Precious, my precious

“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

Gollum

The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.

In my continuing read of The Lord of the Rings for my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:

“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’

And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.

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Farther up, farther in

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From Spare Oom to War Drobe:
travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self,
by Katherine Langrish,
introduction by Brian Sibley.
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021

C. S. Lewis changed my life. He certainly influenced the way I thought, though it didn’t quite work out as you might imagine.

From the Afterword.

In a way that doesn’t quite apply to Middle-earth, Narnia’s magic seems to affect adults and children quite differently. And adults who only read C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia in childhood tend to report a nostalgic delight, unlike readers like me, who only became acquainted with them in later life, and whose visits have proved rather more troublesome and even disturbing.

Katherine Langrish has done both, the initial visits and the later return, and this (along with being an accomplished writer herself) puts her in a good position to provide this guide for readers of more mature years. She began honing her skills as a writer with what we’d now call fanfic, eagerly writing her own Tales of Narnia, so when she subtitles her book ‘travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self’ she attempts that difficult balancing trick of simultaneously imagining herself at that impressionable age while observing from her adult perspective.

That she succeeds is of huge benefit for her readers if, like me, one is persuaded to both see with the eyes of one of the target audience and also observe with the mind of the adult critic. Like before and after photos placed side by side of a slightly decrepit house in the process of restoration one is able to see the details of the original building as well as the work done in revealing its materials and structure, all before it’s reassembled into an edifice fit for purpose and a new lease of life.

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When two wrongs make a right

I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.

As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.

As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.

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Patrons and politicos

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance by Paul Strathern. Pimlico 2005

Despite their name (medico means physician in Italian) the Tuscan de’ Medici family rose to prominence as bankers in the 14th century beginning with Cosimo the Elder. With money comes power, and by 1531 the family became hereditary Dukes of the powerful city state of Florence, then Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Two centuries later, however, the Grand Duchy became bankrupt and then sputtered out with the death of the last Duke, Gian Gastone de’ Medici, in 1737. Over some four hundred years the family had held sway in Tuscany as monarchs in all but name.

Paul Strathern’s chronicle of the rise and fall of the Medici family charts the characters who made it as merchants, dukes, popes, queens, scientists, patrons and villains from Medieval to Enlightenment Italy.

Real characters that one can alternately cheer or boo but rarely be indifferent to, their lives are described in some detail against a backdrop of international intrigue, trade and war in a narrative that at times almost feels like fiction if we didn’t know that it really happened. Strathern strikes just the right balance between scholarship and accessibility, and the text is complemented by a selection of maps and portraits.

It’s difficult not to attribute characteristics to the faces that one can see on canvases, even ones that were painted many years after the subject had died, but one is tempted to apply adjectives like ‘ruthless’, ‘determined’, ‘arrogant’, even ‘cruel’. What rarely springs to mind is ‘humorous’, ‘compassionate’ or ‘sensitive’, but we owe the Medici some gratitude as patrons of the arts, even if it was mostly for their own aggrandisement and future renown rather than pure altruism.

Everywhere one goes in Florence stands evidence of their legacy and sometimes largesse, from former offices (now the Uffizi gallery) to the Pitti Palace (which they acquired from former rivals), from public artwork in the Piazza Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio to work they commissioned for various churches in the city. Without their input over those four centuries Florence might not be the same gorgeous tourist trap it is today.


Repost of review first published 5th March 2014

What the rules are

© C A Lovegrove

A Palace of Strangers by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press 2019 (1954)

When I have read novels chronicling family life over years, over generations, I think the thing I have most admired has been the way the incidents were set, in time. It is not until one rises to tell such a story that one realizes the art involved — the art, and the artifice. For events do not fall out as conveniently as one would like.

‘A Palace of Strangers’ Part Two, Chapter V

Hinted at by its quote from the prophet Isaiah in the title, A Palace of Strangers explores the disconnect between two of the Abrahamic religions as it affects one particular family, the Rosenbaums. But there are other disconnects too, between siblings and between cultures during times of piece as well as war. And there are those who inhabit a No Man’s Land — agnostics and atheists, and second generation immigrants — who find neutrality is often no different from being regarded as in opposition.

Though it covers barely a half century Sam Youd’s family saga is intense, absorbing and believable, all the more impressive for its apparently accurate portrayal of religious cultures — Catholicism and Judaism — which he wasn’t himself a part of. Though at times the author’s and the narrator’s lives may have overlapped I didn’t get a sense of the latter merely being a mouthpiece of the former; in fact I was largely unaware of the ‘art and artifice’ that Youd has his narrator admire in real memoir writing.

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Dark portraits in the gallery

in medias res

Now that you’re back
by A L Kennedy.
Vintage 1995 (1994)

Opening a collection of short stories is a little like getting into a lift (or elevator, if you prefer) — you never know who’ll get in, for how long they’ll ride, whether you’re likely to engage with them or what relationship, if any, they are likely to have with each other. Your curiosity may or may not be piqued, you may wrinkle your nose at the smell or be embarrassed at the enforced intimacy, however transient.

What you do know is that, like any passenger in the lift, you’re unlikely to be vouchsafed someone’s life story, that your experience will only produce brief and probably blurry mental snapshots of your fellow travellers.

And so it is with this collection of A L Kennedy vignettes. In virtually every tale the reader arrives in medias res — you pass through gates straight into the midst of the action (such as it may be), trying to guess at characters, motivation, context, relationships, tone; and as each story concludes you never quite know if you’ve got a handle on it all, if your grasping at the situation attains something substantial or merely thin air.

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Grounded? Wanna bet?

Cover art by Sara Pichelli and Justin Ponsor

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal
by G Willow Wilson,
Adrian Alphona, artist.
Marvel Collected Editions 2014

Presenting the international sensation, the All-New Ms. Marvel! shouts the back cover of this collection of numbers 1-5 of the comic book giving us this origin story. “Kamala Khan is an ordinary girl from Jersey City — until she’s suddenly empowered with extraordinary gifts”: and while we’re given some answers to how this came about, like many such origin stories it’s just the start of much more.

What distinguishes the new Ms. Marvel is that she’s not only a Muslim American with Pakistani parents but also just 16 years old; this means that all the usual teenage anxieties and challenges have then to manage different cultural expectations — in addition to the unexpected acquisition of powers undreamt of.

Luckily she has the mental resources to help her deal with her powers, aided and abetted by (a) her addiction to writing Avengers fanfic and (b) her friend Bruno whose interests in biochemistry may lead to a university scholarship. But whether these will be enough for her to cope with the kind of emergencies her Avengers idols have to routinely manage is another matter.

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This summer, in summary

“Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I’ll have a long beard by the time I read them.”

Arnold Lobel

Between now and 1st September I shall be joining in Cathy’s activity 20 Books of Summer — except I’m going for a less strenuous fifteen books. I’ve already indicated a few of the books I’m hoping — nay, intending — to enjoy so I won’t repeat them here but, if you’ll humour me, I do want to advert to my mile-high pile of books.

During our Covid winter lockdown — longer in Wales than in, say, England — I found it relatively easy not to acquire new books: with most “non-essential” retail shops shut (though I’d argue, along with the French government, that books were in fact essential items) and with not being a great online shopper I found it gratifying to watch my shelves get a little more bare and cardboard boxes filling up with completed books for the Red Cross charity shop.

Now, however, to my shame and horror I am starting to requisition replacements faster than I’m consuming them. I blame retail outlets, ‘non-essential’ bookshops and charity shops once more being open for business. Because of course I can’t really put the blame on my weak-willed self, can I?

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Each one in its humour

Jizzle by John Wyndham.
Dennis Dobson 1974 (1954)

Fifteen short stories, five of which appeared originally in magazines like Argosy and Women’s Journal, run the gamut of fantasy, nearly all written in a tongue-in-cheek style not usually associated with the author of The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.

Though jumping from time-travel to artificial intelligence via surreal fantasy, fairytale, legend and myth, these tales nearly always involve individuals caught up in situations beyond their comprehension or control, often to their discomfiture but mostly to our amusement. Though a couple are told in the first person the majority are fly-on-the-wall observational pieces, thus allowing us the privilege of becoming aware of how matters stand a short while before understanding dawns on the unfortunate victims.

Because victims they generally are: and it’s Fate, in the guise of the author, that determines whether they emerge sadder and wiser or don’t emerge at all…

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Desert Island Reads

Islets off the Pembrokeshire coast © C A Lovegrove

Here’s a fun idea the imaginative and inventive imyril thought up recently for the meme Wyrd & Wonder (which celebrates all things fantastical).Desert Island Discs – the classic BBC radio show that inspired this post – allows players to take (a) eight musical tracks (not albums!), (b) a single book (plus the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible or a more appropriate religious / philosophical book of choice as a freebie) and (c) a random ‘luxury’ item to make island life bearable.”

For Desert Island Reads, imyril switches things around. “Castaways may have: (a) eight books – your Desert Island Reads float ashore in a watertight chest, phew! (b) a podcast, TV show or movie – for when you really can’t read any more, (c) one thing you just can’t do without — favourite food, something comforting, a touch of luxury – this can be pretty much whatever you like, so long as it’s inanimate, can’t help you escape or communicate with the outside world. (Don’t worry: you already have access to any medication you require to manage medical conditions, plus a well-stocked first aid kit.)”

I thought I might find this easy, but it turns out I was wrong: I should have taken warning from the fact that my notional choice of eight pieces of music for Desert Island Discs would vary from day to day, even hour to hour! Nevertheless, here goes.

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Terror at the Tor

tor

Marco’s Pendulum
by Thom Madley
Usborne 2006

The cover blurb gives it away: Is the Holy Grail buried at Glastonbury, or something much darker? Well, of course, you know the answer to that, because this would otherwise be a rather tame young adult novel.

Townies Marco and Rosa find themselves separately set down in Somerset, both saddled with parents who don’t seem to understand them and set about both by bullies and by strange and very unsettling psychic experiences.

Pretty soon they find themselves thrown together and flung into a claustrophobic labyrinth under Glastonbury itself (reminiscent of the endings of both Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) in a narrative that is hard to put down and preferably not to be read at night. Well, not by adults anyway.

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Suffolk jinks

Southwold Pier © C A Lovegrove

As coronavirus restrictions on travel began to be lifted across the UK nations we were able to grab a holiday in self-catering accommodation in Suffolk for a special anniversary. That this would involve driving a few hundred miles there and back was a penance worth suffering, and the weather, even if not perfect, was at least tolerable.

We stayed near the pretty town of Southwold which meant walks on the beach and in the vicinity as well as chances to see relatives within driving distance, but a big if unexpected bonus for me was to discover local literary connections. The first real indication of these was a mural of George Orwell on Southwold pier by street artist Charlie Uzzel-Edwards, aka Pure Evil.

Tempting though it was to title this post The Road to Southwold Pier (I settled for a covert allusion to a popular colour for house façades) a little bit of digging revealed a few more literary figures of note, which I’d now like to share with you if you’d be kind enough to bear with me.

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Grim to the brim

Edith Nesbit at her desk

The Power of Darkness: Tales of Terror
by Edith Nesbit,
introduction by David Stuart Davies.
Wordsworth Editions 2006.

‘Very good story,’ he said; ‘but it’s not what I call realism. You don’t tell us half enough, sir. You don’t say when it happened or where, or the time of year, or what colour your aunt’ s second cousin’s hair was. Nor yet you don’t tell us what it was she saw, nor what the room was like where she saw it, nor why she saw it, nor what happened afterwards.’

Edith Nesbit, ‘Number 17’ (1910)

In this selection of Edith Nesbit’s tales of mystery and supernatural occurrences she demonstrates exactly how verisimilitude is a crucial component in ghost stories and their ilk, precisely as the commercial traveller in her short story ‘Number 17’ outlines. But she herself is also an unreliable narrator because with macabre humour she proceeds to break all the rules she puts in the mouth of her commercial traveller: we never discover his name, or of his colleagues, or the location of the inn where the tale takes place; and though we’re given incidental details of how Room 17 is furnished — a coffin-like wardrobe, the red drapes, the framed print on the wall — we end by doubting the reliability of the traveller’s account and thus that of the author.

And here too lie further conumdrums when ghost stories are related: it’s not just the who and what, and the when and where, that go towards their effective reception by reader or listener, it’s how we experience them — the time of day or night, the place, whether orally conveyed or merely seen on the page — and why we choose this genre — our mood or inclination, our desire to be frightened witless — that decide whether such grim tales amuse or bore or chill us.

And, of course, whether the author is the mistress or not of her craft must surely be a deciding factor.

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Crossing places

© C A Lovegrove

River fords are hugely symbolic as crossing places. Think of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt or equally the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Though the crossing may sometimes be done without getting one’s feet wet — by boat or over a bridge — the physical act of wading through on foot or on horseback often holds a psychological significance.

The end of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring has Frodo fording the River Bruinen, not only putting distance between him and the Black Riders but marking the prelude to them being swept away, rather like Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea waters. Such crossings by the hobbits are frequent in The Lord of the Rings, whether the Water on which Hobbiton sits, or the ferry across the Brandywine, or tricksy streams like the Withywindle; they almost always signify passing the point of no return as well as an attempt to leave some danger behind.

In this post, the latest of of my Talking Tolkien discussions for my sixth LOTR reread, I want to look at how Tolkien begins to structure Frodo’s journey and quest. This will only be a partial examination of course because the little party has so far just come a sixth of the way through the narrative.

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