince by barring the way to his hiding place with a family Bible. Later he and the children seek to know what to do next by choosing a text from the scriptures at random, one for each of them – three in all; and each text accurately predicts the experiences of its chooser in each of the three acts of the novel. All three acts mix pagan and Christian elements in a continuation of the narrative begun at Halloween, thus underscoring for the children the coexistence of different religious as well as political perspectives on each historical period they visit. It’s an ingenious plot structure, which enables Mitchison to offer her readers an understanding of the interwoven processes of history of the sort C S Lewis is simply not concerned to provide.

Caramel from Above

There is a clear crossover between the political and the supernatural narratives in Mitchison’s text. The abduction of the piper by the fairies, for instance, has a political dimension. Donald Ferguson is a working-class man, and his abductor is a Fairy Prince unwilling to free him from his bondage or enslavement in the fairy kingdom. Yet despite the danger he is in from his fairy pursuers, Donald is at first reluctant to enter the Big House when Su invites him. ‘I will not go the Big House’ he insists (p. 12), presumably because (like his kinsman Winkie) he will not feel welcome or safe in the local stronghold of the ruling classes. His reluctance is justified a page or two later when Su instinctively invites the Fairy Prince into the building as he comes looking for the piper, giving him access to the premises with a formal Gaelic welcome as if in unconscious acknowledgment of their affinity as fellow members of the governing elite (p. 17). It’s because of Winkie’s class background, too, that the boy is so much more au fait with supernatural goings-on in Port-na-Sgadan than Su is. From the moment he meets the piper he is convinced of the continuing presence there of ‘Yon Ones’, as Susan is not; and this may be as much because there is no electric lighting in his house as because his family is more inclined than hers to give credence to oral traditions (‘“It just can’t be true,’ said Su, ‘you know it can’t! It just doesn’t go with electric light!’”, p. 16). Winkie knows many things that don’t ‘go with electric light’. He knows, for instance, about the recent doings in Port-na-Sgadan of the tutelary guardian of the Big House, the Brounie; doings about which Su has never heard, since, as Winkie puts it, ‘“There is things that dinna get told to the Big House ones”’ (p. 30). Moreover, for Winkie the difference between the Brounie, which gives its supernatural assistance to anyone who needs it regardless of class, and the Fairy Prince, who expects unquestioning compliance from his social inferiors, is fundamentally a class difference. This class difference is present, too, in the different level of understanding of the fairies possessed by the travelling folk, the tinkers, as compared to the local working-class people like Winkie, who despise the traveller community. The young tinker Ian Townsley can play a tune on the pipes which makes the Fairy Prince disappear from the Big House kitchen in the first act of the narrative; while in the third and final act Su and Winkie get help from tinkers when they find themselves stranded on the road between past, present and future. Each distinct class – the ‘Big House ones’, the local working-class population and the travellers – has access to a different level of knowledge about Yon Ones, which is in inverse proportion to their access to educational opportunities and the benefits of technological progress, such as electric lighting.

Second World War Mine in Carradale

Running alongside the other narratives in the novel – the stories of the class struggle and of the struggle between Christianity and paganism – runs the narrative of the recently ended global conflict. The impact of the War is felt everywhere in the novel, most deeply, perhaps, in the changes that have taken place in the Big House of the title. Like the Professor’s house in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the building has diminished in social stature over time, but unlike Lewis Mitchison is keen to stress the role played by war in this diminution. The resident family’s fortunes clearly took a downturn during the Blitz, which destroyed their London home and killed Su’s ‘London aunt’; and since then London has remained the centre of the mother’s activities, because she works at a Ministry (we never learn which one, just as we never find out what has happened to Su’s father). Power, then, has been sapped from the Big House by the concentration of the military, governmental and economic High Command in the southeast corner of the United Kingdom. The absence of servants in the Big House, apart from old Morag, can be attributed to the fact that ‘there’s a war on’ (p. 24) – or at least a peace which continues to be shaped by the demands of war. The war explains, in fact, why the Big House has lost its ruling class glamour. Its once splendid kitchen now serves only the blandest food – potatoes, oatmeal, herrings, milk (p. 18) – because of rationing, which continued in the UK well into the 1950s. The occupants of the house are evidently subject to the same restrictions and regulations as the rest of the population, with the result that the appearance of the piper raises urgent questions in Su’s mind as to where she will find him an official ration book. The war has turned the Big House into a minor component in a nation-wide military machine, and in the process its political significance and authority have receded into the past.

The other classes in the novel too have been affected by war. Many of the men in the village have served in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who wear military issue kilts, and when Su first sees the kilted piper she thinks he might be one of them. Presumably the servants at the Big House have been called up for military service or other war work. The fairies, meanwhile, seem to know as much about the war as the human population. When the children enter the fairy kingdom under the Hill in the second act, an enchanted brazen head asks them a riddle whose answer is ‘a bomber’. Not long afterwards the protective spirit of the Big House, the ‘Brounie’, shows a remarkable skill in forging official documents such as ration books and identity cards. The most striking of these supernatural wartime references, though, is the series of spells cast by the Fairy Prince in his effort to reassert his power over the piper, which resemble bomb blasts like the one that destroyed Su’s London home:

Then the Prince lifted his hand, and everything began to shake like in an air raid when they are coming close and you are all on the floor waiting for the next one. And like the falling of a bomb something terrible and blinding seemed to happen, and Su was holding in her arms a coiling, wriggling mass of snakes, or one snake, and its head was looking at her, and it opened a fanged earth-smelling mouth (p. 89).

In this passage it becomes clear that the children in Mitchison’s narrative have undergone wartime experiences that more than prepare them for the perils and terrors they encounter in their dealings with ‘Yon Ones’. Su clings fiercely to the piper as he changes into a succession of terrifying forms, just as Janet clung to Tam Lin in the old ballad to free him from the power of the fairy queen, and we are told before the changes begin that the piper’s wife was unable to complete the same challenge when it was given her many decades earlier. Su’s success, despite her young age, can be explained by her seemingly first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to live through an air raid. And this knowledge comes in useful again later in the narrative, when she and Winkie correctly answer the riddle posed by the brazen head: ‘What is the bird that flies but is dead, and the eggs that it lays flying hatch death?’ […] ‘We think it is a bomber’ (p. 74). The head seems profoundly disturbed by their familiarity with the hardware of destruction (‘Sorrow, sorrow on me!’ it cries, ‘Sorrow on yourselves! Children of middle earth, it is over much that you know’); but the children themselves take their wartime experiences very much for granted, like their experiences of injustice in the classroom or of hostility between social classes. C. S. Lewis didn’t see fit to explain why Peter found it so easy to face a wolf with a sword in his hand when he had no experience of hand-to-hand combat; the impression we get is that such exploits just come naturally to properly brought up boys. Mitchison is careful to underline where Su’s courage springs from.

The difference between Lewis’s and Mitchison’s positions with respect to the war finds its most striking expression at the point in each novel when the antagonist offers a child some luxury sweets. Lewis says nothing at all about the sheer level of temptation felt by Edmund when the White Witch offers him Turkish Delight, or about the reasons why he should have succumbed to this temptation at a time of rationing. When the Fairy Prince offers Su and Winkie chocolates, by contrast, in the hope of tempting them to reveal the piper’s whereabouts, their experience of the offering is considered in meticulous detail. Su thinks at first, from the look of the chocolate box, that the Prince is about to offer her a diamond necklace, something she would find easy to refuse. But the chocolates – which evoke pre-war Christmases, a time of plenty and affection as embodied in the London aunt who used to give similar chocolates to her nieces and nephews as Christmas presents, so that the candy invokes an emotional as well as a physical yearning – the chocolates are a much more attractive proposition. They are made, we are told, ‘with the very best chocolate […] and real butter and real almonds and walnuts and Brazil nuts and pistachio nuts, and real fruit and any amount of castor sugar, and not one bit of saccharine or soya flour or flavouring out of bottles’ (p. 18). Like Edmund’s Turkish Delight these ingredients come from far off lands – the term ‘Brazil nuts’ stresses the fact – and the reference at the end of the sentence to the artificial ingredients substituted for natural ones because of shortages serves to intensify the sense of their exoticism and costliness. Even the butter is luxurious, since we learn later in the book that a ration of butter lasts only for a few days of each week, so that ‘it’s always margarine’ by Friday (p. 26). So far so tempting; but Mitchison also stresses the subtly different levels of temptation felt by ruling-class Su and working-class Winkie. ‘[T]here were no sweeties like this in all Europe,’ she points out, ‘and never had been for Winkie, and never would be again for Su’ (p. 18). The children are only rescued from temptation by the sudden arrival of a party of guisers, which means that the chocolates turn abruptly to a ‘scatter of leaves’. There is no suggestion that Mitchison would have judged the children if they’d eaten the sweets, and Su is later quite open about the fact that if she were offered them again she would be more than ever tempted to take some (‘“I do hope they won’t try and give us sweeties again like last time,” said Su, and sighed’, p. 33). Lewis’s moral condemnation of Edmund is the easy judgment of the well-fed. Mitchison, on the other hand, is concerned to stress the genuine difficulty any child would face in refusing a gift like this in a postwar economy.

The division between the two children’s class experiences, as embodied in episode with the chocolates, gets exacerbated in the novel’s second act. Here they travel back in time to the early nineteenth century, in a quest to recover Su’s shadow – stolen from her by the Fairy Prince in retaliation for her successful defence of the piper against his spells. The Fairy Prince perhaps considers himself entitled to the shadow because of the class bond between himself and Su which was confirmed when she welcomed him into her family home; and the period to which the children travel quickly interposes the shadow of class antagonism between the two of them, even before they have properly begun their quest. They live apart in this period for several weeks, and by the time they meet again their divided lives as ruling-class girl and working-class boy have radically changed their bodies – especially Winkie’s. When Su puts her arm around the boy’s shoulders she finds he has grown appallingly thin, and this lends weight to his words when he tells her that since his arrival in this epoch he has always been hungry. As a result, when food is offered as temptation by the fairies for the second time a few pages later, Winkie finds it almost impossible to refuse the gift and has to be forcibly dragged away by his better-fed companion:

‘Do you know,’ said Su, in her best grown-up voice, ‘I am really not hungry just now.’

‘Winkie is hungry,’ said Winkie’s lovely partner. ‘Eat now! Do you think I would harm you, Winkie? Do you think it is in me to harm you?’ And she smiled at him.

Su snatched at his hands. ‘Don’t eat, Winkie. Remember!’ (p. 70)

In this way the different period intensifies the children’s consciousness of the material differences involved in living as members of different social classes, and this awareness also means that their friendship is tested to a new level. Even meeting is difficult for them, and their eventual reunion is only achieved thanks to Su’s returning memory of their friendship in the twentieth century, a friendship that would be next to impossible in the nineteenth.

The friendship between the Pevensie children too is severely tested, of course, in Lewis’s novel; first by Edmund’s decision not to corroborate Lucy’s claim to have visited Narnia, then much more seriously by Edmund’s betrayal of his siblings to the White Witch. But in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe no motive is given for this betrayal beyond the vague allusion to the school he went to; and there is no real reason for Edmund’s actions not to be forgiven and forgotten as soon as he changes his mind. Since the four Pevensies share the same class background it is accepted among them that forgiveness is more honourable than resentment – that it is gentlemanly, to use an ideologically loaded term. In any case Edmund is the brother of Peter, Susan and Lucy, and forgiveness between siblings is ‘natural’. The threatened enmity between Su and Winkie, on the other hand, is structurally embedded in the class system as it manifests itself in each of the societies they live in. It’s embedded in their bodies – especially Winkie’s, which grows stronger and more energetic in the medieval period, when he is Chief of his clan and master of the Big House, just as it grew weaker in the nineteenth century. It’s embedded, too, in their experience of work, a world with which Winkie is already familiar in the twentieth century, as the son of a fisherman, and which becomes a desperate struggle for survival for him in the Napoleonic era. Su, meanwhile, does not work in the 1940s, and experiences the early nineteenth century as a time of uninterrupted play. The medieval period, by contrast, is for her a time of physical and emotional suffering. Winkie shoots her in the arm with an arrow, thinking she is a swan, and she spends the rest of her time there as an outsider among his people, yearning for a return to the modern Big House where she felt at home. She is unable to join in the ‘bower crafts’ of the women in Winkie’s community, and her inability to find a place for herself through work adds to her impression that the medieval period is somehow ‘unreal’ and that her own time is the only one that has any substance. The segregated activities of class and sex drive a wedge between the novel’s protagonists which threatens their friendship by forcing them to confront the alien cultures in which they were raised, the alien perspectives on history from which they have emerged, and the distinct kinds of knowledge they possess in every epoch.

At the same time, their friendship keeps reasserting its reality in each period, reestablishing itself as materially present at the expense of new relationships they have formed. At one point in the second act Su has a talk about class with one of her Big House relatives – a girl called Elspeth – which suddenly reveals to her the distance that separates them in terms of their attitudes to working people. Elspeth considers it perfectly reasonable to punish a man for cutting down a tree on Big House property, while Su is horrified by the savagery of his punishment (he has been forcibly conscripted in the British army and dispatched to the wars). Afterwards Su is suddenly visited by a Gothic vision in which Elspeth and the other children whose room she shares have turned into corpses in a mausoleum:

She rolled round. Elspeth was asleep. And at that she began to think in a horror, that grew worse and worse, how from her own time all these people were dead, and Elspie there was a dead corpse, and Mysie and Helen and all, and here she was left alone with them and she could not bear it, and she slipped quickly out of bed. Here was the room that used to seem so nice and cosy with the glow of the fire and the white linen of the feather beds, and each bed tented with bright curtains into a soft cave for two yellow heads whispering over the day; it was frightening now, it was not properly there! (p. 45)

This sensation that she is experiencing a variety of false consciousness, expressed in the melodramatic terms of early nineteenth-century sensational novels such as Frankenstein or Melmoth the Wanderer, impels her to leave the Big House and meet up with Winkie. The boy then reveals to her the material conditions that have enabled her to live her comfortable life up to this point: the near starvation of his family, the violent suppression of their political ideas, the aggressive punishment of minor crimes to which they were driven by poverty. As he speaks it becomes increasingly clear that the class conflict they have experienced stands on the verge of escalating into full-scale civil war, and that the war being waged on Napoleon is an aspect of the same class conflict.

In the first act, Su rather patronizingly dismisses the ‘terrible great war’ against Napoleon, as the piper calls it, with the observation that her own time ‘had Hitler, who was much worse’ (p. 26). Her assumption is that the twentieth-century experience of war has been far more ‘terrible’ than the piper’s in every way. The piper, on the other hand, sees the Second World War as the continuation of a struggle that has carried on in every epoch: ‘It was always so,’ he observes resignedly. Su and Winkie’s visits to the past confirm both the savage nature of the conflict he mentioned and its continuity through successive generations. In the Napoleonic era, Winkie’s response to the prosecution of his cousin Dougie is to join with Dougie’s brother to give the magistrate a beating or ‘slashing’ of the kind handed out to Dougie before he was sentenced. As it turns out the magistrate involved is an uncle of Su’s in this period, and she must show solidarity with Winkie by joining him on the expedition of revenge against a member of her own family. Su watches as Winkie and his older cousin engage in an awkward and unsatisfactory brawl with the uncle, who is mounted and armed with a whip. Afterwards, she, Winkie and the cousin are chased through the night by the magistrate and his men in another act of retaliation, which will implicitly lead on to further retaliatory acts until the moment at the opening of the novel when Su herself will be attacked by her schoolmates for being descended from men like her magistrate uncle. These experiences are echoed in the third act of the novel when Winkie as chief of his clan is expected to carry on a blood feud with the neighbouring clan, killing a relative of the man who killed his father in a cycle of murder and counter-murder which lays the foundation, we are led to suppose, for the future acts of violence against class enemies which have blighted the lives of Winkie’s and Su’s families. The possibility of breaking out of this cycle of violence seems even more remote than the possibility of rescuing the piper from the fairies or retrieving Su’s shadow from beneath the fairy hill.

At the same time, Su’s growing experience of cyclical violence consolidates her determination to put an end to it. Near the beginning of the story, when the piper gives Winkie a sgian dubh or knife to use on his travels Su is envious of the possibilities for bloodshed it represents: ‘“Oh, you are lucky!”’ she tells him, ‘“You might really be able to kill someone!”’ (p. 34). By the time she and Winkie find their way to the fairy realm after the attack on the magistrate, however, she has changed her tune, and when the High King of the Fairies offers her a wish in place of her shadow, she tells him that her ambition in life is to be ‘someone who can stop wars happening’ (p. 77). In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Father Christmas tells Susan and Lucy that ‘battles are ugly when women fight’ and bars them from the final conflict with the White Witch. Su, by contrast, chooses to set herself against violence, and learns in the process that the struggle for peace and social justice will be just as hard as the path of war. As he tempts her to turn aside from her quest for her shadow the High King of the Fairies gives her a glimpse in a magic mirror of the difficulties such a struggle will involve:

and it seemed to her to be a terrible hard way, and many of them on it were dead or dying, in some cruel and senseless fashion. And at each side there were a thousand pitfalls and temptations, and the end was beyond sight […] and indeed it was more than she had in her at this time to look along it any more. (p. 77)

Later, she learns from the Big House Brounie that her counterpart in the Napoleonic period – the girl whose place she took when she travelled back from the twentieth century, an ancestor of hers – chose a similar path of social justice, and that after a life spent fighting for ‘every kind o’ reform […] in the end she died of a fever that came on her down Gorbals way nursing a poor woman body that had nae kin of her ain’ (p. 80). Running alongside the heritage of violence, then, that mars Su’s family history, there is a counter-tradition of reconciliation and social responsibility whose adherents are as heroic – and often as badly damaged by their heroic actions – as any warrior. This tradition is more or less absent from the Narnian chronicles, despite the presence of female characters among its protagonists, and its absence is made the more striking by its prominence in Mitchison’s novel.

The tradition of reconciliation is embodied from the opening pages of The Big House in the friendship between Su and Winkie. When Su is attacked by older children, some of whom seem to be Winkie’s relatives, the boy chooses to take her side against his family because he feels ‘terrible affronted’ by what has been done to her (p. 10). Later he urges her to replicate this gesture by witnessing his own assault on her magistrate uncle, thus distancing herself from her family in a display of solidarity with Winkie’s kin. Meanwhile there have been several hints that a new kind of bond exists between them; something stronger than friendship or solidarity. This bond is implicit in the very fact that they find themselves together at Halloween. Robert Burns’s poem ‘Halloween’ (1785) associates the season with pagan fertility charms: every Halloween custom it describes involves some trick or spell to find out who will be your ‘future conjugal yoke-fellow’, as Burns put it, either by picking kale stalks or pulling at a thread, or looking in a mirror while eating an apple, or sowing hemp-seed. These are Ayrshire customs, presumably, since Burns grew up near Ayr, but the customs invoked by Mitchison are just as focused on desire and the prospect of some future ‘yoke-fellow’. Cross-dressing draws the revelers’ attention to gender identity – the difference between male and female as established by custom and expressed in clothing – while their ‘false-faces’ invite guessing games about who is behind which mask, and by extension about whose company they are keeping. Winkie and Su join in these games even after they’ve met the piper:

Five people went by, grown-ups, all dressed and with false-faces and laughing. Susan and Winkie argued about who they were. Winkie was sure it was old Mrs. Macdonald from the smiddy’s skirt on the man of the party, and the one with the navy trousers and its head in a flour-bag was Betty who worked at the Manse. Su said no, it was young Mrs. Paterson. ‘It was Betty, right enough,’ said Winkie, ‘I knew her from the way she wiggled her behind.’

‘Well then, if it was Betty,’ said Su, ‘the man would have been Red Tom, and he isn’t that size.’

‘Betty hasna been going with Red Tom this month past,’ said Winkie, ‘she is after a slater from down the way.’ (pp. 13-14)

Part of the evening’s sport, then, is to decide who is ‘going with’ whom. Under the covers of the false-faces boys and girls, men and women can walk out with their chosen partners under a screen of anonymity, and the right guessing of who is walking out with whom serves to confirm the guesser’s knowledge of the local community. As an upper-class outsider Su finds this guessing game more difficult than Winkie; but the boy’s decision to come home with her that night, despite his unease in the Big House, allows the reader to make a good guess as to the strength of his feelings for her. And there are further hints later in the narrative. When the piper meets Winkie in the Napoleonic era and asks him ‘Where is your lassie?’ he causes the boy acute embarrassment, which Winkie expresses in terms that echo the description of his inner turmoil as he stood by Su after the attack: ‘myself feeling so affronted I could have bitten him’ (p. 54, my emphasis). The Brounie of the Big House, meanwhile, keeps referring to Su as Winkie’s lassie; and in the third act of the novel Winkie describes her in the same terms himself (‘I must seek my lassie’, p. 121), even going so far as to promise to marry her if she will stay with him in the medieval period (p. 158). Mitchison’s is a world in which children are not barred from an awareness of current or future attraction to each other. Lewis’s Pevensie siblings, on the other hand, are never put in the position of thinking positively about relations between the sexes, and the one sibling who does think about such things – Susan – is famously barred from a return to Narnia in the sequence’s final book. Lewis may have provided his children with serious adventures for high stakes, in recognition of the serious roles children had taken on in the Second World War, but he rarely contemplates the possibility that they might experience any form of mutual desire or attraction.

Su and Winkie’s relationship, by contrast, takes centre stage in Mitchison’s novel, anticipating the centrality of Lyra and Will’s relationship in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And like Lyra and Will’s relationship, it grows more intense as the book goes on, reaching its culmination in the third act. The act opens with the greatest test of their bond so far: Su has been sent away to boarding school in England, which both removes her from the hostile environment of the local state school and drives a new wedge between her and Winkie, ensuring that they don’t meet at all when she returns to the Big House for the vacation. But before this happens their bond has reached a new pitch of intensity. At the end of the second act Su saves the piper from the fairies for a second time, as Janet saved Tam Lin, by clinging to him as he goes through a range of magical changes into terrifying forms. But unlike Janet, Su emerges from this trial not with a lover but a baby; the last form the piper assumes is that of an infant, and an infant he remains after the fairies relinquish their claim on him. This alteration of the ballad is carefully considered, since the baby dominates the third act of the novel as an embodiment of the difficult but potentially transformative union of ruling-class and working-class culture that might spring from Su and Winkie’s alliance. The difficulty dominates at first. While Su warms to the baby at once, Winkie is deeply unsettled by the suggestion that he might take on the role of the child’s father, and accepts responsibility for him only when it appears that Donald will be raised as a Big House boy with no input at all from the working-class villagers. This is another affront to Winkie’s pride, since it involves making the infant piper a class traitor, a situation the boy finds intolerable: ‘“He isna to be just a Big House one!”’ (p. 97). It’s at this point that the baby assumes a new role as a promise for the future, confirming the connection between Su of the Big House and the fisherman’s son through a common concern for the child’s education:

‘I dinna want to be his father,’ said Winkie, ‘but when I have my own boat I want him to come wi’ me.’

‘But of course he is going to do that,’ said Su […] ‘and so am I. And it’s no good saying I’m only a girl, Winkie, because it won’t work with me. And after all, what Donald wanted was a home, and he may as well have that twice over. Yes, and he is going to play with the tinkers, and sit next to them at the school, Winkie. And you may as well make up your mind to it. (pp. 97-8)

The piper’s transformation into an infant, then, represents a new beginning for his fragmented Argyllshire community, uniting all the narrative strands in the book so far. As well as bringing Su and Winkie closer together Donald offers an opportunity to erode the arbitrary gendering of roles in the workplace and to erase the class hostility between dwellers in houses and the travellers. So when the child’s soul is stolen away in the final act, leaving a foul-mouthed changeling to possess his body, there is an implied threat to the whole community in the exchange. Mitchison’s solution to this threat is to weave the separate narrative strands of her story into single cloth, bringing together the Christian church and the fairies, the fairies and Su, the ‘Big House ones’ and the villagers, the tinkers and Winkie’s people, in a complementary warp and weft which can no longer be separated, and which together make up the concept of ‘home’. The fusion is anticipated in the baby, which has a home ‘twice over’ – in working-class Port-na-Sgadan and the Big House; and the novel’s concluding part can in fact be read as the forging of a home that meets the needs of all its inhabitants, as represented by the infant Donald.

The adventure begins on the night after the stealing of the baby’s soul, when Su wakes to find the Brounie in her room. The household spirit has sought her out to put things right by fetching the soul from the past, where it has been hidden, and once again this involves a journey into history. From the start this second journey involves a fusion of disparate elements, beginning with Christianity and paganism. To make the spell that will send Su back in time the Brounie draws a cross in the dust on the Big House floor, and it later uses the same mark to send Winkie on a separate journey. For the Brounie the cross functions as a potent magic symbol, capable of turning the girl into a time-travelling swan and hurling the boy from body to body across many centuries. But Winkie’s journey ends when he sees the same mark on the cover of a Christian Bible, on which he is being sworn in as the new Chief of his clan after his father’s murder. The medieval period he has arrived in has the rivalry between Christianity and the fairy people at its core; and when Su gets there shortly afterwards she learns from her friend Donaldina the tinker that the power of the Church functions to keep the power of the Fairy Hill at bay: ‘“They are aye taking the babies. They are aye putting their power on to folk for ill, or whiles for good. […] But when we are going to the church we have a bigger power and a stronger sign.”’ The two marks or crosses, then, seem to be at odds; except that the opposition between fairy and church is undermined by Su herself, who is transformed by the Brounie’s magic into a swan maiden, a kind of fairy queen, and whose moment of greatest power again fuses the pagan and Christian crosses into a ‘stronger sign’.

Part of Winkie’s duties as clan chief is to avenge his father’s murder on the neighbouring clan who carried it out. The opportunity for this comes when his foster brother brings one of the hostile clansmen to the Big House, now Winkie’s castle. Winkie prepares to carry out a summary execution; but before this can happen Su intervenes, and her intervention is accompanied by the reappearance of the Brounie’s cross in the hall of the castle: ‘a pattern of brightness came between herself and them, a pattern as huge as the hall, of a cross in the square, and the lines within the cross, and then the joining together of the lines through curves and loops’ (p. 132). Su enlists the pagan cross on behalf of her cause as she begs the boy to spare his enemy; and she finds an unexpected ally in the local priest, who backs up her plea for mercy with a text from the Scriptures, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (p. 133). The priest points out that this is not the first time he has cited the commandment in his efforts to end the feud, but that the clan has always persisted in cleaving instead to the ‘law of the old days’ – the law of retribution. Clearly a power from these same ‘old days’ – the swan maiden, with her pagan sign – was needed before the half-pagan men of the clan were able to hear the priest’s injunction. Later the swan maiden and the priest again join forces, this time to capture the Fairy Queen and compel her to reveal the hiding-place where Donald’s soul is stowed. On this occasion it’s the priest who seeks retribution, and as he prepares to destroy the Fairy Queen with holy water, Su again intervenes with a plea for mercy. Both her interventions prove successful; and as a result Su’s presence in the past turns out to have reconciled – for a time at least – the seemingly incompatible powers of Christianity and the pagan supernatural, combining them into a ‘stronger sign’ than either one of them would have been in isolation.

Carradale Church

Meanwhile Winkie’s position as elected chief of the clan, possessed of the fortified tower that stands where the Big House will later be situated, undermines the notion that social status is a matter of bloodline. His kinship with Su has in any case been established in the second act, when they wore the same tartan in the enchanted dance hall of the Fairy Hill. In the final act, for a while, their kinship seems to have been revoked by the Brounie’s magic – even though it was the Brounie who first pointed out the historical ties between them. Many of Winkie’s people, including the priest, are convinced that Su is not even human; after all, they first saw her as a swan, and even after her return to human form her quarters in the castle are often adrift with swan down. Winkie, however, insists on her humanity, and heroically keeps himself and Su together against all odds – above all, against his own interests. He brings her under his roof despite the suspicions harboured by the priest against her, agrees to spare his enemy at her request despite the demands of the feud, escorts her to the location of Donald’s soul despite his initial reluctance to go there, and finally agrees to give up his status as chief, with all the pleasures and privileges it entails, in order to help her get back to the twentieth century. In the process he cements the bond between them. As Su says to him after their return to Port-na-Sgadan, when he again expresses reluctance to enter the Big House with all her family in it, ‘Nobody else did what you did for me’ (p. 168) – in other words, he has brought himself closer to her than any of her relatives. In this final section of the book, then, as in the other sections, comradeship and humaneness outweigh the divisions that are always being imposed between classes, sexes, religions, cultures, families and neighbours. Mutual solidarity and affection win out over the material wealth that makes some people comfortable at the expense of others. It’s a far more complex ending than the one Lewis chose for his first Narnian book – a battle in which the antagonist is killed and all rights are wronged without any residual rancor or regret; then a role as monarchs for all four Pevensie children, a role that seems to have no impact whatsoever on their afterlives in the ‘real’ world of the reader. History is not so painlessly dismissed in Mitchison’s universe.

The last chapter of The Big House has the title ‘Times Within Times’, for what at first seems an obvious reason. In it, Su and Winkie meet a truck driver who is somehow also the prisoner Winkie freed at Su’s request. The driver is able to tell them what happened to the historical chief whose place Winkie took when he went back in time. Meanwhile Winkie and Su themselves embody times within times, since they remember all their adventures in the past, and plan to use these experiences to build their futures. Su intends to follow the difficult path taken by the ancestor whose body she briefly occupied, and work as a lifelong campaigner for peace. Winkie hopes to imitate the Chief whose place he filled. All three of these people in the final chapter – Su, the truck driver and Winkie – contain the past within their bodies, much as the Halloween revelers in the first chapter concealed beneath their masks at once their own personal identities and a link, through tradition, to the Halloween revelers that came before them. The difference is that Su and Winkie are concerned to change things rather than to keep them the same; and the truck driver – who was once a prisoner condemned to death and whose life they saved – represents that resolve as clearly as the baby’s soul they are carrying home with them.

In this book, then, Mitchison uses the past to build not a nostalgic dream of a golden time that never was but an aspiration for a better future. But she also insists that this better future must be built on a knowledge of times past – must contain those times within it, be in dialogue with them, so to speak – if it’s really to better them. The children who hold that knowledge embodied within them – having literally acted out the past using the limbs of their ancestors – find themselves better able to reshape the place where they live into a home fit for all its inhabitants, instead of just some of them. The potential for the Big House to be such a home has been signaled several times in the novel: when Su and Winkie defended the piper against the Fairy Prince in the Big House kitchen; when the Brounie revealed that it considered itself as much a protector of Su’s distant relatives in the village as of the actual residents in the building; and most of all when the piper gets a premonition, in the second act, that the Big House could be a ‘home’ to him as well as to Su. ‘It runs in my mind,’ he tells the children in a moment of vision that links him to bards before him, such as Thomas the Rhymer, ‘that there is a place for me at the Big House’; and he reinforces this premonition with a quotation from scriptures: ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ (p. 85). The verse is one of Christ’s most all-inclusive declarations, uttered just before his death, in which he reassures his disciples that there is room in heaven for all of them (John 14.2). Su at once takes Christ at his word by linking the saying to the fairies: ‘The [Fairy] Hill was full of mansions, too’, she tells the piper, and in doing so once again brings paganism and Christianity into a kind of imaginative union. And by the end of the book, when Su asks Winkie to come back to the Big House the next day – after the book has ended – the building seems to be about to fulfill its destiny of being a place with many mansions or homely locations in it. In the process it becomes a miniature model – like the lavish doll’s house Su enjoys in the Big House of the early nineteenth century – of the ideal community, nation or world, just as Su and Winkie become the world’s ideal future citizens.

It’s perhaps worth ending with a word or two about Mitchison’s style in this particular novel (she has as many styles, very nearly, as she wrote novels, essays and short stories). As may be obvious from the quotations I’ve given, she tells her tale in a flexible, often conversational, sometimes lyrical prose style that drifts in and out of Scots, and in and out of different varieties of Scots – historical and contemporary, middle and working class, old-fashioned and modern (for the 1950s) – in such a way as to invoke the diversity of class and culture which is its topic. It’s worth comparing this to Lewis’s style, which is dominated by an authoritative and implicitly adult controlling presence, and which does not vary much in the course of his narrative. Mitchison’s prose, like her plot, is less tightly controlled, more tumbling and prolix, at least on the surface, and her narrator is constantly being subsumed into the consciousness and (more importantly) the language of her two young heroes. This language, as well as its plot’s multi-stranded complexity, may explain why The Big House hasn’t achieved the international success of Lewis’s simpler chronicle; after all, not many readers outside Scotland will know the meaning of all the terms Mitchison uses. But the house of literature, like the house of memory, has many rooms in it, and I hope I’ve done enough to suggest that this fine book deserves a place in one of them.

Notes

All references to The Big House are to the Canongate Kelpies paperback edition of 1987.

An excellent account of the novel can be found in Moira Burgess, Naomi Mitchison’s Early in OrcadiaThe Big House and Travel Light, Scotnotes No. 19 (Glasgow: ASLS, 2004).

Naomi Novik, Uprooted

I came to this book after reading the Temeraire series, in which Naomi Novik introduced dragons into the Napoleonic wars in a radical reimagining of the naval action adventure genre: the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. In the first book of the series, His Majesty’s Dragon, early nineteenth-century warfare has been transformed by the presence of gigantic flying reptiles, whose human riders are imprinted on their hearts and minds at birth like a duck on a hatchling goose – or like the dragons in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern sequence, whose lifelong attachment to their riders constitutes an essential defensive weapon in the struggle to protect a planet from a deadly invasive species. Since McCaffrey’s time the notion of imprinting dragons and riding them has become a familiar fantasy trope, re-emerging in Pratchett’s Discworld series and Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon books, and Novik’s insertion of the practice into history successfully persuades its readers that dragonriding could always have existed, and that our past – and in particular women’s past – would have looked very different if it had.

Uprooted, too, has a Dragon in it, though in this case the mythical creature is a wizard who devotes his life, like the dragonriders of Pern, to protecting his homeland from an invasive species. The Dragon of Uprooted, then, is a Dragon only in name. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that his name neatly conveys the way its owner’s personality has been shaped by his protective function. The need to defend the realm – always vigilant, always aware that anyone he meets may be an assassin or a spy sent by the malignant entity known as the Wood – has prevented him from forging any close relationships. Instead he must labour away in scholarly seclusion to discover new ways of resisting the Wood’s insidious inroads into the human population: its contaminating spores, aggressive predators with infectious teeth and claws, stone-shattering roots and branches, and worst of all its agents in the guise of men and women, ordinary human beings who have been infected by its malevolence and whose unremarkable outward appearance means that anyone you meet could well be one of them. In combating this range of enemies the wizard has grown a metaphorical armour of protective mental scales, and the possibility of anyone imprinting themselves on his heart or mind seems at the beginning of the novel to be remote.

At one point late in the narrative the association between the Dragon’s name and his elaborate strategies for self-defence are given physical form in such a way as to suggest that his link with dragons is more than metaphorical. As the struggle with the Wood reaches its crisis the novel’s protagonist, a magically-gifted girl called Agnieszka, makes her way to the wizard’s room at the top of the lonely tower he has made his home. As she does so she finds her way barred by a monster. The carpet on the floor of the corridor that leads to the room is woven in the likeness of a dragon, and she must navigate its scaly body before she can reach the bedroom door. ‘I walked over one great ivory-clawed limb, over the sweep of pale golden wings veined in dark brown’, she tells us, and by the time she reaches the chamber the dragon-pattern has come fully alive beneath her feet: ‘The golden pattern turned back on itself, and a gleaming green eye looked up at me from a head filled with rows of silver teeth, waiting for anyone who didn’t know where to turn’ (p. 352). The dragon guards the wizard’s door from strangers or from seeming friends who don’t really know him, thus marking themselves out as potential foes. But by this stage in the book Agnieszka knows him very well indeed, and steps past the fearful sentinel with relative ease.

The wizard’s behaviour, too, is dragonish at the beginning of the book. In a reenactment of countless monster myths, Agnieszka’s village community sacrifices a girl to him every ten years in exchange for his protection against the Wood, and although he does not devour the girls he renders them unfit for continued human existence – at least, for existence as a woman in a medieval rural setting. They return to their families after ten years in the wizard’s tower forever tainted by the general assumption that cohabitation with a single man must involve rape and disgrace. They also come back with ideas above their station: most of them leave home a few weeks later to study for a degree at University. The wizard, then, combines the properties of the dragon he is named for and the armoured prince who traditionally defeats the dragon. Both prince and dragon are given to snatching young women from their families without consultation, though for different purposes – a meal or a rise in status, usually through marriage; and as an embodiment of both figures the wizard is almost as terrible to the local peasants as the infectious Wood. His longevity, too, makes him hard to deal with. He has lived in his tower for many generations, and as result finds it almost impossible to communicate with the human mayflies who are his vassals. In other words, at the beginning of the book the Dragon has all the traits of the Beast in the fairy story, a misanthropic recluse ripe for taming by Agnieszka’s Belle, an eligible Darcy ready to be captivated by Agnieszka’s Elizabeth Bennett.

In fact, however, the relationship between the Dragon and his latest sacrificial ‘victim’ turns out to be tangled up in the wider political troubles of the kingdom of Polnya, where the tale is set. The Dragon’s antisocial tendencies are symptomatic of a general breakdown in communication across the various communities that populate Novik’s alternative Poland. His preoccupation with the Wood has detached him from the power politics at work in the country’s capital, Kralia, as well as from the local villagers; and Kralian politics are dominated by the machinations of a prince even more socially dysfunctional than the wizard. Twenty years ago the Queen of the realm was abducted by the Wood, leaving her eight-year-old son in a state of trauma; and as Prince Marek grew to maturity all his energies became devoted to the hope of rescuing his mother from the clutch of the forest. This obsession alienates him from everyone around him, including his family (he sees his father and older brother as guilty of abandoning his mother to her fate), his soldiers (who are expendable) and other women (the pre-eminence of his mother reduces lesser female mortals to tools to be used and discarded at the prince’s whim). Meanwhile the nobles of Kralia focus their attention on the cutthroat competition for power, like plants competing for light in the depths of the jungle. Some align themselves with Marek, others side with the King or Marek’s older brother, while still others watch dispassionately from the sidelines to see how events play out, waiting to commit themselves to the faction that proves strongest. And all the while the hostile neighbouring kingdom, Rosya, hovers on the Polnyan border ready to pounce. What starts out, then, as a book about the relationship between two isolated individuals – the Dragon and Agnieszka, cooped up together in a lonely tower – quickly develops into a meditation on the various forms of isolation that split one section of society from another, pitting class against class, gender against gender, nation against nation in a pastiche of the Darwinian struggle for survival.

The expansion of the story’s focus from tower to city to kingdom illustrates the extent to which the metaphor of the Wood, which is pointed up in the novel’s title, also supplies its central plot device or narrative technique. The story is constantly twisting, turning and shooting out in new directions, and its language is packed with vegetable references: tendrils, buds, vines, roots and thorny branches link each of its characters and episodes to the destructive Wood. Gradually too, as one reads, the forest’s role as the novel’s chief antagonist becomes increasingly unsettling. For one thing, the Wood seems so unambiguously evil, so totally committed to erasing humanity and supplanting the species with a warped and murderous sylvan population made up of monsters, such as the puppet-like ‘walkers’ and giant green mantises, as well as twisted versions of more conventional birds and beasts, wolves, squirrels and crows. In its unrelenting hostility the Wood conjures up memories of the deadly forests of folklore: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and the impenetrable thicket of thorny rose-bushes that hemmed in the Sleeping Beauty. But in each of these stories there’s a more deadly danger lurking among the trees: a wolf, a witch, a wicked stepmother, resentful fairies. The notion of a wood as chief antagonist seems particularly disturbing at a time when thinking people everywhere have been made aware of the ravages inflicted on the ecosphere by the consuming self-interest of global capitalism. For readers of post-Tolkienian fantasy, woods have long been established as the last bastions of defence against the depredations of industry, fragile oases in a tortured landscape laid waste by toxic chemicals and mechanized logging. As a result, I found myself always waiting as I read for the moment when the novel’s war against the Wood would be exposed as misguided, an appalling mistake which could easily be averted by a simple change of perspective on the part of the fighters, an access of empathy on both sides that rendered fighting redundant. Instead, the savagery of the war grows more intense as the book goes on, beginning with individual beasts and people being hideously transformed by noxious spores, then burned in purging bonfires; escalating with the massacre of Prince Marek’s military expedition into the forest; and coming to a climax with the final siege of the Dragon’s tower by a merciless ‘Wood-queen’ and her minions, while Agnieszka and the Dragon rain down flames of destruction on them from the upper windows. The breathless pace of events, the raising of the stakes involved in each successive battle, mean that there’s little time for contemplating alternative approaches to the problem of dealing with the forest. There’s no Sleeping Beauty in Novik’s tale because there’s no time for prolonged sleeping, as crisis follows crisis and Agnieszka and the Dragon have to delve ever deeper into their knowledge of magic in order to repel the Wood’s advances on all fronts.

And that’s the second thing that’s disturbing about Novik’s Wood: everyone in the book is profoundly complicit with its actions in one way or another. The violence meted out against the Wood is as shocking as the violence it inflicts, and the mutuality of this violence is clearly something Novik is concerned to stress. She underlines the lack of distinction between both sides by the ease with which the forest takes possession of its human victims: the peasant Jerzy, transformed into a wild-eyed murderer by a toxic bite from one of his own infected cows; the monkish wizard Father Ballo, who mutates into a dog-headed cyclops after reading a book infused with the forest’s poisons; the Queen of Polnya, whose lengthy imprisonment in the depths of a ‘heart-tree’ turns her after her rescue into a genocidal ‘Wood-queen’. In each case, the Wood locks onto some damage already present in its victim’s mind, exploiting their psychological readiness to erupt in anger (Jerzy at his undeserved poverty, Father Ballo at the thought of any magical power that fails to conform to scholarly conventions, the Queen at having been trapped for twenty years in a tree trunk) in order to turn them against their fellow human beings exactly as the Wood has been turned against them by centuries of unprovoked aggression. In addition, every attack against the Wood gets appropriated by the Wood as the basis for a counter-attack against its human enemies, so that assaults on the Wood become in effect acts of wilful self-harm. As a result of this destructive collusion, by the time we reach the siege of the Dragon’s tower there seems little chance of reconciliation between the warring forces. The forest is too deeply entwined with the human population to be ‘uprooted’ from their minds and bodies, yet too poisonous to cohabit with men and women without killing them. Humans and trees are locked together in an unending cycle of reciprocal violence, and Novik meticulously underlines the length and complexity of the cycle’s history.

History is a problematic concept in this novel. Contaminated by prejudice, myth and rumour, narratives of the past get handed down through generations without adequate scrutiny, reinforcing the hostilities of the present by adding to the confusion over who may or may not have been responsible for starting the war between Wood and people. Near the beginning we get the impression that the enchanted forest was originally a malignant invader from outside Polnya, a noxious foreign influence. Taking advantage of the continual conflict between the neighbouring countries Polnya and Rosya, Agnieszka tells us, ‘the Wood crept a little further into both realms every year, feeding on [human] deaths’ (p. 50). A little later, Agnieszka begins to discover the full extent of her people’s ignorance as to the historic roots of the human-forest hostilities. As she works under the Dragon’s tutelage to master a spell written in a strange script on an ancient manuscript, the girl begins to wonder about the origins of the script itself. The wizard informs her that it’s ‘Older than Polnya’, that it might indeed ‘be older than the Wood’, and that it was ‘here before this valley was ever settled’ by either Polnya or Rosya (p. 118). He goes on to assert that the people who invented the script arrived in the valley many thousands of years ago, and that afterwards ‘the Wood rolled over them, brought their fortresses low and laid their fields waste’. Agnieszka then asks him the inevitable question: ‘if the Wood wasn’t here when they first settled the valley, where did it come from?’ – and the Dragon admits that there are as many conflicting stories about the ‘rising of the Wood’ as there are inventive troubadours willing to sing them.

A little later, when Agnieszka and the Dragon have made their way down to an ancient tomb at the base of the tower, the confusion over origins is further compounded. The Dragon tells Agnieszka that the builders of the tomb – which is covered in the same strange script as the ancient manuscript – either ‘woke the Wood, or made it’, and that ‘it destroyed them’. The obscurity of the Wood, then, has crept into the writing of the Wood’s history, obliterating all traces of its source or seed (much as the source of the river Spindle that flows through the forest is untraceable). Appropriately enough, the script that covers the tomb is described in floral terms: it resembles ‘tall flowering trees and vines curling over each other’. Later, the participation of the Wood in the act of writing gets confirmed when Agnieszka discovers a contaminated book in the Polnyan royal library, its penmanship capable of infecting the unwary reader at a glance; it’s this book that transforms the scholarly Father Ballo into a raging demon. Writing has no more claim to be authoritative or reasonable in Novik’s novel than folk tradition or court gossip. Each is caught up in the same emotional and political turmoil that besets relations between individuals and nations in the world of Novik’s readers, and a pen-wielding scholar is as likely to succumb to violence as a warrior-prince or an embittered wife and mother.

As if to underscore the involvement of history in any conflict, the past gets materially caught up in the climactic battle between Wood and people, the siege of the tower. In a bid to protect the tower against assault by Prince Marek and his ally, the murderous Wood-queen, Agnieszka uses her magical powers to fashion the ground outside the building into a protective wall. As she does so, pieces of history begin to protrude from the newly-formed earthworks: ‘there were broken pieces of carved blocks jutting from the dirt, the bones of the old lost tower. Ancient words were carved upon them in places, faint and nearly worn away, but still there to be felt even if not seen’ (p. 347). The tongues of the dead murmur from these fragments in a ‘chorus of deep voices’; and later the Dragon uses a necromantic incantation to bring the owners of these voices to life, co-opting their decomposing bodies in the desperate struggle against the Wood-queen and her minions. The legacy of the past lives on, then, in the siege of the tower, though in a warped and twisted fashion; and it soon emerges that this legacy forms an integral part of the timeworn fabric of the tower itself.

At the defining point of the siege, when Prince Marek and the Wood-queen have penetrated the tower’s defences and driven its defenders down to the ancient tomb at the building’s base, Agnieszka and the Dragon brace themselves for one last stand against the Wood among the traces of a ruined civilization. And it’s here that the ‘deep voices’ of history make themselves clearly heard for the first time, in response to a spell of summoning jointly uttered by Agnieszka and the Dragon. Most works of modern fantasy use the term ‘summoning’ to denote a spell that brings the dead to life, as the Dragon did earlier in the siege; that’s how the term is used, for instance, in the Earthsea sequence, where the Master Summoner of Roke specializes in calling up departed spirits to commune with the living. In Uprooted, by contrast, summoning is a quest for truth rather than resurrection; the art of finding out what really happened in the past and of tracing its current consequences. This quest for truth might at times be best achieved by interviewing ghosts; but it might equally be achieved by a careful diagnosis of past troubles that still afflict and motivate living beings – a kind of necromantic cognitive therapy. The Dragon explains this approach to summoning early in the novel when he and Agnieszka decide to use a summoning spell to cleanse one of Agnieszka’s friends, a girl called Kasia, from the Wood’s infections. Before deploying the spell, the wizard dismisses the notion of calling up spirits as ‘nothing but charlatanry’ (p. 133) (a view he has clearly set aside by the time of the siege). Summoning, the Dragon asserts, ‘does nothing so trivial’, though he finds its function hard to describe in lucid terms. Eventually he explains to Agnieszka that it concerns itself with ‘Truth’, and she considers this explanation both intriguing and incomprehensible: ‘I didn’t understand how you could summon truth, unless he meant seeing past something that was a lie’ (p. 134). As it turns out, seeing past a lie does indeed seem to be the point of summoning, which seeks clarity by examining things as wholes rather than from a partial perspective. This is why the spell is described as being so taxing for its casters (pp. 134-5): one can only cast it by reading out the entire book of summoning in one go, since omitting any part of a seamless whole must inevitably compromise one’s quest for truth. In addition, casting a spell of summoning is ideally a collaborative project. ‘I’ve seen it cast only once,’ the Dragon tells Agnieszka before they try it for the first time, and this was achieved ‘by three witches together, each having taught the next younger, passing the book from one to another to read. It almost killed them,’ he adds, ‘and they were by no means weak’ (p. 135). Collaboration and facing up to the truth are difficult matters, and the process of casting the spell to cure the infected Kasia shows why.

The incantation involves an uncompromising diagnosis of the state of mind of the spell’s casters as well as of the so-called patient. In order to recover her friend Kasia as she is, rather than as a shadow of her former self left behind by her exposure to the Wood, Agnieszka must acknowledge the negative aspects of their friendship as well as the positive ones:

I saw my own face reflected in her wide glassy eye, and my own secret jealousies, how I had wanted all her gifts […] I’d enjoyed a dream of being special and nursed a secret seed of envy against her […] She’d hated me for being safe, for being loved […] oh, I hadn’t even imagined that secret bitterness, as sour as spoiled milk. (pp. 140-2)

This act of reimagining Kasia in terms of her blemishes as well as her gifts – above all, in terms of the flawed relationship she shares with Agnieszka – succeeds in bringing her back, so to speak, from the past, restoring her to her former place as Agnieszka’s closest companion. And it also marks the first step on the road to rewriting the tangled history of the relationship between humans and the Wood.

The second step takes place at the siege of the tower, when Agnieszka and the Dragon work another summoning spell, in the same location as the first, but this time on the deadly Wood-queen. Up to this point in the novel summoning has been associated in Agnieszka’s experience with the recovery of lost friendship rather than with enmity – though as we’ve seen it has also revealed to her the fact that enmity (resentment, jealousy, ‘secret bitterness’) can play an unacknowledged role in one’s friendships. On this occasion Agnieszka decides to use the spell on her enemy the Wood-queen as a means of showing the Wood-queen’s allies, Prince Marek and his soldiers, that she has been possessed by the forest – that she is not, in fact, the friend they thought her. Instead, the two casters of the enchantment find themselves confronted with a replay of a crucial incident from the Wood-queen’s past, the incident that made her the enemy of humankind. The spell shows them that the tomb at the base of the tower, where both acts of summoning take place, was built for a king from the same ancient civilization that invented the floral script which covers it; a human king who loved the Wood-queen long ago and married her. But the tomb also had another, secret purpose: it was devised as a trap to hold the Wood-queen after her husband’s death. The reason for constructing this trap doesn’t emerge until some time later, when Agnieszka learns from the Wood itself that the king’s advisers didn’t approve of the match between their monarch and an immortal, non-human, immensely powerful being. But one thing becomes clear at once, as soon as the spell of summoning has been cast. The Wood’s predilection for trapping its enemies – for shutting them in the trunks of heart-trees and overwhelming their personalities with its desires and hatreds – was learned from human beings, whose hatred and suspicion led them to shut the Wood in a human tomb.

Something else emerges from the summoning at the siege; something that concerns the act of writing. The ancient script that covers the tomb, and which itself resembles a Wood with its ‘tall flowering trees and vines curling over each other’, conveys a double message. It is both a benevolent statement of blessing or farewell for the king’s long journey into the afterlife and a curse designed to imprison and destroy the dead man’s wife. Through Agnieszka’s eyes the reader witnesses the moment when the Wood-queen reads the script for the first time and understands the betrayal it articulates:

The letters around the sides [of the tomb] were catching the light, shining out, completing the long sentence from the stairs. She whirled, and I could read them with her: REMAIN ETERNAL, REST ETERNAL, NEVER MOVING, NEVER LEAVING, and they weren’t just a poem for the king’s rest. This wasn’t a tomb; this was a prison. A prison meant to hold her. […] They had quarried this room out of the roots of the mountains. She couldn’t get out. (p. 384)

In this passage, then, the written word is exposed as a two-edged sword, capable of comforting and cursing, of lying and conveying truths in the selfsame sentence. It partakes, that is, in the double nature of the war with the Wood, which is both a struggle against an alien menace and a self-destructive assault on the human beings who fight that menace. No wonder the Wood later chose to appropriate writing as a weapon in its own attack on the people who sought to destroy it; writing played an integral part in its betrayal, helping to transform it from loving spouse to avenging demon. Thanks to the duplicitous words written on the tomb, the Dragon’s statement that the ancient folk who invented the script and built the tower may have ‘made’ the Wood begins to make sense, and Agnieszka begins to understand that this particular thing of darkness must indeed be acknowledged as partly hers – or at least her people’s.

Agnieszka’s affinity with the Wood goes much further than their common experience of being shut up in the Dragon’s tower against their will. From the beginning of the novel she is associated with woodland, living at the edge of an ordinary forest – though close to the Wood – as the daughter of a woodcutter, and playing with Kasia among the trees on a daily basis (‘I never wanted to be anywhere inside when we could be running hand-in-hand beneath the branches’, p. 6). Her aptitude for magic, which is what prompts the Dragon to abduct her in the first place, has a close association with sylvan foraging: ‘I felt as though I was picking my way through a bit of the forest that I had never seen before, [with] another experienced gleaner somewhere ahead of me calling back to say, There are blueberries down on the northern slope, or Good mushrooms by the birches over here, or There’s an easy way through the brambles on the left’ (p. 92). And when she learns to combine her magic with the Dragon’s for the first time, she does so in a spell to create a growing thing, a rose:

[T]hen abruptly we had only a single rose, and it began to grow.

And not only the rose: vines were climbing up the bookshelves in every direction, twining themselves around ancient tomes and reaching out the window; the tall slender columns that made the arch of the doorway were lost among rising birches, spreading out long finger-branches; moss and violets were springing up across the floor, delicate ferns unfurling. (p. 95)

Much later, during the siege, the same effect of vegetation overwhelming the rigid structures of the Dragon’s tower is deployed by the Wood-queen as a weapon: ‘Thin wriggling shadows were climbing through every crack, narrow and quick as snakes: the squirming tendrils of vines and roots, crumbling wood and stone as they found ways inside’ (p. 375). But where Agnieszka’s vines embrace and transform the tower, softening and enhancing its rigid contours, the Wood-queen’s vines dismantle the building and dismember its occupants, ripping stones and limbs apart in a frenzy of retribution. The Wood-queen, too, operates uniquely on her own behalf – a fact that gets confirmed when she kills Prince Marek as soon as he seeks to contravene her will. Agnieszka, by contrast, works with and for others, casting spells in collaboration with her captor, embracing and appropriating the books in his library instead of using them to damage and destroy, directing her powers towards rescue and redemption rather than revenge. She is in effect a benevolent version of the Wood-queen, and the aim of her journey from village to tower, from tower to capital city then back again to tower and so finally to the village at the journey’s end, is to find a means of productive collaboration with the Wood and its avatar, the Wood-queen. In effect, she must learn how to work on the Wood-queen the same metamorphosis she works on the Dragon; to humanize her, and in the process to humanize too the many humans who hate the forest.

Another trait Agnieszka shares with the Wood-queen is a mutual distrust of or unease with the authority of letters. Agnieszka finds formal written spells difficult to follow (something she also shares with Tenar in Ursula le Guin’s novel Tehanu). She can only put such spells to use by supplementing them with her own improvised magic, a magic based on domestic activities of small account to historians: cooking, cleaning, gathering food, singing restive children to sleep. The book she finds most useful in the Dragon’s library is one the Dragon has dismissed as useless: a journal rather than a book of spells (though it has spells in it), written by a long-vanished woodland witch who shares a name with the legendary Slavic enchantress Baba Jaga. The volume corroborates Agnieszka’s preoccupation with collective action rather than with isolated contemplation, and the magic it contains refuses to shut itself away from communal practices as the Dragon does; each spell and incantation springs from some aspect of the village life with which Agnieszka is so familiar. That life is founded on principles of help freely exchanged: assisting one’s neighbours at harvest, lending and borrowing tools, caring for each other’s children, walking together in quest of herbs or mushrooms. The book’s everyday nature is confirmed by the fact that Agnieszka thinks of it as a journal rather than an instruction manual, a record of action effectively taken rather than a prescription for set words of power or ritual gestures.

Like the woman who wrote the journal, Agnieszka finds that her village roots make it easy for her to sympathize with other people, since mutual understanding is necessary for collective work. She is capable of forging bonds even with people like Prince Marek, who tries to rape her when they first meet, or the monster which was once Father Ballo and which she must destroy to save the inmates of the royal palace, or the soldiers of Prince Marek, who exert all their energies to kill her at the siege. She finds it possible to sympathize with her stand-offish abductor, the Dragon, despite the emotional armour he has assumed to seal himself off from approaches either friendly or hostile – to imprint him, in fact, as the Dragonriders of Pern imprinted their reptilian mounts. And she eventually finds herself able to bond with the Wood-queen, thanks to their mutual experience of merging themselves with others, sharing their own minds and feelings with the minds and feelings of strangers. The Wood-queen is the product of a process of forced merging between the Queen of Polnya and the Wood, one of many that take place in the so-called ‘heart-trees’: sentient plants whose mood sets the tone for the rest of the forest. For much of the book the mood of the heart-trees is bitter and vindictive, and the merging they practise – drawing their victims into their trunks and slowly erasing their personalities over time, replacing their wills with the heart-trees’ own – is wholly involuntary on the part of the people they absorb. This means that the walkers and other forest-dwellers who feed on their fruit are bitter and vindictive too, as are the heart-trees’ victims. The Wood’s habit of consuming other people’s personalities could be seen as the direct antithesis of Agnieszka’s wide-ranging sympathy for others; but it becomes clear towards the end of the book that a change of mood – a change of heart on the part of the forest – could transform its oppressive tendencies to a similar kind of reciprocity. After all, Agnieszka and the Wood-queen are made of the same basic ingredients, possess the same gifts, and are written of by Novik using similar language, despite the very different purposes they serve.

Sure enough, by the end of the narrative Agnieszka succeeds in forming a new community that embraces both the Dragon and the Wood, and that spreads its vines throughout the kingdom of Polnya in a benign inversion of the Wood’s campaign for dominance. Cooperation, collaboration, community, empathy, inclusion – all the things Polnya has greatest need of are second nature to Agnieszka, and the pattern of words associated with her makes it both satisfying and seemingly inevitable that she should eventually make her home in the Wood itself – effectively becoming part of it – since she has effectively been part of it since the beginning. At this end point of the novel the imagery of plants and flowers entangling themselves with the structure and contents of a building turns out to have foreshadowed the way Agnieszka’s understanding of the Wood and its enemies will embrace and transform the familiar materials that make up Polnya – the same materials that for much of the story have been coopted for violent purposes, just as the young women of Agnieszka’s village have been coopted in the Dragon’s fight against an enemy betrayed by his ancestors.

Smok Wawelski

Agnieszka’s redemption of Polnya and its history could be described as an imaginative redemption of the history of Poland and the Baltic nations, a part of the world in which Naomi Novik’s family roots are firmly planted. It’s clear enough from the beginning that the two kingdoms at the heart of the story, Polnya and Rusya, are fairy-tale versions of Poland and Russia. The details of Agnieszka’s village life will be familiar to all Poles (‘I ate a big bowl of sour zhurek with slices of boiled eggs floating, and a plateful of stewed cabbage and sausage, and then four blini full of sour cherries’, p. 434). Poland even has an authentic historical counterpart to Novik’s Dragon, Smok Wawelski the Dragon of Wawel, who lived underneath the castle that housed the Polish royal family and whose name may have contributed to the naming of Tolkien’s Smaug. Like nations elsewhere, the Baltic states have experienced their share of atrocities, and the theme of burning that runs through Novik’s novel summons up the worst of these: the Auschwitz complex and the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s. It invokes, too, another fiery holocaust that threw its shadow across the country for many generations: the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War. The distinctive tastes of Polish cooking, the rich traditions and artistic accomplishments of Polish artists, musicians, writers and thinkers, the democratic impulse that dominated long periods of Poland’s political past, coexist with parallel histories of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, colonialism, slavery, class oppression and the various brands of despotism – all the usual suspects of European history – many of which find a place in Novik’s narrative. Yet despite all this, Novik’s fantasy imagines the possibility of foraging for the best things in Polish soil; not easily or simply, as I hope I’ve shown – the process of uprooting the past is too painful for that; but hidden away beneath its tangled trees, or among the village communities that find no place on the historical map, or in the hearts and minds of individual Poles, with their deep affection for the valleys that bred them, in spite of all the pain those valleys have witnessed.

Agnieszka’s eventual decision to settle among the heart-trees of the Wood is as hard-won as any ending in fantasy fiction. But it’s also a confident declaration of the possibility of staying in love with one’s roots, despite the corruptions and calamities that have been bound up in them, despite the difficulty of nurturing them inwardly back to health. And that’s just one of the many good reasons to read Uprooted.

 

Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Semley’s Necklace’ and The Dispossessed

Hupa necklace, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DC

Last month I published a blog post about Ursula Le Guin’s relationship with her mother, Theodora Kroeber, which took as one of its central metaphors the notion of a necklace: an object that is simultaneously single and multiple, fixed in time and sequential. If you trace the beads or links with your fingers you can turn a necklace into a rosary or set of prayer beads, a tool for contemplation, and it becomes something that both exists all at once in the present moment and measures the passing of time, since the prayers or mantras you utter as you move from bead to bead take time to utter. As a rosary, though, it’s also timeless, since the experience of praying or meditating makes you lose track of time’s passing altogether. The metaphor of the necklace, I argued, has a central place both in Le Guin’s writing and her philosophy, especially in the first part of her career. What I didn’t mention in the post, however, was the transformation of the necklace metaphor that takes place in her most complex novel, The Dispossessed (1974). This transformation explains, I think, why the metaphor ceased to be of importance to her from that time forward. After writing that novel she had done all she could with necklaces, and moved on to develop other metaphors, such as the two kinds of spider’s web that lie at the heart of her fantasy novels The Farthest Shore (1972) and Tehanu (1990), or the dancing spirals of Always Coming Home (1985).

The necklace metaphor, I argued, may well derive from Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds (1962), about the last of the Yahi people of North California, a man called Ishi, who lived the final years of his life as an employee of the museum run by her husband, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Theodora Kroeber describes the work of Ishi’s biographer as resembling that of an archaeologist who tries to string together an old necklace found in a dig:

There follows an account of all that is surely and truly known of him. What he believed and felt and did in the modern world and, earlier, in his own world are the bone beads of his story. The stringing of such of these beads as could be recovered onto a single strand has been my task. Surprisingly, the circle of his life’s necklace appears whole despite its many incompletions.[1]

The passage both illustrates the beautiful cadences of Kroeber’s prose, at times so like her daughter’s, and suggests why Le Guin would have been drawn to Ishi’s story: any talk of walking from one world to another was bound to appeal to an inventor of worlds. The metaphor, too, is interesting in its talk of life not as a chronological line but as a circle; and one wonders if this circularity was conjured up by the strangeness of Ishi’s appearance in modern California, when he ‘completed a trip,’ as Kroeber put it, ‘out of the Stone Age into the clang and glare of the Iron Age – a place of clocks and hours and a calendar; of money and labor and pay; of government and authority; of newspapers and business’ (p. 120). In making this trip Ishi became ‘a modern man, a city dweller with a street address’, and in the process showed both how the same historical period can contain inhabitants from different stages of technological development, and how so-called ‘primitive’ cultures are in fact just as rich and complex as ‘highly-developed’ ones – something Kroeber sought to stress repeatedly in her book, by comments like the one I’ve just quoted, in which she transforms Ishi from a Stone Age man to a modern city-dweller with a touch of her verbal wand.

Just a year after Kroeber published her biography Le Guin wrote her short story ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’ (1964, written 1963), reprinted as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ in her great short story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (1976). In between, the story had also appeared as the prologue to Le Guin’s first novel, Rocannon’s World (1966). The replacement of ‘dowry’ with ‘necklace’ in the title of the short story on its second printing is surely no accident: it draws attention to the object at the centre of the narrative, and so to the circular structure of the story, in which a woman from a ‘primitive’ culture on an obscure planet journeys to an interstellar museum on a spaceship travelling at near light speed, then returns home, only to discover that her friends have grown old, her child grown to adulthood and her husband died in her absence. The reason for her journey is that the economy of her people has been destroyed by the appearance from space of the ‘Starlords’ in their vessels, wielding weapons beyond the imagining of Semley’s people, and abruptly putting an end to the culture of warfare by which the rulers of her people have sustained themselves since time immemorial. As a result the rulers’ fortresses have been reduced to mouldering ruins; and in an attempt to revive the fortunes of the ruling-class family into which she has married, Semley goes in quest of the necklace of the title, a treasure passed down through generations by her ancestors before it was lost. She needs the necklace for her dowry and hopes that it will somehow restore the glories of the past to her diminished household. The necklace, then, represents a return to the past for Semley, and it involves a series of retrograde motions as she looks for it.

The first of these motions takes place when she mounts a windsteed – a giant flying cat – to look for the treasure. ‘Married women of the Angyar,’ the narrator tells us, ‘never rode for sport, and Semley had not been from Hallan since her marriage; so now, mounting the high saddle of a windsteed, she felt like a girl again, like the wild maiden she had been, riding half-broken steeds on the north wind over the fields of Kirien’ (p. 15).[2] Semley’s marriage, then, has involved a taming, a narrowing down of possibilities after the wild promise of her active girlhood, and she reverses this process as she returns to the activity of her youth. The second retrograde movement is to her father’s house, which she finds in a worse state than when she left it; and the third is to the mines of the dwarflike Clayfolk who made the necklace long ago, before her family acquired it. Meanwhile she is warned three times (as in a fairy tale) that her quest for the necklace is an act of folly, driven by false values: a desire for what she doesn’t have which prevents her from appreciating the value of what she has. Her friend Durossa tells her that she herself is more precious than gold, being ‘Semley who shines like a falling star, Semley whose husband loves no gold but the gold of her hair’ (p. 14). And the elf-like Fiia among whom she inquires after the necklace find value only in the gold they discover in the cycle of the seasons – as well as in Semley: ‘For us there is sunlight in warmyear, and in coldyear the remembrance of sunlight; the yellow fruit, the yellow leaves in end-season, the yellow hair of our lady of Kirien; no other gold’ (p. 17). The third and final warning is the ‘wheedling’ note that creeps into the voices of the Clayfolk as they invite her to enter their mines to seek the necklace – a note she ‘would not hear’ (p. 19) – and the unpleasant grins they display as they promise her she will return ‘very soon’ from her flight through space to fetch it. The Clayfolk, like Durossa and the Fiia, are obsessed by her golden hair, laying their ‘heavy grey hands’ on it in the spaceship until she rebels against this intimacy (p. 25). On the journey, deprived of light, she begins to yearn for its return, and faints with relief – or the pressure of gravity – when ‘the light flashed golden, at the window’ as she docks at the museum (p. 25). Circle after circle is offered to her as she looks for the circle of gold, each one illustrating the obsolescence of the thing she seeks, the impossibility of going back in time to the same spot as before, the relativity of time itself, which moves in different ways depending on where one places oneself to witness its passage. As the Clayfolk promise, her journey takes only one night – there are no days, after all, in space – and she returns home safely to her husband’s stronghold. She even meets herself there in the shape of her daughter Haldre, who ‘stood beside Durossa, gazing with steady eyes at this woman Semley who was her mother and her own age. Their age was the same, and their gold hair, and their beauty. Only Semley was a little taller, and wore the blue stone on her breast’ (p. 30). But Semley’s husband has gone, her dowry is therefore useless, and her home no longer a home but a ruin for her. She has come back from her interstellar journey, but found herself a stranger in her house, and runs away from it ‘like some wild thing escaping’ into obscurity, ironically becoming once again the ‘wild maiden she had been’ before her marriage. For Semley, the circle of her life was a trap, not an endless rediscovery of richness as the cycle of the seasons was for the Fiia. And her end becomes a lament for the victims who have been destroyed over so many generations and millennia by the encounter between cultures, by the clash between post-industrial technology and more ancient modes of living, between past and future.

‘Wild things’ like the tormented Semley of the story’s end cannot be contained between four walls. Ishi was described by some of the modern men who met him as a ‘wild Indian’. Ishi died of a disease caught from those modern men. The coexistence of different times or historical periods in a single world can be a toxic business. The modern man, Rocannon, who gives Semley the necklace when she comes to the interstellar museum, has no appreciation of her perspective on time despite his genuine interest in her, despite his recognition that she has a complex history to which he has no access. His colleague observes that the necklace must be of great value both to her and the Clayfolk, since they have given up so many years for the mission to fetch it – referring to the years they have sacrificed in order to travel so far at the speed of light. Rocannon’s response is unintentionally dismissive: ‘“Several years, no doubt,” said the hilfer, who was used to starjumping. “Not very far”’ (p. 27). But for Semley the distance is far enough to kill her. The distance between their perspectives, in other words, is Semley’s happiness, Semley’s family, Semley’s lifetime.

‘Semley’s Necklace’ is about a journey between the past, represented by Semley with her feudal values, and the future, in the form of the Starlords. A decade after writing this story Le Guin returned to the encounter between times, between historical periods; and when she did so she also returned to the necklace metaphor. The Dispossessed too is a circular story, describing the journey of the physicist Shevek from his home world of Anarres to its sister planet Urras and back again; a journey from a possible future for the human race (Anarres is an experiment in anarchism on a scale that has not yet been tried on Earth) to what for Shevek is the past (Urras is the planet from which his people, the Annaresti, originally set out to conduct their social experiment on Anarres), and then back to the future, the planet of Anarres where his personal journey started. For Le Guin’s first readers in the 1970s, on the other hand, Urras would have looked very much like the present, since the dominant capitalist culture on that planet is locked in a war of attrition with a socialist enemy, mirroring the political scene on the Earth they lived in – so that for them Shevek’s journey takes him from the future to the present and back again to the future. But past, present and future are all a matter of perspective; for an Einsteinian physicist they are relative, since all exist at once in the stupendously large object which is the space-time continuum. Relativism is in fact built into the novel’s structure, whose narrative famously alternates between chapters set on Anarres, which tell the story of Shevek’s life from his childhood to the moment when he decides to go to Urras, and chapters set on Urras, which tell of his experiences from the time he sets off for Urras to the time he returns to Anarres. Each set of chapters occurs at a different time in Shevek’s life, yet they are presented to us side by side, as if to illustrate the fact that time and space can be viewed as a single vast unchanging object if like Einstein, Minkowski and H G Wells one understands time or duration as the fourth dimension of space.

Although Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras and back again takes time for him, and so can be read as a single uninterrupted narrative, Anarres and Urras also coexist, although there is little communication between them – very much as Ishi and his family coexisted with what Kroeber calls ‘modern man’, although the two communities did not interact until the last five years of Ishi’s life. From one perspective, then, the past and the future coexist at the same time in Le Guin’s novel – although it is a matter of perspective as to which planet you see as representing which. For many of the inhabitants of Urras, Shevek and his fellow anarchists are primitives, wild men who understand little of the complexities of capitalist life. For Shevek, as I said before, Urras is his past – but when he visits the planet he discovers that the future exists there too: there are anarchists among the Urrasti, who are struggling to bring about an anarchist society on Urras in imitation of the one on Anarres. And he already knew when he came to Urras that there were representatives of the capitalist past on Anarres; it was because of the capitalistic impulses of some of his fellow physicists on Anarres that Shevek decided to travel to Urras to complete work on his major work, an attempt to unite the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in physics. Urras, in other words, contains in itself the seeds of the anarchist future, while Anarres contains in itself the seeds of regression to the capitalist past. Shevek’s journey executes a circular movement which finds echoes in other potential circular movements taking place in the unfolding histories of the two worlds he inhabits.

As in ‘Semley’s Necklace’, then, there are circles within circles in The Dispossessed, and the fate of Anarres hangs delicately poised between regression to capitalism and the ‘infinite promise’ of a continued commitment to anarchist principles. This balance might have been represented as a necklace, and it very nearly is; but a necklace doesn’t convey the problem of keeping balance, or the constant motion that makes keeping balance necessary, although it neatly invokes the idea of the circle or cycle. As a result, Le Guin places at the centre of her novel a mobile instead of a necklace, which nevertheless carries within it a memory of the past in its resemblance to that item of jewellery.

The mobile in question is one of several which Shevek’s lifelong partner Takver brings with her when the couple move in together, on Anarres, for the first time. These mobiles represent an idea which lies at the centre of the novel: the idea of the promise or bond, the commitment to future fidelity, to going on living together as equals, which Shevek and Takver offer each other before they begin their cohabitation.[3] A promise is a verbal statement made in a narrow space of time which contains within it an implied succession of future actions; in the case of a connubial promise between two people it can be understood to bind both parties to one another for the rest of their lives. A commitment to anarchy could be seen as a similar promise; anarchy can only work if all parties involved in it commit themselves to lifelong observance of its principles; and keeping that promise is as difficult and worthwhile a thing as keeping an eye on the growing child which might or might not be the fruit of a lifelong partnership. As the Annaresti put it in the poem we hear repeatedly throughout the novel:

O child Anarchia, infinite promise
infinite carefulness
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child (p. 86)

Orrery

In this poem the child or promise is suspended precariously in the deep night like a planet. But the mobiles that symbolise the promise of lifelong commitment between Shevek and Takver have more in common, it seems, with entire solar systems than with single worlds; each mobile seems to resemble an orrery or mechanical model of planets in orbit round a sun, being made up of ‘complex concentric shapes made of wire, which moved and changed slowly and inwardly when suspended from the ceiling. [Takver] had made these with scrap wire and tools from the craft supply depot, and called them Occupations of Uninhabited Space’ (p. 156). These Occupations become a study aid for Shevek, hanging above his desk as he struggles to reconcile sequency – the notion that one moment in time follows another – with simultaneity, the notion that two different moments in time can occur simultaneously when looked at from the right perspective.[4] At this point in the narrative the ‘inward’ movement of the mobiles resembles the operations of the human body and brain rather than the planets moving round the sun: ‘The delicate concentric mobiles hanging at different levels overhead moved with the introverted precision, silence, mystery of the organs of the body or the processes of the reasoning mind’ (p. 160). A little later they come to stand for the coexistence of loving partners, but also of worlds running on parallel orbits in a solar system – the orrery once again: ‘“Why does it look so beautiful?”’ Takver asks as she looks with Shevek out of their apartment window at Urras, while above them ‘the Occupations of Uninhabited Space hung, dim’ (p. 161). The promise that binds the couple gives Shevek an insight into how different perspectives and timelines can coexist while involved in constant sequential change; this is because the promise is a verbal statement that reconciles the present and the future, and that retains its meaning as it recedes into the past. In these ways it is very much like one of the mobiles; but each mobile is also very much like the necklace invoked in Kroeber’s preface – both in its circular motion and in its multiple significations.

This resemblance is noticed later in the novel, appropriately enough, by the couple’s daughter Sadik, who is one of the fruits or consequences of their promise or bond. After a long absence from his partner and child, brought about by the need for all Annaresti to stave off a calamitous drought on their infertile planet, Shevek moves back into Takver’s room and unpacks his things. One of the objects he takes out of his case is a mobile, which, as he reveals it ‘with some mystery’ to his daughter, becomes momentarily as strange to the reader as to her, ‘a curious object which as it lay in the case appeared to consist of a series of flat loops of wire and a few glass beads’ (p. 268). At first the child thinks it’s a necklace – and we are told that an unsophisticated delight in jewellery is common in rural places (as opposed to ‘sophisticated’ urban centres) all over Anarres, where ‘the deep connection between the aesthetic and the acquisitive was simply not worried about’ (p, 268). The necklace here represents, among other things, the anxiety over whether possessing something not strictly necessary can lead to a habit of self-indulgent possessiveness; and by extension the necklace can also be taken to stand for the problem of promising fidelity in an anarchy, which can give rise to habits of possessiveness between the couple concerned. Both things – a necklace and a lifelong partnership – can seem old-fashioned, like the necklace being pieced together by an archaeologist in Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds – though Le Guin is insistent that this view is merely a matter of perspective, and that there are many Anarresti who do not share it. In the same way, the object Shevek removes from his suitcase is from one point of view a symbol of the past – of the time when he and Tavker sealed their lifelong bond; but it is also a symbol of his continuing fidelity to that bond, his unbroken faith.

But the object is not in fact a necklace, as the reader knows, though Sadik doesn’t. It’s something kinetic, not fixed, something that embraces both partners, not just one, something that is always changing in time while remaining the same:

‘No, look,’ her father said, and with solemnity and deftness raised the object by the thread that connected its several loops. Hanging from his hand it came alive, the loops turning freely, describing airy spheres one within the other, the glass beads catching the lamp-light.

‘Oh, beauty!’ the child said. ‘What is it?’ (p. 268)

Shevek doesn’t tell her what it is, perhaps because there’s no exact answer. It’s something her mother made, and it’s one of the Occupations of Uninhabited Space, and it’s a mobile, and it’s a form of beauty (as Sadik points out), and it’s a symbol, but it wouldn’t be possible to sum up all these aspects of the object to the satisfaction of a child. But when Takver promises to make another one for Sadik there are tears in her eyes. The mobile’s fragile representation of change and continuity, of sequency and simultaneity, summarizes something that affects her profoundly – the endurance of affect itself in despite of change. And this affect embraces the daughter as well as the parents, and so also promises (since she represents a new generation) to extend itself outwards in time to embrace the wider community of Anarres, and perhaps Urras, and perhaps much more.

As it transpires, Shevek doesn’t take the surviving Occupation of Uninhabited Space with him to Urras. In fact, the Occupation disappears (as far as I can find) after the chapter I’ve just cited, where the couple come together again after long absence, to be replaced with another mobile. A few chapters later – towards the end of the book, in the chapter where Shevek makes up his mind to go to Urras – we are introduced to this new thing, hanging over the heads of the physicist and the couple’s second child, their second living promise, a girl called Pilun:

Behind his head and the child’s, the single mobile hanging in this room oscillated slightly. It was a large piece made of wires pounded flat, so that edge-on they all but disappeared, making the ovals into which they were fashioned flicker at intervals, vanishing, as did, in certain lights, the two thin, clear bubbles of glass that moved with the oval wires in complexly interwoven ellipsoid orbits about the common centre, never quite meeting, never entirely parting. Takver called it the Inhabitation of Time. (p. 303)

This mobile is described in greater detail than any so far. The number of beads is specified: there are two, as there are two of Shevek and Takver. The term ‘orbit’ is used to described their simultaneous and complementary but separate movements, which makes them analogous to planets, perhaps Urras and Anarres. The effect of appearances and disappearances ‘in certain lights’ (‘lights’ is another term for ‘perspectives’) makes their relationship seem more tenuous than the motions of the earlier mobiles, as is appropriate for a moment in the novel when the couple are about to separate physically and occupy two different planets. But by this time in the novel we also know that their experiences on each planet will echo each other; in every alternate chapter set on one planet there are clear echoes or reflections of events in a contiguous chapter set on the other. From this point onwards, as we know, the couple will occupy the same sequence of time in different places, never touching but always complementary, always definitively in relation to one another. And they are not trapped in this condition; the fact that this is a new mobile means there is the possibility of a further mobile being fashioned from the same materials, in which the beads are poised in a different relationship. The mobile is a model of the novel we have just been reading, all of whose parts contribute to the motions, the double narrative orbits of the whole, all of whose ideas offer the possibility of further ideas to be sown and cultivated outside the orbits of the novel itself.

The word ‘Inhabitation’ as applied to this new mobile suggests that it represents, as a whole, the idea of home – a concept that’s utterly central to Le Guin’s thinking. Anarres is Shevek’s home – the place where he was born, the place where his partner and children live. But he also recognises Urras as home, the place all Anarresti originally came from, and where new prospective anarchists are still engaged in the political struggle that produced Anarres. The two worlds are complementary – neither can thrive without the other, in economic or physical terms. Remove one of these planets and the orbit of the other will be drastically and probably devastatingly altered. The mobile is a promise that the two places will cohabit, which is confirmed as it is made, since the two places do cohabit within a single solar system, a single home. So much for the name of the last mobile we meet in the novel. But what about those earlier mobiles, the Occupations of Uninhabited Space? What does Takver’s name for them signify?

One of the things it signifies, I think, is the refusal to colonize or be colonized. Ishi and his family refused to be colonized, choosing to live apart from and without commerce with the colonizers who occupied the Californian space around their desert home. The Anarresti likewise refuse to be colonized by the Urrasti, barring entry to and exit from their single spaceport to anyone but the most carefully vetted guests. And they themselves are not colonists of their planet; it was unoccupied when they came there, except by a temporary population of miners who were permitted to stay or leave as they thought fit. There are hardly any living species of any kind on its inhospitable surface apart from the Anarresti themselves. When they emigrated from Urras they occupied a space that was uninhabited, and brought with them an ideal that had been untried by their community, though no doubt an anarchism like theirs had been tried elsewhere in the vastness of the universe at some point. That ideal too, then, was an unoccupied space as far as they were concerned, and their move to Anarres was a promise to put it into practice; just as Shevek and Takver’s decision to move in together was a promise to put the hitherto unoccupied space of lifelong partnership into practice for the very first time – that is, for the first time in their lives, and from their perspective.

The two mobiles or sets of mobiles – the Inhabitation of Time and the Occupations of Uninhabited Space – come together in the final chapter of the novel, as Shevek returns to Anarres after solving his quest to reconcile the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity during his stay on Urras. The chapter opens with a return to the concept of the mobiles, which are descended from Kroeber’s necklace. First there are the two planets, Urras and Anarres, in complementary orbits:

Before they broke orbit, the view-ports were filled with the cloudy turquoise of Urras, immense and beautiful. But the ship turned, and the stars came into sight, and Anarres among them like a round bright rock: moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time. (p. 314)

The reference to a rock being thrown takes us back to the beginning of the novel, when the child Shevek stumbled independently on one of Zeno’s paradoxes: if a stone is thrown at a tree it can never hit the tree because it will only ever cover half the distance to the tree, then half again, then half again – in which case how can contact ever be made?[5] Shevek’s career as a physicist was dedicated to solving that paradox, and by this final chapter we know he has solved it by the simplest of procedures: by assuming that the stone does make contact and working out a formula that explains this seemingly impossible occurrence. At the same time the reference in the passage to this rock revolving in a perpetual circle suggests time’s inescapable circularity, the fact that all things everywhere are occurring at once, simultaneously, when viewed from the right perspective. The irreconcilable paradox, in other words, remains even after Shevek has found a formula that seems to resolve it. This is why his formula permits instantaneous communication or contact between any two points in the universe, with the help of a device called an ansible which occurrs (like a premonition) in many of Le Guin’s science fiction novels written before she described its invention in The Dispossessed. All those points exist at the same time, as well as in sequence, and there are ways to communicate their equivalence, their contiguity, in spite of the distance and difference between them.

The ship on which Shevek is riding in this final chapter provides the second reference to a mobile. It’s an interstellar starship – one designed to cover impossible distances, and in the process to provide its occupants with that vast perspective that represents time as both sequential and simultaneous:

From the outside it was as bizarre and fragile-looking as a sculpture in glass and wire; it had no look of a ship, a vehicle, about it at all, not even a front and back end, for it never travelled through any atmosphere thicker than that of interplanetary space. Inside, it was as spacious and solid as a house. […] Its style had neither the opulence of Urras, nor the austerity of Anarres, but struck a balance, with the effortless grace of long practice. (pp. 314-5)

The designers of this ship, the Hainish people, are the most ancient human species in the universe, responsible for colonizing all the worlds where anthropoid peoples can be found. It is their extraordinary antiquity, the vastness of their recorded history, that gives them the perspective that sees the whole universe as their house or home; that takes no note of forward or backward motion because all directions have already been taken, at one time or many times in the past, by their ancestors – as they no doubt will be again at some point or many points in the infinite future. But their antiquity does not make the Hainish jaded. Change remains possible, infinite hope available for every individual Hainish person, for a reason as simple as Shevek’s solution to the problem of reconciling incompatible theories. One of the Hainish crewmembers explains this reason to Shevek:

‘My race is very old,’ Ketho said. ‘We have been civilised for a thousand millennia. We have histories of hundreds of those millennia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?’ (p. 318)

The statement might summon to our minds the mobile hanging above the head of Shevek’s second baby daughter as he prepared to leave for Urras – for the first time in his life, even if such departures have happened infinite times before and will happen again. In this passage Takver’s mobiles fulfil their promise, complete another orbit, and take their place in the reader’s mind as a message of hope for the worlds to come.

The Dispossessed ends, as Daniel Jaeckle has pointed out, on a note of uncertainty. Shevek faces the anger of some of his fellow anarchists on Anarres for what they see as his betrayal in going to Urras, and it’s perfectly possible that he and the hopeful Hainish crewmember will die at the spaceport. His legacy, though, is enshrined in Le Guin’s earlier books in the form of the ansible. His hopefulness, too, and the hopefulness of his Hainish fellow traveller, remains enshrined in the novel, to be revitalised each time we reread it. And the novel also offers a hopeful riposte, through slantwise references to that necklace, to the tragic stories of Ishi, as told by Kroeber, and of Semley, as communicated by Le Guin herself in her early short story. Reconciliation is always possible, Le Guin seems to say, in the fullness of time, even if we don’t live to witness it as individuals. Things are always being made new. By means of whatever wayward orbits, we are always coming home.

Notes

[1] Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), prefatory note.

[2] ‘Semley’s Necklace’, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, 2 vols. (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[3] There is a detailed and very beautiful account of the notion of a promise from an anarchist’s perspective in The Dispossessed (London: Grafton Books, 1975), Chapter Eight, p. 205.

[4] The clearest account I’ve found of Shevek’s physics is in Daniel P. Jaeckle, ‘Embodied anarchy in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed’, Utopian Studies, 20.1 (Winter 2009): p. 75 ff.

[5] See The Dispossessed, Chapter Two, p. 31.

Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og

Rumer Godden by Jillian Edelstein, 1990 (National Portrait Gallery)

In 1978 Margaret Rumer Godden, author of many novels for adults and children including Black Narcissus (1939), The Doll’s House (1947) and The Diddakoi (1972), moved to the Dumfriesshire village of Moniaive to be near her daughter. Three years later she published this novel: a charming meditation on the experience of moving houses, a process she knew better than most, having moved between England and India since early childhood as well as flitting from London to Sussex and back again for much of her adult life. The central figure in the book, however, is not the house-mover but the creature that stayed at home: a Dragon who has lived in a pool in the Water of Milk since prehistoric times but finds himself unwillingly drawn into conflict with the new owner of Tundergarth Castle, an incomer who has no sympathy with the local legend that the Dragon brings luck to the community, being concerned solely with the financial losses he sustains through the Dragon’s habit of eating a bullock of his each month. The book traces the rise and eventual resolution of the feud between Lord and Dragon, a struggle that accentuates the divisions between members not only of the local community but of the lands of England and Scotland more generally, both in the twelfth century or so, when the book is set, and in Godden’s own lifetime.[1]

Nearly everyone in the book is an outsider of one sort or another: the Dragon, by virtue of being one of the last of his kind; the Lord of Tundergarth, Angus Og, because he has moved with his followers from the Highlands to the disputed country near the English Border; and Angus’s young wife Matilda, partly because she seems to be English (she shares a name with the first Queen of England and is said to have brought her horse from that country – see p. 18)[2] but chiefly because she has received an excellent education (she speaks French and knows about Anglo-Norman culture), yet finds herself surrounded by combative highlanders with nothing but contempt for the refinements she proposes to introduce into their lives. In addition, class conflict makes outsiders of the local people. Angus Og is fond of children, we’re told, but not the children of the indigenous cottars or cottagers, who are so filthy that they permanently put the Dragon off the notion of feasting on human flesh:

They usually ran about almost naked, not only in summer but in the bitter winter cold, so that their skins were like leather, thick and grimy; their hair was matted – it was never brushed – their eyes always red because, in the huts where they lived, the one room had no chimney so it was full of smoke from the hearth and cooking fires. Their noses were always running from the cold and they often had sores. (p. 14)

Angus’s disgust at these unkempt children is a little hypocritical given that his own dwelling-place, Tundergarth Castle, is no model of cleanliness and good order. Its interior is as dark and smoky as the single-roomed huts, the courtyard choked with the dung of beasts while the absence of privies or toilets means that the occupants relieve themselves by squatting against the walls. Angus Og’s arrival at the castle with his retinue is announced by an influx of dirt: the hooves of the cavalcade’s horses churn up the Water of Milk until it turns ‘murky, more like ale than milk’ (p. 19), and this sullying of the river heralds the transformation of Tundergarth from a feminized space (‘the Water of Milk’ conjures up maternal nurturing) to a site of masculine conflict (ale traditionally accompanies and triggers violence between men). This change is also signaled by Angus’s decision to change the castle’s name from Tundergarth (which means something like ‘the castle with a garden’) to Og, which means ‘young’ in Irish and Scottish Gaelic and hence might refer to the Lord’s infantile disposition, though the name also associates him with a popular comic strip from the Daily Record, as well as with one of Robert the Bruce’s staunchest allies and a succession of prize bulls[3]. Angus’s link with bulls (reinforced by his excessive concern for the loss of his bullocks) certainly identifies him as extravagantly male, and his domineering maleness helps to isolate him further from his wife, the cottars’ children and the Dragon.

The Dragon of Og is male, but he is feminized throughout the story – first by his long association with his mother, who raised and taught him, and later by his link with Matilda, the first human being he has seen who is as beautiful as he is. His home in the maternal Water of Milk and his fondness for flowers (he weeps when Matilda leaves him a nosegay as a gift when she first meets him), and for spontaneous displays of emotion, help to feminize him further. Angus Og, however, is inclined to treat him as a rival, like the chieftains he defeated in laying claim to the demesne of Tundergarth. He considers the Dragon’s consumption of the castle bullocks as an act of aggression and assumes that the creature can spout murderous flames, unaware that it is his own acts of hostility that have aroused the local legend to ignition for the first time in its life. At the same time Angus’s masculinity soon emerges as a performance rather than a stable identity. His warhorse and battle-axe are ineffectual against dragons, and he is forced to hire another outsider – the Norman knight Sir Robert le Douce – to kill the Dragon for him. And Robert turns out to have more in common with Matilda and the feminized Dragon than with Angus. He shares Matilda’s delight in beautiful clothes; his horse is ‘white as milk’ (p. 43), his pages have ‘short red velvet cloaks, feathered hats, and their hair was in curls’, and even his name identifies him as a milder alternative to the Robert the Bruce of Scottish history. ‘Douce’ means gentle or well-mannered, virtues supposedly shared by women and well-bred gentlemen, although Angus underlines the fictional nature of his own brand of masculinity by mistaking the word for ‘Deuce’ or devil (Robert the Devil was a legendary Norman firebrand who ended up as a saint) (p. 42). Angus, it is implied, despises Robert when he first meets him for his overtly feminine displays, despite the knight’s self-evident efficiency as a dragon-slayer, and refuses to pay him the agreed price for putting an end to the neighbourhood monster. In response Robert returns to the corpse of the dead Dragon and reverses the dragon-slaying process by putting the head and body of the creature back together again, so that it comes back to life. Dealing in life rather than death is another trait commonly associated with femininity. Another is cunning. Robert ensures that he is well paid for all his trouble by collecting the dragon’s blood, which is more precious than the gold he originally asked for: ‘it can cure blindness and other ills’, he tells his pages, ‘and it can dissolve gold’ (p. 49). If Robert is Angus’s rival there is no question about who comes out on top, economically speaking.

Angus’s enmity for the Dragon is based, in fact, on a false set of values; and the book demonstrates this rather neatly by almost bringing the highland chieftain to financial ruin. Even after the Dragon’s revival the Lord continues to refuse to give him bullocks; but Matilda’s efforts to feed him end up by costing far more than a bullock a month. The demesne’s cows are drained by the need to supply him with milk, all the honey from the hives is used up to make the mead that will keep him happy in the absence of meat, all the eggs are broken to provide the Dragon with possets, and the turnips that would keep the sheep alive through the winter are turned to mash for the Dragon’s meals. All the salmon and trout in the Water of Milk are cooked alive by the dragon’s rage when he finds himself deprived of beef. Angus’s meanness not only uses up his resources as a landowner but erases the distinction between the classes that meant so much to him; his servants the henwives and Donald McDonald, the castle seneschal or steward, rebel against him, while the cottars’ children feast on the salmon cooked by the Dragon’s rage as lavishly as Angus himself. The economy of a lord’s demesnes, it turns out, depends as much on mutual cooperation and respect as its ecology, and it’s Matilda who teaches him the importance of making the community happy, by her kindness to the cottar’s children as well as the Dragon.

Matilda’s distaste for her husband’s insanitary and dishonest practices – as well as her instinctive sympathy for the cottars’ children – marks her out as a migrant not just from another culture but another time. So too does her dislike of the male aggression that surrounds her, and her untiring labours to undermine it by peaceful means. She displays her solidarity with the high-born but gentle-hearted Norman knight by speaking to him in his own language, her solidarity with the cottars’ children by walking through the mud of the demesnes in bare feet, her solidarity with the dragon by her capacity for communicating with him without words as well as through their shared appreciation for beauty. Like the dragon, who enjoys the company of the squirrels and fishes who live in and around the Water of Milk, she has a gift for joining things together; and it’s she who teaches the Dragon not to despise his own relationship to the humblest creature on the planet, the lowly worm. ‘Don’t you dare despise a worm,’ she tells him. ‘Of course you are a dragon, but dragons come from worms, luckily for you. It was by the power of the worm in you that you could join up and live’ (p. 55). Mutual respect and collaborative living are what she stands for, although stranded as she is in the middle ages she never challenges the feudal system – only improves upon it, elevating it through practical measures to the idyllic condition it enjoys in fairy tales, though not in history.

There’s another aspect of Matilda that makes her modern before her time, and that’s her open sensuality – a trait she again shares with the Dragon. Godden wrote one of the most famously erotic books of the mid-twentieth century – transformed by Powell and Pressburger into a scandalous film starring Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron – Black Narcissus (1939), in which a sensual young woman called Kanchi is described (by another woman) as ‘a basket of fruit […] piled high and luscious and ready to eat. Though she looked shyly down, there was something steady and unabashed about her; the fruit was there to be eaten, she did not mean to let it rot’.[4] This unnerving association between desire and cannibalism unexpectedly crops up again in The Dragon of Og. The Dragon has a voyeuristic fondness for women’s legs, and though he would never dream of eating them he certainly describes them in culinary terms: ‘I wish they wouldn’t come and do their washing by the river,’ he complains, ‘especially when they turn their petticoats up. Their legs are so pink and white’ (p. 13). When the Dragon meets Matilda he takes delight in lifting her skirts with his breath to inspect her lower limbs, briefly transforming her into a medieval Marilyn Monroe, and she eventually asks him to stop since ‘My Lord would not like it’ (p. 29). The Dragon agrees, but continues to blow at her skirts from time to time on account of her legs: ‘They’re such dainties,’ he explains. The love of beauty shared by lady and dragon is in part an expression of their sensuality, and Matilda’s almost flirtatious relationship with the beast can be taken as an expression of her desire to acquaint Angus, too, with sensuality: a desire she also expresses by giving him his first soft pair of slippers to wear about the house. For Angus these are unseemly items for a man, but he delights in them, and when Matilda also plays to him on her harp he is briefly transformed into something closer to the creature: ‘as he sat in his great chair by the fire, he looked a different man with a smile in his eyes and a soft look on his face as he listened and pulled the ears of his favourite wolf-hound Brag, but gently, gently’ (p. 23). Gentleness is what she seeks in him – the kind of gentleness she finds in Sir Robert and the Dragon – and it’s implied that she eventually finds it. At one point in the book Matilda thinks about Angus’s fondness for children and decides that she must one day provide him with a ‘little Angus Og of his own, or a little Matilda’ (p. 28). By the end of the book the couple have had many Angus Ogs and Matildas, all of whom are buried in the churchyard along with their parents. Gentling has evidently taken place, desire has found its fulfilment, and the Castle where the couple lived is no longer a fortress, ‘only an ordinary house and where the bailey used to be there is a garden’ (p. 62), fulfilling the promise of the Castle’s pre-Angus name. Masculinity and femininity have been reconciled, at least in this little island in history, and Godden’s sometimes surprisingly realistic fairy tale has found its happy ending.

One last word, concerning Godden’s style. The notion of linking things together, binding what was separate, reconciling what was at odds, is beautifully conjured up by the sinuous length of Godden’s sentences and the profusion of interrelated ideas and images that jostle each other in her paragraphs. Let me end with an example, a paragraph that describes the moment when the angry Dragon heats up the Water of Milk and kills all the fish:

The good river water had cooked the fish, ‘To a turn,’ as Matilda said. The Castle steward managed to save a few for Matilda and Angus Og, but men, women and children were eating their fill; even the cottars, who had usually to be content with minnows or a bit of tough pike were eating lovely pink salmon flesh and learning the delicate taste of trout. Soon somebody brought down a barrel of ale, another of mead – it could be guessed that was at the orders of Lady Matilda. ‘As this has happened, let’s enjoy it,’ she said of the fish, and such a feast had never been known at Tundergarth, and, ‘God bless Og!’ shouted the people and, ‘Bless our Dragon!’ The Dragon had eaten a few of the salmon himself, though it was rather like eating his friends and, as his anger and his hunger were appeased, he had gone back to sleep, but, ‘I’ll have its blood for this,’ swore Angus Og. (p. 40)

The flow from one idea to the next in this paragraph perfectly conjures up the links that are gradually being built up between the Dragon, Matilda and the people of Tundergarth. The Dragon’s anger cooks the fish, the fish teach the locals a sensual delight in the ‘delicate taste’ of salmon and trout, Matilda takes advantage of the situation to throw an impromptu party, the Dragon’s wrath – which was aroused by hunger – is appeased by the fish he himself has cooked and eaten, and the whole sequence culminates in the possibility of reconciliation between the Dragon and Angus, as the people celebrate both as providers of the feast. The embedded morsels of dialogue in the passage suggest the way the situation is encouraging communication between people who have so far lived largely apart from one another. And the whole weight of the passage bears down on the off-key note that sounds at the end. Angus’s vow of revenge, coming as it does immediately after the reference to the Dragon’s guilt at eating the fish, his friends, sounds particularly jarring because Godden has the Lord refer to the Dragon as ‘it’, against his wife’s express request. In this way Godden cuts him off from his joyful people, from any hope of communication with the Dragon, and from Matilda. As Matilda weaves connections between members of the local community, Godden implies, Angus weaves death and dissent; there could hardly be a neater stylistic evocation of toxic masculinity.

Godden’s Scottish fairy tale, published three years after her move to Scotland, isn’t set in her new home town of Moniaive. Tundergarth is in Annandale, much closer to the English border. By choosing that location Godden was able more graphically to invoke the complex clash of cultures – Highland and Lowland, Anglo-Norman and Scots, upper and lower class, human and animal, male and female, sensuality and violence – that energize her tale. She chose her spot with care and expertise as a lifelong specialist in tales of collision. I hope this piece will draw some of its readers both to her little narrative and to the strange and beautiful country where it’s set.

Tundergarth Mains, the site of Tundergarth Castle. Note the graveyard in the foreground.

 

Notes

[1] The twelfth century date is suggested by the reference to King David on p. 27. This must be David I (1124-1153); David II reigned in the fourteenth century, long after knights stopped wearing chain mail and castles stopped being built on the motte and bailey principle, as Tundergarth Castle is in the book.

[2] All quotations are from Rumer Godden, The Dragon of Og (Magnet Books; London: Methuen, 1983). This is a truly dreadful edition, with many typos. Worst of all, it has made a terrible mess of Pauline Baynes’s magnificent illustrations for the first edition. All the gorgeous colour pictures I’ve reproduced in this blog post are left out, and the black-and-white illustrations have been chaotically scattered through the text in all the wrong places. Let’s hope there’s a better reprint based on the first edition soon.

[3] Godden explains these associations (though not the meaning of Og) in a prefatory note on p. 7.

[4] See Sarah Street, Black Narcissus, Turner Classic Movies: British Film Guide (Londonand New York: Tauris, 2005), p. 5.

‘Towards an Archaeology of the Future’: Theodora Kroeber and Ursula K Le Guin

[I’ve been busy this month with preparations for GIFCON 2018 while working on a couple of long-ish posts for release in the next few weeks. In the meantime I thought I’d put up an essay I wrote many years ago on Ursula Le Guin, because I intend to build on some of what it says in future posts. Thanks to Edward James, then editor of Foundation, Ursula Le Guin read this piece in typescript and said that she liked it. Nothing I’ve done as an academic makes me prouder than that.

The piece first appeared in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, No. 67 (Summer 1996), pp. 62-74.]

On 20th August, 1911, an amazing thing happened: a man walked out of one world and entered another. He had walked further perhaps than any other man in history: several thousand years, by some people’s reckoning, from the Stone Age to the Age of Steam, from ‘Inside the World’ (as the Kesh would call it) to a place ‘Outside’ it, from the country of his people, the Yahi, to the country of the twentieth-century Californians.[1] He was infected by the experience; within five years of his emergence from the wilderness he died of tuberculosis, like so many other indigenous Americans. Nobody knows the man’s name; he kept it secret because names were not to be lightly spoken in his culture.[2] The name he was given by the strangers who befriended him was Ishi, which means simply ‘man’ in the Yahi language. Fifty years later, a woman called Theodora Kroeber wrote a book about him, Ishi in Two Worlds, (1961); and this book haunted her daughter, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, throughout her extraordinarily varied literary career. I would like here to consider a few of the ways in which Kroeber’s Ishi continued to make himself felt in the narratives of Le Guin; how he kept wandering out of his world into ours in different forms and different contexts from her earliest published stories to her mature works of the 1980s and 90s; and the questions about the relationship between our culture and other cultures, between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘barbarous’, the past and the future, as well as the tentative answers (usually couched in the form of further questions) he brought with him.

In the course of his lifetime Ishi lived in two different places he called home. The first was the country of the Mill Creek Indians, as settlers called them, which occupied the space between two tributaries of the Sacramento River, and from which he emerged in the first fifty years of his life only to mount forays into adjacent territories as he and his family found their traditional food sources rapidly dwindling. The second was the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, where he lived out his last five years, emerging from the city only to make one last brief trip to his former home. Kroeber’s account of Ishi’s sojourn in the museum is extraordinarily moving in its evocation of the loneliness of the last stages of his life. His people had been wiped out, for the most part by the guns of settlers, but also by the diseases they brought with them as a gift. His family – twelve individuals, reduced to five, then four, then none in the course of the decades – had survived in hiding for forty years after the rest of the Yahi people had been massacred – an astonishing feat of endurance. There was no one else left alive who spoke his language. From before he reached puberty there was no one left alive with whom he could have contemplated having a sexual relationship. He lived in the museum as a walking exhibit, demonstrating the skills of house-building, arrow-making, fire-lighting and shooting that had constituted his vital contribution to the community he came from, and observing with amusement and occasional wonder the bizarre behaviour of the new friends he found among the inhabitants of San Francisco. He spoke a unique mixture of the English and the Yahi languages, and he seems to have changed the lives of the people he met as profoundly as they changed his.

In Ishi in Two Worlds we are privileged to witness an encounter between two wholly different cultures – each one studying, each one studied – in the same small space at the beginning of the last century. Such a two-way encounter occurs a number of times in Le Guin’s writing, and it often takes place in an academic context. In her early short story ‘April in Paris’ (1962) a lonely twentieth-century scholar finds himself transported back to fifteenth-century France to meet his medieval counterpart.[3] In The Dispossessed (1974) a scientist from a society of anarchists finds himself trapped in a university run by capitalists, and gradually comes to recognize the extent of his isolation in this new environment. But in neither of these cases does the protagonist find himself as lonely and disoriented as Ishi must have done. Like Le Guin and her husband Charles, the medieval scholar is fluent in Middle French and Latin, and the scientist Shevek in The Dispossessed shares with his captors the language of physics. More acute states of isolation occur elsewhere in Le Guin’s work: the clone Kaph in ‘Nine Lives’ (1969), for instance, ‘a lost piece of a broken set, a fragment, inexpert in solitude’, who has lost eight-ninths of himself when eight of his fellow clones were killed in an earthquake;[4] the loneliness of the alien Falk in City of Illusions (1967), stranded on a broken world with no memory of where he came from. But Kaph shares the language and the technological skills of his fellow workers, and Falk is eventually given the chance to return to his home planet. For all their highly-developed sense of being cut off, none of Le Guin’s characters finds herself in a state of isolation as extreme as Ishi’s, except perhaps for a man and a woman in the first of her novels, Rocannon’s World (1966), published only five years after Ishi in Two Worlds. Le Guin’s other solitaries acknowledge this man and woman as their ancestors, and continue to respond to the problems they first faced in ever more complex variations on Ishi’s predicament.

The man is Rocannon, left alone on a strange world when his fellow scientists are obliterated in an instant by a bomb dropped by a faceless enemy. Like Kroeber, Le Guin conveys Rocannon’s isolation primarily in linguistic terms: ‘Mogien understood no word he said, for he spoke in his own tongue, the speech of the starlords; and there was no man now in Angien or in all the world who spoke that tongue’.[5] For Rocannon, as for Ishi, this linguistic isolation is irreversible: return is denied him, and he must learn to make what he can of the alien environment in which he has been stranded. In fact he makes it his own in a double sense. By the end of the book he has learned to call it ‘home’ (presumably in the new language he has been forced to adopt); but after his death, the League of All Worlds (of which he was an envoy) baptizes the planet as a whole with Rocannon’s name. This last development is an interesting one. Is the name of a non-native scientist, however thoroughly he has been naturalized, really an appropriate designation for a planet with a long history of its own? The name suggests not so much that the world has domesticated Rocannon as that the League of All Worlds has domesticated the world; and it suggests too that for the League the most interesting moment in a planet’s history is the moment when it loses its autonomy, when it settles into its humble place in interplanetary discourse. And what of the other occupants of the place Rocannon came to call home? The men, and above all the women, who made him welcome in their dwelling-places?

The fate of these nameless householders is hinted at in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, first published as a short story, ‘Dowry of the Angyar’, in 1964.[6] In it a woman called Semley, from the planet that will one day bear Rocannon’s name, appears out of the darkness between the worlds to reclaim one of the exhibits in a Museum of Anthropology, an exquisite necklace, and is observed with wonder by the anthropologist Rocannon. The fact that it is a necklace she has come to reclaim might be read as an allusion to Kroeber’s book. In the foreword to Ishi in Two Worlds Lewis Garnett elaborates on a metaphor Kroeber uses to describe the biographer’s difficult art:

This book, as the author herself says, is like an archaeologist’s reconstruction of a bead necklace from which some pieces are missing, others scattered. She puts together two necklaces: first, the story of a tribe that survived almost unchanged, along the streams of the Mount Lassen foothills, from what we call the Age of Pericles to the period of our gold rush; of its decay and its murder. The second necklace is the story of Ishi’s adjustment to the trolley-world of San Francisco – proof, as the author says, that Stone Age man and modern man are essentially alike.[7]

For the anthropologist Rocannon in the prologue to Rocannon’s World, Semley’s necklace is transformed from a museum exhibit into the fragment of a story to which he has no access – the story of Semley, which is what later prompts him to travel to her planet in his turn. In much the same way, Ishi invested the exhibits in the Californian museum with new meaning and new life – for instance, by objecting to the practice of leaving camping gear untended in a room that housed the dead (in Ishi’s world this might have resulted in unwelcome interference with the equipment by restless ghosts, no matter how completely the dead had been assimilated into the discourse of science).[8] Semley’s necklace comes to stand for the gap between the narratives favoured by different cultures and the ways in which encounters between these cultures may exacerbate the gap even as they seek to bridge it. For Semley the necklace has a value and a function of which the curators of the museum have no knowledge: she needs it as a dowry for her husband, an emblem of the status of her family. But unknown to her it has acquired a different function in a new cultural context since it was lost to her family in the distant past. It was exchanged with the voyagers by one of the races on her planet who privilege the values of barter over those of heredity; exchanged, in fact, for the very same starship that carried Semley to the museum. And as a result of this initial change in the valuation of the necklace, another change is brought about. Unknown to her, it has lost the function for which she sought it even as she travelled through space towards its resting-place. ‘The gap of time bridged by our light-speed ships’ means that she will return to her world years after her husband’s death; and with him dead, her friends aged, her daughter grown to adulthood, the necklace will no longer have any use as a dowry.[9] Instead it will acquire for her family the status of a cursed object, until it is returned again to Rocannon, who will eventually give it to his wife – a woman of Semley’s people – as a dowry. In the meantime, for readers of the novel it will perhaps acquire a further meaning still: it will come to stand for the deadliness of misunderstandings between cultures, and for the impossibility of returning to the precise historical point from which one has started.

Semley’s necklace becomes, in fact, a sign that changes its meaning in the space between past and present, like a word from a language that is no longer spoken which has been assimilated into a different tongue. The consciousness of such profound linguistic changes, which accompany and even bring about changes within communities that share a common language, is always present in the work of Le Guin; and for her, as for her mother Theodora Kroeber, the task of charting these changes – or recording a diversity of different understandings and ways of speaking within a text that is written in a single language, rooted in a particular time and place – is the principal problem that confronts a writer, whether she is an archaeologist or a novelist. Indeed, the language used by Le Guin herself has changed as her ideas have changed. This is most obviously the case with her use of the personal pronoun. In her preface to the 1989 edition of her essay-collection The Language of the Night, first published ten years previously, she explains the dilemma with which she was confronted when faced with her earlier essays:

In general, I feel that revising published work is taboo. You took the risk then, you can’t play safe now… And also, what about the readers of the first version – do they have to trot out loyally and buy the recension, or else feel that they’ve been cheated of something? It seems most unfair to them. All the same, I have in this case broken my taboo. The changes I wanted to make were not aesthetic improvements, but had a moral and intellectual urgency to me… The principal revision involves the so-called ‘generic pronoun’, he. It has been changed, following context, euphony or whim, to they, she, you, or we. This is, of course, a political change (just as the substitution of he for they as the correct written form of the singular generic pronoun – see the OED – was a political act).[10]

In the collection, the essay that is most seriously affected by this change in linguistic and ideological stance is inevitably the one that discusses her exploration of a genderless culture in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969): the celebrated essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?’.[11] In the 1989 edition of the collection, Le Guin prints the essay along with a commentary, as if it had been a text from a previous epoch that requires annotating to be understood by the modern reader. At this point the collection resembles an archaeological dig, the different layers or columns representing different stages of Le Guin’s development. The novel she describes as an attempt at an ‘archaeology of the future’, Always Coming Home (1985), is written in two languages: for the most part it is in English, but to overcome the ideological assumptions that are ingrained in that imperialist tongue she occasionally lapses into the language of the future, Kesh, to describe concepts that have no equivalent in ‘Western’ thinking.[12] In other words, Semley’s necklace initiated a linguistic revolution – a revolution that was carried on in The Dispossessed by the anarchist Odo, who invented a new language for her tender new-born society. In the same way, the relationship between the woman Semley and her male observer, Rocannon, foreshadows the revolution in Le Guin’s thinking about the relationship between the reader (or writer) who thinks like a twentieth-century man and the text that reaches towards other modes of being.

Theodora Kroeber

The prologue to Rocannon’s World raises another question that Le Guin went on to consider in greater depth in her later work: the question of how the writer’s perspective or philosophical stance affects her subject. Inevitably in a book about an unfamiliar culture the writer is likely to adopt a point of view that can be understood by the bulk of her projected readership; and inevitably such a point of view tends to obscure or distort the subject under scrutiny. Theodora Kroeber was acutely conscious of this problem as she tried to chart Ishi’s career. There was a danger, for instance, that the gaps in what was known about Ishi’s life would tempt the writer into irresponsible imaginative speculation, or that her readers – and she herself – might be tempted from time to time into allowing their contempt for a ‘primitive’ culture to colour their response to the story they were reading. Kroeber found some startling ways to avert such reactions. For one thing, she wittily records Ishi’s amusement at what he saw as the absurdity of the ambitions of white civilization – his dismissal, for instance, of aeroplanes and impressive buildings as inadequate and unnecessary copies of mountains and birds. For another, she keeps slipping Ishi into unexpected roles in the world of technology. ‘It is a curious circumstance,’ she writes at one point,

that some of the questions which arise about the concealment [of Ishi’s family for forty years] are those for which in a different context psychologists and neurologists are trying to find answers for the submarine and outer space services today. Some of these are: What makes for morale under confining and limiting life conditions? What are the presumable limits of claustrophobic endurance? What temperament and build should be sought for these special and confining situations? It seems the Yahi might have qualified for outer space had they lasted into this century.[13]

This unexpected juxtaposition of the close community of the Yahi with the close community of astronauts in space might almost have provided the seed for the idea of the crew of clones in ‘Nine Lives’, or the problems of forming a healthily cooperative society in a spaceship explored in ‘Vaster than Empires and More Slow’ (1971) or ‘The Shobies’ Story’ (1990). In Rocannon’s World, however, Le Guin had not yet found satisfactory solutions to the other problem confronted by her mother: the problem of making both her readers and her narrator receptive to cultural difference. Her account of the story-teller’s art in the prologue shows this:

In trying to tell the story of a man, an ordinary League scientist, who went to such a nameless half-known world not many years ago, one feels like an archaeologist amid millennial ruins, now struggling through choked tangles of leaf, flower, branch and vine to the sudden bright geometry of a wheel or a polished cornerstone, and now entering some commonplace, sunlit doorway to find inside a darkness, the impossible flicker of a flame, the glitter of a jewel, the half-glimpsed movement of a woman’s arm.[14]

The peculiarity as well as the wit of this passage lies in the fact that the archaeological metaphor applies not to the subject under examination by anthropologists in the museum, Semley, but to one of the anthropologists themselves, an ‘ordinary League scientist’ who went to Semley’s world and became part of its mythology. This is particularly odd when one considers that the prologue was originally a short story – one that concerned itself with the adventures of Semley, and made no mention at all of the adventures of an ordinary male League scientist. It is as if at this stage in Le Guin’s career, and in the history of science fiction, the only conceivable protagonist of a story must be a man who shares the cultural assumptions of his readers; the only conceivable objects of interest must be recognizable elements in the progress of ‘Western’ culture, the wheel that was of no importance to the indigenous peoples of the New World, the cornerstone of a stone-built house, never the baskets or dancing-clothes of Ishi’s family. Le Guin repeatedly states in her critical writings that that in those days – in the days when she penned Rocannon’s World – she had not yet learned to write from a woman’s perspective.[15] She seems to be right, at least in part: the woman in this passage is only a half-glimpsed movement in the dark. Writing about women and writing convincingly about cultural difference seem to have been skills that Le Guin had to learn in conjunction.

In the narratives that followed Rocannon’s World, the relationship between scientists and the cultures they study undergoes a succession of remarkable metamorphoses. Already in her second novel, Planet of Exile (1966), the scientists have come closer to the people they scrutinize; indeed they have become dependent on them. The Terran colonists in this second book have been stranded as a community on alien soil; they must integrate themselves with the inhabitants of the world they occupy or perish as Ishi perished, as a result of the incompatibility of their bodies with their new environment. The indigenous inhabitants of the planet, like so many of Le Guin’s ‘primitive’ peoples, have much in common with the Yahi; they will not meet each other’s eyes (Yahi men would not look into the eyes of Yahi women); they practice polygamy; they have summer and winter houses; they cremate their dead (the Yahi were the only native Californians to do so).[16] But by the time we meet a descendant of these two races, Falk in City of Illusions, they seem to have become entirely technologized, and little trace of the indigenous people of Alterra can be found in them. This is partly a natural result of the perspective from which Le Guin’s second novel is told. As in Rocannon’s World it is never quite clear who the narrator is in Planet of Exile, but there is nothing to suggest she does not share the expectations of a twentieth-century ‘Westerner’, since she commits the bulk of her novel to the task of tracing the movement of the main female character – a native Alterran – from the ‘primitive’ homes of her ancestors to the relatively ‘civilized’ city of the Exiles. In the same way, The Left Hand of Darkness persistently reminds its readers that they inhabit a patriarchal society; as Le Guin acknowledges in her essays, the narrator’s use of the ‘so-called generic pronoun he’ inevitably colours the reader’s response to the androgynous Gethenians. The protagonist Genly Ai may become a kind of sibling or lover of the principal Gethenian, Estraven, but that pronoun ensures that the reader never become wholly naturalized to the genderless cultures of the world called Gethen.

Le Guin’s frustration at the distortion this linguistic bias entails finds angry expression in her novella The Word for World is Forest (1972). The title of the novella alludes to a radical linguistic difference between Terran colonists and the inhabitants of a tree-covered planet. Those colonists who give much thought to such things believe they can exploit the logging opportunities afforded by this forested terrain without materially affecting the wellbeing of its human inhabitants; but they fail to recognize the extent to which the identities of these people are inextricably bound up with the woods they live in. Once again, the natives of the world called Forest, the Athsheans, have something in common with Ishi’s people. Men and women in this culture speak different dialects, as the Yahi did; male activities are rigorously distinguished from female ones; and they regard their dreams as instructive, as sometimes seems to have been the case among the Yahi. More importantly, perhaps, the men who ‘translate’ these dreams – those who convert them into speech and action – are among the most highly respected members of society. The word for translator and the word for god are identical, and the elision of these two concepts acknowledges the profound and sometimes terrible power of transmitting meaning from one form to another. Whatever is translated is changed irrevocably, so that the indigenous translator who is central to The Word for World is Forest, Selver, is also the individual responsible for transforming the culture of the Athsheans dreadfully and for ever. In this narrative, as we might expect, the proximity of what we would call the anthropologist – the ‘hilfer’ or scholar of ‘High Intelligence Life Forms’ – to the subject of study affects the subject more drastically than in any of Le Guin’s previous novels. Selver effectively merges with his hilfer friend Lyubov, and after Lyubov’s death the Terran’s ghost drifts sadly in and out of Selver’s consciousness, bringing with it the horrifying new ideas with which Lyubov is familiar. Once Lyubov’s knowledge has been translated into Selver’s language, Selver and the people he incites to violence against the colonists can never be the same again. The Athsheans avenge the Yahi nation on the colonists, destroying them with spears and bare hands as the Yahi themselves never could; but in the process they learn a new way of life; they learn the skill of genocide, and can never forget what they have learned. The precarious balance which kept Selver’s people free from war – uniquely free in the known universe, as the novella suggests, a situation as precarious as the ecological and cultural balance that enabled Ishi’s people to survive – has been destroyed, and they will never again be exempt from this infection.

The acute pain expressed in The Word for World is Forest – Le Guin observes that in contrast to her other work ‘this story was easy to write and disagreeable’[17] – springs from its fusion of the issues encountered in Ishi in Two Worlds with those of contemporary American politics. Throughout its length the parallels between the world called Forest and 1960s Vietnam are often made explicit.[18] The military leader of the Terran colonists is a Vietnamese soldier called General Dongh, who is despised as the scion of an untrustworthy race by his eurafran subordinates; and the eurafran soldiers among the colonists dull their sensibilities, as American combatants did in Vietnam, with the intensive use of hallucinogenic drugs. But the most aggressive of the colonists, Captain Davidson, bears an uncanny resemblance to an earlier manifestation of American colonialism, a man called Anderson who was the most prominent of the Indian-killers in Kroeber’s book.[19] Like Anderson, Davidson inspires unthinking devotion among his followers; as with Anderson, his concern for preserving a sense of his own masculinity is a driving force behind his violent xenophobia; and like Anderson he is a man adrift, a loose cannon who begins by being exploited by the colonial administration for their own ends but who rapidly develops an agenda of his own and loses all contact with his superior officers.[20] Kroeber attributes the savagery of the suppression of the Yahi in part to the aggressive individualism of the gold-seeking Forty-niners, stranded as they were hundreds of miles from the national government, with its inadequate but sometimes well-intentioned laws concerning the treatment of native Americans.[21] Like a forerunner of Marlon Brando’s General Kurz in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Davidson quickly detaches himself from the chain of command and begins to act as a god on his own account. His actions as much as Lyubov’s awareness of his actions contribute to the translation of the peaceful Athsheans into killers – just as Kroeber judges that the killing of Yahi children taught the Yahi how to kill the children of the whites. Lyubov cannot help bringing Davidson into the Athsheans’ world, and at the end of the story Davidson is still alive years after Lyubov’s death, living among the Athsheans as implacably as the anthropologist lives on in Selver’s dreams. In this way Le Guin offers her most terrible and despairing word on the relationship between anthropologist and anthropologized, between the student and the studied: an impassioned cri de coeur on the impossibility of dissociating the dominant culture of the writer from the culture she strives to represent.

The Dispossessed responds to this problem by smashing the form of the conventional linear narrative. In its account of the career of the physicist Shevek, chapters on his early life in the anarchist world of Anarres alternate with chapters on his later stay in the capitalist world of Urras. Neither period in the scientist’s life is privileged over the other, and both phases make an equal contribution to his eventual reconciliation of the theories of Sequency and Simultaneity in post-Einsteinian physics. In the process, the problem of time which dogged Kroeber’s account of the life of Ishi reaches tentatively towards a solution. The problem is that in Kroeber’s text, for all the qualities that would have made Ishi and his people so well suited to life in the twentieth century, they remain firmly locked in the past – all are dead by the time the book is written – while Kroeber’s own people inhabit another period, the present; and the two periods remain as rigorously segregated from each other as Anarres is from Urras, despite all the writer’s efforts to bring them together. This is a problem of narrative technique as well as of chronology. A linear form of narrative insists that one thing follows another; it invites its readers to believe in the inexorable progression of a uniform ‘human race’ towards some sort of apotheosis, and so encourages the dominant culture to regard itself as possessing exclusive rights to the future. In The Dispossessed, by contrast, the past and the future coexist with the present. Anarchy has emerged from capitalism, and is continuing to emerge from it as the text unfolds thanks to the efforts of revolutionaries; at the same time, without constant vigilance on the part of the anarchists capitalism may swiftly reemerge from anarchy. In the course of the novel, discontented elements on Anarres are returning to capitalist values as conditions on the planet deteriorate, while dissidents on Urras struggle to forge anarchy in their disintegrating homeland. The point of narrating the two processes in parallel, as Shevek sees it, is that without an awareness of where they come from the Anarresti are in constant danger of repeating the mistakes of history. By returning to the Anarrestis’ point of origin, Urras, Shevek hopes (among other things) to remind the inhabitants of Anarres of the need to be perpetually renewing the revolution. At the same time he hopes that he will serve as a beacon of hope for the future to the revolutionaries on Urras. Without addressing themselves to both cultures simultaneously, neither he nor they can ever hope to find a way forward, either in science or in politics.

In addressing two antagonistic societies, Shevek might be said to offer a model for addressing two phases of American history, one of which has been privileged in textbooks to the virtual exclusion of the other. At one point in the dual narrative he hints at this in terms that must be startlingly familiar to Le Guin’s American readers:

He was a frontiersman, one of a breed who had denied their past, their history. The Settlers of Anarres had turned their backs on the Old World and its past, opted for the future only. But as surely as the future becomes the past, the past becomes the future. To deny is not to achieve. The Odonians who left Urras had been wrong, wrong in their desperate courage to deny their history, to forgo the possibility of return. The explorer who will not come back or send back his ships to tell his tale is not an explorer, only an adventurer; and his sons are born in exile.[22]

This way of describing the relationship between Urras and Anarres, the Old World and the New, may seem to place Shevek in the position of the heroic frontiersman of the legendary Wild West; an Anderson, say, who has suddenly become aware of his European ancestry and has returned to Europe to learn about the origins of the American republic – and to teach his ancestors a lesson. But Shevek has something in common with Ishi as well as with Anderson. Like Ishi he is baffled by the possessiveness of the people he encounters; like him he is amused by much of the gadgetry they are so proud of (and with Ishi he finds pockets one of the most amusing of these gadgets).[23] Moreover Shevek, like Ishi, is given to reversing the usual criteria for distinguishing civility from barbarism. The operations of capitalism ‘were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary’.[24] The history he learns on Urras is as much the history of those who opposed the barbarism of the capitalists as it is that of the capitalists themselves; it is the history of the freedom fighters who are branded barbarous by the society they challenge, and whose forebears have been banished to a harsh environment that resembles the barren land set aside by the American government for Indian reservations.[25] For this reason one might imagine that Shevek would have found as much to admire in the Yashi as in their European successors.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that he would not. If the Anarresti had been presented somewhat differently – or if Le Guin had written about them a few years later – they might have resembled a fusion of Native Californian culture with the culture of the pioneers. But The Dispossessed resists such a fusion. The moon to which Le Guin’s anarchists were exiled was uninhabited apart from a small colony of miners; and there seem to be no surviving aboriginal inhabitants of Urras. The one development of their society that the anarchists refuse is what the narrator calls a regression to ‘pre-urban, pre-technological tribalism’.[26] Le Guin’s utopian vision had to wait another eleven years before it could embrace a post-urban, post-technological culture as something better than a regression.

Which brings us to the most complex of her fictions, the unique compilation of stories, poems, recipes, songs, plays, maps and commentaries produced by the nonexistent future inhabitants of the Napa Valley, Always Coming Home (1985). In this book at last a people who bear some resemblance to the Yahi take over the various narratives contained in the volume, and adopt the role of instructors with respect to the ‘editor’ of the text; a very different role form that of the anthropologist’s so-called ‘informant’. Once again, the title of the book deserves to be dwelt on. Throughout Le Guin’s work two motifs recur repeatedly: the motif of the journey and the motif of the home. As we have seen, Ishi’s journey between two times was also a journey between two homes: his home by the Sacramento River and his home in the museum. Shevek traces a similar journey between two homes: his childhood home of Anarres and his ancestral home on Urras. The title of Always Coming Home combines the notion of travel with the notion of domestic stability – the spaces traditionally allocated to men and to women in European history. It suggests, as Ishi’s story suggests, that they are inextricably linked; that sequency need not be privileged over simultaneity, that constant movement can work hand in hand with an awareness of, and a respect for, where one is. It suggests that the culture of the Kesh need not inhabit an inaccessible future, but that it has always been present, always available to those who permit themselves to see it: like the woman who is glimpsed for a moment among the crowds of San Francisco in the story called ‘A Hole in the Air’.[27] The man of the Kesh who sees her is another Ishi, an exile who has strayed from the far future into the twentieth century through the mysterious hole of the story’s title, and who dies, as Ishi did, of an infection caught during his visit. The woman, on the other hand, is presumably still living in San Francisco at the time Le Guin is writing the story; waiting, perhaps, to find her way through another hole in the air to the Valley of the future, the place where she will finally be at home.

In addition, the title of Always Coming Home evokes the dual nature of the texts in that collection. Some are accounts of journeys, dominated by the history related by Stone Telling; others are celebrations of life among the Kesh, made up of the poems, songs and recipes interspersed with the prose throughout the book. The prose stories in the collection recount for the most part incidents in which the delicate balance of Kesh life is challenged or disrupted: breaches of Kesh etiquette, incursions by hostile intruders on the Valley, disturbances in the domestic environment – like the story of the vampiric consumer Dira (an anthropomorphic tick)[28] who almost eats a Kesh woman out of house and home, or the story of two angry old women who destroy their households, ‘Old Women Hating’. These narratives look familiar enough to a twentieth-century reader; they are appropriate components of what we take to be a literary work, although they also serve to strengthen the reader’s awareness of the difference between our culture and that of the Kesh. The recipe, on the other hand, is perhaps the most characteristically Kesh of the genres contained in the book. It is a text to be returned to time and again, to be modified, reduced or expanded as occasion demands, refusing to assert its authority over the reader, and ready t be forgotten as soon as it has lost its usefulness. It offers a witty analogy for the way the Kesh regard their literature; they ‘do poetry’, as Le Guin explains in an essay, ‘as a common skill, the way people do sewing or cooking, as an essential part of being alive’.[29] By reading or performing the poetry, by playing the music that accompanies the text (the first edition was accompanied by a CD), by cooking from the recipes, we bring the population of the book alive by inviting it into our homes; and in doing so we bring together the present and the future, what might be and what is, more fully perhaps than in any of our previous literary encounters. When we participate in Always Coming Home we find ourselves haunted by the Kesh as the translator Selver was haunted by the anthropologist Lyubov: changed by, rather than changing, the subject of study.

We might also find ourselves haunted by the ghost of Theodora Kroeber. The recipe is a mode of writing (like the anthropological biography) that Le Guin seems to have associated with her mother. In her introduction to the 1985 edition of Kroeber’s book of Native American stories, The Inland Whale (1959), Le Guin observes that ‘Theodora’s native gift was for the brilliant shortcut that reveals an emotional or dramatic truth, the event turned legend – not raw fact, but cooked fact, fact made savory and digestible. She was a great cook both of food and words’.[30] By combining cookery and Native American legend in Always Coming Home Le Guin might be said to have combined two periods of Kroeber’s life: the first sixty years, when she gave her energies to creating a home, and the last two decades, when she gave herself to creating books. In an essay on women who have succeeded in combining motherhood and writing Le Guin asks herself what her own mother might have achieved if she had not chosen, or been constrained, to separate the two roles chronologically.[31] The Kesh would have had a kind of answer: the roles are not fundamentally dissimilar, and both are equally creative. By the end of her life Kroeber was at ease with them both, as she was with the many surnames (Kracaw, Brown, Kroeber, Quinn) that marked out the successive stages of her personal history.[32] This is not, perhaps, an answer that will satisfy many women; but it is an answer that looks forward to a time when choices will no longer be determined by the gender, race, class or wealth of the chooser; a time that is always leaking into ours through the holes in the air made by the experimental writings of Ursula K. Le Guin.

 

NOTES

[1] ‘Inside’ the world and ‘Outside’ the world are terms coined by Le Guin in Always Coming Home (1985; London: Grafton Books, 1988). The terms are explained in the section called ‘Time and the City’, pp. 149-72.

[2] For Yahi naming conventions see Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962), pp. 126-8.

[3] ‘April in Paris’ can be found in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (London etc.: Granada, 1978), vol. 1, pp. 31-45.

[4] ‘Nine Lives’ is also in the Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 1, pp. 128-57.

[5] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile (London: W.H. Allen and Co., 1983), p. 27.

[6] ‘Dowry of the Angyar’ can be found under its later title, ‘Semley’s Necklace’, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, vol. 1, pp. 9-30.

[7] Ishi in Two Worlds, ‘Foreword’.

[8] Ishi in Two Worlds, p. 206.

[9] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, p. 4.

[10] Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night (London: The Women’s Press, 1989), pp. 1-2.

[11] The Language of the Night, pp. 135-47.

[12] ‘Towards an Archaeology of the Future’ is the title of the book’s first section, Always Coming Home, pp. 3-5.

[13] Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 97-8.

[14] Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, p. 4.

[15] For instance, in her essay ‘The Fisherwoman’s Daughter’, reprinted in Dancing at the Edge of the World (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 126.

[16] See Ishi in Two Worlds, Chapter Two, ‘A Living People’.

[17] See Again, Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 126.

[18] See Le Guin’s essay on The Word for World Is Forest in The Language of the Night, pp. 125-9. It is worth noting that the original title of the novella was The Little Green Men, alluding not just to the generic Martians but to racist descriptions of Vietnamese people in terms of size and colour that were prevalent in the language of the pro-war lobby in the 1960s.

[19] See Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 63-8 etc.

[20] Anderson’s concern for his own masculinity is hinted at by his admiring disciple Sim Moak: ‘Anderson was twenty-five years old and as fine a specimen of manhood as one would wish to see… you can imagine a great tall man with a string of scalps from his belt to his ankle’ (Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 65-6). Davidson too is a ‘big, hard-muscled man’ who ‘enjoyed using his well-trained body’ (Again, Dangerous Visions, p. 36).

[21] See Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 43-5 etc.

[22] The Dispossessed (London etc.: Grafton Books, 1975), p. 80.

[23] The Dispossessed, p. 62; Ishi in Two Worlds, p. 162.

[24] The Dispossessed, p. 113.

[25] Attempts to resettle the Yana people on reservations proved abortive; see Ishi in Two Worlds, pp. 62-3 and 72-4.

[26] The Dispossessed, p. 85.

[27] Always Coming Home, pp. 154-7.

[28] I am grateful to Ursula Le Guin for pointing out to me that Dira was a tick when she read this essay in typescript.

[29] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 186.

[30] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 139.

[31] Dancing at the Edge of the World, pp. 231-2.

[32] Dancing at the Edge of the World, p. 138. Tenar in Tehanu inherits Kroeber’s multiplicity of names.

Octavia Butler and the Impossibility of Slavery

[For Black History Month 2017]

At the heart of Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred is the question of writing. How to write truthfully, effectively, humanely, about past atrocities: atrocities on a scale that can’t be conceived of, involving crimes that can’t be atoned for and bodily and psychological impressions that can’t ever be fully recovered by the reader as lived experience? Her choice of fantasy as a means of asking these questions might seem perverse, especially because she made it at a point in the history of the genre – the mid-1970s – when it was chiefly associated with the secondary world fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. The success of the paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings in the United States led to the launch of Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series, and with this short-lived but influential imprint a publishing phenomenon was born, inventing a genealogy for itself and spawning a host of Tolkien imitations and original novels from the mid-1960s onwards. And indeed, the Ballantine series could well have played its part in Butler’s choice of form. Its daring reimagining of literary history, which involved recovering forgotten texts and nurturing new ones, each of which found startling new ways to consider the relationship between the imagined past and the haunted present, had much in common with her project. In addition, Kindred is refreshingly open about the need for professional authors to tap into commercial trends if they are to make a living from the pen: its protagonist is a professional writer of fiction like Butler herself. Writing as a source of income constantly forces its exponents into intensive negotiations with the complex freedoms and restrictions of the literary marketplace.

But in writing what she called a ‘grim fantasy’ Butler may also have been engaging with a number of specific fantasy tropes. For one thing, she was taking advantage of an ancient association between slavery and fantastic fiction, which stretches back to the works of Aesop and Plato, both of them slaves whose imaginative storytelling alternately won them fame and got them into trouble – in Aesop’s case even getting him killed, or so the ancient biography attached to his name suggests. Aesop made animals talk and act like human beings – or more accurately like a strange chimerical fusion of beasts and people – and his successors included the self-professed apologist for slavery Joel Chandler Harris, who from 1881 wrote the animal fables attributed to his nostalgic ex-slave Uncle Remus. These fables attained massive popularity at the turn of the twentieth century, opening the door to more fantastic tales along similar lines. Harris’s most distinguished successor was the African American writer Charles W Chesnutt, whose story collection The Conjure Woman (1899) brought distinctly unsettling overtones to its tales of magic on the slave plantations of the antebellum South. These tales were purportedly told to the author by another ex-slave, Uncle Julius; and Julius is a very different figure from Harris’s genial source. He tells each story as a way of seizing some advantage for himself – as when he claims that a building is haunted by the ghost of a slave who was magically transformed into the tree from which it was constructed, with the result that the building is handed over to Julius himself for use by the religious congregation of which he is a member. Uncle Julius, then, is a sort of Brer Rabbit trickster figure, not the amiable sub-relative of a rich white family which Uncle Remus is content to become. And Uncle Julius tells his tales to a fellow African American rather than to white folks, or to the governors who were served by his ancient forebear Aesop. His book marks the beginning of a new chapter in literature, anticipating the deployment of the fantastic as a means of giving a voice to the monstrous past (the term ‘monstrous’ is one of Uncle Julius’s favourites) by African American writers from the late twentieth century to the present.

Chesnutt’s story of the slave turned tree, ‘Po’ Sandy’, tells of desperation, heartache, and physical and mental agony. The aggressively overworked Sandy returns from his labours one day to find that his master has sold his wife. He then marries a woman called Tenie, only to be sent away soon afterwards to work on a distant plantation. In response, Tenie – a ‘conjure woman’ like the one in the title – turns him into a tree, at his own request, so that he can stay near her; but Sandy’s master has the tree chopped down and sawn into logs (with horrific sound effects) while she is away on her mistress’s business. Tenie goes mad in consequence. Uncle Julius’s acquisition of the haunted building, then, serves in his story as a small restitution for the torments of forced separation and bodily violence inflicted by a barbaric system. In this the tale is quite unlike Uncle Remus’s animal fables, which ascribe the acts of savagery they contain to a natural order that lies beyond the enchanted circle of the storyteller’s ersatz family: a community of generous whites and humble blacks who live in perfect harmony and whose innocence is embodied by the old man’s most regular listener, a little white boy of seven or eight. Whippings and beatings don’t occur in this happily mixed enclave, and there’s no reference to them having occurred in the antebellum past where the ex-slave spent most of his life; but they find expression in the acts of violence with which his animals threaten one another, and which from time to time get carried out in earnest – though only ever on the strong and cruel, not the weak and helpless.

One thing, however, unites Uncle Remus and Uncle Julius with their progenitor Aesop. For each of them narrative is a means to an end, a necessary form of persuasion, a way of making things happen in the immediate aftermath of the storytelling act – even if all that happens is that the little boy stops damaging Uncle Remus’s belongings and brings him cakes in exchange for more stories. Their tales are bound up with their lives in a practical way, just as the building Uncle Julius tells of is bound up with the suffering body of the man it was made from – or just as the tall tales told by Brer Rabbit serve to extricate him from potentially lethal entanglements. The ligatures that bind story to world are embodied in the ‘morals’ traditionally attached to Aesop’s fables, which are replaced in Chesnutt’s book by the successive revelations of what Uncle Julius wants from his listeners in return for each tale. And as we shall see, that sense of an almost physical connection between the world of the story and the world of its teller is shared by Kindred to an unnerving degree.

The links between slavery and the fantastic grew stronger after Butler wrote Kindred. The African American writer Samuel R Delany started his epic Return to Nevèrÿon series at the end of the 1970s, much of it concerned with a slave rebellion led by a Conan-esque barbarian miner called Gorgik. In the late 1980s Toni Morrison published Beloved, which tells of another haunting, this time of an ex-slave by the young daughter she killed to prevent her being returned to slavery. More recently, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) reimagined the famous escape route from South to North as a physical track cut through rock and earth at the cost of thousands of hours of voluntary labour, an imaginary monument to the countless hours of involuntary labour suffered by African Americans on the historical plantations. The remarkable diversity of these fantastic representations of slavery, their experimental restlessness, which manifests itself most clearly, perhaps, in the various forms and styles tried out in his series by Delany, presents us with one of the reasons why the genre or mode of fantasy is so well suited to this topic. Slavery is an unfinished story, and one that can never be finished, in part because it can never really be imagined – and hence never really started – by those who haven’t been subjected to it. Using fantasy to speak of atrocity is to acknowledge that we who have not undergone such things can only ever dream of them, and shouldn’t be tempted into believing we fully understand their appalling causes and damaging consequences.

There’s another point here about fantasy which isn’t embraced by the crudely collective ‘we’ of that last sentence. With very few exceptions, African Americans have little hope of tracing their ancestry further back than a few generations. The forced removal of African names, the replacement of ancestral languages with the words of the slave-owners, the imposition of bizarrely inappropriate sobriquets from classical history – Remus the murdered brother of the founder of Rome, Julius the conquering Caesar, Caesar in The Underground Railroad, whose name recalls the plantation name of the captive African prince in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko – all testify to the fact that a white man’s fantasy made hideously concrete underlies the whole structure of North American slavery, a pseudo-Mediterranean rival for the pseudo-Nordic fantasies made real by the Nazi state of the 1930s. This systematic extirpation of traceable historical records leaves only the imagination available as a means of recovering the intimate details of African American history; and fantasy is the most open and honest rhetorical stratagem for asserting the role of imagination in conjuring up this painstakingly obliterated past.

At the same time, fantasizing about that past brings responsibilities with it. Slavery happened – slavery happens – and any attempt to address it needs to take cognizance of the facts as they have come down to us. There are plenty of counter-examples. Too many fantasies represent slavery as an unscrutinized fact of life, an exotic part of the scenery to be dismissed as uninteresting as soon as noted, or offer too easy channels of escape for their fictional slaves, thus cheapening the appalling practical and psychological difficulties involved in any attempt to win freedom from a life of forced labour. A particularly noxious example of the representation of slavery as exotic fantasy is the series of Gor books by John Norman, which enjoyed some popularity in the 60s and 70s with their pornographic depictions of ‘naturally’ subservient women in the sort of post-decadent sword-and-sorcery setting that Delany mocks in his Nevèrÿon series. The original sword-and-sorcery tales published in the pulp magazines of the 1910s, 20s and 30s by writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard are full of casual references to slavery not much less glibly eroticised than Norman’s piffling mimicries of these precursors. Less offensive, perhaps, but equally problematic are the representations of slavery as a state from which one can simply free oneself without major repercussions. The socialist William Morris can’t be accused of perpetrating this sort of myth in his romances of the 1890s. The heroine of his The Wood Beyond the World, for instance – one of several books by Morris published in Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series – is first encountered by the male protagonist as a slave and later frees herself and him with her magic; and she goes on to suffer what sounds very much like post-traumatic stress disorder in later life. Nevertheless, she and her female successors in his late romances attain prosperity and lasting happiness without the torment of losing husbands, friends and children who remain enslaved. And even their condition as slaves acquires a kind of exotic allure from its context in what is self-evidently a chivalric romance, whose ending is likely to be a happy one, whatever rough territory its characters may happen to traverse.

In Butler’s own lifetime, Ursula le Guin famously chose a dark-skinned man as protagonist of her Earthsea sequence – though she repeatedly saw him whitewashed in filmed adaptations of the novels – and the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore (1973), represents slavery in her world from the slave’s perspective. At one point one of the protagonists, the young Prince Arren, finds himself chained in the hold of a galley. But he spends only a few pages in captivity before the inevitable rescue by magic:

The fog glowed over the deck like the moon behind thin cloud, cold and radiant. The oarsmen sat like carved statues. Crewmen stood in the waist of the ship, their eyes shining a little. Alone on the port side stood a man, and it was from him that the light came, from the face, the hands, and staff that burned like molten silver.

The Archmage Ged takes Arren from the slave-ship with consummate ease, leaving the other slaves unbound; and it’s some time before Arren’s thoughts return to his fellow slaves, and the question of why Ged didn’t also take the slavers’ weapons from them when he loosed their captives’ bonds. Ged replies that he did not unarm the slavers or bind them because he refused to be made a slaver in his turn; but the more complicated question of how far a band of freed slaves might be able freely to choose what is to be done with their former owners, or what choices they might be forced to make in the complex process of regaining their liberty, are never addressed. It’s characteristic of le Guin’s restless urge to revise and rethink her projects from fresh perspectives that she twice returned to the topic of slavery and its effects on the mind and body, first in the story ‘The Finder’ in Tales from Earthsea (2001), then in the dazzling third volume of her post-millennial fantasy series Annals of the Western Shore (Powers, 2007), which is all about the after-effects of enslavement. But at the time Butler wrote Kindred there had as yet been no serious attempts in fantasy (as far as I know) to inhabit the mind and body of a slave, with the crucial exception of Chesnutt’s work and that brief passage of le Guin’s.

The trope Butler puts at the centre of her story, on the other hand – time travel – was a familiar one in both fantasy and science fiction. The best known early example of its use, H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), transported a white middle class protagonist into a slave state of the future, where infantilized human cattle provide food for their masters in return for a lifetime of creature comforts, and where the time traveller’s own imperialist aggression finds frequent outlets in his penchant for beating out the brains of the cannibalistic masters. There is an irony about Wells’s vision which Butler must have appreciated. At one point the time traveller speculates that the master race in this future time must be descended from the industrial working classes, wage slaves who have exacted a hideous evolutionary revenge on the ruling classes who benefited from their labour by feeding on them for many generations. If he is right, then slaves have merely replaced masters in an aeon-long cycle, and there is no prospect of the socialist liberation from this cycle of which Wells was dreaming at the time his book was published; freedom is a fantasy and varieties of slave state may be humanity’s ‘natural’ condition. The fear that history may indeed be cyclical finds a clear echo in Butler’s book, and the struggle to free oneself from its nightmare has never felt more urgent.

A later example of the time-travel sub-genre, Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), is in effect a nostalgic tourist excursion into turn-of-the-century New York, its theme tune of ‘jingle bells’ conjuring up all the pleasures of old time sleigh-rides unsullied by the period’s attendant torments and inequities. Butler touches only once in her novel on this kind of time-travel tourism, when the protagonist’s white husband starts to consider how delightful it would be to travel west in the early nineteenth century and witness at first hand the white man’s conquest of central and western America:

‘This could be a great time to live in,’ Kevin said once. ‘I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it – go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true.’

‘West,’ I said bitterly. ‘That’s where they’re doing it to the Indians instead of the blacks!’

He looked at me strangely. He had been doing that a lot lately.

This exchange takes place when the narrator, Dana, has become uneasy about how straightforward she and her husband have found it to settle into their new life in the early nineteenth-century slave state of Maryland. ‘For drop-ins from another century,’ she comments immediately beforehand, ‘I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease. The problematic nature of their ease is confirmed by Kevin’s enthusiastic allusion to the ‘building of the country’, a metaphor that elides the materiality of the building process: the slaughter of the land’s previous inhabitants, the forms of more or less forced labour involved in the physical construction of farms and buildings, the violence, racism and patriarchy that underlie the ‘Old West mythology’. Only a white man speaking from the privileged position of the slave-owning classes could use the metaphor so glibly, and the strange look Kevin gives Dana when she points out the perspective he has just adopted emphasizes the wedge he has inadvertently driven between them by failing to consider his utterance from her point of view. A single statement has made them strange or foreign to each other, and in the process pointed up what the novel has to say about the fantasy of a single unified ‘country’ on which the state of America has been founded.

Finney’s Time and Again represents its journey as a trip home to a less complicated and more humane period of American history – utterly blanking the racism and anti-feminism of turn-of-the century New York. Butler’s novel foregrounds the complexity of the term ‘home’ in its opening sentence: ‘I lost an arm on my last trip home’, it begins, and it’s not until some way into the book that the reader begins to appreciate the difficulty of ascertaining which ‘home’ she refers to. Does she mean the house in Altadena, California, into which she and her husband were moving at the time of her first experience of time travel? Or does she mean the slave-owner’s house in Maryland to which she is repeatedly transported, and which she and her husband problematically begin to think of as ‘home’ in the course of their adventures? The Maryland house is more tightly bound up with Dana’s family history than the Californian house is, and when Kevin too gets taken back in time and forced to live there for several years he has appalling difficulty in readjusting to the twentieth-century environment on his return. More drastically, Dana’s experience as a slave teaches her that she must find a home for herself in the slavers’ house if she is to survive there at all. Dragged repeatedly to it by the mysterious link between herself and the son of its owner, Rufus – whose unusual name recalls the black central character of James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), thus underlining the kinship between the white boy and the black narrator which is gestured at in Butler’s title – Dana needs to build lasting alliances with her fellow slaves as well as with the child as a means of protecting herself from the cultural isolation that would inevitably destroy her. Her recognition of the need to make herself at home, so to speak, also drives home to her the devastating consequences for slaves of being sold away from the home they have been born into – the fate of ‘Po’ Sandy’s’ first wife in Chesnutt’s story. Two such sales of slaves who leave family behind lead to deadly confrontations between Dana and Rufus, and the only clue she finds at the end of the novel as to the fate of the slaves she met in the previous century occurs in a list of slaves put up for sale on the death of their owner. Home, then, for a slave, is a place to be clung to and cultivated as well as to escape from, and the contradictions built into it are summed up in the way Dana’s arm gets bound up with the wall of her twentieth-century home at the beginning and end of the novel – both making her part of the building, like Chesnutt’s Sandy, and inflicting terrible pain.

Language, then – written or spoken – is the first source of difficulty for the writer of African American history. A casual reference to the building of a country can become an act of complicity with the slavery that made it possible. The word ‘home’, often seen as cognate with ‘nation’ or ‘country’, becomes loaded with unwelcome connotations. The same is true of the reference to kinship in Butler’s title. We have already seen how the plantations used familial titles to naturalise the possession of human beings: Uncle Remus, Uncle Julius, in this book Aunt Sarah. Unsettlingly, these titles sometimes identified concealed or even flagrant familial relationships between black slaves and their white owners. The most disturbing aspect of Dana’s journey into her family history, as she is hauled back in time by a series of crises in the life of one of her ancestors, is the discovery that she is related to the slave-owners as well as the slaves of the early nineteenth century. She finds this out because of the boy Rufus’s surname: an unusual one which has been inscribed in the list of her ancestors recorded in the only book handed down by her family, ‘a large Bible in an ornately carved, wooden chest’. Rufus Weylin is set down alongside Alice Weylin as parents of Hagar Weylin, the woman who bought that Bible and began that list; and as soon as Dana recognizes Rufus as her ancestor the nature of his connection with her family, as recorded in the list, becomes problematic. It is inscribed alongside the name of a black woman, Alice Greenwood, who is Rufus’s childhood friend; and when Dana begins to think about the eight-year-old Rufus and his potential future wife, she begins to find the familiar names fraught with unexpected difficulties: ‘Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage? And why hadn’t someone in my family mentioned that Rufus Weylin was white?’ In nineteenth-century Maryland the word ‘marriage’ as applied to a bond between a white man and a black woman – and marriage of some sort if implicit in the fact that Alice Greenwood has, in the list, assumed Rufus’s surname as well as her own – is barely possible. The plain words mask a story of rape, enslavement, abuse and eventual suicide in which Dana finds herself a player against her will; an inadvertent pimp, so to speak, between her ancestral parents; an accomplice to sexual violence. Home, marriage, kindred, family history – all the words that help to make Dana who she is are thrown into confusion, and the way she understands herself and her place in the world is radically changed as a result.

As it turns out, the family Bible also provides testimony (or a testament) to Dana’s link with another white inhabitant of the boy’s household: his mother, Margaret Weylin, a frustrated and abused woman who takes exception to Dana as soon as she meets her, in part at least because she can read so much better than she can, despite her inferior status as a domestic slave. Later in the book, when Margaret Weylin suffers a physical and mental breakdown, she conceives a passion for the scriptures and becomes reconciled to Dana, asking her to read from the Bible daily to her as if to cement the unwelcome connection between them by a still more unwelcome intimacy. In the process the good book becomes a mark of ownership; Dana has no choice but to read it when she’s ordered to do so. If words are difficult, slippery things when considered in relation to history, then so is the Word, the divine scripture that gave Margaret’s granddaughter Hagar her name. After all, Hagar was the slave of Abraham before she became his wife, and thus testifies to the complicity of the dominant American religion with the system of bondage in which she was born.

Many commentators have pointed out the plainness and lucidity of Butler’s prose style; but her narrative of tangled relationships and disconcerting connections makes every word complex. More than this, it invests every word with a devastating forcefulness by virtue of its deployment in a narrative that literally brings home the horrors of the past. The Bible, the Word of God, begins as a receptacle where the words that define Dana’s family are recorded. It becomes a token of the link between Dana and Margaret – a link that is defined both by their kinship and by their status as mistress and slave. And it ends as a vehicle for Dana’s grief when Alice Greenwood Weylin commits suicide to escape from her abusive relationship with Rufus, its words brought to life for the first time since her childhood by her new understanding of the pain they articulate:

The minister was literate. He held a Bible in his huge hands and read from Job and Ecclesiastes until I could hardly stand to listen. I had shrugged off my aunt and uncle’s strict Baptist teachings years before. But even now, especially now, the bitter melancholy words of Job could still reach me. ‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not…’

Reading Kindred is, then, a learning process, for us as for Dana. We learn to read the world afresh both through the act of reading it and through the effect of the many other acts of reading that fill its pages. Most remarkably, reading and writing in it become matters of life and death. Each time Dana finds herself hurled into the past by some mysterious agency whose nature we never find out, she is confronted by a situation in which Rufus’s life is in danger: he is drowning in a river, he has fallen from a tree, his room has caught fire, he is being beaten to death, he is dangerously sick or suicidal. Metaphorically speaking, she must read the situation as fast as she can in order to save him – and not just Rufus but her entire lineage as inscribed in the list, including herself, since she will not be born if the boy should die before he fathers Hagar.

Literal reading, too, and its corollary the study of words, gains a new urgency from Dana’s relationship with Rufus. When they first meet she begins to believe that she can educate him, that he can learn from her, acquiring some of the more enlightened attitudes of her generation and thus helping to alleviate some of the suffering he will otherwise inflict. She tries to dissuade him from using offensive terms for black people like herself; to teach him to read and thus open his mind to other ways of living; to encourage him to respect other African Americans as he respects her. But her efforts at pedagogy find themselves countered by an appalling alternative education, whose force makes itself increasingly felt with every visit. Like the slaves on his father’s plantation, the boy’s mind has been shaped by violence: his father’s violence to the slaves and him, as he was growing up; his own verbal violence to his mother Margaret; the acts of violence he is exposed to in the daily running of the plantation and the wider slaving community. Even what she reads him is full of images of slavery, like the Bible: Robinson Crusoe, which begins in a slave ship and ends with a relationship between Crusoe and Friday which looks very much like that of master to slave; Gulliver’s Travels, with its representation of the Yahoos as worthy slaves to the wiser Houyhnhms; The Pilgrim’s Progress, in which the protagonist Christian seeks deliverance from the slavery of sin. And as well as teaching him – he is a very slow learner – Dana is forced, at her own slow pace, to learn from Rufus: to undergo a crash course in that violent alternative education that shapes him alongside her own. The final lesson she learns in this tough school is to take his life: to stab him with a knife she carries when he tries to rape her. Before meeting Rufus she could never have done this; and there are many occasions in the course of her visits when she fails to do it or resists the urge. By the end of the book, however, he has learned to write and she has learned to kill; the pen and the blade have discovered a kinship as toxic and ineradicable as Dana’s kinship with young Rufus and Alice, her other ancestor, whom he rapes, enslaves and finally drives to self-destruction.

Writing and reading, as practised by slaves in the nineteenth century, are acts of defiance. These skills give the captive power: the power to write their own destiny by recording their thoughts and reading the subversive thoughts of others, or by forging a pass that will help them escape to freedom. This power must be countered by the owners with another kind of writing: the marks on a human body of the slaver’s whip, which impart knowledge to their recipients, knowledge of the system in which they are trapped and a deep-seated sense of their own entrapment. Teaching a black boy to read earns Dana her first whipping, and as she receives it from the boy’s owner, Rufus’s father, he ‘curses and lectures’ like an angry schoolmaster. Dana faints under his lashes and is transported home to California; and by this time in the story we know that this only happens when she thinks she’ll die. Later, however, she learns more about whipping; it’s not such a crude or merciful measure as she thought at first. No intelligent owner, she finds, would kill a valuable slave with his blows if he can help it; and the discovery means that next time she’s whipped (after an attempted escape) she remains where she is, a slave in Maryland. The second whipping is embedded in the vocabulary of knowledge through pain, pitched directly against the vocabulary of learning. ‘Educated nigger don’t mean smart nigger, do it?’ says Rufus’s father, commenting on Dana’s ineffectual efforts to run away. ‘You’re going to get the cowhide,’ Rufus then tells her, ‘You know that’ – and at this point she realises that she ‘hadn’t known’, that the young man’s gentleness had led her to think he would let her off lightly. She knows more than she wants to, however, about the function of cowhide. As Rufus’s father beats her,

I tried to believe he was going to kill me. I said it aloud, screamed it, and the blows seemed to emphasize my words. He would kill me. Surely, he would kill me if I didn’t get away, save myself, go home!

It didn’t work. This was only punishment, and I knew it.

She has, in other words, learned her lesson; she has taken another step towards becoming a naturalised citizen of a slave state. Her literacy in the ways of violence keeps her away from her own time and place, preventing her from finding escape in the fear of death that would send her home, barring her from the art of writing by which she defined herself in modern California. One knowledge drives out or supplants another, and she spends the rest of the book seeking desperately to win back her identity as a writer, and with it what she increasingly identifies as her life.

In her own time, Dana’s talent for writing helps her forge a community: the miniature community of husband and wife and their potential offspring, the family of the future as against the family inscribed in the Bible and thus embedded in the past. Both she and her husband Kevin are professional writers, and their capacity for writing – and for the meticulous research which is everywhere apparent in Butler’s novel, the quest for truth in other writers’ texts – is both part of what draws them together in the first place and part of what enables them to imagine a future for themselves which departs from the cyclical entrapments of a traumatic history. The temerity of their decision to live by writing is signalled by the fact that they meet in a factory, where they are forced to work because they can’t make a living from their pens. The temerity of their decision to become partners in the 1970s is signalled by the fact that they are both disowned by their nearest relatives when they get together. But a living can be made from the pen with sufficient commitment, just as a new family can be formed by a meeting of minds and bodies against all odds. The new home into which they move is proof of this; they buy it together with the proceeds of Kevin’s most successful book. Living in it, though, once they have bought it, is not so easy. The fact that it’s Kevin who bought it – the straight white male in their relationship – suggests that it doesn’t yet belong to both of them equally when they move in. Kevin finds it hard to write there, even before the first time travelling episode. And it’s while unpacking books, the tools of their trade, that Dana first gets hurled into the past, as if to show that the words they use, the knowledge they draw on, the possibilities they imagine for the future, remain interwoven with unresolved issues from the past which must be confronted before the future can begin. In the course of her adventures, Dana’s marriage becomes a kind of utopia, the one possibility she clings to of a brighter future when her troubles and travels are over. The serious business of making it properly utopian, however, must be deferred till the time travel ends – and hence till after the end of Butler’s book.

Which brings us back to fantasy fiction, and why Butler chose it as the vehicle for her tale, as against the science fiction with which she made her name.

Fantasy is often defined as the literature of the impossible: a kind of writing that takes as its starting point an acceptance on the part of the reader that she will choose to believe, throughout the act of reading, in events, people, things and places that could never exist in past or present or the conceivable future. This is where it doffers from science fiction, which is concerned with the possible – or rather takes as its premise the possibility that what it describes might really take place at some point in the future, or might have done in an alternative version of the universe we know. Possibility versus impossibility; this is the difference between SF and the fantastic. There is just one impossible thing in Butler’s book: the series of unexplained events that take Dana back from her own time, the 1970s, to the early nineteenth century. The rest of the book is a model of realism; the kind of realism that stresses the material necessities and practical difficulties with which it confronts its characters. Dana is always asking herself how to take objects and clothing with her when she leaps through time, how to alleviate the bodily and psychological damage she suffers in her beatings, how to persuade Rufus to supress his desire for her and think instead about his responsibilities to his slaves and his children. She simply has no time to wonder how she keeps making those leaps; there are too many more important things to consider.

At the same time, she keeps coming up against the impossibilities of slavery. Her leaps through time are each caused by the fact that she believes she is about to die, having reached the limits of what the human body can endure. As those limits get more extended, as her body learns to endure greater punishment, she is confronted with different impossibilities – psychological ones; above all, how to reconcile herself to the increasing ease with which she is adapting to the intolerable conditions in which she finds herself. She begins to choose to return to her time by committing suicide, again and again, in dreadful anticipation of the eventual suicide of her body double, her ancestor Alice. Ease itself becomes a problem for her, as it does for Kevin when he returns from his one extended trip to Maryland. ‘Everything is so soft here,’ he tells Dana, ‘so easy. […] It’s good. Hell, I wouldn’t go back to some of the pestholes I’ve lived in for pay. But still…’ Concealed behind that final ellipsis is the thought that ease is difficult for him, an uneasy nostalgia for the titanic efforts required of him from day to day in the past he’s left behind for ever. That ellipsis, in fact, represents the terrible possibility that he might by now feel more at home in the days of the slave trade than in the days of the automobile and the electric oven.

Ease, in fact, is what finally drives Dana to kill Rufus in self-defence. The brilliance of Butler’s portrait of this slave-owner, abuser and rapist is how strangely attractive she makes him seem – largely, perhaps, because we’ve seen every detail of how he was made into what he is, but also because of his awkward fusion of kindness and cruelty, aggression and thwarted affection. At the point when he’s about to rape her Dana is suddenly struck by the fact that she could partially consent; that she could become his slave mistress, bear his children, integrate once and for all into his perverse pastiche of a loving family; after all, she is already ‘Aunt Dana’ to his son by Alice.:

He lay with his head on my shoulder, his left arm around me, his right hand holding my hand, and slowly, I realised how easy it would be for me to continue to be still and forgive him even this. So easy, in spite of all my talk. But it would be so hard to raise the knife, drive it into the flesh I had saved so many times. So hard to kill…

If the whip represents the pen of the slaver then the knife could be said to represent one of the pens available to the slave: a pen whose use involves automatic self-destruction, but which also writes freedom in death for those who choose to wield it. For Dana, imminent death is a key to life – it will take her ‘home’; yet killing remains the difficult option. When Kevin tried to persuade her it was necessary, back in California, he couldn’t even utter the word. The easy option is the happy ending, Tolkien’s eucatastrophe; a false reconciliation which is embodied in the parody of an affectionate embrace described in the passage. Dana’s decision to use the knife instead is not a triumph; it is, like Tenie’s decision to transform ‘Po’ Sandy’ into a tree, the counsel of desperation. It’s a refusal of something that had once seemed impossible, but has somehow made itself possible in the course of Dana’s adventures. It’s an acknowledgment that simple happy endings, too, are impossible, like utopias; they exist no place, and the best we can do to achieve them is to reject the grim alternatives when we have power to do so.

The end of Kindred is a series of ellipses, of gaps in the narrative. Dana never finds out the fate of most of her friends from the nineteenth century, never learns what became of her ancestors Hagar and Joe, Alice’s children by the rapist Rufus. At the end of the book, as at the beginning, she knows only their names, although she can conjecture some of the paths they might have taken on the long road to liberty. But her quest to bring them to life – through her dealings with Rufus, through her writing of the novel – have made the past immeasurably closer for her readers. Immeasurably closer, and a lot less easy.

Celtic Fantasy and War: Patricia Lynch and William Croft Dickinson

[I started thinking about Celtic Fantasy in May, when Geraldine Parsons invited me to take part in a Round Table on the subject with herself and Thomas Clancy at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies here in Glasgow. The event is elegantly summarised by Megan Kasten here; but I went on thinking about Fantasy and Celticity, and turned my thoughts into a keynote for the CRSF Conference at the University of Liverpool last week. This, then, is the keynote, with thanks to Geraldine for getting me started on it and to Will Slocombe, Beata Gubacsi, Tom Kewin and the CRSF organising committee for the invitation to give it, and for making the conference such a supportive environment to deliver it in. I should also apologise profusely to the courteous Irish scholars who suffered in silence through my dreadful mispronunciations of their beautiful language. I should have asked Geraldine for lessons beforehand. I’ll know better next time.]

Cover Illustration by Pauline Baynes

In her recent book Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy (Palgrave 2017) Dimitra Fimi identifies what she calls the desire for ‘Celticity’ as rooted in myth: the fantasy of a sophisticated shared culture that once extended across much of Europe, and whose traces can still be found in the customs, character and conversation of the Welsh and Irish people and their diasporic relatives across the world. According to this myth, in ancient times Celtic culture differed from the culture of the Roman Empire in much the same way as modern Celts differ from the English and Anglo-American colonists who inherited the Roman imperial mantle: it was ‘spiritual, natural, emotional, artistic, rural, and timeless’, where the colonists favoured materialism, rationalism, and restraint, qualities perceived as underpinning the rapid spread of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The association of Celticity with emotion, spirit and nature aligns it with the literary genre now known as fantasy: the art of the impossible, which seeks to liberate itself from the Anglo-Roman espousal of rationalism by imagining people, events and things that violate the laws of physics or biology. The impulse to fantasy arose at a point when those laws were being systematically formulated by the Enlightenment, manifesting itself in the uncanny narratives of Gothic fiction, the dreamlands of Romantic poetry and the earthy tricksiness of the folk tale, and attaching itself to revolutionary and nationalist movements even as those movements appealed to reason as the basis for a reconstruction of stagnant old societies along radical new lines. Celtic fantasy found its most potent manifestation in the Irish literary revival, whose championing of medieval Irish literature and folktale supplied the soundtrack, so to speak, for the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence four years later. In Ireland, the dream of a Celtic past as expressed through stories helped, in its own small way, to spark a revolution. That’s more than can be said for most literary movements, and itself identifies Celtic fantasy, even in its humblest manifestations (the ballad, the folk tale, the bedtime story for children) as well worth thinking about.

Capital from The Book of Kells

In this post I’d like to focus on the question of how Celtic fantasy written for children engaged with politics in the decades before the subgenre really took off in the 1960s. My chosen texts have been left out of most accounts of the rise of Celtic fantasy, since they come too early to fit into the established timeline for the movement’s emergence. One of these novels is from Ireland, the other from Scotland, and both were written in times of crisis – though it’s hard to think of any decade of the twentieth century that wasn’t a time of crisis in one way or another. To be specific, both can be read as responses to war, and both concern themselves with the traces of war in the psychological, cultural and physical landscapes of the authors’ nations. They are Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey (1934) and William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944); and between them they provide a number of valuable insights into what Fimi might describe as the impulse to Celticity, in children’s fiction and elsewhere.

Both books bear a striking resemblance to the debut novel of the most celebrated writer of Celtic fantasy for children: Alan Garner, whose novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen came out in 1960, sixteen years after Borrobil. In all three books two children, a boy and a girl, find their way into the Celtic past, where they get caught up in events that have a profound effect on their country’s history. In each case they encounter one or more guides who help them understand the culture they find themselves in; in each case the Celtic past proves to be much more complex than they might have expected; and in each case their journey from past to present involves an intimate encounter with some striking geographical feature (Garner’s Alderley Edge, the prehistoric monuments of Dickinson’s Scotland, the Irish boglands in Lynch). Dickinson’s novel shares with Garner’s the detail that the young female protagonist carries with her into the past a talismanic stone, which plays a crucial role in ensuring the outcome of the narrative. In The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, too, talismanic objects get carried and exchanged between the Celtic otherworld and the everyday present, most notably a magic shamrock. And Lynch’s novel also shares with Weirdstone a sense of unease at certain implications of the confrontation it enacts between the Celtic past and the globalized present. It’s not necessary, I think, to assume that Garner had read the earlier novels, but they prove that Celtic fantasy was alive and well, and being used for serious purposes in children’s fiction, long before Colin and Susan first set eyes on the sleeping knights of Fundindelve.

Patricia Lynch

The first of my texts, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey, emerged from a background of political activism. Its author threw in her lot at an early age with the conjoined struggles for women’s suffrage and a modern, independent, socialist Ireland. At eighteen she was sent as a correspondent by Sylvia Pankhurst’s paper, The Women’s Dreadnought, to cover the Easter Rising of 1916. In 1922 she married the English historian Richard Fox, who had just returned from a visit to the newly-founded Soviet Union and who was building a formidable reputation as a radical thinker (in the later 1920s his books were published by the Hogarth Press). The couple moved to Dublin, where Fox wrote books about Irish women rebels (published the year after The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey), the Citizen Army, and two prominent members of the Labour movement in Ireland, Jim Larkin and James Connolly. Lynch meanwhile began to write children’s fiction, beginning with The Green Dragon in 1925, and becoming the most influential Irish writer for children of the twentieth century. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey is richly infused with the couple’s passion for international socialism, as well as with Lynch’s feminism, and with the conviction that both these movements had a natural affinity with Irish culture and history – that their roots reached deep into Irish soil, quite literally speaking given the book’s emphasis on the boglands of the West. It’s also interestingly choosy about the elements of ancient Irish culture that should be accommodated into twentieth-century Irish identity. Celticity, it suggests, must be mixed with a strong strain of modernity if Ireland is to fulfil its potential as an independent nation.

The Happy March from The Crock of Gold

Lynch’s debt to another Irish socialist fantasy writer is everywhere obvious in this novel. I’m thinking of James Stephens, whose The Crock of Gold (1912) harnessed ancient Irish myth in the services of a radical vision for an independent, egalitarian Ireland. Lynch’s child protagonists inhabit a landscape which, like Stephens’s, contains forceful women, tricky leprechauns, intelligent animals, travellers who abide by strict laws of their own and have a passion for stories, roads with a personality of their own, and figures from ancient Irish literature and legend. The brother of the novel’s heroine is even named Seamus, recalling the young boy from a series of celebrated stories by James Stephens published in 1915 as The Adventures of Seumas Beg (Seamus was also one of Stephens’s many pseudonyms). The Crock of Gold ends with an act of liberation in which the story’s heroine, Caitlin ni Murrachu, joins with the medieval hero Angus Og and the hosts of the Sidhe to free the Irish people from enslavement by capitalist imperialism. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey culminates in a more tentative vision that seeks to establish continuity between the Celtic past and a socialist Irish future in a gesture of reconciliation aimed at administering imaginative balm to the wounds inflicted by the Civil War of 1922-3. Lynch’s is an optimistic book but not a glib one, and provides a joyful antidote to the satirical revision of Stephens’s novel undertaken by Flann O’Brien in his bleak surrealist masterpiece The Third Policeman (c. 1940).

The political resonance of The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey can be best appreciated, I think, by turning to the report Lynch wrote for The Women’s Dreadnought about the Easter Rising. The report, ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’, was prefaced by some thoughts on Easter Week penned by Sylvia Pankhurst herself, who identifies the Celtic nations of the Western Archipelago as instinctively more progressive than their powerful neighbour, ‘slow-moving England […] who, with her strong vested interests and larger population, is always the predominant partner in the British Isles’. Pankhurst clearly sees what she calls ‘the Celtic temperament’ in the terms assigned by Fimi to Celticity: spiritual, emotional and artistic, concepts combined in her account of ‘the dream of so many ardent lovers of Ireland to make of her an independent paradise of free people, a little republic, famous, not for its brute strength, but for its happiness and culture, something unique in all the world’. Against this utopian dream Pankhurst sets the scenes of desolation reported from Dublin: not just the carnage caused by the savage military suppression of the Rising, but the desperate poverty of ‘tenement dwellings […] crowded with poor, ill-clad people’ which still stood as a physical rebuke to British rule in Ireland, and which were described in such vivid detail by James Stephens in his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). More significantly for Lynch’s development as a novelist, Pankhurst wrote of the plight of rural people in the West of Ireland, living in ‘hovels’ on ‘strips of undrained, stony ground’, earning a few shillings a week for making lace and with illiterate children ‘kept at home to help with this wretchedly paid work’ of lacemaking, whose returns were falling year on year despite government assurances to the contrary. Like most of Lynch’s novels, The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey locates itself in rural Ireland, and involves the reconstruction of one such hovel along better principles thanks to an unexpected windfall provided by a grateful leprechaun. The woman who lives in the cottage makes lace to a standard her children are deeply proud of. The children help their parents with their work, but the young girl also reads about Irish history as if with the specific intention of reconstructing Ireland on the ruins of a sometimes heroic, sometimes catastrophic past, and eventually brings the past into the present, quite literally, in the form of a Celtic hero from her favourite history book. The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey could almost have been written as a direct response to Pankhurst’s description of the appalling living and working conditions in rural Ireland that helped to provoke the Easter Rising.

Women of the Easter Rising

Lynch’s ‘Scenes from the Rebellion’ differs from the celebrated eyewitness account by James Stephens – The Insurrection in Dublin ­– in its concentration on women’s experiences. All the witnesses whose interviews Lynch reports are women, and her particular interest in the material impact of the conflict on the ‘women’s problem’ of running a household is everywhere obvious. The women she spoke to were predominantly working class: a ‘pale-faced, haggard-eyed waitress’, whose sweetheart is in prison facing execution; a charwoman whose home came under fire by the British army; another domestic servant whose two-roomed flat was blown up by the military; a girl whose brothers are fighting on opposite sides, one at the front in Fanders, the other in the Irish Volunteers; a woman who knows first aid and has tried to help, first a British soldier, then a dying ‘Sinn Feiner, barely 12 years old’, who was wounded in the head so that ‘his brains were showing’. The same first aider witnessed the meeting between a dying woman, whom she carried into a nursing home, and her injured young daughter. Elsewhere Lynch writes of a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for the crime of being ‘out walking’ with a non-combatant member of Sinn Fein. In Lynch’s Rising, women and children are the chief casualties of the chaos of what she represents as a civil conflict, with Irish citizens – sometimes members of the same family – on both sides.

James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin blamed the Rising on a catastrophic failure of imagination on the part of the British: a refusal to see things from the Irish point of view or to try to understand the psychological impact of putting down the insurrection with extreme force. Lynch clearly shared his views. At the end of her report she speaks of the Irish capacity for remembering significant historical events – embodied in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey by young Eileen, who reads her history book so intensely that its characters come alive – and warns that the British actions in Dublin will not be forgotten. ‘Will the English government never learn?’ she concludes.

It can only suppress revolt by appealing to the imagination of the Irish. If not one leader had been shot, if clemency, toleration had been the order, the rebellion would indeed have been at an end. We cannot resist kindness, we can never endure oppression.

A heroic girl marrying her lover on the morning of his execution; a beautiful countess giving up the advantages of her position to live with the working people and if necessary to die with them; these strike the imagination of a race of poets and idealists.

For Lynch, central to the images of the Rising embedded in the Irish collective memory are representations of two women, Grace Gifford and Constance Markievicz, the latter of whom took active part in the fighting – a fact perhaps commemorated in The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey when little Eileen gets caught up in the fighting between the Tuatha Dé Dannan and the Fir Bolg at the First Battle of Maighe Tuireadh. Eileen, however, is more concerned to avoid hurting anybody with her spear – apart from one aggressive boy she strikes in self-defence – than to use it in anger, and is instrumental in establishing peace between the Tuatha Dé and the Fir Bolg. Her experience of conflict in Celtic times is profoundly disturbing to her, like Lynch’s of the Insurrection, and it’s the peacetime accomplishments of the Tuatha Dé that she admires – the cities they build, the magic they weave – rather than their martial prowess.

The Magic Pool, illustration by Jack Yeats

Eileen, in fact, resists the narrative logic of Celtic literature and folktale as much as she embraces it. As in the folktales, her and Seamus’s kindness to animals is duly rewarded: the novel’s title commemorates their rescue of a beaten donkey, who turns out to have magical powers and takes them to a pool on the flat-topped mountain near their home where they can see anything they care to; but the children can’t agree on what they want to see in it, and its resources are never put to significant use. Later the children meet a leprechaun, which Seamus catches for the usual purpose of forcing him to surrender his crock of gold; but the boy lets him go again by mistake, and when Eileen befriends the leprechaun by finding and returning his shoemaking hammer this turns out to be of greater practical use than violence, since he both mends her shoes in return and supports the children in their later adventures. Subsequent encounters with the magical past are equally ambiguous about the value of traditional means of acquiring money, fame and power. When Seamus gets kidnapped by an eagle and enslaved by the Wise Woman of Youghal – who wants access to the magic enclosed in a four-leaved clover sent to the children by their beloved Aunt Una – Eileen has to rescue him in a toy plane, with somewhat inadequate assistance from the leprechaun, miscellaneous birds and beasts, and a pilot dressed all in silver. Eileen’s rescue, then, embodies both collectivism and a rather fragile version of modernity (the toy plane is flimsy, being made of cardboard, and the pilot eccentric and irascible), as against the imperialist symbolism of the eagle or the Wise Woman’s quest for an unshared, undemocratic power obtained through the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland past and to come. By this stage in the story, Lynch’s young protagonists have come to embody the struggle between competing versions of Irish identity, with Eileen the champion of a progressive model of relations between classes, genders, and the environment, while Seamus is constantly tempted to replicate the aggressive actions and selfish motives of his ancestors – though his affection for his sister always redeems him in the end.

Eileen’s possession of a toy plane should alert us to the way Lynch likes to reverse traditional gender expectations. Not only does this girl come to the rescue of her elder brother, but she does it with the help of a toy he would like to have owned himself (‘That’s what I wanted!’ he tells her when she carries it out of the shop). Later Seamus gets equally annoyed with his sister when she gets too caught up in her reading to play with her dolls, so that he has no excuse to join in with her games in direct contradiction of his stated belief that dolls are ‘silly, babyish things’ and that he is ‘surprised at Eileen bothering with them’. In any case, Eileen’s dolls don’t get used for conventional purposes: she never nurses or makes clothes for them, but pins ‘gay pieces of stuff around them, turning a Dutch doll into a gipsy, and a sailor into a Red Indian or a pirate’; she even allows her brother to stalk them with his bow and arrows so long as he never hits them. Clearly Eileen is as international in her outlook as Lynch herself was, and as addicted to roving either in real life or in her imagination (at one point in the novel she runs off to join the real-life gipsies, though she finds looking after their babies deeply disenchanting). She is no more entrapped in traditional household roles or ways of thinking than the characters in the books she reads are trapped in the past – or than her parents are trapped in a shoddy cottage (they rebuild their home from scratch at the end of chapter 3).

The past, then, is never sentimentalized in Lynch’s fiction – any more than the relationship between the brother and sister is sentimentalized (Eileen runs away to join the gipsies after squabbling with Seamus). Ireland past and present is a place of divided cultures, often at war with one another in words or deeds. People inhabit different dwellings depending on their work and culture: the tinkers live in the carts from which they sell their wares, Tim Quinlan the road-mender in his mobile shelter, Captain Cassidy on his barge, the gipsies in their immaculate caravans, the turf-cutter and his family in their cottage at the edge of the bog where the turf gets cut – and each of these dwellings is on the move, including the cottage, which gets rebuilt. The gipsies and the tinkers are at odds (‘When you go back to your own people,’ the Tinker Chief tells Eileen, ‘you’ll tell them how much better than the gipsies the tinkers are’), though Eileen at first finds both communities equally intimidating – just as she is terrified of being caught on the barge by Captain Cassidy, or in the fair by the showman who chases her when she releases one of his human exhibits. And when the children make their way into the past by magic, they find it full of rival peoples at once as alluring and intimidating, as foreign and familiar as the diverse communities of modern Ireland.

Finn

Their first encounter with the past features the hero Finn and the warriors of the Fianna, whom they meet on the same flat-topped mountain where the donkey showed them the magic pool. This encounter goes badly: Eileen makes a fool of herself by posing as a princess, and when Seamus asks to join the Fianna he is set a number of tasks he cannot possibly perform (‘If you were put in a hole with a shield and a stick,’ they tell him, ‘you must be able to defend yourself against nine warriors’). Keeping hold of the past, too, proves a problem for the modern visitors: solid objects such as trees and spears are always melting away and the whole scene eventually vanishes when Seamus disobeys an order. There’s a cultural and physical gap between the fabulous attainments of the past and the youthful exuberance of the present, and Seamus can only promise to practise hard at fighting, jumping and running in an effort to bridge it.

The second encounter with the Celtic past goes better, at least at first. One of the ancient inhabitants of Ireland escapes from Eileen’s history book and she makes friends with him, forging an alliance which is a mutual embracing of difference. The stone-age visitor, a ‘little dark man’, is mistaken at first by the girl’s contemporaries for a thieving vagrant – a tinker or a gipsy – before being captured and put on show as an African ‘savage’ who ‘eats raw meat and swallows lighted candles’. Eileen’s urge, then, to befriend him and hear him tell stories seems initially to be an extension of her unusual interest in strange cultures, as manifested elsewhere in her games of Red Indians and her flight to join the gipsies. But the apparent differences between Eileen and the little dark man mask a deeper kinship. When they magically enter the history book he escaped from she finds that he is in fact a hero of old Ireland named Sreng, which means, as she points out, that that they are effectively related: ‘You see, we all belong here just as you do, only we live in a different time’. Through the ages Ireland has nurtured a range of populations as physically and culturally diverse as that of the globe, and recognition of its diversity leads naturally to the sense of kinship with men and women of all races and classes which Eileen displays throughout the novel.

Sreng

At least, it should lead to such a sense of kinship. Instead, this second encounter with the Celtic past turns sour, much like the first. Sreng’s people the Fir Bolg prefer fighting to making friends, and one of the Fir Bolg boys takes violently against Eileen – symbolically enough, because she prevents him from killing the Salmon of Wisdom. Meanwhile the Fir Bolg Chief decides to wage war against a new wave of Celts who have arrived in Ireland: the Danaans, as Lynch calls them – the Tuatha Dé – who build cities of stone, wield lightweight metal weapons, and wear brightly-coloured clothes and intricate jewelry. The episode culminates in a battle involving three kinds of Irish people – the Fir Bolg, the Danaans and the two modern children – which ends not in heroic deeds (in the ancient texts Sreng strikes off the arm of Nuada, King of the Danaans) but chaos and confusion, much like the chaos of the Easter Rising as Lynch describes it. Eileen loses her spear and finds herself stranded behind enemy lines, where she ‘covered her eyes to shut out the sight of warriors cutting and stabbing, but […] could not shut her ears to the cries of pain and anger’. The Fir Bolg chief is killed, the aggressive boy traumatized, and the children flee with the wounded hero Sreng back to their own time, leaving ‘something of the present’ behind them in exchange (a pencil and a handkerchief, which they stuff into a hollow tree trunk). Impressive though the city of the Danaans was, when they set eyes again on the ‘whitewashed cabin at the edge of the bog […] in all the wonderful past they had not seen anything more lovely’. The Celtic past is not to be privileged, for Lynch, above the present and future; they are enmeshed in one another, and the most precious element of each is a commitment to the arts of peace.

Above all, the Celtic past doesn’t wield any cultural or moral authority over the present in Lynch’s novel. This is largely because its values – such as the celebration of martial prowess and the corresponding elevation of men over women in the social hierarchy – make it problematic as a model for modern life. Farah Mendlesohn has argued in Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008) that the characters in ‘portal quest fantasies’ like this one – people who pass through a magical door or along an invisible road into an unfamiliar country – invariably require a guide to teach them how to behave and what to think about the things they’re seeing, such as Puck in Rewards and Fairies or Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For her, this makes the portal quest fantasy a fundamentally conservative genre. In a more recent book, Children’s Fantasy Literature (2016), she and Michael Levy summarize the 1930s as a decade of relative conservatism in children’s fiction, when protagonists must learn obedience at the hands of their adult instructors, and when fantasy novels are full of servile animated toys whose desire to please their owners reflects the dominant ideology of the mid-twentieth century. Lynch’s novel bucks both these trends. Eileen and Seamus have guides aplenty: the leprechaun, the ‘little dark man’ Sreng, a mysterious Man in Brown who comes over the bog following an ancient road and takes them to meet the Fianna. But none of these guides overawes them, and the youngsters are as often inclined to ignore their advice as they are to take it. Eileen treats Sreng and the Man in Brown as her equals, and Seamus strives to emulate them, seeing only his age as a bar to matching their accomplishments. The children’s sense of equality arises from the qualities that make them capable of forging friendships with random strangers – the birds, beasts, supernatural creatures and people they meet on their adventures. The young siblings are brave and curious, and they like to learn, whether new stories or new physical skills. In addition, they treat each other as equals, despite the difference in their ages and sexes. And the people they like best from Celtic culture are the ones who share their egalitarian values, such as the Man in Brown, who respects and rewards good men and women of all classes who give him food and shelter; or Sreng, who oversees the ceasefire between his people and the Danaans, and who later refuses to be the new chief of the Fir Bolg because, as he puts it, he prefers ‘wandering, seeing strange people and countries, making new friends’. He, like Eileen, is an internationalist, and his instinct for reconciliation is as urgently needed in post-Civil War Ireland as it was in the days of the warring Celts.

Reconciliation is also the theme of our second text, William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944). This is hardly surprising given that it was published at the height of World War Two. Its author was the longest-serving incumbent of the Sir William Fraser Chair of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and the first Englishman to hold the post. A noted writer of ghost stories, he advanced the theory in his Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (1961) that the country’s fortunes were largely determined by its geography, a view that gets borne out in his debut novel.  Once again the story concerns a young brother and sister who find their way into the past, where they meet the jovial wizard of the title, whose constant cheerfulness, pointed hat with a feather in it, and habit of breaking into rhyme at every opportunity link him irresistibly to Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil. It’s tempting to imagine Dickinson may have known about Bombadil, who first appeared in a song in the 1930s – after all, he and Tolkien were fellow professors as well as fellow veterans of the Great War, and there are numerous hints in Borrobil that Dickinson had read The Hobbit (1937). Borrobil, however, concerns itself not with Middle Earth – an alternative England – but what is clearly Scotland, and in particular with the way the struggles of the past have left indelible traces on the Scottish landscape. Dickinson first told the story to his two young daughters, and one gets the impression he did so to reassure them that wars had come and gone across the land through successive generations, leaving no lasting damage, only strange remains: villages on stilts in the middle of lakes, hills with mysterious rings around them, barrows, stone circles, brochs and castles. His version of the Celtic past is the solution to the riddle posed by these remains, as well as a promise that the war will pass like a bout of bad weather, leaving only stories of courage and trickery behind it, and a few archaeological wonders which need the stories to bring them alive.

A Digestive Biscuit

In fact, the novel represents war as a kind of ritual, the human equivalent of the war between the seasons as this was celebrated in the half-forgotten Celtic festival of Beltane. The young protagonists, Donald and Jean – whose names mark them out as Scottish – already have some awareness of the procession of the seasons. Their adventures begin at harvest time, when the fields are full of haystacks to play in, and it’s hinted that they may even have taken part in the harvest: we learn in the second paragraph that they have come to the part of the country where the story takes place on an ‘extra’ holiday, a phrase often used in wartime to mean breaks from school to help with farm work. At the same time there’s something odd about the seasons as they experience them. The Beltane festival took place in Spring, around the first of May, while the main hay harvest happens in July, so the presence of Beltane fires at harvest time is something of an anomaly. It would seem, though, to be a deliberate one on Dickinson’s part, because one of the children takes with him into the past three digestive biscuits with wheat sheaves stamped on them, which he gives to the king of a land that has been ravaged for decades by a monstrous dragon. The king takes the wheat sheaf symbol as a sign that the dragon will be defeated and that harvests will be possible again, as they have not for as long as the dragon held sway over the fields and hills. Donald and Jean, then, stand for the return of new life to a depopulated kingdom, and carry intimations of both spring and harvest with them. One wonders if the disruption of the seasons is an allusion on Dickinson’s part to the disruptions of war, which are also hinted at by the allusion to the ‘extra’ holiday – a break in the timetable of school and home life forced on the British population by the need to provide themselves with food.

The Mysterious Wood

The country they find themselves in – like Lewis’s Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a book that’s also set in wartime – has been as badly damaged as the one they’ve left behind. The country’s ageing king is confined to his castle and a single town, built in the middle of a lake for protection from the flightless dragon – like Tolkien’s Laketown; while another lord in the North part of the kingdom is sick, like the Fisher King, and cannot personally lead his people against the Norse invaders who threaten their homes and families. Time, then, is held in suspension in this damaged country; death or suspended animation has dominion over it, and its rulers are confined and powerless. The children, on the other hand, are full of unbounded youthful energy, exemplified in their decision to visit a wood at night at the beginning of the story, and by the stream of questions they fire at the wizard Borrobil when they meet him. Borrobil tells them that they have travelled to the past by dancing in the stone circle ‘with summer joy’ at a time of year when summer and winter, life and death are held in suspension, and that this show of liveliness is what has taken them back to the ‘dead’ times to witness the battle between the Kings of Summer and Winter – or of Life and Death – in person. They disrupted time by their actions at Beltane, and they go back in time to see time reassert itself over a land that has lost it.

Broch

Once you first notice it, it’s clear that the disruption or loss of time is a key theme in the book. The dragon’s presence has caught the land in a perpetual cycle, marked by combat between a human hero and the monster every seven years. The children also hear about another king of that country, King Eochaid, a kind of Ossian figure, who is condemned by the King of the Fairies to keep riding on his horse until a white dog jumps down from his arms – which it never does. When the hero Morac kills the dragon he gains the gift of second sight by touching its hide with his lips – the gift, that is, of intermittent visions of the future – and thereby signals the recommencement of chronological change. Later in the story the children enter the fairy kingdom itself under strict injunctions to accept no gifts there; the penalty for doing so is to stay underground for ‘seven years and seven days’, and we already know from the story of King Eochaid that ‘one day in the fairy kingdom is one hundred years in the land of men’. The children keep finding themselves in situations where they lose track of space and time – most notably when they are walking along enclosed paths on the approach to the wood on Beltane Eve at the beginning of the story, and again in the mountains on the way to a meeting with the giant Grugol, and when they are imprisoned in the castle of the sorcerer Sulig (‘Had they been imprisoned here for ever?’ Donald wonders). Each time their emergence from these enclosed spaces signals a return to normal time, a wholesale reorientation under the guidance of their mentor Borrobil, who may lose them occasionally but is always at hand to come to the rescue – independence and agency not being such an attractive option for young readers, perhaps, in the middle of a global war.

Crannog

The most significant form of time in the novel, however, is what might be called story time; the binding together of different elements into a continuous narrative. Borrobil is a storyteller, and always makes sure he has time to tell a story no matter how urgent the business he is caught up in. This is where the Celtic context of the narrative comes to the fore. Scotland has no coherent interrelated body of Celtic texts as Ireland has, and this absence is reflected in the fact that Dickinson never names Scotland as the setting of his novel: one has to infer this from various clues, such as the presence in the landscape of crannogs, standing stones, long barrows and especially brochs, and from the Pictish names ‘Brude’ and ‘Giric’, as well as of the Men of Orc, who are clearly connected to Orkney. Dickinson provides this connecting narrative, linking features of the landscape – Giric’s underground house, the hills with rings round them, fairy rings, standing stones and brochs – to a continuous tale that makes sense of every unexplained phenomenon one might encounter on a stroll through the highlands and islands. I suggested earlier that he treats each feature as a kind of riddle – as with the explanation of the crannog by the presence in the neighbourhood of a dragon who cannot fly or swim, or of the hills with rings as having been caused by the death throes of the same dragon, which had wrapped its tail around them – and this tendency is also reflected in the shorter tales that crop up throughout the narrative. These are full of actual riddles in rhyme (all of them solved by Borrobil) and ingenious ruses performed by tricksters to escape seemingly impossible situations. For much of its length, then, the novel substitutes verbal combat – by riddle or ruse – for armed trail by combat; and even the spear- and swordfights it contains, from the killings of the dragon to the defeat of the invading Norsemen – are won by cunning rather than force. Like Lynch, Dickinson delights in wit and laughter rather than bloodshed, and his invented version of Celtic Scotland is populated by tale-tellers, jokers, singers, punsters and riddle-makers, who use brains instead of armies to defeat their enemies.

Ringed Hillfort

Like Lynch, too, Dickinson peoples his Celtic era with multiple coexisting cultures, in accordance with his views of Celtic Scotland as a historian. Giric is a Pict, and his barrow-like home and fondness for ‘the old customs and the old ways’ identifies him as from a different background from that of his fellow Pict, King Brude. The Men of Orc with their brochs have a different culture from the crannog-building peoples of southern Scotland; the hills are occupied by fairies and the sea by the murderous Blue Men; and it’s never quite clear what culture Borrobil belongs to. Through this diverse landscape of conflicting beliefs and customs Donald and Jean wander, finding a welcome wherever they go and witnessing the defeat of aggressors and invaders of all kinds by their cunning companions. For Dickinson and Lynch, Celticity at its best is a union of heterogeneous peoples, who love the arts – which in Dickinson’s case include the arts of constructing houses and monuments – and especially the ancient art from which their books have been cobbled together, that of telling stories. In both novels, stories come alive and inhabit the same space as their youthful listeners and readers; and in both novels the Celtic connections of the stories link them intimately to the land, with its peat bogs, mountains, lochs and mysterious roadways. Stories bring people of all cultures and ages together, bring the past and present into conversation, hold out the promise of a better future. Few books illustrate this promise better than Borrobil and The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey.