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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind you, Merlyn disagrees:

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

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

Shakespeare, ‘Tam o’Shanter’, and the Theatrical Works of Robert Burns

[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.]

230px-PG_1063Burns_NaysmithcropAs 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!

FontenelleFor 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?’

Theatre Royal DumfriesFontenelle 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.

shakespeareBut 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’.

Jolly Beggars‘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).[1] 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.

Maimed soldier‘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.[2] 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.

themerrywivesofwindsorI’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.

Herne the HunterSo 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.

paint_2But 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.[3] 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.

117The 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.

 

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] The most famous example of this form is Donne’s devotional sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’.

[3] 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.

 

WEATHER UPDATE: KELPIES BEYOND THE KELVIN

IMG_1734The 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

 

 

 

 

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stella Benson, Living Alone (1919)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Erotics of Gormenghast

0156If Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan is about solitude, his second novel, Gormenghast, is about communities. But Gormenghast also contains sexual desire, as Titus Groan to a great extent does not. In it, all the would-be rebels against the tyranny of the castle’s ritual are driven by a yearning for physical consummation that was largely absent from the first Titus novel. Eroticism suffuses the air of the sprawling edifice like pollen in springtime. The Professors of Gormenghast School, some of whom haven’t seen a woman for forty years, find themselves galvanized all at once into various postures of grotesque seductiveness by the invitation to Irma Prunesquallor’s party. The party itself represents Irma’s rebellion against the rigid emotional and physical stasis she has cultivated for decades, embodied in the rock-hard bun at the back of her neck. It is her moment of radiance, when she first becomes aware of the ‘riot of her veins […] the wild thorn-throbs’ of burgeoning passion. Even the desiccated Barquentine, on the eve of his murder, remembers suddenly that he was once married, to a woman who expressed her misery with him by making paper boats, which she ‘sailed across the harbour of her lap or left stranded about the floor or on the rope matting of her bed […] a navy of grief and madness’ (570). He remembers, too, that she bore him a son, a boy whose ‘birthmark took up most of the face’ like a foreshadowing of the parti-coloured skin of Steerpike’s face after his burning. Barquentine has forgotten them because of a different lust, his quasi-erotic desire for the castle ritual over which he presides: ‘He loved it with a love as hot as his hate’ (568). But they are present in the book, whereas in Titus Groan we never learned how and with whom Sourdust fathered Barquentine, and the grapplings of Lady Gertrude and Lord Sepulchrave as they struggled to engender offspring are described as a duty and an embarrassment, to be given over as soon as the proper end has been accomplished.

Desire in Titus Groan was concentrated in Swelter, whose unctuous wooing of his kitchen boys was transmuted into a lust for Flay’s death, played out in a ballet of little cakelets; and in young Fuchsia, who found herself drawn to Steerpike by his peerless mimickry of the stuff of her dreams – action, romance and anarchic comedy as well as passion. In Gormenghast, it is everywhere, as if the castle itself has been aroused. Desire in the book has two poles, between which the globe of passion rotates from season to season. The first is the passion for the stones, most eloquently articulated by Barquentine, Lady Groan, and Flay the exile, as he lovingly maps the maze of the castle’s corridors in quest of its hidden enemies and their victims. The second pole of desire is the passion for the human body, which must find some kind of outlet among the stones’ unyielding matrix if the dynasty of the Groans is to continue. It’s appropriate, then, that the ritual of the castle sometimes offers a space for erotic display. The most explicit example of this is the poem recited at an annual ceremony by the castle Poet to Lady Gertrude and the assembled pupils and professors of the school. The poem is spoken aloud, in the words of the ceremony, because ‘poetry is the ritual of the heart, the voice of faith, the core of Gormenghast, the moon when it is red, the trumpet of the Groans’ (501). Verse here gets linked with love of the stones and Barquentine’s passion for ritual, but the Poet’s text itself is concerned with sex and plants, linking itself to the sinuous creepers that insinuate their tendrils into the castle’s mortar, the hairy embrace of the ivy where Steerpike hides at the end of the book, the thorns and weeds that promiscuously thrive in forgotten courtyards. In none of the editions of the novel is the poem given, but it exists in the manuscript now housed in the British Library: a surreal carpe diem celebration of the irrepressible desires of men, women and vegetation through the seasons:

So is it always when the hairfaced hedgerow
Whores with the sucking legions and the hips
Of autumn prick and parry at the bluebud […]
See! the red timepiece on a damsel’s cage
Ticks to the doomsday crack.[1]

In these lines the passion of the body is bound up with time – an entity the walls of Gormenghast barely acknowledge, or record only in layers of velvety dust, in rot and detritus, the opposite of the throbbings of the body; or in the pages of the book of ritual, which prescribe a duty to every hour and minute of the revolving year. It’s time that precipitates Irma into throwing her party, conscious that middle age is encroaching and that the soirée may represent her final chance to secure a partner. It’s time – forty years of cloistered bachelorhood – that reduces the unfortunate Professor Throd to a state of tumescent rigidity at the sight of Irma. And it’s time that links Titus’s fascination with the Thing to his nascent sexuality, transforming her from a fleeting spirit of the forest to a meticulously-observed, ungainly fusion of frog, bird and weasel, an astonishing blend of ugliness and beauty, rendered attractive by its contradictions as he watches her in the shelter of Flay’s cave.

Titus is absent from the ritual at which the Poet recites his verses because he has been drawn to the fertile chaos of the genuine vegetation that clothes Gormenghast mountain. Here he glimpses the Thing for the first time, the only girl of his age to appear in the book. In this first encounter she becomes for him the emblem of the freedom he craves: his foster sister, conceived out of wedlock; his social inferior, exempt from the cages of language thanks to her isolation, but capable of expressing her defiance of the castle with astounding eloquence; forbidden to him as a companion – sexual or otherwise – by every tenet in the castle’s laws. Above all, she is free from time as it is marked in the castle: the calendar of sterile gestures that succeed each other from year to year; the clock that ticks towards Titus’s exclusion from the company of boys his own age when he takes up his immemorial duties as the seventy-seventh earl. Before this happens, she once again interrupts an annual ritual – the ceremony of the Bright Carvings – by snatching away one of the wooden sculptures that has been designated for the fire. Titus follows her with his eyes as she skims away over the castle wall, then follows her with his body through the secret underground tunnel that leads to the mountain and Flay’s cave. Here he is again confronted by her defiance of time. Her interest in the sculpture lasts only minutes – she kicks it away as soon as she realizes she has made it her own. Her diminutive size suggests she has developed less than Titus over the years since he first saw her. And her premature death-by-lightning, dancing her defiance of him in a rainstorm, identifies her as the polar opposite of the immemorial stones of Titus’s heritage. Her death also internalizes her for him as the emblem of freedom, since it both liberates her from being possessed and limited by Titus (who is after all a representative of the castle, like it or not), and liberates him to pursue the promise she offers of self-sufficiency outside the castle’s perimeters. It makes her timeless, no longer the object of the cycles of his lust but a constant source of inspiration for escape from what was presented to him as his destiny.

The Thing is no mere sexual object; she’s been a rebel since birth. From the first she was defined by her community as the offspring of an illicit union, and as she grows older she expresses her disdain for this definition by stealing their most precious sculptures from under their noses. Her illegitimate status connects her to a poem Peake wrote about the sexual effects of war, when fear and opportunity combine to engender lust, resulting in more births out of wedlock than any comparable period of peacetime:

Sired under hedgerows, O
Myriad infants whom
War has engendered.
Sired in the midnight
Alley, O
Children of the world’s
Blackout, you
Are the theme of this,
A dedicated list
Of words my flowing heart cannot desist.[2]

Such unsanctioned babies, begotten in the crucible of crisis, represent a challenge to heredity as unsettling to the authorities as the presence of an armed enemy. Titus’s attraction to a bastard girl is yet more treacherous, representing as it does the urgency of his wish to sever his connection to the seat of the Groans and thus to end the line. He never consummates this attraction, even in the crisis of the thunderstorm that unleashes a flood on his ancestral home; but the Thing’s death by lightning soon after their encounter in the cave signals for him in any case the end of the line, an ending of life as casual and passionate as the coupling between Keda and her lover that first sparked her into existence. If illicit sex poses a threat to the establishment, which seeks to retain control over its subjects’ bodies, casual death is a rebellion yet more absolute, wresting the body wholly out of the world where such control is practised.

OW, RequiescatThe women in Peake’s novels succumb to casual death with unnerving frequency. Keda, the Thing and Fuchsia achieve exemption from the ritual of wedlock by being destroyed – the first voluntarily, the second by chance, the third by a mixture of chance and her own volition. There’s a huge problem, of course, with representing women as prone to premature death, and a greater problem with transforming the death by fire of one of them – the Thing – into an emblem of a boy’s transition into manhood, or his lust for liberty, or anything else. But the Thing is not just any of these things; she’s not so easy to pin down. For the Bright Carvers she is ‘a raven, a snake, [a] witch’ (579); for Titus she ‘might have been a faun or a tigress or a moth or a fish or a hawk or a marten’; she is a ‘frog, a snake, or a gazelle’ (683); she is ‘effrontery’, ‘disparity’ and ‘difference’ (677-8); above all she is ‘originality’ (682), meaning that she is sui generis, springing self-formed from the wilderness where her mother bore her and unbeholden to anyone else, least of all an earl. Her death by lightning confirms her quickness, her untouchability, her power. And if her end marks the earl’s maturity, it’s because it forces him to recognize he could never have had her, hereditary heir though he may be of a thousand acres of crumbling stone.

Steerpike-06This is a recognition Steerpike never really achieves: the knowledge that he’s not the centre, that he cannot have whatever he plans for, that there’s no such thing, in the end, as absolute mastery. If Gormenghast is a book full of sexual desire for the other, Steerpike is narcissistically self-obsessed – although he can play the part of a lover with consummate ease. As Titus matures with the changing seasons, Steerpike stays the same. Or rather he regresses, shocked out of the total control over mind and body which marked him out in Titus Groan by the disastrous miscalculation that almost kills him when he murders Barquentine. Barquentine’s dying embrace of Steerpike – an embrace of fire – grotesquely enacts the old man’s passion for the stones as he struggles to destroy the traitor who would take possession of them. But it can also be read as a peculiar act of love for the young man he has trained as his successor: after all, we have been told that Barquentine’s love for the castle was as fierce as his hate. The flaming embrace transforms the former kitchen boy into the image of the old man’s piebald son, and confers on Steerpike – albeit at Steerpike’s own behest – the onerous duty of performing the rituals which the son never assumed. And for a while after his recovery – a long while – Steerpike performs those rituals with meticulous precision, as if he has finally fallen under the spell of the unchanging stones.

Unnerved by his failure to kill the old man cleanly, Steerpike loses some of his composure, his supreme self-confidence. Unable to sustain his performance as Fuchsia’s would-be lover he lashes out at her and loses her trust. He needlessly returns to the scene of a past crime, visiting the corpses of the twin sisters he starved to death solely in order to dance and play on their ribs as if on a xylophone. He crows in triumph over their skeletons like Peter Pan, whose pipe-playing and propensity for random acts of violence he also shares. His playfulness gets him noticed and he becomes a fugitive, half pirate, half explorer, turning the corridors of the castle into the labyrinthian tracks of some desert island (that’s one of Peake’s adjectives: ‘labyrinthian’). The tools of his rebellion – penknife and catapult – are a schoolboy’s tools, and his lusts are also a schoolboy’s, dominated by the egotistic desire to take risks, to ‘strut and posture’ (742), to expose himself, to make lewd signs:

His lust was to stand naked upon the moonlit stage, with his arms stretched high, and his fingers spread, and with the warm fresh blood that soaked them sliding down his wrists, spiraling his arms and steaming in the cold air – to suddenly drop his hands like talons to his breast and tear it open to expose a heart like a black vegetable – and then, upon the crest of self-exposure, and the sweet glory of wickedness, to create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare; and then with the towers of Gormenghast about him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams. (742)

CratersHe expresses this complicated lust in a second Peter Pan-like ‘blast of arrogance’ at the end of the novel, the ‘high-pitched, overweening cry of a fighting cock’ (743). And it’s this new miscalculation that kills him. If he had stabbed instead of crowing, Titus would have died; and that’s what would have happened if the encounter had taken place a little earlier in the novel. But by this stage in the narrative Steerpike has exchanged places, so to speak, with the young earl. The boy has matured as Steerpike has retreated into adolescence.

Titus’s maturity expresses itself in a desire for intimacy rather than self-display, for freedom rather than power, for someone else’s body rather than his own. His desire for disparity, for difference is what enables him to break free from Gormenghast, whereas Steerpike has remained narcissistically wedded to dreams about himself, his personal strength and energy, his accomplishments as an actor, his acerbic wit. Such dreams would have taken him nowhere, even if he had lived. Titus’s, on the other hand, take him out into the cold communities of Titus Alone.

Rosemary Jackson speaks of fantasy as the literature of desire. Gormenghast confirms her diagnosis of the genre, while drawing our attention to the pain and frustration of desire in an age of warfare, of habitual repression, of petty ceremony. Yet desire flourishes in the novel, in spite of or thanks to its repression, and finds unexpected outlets in the interstices of a severe and immobile social architecture. Eventually it is unleashed in the torrential rainstorm that kills the Thing, and the resulting flood releases the castle from the threat of Steerpike and Titus from the bounds of the castle at the same time. Peake understands that sexual freedom is as painful and dangerous as it’s ecstatic, and underlines that perception by having Titus weep as he rides ‘out of his world’. In doing so, Titus joins the ranks of the confused adolescents of the 1950s, who had no more idea than Peake’s young earl – or anyone else – of the world they were riding into.

[1] Mervyn Peake, Complete Nonsense, ed. R. W. Maslen and G. Peter Winnington (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011), p. 156.

[2] Mervyn Peake, Collected Poems, ed. R. W. Maslen (Manchester: Carcanet, 2008), p. 202.

Secrets of the Fantastic Short Story

tumblr_ni2qbhNsuY1rzim2co1_500What makes a great fantasy short story? I recently read six of them, mostly from the first half of the twentieth century, and it struck me that they have a lot in common. All are what Farah Mendlesohn calls ‘intrusive fantasy’: narratives in which something impossible breaks through into the world we think we know. All are concerned with entrapment, which is a theme ideally suited to the narrow confines of short fiction. Several involve an element of hesitation on the part of the reader: are we facing the representation of a genuinely fantastic event or is the protagonist the victim of a delusion? Since illness features in all of them, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined is foregrounded in each narrative, though each of them treats that question in a different way.

These are the stories:

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, 1892
Franz Kafka, ‘The Transformation’, 1915
Max Beerbohm, ‘Enoch Soames’, 1916
Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, 1922
D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’, 1926
Dorothy Haynes, ‘Changeling’, 1947

Five of these tales were written in the shadow of war. ‘The Transformation’ and ‘Enoch Soames’ took shape while war was raging in Europe, while de la Mare, Haynes and Lawrence composed their stories in the extended aftermath of global conflict. Yet none of them mentions war (with one exception: Bassett in ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was Uncle Oscar’s batman or military servant, who got a gardening job with Oscar’s family after being invalided out of the army with a wounded foot); an odd omission, one might think, given how large it must have loomed in the lives of the writers. But then fantasy often makes a point of turning away from public events to explore what’s unsaid and unseen in official culture (as Rosemary Jackson puts it in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion). These texts address the wars fought on the domestic front, and much of what’s at stake in these vicious skirmishes concerns the things that are ignored or set aside, neglected, shunned or actively suppressed. Such suppressions are part of a cultural milieu that makes war possible; the fields of Flanders and the slowly decaying house in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ are woven out of the same fabric. The suggestion in these narratives of unseen malevolent or tormented presences could easily be taken for an acknowledgement of the close proximity, in time and space, of inexplicable slaughter.

the_yellow_wallpaper_by_kaitaro04011War thrives on secrets, and each of these stories has a secret at the heart of it. The convalescent narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has secrecy forced on her: her obsession with the wallpaper of the title is something she can’t share with others, and her inability to talk about it means she can confide it only to the pages we are reading, which she has been forbidden to write. Indeed, the wallpaper might be read as an extension of this clandestine process of putting pen to paper, with its grotesquely active lined pattern and the strange images that surface through the lines – funguses, strangled heads, a host of creeping women. The pattern also resembles bars, like the bars on the windows that identify the room where the narrator sleeps – the room with the paper in it – as a former nursery. These bars stand for a different secret: that of her husband, who infantilizes her by refusing to let her write or talk about her feelings, but who presents himself as a benefactor, a physician dedicated to ‘curing’ her of the curse of imagination by barring her from her creative pleasures and her stimulating friends.

Gregor in ‘The Transformation’ is his family’s dark secret, and each of the calamities in the narrative occurs when he emerges uninvited into the public rooms of the flat they live in. His predicament – he has turned into a giant beetle – also seems at times to stand for the reluctance of his bourgeois relatives to acknowledge the material processes (his labour and hard-won earnings) by which they have maintained their middle-class respectability. His work as a commercial traveller is the unacknowledged bug under the family floorboards.

Seaton’s Aunt is Seaton’s secret, in that he has no one he can talk to about her. He can’t articulate her strange tyranny over him, not even to the story’s largely unsympathetic narrator, because it’s not clear that there’s any way of describing exactly who she is or what she represents. His monstrous relative herself has any number of secrets, but only in the sense that she seems to exist on a different plane from anyone else, so that the hidden and unpleasant things she sees with such clarity make the ordinary world a matter of indifference to her – a point of view which is confirmed by her eventual descent into a strangely panoptic blindness.

Rocking Horse WinnerThe boy Paul in Lawrence’s story repeatedly urges his uncle to keep the secret of the fact that he can predict winners at the races by riding his rocking horse at a frenzied gallop. The larger secret of the story, though, is the fact that his mother thinks herself short of money, but cannot say so except to her children, because talking about one’s financial situation is impolite in middle class circles – as too is talking openly about depression or one’s own unhappy marriage.

peake-004Seven-year-old Moreen in ‘Changeling’, like Seaton or the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, has a secret in spite of all her efforts to make it public. She can’t persuade anyone to listen to her when she tells them she can see a witch outside her window, sitting astride a gargoyle on the church steeple. She isn’t listened to in Fairyland, either, when the witch comes through her window and carries her off to live among the Wee Folk. The fairies have had her brought to them as a plaything, and resent her persistent refusal to be playful. And no one listens to her when the witch takes her home again after a year of changing seasons among the little people, and she finds herself confronted as a child of eight with her grown-up replacement, the changeling of the title. The woman’s reaction to the little girl’s arrival on her doorstep is to send for the doctor, no doubt for psychological assessment and incarceration, perhaps in a disused nursery. The story closes with the misting over of the window through which Moreen first saw the witch – and through which she can still see her, older and more gnarled, at the end of the narrative. The misted glass obscures but does not erase the fact of the witch’s existence. In the same way, the story has sketched out the precise details of the wee folk (‘sharp as thorns and shrill as treble chanters’) and their country (‘Yellow leaves soaked sodden into the lake, and rain and frost raced each other over the brilliant berries’) so that they become part of the reader’s memories, despite the bleak mundaneness of the story’s ending.

220px-Enoch-soamesThe one narrative in the list without a secret is ‘Enoch Soames’. Indeed, the story is cruelly explicit about the facts of Soames’s case, which is that he yearns to be made immortal through his writing and instead finds himself made immortal by the writing of Max Beerbohm, whose short story is the only place where his name survives beyond his death. If there is a secret here, it’s the knowledge implicitly shared between Beerbohm and the reader that Soames is in fact no fiction, that this forgotten man really existed and is trapped somewhere, even now, in the devil’s clutches. The potency of this implied shared secret is attested by the desire of some readers to add to the puzzle set up by Beerbohm by staging in their turn an ‘actual’ visit of Soames to the Reading Room of the British Museum in the 1990s, at the exact time to which he was transported by the Devil in the story, and in the exact location where he searched in vain for evidence of his literary immortality. This imaginative extension of Beerbohm’s story into actual twentieth-century history is invited by the author, who fills his tale with references to real events and living people, and even introduces himself into the story as character as well as narrator. But it also represents what seems to me a widespread attitude to the best fantasy short stories: that they are the special secrets of their readers, making us into a cohort of initiates who have been collectively imprinted with their disturbing images and seduced by their strange intelligence, and who recognize each other by certain hallmarks when we meet in public places such as libraries, cafés and second hand bookshops.

MetamorphosisThe notion of private, solitary secrets (which ironically make a kind of secret family out of their initiates) has in most of these stories a social equivalent: a powerful clandestine community whose membership is often exclusively male, and which has its own ‘official’ secrets, its own specialized discourse, designed to exclude and diminish those who don’t know it. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ that community is the medical profession, to which the narrator’s brother and husband belong and into which women can only intrude if they are prepared to serve as acolytes – like the husband’s Sister, the capitalization of whose title marks her out as a hospital official. In ‘The Transformation’ there are several communities from which Gregor is excluded by virtue of his change: the workforce from whom he absents himself as a result of his condition, and from whose company he is barred at once – despite his conviction that he still speaks their language – because they can suddenly no longer understand a word he says. The family, whose notions of solidarity and mutual support he has violated by changing. The three bearded and identical gentlemen lodgers, who take advantage of his presence in the apartment to discharge themselves of the obligation to pay their rent. In ‘Enoch Soames’ the closed community is that of the artistic set of the decadent 1890s who both tolerate and scorn Enoch’s presence among them; and later the community of scholars in the 1990s, who turn him into a spectacle when he visits the British Museum of the future. Unlike Gregor, Enoch speaks the language of the group he longs to join – the decadent artists – with apparent fluency, but the words he uses are empty signifiers, and he continues to use them, and to imbibe the toxic fluid, absinthe, that marked out the artistic set from their contemporaries, long after the rest of that community has moved on to other discourses, other poisons. His scholarly labours, too, prove fruitless, because the only evidence of his existence in the British Museum turns out to be the story we’re reading, ‘Enoch Soames’, which turns him into a work of art. That, at least, is a kind of immortality, though for Enoch such immortality would be hell. He expected perpetual fame, but not as a verbal construct in someone else’s fiction; he planned to be remembered as a shining light, not as the apotheosis of dimness. Another open secret in the story, then, is that it’s Beerbohm rather than the Devil who has condemned his own protagonist to eternal torment.

In ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ the closed male community is that of the school. Running through the narrative – and standing out for a twenty-first century reader by virtue of its obsolescence – is the jargon of the Edwardian boarding school, which Seaton strives to use properly but repeatedly violates (he swears, for instance, which is forbidden by some unspoken agreement among his fellow pupils). Lawrence’s story inverts the situation: the boy Paul finds himself admitted into the brotherhood of the turf, speaks its jargon and gains its respect (with considerable winnings). But for Lawrence masculinity has been irretrievably damaged by the rise of capitalism, and by the apex of that rise, the mechanized war from which the world had just emerged. Paul’s mother dismisses her husband as ‘unlucky’ because his earnings aren’t enough to cover the costs of an upper middle class family. The gardener Bassett’s war injury has turned him into an object of charity, forcing him into companionship with a child rather than grown men. Young Paul struggles to find security by swearing his adult friends to silence about his many secrets; his perpetual mantra is the phrase ‘honour bright’, rendered ironic by the fact that the term ‘honour’ has been permanently tarnished by its overuse in the context of mass murder. The only successful man in the story is Uncle Oscar, who finds common ground with his nephew and his former batman by virtue of their common interest in the races. But he doesn’t come to visit when the child is dying, although he has enriched himself at Paul’s expense. And his belated words of sympathy for his dead nephew (‘poor devil, poor devil’) identify the boy as the unluckiest of the unlucky, a moral and economic reject who has never reached manhood. Uncle Oscar is the scourge of masculinity, not its epitome, and this is brought home to us by the fact that we never see him utter these words: it is his disembodied ‘voice’ that speaks them in the story’s closing lines, like the voice of a self-satisfied deity pronouncing its judgement from behind a screen of obscuring clouds.

In each of these stories, it’s the buildings inhabited by the central characters that both keep and reveal their secrets. Claustrophobic and insanitary, they conceal rooms that turn into prisons whose doors are locked by the inmates – as in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – or ‘echo and answer in […] a medley of infinite small stirrings and whisperings’, as in ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, awakening in their hearers the dreadful awareness of the presence in them of a jailed community of the dead. The locking and opening of doors successively conceal and reveal the noxious presence in the Samsas’ apartment of their shameful insectile relative; while Paul’s house insistently urges on him the irresistible demands of capitalism: ‘the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a kind of ecstasy: “There must be more money! […] There must be more money!”’. Moreen’s home in ‘Changeling’ embodies her imprisonment as the possessor of a truth no one else will acknowledge: ‘The house […] had its windows misted over with damp, and there were lace curtains, and geraniums gasping for air against the panes’. In these stories buildings are strident in bearing witness to the crimes being perpetrated within their walls; and in each the passers-by seem unacquainted with their stony dialect, despite its clarity to the reader, who hears them stirring, whispering, trilling, screaming and gasping as they turn the pages.

Reading RoomOnce again it’s ‘Enoch Soames’ that seems to be the exception. No building dominates: it moves from the Café Royal to various Soho restaurants to the New English Art Club, and in each of these places Soames is the only constant, with his soft hat, his waterproof cape and his incurable dimness. The building everyone remembers from the story is the Reading Room at the British Museum, as seen by the protagonist in the future, and the most striking thing about this is its merciless predictability: its refusal to confirm Soames’s grandiose expectations of discovering his fame in its catalogue; its insistence on fulfilling everyone else’s assumptions about the shape of things to come. On Soames’s return from the future to which he has been sent by his Faustian contract with the devil, Beerbohm questions him as to the people he found there: ‘all of them – men and women alike – looking very well-cared-for? very Utopian? and smelling very strongly of carbolic? and all of them quite hairless?’ Soames’s assent to all these questions may, of course, be due to distraction – he has, after all, every reason to be distracted, since he has just sold his soul to the devil for a glimpse of a future that never took place. His only observation on the future Reading Room is that it is ‘Much as usual’; for him it is no more than a tool, an architectural search engine, and the behavior of the readers merely a nuisance to be ignored as far as possible. For us, on the other hand – the readers of Beerbohm’s story – that ordinariness, the mundanity of the middle desk, the Dictionary of National Biography and the card catalogue, are tools to engineer Soames’s tragedy. The bright light that floods the room from the windows in its famous dome are what mark the dank, ‘dim’ Soames as less than a ghost – a figment spawned by a satire, an image conjured up by words.

Enoch-soames-maxThis ghostliness he shares with the central characters in all the other stories. Each of them fades away as their stories unfold, ignored or forgotten by their closest relatives, their bodies giving way under the strain of sustaining their identity in the face of the impossible – which in each case includes the impossible expectations foisted on them by an inflexible society. The narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ exchanges places with the creeping women from behind the pattern, her trajectory round the nursery-bedroom walls carved out for her, in effect, by her husband’s restriction of her movements. Gregor Samsa’s health declines after his transformation thanks to his family’s shame at his appearance – a shame that takes physical form in the apple that lodges itself in the middle of his back, thrown at him by his irate father in an attempt to force him back into his room. A stronger reason for his decline, however, is his own shame at the trouble he’s causing: ‘His own opinion that he must disappear was if anything even firmer than his sister’s’. Seaton is first diminished then exterminated by his aunt’s contempt; but he is also snuffed out, so to speak, by the contempt of his only friend – the story’s narrator – who is willing, for simplicity’s sake, to accept the aunt’s low opinion of her nephew. Seaton grows incrementally weaker, yellower and more ‘foreign’-looking as the story goes on, until by the end the narrator realizes with a shock that his old schoolfellow had been dead to him for some years before his actual death, buried beneath the piled-up prejudices held against him by his fellow pupils as much as by his aunt’s lifelong certainty that he will soon be added to her ever-expanding collection of captive ghosts.

The boy Paul, meanwhile, like Miles in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, grows feverish under the strain of channeling supernatural forces – or of precociously striving to measure up to the demands and desires of greedy adults. The calling of the doctor at the end of ‘Changeling’ encourages us to predict an anonymous future for Moreen, hidden away in some institution for those whose tales are not worth hearing. She will be disappeared, like the other protagonists, leaving only this curtailed work of fiction as ambiguous evidence that anyone like her ever existed. The great short stories of the fantastic, then, tell the tales of the vanished, the lost, the spurned, the prematurely deceased. And the greatest secret they contain is the secret of who, exactly, was responsible for their disappearance from the pages of history, and for their ghostly resurrection in the pages of story, where what’s lost gets found, for a while, perhaps, depending on the whim of any passing reader.

James Treadwell, Anarchy (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE RECENT WEATHER

Fantasy at Glasgow would like to apologize unreservedly for the recent weather in the West of Europe. The fact is that work on the new Fantasy Hub has intensified since our last report, and that a few weeks ago our digging activities woke an irascible weather goddess from her millennial slumbers under the Adam Smith building. Since then she has been hurling wave after wave of storms at the City of Glasgow, though we understand that the meteorological conditions have also affected adjoining areas. We are doing everything in our power – or rather, in the power of the powers we are capable of summoning up – to soothe her fury, and hope to be able to restore normal weather service in the near future.

Of course normal weather service in Glasgow isn’t anything to write home about, but we hope that eventually a patch of blue sky may be visible from time to time, at least. One day a week, perhaps. If we’re lucky.

Our team of witches, diviners, dowsers, druids and wind whistlers are working round the clock to placate the enraged divinity. Should you hear an eerie chanting while walking home from the campus, be assured that this is nothing more fearsome than the choir of sea nymphs we have recruited to soothe her shattered nerves with the charm of music. Should you bump into a wizened crone wielding a tree branch, be aware that this is a dowser and should not be disturbed on any account – she is doing her best to restore a reasonable measure of water to the city streets, and any sudden disturbance may well unleash her pent-up inner fluids. We apologize for the druids. What can we say? Always and everywhere, we apologize for the druids.

But what can I do, you ask, as an ordinary citizen? The best help you can give us is to stay at home by a roaring fire with a whisky clutched in your fist and a cat on your lap. This will show you are unaffected by the weather, or even enjoying it, and will take the edge off the goddess’s pleasure in tormenting us. If you do have to walk down the streets, try to skip and grin and look generally cheerful. This too will indicate pleasure in the current downpour and discourage the angry goddess in her efforts to make us miserable. Perhaps with enough discouragement she may be persuaded to desist. If you are a druid, however, please don’t try to look cheerful. Fierce warriors have fainted and eternal optimists committed suicide at the sight of a druid’s smile, and a druid skipping in his robes is simply insanitary.

Our most recent efforts have involved a relay of emeritus professors from the School of Decaying and Illegible Manuscripts lecturing the goddess from a window in Special Collections on their favourite textual cruxes. We are hopeful that this is having a positive effect; at 6.47 this morning she was seen to yawn and rub her eyes. Unfortunately when an irascible weather goddess yawns a hurricane ensues, but please be comforted, as you are whisked off over the rooftops, that the wind that’s blowing you away may prove to have been a prelude to quieter times to come. And should your brief journey through the air prove fatal, remember that the grave is a placid place whose inhabitants have very seldom been heard to complain about the damp.

From the Fantasy Hub Development Committee, then, to all who work at the University of Glasgow: be safe, stay dry, and try to look cheerful, unless you’re a druid. Oh yes: and buy loads of whisky.

[Please note that an alchemical photograph of the goddess is forthcoming; it is currently being developed in our Dark Room.]

James Treadwell, Advent (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

51uBsYuS8lL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

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

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

To be continued…