Paul Kearney’s new novel draws together a number of familiar threads in contemporary fantasy, but makes something new and beguiling out of them. The plucky heroine, Anna Francis – who turns twelve towards the end of the book and roams wild across the Oxford landscape – recalls Philip Pullman’s Lyra; except that she’s a Greek exile, with recurring memories of the Graeco-Turkish War of 1919-22 which engulfed her home city in flames, killing her mother and brother and sending her into exile with her troubled father in a chilly northern country. She’s not at home in Oxford as Pullman’s Lyra was, and is subjected to racist abuse by the hostile locals; the fact that she is home schooled also deprives her of Lyra’s motley network of friends. J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis – as Ronald and Jack – provide her with a welcome substitute for the company of her peers, but they compete for her attention with issues of politics, economics, gender, class and race that they largely ignored in their fantasies. Ancient conflicts emerge from the shadows in the course of the book, and Anna gets caught up in them much as Will Stanton does in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising; but they too seem to share in the complexity of British culture between the wars, making the clear moral division between Light and Dark impossible to maintain. Wytham Wood – the place that once inspired William Horwood to write epic stories about itinerant moles – here gets transformed into an outpost of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, full of shadowy monsters and half-forgotten perils. One gets the impression that Kearney has hugely enjoyed running themes and people from the books he loves up against the radical changes in social and political consciousness that have taken place since they were written.
It’s as much fun, then, spotting the ways this novel disrupts those older fantasies as picking out references to familiar elements in them. Kearney traces – and partly reinvents – the roots of Tolkien’s fascination with hobbits, Ents and skin-changers (such as Beorn in The Hobbit), as well as Lewis’s interest in portals between worlds, Greek myth of the kind he elaborated in Till We Have Faces, and the problems and possibilities of the Christian religion. Christianity finds itself in dialogue with older religions – much as it was in Tolkien’s beloved Beowulf – and there is a magnificently convincing representation of the old Archfiend, Satan himself, as a Holdstockian mythago, as much at home in the world of the pagan blacksmith Weyland as in the cosmic wanderings of the first two books of Paradise Lost. Herne the Hunter, who featured so memorably in The Dark is Rising, gets caught up here with Gowther Mossock of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and an archangel from either the Bible or Pullman’s His Dark Materials in a struggle for souls with this quasi-biblical damned spirit. What’s impressive about Kearney’s achievement is his success in combining so many disparate elements into a seamless new whole, the disparate threads that have gone into its composition barely noticeable until you’ve finished reading. For fantasy lovers this book combines the pleasures of the boardgame or the quiz with those of the thriller, the predictable with the surprising, and ends by leaving you with the hope that it’s just the start of something larger.
A neat example of Kearney’s method is his references to knives, which run through the text like a crimson thread from first to last, changing allegiance and signification with each appearance. Anna encounters one first on the rough common grasslands of Port Meadow, where travellers fight to a bloody denouement and suck her into a world where casual death by violence is as commonplace as it was rare in the imagined worlds of Oxford’s two most celebrated fantasists. Approaching the scene of the fight Anna wishes she had brought her knife – ‘a little Watts penknife Pa used to keep for scraping out his pipe’ – but it’s as much because this represents her only protector – her father – as for any practical use it might have had (‘I don’t think it’s big enough to cut a Turk’s throat,’ she tells herself, associating all dangers at this point with the people who destroyed her family). Already she’s conscious that knives may have two different functions – symbolic and practical – and that weapons in themselves are ineffectual if not suited to the task in hand (a ‘stupid little knife would be nothing’ to the swords and spears of the Homeric heroes, she tells herself later). But the knife that does the killing in Port Meadow demonstrates something else about weapons like these: that they can be double-edged, turning against their owners with fatal consequences. And not long afterwards her own knife gets used in transgressive acts: first to cut an opening to a part of the house her father doesn’t know about (‘Not a weapon, but a tool,’ she tells herself as she traces the edges of a hidden door that leads to the attic); and later still to perpetrate a second murder, then to expose it. This second death-by-stabbing teaches her that trusted friends can be double-edged too, turning against their companions with the kind of racially-motivated, casual cruelty that would come to characterize the new decade of the 1930s. The same little penknife reveals to Anna the kind of man her father was – a double-edged figure, very different from the melancholy Greek hero she idealized in her childhood (though this is something his occasional violence had already taught her). And at the end of the novel Anna uses it herself in an act of violence, a near mirror image of the one she witnessed on Port Meadow. All these developments confirm the impossibility of passing absolute judgement on any given action: the drawing of a knife, the drawing of blood, a bloody war between families or nations. And the centrality of the knife to Kearney’s narrative forges further links with folklore and fantasy: the second volume of His Dark Materials, for instance (The Subtle Knife), or the iron-shaping powers of Weyland the Smith, whose entry into ancient Britain announced the arrival of powerful strangers wielding weapons no weapon of bronze could hope to compete with. That’s a lot of symbolic weight to be packed into a single recurring image, and Kearney carries off the trick with real aplomb.
The aspect of the narrative that most clearly marks out its difference from the works of Lewis and Tolkien is its concern with the body. Kearney pays attention to many aspects of the body those men could never have brought themselves to mention: the need to relieve oneself at awkward moments, the effect of period pains on one’s efforts to effect a cross-country getaway, the impossibility of resisting the urge to blush, the problem of getting clean in a waterless wood, the necessity of cutting long hair when it gets too filthy to be washed or combed. Bodily changes are his subject; but where Lewis’s shape-shifters are invariably morally shifty – think of the werewolf in Prince Caspian – Kearney’s are neutral, tied in like the menstrual cycle to the changes of the moon, and so symptomatic of the role played by transitions in human experience. Lewis’s children in the Narnian chronicles ‘grew out’ of fantasy, learning to replace those allegorical representations of religious concepts with direct encounters with the concepts themselves. Kearney’s Anna finds instead that her fantastic encounters are directly tied in with the process of her own maturation. It’s her growth to adulthood that makes her useful to the ambiguous beings who inhabit the Oxfordshire woodlands. Constancy, in Kearney’s novel, is the property of dolls, not people, and Anna carries a reminder of this about with her throughout the book in the form of her own doll Pie: Pie is short for Penelope, the wife who stayed constant to Odysseus through all the years of his wanderings. Constancy is also the property of the dead, and Pie was given to Anna by her older brother, who died fighting the Turks. The centrality of change to the text is an implied critique of the ages-long constancy of Tolkien’s Elves and Ents, of Lewis’s Aslan. Even the most ancient communities in Kearney’s book are subject to change, dwindling in strength and potency as they drift though time – and each change of body the shapeshifters among them undergo robs them of vitality, changing their human bodies more swiftly than the ordinary ageing process. Changelessness as applied to mortals is a myth, and not a particularly helpful one in an age of such radical change as the twentieth century.
At the same time, the book shares with Lewis, Tolkien and other British-based fantasists a deep delight in the English countryside – a delight which is most fully felt by his Greek protagonist (and Lewis, who felt it too, reminds Anna that he is an Ulsterman, and so understands her sense of exile). Kearney’s depiction of snow recalls Lewis’s account of it in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. His evocation of the Berkshire downs rivals Garner’s of Alderley Edge for the pleasure it takes in rendering the familiar contours of the land mysterious. His Wytham Wood echoes the Wild Wood of The Wind in the Willows, another British fantasy he references, this time through Anna’s passion for the books of Graham and Nesbit. Like Tolkien’s, his characters lament the rapidity of the changes that are stripping such woods from the landscapes of Britain, Europe, the world. There will come a time, one of them predicts, when all will be gone. Then books like these will be the imaginative scars that mark the places where the woods once grew – like the scars that her adventures leave on Anna’s body, or the scars left by her lost loved ones on her mind. Anna will become one of the Cassandras of our generation, her fears for the future of her beloved hills and valleys only believed when they have been fulfilled. But her courage, her heroic resistance to having her changes dictated and used by others, also suggests that the erasure of the beautiful places can be withstood. That’s a fantasy worth cultivating.
Adults and children live in different time zones, their internal watches set to different rhythms, their days constructed around alternative timetables. The question of how to communicate across the temporal divide is confronted daily by parents and offspring, teachers and pupils, at school and in the home, and gets intensified in the strange encounter between child and adult that takes place in a work of art made for children. Such works are usually made by adults, whose principal challenge – how to imagine themselves into a frame of mind they inhabited years beforehand – is complicated by the problem of keeping track of the rapidly-shifting cultural reference points among young people. Living in a household with children may help the would-be creator tune in to the latest developments in music, gadgetry and fashion, but it’s likely too to reinforce the conviction that adults can never really understand what makes their offspring tick. In the struggle to communicate despite this lack of understanding, artists fall back on imaginative reconstructions of their own childhoods in the vain hope that the radical changes of the intervening decades haven’t rendered them wholly redundant, or distorted beyond redemption by overlays of sentiment and cliché. Such reconstructions invariably emphasize the chronological gap even as they seek to bridge it. And they often take as their subject – as the driving motor of their narratives, so to speak – the complex interplay between time zones that constitutes the domestic environment in each successive generation.
One way of thinking about how the generations co-operate in a household is the concept of synchrony, which has been explored by psychologists and sociologists for several decades. The idea that a mother and child can achieve physical synchrony with each other by spending time in close proximity – that the movements and even the heartbeats of mother and child fall into step with one another when they sleep together or engage in activities face to face – is widely accepted by psychologists. So too is the notion that the synchronization of heartbeats, of rhythmic movements and of emotions can be extended, in time, from the mother-child relationship to the wider parent-child community. Sociologists have also investigated the effects of using rhythmic rituals of various kinds – marching, chanting and dancing, for instance – to achieve better co-operation (that is, psychological and social synchrony) between members of a group, an army, church or organization. Less threateningly, perhaps, there have been studies of the effects on families of spending time together, co-ordinating timetables and calendars to accommodate one another, and how this can improve both partnerships between adults and relationships between the generations. Fictional explorations of how a family community can bond in spite of their chronological differences may be thought of as an effort to understand metaphorical and even literal synchrony – how the movements of a household’s members may be combined to their mutual advantage.
But such a process of coordination is a highly complex one; largely, perhaps, because the differences between members of the family or household may be considered to be as valuable as their capacity to fall into step with one another. How to work together, to fall in step to solve common problems, while valuing and nurturing the effects of the different experiences imparted to a household’s different inhabitants by virtue of the different times at which they happen to have been born – these are questions that fascinate specialists and householders alike. I’d like to think about two texts that attempt to discover the means of preserving the chronologically-generated differences between members of a household community while enabling them to work together. These are a celebrated children’s novel by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1985) and the equally celebrated film adaptation of that novel by Hayao Miyazaki (2004). And it seems to me that these two works of art approach the problem of synchrony in rather different ways, as I’ll try to explain.
The concern of Diana Wynne Jones with the complex chronology of domestic and other communities, where the time zones of the young, the middle aged and the old converge and clash, is evident throughout her work: from Seven Days of Luke (1975) and Dogsbody (1975), in which the lives of immortal beings (gods and stars) intersect with those of children, to The Homeward Bounders (1981), whose young protagonist finds himself ageing at a slower rate than his contemporaries, and Fire and Hemlock (1985), about the friendship between a young girl and a grown man, which changes as the girl gets older. Wynne Jones’s novel Howl’s Moving Castle represents synchrony not merely as a prerequisite for the successful cohabitation of different generations within the same building or society, but as a psychological condition achieved with difficulty by individual men and women, aspects of whose personalities develop or mature at different rates, thus effectively establishing different time zones within a single mind and body. It’s this perception, among other things, that seems to have drawn Miyazaki to the novel, as permitting a new departure in his own lifelong exploration of temporal interfaces in domestic and social space.
The protagonist of Wynne-Jones’s novel is a teenage girl, Sophie Hatter, who lets herself be seduced by the rules of fairy tale into believing that her destiny is predetermined by her position as the eldest daughter in a family. This conviction comes easily to her because she lives in the land of Ingary, ‘where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist’ – a land of fairy tale in action, where witches are as common as bakers. Since she’s the eldest child, so the tales affirm, nothing interesting can ever happen to her: it’s always the youngest child who sets off on adventures and who gets the prize. In addition, her sole surviving parent is a stepmother, who Sophie assumes must therefore be tyrannous, if not wicked. As a result, Sophie’s lifelong entrapment in the family hat-making business (which she doesn’t enjoy) is for her as certain as if she’d already lived through it, and she behaves and dresses as if she were already the elderly spinster she expects to be. So when she’s transformed into a real old woman by a jealous witch, who has mistaken her for one of her attractive younger sisters, Sophie embraces her new condition with some enthusiasm. Before the transformation she was in effect an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body; after it she’s a young girl trapped in an old woman’s body; and since her life and story are now effectively over, she leaves the hat-making business and wanders out into the world to seek her fortune.
Sophie, in other words, is the victim of a particularly oppressive social form of synchrony – of ensuring that individuals know and retain their place within the community – which works hand in hand with ideology; synchrony as imposed on female children by the gender roles assigned to them by fairy tales and other narratives. Fortunately, however, the world – and the old women who play a vital part in it – proves to be very much more mobile than Sophie’s enslavement to fairy-tale convention leads her to expect. The delightful metaphor for this mobility is the Moving Castle of the title, and its erratic movements across Ingary can also be seen as standing for a more complex form of synchrony than the one that governs traditional fairy tales and hackneyed fantasies.
When she stumbles across the Moving Castle by accident, Sophie discovers in it a peculiar all-male household quite unlike the ‘conventional’ nuclear family (if such a thing exists, which Wynne Jones would have us doubt). It’s composed of the teenager Michael, an apprentice wizard; Calcifer, a stubborn but friendly fire-demon, whose magic keeps the Castle moving; and the wizard Howl himself, a dashing charmer whose one aim in life is to dodge the responsibility to which Sophie has always been a willing slave (hence Howl’s construction of this unusual mobile home). Including Sophie, these four householders span a tremendous age range, from the apprentice, who is fifteen, to the demon, who has lived for millennia. But they are none of them restricted in their movements by their apparent or actual age. In financial matters Michael behaves with a responsibility beyond his years, keeping some of the household money hidden from Howl to prevent him wasting it. Calcifer is as dependent on the other members of the household as an infant, confined to the Castle’s only hearth as a baby is confined to its cradle until somebody is willing to lift him out. Howl behaves like a spoiled adolescent, obsessed with his appearance and refusing to let Sophie clean his room. And Sophie, who makes herself Howl’s housekeeper because she can’t imagine herself as capable of anything else, becomes increasingly energetic as the novel goes on, despite her extreme old age: dashing across the landscape in seven-league boots, plotting to foil Howl’s various affairs, and rearranging the Castle so extensively that it eventually becomes her own home – quite literally, since Howl moves the building into the hat-shop at one point to avoid the unwanted attentions of the Witch of the Waste.
Age, then, in the Moving Castle, is no trap but a matter of attitude, and attitudes are always changing. Even the physical strength of the individual inhabitants’ bodies varies as much in response to hormones, cold germs and lashings of self-pity as to the motions of the heart (and Howl’s young heart is just as compromised, we learn in the end, as Sophie’s elderly organ). The movement of time determines nothing about a person’s character; it isn’t time that induces emotional or intellectual maturity, but successful interaction with other people, a capacity to adapt one’s personal needs to the demands of a community (and to resist those demands, of course, when they become oppressive). Household synchrony at its best, then, is for Wynne Jones a matter of careful and prolonged negotiation, enabling competing narratives and attitudes to achieve compatibility with one another, to co-exist – with frequent setbacks and digressions that prevent the negotiating process from becoming either consistent or linear. Her book is a celebration of domestic negotiation as a form of perpetual motion, like all her novels.
The identities of the Castle’s four eccentric tenants are as flexible as their ages. Michael disguises himself as a red-bearded man, or a horse, each time he leaves the building. Calcifer, in his capacity as (quite literally) the hearth of the Castle, changes the building’s appearance as well as its location with his demonic powers. Sophie successively takes on the roles of Howl’s assistant, his aunt, his mother, and (eventually) his partner, as the book goes on. And Howl has a different name and role in each community he visits. The Castle’s magical front door opens on a range of locations depending on the opener’s wishes: Kingsbury, Porthaven, Market Chipping, and (oddly) modern Wales; and in each place Howl has a distinct identity: as reluctant royal wizard, well-intentioned local magician, demonized ladykiller, and idle waster, all of them with alternative costumes and reputations as well as names. These conflicting roles of Howl’s converge and overlap in the interior of the Castle; and as a result the Castle provides an active illustration of the sheer dynamism of the domestic space to which Sophie has confined herself. All political and social action, all adventure, all identity originates in the creative melting-pot of the household, and the relationships between householders are forever mutating; responding to and influencing the mutations that take place in the world beyond. Nobody need be fixed, the Castle implies, in any role, whether by age, sex, birth, or any other factor – unless the community they inhabit, the household and the society it is part of, and above all their own state of mind, exert all their energy to imprison them in a single unchanging function. Nobody dominates the household, either. Control of the Moving Castle alternates between Howl and Sophie, with Michael and Calcifer taking the reins when the need arises. And the shape of the community inside it is always changing, as new members join the strange little family through Sophie’s influence. It’s a political as well as a temporal interface, a functional democracy, where the needs, pleasures and pains of old and new inhabitants succeed one another as the focus of attention according to the demands of the time.
To put an end to this condition of perpetual motion is the aim of Howl’s and Sophie’s arch-nemesis, the Witch of the Waste. Attended by a bevy of robotic page-boys, the Witch specializes in locking her victims into forms designed to limit their capacity for mobility and self-determination: a scarecrow, a dog, a skull, and of course the old woman Sophie. Each of her victims proves unexpectedly vigorous in resisting their containment; and each derives his or her vigour from Sophie’s boundless energy, which releases them one by one from their bondage through her capacity to ‘talk life’ into things – sticks, scarecrows, skulls, the dog’s inarticulate tongue – and transform them into dynamic components of her own and other people’s narratives or stories. The Witch needs only one more victim, Howl, to complete the construction of her ideal man: a crude puppet-being fashioned from parts of the complex actual people she has metamorphosed into objects or animals. She aims to set up her ideal puppet as King of Ingary – with the Witch as queen – transforming the land in the process into a barren desert bereft of material for the tales of which it should be composed, like the wasteland where she has built her own immobile fortress. Sophie’s resistance to the Witch is achieved through her ability to enable the Witch’s victims to work together as a community in spite of their differences, in spite of the instability of their personalities, in spite of their uncertainty about their individual identities. Her household is a domestic democracy rather than a monarchy. And this notion of domestic democracy, or democratic domesticity, is another thing that seems to have attracted Miyazaki to the novel when he chose to adapt it for what was slated at the time as his final film, his swansong to the animation industry and the century in which he was born.
Miyazaki’s movie has been described as less an adaptation than a reimagining, synchronizing the novelist’s concerns with the director’s through a series of daring shifts away from her storyline towards a set of themes that have engaged him for years. The problem of age remains at the centre of the narrative. Once again Sophie’s premature old age is balanced by Howl’s over-extended childhood, and the central problem is how to synchronize their ages, enabling them to cohabit in the Castle of the title. The problem could be said to represent the plight of an ageing film-maker as he seeks to engage the attention of much younger viewers – the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. But in addition, the two time zones that converge in each of Miyazaki’s central characters – youth and elderliness, adolescence and maturity – become symptomatic of a pervasive dualism that extends through every aspect of their environment. It’s with the nature and function of this dualism that the rest of this post will be concerned.
The principal dualism in the film is a socio-political one, concerning the two alternative futures towards which Ingary may be moving: as a bright, colourful, mutually supportive community dedicated to the arts of peace, or a dark, war-ravaged wasteland, the energies of whose inhabitants are synchronized in a collective drive towards destruction. Suspended between these possible future destinies, the Ingary of the film is an in-between place, drawing on sources in art and history that look two ways. The setting of the movie, for instance, is an alternative turn-of-the-century Europe, where a pastoral landscape of mountains and flower-strewn valleys is overshadowed by smoke-spewing industrial chimneys and half-monstrous, half-comic flying gunships. The model for this landscape is Alsace, the disputed border territory between France and Germany which found itself caught at the epicentre of two world wars. The machines that move around this landscape – from flying kayaks to steam-driven trams and the bomb-filled gunship-zeppelins that patrol the skies – derive from the work of the visionary French artist Albert Robida (1848-1926), who became famous in the fin-de-siècle for his exuberant illustrations of technology as he imagined it would evolve in the coming century. Every visual detail of the film, then, looks two ways, to war and peace, to the past and the future, so that the competition between ages fought out within Howl and Sophie serves as a miniature enactment of the competition over alternative destinies being fought out in the world around them. And the Moving Castle becomes an embodiment of all these dualisms, its erratic movements recalling the jerky progress of a turn-of-the-century nation (in the 1900s or 2000s) towards cataclysm or prosperity, towards life or death – or rather towards both, since the film’s audience is conscious that both will dominate the century they have just emerged from.
Our first view of this building comes with the opening credits, and it’s a very different structure from the chimney-shaped fortress of the novel. Mounted on four metal chicken-legs, Miyazaki’s Castle resembles the hen-footed hut of Baba Yaga the Russian witch, an ambiguous figure who is either child-eater or magical helper depending on the storyteller’s whim; it points, then, to the centrality of ambiguous witches to the narrative. The surface of the Castle bristles with gun turrets and rural cottages, as if to point up the two opposite conditions towards which it may be moving, the military and the cosily domestic. The gun turrets embody Howl’s desire to defend himself from being drawn into war; but they also resemble the gun turrets of the ironclad dreadnoughts of Ingary’s navy, and thus point towards his possible enlistment as a secret weapon in the national defence force. And these ships have been part of the wizard’s life since early childhood. When Sophie visits the lakeside cottage where Howl spent his lonely vacations as a boy, she sees the model of a dreadnought on the table, reminding viewers of how boys are acculturated to play at war by the toys and games on offer. Howl’s Castle, then, fuses two influences from his upbringing, the isolated cottage and the ever-present warship, and Sophie’s adventures in housekeeping there have a direct influence on the direction in which the country, as well as the Castle and its occupants, is moving.
The first major change Miyazaki makes to the novel, then, is to place war at the heart of his film’s narrative, embodying its centrality in the eccentric mobile fortress. You might remember that the military is one of the areas in which sociologists have identified the extensive use of synchrony; by moving in concert, soldiers can be trained to subsume their interests to the interests of the group, even to the extent of sacrificing themselves so that collective actions can be successfully completed. One of the things you’ll notice in Miyazaki’s movie is the coordinated movements of the flying airships, with their flapping wings, and the fleets of human-faced bombs that drop out of their bellies. Clearly certain forms of synchrony encourage only conformity, and total conformity can be as disastrous to a community as total individualism. Some other form of synchrony must be found for the household, if it’s to become a successful centre for resistance to conformity with collective aggression.
The second change Miyazaki makes is to the villain of the story, who gets split in two, like everything else in the movie. The movie’s Witch of the Waste starts out as monstrous as she is in the book: a towering, fleshy presence who conjures Sophie into decrepitude in a spontaneous fit of jealousy. But she is soon supplanted by a much more devious enemy called Madame Suliman. Howl’s former tutor in the magic arts, Suliman deploys her formidable powers, ostensibly in the service of Ingary, as a combination of spymaster, bomber command and military general; and she is eager to secure her most promising pupil as her successor in all these capacities. Her character, then, combines aspects of Miss Pentstemmon (Howl’s kind old tutor in Wynne Jones’s novel), and the novel’s Witch of the Waste, who wishes to fix Howl in an unchanging form as her puppet husband. Like the Witch, Madame Suliman repeatedly tries to invade Howl’s domestic space – the Moving Castle – by a range of methods: direct assaults on the Castle doors by her servants, the blob men; enlisting Sophie’s mother to deliver a magical spy-worm to the building; and above all, by drawing Howl deeper and deeper into armed conflict, on defensive raids from which he returns to domestic life with increasing difficulty, often still locked in the form of a monstrous flying demon he assumes when fighting. Howl’s repeated transformations make him more and more like the flocks of identical flying fortresses that threaten Ingary. Sophie’s challenge in the movie is to compete with Madame Suliman in the effort to synchronize her heart with Howl’s well-protected organ, which he has hidden in the hearth of the Castle for security, guarded by Calcifer. The two women stand for alternative versions of his destiny, his social role: as imperialist warmonger or affectionate family member, as obedient marcher in step with the military or as participant in the mutually supportive domestic community. And the richness of the film consists in its implicit acknowledgment that he could well end up as both.
One of the ways in which this perception is conveyed is through the refusal of the film to set up clearly demarcated opposing sides, of the kind Wynne Jones creates by installing the Witch of the Waste as Howl’s antagonist. Characters literally metamorphose into new shapes as the film goes on, taking on aspects of each other’s appearance and actions, and changing sides in a conflict whose causes and participants are never certain. The blob men who begin as henchmen of the Witch of the Waste seem to switch allegiance half way through, hiring themselves out to the more powerful sorceress, Madame Suliman, after her easy defeat of their first mistress in a showdown at the royal palace. Meanwhile, the defeated Witch becomes a member of the eccentric family circle that occupies Howl’s Castle – a kind of second Sophie, as if to acknowledge Sophie’s complicity with the spell with which the Witch aged her. So too does the asthmatic dog Heen, who starts out as Madame Suliman’s spy but ends as the playmate of Howl’s apprentice Merkl (a younger version of Wynne-Jones’s Michael). In Heen’s place, Sophie’s stepmother becomes Suliman’s spy, delivering the spy-worm to the Moving Castle under pretence of a family reunion with her long lost stepdaughter. Meanwhile another member of Howl’s household, the scarecrow Turnip, turns out in the end to have been an enchanted prince from the neighbouring country with which Ingary is at war. Enemies and friends, in the world of Miyazaki’s later movies, can be indistinguishable – which serves both to point up the painful futility of the conflicts that break out between them, and the possibility, against all odds, of bringing them at last into synchronistic alignment.
The most disturbing ambiguity of affiliation is that of the blob men. As the servants of Madame Suliman one might expect them to form part of Ingary’s army, and indeed when they attack the Castle they wear Ingarian military uniforms. But they also share a civilian uniform – of top hats, masks and tarry bodies – with the winged monsters who emerge from the bellies of the flying gun-ships as they attack Ingary. Madame Suliman, then, seems to be fighting on both sides of the conflict she presides over. For her it’s nothing but a game: the kind of war-game that might delight the young pages who surround her, each of them designed to look like Howl, as if to illustrate her desire to add him to her collection of pretty boys. Madame Suliman exposes her attitude to conflict at the end of the movie when she tells the pages, ‘Let’s put an end to this idiotic war’, implying that she could have done so at any point in the preceding action. She is sinisterly playful, indulging a second childhood in old age as she conducts the affairs of the country from the comfort of a padded wheelchair in her flower-filled conservatory. Yet even Suliman cannot be dismissed as a mere monster; she is too humorous, too detached and too attractive to be so easily summarized, especially because it’s never entirely clear if all her machinations are actually causing damage to the people caught up in them. Her body, like Howl’s and Sophie’s, or like Ingary itself, is a space where different elements converge, each in turn becoming dominant as she wearies of the game she has been playing and moves on to a new one. So she too harbours the potential to be subsumed into a new model of domestic cohabitation.
War itself slips between identities as the film goes on, becoming sometimes a game, sometimes a hideous nightmare, in response to the changing moods of its conductors. At the beginning it’s a carnival, a form of collective play for the people of Ingary, whose lives are filled with toys: fancy hats from Sophie’s hat-shop, fancy cakes from the bakery where her sister works, national flags, charmingly silly steam-driven vehicles. It’s conducted by dashing soldiers in bright uniforms, post-adolescent show-offs who steer motorized kayaks around the sky like teenagers in sports cars. At the harbour, the civilians celebrate with childish enthusiasm the deployment of the national fleet. Sophie’s own stepmother adds to the air of flippant collusion with warfare by wearing a hat decorated with naval cannon in honour of the dreadnoughts. At first, then, war is full of light and colour; but it soon grows dark and violent, swallowed up in the bomb-torn night whose reds and blacks threaten by the end to dominate the movie’s palette. Lightness, then, and light, are capable of giving birth to heaviness and gloom; and in this war follows the trajectory along which Suliman is keen to steer her pupil Howl.
From the beginning, Howl shares Suliman’s moral ambiguity. Rumour has it he devours the hearts of the girls he seduces; and although he first makes his appearance in a very different role – snatching the girl Sophie from the clutches of a pair of soldiers – even at that point he’s a source of danger, pursued by blob men who threaten Sophie more than the soldiers did. Not long after this, Sophie undergoes her transformation at the hands of the Witch, leaves home and joins Howl’s household as an elderly cleaner. But when she starts to clean up, she accidentally switches the blond and black hair dyes in his bathroom; and the transformation of Howl’s hair from blond to black signals his potential to transform himself from hero to villain, like a cowboy changing hats. This prospective switch of moral allegiance is foreshadowed by his reaction to the hair-dye incident. Howl goes into a titanic adolescent sulk, during which he generates both copious quantities of green slime, as in the novel, and a host of shadow-monsters closely resembling the blob men. This extravagant reaction, with its echoes of the sinister sorcery of the Witch and Suliman, is rendered more disturbing by the fact that immediately before this scene we witnessed Howl in action for the first time against the invading air force; an experience he seems to take far more lightly than Sophie’s assault on his cosmetics.
Howl’s lightness, then – his excessive concern for his appearance and the pleasures of flirtation – represents the flip side of his increasingly frequent forays into the darkness of war. If boys are the perfect recruits for a nation’s armies, Howl’s insistence on retaining his adolescent traits – his filthy, toy-strewn bedroom, from which he bars the cleaner Sophie; the ‘secret garden’ of his childhood, where his cottage retreat is hidden; his love of fancy clothes – is what renders him vulnerable to Suliman’s efforts to draw him into her war games. The connection between his boyish lightness and his attraction to war is made most vividly when he shows Sophie the secret garden. At this point he looks much younger than he did earlier, gesturing towards flowers and mountains with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of childhood. But the appearance of a flying gunship prompts him to begin the change into a winged monster, smiling as he launches a magical attack on the gunship with one claw-like hand. The monster and the boy cohabit in Howl, both of them symptoms of his heartlessness – that is, his staunch defence of his emotional secrets, his carapace of bright insouciance, from external assault. If the literally light-hearted Calcifer guards Howl’s heart in the hearth of the Castle, safely hidden from intruders, it’s for Sophie to lend him the weight he needs to launch into a mature relationship.
Sophie, on the other hand, needs to achieve synchrony with Howl if she’s to escape the weight of self-inflicted reponsibility that binds her to an aged body. Their first meeting shows her what is missing from her life as a girl: the lightness Howl possesses in abundance. Wearing her trademark sober clothes and unflattering hat, she timidly skirts the carnival crowds as she crosses the city, dodging into shadowy back-streets to avoid the limelight. It’s in one of these alleys that Howl rescues her from the soldiers; and he later saves her from the blob men by launching them both into the air without the aid of wings, then walking with her, arm in arm, along an invisible pavement in the sky, visually acting out the light-heartedness of first love. After that, Sophie continues to see the airborne Howl as the carefree young man of this meeting, and works, as he grows darker and more monstrous, to align the chaotic interior of his Castle with the brightness of his first appearance. In the process she discovers lightness and colour in herself, which are reflected in the light and colour she brings to Howl’s shabby domicile – as well as in her increasingly frequent unconscious shifts from old age to youth. For a woman burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and wedded to the shadows, Sophie succeeds in bringing an abundance of brightness to the Castle’s gloomy interior. She smashes a hole in the wall with a flying kayak while escaping from Suliman’s troops, and inspires the wizard to shift the Castle to the many-windowed, sunlit hat-shop to keep his household safe. Her final transformation of the Castle, when she rebuilds it from scratch by removing Calcifer, with Howl’s heart, from the fortified hearth and carrying both outside, culminates in the reduction of the building to an open platform, its defences stripped away, its inhabitants exposed to the elements. And although this transformation begins at night, so that its implications are hidden by the mountain gloom that surrounds the platform, when the dawn comes it’s clear that Sophie’s housekeeping has finally exposed Howl and his remarkable family to the open scrutiny from which he has so sedulously been keeping them hidden.
The synchrony between Howl and Sophie reaches its culmination in the reconstructed Moving Castle of the final frames. Winging its way across an open sky, on flapping wings not so very dissimilar to the wings of the airborne gunships, the flying fortress is now dominated by cottages rather than gun-turrets, gardens rather than protective armour. It represents, then, Howl’s opening up of his childhood secret garden to a wider community, his entry into full socialization – an entry in which the rejuvenated Sophie fully participates. But the gun turrets still poke out of the castle roof, and though the flying gunships are heading home they have not been destroyed or dismantled. The difficulty of achieving synchrony in personal relationships – between generations of a family or different people in the same generation – is clearly equivalent here to the difficulty of achieving synchrony between rival nations: a harmonising of different interests to the mutual advantage of both parties.
Flight has been rendered joyful rather than threatening in the final frames of Howl’s Moving Castle. Howl and Sophie face forward into the future from the bows of the Castle with the self-assurance of young lovers, whose relationship has been literally tested in the fire. But the future towards which they are facing – whether it’s the twentieth century, when the film is set, or the beginning of the new millennium, when the film was made – will surely share the synchronies of their relationship: its darkness as well as its light, its war as well as its peace, the premature ageing brought on by anxiety as well as the exuberance of childhood prolonged into maturity. And the Moving Castle remains a poignantly rickety structure in which to confront such a future.
 For a full account of Diana Wynne Jones’s recurrent themes, see Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: The Fantastic Tradition and Children’s Literature (New York: Routledge, 2006).
 See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle (San Francisco: Viz, 2005), p. 12.
 For Robida, see The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 49.
 The term ‘blob men’ is used in The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 212 and elsewhere.
 The quotation is taken from the script of the film as translated by Jim Hubbert, The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 252.
 For an extended discussion of the concept of lightness (as against weight) in twentieth-century history, see Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, trans. Patrick Creagh (London: Penguin, 2009), Lecture 1, ‘Lightness’, pp. 3-29.
 The term ‘secret garden’, with its invocation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel, is used in Hubbert’s translation of Miyazaki’s script. See The Art of Howl’s Moving Castle, p. 240.
I should begin with an explanation. I’m interested in fantasy as a form of history, and I’m writing (very slowly) a book called The Fantastic History of the Twentieth Century. The question at the heart of it is: why did the twentieth century see so many writers turn to fantasy and the fantastic as their preferred response to an era of unprecedented social, political and technological change? By fantasy I mean here the literature of the impossible: writing that makes use of events or creatures that not only never existed but clearly could never exist, since their occurrence would break the rules by which our lives are governed: the rules of physics, biology, psychology, verisimilitude and so on. To read fantasy is to enter into a contract whereby writer and reader engage in the Coleridgean suspension of disbelief in its most extreme form, not merely accommodating coincidences and improbably elegant patterns in human affairs but such wonders as flight on broomsticks, fire-breathing dragons, the revival of corpses, and the spontaneous metamorphosis of an ordinary man into a giant cockroach. Fantasy is not science fiction, in that SF implies some sort of rational explanation for the impossible events it relates – though there’s no hard and fast line between the two genres. But to me the most important fact about fantasy and the fantastic is that we know full well it couldn’t happen – and yet we have persisted in seeking out such narratives of impossibility until the twentieth and (so far) the twenty-first century have seen a higher proportion of such narratives printed than any previous era. Why?
The Easter Rising is an interesting test case for this project because it saw the direct first-hand involvement of two major Irish fantasy writers, each of whom approached it from very different political viewpoints, and each of whom wrote a powerful account of their experiences – in one case while the Rising was going on, in the other over twenty years years later. The first of these writers was James Stephens, a committed nationalist, a regular contributor to Arthur Griffiths’s newspaper Sinn Féin, and a close friend of one of the leaders of the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh. Stephens’s novel The Crock of Gold (1912) became something of a household item in Ireland, and was influential on Flann O’Brien and C. S. Lewis. The second fantasy writer present at the Rising was Edward Plunkett, better known as Lord Dunsany, widely celebrated in fantasy circles as the author of short stories and novels of unrivalled brilliance which influenced such diverse fantasists as H. P. Lovecraft, J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin. Dunsany was a Unionist and a Captain in the British Army at the time of the Rising. But one of the things that emerges from the accounts each writer gives of the events of Easter 1916 and the fantasy texts they relate to is that drawing clear political lines in pre-Free State Ireland is to a great extent impossible – a form of impossibility, indeed, that the fiction of Stephens and Dunsany is concerned to resist.
The impossibility of drawing clear political lines makes itself particularly felt in the case of Dunsany. He was a Unionist, but his family name of Plunkett was intimately associated with the nationalist cause. His uncle, the agricultural reformer Sir Horace Plunkett, was a prominent advocate of Home Rule, while another of his close relatives, Joseph Plunkett, was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. Dunsany’s friend the poet Francis Ledwidge was another nationalist, who wrote one of the most celebrated verse responses to the Rising, ‘Lament for the Poets’, which transforms the leaders – three of whom were poets like himself – into blackbirds whose songs have been extinguished for ever. Dunsany’s religious affiliations, too, were mixed. He was raised a Protestant, but many of his relatives were Catholic, including George Noble Plunkett, a Papal Count and the father of Joseph. A similar criss-crossing web of political and religious affiliations could be traced for Stephens, and it’s this socio-political complexity that is most startlingly foregrounded both in their fantasy narratives and their accounts of the Easter Rising.
Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin (1916) derives much of its power from its status as reportage. The text commentates day by day on the unfolding events of the week of turbulence, and opens and closes with more carefully-written sections composed in the week that followed. These final sections are interrupted from time to time by news of the executions of the leaders. The first chapter tells how on Easter Monday Dubliners woke up to find that armed conflict had broken out in their city, unannounced and unsuspected. They spent the rest of the week effectively cut off from the rest of the world, without news or fresh supplies of food, forced to turn to one another for the smallest titbit of information or unfounded rumour as to what was going on. The effect of these things – the irruption of the astounding into the everyday and the lack of information – is deeply surreal. At times, indeed, it borders on the fantastic, corresponding more or less to what Farah Mendlesohn defines in Rhetorics of Fantasy as ‘intrusion fantasy’, where the impossible manifests itself in ordinary surroundings, like the bug in Kafka’s Metamorphosis or the devil in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margharita. Stephens was already a master of intrusion fantasy when he wrote his pamphlet: The Crock of Gold records the arrival in Ireland of the Greek god Pan, while The Demi-Gods (1914) tells of three angels who accompany some travellers on a road trip around the Irish countryside. Both novels involve expert transitions between moods: comic dialogue between a Philosopher and his wife, or between children and a bunch of Leprechauns, is interspersed with fine lyrical writing and occasional excursions into poignant moments of social realism. It’s not surprising, then, if he brings out the patchwork of incongruous moods and startling encounters that makes up the experience of that week in 1916, and punctuates his narrative with encounters with the wildly improbable – though nothing more so than the Rising itself.
Stephens planned to spend that Easter Monday teaching himself the notes of the scale in order to play the dulcimer: a percussion instrument most famously associated with Coleridge’s hallucinogenic masterpiece ‘Kubla Khan’. Instead he finds himself wandering the city streets, witnessing at first hand the attitudes of citizens of all classes to the strange conflict they are caught up in. The theme that emerges from these wanderings, and that returns again and again as the story unfolds, is the imagination. People imagine the causes and progress of the insurrection from many different perspectives. Stephens himself imagines what it might be like to be inside one of those houses under continuous fire by heavy machine guns and artillery. Visionary lunatics imagine nothing but defeat for the British army and victory for the Volunteers; in particular, Stephens twice encounters a ‘wild individual who spat rumour as though his mouth were a machine gun or a linotype machine’. In the final chapter Stephens even gives his own definition for the word ‘imagination’, with the quirky self-assurance of the old Philosopher in The Crock of Gold. ‘Imagination,’ he says, ‘is intelligent kindness’ – though that’s clearly what he thinks it ought to be rather than what it is, since he is the first to acknowledge the role in the Rising of other kinds of imaginings. Extremist bigotry in the North, for instance, has ‘imagined into our quiet air’ – the air of Ireland – ‘brigands and thugs and titans’, an illusion that brought about the formation of the Ulster Volunteers. It was imagined humiliation that drove the Irish Volunteers to insurrection, convinced that the British Army were about to deprive them of their weapons. Nevertheless, Stephens defines the imagination at its best as ‘intelligent kindness’, and it’s the lack of this quality that he sees as the single most important cause of the insurrection, the most disastrous failing of the British Government in its ongoing dialogue with the Irish people.
It’s the lack of political imagination, he tells us in the foreword of the book, that prevented English Statesmen from finding a solution to the question of how Ireland is to gain her independence – something the English are as keen as the Irish to bring about, or so he believes. ‘In their dealings with this country,’ he observes,
English Statesmen have seldom shown political imagination; sometimes they have been just, sometimes, and often, unjust. After a certain point I dislike and despise justice. It is an attribute of God, and is adequately managed by Him alone; but between man and man no other ethics save that of kindness can give results.
He explains what he means by ‘kindness’ a few sentences later. For him it’s a combination of generosity and the capacity to feel what another person feels by an emotional and intellectual effort; an effort that involves looking closely ‘through the smoke that is rolling from the North Sea to Switzerland’ and comparing what they see with what they would feel under similar circumstances. Stephens later seems to draw on the etymology of the word ‘kind’ by allying it with kinship or familial closeness:
Should the English Statesman decide that our friendship is worth having let him create a little of the political imagination already spoken of. Let him equip us […] for freedom, not in the manner of a miser who arranges for the chilly livelihood of a needy female relative; but the way a wealthy father would undertake the settlement of his son.
A better account of kindness – and of imagination as its instrument – is given in the narrative that follows. In it Stephens allows himself with startling generosity to inhabit the mindset both of opponents of the Rising and of its supporters – and of the many people who aren’t sure, or won’t reveal, what they think about it. All are his neighbours, many are his friends, and Stephens moves among them listening to their stories with the same curiosity and ready sympathy that the Philosopher shows as he walks the country roads in The Crock of Gold. Stephens’s class background made this easy for him – he was born poor and moved among the poor as well as the rich throughout his life. His novels made it easy too, since in them he seeks to represent the widest possible range of people and their stories in the interests of bringing Ireland together in a new kind of imaginative unity. It’s this kind of political imagination, it seems to me – the kind that enables men and women to see into each other’s souls, as he puts it in the introduction to the Insurrection – that he sought to instil in his readers as he wrote his pamphlet.
Much of Stephens’s best journalism was given over to brief character sketches of Dublin eccentrics; and he uses the same technique in the Insurrection. The sketches with which it’s filled bring out two things with equal skill: the rapidly changing mood of the Dubliners, and the city’s fragmentation. On the first day, for instance, Stephens watches as a man insists on moving his lorry from the barricades despite all the warning shouts of the insurgents, and afterwards walks towards their rifles ‘with one hand raised and one finger up as though he were going to make a speech’. The man is shot in the head at point blank range. ‘At that moment’, Stephens tells us, ‘the Volunteers were hated’; the sympathy of the bystanders is with the man, who refuses to be intimidated into losing the vehicle by which he makes his living. In the following chapter we hear about women who lob bricks and bottles at the Volunteers who are fighting a troop of lancers: ‘Would you be hurting the poor men?’ the women shout, and ‘Would you be hurting the poor horses?’ Here the sympathy is with the lancers because of the absurdity of deploying cavalry in a street fight: at this point they are the weaker side. Later Stephens tells of a Volunteer who ‘held a lady’s umbrella in his hand, and whenever some person became particularly annoying he would leap the barricade and chase his man half a street, hitting him over the head with the umbrella’. He sees a wounded Volunteer lying on a bench, raising his hand from time to time in an appeal for help. The man can’t be helped because his position is covered by snipers. Each of these sketches brings our sympathy back to the insurgents. And inevitably, as time goes by, the mood of Dublin fluctuates like the reader’s. At first the most voluble citizens are against the Rising – not too surprisingly, Stephens points out, given the huge number of their compatriots who were fighting at the time with the British army against the Germans. But as the Volunteers continue to hold out against all odds, a sense of pride in their achievement begins to take over, and with it an increasingly vocal sympathy for them. On the third day the sun was shining:
Almost everyone was smiling and attentive, and a democratic feeling was abroad, to which our City is very much a stranger; for while in private we are a sociable and talkative people we have no street manners or public ease whatever. Every person spoke to every other person, and men and women mixed and talked without constraint.
By this point urban reserve has broken down, a kind of forecast of what the insurrection will achieve in Stephens’s conclusion: a new consciousness among the Irish of their collective identity. The talk, however, is wary, and people are careful not to express opinions on one side or another. As a result, the exceptions stand out. Stephens meets a working class woman who swears incessantly at the men of Dublin for failing to rise in support of the insurgents, and who asks Stephens courteously for a light before returning to her swearing. He later speaks to a working class man who gives a detailed analysis of the role of the Labour movement in the insurrection. Later still he gives a moving sketch of a man called Skeffington, who took no part in the insurgency but was shot by the British army for expressing support of it:
He was the most absurdly courageous man I have ever met with or heard of. He has been in every trouble that has touched Ireland these ten years back, and he has always been in on the generous side, therefore, and naturally, on the side that was unpopular and weak. It would seem indeed that a cause had only to be weak to gain his sympathy, and his sympathy never stayed at home.
Skeffington was beaten up repeatedly by his fellow citizens for his outspokenness, and eventually suffered a brutal death at the hands of the British. By this stage in the account it’s hardly possible for any reader not to be siding with the insurgents – the outspoken ones, the ones who talk frankly about what everyone else knows well but doesn’t dare to express: the need for sympathy with the weak, the need to be rid of colonial masters who have no touch of Stephens’s ‘kindness’ about them. And it’s only a short step from this sympathy with individual victims of the British army to recognizing the enemies of that army as friends of the nation.
In the last few chapters, Stephens’s account undergoes another change in political emphasis. By Friday food was getting short, and he describes how he meets a girl whose family had eaten nothing for three days. When her father brought home two loaves of bread they rushed at him, she says, ‘and in a minute we were all ashamed for the loaves were gone to the last crumb, and we were all as hungry as we had been before he came in’. The father got nothing, and the girl concludes that the poor people of Dublin are against the Volunteers who have robbed them of food. On the following day Stephens meets a young boy who is cradling a large ham. ‘He had been trying for three days to convey his ham to a house near the Gresham Hotel where his sister lived. He had almost given up hope, and he hearkened intelligently to the idea that he should himself eat the ham and so get rid of it’. Hunger takes a grip as the insurrection draws to an end; it’s a familiar condition among the poor, and plays a central role in The Crock of Gold as well as his realist novel The Charwoman’s Daughter (1912). It’s an Irish problem, though not one of the two big Irish problems Stephens names in his final chapter, those of independence and religious conflict. And the sketch that closes Chapter Seven – devoted to Saturday, the penultimate day of the insurrection – announces the arrival of another form of business as usual. Stephens sees four policemen marching into the street, the first he’s seen all week. ‘Soon now’, he observes sardonically,
the military tale will finish, the police story will commence, the political story will recommence, and, perhaps, the weeks that follow this one will sow the seed of more hatred than so many centuries will be able to uproot again, for although Irish people do not greatly fear the military they fear the police, and they have very good reason to do so.
The oppressive presence of the Dublin constabulary breaks through the chaos of war both as a sign of the transition to peace and as a reminder of what caused the war in the first place.
After the generosity and ecumenism of Stephens’s previous sketches, his account of the marching policemen stands out for its unambiguous hostility, its refusal to sustain the tone of impartiality that governs the rest. And the pamphlet ends with another unambiguous statement: this time, of solidarity with the insurrectionists. In response to his eye witness account Stephens asks the Irish people to use their eyes; to examine themselves and the state of their country, instead of allowing themselves to be distracted by the smoke that lies beyond, on the battlefields of the Great War. ‘Our eyes,’ he says, ‘must be withdrawn from the ends of the earth and fixed on that which is around us and which we can touch […] I believe that all but local politics are unfruitful and soul-destroying’. Here in Ireland, he goes on, ‘is the world, and all that perplexes or delights the world is here’. ‘The Volunteers are dead,’ he concludes, ‘and the call is now for volunteers’. This conclusion takes the narrow focus of the pamphlet – Dublin with its closed borders, unable to get information about what’s going on beyond their limits, forced into close attention for seven days to the suffering of its own inhabitants – and turns it into a strength. Instead of ending, the story of the insurrection is here extended to include Stephens’s readers; instead of being restricted within a narrow compass of time and space, the Rising opens out to include a new generation of volunteers. The local is transformed into the national, and the fate of a little nation is made into a matter of international significance. And in the process Stephens reproduces in this pamphlet the intellectual, emotional and poetic trajectory of his most celebrated fantasy, The Crock of Gold.
The Crock begins as a local affair, when a quarrel breaks out between the farmer Meehawl MacMurrachu and a family of local Leprechauns whose special bird, the robin, has been killed by the farmer’s cat. The quarrel escalates when the Leprechauns steal the farmer’s washboard, and the farmer in response steals the Leprechauns’ crock of gold, on the advice of a local Philosopher. In reply the Leprechauns kidnap the Philosopher’s children and inveigle the farmer’s daughter out of his household and into the clutches of the Greek god Pan. Worst of all, they call in the police to arrest the Philosopher for the murder of his brother – who committed suicide in a fit of existential pique at the start of the novel. In the process they elevate the quarrel from a local matter to an affair of national and even international importance, since the Irish police are willing tools of the British Empire. The Philosopher’s arrest sparks off an insurrection, though it’s of a very different kind than the insurrection in Dublin.
The spatial trajectory of the Crock of Gold is one of expansion, moving from the Philosopher’s tiny cottage in a deep dark wood, where his children are surprised and delighted by the appearance of a single sunbeam, to the exhilaration of the open road, as the Philosopher marches to meet the goat god in an effort to liberate the farmer’s daughter from his beastly attentions. The emotional trajectory of the story, too, is an opening out. At the beginning the Philosopher and his wife are always at odds, the Thin Woman of Inis MacGrath expressing her displeasure with his obstinacy through the medium of lumps in his stirabout and rheumatic pain (as a member of the Shee she can manage both techniques of retaliation) while the Philosopher resorts to the maddening tactic of never hearing a word she says. Neighbours are always feuding, and Pan’s arrival in Ireland is an expression of a more widespread sense of loneliness and isolation, a loss of enchantment that is spreading across Europe. The Philosopher’s journey, by contrast, brings him in contact with a wider community of Irish men and women, who exchange pleasant conversation with proper ceremony, and are as liberal with their food as with their stories. His journey also extends his philosophy. He has always constructed his wisdom from the examples of birds and beasts, ants, goats, dogs and crows, and the journey puts him in contact with a wider bestiary than he could have encountered in his woodland cottage. Each fellow traveller he meets offers a new perspective on some particular problem – marriage, friendship, labour, childhood, poverty, hunger and old age. By the time he has found his way to the Irish deity, Angus Og, he is at one with the road and all the many different people he meets there. He is also, not incidentally, reconciled to his fairy wife. The resemblance to what happens to Dublin in Stephens’s Insurrection is fairly clear.
The difference is that Dublin begins in a far more fragmented state than the Philosopher’s world does. Its differences of opinion, its feuds, the perpetual hunger of its poorer citizens and the threat posed by the colonial authorities has left the Dubliners bereft of sympathy, forgetful of the time honoured customs of exchange and courtesy that rule the road. The world they inhabit is the world of the police; and it’s the intrusion of these same police into the Philosopher’s community that finally draws its attention away from feuding and petty differences and incites it to collective action. The police who arrest the Philosopher for his brother’s murder obey a different economy from the farmers, Leprechauns and women of the Shee who cohabit with him. The rural economy of fair exchange – whether of friendship or enmity – is replaced in the policemen’s minds by an economy of justice: the justice Stephens tells us in the Insurrection he dislikes and despises. It’s a justice that doesn’t much care who gets punished for a crime so long as punishment happens; which deems the only fitting form of punishment to be violence; and which leads its proponents into chains of logic that tend always to violence instead of wisdom or kindness – the precise reverse of the Philosopher’s genial form of inductive reasoning. Such justice gets meted out in the Insurrection to the martyr Skeffington, the leaders of the Rising, and the wounded Volunteers who are shot in the street, in obedience to the reasoning that drives Ulster extremists to plant brigands and thugs in the rest of Ireland. The narrowness of this reasoning is magnificently embodied in the squalid yard of the barracks where the Philosopher is incarcerated; and the dead ends to which it leads are summed up in the monologues he hears in the cell there, in which desolate urban voices tell of their loss of jobs, love, hope and kindness as a result of illness and old age.
The final chapter of The Crock of Gold, called ‘The Happy March’, enacts the same kind of generous opening out as happens in the final chapter of the Insurrection. A combined army of the ancient Shee, summoned by the Thin Woman and Angus Og, flood down from the hills in a weaponless dance that liberates men and women from the many restrictions of mind and body:
Down to the city they went dancing and singing; among the streets and the shops telling their sunny tale […] And they took the Philosopher from his prison, even the Intellect of Man they took from the hands of the doctors and lawyers, from the sly priests, from the professors whose mouths are gorged with sawdust, and the merchants who sell blades of grass […] and then they returned again, dancing and singing, to the country of the gods…
There’s an absurd optimism about this ending – a self-evident burst of myth-driven wish fulfilment. The end of the Insurrection is more measured in its optimism, but it’s driven by a similar urge to liberate those who’ve been imprisoned in body and mind. And the later work has the great advantage of having been written after Stephens had witnessed the effect of the Easter Rising on the Dublin citizens, who were forged into a democracy by it, for a while at least. For Stephens the aftermath of the Rising would be the Happy March of the Irish nation, the realisation of the closing vision of The Crock of Gold. And the Rising had given him hope that such a vision could be more than fantasy.
As I said earlier, Lord Dunsany was a Captain in the British Army when the Insurrection broke out, and since he was on leave at his home near Dublin at the time he thought it his duty to report for orders to GHQ. His journey to the unit he had been assigned took him directly into the path of the Volunteers, who started shooting at his car, wounding his chauffeur and hitting Dunsany in the face with a ricocheted bullet. The Volunteers took Dunsany prisoner, apologised for shooting him, and transported him to the hospital in Jervis Street. There he was nursed by nuns, who described the bullets flying past the window as ‘nasty little things’ and cooked him lamb chops sent through the barricades by a fellow Meath man, a nationalist, who felt the patient needed some protein at a time when food was running short.
Being stranded behind enemy lines, so to speak, seems to have had a profound effect on his imagination. The most direct reference to the experience comes in his quasi-realistic novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933), in which a young Catholic aristocrat very much like Dunsany, religion aside, is confronted by four men who wish to assassinate his father for political reasons. It’s never stated exactly what the men’s politics are, but one of them later rises to prominence in the Free State government. Despite their political differences with the boy’s father, the four men are soon on friendly terms with the boy himself, and before they leave the leader gives him some advice on shooting geese – and on shooting men. He tells him to aim a foot ahead of a walking man at one hundred yards. A few years later when he wrote his account of his injury in his autobiography, Patches of Sunlight (1938), Dunsany observed sardonically that none of the men who were shooting at him could have had this advice themselves, since their ‘neglect to aim three inches in front of my neck as I went across the street’ meant that all their bullets went ‘where I heard them, just behind it’. The advice given by one political faction to the child of another in Dunsany’s novel, here given back to his old enemies by Dunsany (though he adds that it would be ‘unsporting’ to take advantage of it), confirms the complexity of cultural connections I mentioned at the beginning. But there’s a far more persistent element of his Dublin experience that finds its way into his fantastic fiction, and that confirms this cultural complexity in a far more potent fashion.
Again and again in stories and novels he wrote afterwards he returns to the idea of one culture overrunning another like a flood overwhelming a plain. One occurrence of the metaphor comes in his short story collection Tales of War (1918). The first story, ‘The Prayer of the Men of Daleswood’, concerns a group of soldiers from a small Kent village whose army unit suddenly finds itself stranded behind enemy lines. In the brief period before their annihilation the men realise that if they all die there will be no memory left of the aspects of their village they consider important; so they decide to inscribe a memorial on a chunk of chalk, commemorating the things about it they love. As it turns out, however, they can’t agree on what to write: about the woods with the foxgloves in them, or the valleys full of mint and thyme, or the old houses with their ‘queer chimneys’; and in any case they have no belief that they can express what they want to say when they’ve agreed to say it. In the end they inscribe a short prayer: ‘Please, God, remember Daleswood just like it used to be’. A few hours later their unit is rescued, the chalk smashed to pieces, and the incident forgotten. Their time behind enemy lines recalls Dunsany’s in the hospital – Dunsany was a man of Kent as well as an Irishman, and had plenty of time to think about what would be left of his memories as he listened to the artillery pounding the street outside the hospital windows. From what he wrote in his own memoirs, much of what he considered important resembled the transient, seasonal things loved by the men of Daleswood; things beyond war and politics and history, like shooting geese on a marsh in spring.
Dunsany’s most celebrated fantasy novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), takes up the theme of one culture overwhelming another in the form of a magical union of two nations. The tale tells of the men of Erl, a village named for Dunsany’s mother (one of whose family names was Erl or Ernle), and their yearning to be remembered, like the men of Daleswood. The elders of the village conclude that the shortest route to being commemorated in history is through magic, and therefore urge their lord to marry his son to Lirazel, the daughter of the King of Elfland. The upshot of this wish, after many years of negotiations with magical things from beyond the borders of the ‘fields we know’, is that the King of Elfland extends the boundaries of his country to include the village; in this way he ensures that he will not lose his daughter to a mortal husband and that she will not pine away with desire for the beauties of the mortal world. The analogy with the Union of Ireland and England is easy to draw, and many have drawn it; but the stranding of Erl alone in all the country behind magical borders makes it a better model for Dunsany’s personal situation. It recalls his experiences in the Rising, where he found himself among hostile strangers who were also his friends and relatives, and his lifelong cultural situation split between England and Ireland, united by his love of both and his desire to keep them together against all odds. The King of Elfland has a rune that confirms the union of Erl and Elfland for all eternity; Dunsany merely has the rune of his writing. The theme of isolation is in fact central to the novel, embodied in the young lord Alveric, who wins and loses the Elf Princess and then spends years in a Quixotic quest to recover her, wandering the fields we know with a motley band of lovers, poets and madmen, vainly searching for the borders of Elfland that are hidden from him till the final pages of the novel. The union of nations that occurs at the novel’s end is also a family reunion, bringing together Alveric, Lirazel and their son Orion, and thus enacting a happy if fantastic solution for the strange splits and rifts that had come between the different branches of the Plunkett dynasty.
The final occurrence of the metaphor of overwhelming comes in The Curse of the Wise Woman, when the old woman of the title summons occult forces to move the bog of Lisronagh to overwhelm the industrial peat-cutting machines of a syndicate, whose operations threaten to destroy the bog completely. The old woman, Mrs Marlin, is a visionary, who has dealings with the past in the form of the half forgotten Land of Youth, Tir-nan-Og, and whose visions of the future include an Irish Empire that dwarfs Britain’s: ‘And the ambassadors from foreign lands, coming to greet us, will pass up our rivers, and anchor under the walls of the Irish cities, and see their ships go dark from the shade of our towers and humble from the glow of our cities’ pride.’ Her powers when she exerts them against the syndicate prove to be formidable, and involve all the transient things that unite the Irish in spite of politics: among other things the land, the weather, a love of language, a delight in the past, a passion for the future. ‘I could not distinguish words or even what language she spoke in,’ the narrator tells us as he watches her curse slowly take effect:
And then the great lights appeared, the lights I had often read of but never seen, the will-o’-the-wisps over the deeps of the bog; and, strange as they looked out there on that desperate night, it was stranger to hear her crooning to them, welcoming them one by one, so far as I was able to make out from the tones of words that I could not hear.
Mrs Marlin disappears when the bog moves in response to her curses, drowning in a sea of peat along with the machinery. But she leaves behind two things: the memory of a wonderful past as recorded in songs and stories, and the hope of an extraordinary future, to be written in a strange new language the young narrator has not yet learned. Dunsany shared with Stephens a political imagination; and like those of Stephens his books are intended to return it to its source, the Irish people, as well as to extend their local knowledge to a worldwide audience. It’s time to do justice to the vast ambitions of these two fine writers.
Warm thanks to Kirsty Lusk for letting me read her brilliant MA dissertation on Dunsany, and for providing much additional information; and to Thomas Clancy for asking me to give this paper to the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow.
Terry Pratchett is a craftsman. He takes the mechanics of old stories – fairy tales, legends, fantasies high and low, anecdotes, clichés – and subjects them to careful scrutiny, puzzling over the desires and difficulties that drive them, pondering the question of how they might be adapted to the peculiar circumstances of a modern urban society. Behind him is ranked the massed knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of voracious reading, and the strangeness of this readerly access to the echoing halls and crowded taverns of the past – and of the passages and corridors that take us there, the twisty labyrinthine imagination – never ceases to trouble and delight him. From the Discworld books I plucked Guards! Guards! more or less at random for analysis in the classroom, wondering what it is he has brought to so many readers over a career that was cruelly cut short, and yet delivered an unrolling epic comedy on a scale no one else had dreamed of.
Two elements drive the novel’s plot: the standard story of the dragon and the hero who slays it to rescue the lady, and the story of the unheroic rank and file (here reduced to the ‘rank’, one suspects because of their attitude to personal hygiene) known as the Guards, whose main function in narratives is to be fooled, ignored or randomly slaughtered. Combining the two elements gives rise to an essentially political question: what kind of society perpetuates these particular clichés, one ancient, the other more or less modern (though Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram unseated and casually slew innumerable anonymous knights in Malory), and how do they sit in a world that claims to value democracy and gender equality? How do they sit, indeed, as working models of anything at all? What desires do they cater for? What possibilities for better social structures do they tend to suppress?
One answer, of course, is that both fantasies pander to a certain view of masculinity. Men fight to show their manhood, as the young adopted dwarf Carrot (who is over six feet tall, and rather stooped from having been raised – no pun intended – in the dwarfish mines) has been led to expect, since he sets out on his journey armed with a battered sword and a reinforced codpiece. The hero fights and wins; the Guards fight and lose; the hero thereby confirms his greater share of testosterone. Carrot’s codpiece confirms one of the flaws in this male rite of passage: that even the strongest warrior can be floored by a well-aimed kick in the testicles. The lone hero is ridiculously vulnerable under any circumstances, and the concept of the lone hero facing up to an armour-plated flying monster that breathes fire merely serves to reinforce that vulnerability to a ridiculous extent. Pratchett slightly tips the scales in the hero’s favour by ensuring that his dragons, too, are flawed, despite their scales: their habit of breathing fire involves an insanely volatile digestive system which is vulnerable, in its turn, to spontaneous chemical explosions at awkward moments. The traditional über-masculine hero and the traditional dragon, in other words, are imaginative confections, ill suited to the rough-and-tumble of real city life in any era. Why then do we persist in imagining them, rather than turning our attention to more practical fantasies – such as the unheroic Guards in Pratchett’s book, who prefer not to fight at all, thereby preserving every portion of their bodies, not just the family jewels?
The same thing, of course, could be said of the law – which Hope Mirrlees identified in Lud-in-the-Mist as one of the most inventive products of the human imagination. As well as his sword and codpiece Carrot owns an ancient lawbook, and seeks to put its precepts into practice against all odds, even (at one point) placing a prone dragon under arrest while reciting the charges against it with meticulous reference to the entries in his volume. The city of Ankh-Morpork, to which he travels to enlist in the City Guard, has little respect for either law or order. Indeed its cynical and efficient ruler, Lord Vetinari, has built his success on the principle of encouraging lawbreakers to police themselves in order to protect their own interests – not so much organized crime as crime legitimated, without reference to conventional legislation of any kind. The thieves have their own official guild, which ensures that the proper quantity of robberies is committed each year, and the guilds of assassins, merchants and beggars are equally well integrated into the machinery of the commonwealth. As a result the upholders of the law, the City Guard, have been rendered redundant by the time Carrot joins them. Undaunted by, indeed wholly ignorant of this redundancy, the young man flings himself enthusiastically into the task of enforcing long-forgotten regulations; and in the process he reminds not just the rest of the Guard of the value of what they stand for, but the city as well, whose lapse into absolute pragmatism and self-interest gets arrested – no pun intended – by his quiet assumption that he can do the impossible: uphold the good and protect the weak.
There is something endearing, of course, about Carrot’s idealism, and the city is soon endeared by it – though this is partly because Carrot is immensely strong and, thanks to his codpiece, more or less indestructible by any being of a similar size. He reduces even the troll Detritus to a tearful wreck in a barroom brawl, though here, too, there’s a sound practical reason for his victory: the troll is unfortunate enough not to own a reinforced codpiece. Carrot can stride through areas of the city barred to other Guards, thanks not just to his ignorance but his size; and he can take lodgings in a brothel not just because he doesn’t know what a brothel is but because he affords welcome protection to its workers. Carrot is not just an idealist, he’s a practical asset. And not just because of his strength. His willingness to see the best in everybody helps to forge communities where before there were only loose agglomerations of people banded together for mutual protection. Carrot, then, is not just a stick to beat the wicked, like the traditional hero, but a carrot to tempt them. He has value, which is sometimes measured in carrots – or at least in carats, which are rather less useful than the currency Carrot deals in, honesty, commitment and affection. By the end of the book we have discovered that Ankh-Morpork contains very little gold (the dragon that threatens it is disgusted by its absence); but Carrot imports or restores a new set of valuables – not private parts or a crown, but the simple truths it was in danger of forgetting.
Carrot stands, in fact, for several truths of some importance: that the hero cannot manage on his own; that the qualities traditionally associated with masculinity aren’t enough to sustain an individual, let alone a community; and that the best intentions are useless – indeed highly dangerous – unless they have a solid material basis, a foundation in pragmatism; that is, unless they incorporate a recognition of what can practically be accomplished with the ingredients available. Guards! Guards! is an extended meditation on the precise combination of ingredients required to enable a society to function without falling into either tyranny – totalitarian control by a single authority – or anarchy – not organized anarchism but a Hobbesian struggle for survival. There are a number of characters in it who represent certain points on the scale between the two conditions; and indeed the sheer number of characters that represent these points is what makes each of Pratchett’s later fantasies such a complex feat of narrative engineering.
It’s worth pausing to consider the narrative form within which these characters operate. A Pratchett novel is made up of a series of short chapters written from different points of view. At first the reader has no notion how these points of view – most of them those of misfits, obsessives and eccentrics – fit together in the machinery of plot; and a final understanding of the role of each element is never achieved until close to the end. No one plot strand takes precedence over any other. It’s a democracy of narratives, a cityscape of storytelling, and enacts Pratchett’s philosophy of collectivism; the notion that any major event involves collective rather than individual action – the precise reverse of the philosophy that drives the fairy tale of the Hero and the Dragon.
Motifs and allusions form part of this assemblage, and like the multiple strands of plot reveal their function in the overall machine only near the dénouement. Guards! Guards! includes, for instance, at least a couple of references to that old chestnut of a movie Casablanca. On p. 94, Captain Vimes of the Guards thinks to himself about the dragon that is stirring up trouble in Ankh-Morpork: ‘Of all the cities in all the world it could have flown into […] it’s flown into mine’. At this point, for Vimes the dragon is a solitary problem and an ungendered one; it bears no relation to any other aspect of the narrative, as far as the Captain is concerned. Towards the end of the novel, however, another quotation from Casablanca shifts the focus to another narrative strand, and draws attention to what has changed in the interim. Having accepted an invitation to supper from the dragon-breeder Lady Ramkin, and enjoyed her company, Captain Vimes searches for a way to express his growing fondness for her. ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ is what he comes up with (p. 285). The context for this second reference to the movie is, of course, quite different from that of the first; and it indicates a radical shift in perspective. By this stage in the book the marauding dragon is no longer a neuter ‘it’; the monster has become a female, and ceased to be a monster by teaming up with Vimes’s pet marsh dragon Errol, bred (of course) by Lady Ramkin. As a breeder of dragons, Lady Ramkin has shown an interest in the giant scaled intruder from the start; it is for her a splendid example of the draco nobilis, and therefore related to her marsh dragons. For her, then, the giant dragon is no isolated terror but the member of an identifiable species, linked by blood and habits to the diminutive creatures she rears in her shed. But the dragon’s breed also associates it with Lady Ramkin herself, who is both a member of an ancient breed – the aristocracy – and the kind of large-scale, dominant woman who used in the past to be branded a ‘dragon’. The dragon-breeder’s attitude to the dragon has brought it in out of the cold, so to speak: integrated it into a community, given it a home. And Vimes’s second quotation from Casablanca confirms that something similar has happened to Lady Ramkin. Thanks to the dragon, her status as an eccentric outsider living in isolation in her dilapidated mansion has changed – as has that of Vimes himself, who at the beginning of the novel was a broken-down drunk with only the shreds of an official function. When he parrots Humphrey Bogart, Vimes is looking at Lady Ramkin and really seeing her, perhaps for the first time – not merely (against romance convention, given her size) as a desirable woman, but as a person with many qualities: ‘style and money and common-sense and self-assurance and all the things that he didn’t [have]’ (p. 284). He is looking at her, in fact, as the emblem of the city he loves: ‘she had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city’. The second Casablanca reference, in fact, identifies the moment when both Vimes and Lady Ramkin settle at last into the urban community – thanks to the dragon who first flew into and threatened that community (‘Of all the cities in all the world…’), and later found, like them, that it had brought her love.
Vimes’s reference to Lady Ramkin as a city reverses the cliché he first uttered in a drunken mumble in the novel’s opening pages: that the city is a woman, who both acts like a ‘lady dog. Puppy. Hen. Bitch’ and also has moments when she opens ‘her great big booming rotten heart to you’, catching you off balance (p. 8). Captain Vimes’s trajectory from solitude to companionship, from half-affectionate resentment at the city to contentment with what it offers him, is the point of the novel, which uses it to illustrate the necessity of coexistence in a complex society, and offers itself as a fable of the techniques that make coexistence possible. His journey to companionship identifies Vimes as a true member of the Guard, all of whom are in the end bonded to the city as well as each other. Sergeant Colon shares his house with a wife he never sees, since she works the day shift and he works nights; they communicate through written notes, but their companionship seems to work well for both of them. Lance Constable Carrot, who begins the novel yearning for the dwarf lover he left behind in the mountains, ends it in a contented relationship with one of the workers at the brothel where he first found lodgings. Corporal Nobbs is a member of a Morris dancing club, which shares its quarters with other clubs – including the secret society that summons the dragon. The Guard is a collective, and seeks companionship outside its ranks (or the rank) as a logical extension of its duty to protect and serve the urban community.
In this communitarian impulse, the Guard stands in opposition to the other strand of myth that shapes the narrative. The legend of the Hero and the Dragon depends on exclusivity and uniqueness: the hero is unique in his strength, the princess offered to the dragon is unique in her birth, virtue and beauty, the dragon unique in its monstrosity. And in this novel, the conventional dragon myth is the product and province of self-centred loners. The anonymous Supreme Grand Master of the secret society that summons the dragon, who scorns the other members of his circle and looks forward to the time when he can rise above such dross (his name, when we discover it, turns out to mean Lone Wolf). The members of the society themselves, each of whom harbours a grudge against his fellow citizens. The dimwitted hero selected by the Supreme Grand Master to defeat the dragon, who has been carefully bred in seclusion to think himself special. The dragon itself, as the Supreme Grand Master conceives it: a lonely being, bigger and nastier than any other creature. All these people perceive themselves, and the dragon they summon, as solitary animals – despite the fact that solitude, for Pratchett, is more or less impossible, since no one can survive for long without the help of others (and solitude in this respect is not the same as loneliness, which is suffering born from the fact that being alone is not a natural state for human beings). Solitude is often the chosen state of the selfish rather than the condition of the disenfranchised. It can be a fantasy as recklessly extravagant as dreaming of dragons. To seek to make that fantasy concrete, for instance by seeking to demonstrate your own uniqueness through an act of reckless daring, can be highly dangerous – to yourself as much as to the community you plan to foist it on. Certain kinds of fantasy, in fact, are pernicious, and no practitioner of fantasy fiction can afford to forget it.
There’s a third element in the novel besides the gregarious Guards and the self-segregating Supreme Grand Master: and this is the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, ruler of the city. Vetinari stands (among other things) for cynical pragmatism: the notion that men and women are ruled not by ideals but by self-interest, and that they can only be controlled by appealing to their concern for their own well-being. It’s on this principle that the Patrician founded the Guild of Thieves; if crime cannot be wiped out, why not make it pay? And of course he has a point. At various moments throughout the novel the citizens of Ankh-Morpork find themselves consenting to atrocities, happy to tolerate tyranny if this will ensure their continued survival. When a king emerges to kill the marauding dragon they forget democracy and make themselves monarchists. When a dragon seizes the king’s throne they put on tunics embellished with a dragon emblem. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler sells his sausages with equal enthusiasm on every occasion: at the ritual sacrifice of an innocent woman to the dragon, at the coronation of the king who purportedly killed the dragon, and at the dragon’s installation as the king’s successor. For the Patrician, this makes ordinary citizens like C.M.O.T. Dibbler ‘bad people’; people who will ‘follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity’, out of a ‘kind of humdrum, everyday badness’ (p. 274). He counts himself among them, which is what distinguishes him from the solitary tyrant (or tyrant’s vizier) the Grand Master wishes to become. Lord Vetinari is thoroughly democratic in his dismissal of the moral fibre of humankind. And he also sees what he calls ‘badness’ as functional. Good people, like Captain Vimes of the Guard, need bad people like himself because they know how to planahead, as the good do not. He demonstrates the fact aptly by fitting his prison with a lock on the inside, for the eventuality that he might one day be locked into it, and by making friends with the city rats, ahead of the day when he loses the support of his human followers. Planning like this would have been branded obsessive lunacy or visionary madness by anyone who had known about it before it was confirmed as ‘pragmatic’ or ‘well-planned’ by the Grand Master’s coup d’état, and the Patrician’s imprisonment.
The truth is – as this last sentence implies – that inhabiting a city, and the planning that makes it possible, is not a matter of simple pragmatism, whatever the Patrician may claim (and he admits as much a short while later when he confesses he needs idealists like Captain Vimes). Dreams are necessary, as well as practicality, if the city is to retain its resilience, its endless capacity to reinvent itself in response to every twist and turn of an arbitrary fortune. The adaptability of the citizens of Ankh-Morpork is a testament to their imagination as well as their unerring instinct for survival. They aren’t absolutists – not committing themselves to any one philosophy, since this would limit their capacity for self-defensive metamorphosis. But they are perfectly capable of seeing things from a new ideological perspective when this becomes necessary. And they are also perfectly capable of defending their interests against real oppressors, again when this becomes necessary and not before. A healthy community, in fact, depends on a volatile balance of dreams and pragmatism, much as a dragon’s fire depends on a volatile mixture of chemicals in its various stomachs; and this is the place to return to Carrot, who is the gold standard by which to measure that balance.
As a personality, Carrot has all the qualifications to become a unique hero of the sort the Supreme Grand Master needs to fight the dragon and win the kingdom. A member of the Grand Master’s secret society lists these qualifications before Carrot has even entered the narrative: ‘There used to be some old prophecy or something […] “Yea, the king will come bringing Law and Justice, and know nothing but the Truth, and Protect and Serve the People with his Sword”’ (p. 17). Sure enough, Carrot arrives a few paragraphs later carrying a sword he has inherited, wielding Law and Justice in the form of a book, literal-minded enough to believe he knows what Truth is, and determined to Protect and Serve by joining the Watch. Later in the book, some of his fellow Guards notice something else about him that makes him kingly: ‘“Something odd about that boy,” said Colon, as they limped after him. “He always manages to persuade us to follow him, have you noticed?”’ (p. 253). But by this time Carrot has been integrated into their company; he has changed them and they have changed him. No longer so strait-laced about Law and Justice, Carrot has instilled in them a new sense of responsibility towards their fellow citizens. He may be leading them towards danger like a hero, but before doing so he has asserted the interdependence of the Guards by citing the first part of the famous catchphrase of the Three Musketeers, ‘All for one!’ – to his comrades’ confusion. He has brought them dreams, they have brought him pragmatism, and their qualities have become fused, making all of them stronger. Throughout the book the conventional reader is waiting for the moment when Carrot will be exposed as the true king of Ankh-Morpork – perhaps a few minutes after he has slain the dragon. That moment never happens. The dragon is not slain – it gets a happy ending. Kingship is abolished. The myths are changed. Things are arranged much better than they were in those old stories about winged lizards and expendable nobodies.
Of course, the rearrangement of the stories involves a good deal of magic, though to a different end than the magic of the sword that killed the dragon. One kind of magic involved is the old cinematic magic of the million-to-one chance: the last-minute escape or rescue in a thriller, which is just barely believable, because it could work, but so unlikely as to resemble divine intervention. Another is the magic of the imagination, which conjures dragons into existence as we read. On the final page of the novel, the image of two dragons flying out across the void that circumscribes the Discworld represents just about as magical an ending as you could wish for. The magic that propels the lizard lovers is the special kind Pratchett has engineered out of the components of his tale: a utopian, urban, pragmatic kind of thaumaturgy, unseen outside his books, at least before he wrote them (it has spread since). The sense of community it fosters, too, may last beyond the final page. Or, to paraphrase Pratchett’s last two sentences – themselves paraphrased from the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – perhaps it won’t. But then again, what does?
The Western Isles mark the outermost bounds of human knowledge. East of their sands I have scanned the world from the wings of experience and found it wanting. Westward lies the sea, and beyond that, some say the world’s edge, others the Islands of the Blessed. But I have different expectations. I am a counter of things: I have numbered the hairs on a man’s shin, the blades of grass in a prince’s lawn, the endless combinations of the clouds – everything can be reduced to figures, and the sum of my calculations I proclaim forthwith: all is vanity. But being of an optimistic cast of mind I am offering life one last chance to prove me wrong before I dispense with it altogether. Here is my plan.
They say there is a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow; but I am concerned with greater riches. Every day for untold ages a sun has dropped behind the horizon, sometimes as a great gold coin, sometimes a ruby or a diamond. The accumulated treasure beyond the world’s end could buy heaven and earth a thousand times over. But material wealth means nothing to me; the purpose of my journey is different. I mean to travel to that heap of suns and engage in one last dazzling feat of arithmetic, counting them by hundreds and thousands, with the help of my faithful tally stick, until I have found out what I wish to know: the value of existence, the total sum of days and weeks and years, and whether it is worth it, after all. If yes, then I shall fill my leather bag and return to the world to take up a position worthy of my venture: a warrior-king, an archpriest or a prophet. If no – then I shall let the suns consume me, content to vanish from the face of the earth and be forgotten, like my nameless forefathers before the days of tally sticks and coins.
Of all the petty human race the Western Islanders are the pettiest. Thirty-three – no more – have gathered on the beach to see me off, all ignorant of my vision. The white-bearded Headman leans on his decrepit wife among a gaggle of elders. Children hop in and out of my boat where she rests on the greyish sands. They have stocked her with rations enough to last me many weeks, although the dullest eye can see that the horizon is only five hours’ journey distant, and when I have arrived at my destination I do not expect to need corporeal nourishment.
The boatbuilder hangs between his crutches scrutinizing his handiwork, head sunk between his shoulders. The other onlookers are shepherds and fishermen with weather-blackened faces, rosy island girls, hags swathed in shawls with eyes as dull as rocks among the heather. A little way off the village cow crops the bitter sea-grass. A bird bobs on a nearby rock, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket. I long to throw off these barren regions and attain the vivid country of my dreams, where objects stand forth each from each in bold shapes and brilliant colours, all obedient to the eternal laws of geometry. These farewells have been protracted beyond endurance.
The Headman creaks a blessing, good wishes scutter from the elders like stones dislodged by my boots. The boatbuilder, who has grown familiar with me through our shared concern with his craft, nods his crushed head between his props.
‘Aye, aye,’ he whines through splintered teeth. ‘There’s wonders abroad on the bottomless deep. I’ve heard tell of savages ten feet tall with skin black as ebony from head to toe. I’ve heard of pygmies two feet high with bones in their noses who blow poison through tubes and devour little children. There’s tales of the anthropopagi whose heads sprout from their chests, whose eyes can pierce the blackest smoke and whose ears can hear the fall of a grain of salt in another room. There’s talk of the leviathan with stones and trees rooted in his back; of monstrous maneating birds and mermaids with breasts of ice. Aye, aye, we builders of boats might as well mould vessels of butter on bonfires as wear our bones to dust carving the seagull’s flight into hard wood that’ll rot at last among the crabs and oysters.’
Before he has half done I have set my shoulder to the boat’s stern and given her a mighty heave. Shepherds and children rush forward to help drag her to the water and shove her out beyond the breakers. Ripples chop against the hull. In these ungainly regions everything is always knocking against everything else! I shall arrange things better when I return from looking on the order of the suns.
The first real swell snatches at the boat’s ribs. I swing myself on board making the vessel lurch. Pebbles grate beneath the keel; for a moment I fear that the next surge will nudge me ignominiously back to shore. But the shepherds give me a final thrust and the ocean sucks me in.
Looking back I see the people gesticulating wildly, but their voices are already lost on the breeze. Could they not have raised a concerted shout, a song perhaps to cheer me on my way? Disgusted by their inadequacy I stumble forward to curl myself in the foresheets, fixing my attention on the brightness in the west. Waves open their glutinous mouths beneath the belly of the boat and I slither down their tongues, bubbles seething to left and right. An eddy and a swirl, then my face is pointing skywards between fleshy walls of water, a pallid lump of firmament clasped between their writhing lips. To my horror the waves are resolving themselves into human shapes, lifting and dropping on every side. Did I not, then, leave humanity gesticulating on the beach? The boat rushes to meet the clouds, which resemble the flabby buttocks of old men; but it has left part of my stomach stranded on the sea-bed.
Enough of frail mortality! My spirit can break free of this fleshly prison whenever it likes – leaving a safety cable anchored in my skull – and speed ahead of this coracle in the wake of the sinking sun. Only a few short hours and I will have reached the land where golden orbs form patterns on the pavement of eternity, where the houses are pillared with sunbeams and roofed with the crystal of the spheres. If only this boat would settle into a steady rhythm! The sea rises and falls, the boat rises and falls, even the clouds toss like seaweed at low tide. My paltry frame has no conception of its destiny. All at once earth, sea and sky dissolve into a single stream that gushes through my body. The boat swoops westwards on the wings of fate, while I crouch retching over the prow.
Just before dark I glimpse the tip of the island’s highest peak as it drops below the horizon. In a fit of facetiousness I compare its disappearance to that of the sun, and wonder whether there might not equally be a mound of islands lying below the eastern edge of the world like a pile of dung, bearing witness to the folly of creation as the suns bear witness to its glory. The sky spins round my head, spray soaks me to the marrow, boreal winds dash in from every side to spear me, as if the finny folk in these parts have turned harpoonist. I have seen men fish in my time, but never before fish men. I shall have one tale to tell, at least, if I return! Another convulsion jars the boat from stem to stern; but whether it was the sea or my body that caused it I cannot say.
Hours later, the sickness at last releases me. The invisible waves tumble on through the night. Wedged between lobster-pots and a water-butt at the bottom of the boat I wonder how far I have come, how much farther I have to go. Do I dare consume some of my rations? At the thought, something stirs in the place where my stomach once was, and I hastily turn my mind to my approaching transfiguration. Within hours I shall have looked on the greatest hoard of them all and either been scorched to cinders or begun my ascent to immortality. Men who were once my equals will become the lowest order of creation by virtue of their very likeness to my image. The earth shall split open at my footfall, planets fling themselves down in homage. Death shall swing from my belt. Words shall issue from my mouth as flames.
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment at which the prospect of what I shall become stops being attractive. I know only that I have suddenly started to yearn in the darkness for little fires. Peat fires in hearths blackened by the smoke of generations; the flicker of light in the glaze of a simple pot; flakes of flame flashing in the eyes of a family huddled round a blaze at dead of winter. One among their number tells a story: the tale of the great house that lies below the horizon, pillared with sunbeams, roofed with the crystal of the spheres. Shadows shift on the walls as the tale unfolds, and in each heart there is a little bonfire that whispers and dances in response to the speaker’s words. So that no matter how far the mind may stray, whether to the fever-ridden plains of the anthropopagi or to the glass forests of the Arctic alive with a million rainbow hues beneath the Aurora Borealis, there is always a gentle warmth to greet its return, an answering warmth that flares up when the roofs of the tumbledown homestead hove into view.
What welcome can I expect on my return from the sunny country? Will the boatbuilder glance up from shaping the prow of a smack? Will the Headman hobble down to the dunes leaning on his ancient consort and kiss my cheeks with withered lips, as once he did when I blessed his hovel? But this is frailty, wanderer. On your return there will be no more need of welcomes. Spray drenches me, the boat leaps like a hooked fish, and I am awash with sentiment. I should be ashamed of myself. Am I not more than human? Have I not stretched forth my hand to grasp the celestial orb and drawn myself up alongside it in lonely splendour? Yet here I float on the flood, yearning for a flame, a match, a candle. Surely the boat is spinning in circles, an apt emblem for my frailty.
The sky is light again, the sea no different. But look – as I am shrugged on the shoulder of a wave above the sea’s concupiscent rolling – surely that is land I glimpse rising like dawn from the disorder! In my astonishment I loose my grip on the gunwale and sprawl face downwards in the bilges: for stability in this chaos is a greater miracle than a city of golden spheres! When I top the next wave I find myself closer. In desperation I thrust my hand over the side and paddle till my fingers lose all feeling. At the next crest – heaven be praised! I can almost distinguish rock from heather!
How far have I floated? What land is this? Visions spring unbidden from my memory: of the land where rivers run uphill, where the lotus blooms tended by nymphs of unspeakable beauty with ambergris and jasper in their hair. Visions of bejewelled chimeras, unicorns, golden fruit and the armoured basilisk, the cockatrice, the corkendrill and the solitary firebird. The firebird, hatched from the sun! To this I am transformed as I shrug off the darkness. My nostrils snort the wind in quest of some spicy fragrance. My clothes glow with a tropical warmth, encrusted with salt like coral. All it needs is for the sky to turn a deeper blue and I shall know myself to have entered the odoriferous Indian ocean or the balmy waters off the coasts of Afric. As I have not done since childhood, I raise my feeble voice in a squawk of thanks to the powers that drove me hither over the turbulence.
It seems only moments before I am approaching the shore. I have studied it carefully from a distance to make sure it is no leviathan. The skyline is surely too ragged, the shape too irregular for a fish, however monstrous. A savage climate it seems, scourged by hurricanes, beaten by the tide. A land peopled with primitives who will submit without question to the behest of a golden voyager borne in on the ceaseless surf. And I will be their generous lord: for I no longer despise humanity. My heart leaps in my breast, for here, as if at my summons, a band of natives troops down from behind a promontory to congregate on the dunes. Broken shreds of noise stream past on the wind.
And what a band it is! Giants ten feet tall with skin black as ebony, pygmies no more than two feet high who leap about as if eager for human flesh. One creature appears to be swathed from head to foot in white hair; another is an anthropopagus whose face sprouts from his chest and whose legs spring from his shoulders. Ruddy sirens hang like seagulls above the sands, attended by spirits draped in lichen. And what shaggy beast is this that prowls the middle distance? Surely it is the fabulous cameleopard that stalks the African bush? Legs trembling, I stand erect in my ship to salute the fruitful alien soil. Ever closer skims the boat. My heart soars in my breast.
The keel grates on pebbles, water chops against the hull. Giants and pygmies rush into the shallows sending showers of spray about their knees. They seize the gunwales, cheering and shouting, and draw me up onto the sand. My love for these bright beings is beyond endurance.
Somewhere nearby, an angel spins on a stone, making the noise of two pebbles clicking together in a schoolboy’s pocket.
Among the strangest of all the strange things about The Magic Toyshop (1967) is the fact that it is set when it was written, in the mid 1960s. These were the days when the electrified Bob Dylan shucked off the ‘easy answers’ and ‘easy imagery’ of his early protest songs and became, as Carter put it, a ‘prophet of chaos… clanging and vulgar, neon and plastic and, at the same time, blackly, bleakly romantic’; while the trial of the Rolling Stones could be portrayed as an act of sartorial warfare, with ‘the judge, in ritually potent robes and wig, invoking the doom of his age and class upon the beautiful children in frills and sunset colours, who dared to question the infallibility he represents as icon of the law and father figure’. Over the years, when I’ve asked students to tell me when The Magic Toyshop takes place, they’ve located it at the beginning of the twentieth century in the early days of the decline of the British Empire; or plumb in the middle of the Victorian era, when Dickensian crossing-sweepers begged for alms from top-hatted villains outside Old Curiosity Shops where Little Nell lay dying in a welter of saintly sentimentality. I myself hardly noticed the references to cars and televisions and central heating when I first read it. And Carter clearly intended to generate this chronological confusion: it’s the topic of the book. Her cast of eccentric characters sit on a precarious fulcrum between past and present, like the Western Archipelago itself, like the postwar world, struggling and failing time and again to release themselves from the nightmare of history.
By problematizing the historical location of her novel, Carter put her finger on the pulse of the decade. The precision of the book as an evocation of its period lies in its amazed recognition that 1960s England was still to a great extent 1860s England, that the modern was still struggling to break through the putrescent morass of decaying Victoriana: junkyard relics whose dusty, worn-out, randomly heaped-up contents invade every urban space like Philip K. Dick’s kipple, encumbering every effort of the nation’s exhausted inhabitants to move into another mode of social living. What some now see as acts of massive cultural vandalism in the 60s – the driving of motorways through the heart of great Victorian cities, the wholesale demolition of richly ornamented public buildings, the erasure of parks, fountains, monuments and astonishing feats of industrial engineering – were perceived by many then as a struggle to the death against an oppressive past that refused to die, a grim self-image that pervaded British society from the topmost level of government to your own front room, monstrously perverting every effort to achieve rational change. The Magic Toyshop stands now as a record of this struggle between old and new, the radical young and the reactionary middle-aged. In it, as Carter said of Dylan’s new sound, there are no easy answers, no easy imagery. And the situation seems to have delighted her as a writer as much as it horrified her as a political agitator. It gave birth to her own uneasy imagery, and she went on returning to this clash of timeframes and ideologies in novel after novel, story after story, essay after essay.
The Magic Toyshop has the shape of a Victorian novel. Our innocent but plucky young heroine, nicely brought up and well to do, suddenly finds herself orphaned and penniless, struggling to maintain her identity in the grimmest of working-class households, bravely taking on the burden of responsibility for her helpless younger siblings, wearing her fingers to the bone in appalling conditions, consorting with rough men and women who turn out to have hearts of gold, repelling the unwelcome advances of her evil uncle before winning through to freedom and independence with the heroic assistance of a brave young man. The elements of this plot are so deeply familiar that in themselves they constitute a reminder of how far our Victorian heritage continues to permeate our culture – a situation of which Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events takes full advantage. In Carter’s novel, as in Snickett’s series, each element of the conventional plot undergoes a metamorphosis through the agency of pastiche. Melanie’s wealthy middle-class background, for example, is no idyll – or if it is, it’s a very silly one. The working-class environment to which she’s transplanted isn’t horrible in itself, but only because it’s dominated by an abusive patriarch. Melanie never really takes on the burden of caring for her siblings, although she toys with the idea of doing so when Mrs Rundle puts it into her head. The work Melanie does hardly wears her fingers to the bone; it’s mostly monotonous, and sometimes enjoyable. And so on. But the presence of the familiar Victorian plot keeps reminding us that this book is a fiction, one of an infinite number of fictions by which we measure and judge the lives we lead. And as such, it takes its place among an enormous range of texts – stories, poems, songs and myths – to which Carter alludes in the course of her narrative, as if to demonstrate that we’re constructed from head to toe by the stories we tell ourselves: from the fairy tale of Bluebeard’s Castle which Melanie can never get out of her head, to the poems of Donne and Keats from her school anthology, quotations from which open and close the book; from the Irish songs that comfort the ‘Red People’ in Uncle Philip’s menagerie to Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Through the Looking Glass, which supplies Finn’s Pleasure Ground with its chessboard pavement, gives Aunt Margaret her unruly head of hair – borrowed from Carroll’s White Queen – and invites Melanie to wonder if she is being dreamed by Mrs Rundle (p. 95) as Alice is dreamed (perhaps) by Carroll’s Red King. And everywhere in the novel there are references to Shakespeare, the English ‘national bard’ whose words have taken root in the thoughts and conversations of all Carter’s characters as if in confirmation of the playwright’s dubious status as spokesman for all humanity. It’s worth lingering for a while on the significance of this wide range of textual reference.
If our minds are shaped by old fictions – from the ancient, such as the story of Bluebeard, to the Elizabethan – Donne, Shakespeare – and the late Victorian – Frances Hodgson Burnett, the younger Yeats – then how we tell stories acquires an importance that’s hard to exaggerate. The twists Carter gives to all these tales and allusions become the signs of the times, the markers that indicate potential transformations we will undergo as we launch at last into the new and unexpected narratives that will shape our future. One of the questions this book asks is: will these new narratives succeed in breaking free from the cycle of repression and oppression that has stunted our growth in the course of the twentieth century? – that has left the bulk of the world’s population, at a time of unprecedented technological innovation, locked in a desperate hand-to-mouth existence, needlessly imprisoned in a state of intellectual and political disempowerment, and ignored or humiliated by their self-appointed rulers? Another question she may invite is: which parts of the old stories are worth retaining, and which need to be rejected as the instruments of tyranny, the tools rather than the indicators of a corrupt social hierarchy? As one might expect, she doesn’t answer these questions – she doesn’t pose as a reader of tea-leaves, as Francie does very briefly when he tells Melanie that someone will soon be leaving on a journey. But we can better understand the terms of the two questions if we look at some of the odd things she does to the familiar novelistic situations she sets up.
Here are a few of them. For one thing, the book is full of absurd and excessive touches. The nanny who cooks only bread pudding and who has changed her name to Mrs Rundle by deed poll. The puppet in Uncle Philip’s workshop which bears an uncanny resemblance to Melanie when she put on her mother’s wedding-dress and climbed a phallic apple-tree – an incident he cannot possibly have known about. The twelve-year-old boy who is so uniquely obsessed with sailing ships that he eventually disappears into his own fantasy. The dog that beats its tail in time to music, and which is spotted at the end of the book running upstairs with a basket of flowers gripped between its teeth, in exact mimicry of the portrait of it that hangs in the kitchen. The severed hand of a child that appears in a kitchen drawer, then disappears without explanation. Any reading of The Magic Toyshop has to account for these bizarreries in one way or another; if not, it won’t be an honest response to Carter’s text.
One way of accounting for them is to say that they’re there to remind us, over and over again, that what we’re reading is fiction; that we shouldn’t let ourselves be seduced into accepting it as a slice of historic truth, as we might if it posed as ‘realism’. Bertolt Brecht did something similar in his drama, which he designed as an instrument for exposing the fantasies and fabrications by which the ruling classes maintain their grip on power. Into each play Brecht incorporates a series of devices that make us step back and recognize our position as a theatre audience, capable of analysing the action dispassionately without having our judgement impaired by an excess of imaginative sympathy. Analytic detachment is built into Carter’s novel by the fact that her characters – especially our heroine, Melanie – are so detached from things themselves: ‘She thought vaguely that they must look very striking, like a sot from a new-wave British film, locked in an embrace beside the broken statue in this dead fun palace’ (p. 106). The dog, too, in her uncle’s household, might have been invented simply to surprise us into reassessing our relationship with the narrative. At several points in the story Melanie is not sure if she is looking at the dog or at Finn’s painting of the dog; and the moment in the last chapter when it appears with the basket of flowers might be meant to make us recognize the sheer absurdity of trying to distinguish a painted animal from a ‘real one’ – when the real one is itself only a fabrication constructed from words on a page. The absurdist elements in Carter’s book help to prevent us from abandoning our reason in sentimental sympathy with the plight of our lovely heroine, as we are constantly invited to do by Victorian narrators. But each has, too, a specific function at the moment when it occurs. Each one helps to point up other, less obvious absurdities, which permeate the culture of the 1960s.
Take Mrs Rundle, for example, whose fake title articulates her desire to rewrite history so that she will have fulfilled her destiny as a woman – according to the Victorian conventions by which she lives. She is described entirely in terms of popular fiction: the plays of J. M. Barrie and the comic theatre of the 1950s: ‘She had hairy moles and immense false teeth. She spoke with an old-world, never-never land stateliness, like a duchess in a Whitehall farce’ (p. 3). And she prays in church ‘astonishingly’ for a fake memory to go with her fake name: ‘Please God, let me remember that I was married as if I had really married […] Or at least […] let me remember that I had sex’ (p. 8). Mrs Rundle is clearly ridiculous; but she’s no more ridiculous than, say, Melanie’s father, who insists that his family go to church as a means of forgetting his own class origins: ‘Born in Salford, it pleased him to play gently at squire now he need never think of Salford again’ (p. 7). Indeed, he has so immersed himself in his public role as a successful writer that his own daughter cannot imagine him ever abandoning his tweeds, his tobacco and his typewriter ribbon – even when dying in a plane crash or making love. And his wife, Melanie’s mother, is not much more substantial: she is a set of clothes, and in the course of the novel anything else about her rapidly melts away into oblivion before the more robust presence of the new family Melanie finds in South London.
The rural idyll in which Melanie lives at the beginning of the novel is, in fact, an elaborate fake. So, too, is the ‘naturalness’ of the class system that all this fakery is constructed to preserve; or the illusion of permanent prosperity her first family lives under, which tricks Melanie’s father into failing to save money against a rainy day; or the moral system that assures Melanie she is being ‘punished’ for stealing her brother’s unwanted Biggles books when the false eyelashes she buys with the proceeds prove impossible to apply. The happy family home, too, of the novel’s opening pages, is an elaborate forgery. The loving parents who die, for instance, are total strangers to their children. They know so little about their son that they buy him Biggles books on the basis of his appearance – because he looks like the kind of boy who will enjoy such texts – not of his tastes or wishes. And the three children in this idyllic home spend all their time apart, in separate rooms – in Melanie’s case, at least, behind a locked door. The world they inhabit is the epitome of middle-class individualism, where other people are simply irrelevant to a person’s existence except as an unfocussed backdrop for their private internal dramas, and where money is never thought of except as a kind of atmosphere, a pervasive presence whose loss is unimaginable. Their move to Uncle Philip’s household makes them sociable, as they never were at home.
Mrs Rundle’s name identifies her as the nexus of a network of fantasies that envelop Melanie in the novel’s opening pages. So it’s interesting that she should prove the most enduring element from Melanie’s earlier life later in the novel, reasserting her claim to remembrance by sending the children practical, warming Christmas presents at a time when they have nothing else – and when their parents have left them nothing of themselves at all. Uncle Philip has the role of the moustache-twirling, sadistic, self-satisfied stage villain of Victorian melodrama in this novel; but his contempt for Melanie’s father has a sound material basis:
‘I never could abide your father,’ [he tells her.] ‘He thought ’isself too good for the Flowers by a long chalk, he did. A writer, he called ’isself. Soft bastard, he never got his hands dirty.’
‘But he was awfully clever!’ protested Melanie, stung with defiance at last.
‘Not so clever he thought to put a bit by to take care of you lot when he’d gone,’ Uncle Philip pointed out reasonably. ‘And so I’ve got his precious kids all for my very own, haven’t I? To make into little Flowers.’ (p. 144)
For Uncle Philip, children are there to be shaped into puppets, to perform scripts of his own devising. This is pernicious; but in the rural idyll that opens the novel, too, Melanie is little more than a puppet, shaping and reshaping herself in front of a mirror, but each time coming up with a male fantasy of which her father might approve – in other words, bodying forth a script devised by some higher authority. It’s worth considering, then, how far her life before and after her symbolic Fall in the Edenic garden of her father’s mansion may be described as an exile from Paradise. Or should it rather be described as the first step in the direction of a potential escape-route, a route that would have been closed to her if she had remained her father’s daughter? This view seems to be supported by Melanie’s reaction to a customer who enters the toyshop about half way through the novel. ‘She was an expensive woman,’ we’re told, ‘all in suede, come by car from north of the river. She represented a type of customer they persistently attracted, whom Uncle Philip especially loathed’ (p. 95). Melanie finds she shares Uncle Philip’s loathing, serving her with reluctance and mentally branding her ‘mean bitch’ when she buys the cheapest toy on offer. And as she leaves the shop, we’re told: ‘She was the sort of woman who used to come for the weekend at home, sometimes, with a suitcase full of little black dresses for cocktails and dinner… Melanie could easily have grown up into that sort of woman’. In the course of Carter’s novel, Melanie’s class sympathies shift, and it’s the analytical advantage this profound shift gives her that opens up new possibilities of escape for her from the restrictions and absurdities of middle-class fantasies about women, in which she is so sensuously enmeshed in the book’s first chapter.
Melanie’s reaction to the ‘expensive woman’ also shows how she is starting to make an internal map of London, despite her limited experience of the city. Her division of it into two halves, North and South, with different class affiliations, is one Carter returns to throughout her writing – as in her final novel, Wise Children, whose narrator tells us: ‘Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. There’s been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed throughout the city’ (p. 1). Melanie’s recognition of the suede-clad woman as a migrant from the affluent North marks a stage in her naturalization as a citizen of the capital.
But let’s return to Mrs Rundle one last time. As we’ve seen, her name is one of many fantasies that dominate Melanie’s rural childhood; but it’s also representative of the most potent female fantasy of all, the myth that marriage represents the ultimate fulfilment for a woman. And this myth takes a terrible grip on the novel, monstrously seizing hold of and imprisoning all the female characters we meet. On her wedding day, Melanie’s mother disappears in a ‘pyrotechnic display of satin and lace, dressed as for a medieval banquet’ – we’re never told whether as a guest or as the decorative main course. After this ‘epiphany of clothing’, she never really re-emerges from under the weight of her extravagant garments, and a memory of clothes is all that’s left of her after her death. On her wedding day, Aunt Margaret loses her voice and acquires a straight grey frock and a jewelled choker as emblems of her slavery. Melanie practises repeatedly for her wedding day in the course of the narrative: first with her visions of a ‘phantom bridegroom’ in some ‘extra-dimensional bathroom-of-the-future in honeymoon Cannes. Or Venice. Or Miami Beach’ (p. 2); then when she dresses up in her mother’s wedding dress and finds herself assaulted by a monstrous apple-tree, emblematic of the violent and oppressive masculinity her daydreams have not yet equipped her to deal with. Later she is dressed as a reluctant child-bride by Uncle Philip in an effort to enslave her in his egocentric fantasies, as he has enslaved her aunt; and she’s assaulted again, this time by Philip’s puppet-swan. And finally, new visions of marriage usurp her visions of the future. No longer convinced by the notion of a ‘fancy’ marriage to her phantom bridegroom, she dreams in the end of a working-class marriage full of red-headed children, poverty, squalor, and a replacement Philip in the person of Finn, who appears to her in the role of husband when he takes over Uncle Philip’s chair in the kitchen. Is the vision she has at this point an accurate reading of her future? For her, at this point in the book, it’s the ultimate nightmare, and Finn seems to her less the mythic hero of old Ireland than the end of the road; but he also ends Philip’s swan, burying it in the ruined Victorian pleasure garden where it belongs, then coming to Melanie for comfort, crawling into her bed at night like a child in search of warmth and approval. There’s a potential here for balance and equality between them, if they can find a way to break the vicious cycle of birth, marriage and death that shaped them.
The most monstrous manifestation of marriage in the book is the moment when Melanie sees the severed hand of a little girl in the kitchen drawer. It’s the hand of a child bride as Philip might have imagined it:
It was a soft-looking, plump little hand with pretty, tapering fingers the nails of which were tinted with a faint, pearly lacquer. There was a thin silver ring of the type small girls wear on the fourth finger. It was the hand of a child who goes to dancing class and wears frilled petticoats with knickers to match. From the raggedness of the flesh at the wrist, it appeared that the hand had been hewn from its arm with a knife or axe that was very blunt. Melanie heard blood fall plop in the drawer. (p. 118)
The little girl’s hand might suggest to us that this is the moment when Melanie recognizes that her connection with her past has now been violently cut off; after all, the hand belongs to the kind of girl she once was, a child from a prosperous background for whom nothing was too fancy. But the vision also invites us to think of marriage, since the fourth finger is the place for a wedding ring, being the finger ‘from which a vein leads to the heart’ (p. 120). So marriage too would seem to be a form of severance or cutting off. Above all, perhaps, it is a means of infantilizing women. The silencing of Aunt Margaret renders her childish; and Uncle Philip imagines his child-bride Leda as a child when she is violently wedded to the swan, and attempts to represent Melanie as younger than she is when he incorporates her into his appalling Christmas show, his pastiche of the Christmas story in which another virgin, Mary, was impregnated by another winged visitor from heaven. It’s not surprising, in other words, that the moment when Melanie finds the hand is the moment when she recognizes for the first time her affinity with the Jowles, and especially Margaret. She has become one of Philip’s many imaginary brides – among them Mary Queen of Scots and Philip’s own sister, Melanie’s mother, whose wedding picture he keeps in his room as if from an incestuous desire to share her marriage with the brother-in-law he despises – and as such she has become Margaret’s honorary sister, able to exchange glances of solidarity and understanding with her despite her dumbness.
The severed hand is just one of several emblems in the book of arrested development: of organic growth stopped in its tracks, which is one way of describing the Victorianism of 1960s England. Uncle Philip’s house in particular is full of such emblems: the fact that it is a toyshop, and one self-consciously modelled on a Victorian business, indicates his dedication to the infantilizing of its inhabitants, stopping them dead at a primitive point in their personal evolution. Presiding over the building is a cuckoo clock containing a real stuffed cuckoo: the herald of the Spring symbolically murdered on one of its annual visits and incorporated into the machinery that measures Uncle Philip’s inflexible timetable. On the shelves of the shop are toys that diminish the members of Philip’s ersatz family by mocking them: monkeys wearing Margaret’s and Francie’s clothes and playing Irish music on their own instruments, the fiddle and flute; a Noah’s ark with a miniature Finn on board, which is bought and taken away in cruel mockery of the ‘real’ Finn’s inability to liberate himself from Philip’s clutches. But the toyshop is no more infantilizing an environment than Melanie’s father’s house. There her little sister Victoria first learned to act like an infant, despite being five years old – the age when most children start school. Melanie imagines her continuing as an infant for the rest of her life, hidden away like a second Mrs Rochester in an upstairs room of the family house and ‘pushing her indecent baby face against the bannisters to coo at unnerved guests’ (p. 8). The world of post-Victorian England babifies its female citizens; and the Victorian origins of this process are indicated by Victoria’s name. The British Empress is alive and well in the 1960s, but dwindled to the stature of a cooing toddler and with no prospect of achieving anything more impressive than a baby achieves for the rest of her insignificant and slightly embarrassing existence – despite all the potential for intelligent action cooped up in her diminutive head.
If Victoria is an infantilized Queen, the magic toyshop itself is a kind of shrunken, worn-out replica of the lost British Empire, containing within itself all the essential components of that vast edifice – rather as the Crystal Palace, to which the novel alludes in its usual slantwise fashion, contained representative products from every corner of Britain’s global demesnes. The Jowles are the last sorry remnants of the colonies, flamboyantly Irish in their every word and gesture, playing traditional music, embodying famine, donning Easter Rising trilbies, spouting fatalistic rhetoric and nurturing a dark family secret which is merely one more affirmation of the many cod Irish myths they personify. The silent stoicism of Francie and Margaret under Uncle Philip’s tyranny makes them horrifyingly complacent with it, as they watch Finn’s defiance escalate towards its suicidal climax. Melanie is equally complicit, acquiescing to the various roles imposed on her in the toyshop, allowing herself to be absorbed into the Jowle family, finally letting herself be rescued from a fire by Finn – who often wears a second-hand fireman’s jacket – at the book’s conclusion. Each of them has allowed him- or herself to become Uncle Philip’s toy, his puppet, incapable of thought except in the terms he permits them to think in.
Yet by the time he rescues Melanie, Finn has taken the last and boldest step in his career as an insurrectionist: he has destroyed Uncle Philip’s swan, which is as much a token of mythical Ireland, thanks to Yeats, as it is of patriarchal oppression. Melanie has abetted him in this revolutionary act. Finn has regained his voice and so has Margaret; the two of them have kissed as they parted with ‘stately formality […] like fellow generals saluting each other the night before a great battle where one of the is like to die’ (p. 197). The revolutionary promise of the name Melanie gave the Jowles when she first came to the toyshop – the Red People – has been fulfilled, and a departure from the cycle of oppression even looks feasible. The final sentence of the novel finds Finn and Melanie standing on the edge of an uncertain future in another garden, facing each other with a wild surmise (p. 200); and the phrase both conjures up the spectre of colonialism and entertains the possibility of change. It comes from Keats’s famous sonnet of 1816, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, in which he exults over gaining access to the works of the epic poet in translation (Keats’s family couldn’t afford to have him educated in Greek, which at the time was the preserve of the British elite). The young poet compares the experience of reading the Iliad and the Odyssey to that of a Spanish conquistador confronted by the Pacific Ocean, having crossed the New World:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Cortez is of course the embodiment of colonial oppression – another Uncle Philip. Yet Keats’s poem is a celebration of success in overcoming the disadvantages of his educational background – an effusion of pleasure in new knowledge, and in the promise of further knowledge yet to come. That such knowledge might include ‘new planets’ as radically different from the old as Utopia was different from Europe has been the hope of imaginative writers since the sixteenth century – and Utopia, too, was located in the New World. Carter’s final phrase contains, then, the hope of new knowledge – even as it reminds us of the poetry Melanie imbibed at school, not all of it dedicated to the celebration of oppressors or of marriage. It sums up the hopes and fears of her epoch as quirkily and vividly as the rest of the book does. And one might surmise, too, that it instructs her readers in the state of mind they should entertain when approaching her experimental fiction.
 Angela Carter, Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 323 and 107.
 Quotations are from Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2009).
The man stood in front of the shop window, hesitating.
He was so much in two minds that his body seemed to have divided itself at the waist, shoulders and ribcage twisted round to face the shop, hips and legs striving to drive him forward towards an important meeting in one of the anonymous streets that stretched out in all directions from this roundabout. A twinge at the base of his backbone promised hours of painful regret for his indecision: he would spend this evening stretched out on the sitting room carpet with the cat crouched on his chest, trying to relax as the unctuous voice of the therapist oozed into his ears through headphones thick with earwax. But his two minds would not be reconciled. He was already late for his meeting – and yet the shop called to him in tones of piercing sweetness, assuring him that the meeting did not matter, that meetings need never matter again if he accepted its promise.
Two things drew him towards the shop. One was its situation on the roundabout, lodged in the middle of a row of shops, its windows humming to the throb of passing traffic. The curve of its façade suggested it had been designed to sit on this roundabout, perhaps at a time when the traffic wasn’t so heavy, when you could easily cross to the circle of grass in the middle of the ring of roads and settle yourself on a bench beneath an ornamental tree, among curved flowerbeds, to enjoy the spectacle of passing horse drawn vehicles, the occasional motor driven by men and women wearing goggles and thick leather gloves. Now crossing the three lanes of traffic towards the grass would be an act of suicide, and there was nothing to cross for anyway, no tree, no bench, no flowers on the central island, just a windswept savannah of badly-mown grass. The shop stared out at a blur of hurtling vehicles, torpedoes aimed at targets far away. It had the look of having been stranded in the middle of nowhere, a symbolic ‘O’ of nullity. Yet that gave it a mysterious aspect, transforming it into a kind of small, neat question. This shop had made the transition from somewhere to nowhere with its dignity intact; there must therefore be something behind or beneath its bland white frontage that gave it a firm foundation, a stable identity, in defiance of time and change. What could it be?
The other thing that drew him to the shop was the sign, painted in fancy letters on a grass green background. He read it again as he stood twisted underneath: THE QUITTING SHOP. A shop that invited you to quit. A shop entirely dedicated to making an end. Quit what? he asked himself. Make an end of what? The windows gave no clue. They were entirely screened by expensive-looking white blinds, pulled down so low you couldn’t get a glimpse of the interior by peering underneath. What was this shop inviting him to quit? Well, his journey to the meeting for a start. Late or not, he would have to go in, he knew it now, despite the familiar knot of anxiety that had lodged itself in his chest, despite the urgent alarm bells sounding in his ears, which told him, as his watch did, that the meeting had already started, that he would be late.
He could still get there, he thought, in less than five minutes. This would make him only fifteen minutes late – quite an acceptable margin if he claimed to have been delayed for some specific reason, rather than just because of incompetence in planning his journey. But extend that narrow margin to thirty minutes – such a stretch of time would put the seal on his inefficiency, mark him out as a business associate you could not trust. He hadn’t taken a mobile number, couldn’t call to offer his excuses in advance. He would fetch up on the doorstep red-faced and sweating, without a decent story to excuse his lateness. Could he come up with a decent story inside the shop? He doubted it: his mind was blank, and for all its pull upon him, its magnetic attraction, it didn’t look the kind of place to inspire invention, to awaken the smooth, soft-spoken eloquence that had eluded him on such occasions throughout his life. It looked small and neat and plain. It had no truck with eloquence.
He twisted his hips around till they were aligned with his chest. He could not help himself; he was obeying impulse. He approached the door.
Inside, the shop was as small and neat and plain as it had looked from the street. Plain white walls, ornamented with a single picture: a square of faded patchwork framed in teak. A counter made of some man-made, fawn-coloured substance, smooth and cool. A door behind the counter with a grass green curtain hanging in front of it. Another door in the back wall of the shop, to the right of the counter, this, too, discreetly veiled by a grass green curtain.
A stage set, he thought, for a modern play, an exercise in minimalism.
Somewhere in the depths of the building a little bell rang to announce his entrance. He walked to the counter and laid a hand on the smooth cool surface, hoping to look as if he had a purpose. And he had a purpose, he suddenly realised. He would ask for directions. He would ask the way to the house where the business meeting was now in progress. He would note the directions down on the square of paper he always kept in the inside pocket of his various suits. Everything fell into position: that was why he had entered the shop, that was how he would explain his actions when he finally arrived, in ten or fifteen minutes, waving the paper with the directions on it as evidence of his resourcefulness. He had done the sensible thing: stopped to make inquiries of a friendly local, who would offer him guidance with the clarity and precision one might expect from the proprietor of a shop as neat as this one. The fact that he was a man who never asked for directions, on account of his consuming shyness, would not occur to the people at the meeting, because they did not know him. He had effectively made himself immune to accusations of incompetence. A warm glow swept across his body from left to right, and he relaxed. He would be late, but it did not matter. He was… well… saved.
No one came.
His contentment drained away as if through the hand lying on the counter. He shifted position. He looked around to see if there was another bell to ring, perhaps on the fawn-coloured front of the plastic counter, perhaps to one side. He knew there was not. Anything as conspicuous as an electric button or a bell pull would have stood out in that plain room like a footprint on the unblemished surface of a field of snow. He allowed his fingers to drum the top of the counter, very softly. He looked at his watch.
It was time to go. His tardiness was getting embarrassing.
Still he did not move. A faint draught was stirring the bottom of the grass green curtain that covered the door to the right of the counter. He peered at it, with studied casualness, out of the corner of his eye. He was still facing the curtain behind the counter, but he could feel his body reorienting itself inside, twisting as it had done outside the shop till it faced in two directions, not just one. His feet pointed at the counter in their polished shoes – the left shoe was a little scuffed, he should give it a rub. His chest and head pointed at the door on the right of the counter. He wanted to walk to it, twitch aside the curtain. It seemed an impossibly bold and dangerous move, a move not to be countenanced. He yearned to make it.
He walked to the door, twitched aside the curtain. It was heavier than he had expected. Was it made of velvet?
Beyond the door his nearsighted eyes took in a rolling expanse of countryside, a patchwork of fields that stretched as far as the eye could see into the hazy distance. He adjusted his glasses. He needed a new prescription, had needed one for many months, there never seemed time to make an appointment at the optician’s. He breathed in the scent of the crops in the patchwork fields: the honey smell of pollen, the wholesome smell of wheat and oats and barley, the soothing fragrance of lavender, the perfume of poppies, the whiff of toadstools hidden in the grass. He hadn’t seen fields like that for ages, hadn’t smelt them for even longer, since he was a child. He took a step forwards –
And tripped on something, and pitched forward, reaching blindly out with both hands to cushion his fall.
He sank into fabric. The fields yielded at his touch and folded round him. Their cargo of vegetation pressed against him like a lover’s cheek. The scent of lavender filled his nostrils. Music sounded, and he closed his eyes, and opened them again to find himself sprawled on a giant quilt, an eiderdown for a child as big as the moon. Stars shone above him, embedded in the ceiling, he assumed, or pinned to the fabric of the sky like a million sequins on an evening gown.
He sighed, and settled deeper into the softness.
The woman stood in front of the shop window, clutching her bag.
She had known for many weeks that she would enter the shop on a day like this, had planned ahead for this very moment, packing samples and other necessaries in the holdall, putting on her stoutest shoes when she rose this morning – to the excitement of her mother’s dachshund, who thought the shoes must signify a walk. But now she’d arrived at the door she stood there irresolute, hanging fire, unsure if she should step inside or hurry away. No one knew she had meant to come to the shop this morning. She could just as easily have been going to the shopping centre, or returning from it, though the holdall was an odd kind of bag to take to the supermarket. And if she did go to the supermarket after all, and if someone looked inside the bag as she was putting things into it at the till, they might be surprised to see, alongside samples of fabric from her seventh quilt, a floral nightdress, a heavy torch, a first aid kit, a knife. She wasn’t sure herself why she had packed them. The eccentricity of the lonely, she supposed.
She hung outside the window, practically balanced on the tips of her toes, the handles of the holdall clutched in both fists. Why couldn’t she move? She’d been promising herself this visit ever since she’d first seen it, when walking the dachshund in the wrong direction, looking for the park. Though she’d walked that way before – or thereabouts, she couldn’t be sure, all the streets near her mother’s house looked much the same – she hadn’t noticed the shop, she thought, till that afternoon, and only then because the old dachshund had chosen to have a kind of seizure in front of it, throwing itself down on its old bald belly and quivering from head to tail like a wound-up spring. After tending to the dog – which quickly recovered, looking up with an apologetic wag of its whiplash tail as if to say, ‘Sorry! I was just practising! Not dead yet!’, she had glanced up at the sign above the shop as if in search of some kind of clue to the dog’s condition. THE QUILTING SHOP, the sign had said, in fancy letters on a grass green background. Quilting, she’d thought. What a lovely word. And the picture had formed in her mind of an ancient eiderdown of her mother’s, handed down for generations, which lay on the bed in the unused bedroom at the back of the house. A slightly musty-smelling eiderdown, its colours dulled by the passing years, but patterned with ingenuity and exuberance, like a map of a strange but half familiar country.
Quilting, she thought. The construction of a new pattern from old material. I’d like to try that, one day.
She’d taken a mental note of the shop’s location – marked it on the map in her head with a small red dot, as a thing of importance – then picked up the dog and set off back the way she had come. She had joined a sewing club that week, begun her first quilt, completed it in a frenzy of activity inside three weeks, begun another. She didn’t visit the shop, not yet. She must have a reason. It was not the sort of place you could simply enter, as you’d enter a café for a cup of tea. And then, quite suddenly, the reason came. She had run out of fabric half way through her seventh quilt. So unprofessional! Such a lack of foresight! She was sure no self-respecting seamstress in the old days could have so radically underestimated the quantities of fabric needed to complete a simple design. She must get help, as well as fabric. Expert advice. She must visit the shop.
That night she had packed her bag, but she did not go to find the shop the following day. Day after day went by, and she always found reasons for putting off the visit. A trip to the dentist (though this reminded her to put a toothbrush in the holdall). A doctor’s appointment (ditto paracetamol). A shopping expedition in a neighbour’s car (that was when she had bought the folding knife). It was only that morning, when she woke up, that she had known it was the right day. She had thrown in a few more items: a sunhat, a pair of plimsols, a pen and notepad. She had kissed her mother goodbye, and phoned the carers as she walked away, the leather bag bashing her knees like a malevolent substitute for the arthritic dachshund. ‘Are you still all right for tomorrow? Oh good; that’s kind. I shan’t be able to visit for about a week. I’ve stocked her up – frozen meals and such – but I’d be so grateful if you’d just be willing to keep an eye… You’re so sweet, thank you! See you next week!’ Now, as she stood in front of the shop, she wondered what she’d been thinking. The holdall was very heavy, and the shop very small and ordinary – and besides, her mother might be calling for her even now, in that quavering voice that made you think her frail till you made out what she was saying, the commands, the threats, the imprecations.
She had better go home before she made herself look even more of a fool than she was already.
She raised her eyes to the sign. THE QUILTING SHOP, it continued to say. Quilting: the making of something new from something familiar. She took a deep breath and plunged inside, as if she were plunging into the sea on a chilly morning in early June.
Once inside, she gave hardly a glance to the plastic counter, paid no attention to the distant bell. With a resolution that took her by surprise she marched across the brown linoleum to the curtain that concealed the door on the right of the counter. She swept the curtain aside with a theatrical flourish. Then she stood staring across the rolling fields of barley, the fields of wheat and oats and rye, field after field heaving up and down like breakers towards the dim and distant hills. She gripped her holdall and screwed up her eyes against the rays of the setting sun.
Far, far away, on the crest of a hill, she saw a figure marching away towards the sunset. She thought it was a man dressed in a suit, the jacket of which he had taken off and was carrying loosely across his arm.
She set off after him, walking briskly.
After a while she put down the holdall and began to walk faster.
This post should begin with an explanation. The version of The Sword in the Stone being discussed here is the first British edition, which differs from the first American edition mainly in the chapter about Robin Hood. It differs still more from the version that opens The Once and Future King, which incorporates two episodes from The Book of Merlyn (the final book of the sequence, posthumously published in 1977). That’s the reason many readers will find episodes discussed here that aren’t in the version they read. I’m still convinced that the first British edition is the best, but then that’s the one I read in my childhood…
No writer before T H White, I think, had been so flamboyantly anachronistic in fantasy. The Sword in the Stone (1938) is rooted in anachronism, steeped in it, inhabits it as its element. The clash of periods is embodied in Merlyn, the ancient wizard, who not only lives backwards (like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass) – meaning he is a little confused as to the conventional order of events – but seems to have lived for hundreds of years, since he remembers all the major incidents and changes of fashion between White’s lifetime and the fifteenth century. But Merlyn represents only one small strand of the book’s enmeshed anachronisms. Another is the date in which it’s set. The technology described in the narrative is clearly that of the late medieval period, when Sir Thomas Malory wrote the Morte D’Arthur, despite the fact that the roots of the Arthurian legends are usually traced to around the fifth century. Robin Hood turns up in the guise of Robin Wood – a less outrageous anachronism, since the earliest surviving rhymes of Robin Hood are from the fifteenth century, when Malory was writing, though by the end of the following century he had been firmly relocated to the reign of King John (1166-1216). White’s sources, then – the works of Malory, the rhymes of Robin Hood, the educational tracts, technical manuals and natural histories he draws on – are as enthusiastically blind to what we’d now call historical accuracy as he is. They were reader-facing – primarily concerned with the tempestuous times their writers and their first readers inhabited, rather than with the often impossibly remote times when the events described took place. Malory’s Arthur resembles a participant in the English Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the noble Houses of Lancaster and York which was being waged in Malory’s lifetime. And White’s version is clearly the product of the late 1930s, when dictatorships were flourishing in Europe and the Second World War loomed on the horizon.
The pre-war period is most clearly alluded to in White’s own illustration to Chapter Nineteen of the first edition, where the giant Galapas has the Nazi swastika and the Soviet hammer-and-sickle embroidered on his clothes. White lived in an age of murderous bullies – Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mussolini – and he was not alone in using children’s fiction to combat their aggression. A few years later Eric Linklater penned a sort of wartime companion piece to The Sword in the Stone, The Wind on the Moon (1944), in which a pair of badly-behaved sisters rescue their father from a dungeon very like that of Galapas, where he has been incarcerated by a tyrant called Count Hulagu Bloot. Like White’s protagonist, the Wart, the sisters turn into animals (they spend most of the first part of the novel as kangaroos), and enlist beasts to help in the rescue – most notably a Golden Puma and a Greenland Falcon, who they meet in a local zoo. And as in The Sword in the Stone, the comparison between animals and humans elicited by this interspecies contact is not very flattering to the latter. When the girls-as-kangaroos admit to being children the Falcon thinks it’s brave of them to ‘admit such a lowly origin’; and both the Falcon and the Puma assume that as children they have little experience of ‘freedom’. In fact the girls, unlike the Wart, never know what it is to be animals, despite their transformation, because they never meet a real kangaroo, never learn how you see the world when you have a pair of powerful legs, a muscular tail, and no limits to your freedom of movement. Anarchic though they are in their behaviour (the title of Linklater’s book refers to their periodic bouts of naughtiness, which happen, their father says, whenever there’s a wind on the moon), they never really escape the condition of being young girls, with all its restrictions. Instead it’s the falcon and the puma who forego their freedom to help them in their quest to free their father, and one of whom pays a heavy price for giving its assistance.
The Wart’s transformations, by contrast, enable him to immerse himself in the state of being an animal; and his immersion is a form of technical as well as social, political and moral instruction. This is because White’s animals are first and foremost highly sophisticated pieces of technology. Each of them has a specialist function or set of functions, as is brought out in the episode where a scholarly badger explains to the Wart ‘why Man has become the master of all the animals’. Having created the embryos of all living creatures, God invites them to choose the tools that will be attached to their adult bodies, whereupon each species makes its selection at the eternal throne: ‘They were allowed two or three specialisations, so that some chose to use their arms as flying machines and their mouths as weapons, or crackers, or drillers, or spoons, while others selected to use their bodies as boats and their hands as oars’. Only Man chooses no accoutrements at all and remains a ‘naked tool’ all his life, though a user of tools; always having the potential to be something, never fully achieving that potential; ‘able,’ as God points out, ‘to see some of Our sorrows and to feel some of Our joys’, like a half-made thing – though in compensation he is half of something astonishing, a deity. Having correctly guessed what God wanted when he allowed the embryos to choose – that is, acknowledgement that his creatures should be contented with the way he made them – Man is duly placed in charge of the rest of Creation. But the notion of beasts as technological marvels has already become clear in the course of White’s novel, and their specialisms don’t diminish them in White’s eyes; they are perfect, in their various kinds, as Man is not. Swimming as a small fish, Wart finds, is both an efficient and a tricky accomplishment. Flying as a bird is as hard as flying an aeroplane – which White could do, as he explains in his memoir England Have my Bones (1936) – and as delightful. Deploying the tools of a badger properly – the forks of its arms, the weapons of its mouth – needs experience and craftiness. Being a snake is technically easier than being (say) an owl (though it’s not that easy to know how venom works), but it also entails the learning of endless stories to fill one’s dreams in the months of hibernation, a by-product of the snake’s seasonal operating system. To be an animal involves no less ingenuity than to be a human being, though the ingenuity is of a different kind.
White’s use of anachronism does something similar for the Middle Ages to what his account of the technical difficulties of being a fish does for the beasts: it helps to shatter the sense of superiority the twentieth-century reader is apt to bring to his or her reading of old texts. White makes Malory our contemporary, just as the critic Jan Kott sought to do for Shakespeare. William Morris did something similar in his late romances, which show an admiration for the technology of the fifteenth century – in particular the making of clothes, a central theme in The Water of the Wondrous Isles – very like White’s. Morris’s romances, however, root themselves firmly in the past through their language, which expertly mimicks the language of Malory’s knights and ladies even while rendering them utopian, representatives of a perfection that never existed and has not yet been achieved. White loved his Malory as much as Morris did, but he wasn’t wedded to the past; as I said, he learned to fly as well as to hawk, and wrote well about both experiences (for the former see the fine passage on flying a helicopter in The Master (1957), chapter 22, for the latter see The Goshawk (1951)). His knowledge of new technology surfaces quite often in The Sword in the Stone, most particularly, perhaps, in the section where the Wart learns to fly as an owl. And he writes about the technology of the Middle Ages with the same care and attention as he does about the more modern problem of propelling yourself forwards and backwards underwater, another skill the Wart has to master, this time as a perch. Quite simply, he doesn’t give you a moment to consider the arts of jousting, hawking, or hunting any less complex than the art of landing a helicopter. His anachronism brings his middle ages alive, both as a location where real skill and artistry can flourish and as a place you can laugh about with pleasure rather than superiority. His knights, peasants and scholars may be funny but they can’t be mocked, because their lives are clearly quite as complex as the life of the twentieth- or twenty-first century reader.
Animals and human beings live in a symbiotic relationship in The Sword in the Stone, best expressed in King Pellinore’s relationship with the Questing Beast. The Beast exists only to be hunted, and pines away when Pellinore decides to accept Sir Grummore Grummursum’s invitation to sleep in a feather bed for a while and forget his lifelong quest. The quest itself is not violent but playful; Pellinore’s attempts to catch the Beast are doomed to failure, not just because his tools are inadequate – he’s dressed in full plate armour that restricts his vision, his dog is better at tying him up in its lead than following a scent, the King himself knows very little of the art of hunting – but because the Beast itself is so good at hiding its tracks (it walks backwards, scuffs the ground with its tail, and performs a dozen other tricks to confuse its already confused pursuer). But the very inequality of this relationship – in which the Beast is so clearly the superior intelligence – is what makes it innocent, the ideal representation of the quest celebrated in so many chivalric romances. The knight rescues the Beast from the depths of despair by consenting to abandon his feather bed and return to the chase; the Beast reciprocates by rescuing the knight from the dungeon of the giant Galapas; and witnessing these things presents the Wart with a model for chivalry which will never be matched in all the history of the Knights of the Round Table which he later sets in motion.
More serious symbioses occur elsewhere: in the relationship between hawker and hawk, which explains the immense pride of Hob the austringer when the Wart succeeds in bringing home the errant goshawk, Cully; in the relationship between the professional huntsman Master Twyti and his dogs, so movingly demonstrated at the death of his favourite hound; in the appointment of a boy to live in Sir Ector’s kennels with the hounds; in Master Twyti’s passion for the humble hare, which he describes with as much admiration as if it had been the rarest of mythical creatures (and indeed it is mythical, since Master Twyti’s hares can change sex, ‘which […] no beast in the earth did except it’). This takes us to another point White makes about animals: that the medieval attitude to them was as intellectually challenging as our own scrupulous efforts at taxonomy and empirical observation. For medieval people beasts, like history books, were designed to be made respectful use of by human beings, for moral and philosophical purposes as well as for food. Scientific accuracy about their behaviour wasn’t important; what mattered was how they were read. White knew this from the medieval bestiaries (he translated one, magnificently, in 1954), where the panther’s ability to attract its prey with the sweetness of its breath was likened to Christ’s ability to draw humanity to him, while the beaver’s practice of biting off its testicles and flinging them at hunters became an exhortation to pious men to fling their sins at the devil as a means of discouraging him from his pursuit of their immortal souls. No matter that panthers don’t hunt with their breath, or beavers castrate themselves; the memorable strangeness is what matters, and the morals, often surprising, which that strangeness calls to mind. White even includes a scene in The Sword in the Stone where the local priest exerts all his intellectual energy to find a suitable moral to a story from that peculiar compendium the Gesta Romanorum, in which beasts and people alike become arcane books whose contents must be expounded by the learned for the benefit of their unlearned listeners, who could never have imagined how a white cow could stand for the Church or a pack of noisy dogs be a mob of slanderers. An actual bestiary makes its appearance in the second book of The Once and Future King, Queen of Air and Darkness (originally The Witch in the Wood, 1939), when the Orkney boys, Gawain, Gaheris and the rest, use its instructions to catch a unicorn. But those boys inhabit a world like ours, where the reading of animals such as the unicorn’s body is not practised, so they can’t think of anything to do with it once it’s caught but kill it and cut off its head. The deed foreshadows the loss of innocence that always threatens and finally destroys King Arthur’s Round Table. Later in the same book, King Pellinore accidentally beheads the boys’ father, King Lot of Orkney; and this innocent accident (the old knight was chasing the Questing Beast, as usual, and had nothing further from his mind than assassination) sparks off a feud that leads to his eventual murder, one of a series of murders by the Orkney brothers that escalates with horrible inevitability till it evolves into the final battle between King Arthur and the Orkney boys’ half-brother Mordred.
This brings us to the third theme that runs through The Sword in the Stone alongside exuberant anachronism and instructive animals. The theme is cannibalism: the process by which human beings convince themselves that it is acceptable to treat other human beings like beasts – but without the respect that’s due to beasts according to the medieval rules of the chase – and eat them for dinner. All the episodes in the book that don’t involve beasts contain cannibals: Madam Mim, who keeps boys and beasts in cages ready for the table; the Anthropophagi, who trap the two most animal-friendly humans in the book – the Dog Boy and the wild man, Wat – and plan to devour them; Galapas the giant, who keeps ‘several corpses of human beings hanging up in [his] game cupboards until they should be ready to eat’, and wants to wring a ransom out of another animal-friendly man, King Pellinore. In the version of The Sword in the Stone which he revised as the opening section of The Once and Future King, White abolished the Anthropophagi but replaced them with a witch, Queen Morgan Le Faye, who lives in a castle made of meat, apparently under the illusion that its malodorous walls and roofs will be as attractive to passing strangers as fragrant gingerbread. In The Queen of Air and Darkness Merlyn becomes a vegetarian – though with a lingering and guilty love of hawking – because all human carnivorousness, at least, has become for him a form of cannibalism. To know animals as Merlyn knows them is to find it impossible to eat them, as the Wart discovers when he meets one of the wizard’s pet hedgehogs in the form of a badger. Conversely, to kill men is effectively to be a cannibal; which means that White, like Merlyn and Arthur, found himself living surrounded by cannibals for much of his life.
What this brings home is the sense of a fully-functioning holistic ecology that runs through The Sword in the Stone in all its versions. The anachronistic Middle Ages of the book – rooted as it is in historical sources – is a time when rules of courtesy and scrupulous good conduct govern the relationship between men and beasts, between men and women, between men and men. The later books of The Once and Future King expose the fragility of this ecology; but the Wart’s discovery of its principles in his childhood lays the foundations for his efforts to establish a similar ecology when he ascends to the throne as King Arthur, the king that was and will be. That title – The Once and Future King – identifies the element of utopianism in White’s book; the idea of a way of life from the past (the Wart’s childhood, a reimagined Middle Ages) that may furnish a model for the future, as it did for Morris. White’s, though, is a tragic utopianism, not the Good Place (eutopia) of Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) but the No Place of More’s bittersweet satire, rendered the more painful because of the affection in which we hold its protagonist after living with him through his education.
The Wart represents a community – the birds, beasts, trees, stones and human friends he assembles in his adventures, whose imagined presence helps him draw the sword out of the stone at the end. He assembles this community in much the way that Merlyn assembled the assorted hedgehogs, mice, owls and assorted clutter in his cottage; or as Pellinore assembled the various materials – horse, dog, quarry, equipment – which he needed for a lifetime of questing. Arthur seeks to keep his community close by him when he becomes king, by inviting King Pellinore and Sir Ector to join his Round Table, and by opening a menagerie for the animals to retire to when they get old. But we know, and he learns, that he will never establish a similar community among his human subjects. The attempt, though, is worthwhile – as he says of his adventure with Galapas when he and Merlyn are about to be chopped to pieces by the giant dictator.
Mind you, Merlyn disagrees:
‘Good-bye,’ whispered the Wart. ‘It was worth it.’
‘Good-bye,’ said Merlyn. ‘I don’t think it was at all.’
Most readers of White, I suspect, will agree with the Wart. But then, most readers don’t live backwards.
[This post doesn’t focus on fantasy – though it gets there in the end. I’m putting it up in honour of Burns Night, 25 January; and in response to this recent piece in The Times, which may have slightly over-sensationalised what I’ve been saying about the relationship between Burns and Shakespeare. It’s more or less the paper I gave at the Two Bards Conference on 16 January, which brought the two national poets together in an atmosphere of friendly revelry and rivalry. We had a fantastic day, thanks to all concerned: especially Gerry Carruthers, David Hopes, and whoever was responsible for making it snow while we were standing on Brig o’ Doon.]
As everyone knows, Burns was a passionate lover – of the stage. When a new Theatre was built in Dumfries in the 1790s he gave its actor manager, George Sutherland, his full support, and commissioned his friend Alexander Nasmyth (the man who painted his portrait) to design some scenery. He also wrote prologues for play productions at Dumfries both before and after the theatre was built, and these contain a number of clues to his theatrical tastes. One of them, written for a New Year’s Eve performance in 1789-90, offers the young men and women in the audience sage advice in the person of Father Time, in unmistakable tribute to The Winter’s Tale. Another, written for Mrs Sutherland’s Benefit night in March 1790, gives us a tantalizing vision of a potential canon of Scottish plays to rival Shakespeare’s. ‘Why is outlandish stuff sae meikle courted?’ the prologue asks; there’s ample material for comedy, at least, in Scotland, since ‘A knave and fool are plants of every soil’. But Burns waxes especially eloquent on the theatrical possibilities of topics from Scottish history:
Is there no daring Bard will rise and tell
How glorious Wallace stood, how hapless fell?
Where are the Muses fled that could produce
A drama worthy o’ the name o’ Bruce? […]
O, for a Shakespeare, or an Otway scene
To paint the lovely, hapless Scottish Queen!
For a moment, there, the alluring possibility of a dramatic works of Robert Burns raises its head. Wallace, we know, was a subject he loved, and Mary Queen of Scots could hardly fail to appeal, dying as she did at the hands of a ‘rival woman […] As able – and as cruel – as the Devil’. But it’s hard to think of Burns as a tragic playwright; and another of his prologues, written for the comic actress Louisa Fontenelle (pictured right), dismisses tragic subjects out of hand. The poem depicts Fontenelle approaching a famous poet with a request for a prologue, only to be told that he will only write on serious subjects, and is afraid she will not be able to cope with them:
‘Ma’am, let me tell you,’ quoth my man of rhymes,
‘I know your bent – these are no laughing times:
Can you – but, Miss, I own I have my fears –
Dissolve in pause, and sentimental tears?’
Fontenelle at once rejects his services and ends the prologue by enjoining the audience to follow her example in preferring comedy to tears, sentimental or otherwise: ‘be merry, I advise; / And as we’re merry, may we still be wise!’. Merriment is Burns’s as well as Fontenelle’s forte, and if he’d turned his talents to the theatre it seems likely he would have excelled in comic rather than historical or tragic subjects.
But Shakespeare has shown us that history doesn’t need to be divorced from the comic, any more than tragedy does. The closing words of Fontenelle’s prologue invoke the comedy of Shakespeare’s that’s most closely associated with history, The Merry Wives of Windsor, which teaches that ‘Wives may be merry, and yet honest too’ (IV.ii). The star of the Merry Wives is, of course, Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s unruly companion in the two parts of Henry IV; and Burns had written a prologue for an Edinburgh production of the comedy in 1787. The Merry Wives therefore has the distinction of being the only known Shakespeare play to have been performed in Burns’s lifetime with Burns’s verses attached to it. And it’s my contention that the play continued to resonate in the poet’s mind long after that Edinburgh performance. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that a memory of the Merry Wives lies behind Burns’s favourite poem, Tam o’ Shanter (1790), and helps to lend that poem some of its distinctively theatrical qualities.
If Burns loved the stage, he could also be described as a dramatic poet. His lyrics often resemble miniature plays, as any singer can tell you: in part because they so often involve direct address to a specific listener, or invoke specific actions (think of ‘Ae fond kiss’ or the joining of hands in Auld Lang Syne), or paint vividly realized characters – from Holy Willy to Burns himself. For my money, though, there are two of his works that show us most clearly what we lost when he died without writing anything but prologues for the stage. The first is his cantata, ‘Love and Liberty’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’ (c. 1785); and the second is Tam o’ Shanter. The cantata has often been compared to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, though there’s no hard evidence Burns knew it. It’s hard to believe he didn’t, however, since Gay’s work was probably the most successful play of the eighteenth century, and the one most calculated to appeal to Burns, both in subject matter and form. And as it happens, Louisa Fontenelle was famous for playing two roles in The Beggar’s Opera: Lucy, which she performed in Edinburgh in 1793, the year when Burns wrote his prologue for her; and Macheath himself in London a few years earlier, in a performance described by the Theatre Journal as ‘offensive to decency’.
‘Love and Liberty’, too, could be described as offensive to decency, with its serial lovers and sometimes explicit lyrics; but it seems to me that it has as much in common with Shakespeare as with Gay. Burns’s little company of homeless drinkers and singers meets in a tavern like the Boar’s Head in Shakespeare’s Cheapside, on a night that recalls the chill of winter invoked in one of Shakespeare’s most popular lyrics (compare ‘When lyart leaves bestrow the yird’ to ‘When icicles hang by the wall’, Love’s Labour’s Lost V.ii). The female innkeeper Poosie-Nansie takes on the role of the hostess of the Boar’s Head, Mistress Quickly, in Henry IV, and the company freely bandies about the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’, as Carol McGuirk has pointed out, despite their obvious contempt for law and sexual fidelity – very much like Falstaff’s gang of self-styled ‘minions of the moon’ (1 Henry IV, Act 1 scene 2). A maimed soldier celebrates the ‘gallant game’ of war and swears to ‘clatter on my stumps’ to serve his country in time of need. His mistress describes him as a ‘hero’, the latest and best in a succession of fighting men she has loved and let go; while her pickpocket friend sings of living ‘like lords and ladies gay’ with her dead lover, the ‘gallant, braw John Highlandman’ who was hanged for breaking the ‘Lalland laws’ despite his unimpeachable adherence to those of his clan. John’s widow is comforted by a pygmy fiddler, who praises her ‘heaven o’ charms’ and promises her a pastoral life of picking over old bones and sunning themselves on dry stane dykes. But his wooing is cut short by a swaggering tinker, who threatens to ‘speet him like a pliver’ with his ‘roosty rapier’ if he doesn’t give her up. The fiddler comforts himself for the loss of the widow by raking ‘fore and aft’ the lover of a penniless poet, a ‘bard of no regard’ who nevertheless sings of his willingness to give women ‘my dearest bluid, to do them guid’ whenever the inclination takes him. The cantata closes with the verses Burns liked best in the sequence, a praise of the vagabond life with a utopian chorus that dismisses the establishment as a bunch of money-grabbing self-servers:
A fig for those by law protected,
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.
‘Love and Liberty’, then, resembles an old-fashioned coronet or garland of verses in which the last line of one poem forms the first of the next. The resemblance is not so much in form as in content, one lover giving place to another in successive songs, just as one gives way to another in the singers’ makeshift beds. Undaunted by this culture of unfaithfulness, the singers praise promiscuity as equivalent to political liberty, and drink as a bottomless source of artistic inspiration. In doing so they recall the quasi-utopian evocation of Merry England in Justice Shallow’s orchard (Henry IV Part 2), where Falstaff regales his friends with promises of riches and influence when his friend Prince Hal succeeds to the throne. In the Land of Plenty that follows Hal’s coronation, he tells them, thieves will no longer be hanged and cowards no longer questioned when they praise their own valour; justice will be in the hands of the lawbreakers, and loyalty to one’s criminal friends will be rewarded, not punished as it was in John Highlandman. The notion of a company of drinkers, thieves and promiscuous lovers as an alternative court is evoked by the presence in Burns’s company of stock characters from chivalric romance: soldiers, musicians, poets, amorous couples. Falstaff too holds mock court, donning a crown in Henry IV Part 1 as he acts the part of Prince Hal’s father (Act 2 scene 4), and Burns’s company seems to echo Falstaff’s. I’ve already mentioned the Poosie-Nansie/Mistress Quickly connection. The tinker – who is also a deserter – recalls the swaggerer Ancient Pistol, while the maimed soldier tells us he displays his wounds, presumably for money, exactly as Pistol plans to do in Henry V. The hanged Highlandman evokes the hanging of Hal’s old friends Bardolph and Nym for pillage in the same play, while the various unfaithful lovers might make us think of Falstaff’s unkept promises of marriage to Mistress Quickly. The sentimental reminiscences of the pickpocket and the poet mimic Justice Shallow’s false recollections of his own youthful gallantry in Henry IV Part 2. Even the final chorus, which questions whether the ruling classes have any reason to think themselves more virtuous than Poosie-Nansie’s clients, reminds us that Falstaff’s plots to gain power and influence in Prince Hal’s England have a bloodier counterpart in the martial plots of the nobility during the civil wars of the fifteenth century. The presence of Hotspur, that hot-headed northern rebel, can be detected behind the fiery attitudes of the soldiers, tinkers and poets of Burns’s sequence, and one wonders whether Hotspur’s alliance with one of Shakespeare’s few Scottish characters besides Macbeth – ‘yon sprightly Scot of Scots, Douglas’ (Henry IV Part One, Act 2 Scene 4) – was one of the things that drew Burns’s attention to the Henry IV plays – especially given the local interest in the Douglas family in Dumfries and Galloway.
Burns’s song sequence ‘Love and Liberty’, then, pays homage to Shakespeare’s Henriad, the Second Tetralogy. That the poet was interested in these plays is confirmed by his poem ‘A Dream’ (1786), written one year later, in which he compares the pleasure-loving Prince of Wales to Prince Hal, who idled away his youth with ‘funny, queer Sir John’. And four years later he produced his own version of Sir John in Tam o’Shanter, whose adventures at Alloway Kirk bear no little resemblance to Falstaff’s only supernatural adventure, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be set in England, and in a locality as specific as Burns’s Alloway. It features Falstaff and a number of his cronies from the history plays: Mistress Quickly, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, Justice Shallow, Master Slender – and tells of Falstaff’s attempted seduction of two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in the hope of financial gain. The women, who have no interest in the fat knight, subject him to successive humiliations before he’s finally discouraged; and it’s the last of these humiliations that’s called to mind by Tam o’ Shanter.
I’ve described the Herne the Hunter episode as supernatural, but from the first we hear of it the tale’s supernatural dimension is clearly a sham. The incident is based on an ‘old tale’ told in Windsor Forest about the spirit or ghost of a hunter who haunts Herne’s oak in winter time, at midnight, wearing ‘great ragged horns’ like those of a stag; but only superstitious old folk tell this story ‘for a truth’, and intelligent people of the next generation don’t believe it (Act 4 Scene 4). Tam o’Shanter’s story, too, is full of food for scepticism. The product of long nights of hard drinking and a culture of extravagant tale-telling, the poem invites its readers to consider whether Tam’s encounter with the devil and a coven of witches might be a hallucination, engendered in Tam’s mind by a combination of booze, the dire warnings of his wife against late-night boozing, frustrated lust, and the dreadful fates of other legendary boozers. Burns’s poem pits what it calls ‘truth’ –that is, the tendency of topers to forget the ‘lang Scots miles’ that lie between the pub and their houses – against the ‘queerest stories’ of Tam’s friend Souter Johnnie, the ‘sage advices’ of Tam’s ‘sulky sullen dame’ against Tam’s own superstitious fear, as he sets off on the journey home, of the bogles, ‘ghaists and houlets’ who may lie in wait for him along the way. But unlike Shakespeare’s play, Tam o’Shanter finally vindicates the supernatural events it relates as another kind of ‘truth’ with a bit of hard evidence; evidence that identifies Burns’s poem, unlike Shakespeare’s play, as a work of Gothic, heroic and erotic fantasy, which frees itself in the end from the influence of its sources.
Like the incident in Alloway kirk, the Herne the Hunter episode in The Merry Wives springs out of a culture of tale-telling and fear of the supernatural; and in it, as in Tam o’Shanter, tales and superstition are woven in with the tensions and conflicts of married life. If the party pooper in Tam’s world is his wife Kate, in the Merry Wives it’s the jealous husband Master Ford, who’s convinced his wife is having an affair with that ‘gross fat man’ Sir John Falstaff. Ford’s jealousy turns him into a kind of devil, as he himself confesses: ‘Amaimon sounds well,’ he says when he first succumbs to it; ‘Lucifer, well; Barbason, well; yet they are devils’ additions, the names of fiends. But Cuckold! Wittol! Cuckold! The devil himself hath not such a name’ (Act 2 Scene 2). And his acquisition of a cuckold’s horns links him not only to the devils he lists here but to the would-be adulterer, Sir John. He calls the fat knight an ‘Epicurean rascal’, that is, a sub-standard stag not worth the hunting; and he assumes he must be in league with the ‘devil’ to have frustrated all Ford’s attempts to catch him red handed. The jealous husband grows more superstitious, in fact, as his suspicions grow. His first search for Falstaff in his house is prompted by a dream, he tells his wife (‘I have dreamed tonight’, Act 3 Scene 3); and when he encounters the fat knight disguised as ‘the fat woman of Brentford’, he assumes at once that the woman is a witch as well as a bawd or madam. ‘She works by charms, by spells’, he insists, to ply her double trade, and he beats her soundly to exorcise her ‘daub’ry’ or magic (Act 4 Scene 2). In Shakespeare’s play, imagining adultery spawns other imaginings, immersing the jealous man in a maelstrom of groundless fear and loathing.
So the final plot laid by the merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, against Sir John Falstaff involves plunging him into the supernatural element to which his own adulterous plots have subjected Master Ford. By convincing Falstaff to dress up as Herne the Hunter – his antlers giving substance to his association with stags and devils – the wives turn him into an image of what he would have made Ford has his plots to cuckold him succeeded; and by having the neighbourhood boys and girls dress up as fairies and the priest as a ‘Welsh devil’ (Act 5 Scene 3) they ensure that the whole community is involved in the magical performance that exposes his adulterous designs. The whole set-up, in fact, looks very like Tam’s encounter with the magic population of Alloway. It takes place at midnight; it’s presided over by an evil spirit; it involves music and dancing (‘twenty glow-worms shall our lantern be / To guide our measure round about the tree’, Act 5 Scene 5); it has a hunting theme (hunting horns accompany Falstaff’s humiliation, just as Tam becomes the quarry when the witches give chase); and in theory it involves the chastening of a notorious wrong-doer (Falstaff or Tam). More strikingly still, the leading lady in each case has the same name. Mistress Page’s daughter Nan plays the fairy queen in The Merry Wives, while the best of the dancers in Alloway kirk is Nannie, the ‘Cutty-sark’ who drives Tam to shout out and reveal his presence. Much play is made of this leading woman’s clothes in both texts – Nan must be dressed in white or green so that she can be identified, despite her fairy disguise, by one or other of her suitors, while Nannie is famously dressed in the scanty clothes made for her in childhood by her grandmother, which makes her stand out from the other dancers. And both Nan and Nannie have outgrown the control of their elders; Nan in that she elopes with a man of her own choosing instead of the suitors chosen for her by her respective parents; Nannie by virtue of her presence at the midnight coven.
The plot links between poem and play, then, are self-evident; but it’s the ambiguous ‘moral’ of each text that most strikingly links them. Tam o’Shanter poses as a kind of parable, enjoining men like Tam to heed their wives’ advice, and to think hard before over-indulging in drink or the contemplation of cutty sarks. But the narrator is clearly in sympathy with his boozy protagonist, ready to shed his own ‘breeks’ like a shot for ‘ae blink’ of a ‘winsome wench’ like Nannie. The epic similes Burns attaches to Tam’s exploits elevate the man from local soak to classical hero. And a similar double standard governs Shakespeare’s comedy. Falstaff’s persecution by fairies is conceived by the merry wives as punishment for his treading of ‘sacred paths […] in shape so profane’ (Act 5 Scene 5) – in other words, for his lechery and greed. At the same time the assault on Falstaff serves as cover for a second plot, whereby a disreputable courtier named Fenton takes advantage of the general confusion to elope with his girlfriend, Nan. The young couple fool Nan’s parents, Master and Mistress Page, by getting married without their consent, and the parents are forced accept the marriage with good grace, conscious that their own tricks have exposed them to this trickery, their punishment of Falstaff’s desires opened up a space for the desires of the next generation. Falstaff closes the action by pointing out with satisfaction that he has not been the only quarry pursued by hunters on this night of wonders: ‘When night-dogs run,’ he concludes, ‘all sorts of deer are chased’. Horns have been distributed all round – and horns, of course, are associated with hunting as well as with cuckoldry. In this play, as in Burns’s poem, moral probity does not mean restraining desire or forgoing liberty. And it’s for this reason, I suspect, that Burns found himself drawn to it.
But there was another reason, perhaps, why Burns might have been attracted to The Merry Wives. I said earlier that the supernatural elements in the final scene were ‘clearly a sham’; but I’m not sure they come across that way on stage. In old editions, the performers who play the fairies are named as characters we’ve encountered in the course of the comedy: old friends such as the parson Sir Hugh Evans, the braggart soldier Pistol, the schoolboy William Ford, and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar’s Head who can’t manage long words. Mistress Quickly is often identified as playing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in place of Nan, who is busy eloping with Master Fenton. But who could actually imagine Mistress Quickly managing that role without mangling it as thoroughly as the craftsmen mangle their roles in the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe, which occurs at exactly the same point in that earlier fairy play of Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream? But she doesn’t. Instead, she speaks unstumblingly some highly complex verses with the genuine fairy flavour, commanding her fairy minions to bless Windsor castle and ‘scour’ its ceremonial accoutrements ‘With juice of balm and every precious flower’. The speech would have reminded the play’s first audiences of the moment in that earlier fairy play when Oberon and Titania pronounce a blessing over the sleeping forms of Theseus, Hippolyta and the young lovers, in a speech that ritualistically erases the bitterness of the squabbles and confusions that preceded it. Like this speech, the song Mistress Quickly sings as the Fairy Queen could be taken as a riposte to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical lobby, who chastised the London players as inciters of lust and other kinds of sensual excess. This particular player, who takes the double role of a female spirit and the landlady of a pub, sings only of chastity (‘Foe on sinful fantasy! / Fie on lust and luxury!) – though she cannot prevent the young lovers from pursuing their fantasies, any more than Titania and Oberon could.
I said earlier, too, that ‘Tam o’Shanter’s story […] is full of food for skepticism’, since it occurs in an atmosphere of excessive drink and superstition. But the veracity of the poem is never questioned by its narrator, who seems to be besotted by Tam and his vision. And at the end of this mock epic, at the very point when the ‘moral’ is pointed up, we are reminded of the one extant piece of material proof that Tam’s experiences really took place. ‘Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed’, the narrator cries,
Whene’er to drink you are inclin’d,
Or cutty sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o’er dear,
Remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare.
The reference is of course to the stump of poor Meg’s grey tail, which was seized by the vindictive Nannie as she galloped across the bridge and pulled off with such force that the horse was left with ‘scarce a stump’. The narrator turns the tailless horse into an eerie warning against self-indulgence; but her taillessness is also something else: a sure sign (within the world of the poem) that Tam’s vision was true, a vindication of the facts of his heroic escape, scot free, from a voyeuristic brush with the devil and his voluptuous accomplices. If we are to remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare it need not be as a deterrent from similar feats but an incitement to them: if Tam could take his pleasure as he did and get away with it so lightly, why not me? Shakespeare’s unexpectedly convincing fairies in The Merry Wives say something more didactic; but their celebration of chastity can also be read, like Tam o’Shanter, as a vindication of the world of sensual delight and imaginative exuberance – in this case, the world of the theatre. And the transformation of the drunken doyens of the Boar’s Head in Cheapside into a fairy ballet de corps could well have sparked off Burns’s poetic act of defiance against the puritanism of his own very different time and place.
 For the ‘terms of chivalry and honour’ see Carol McGuirk (ed.), Robert Burns: Selected Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 221. On this page, too McGuirk says Burns had probably never read The Beggar’s Opera, but his friendship with Fontenelle makes it likely he was familiar with it one way or another.
 The most famous example of this form is Donne’s devotional sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’.
 For more on A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a response to the Elizabethan anti-theatrical prejudice, see my essay ‘Dreams, Freedom of Speech, and the Demonic Affiliations of Robin Goodfellow’, Journal of the Northern Renaissance, Issue 1.1 (March 2009), pp. 129-44. It can be found here.
The inclement weather continues, despite the departure several weeks ago of the angry rain goddess unearthed in the course of our building works here in Glasgow. The unusual quantities of water in our streets have had some unexpected consequences, and we have asked a visiting professor from Thok, Professor Gumbrimipil, to advise people in the area of the appropriate precautions to take against them.
My thanks to the worthy professors, magisters and dominis of the University of Glasgow for permitting me to alert their colleagues, students and support staff to the deadly situation that has developed in the city streets over the last two months. In the Northern Territories of Australia, where I have spent some time on field trips and long vacations, a similar phenomenon has been reported with regard to salt water crocodiles. After heavy rain, deep ponds called billabongs form in places previously dry, and of course these newly-formed water holes are at first quite empty of wildlife with the exception of birds and the occasional drowned and rotting cane toad. If the rain should continue, however, larger animals will take advantage of the formation of new watercourses – rivers, burns and substantial streams – to travel into new territories. Under these circumstances casual human swimmers must take extra care: tempted by the heat into stripping off their clothes and leaping, Agutter-like, into the deep black waters of a previously uninhabited billabong, they may find their legs nipped off by a bull crocodile, or their head unceremoniously removed by a ravenous bunyip. Ascertaining the safety of deep black billabongs is of course difficult; the best method, my friends inform me, is to send your dog or your elderly relatives for a swim before you.
Much the same thing has been reported in recent weeks by observers of the usually clandestine supernatural community of the City of Glasgow. Families of water-sprites with needle-sharp teeth have been spotted undulating along the flooded sidestreets near George Square, their belongings wrapped in bundles made of black plastic refuse sacks, their foodstuff balanced on their slimy heads. Kelpies have been seen not only in their usual place, the River Kelvin, but in the Stewart Memorial Fountain, the boat pond in Queen’s Park, the artificial waterfall at Rouken Glen and the terracotta water feature outside the People’s Palace in Glasgow Green. Even some of the larger puddles in the Dumbarton Road have been seen to host small, brightly-coloured kelpies (a kelpie loses its distinctive rainbow colouring as it gets older). I do not need to tell you how dangerous this is for passing schoolchildren, who may be tempted to jump on a kelpie’s back in the mistaken belief that it is a timeworn fairground ride purloined by some prankster from the Scottish Exhibition Centre and dumped there for entertainment purposes. No Scot will be ignorant of the consequences of such rashness: a kelpie can drown a mortal in less than half an inch of liquid.
What to do under these circumstances? What to do to protect the young and vulnerable? A black umbrella is of course a useful ward against the shyer elementals – not so much because of the sharpness of its iron ferrule as because of its appearance, reminiscent as it is of the batty wings of the greater spotted bogle, the natural enemy of water sprites and kelpies in their highland habitat. But a fully-grown kelpie will not fear a black umbrella, and sterner measures will be needed. A camera flash can be used to blind them, or a LED torch if it is sufficiently powerful – but these are only temporary deterrents, and a mature kelpie will quickly recall that it possesses several sets of protective lids to combat bright lights of every intensity. Stamping and making loud noises is recommended by some experts, but I would not care to try this: noise can infuriate a water sprite in transit, and their teeth are needle sharp, as I think I’ve mentioned. Making faces (‘gurning’) is less than useless, notwithstanding the many erudite articles on this subject penned by my colleague Professor Bulbul.
No, the one sure defence against the water elementals is – to foul their water. This is easier said than done under the current meteorological conditions, when a constant supply of fresh clean water is pouring out of the clouds throughout the day. Even under ordinary circumstances the waterways around Glasgow are much cleaner than they were on my last visit in the early 1980s, when you could still see sizeable clumps of yellowish foam riding down the Kelvin and no fish had been spotted in the city salmon runs for generations. Fortunately, however, what we think of as contamination and what the common kelpie regards as a pollutant are two quite different things. The kelpie is fastidious when it comes to drink. Even the slightest tint of alcohol in its environs will send it scurrying for the nearest river bank, shaking the tendrils round its horsey nose in profound distress. Drink, ladies and gentlemen; drink is our bane and our redemption. Spirituous liquors in particular – anything above, say, 40% abv – are anathema to a water elemental. The addition of merely a few drops of the cheapest whisky to a medium-sized watercourse will have an astonishing effect on all varieties of undine, turning water sprites a deep purple with shock, curling the kelpies’ nose-tendrils into corkscrews and triggering harmless but debilitating seizures in any stray selkies or merpeople who happen to be in the vicinity. Drink must clean up Glasgow’s waterlogged streets in the twenty-first century, just as drink has so often been responsible for sullying that city’s streets – and indeed its global reputation – in times gone by. There could be no simpler solution to the current crisis – if only the Glaswegians were willing to accept its efficacy.
I discovered the undinacidal properties of alcohol quite by accident in 1983 and have been publishing papers on the subject ever since, as any respectable life scientist will tell you. But if that life scientist is an honest one, she will also tell you how my discoveries have been received by my fellow scientists. They were derided, ladies and gentlemen – laughed to scorn as humbug, a schoolgirl hoax, a blatant and irresponsible falsification of the available data. The most vehement deniers of my results have been, I am sorry to say, certain Scottish academics – citizens of the very nation that has most to gain from implementing my solution (if I may indulge in a small but apposite jeu-de-mots) to the current crisis, because of the extraordinarily high density of water elementals to be found there. The headlines in Scottish newspapers that greeted my first publication were sometimes insulting: ‘SPIRITS FOR SPIRITS, SAYS WHISKY-SOAKED SCIENTIST’ was the least of them; ‘BIOLOGIST SEEKS TO DESTROY THE SCOTTISH WHISKY INDUSTRY’, ‘IT’S THE ALCOHOL, STUPID’, ‘A BITTER GUMBRIMIPIL TO SWALLOW’ were other examples. The hostility of Scotland to my work has continued unabated to this day. To my shame I have sometimes wondered whether an excessive attachment to their national beverage might lie behind this irrational behaviour. Could it be that Scots are so addicted to their local aqua vitae that they will stop at nothing to suppress any intimation that it might be used for something more noble than its usual purpose: that is, to be poured in liberal doses down a person’s neck?
For this reason, I seized with eagerness on the invitation from the good directors of the Glasgow Fantasy Hub to compose this article. I felt that it represented my last, best hope of drawing the attention of at least some members of Glasgow’s academic community to the state of their waterways, and to the simple method I have identified of restoring them to a safe condition. Let this be a rallying cry to the staff and students of the university. Go forth in your tens and twenties, ladies and gentlemen of legal age, and purchase whisky – the better the whisky, I have found, the more devastating its effects on any aqueous supernatural body. Unscrew the top of the bottle, turn it upside down, and pour the contents without hesitation or regret into the nearest drain. Your children and grandchildren will thank you for it. Future generations will praise your sacrifice. Even your own livers will show their gratitude in a modest but noticeable way. I urge you to do this for your own sakes and for those of the vulnerable members of your community. And if you do not – well, don’t blame me for the consequences, that’s all I ask. Should you choose to go on drinking whisky rather than spraying it from hosepipes, watering cans and decanters into your local ponds and reservoirs – I won’t be held responsible. I have done what I can. Your destiny remains in your hands, and in the contents of the old oak barrels (formerly used for sherry or bourbon) stored in such astonishing quantities in your warehouses.
Slàinte mhath, as the water-sprites whisper to one another before sinking their needle-sharp teeth into the leg of an unwary traveller. Good health to Scotland, from its sincere well-wisher
Professor Abigail Gumbrimipil
State University of Thok