Loving and hating

Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia McKillip,
Introduction by Pat Cadigan (2015).
Fantasy Masterworks,
Gollancz 2014 (1974).

For a novel written in her early twenties, Patricia McKillip’s award-winning fantasy is extraordinarily nuanced, with well-developed characters to the fore and the magical aspects only playing a supportive role. For this is a story of primal human emotions, of love and hate, of self-knowledge and fear, where even the ‘forgotten beasts’ of the title have human feelings. And individual wants and needs decide outcomes that affect many, whether for good or bad, in a world created from memories and echoes of ancient myths, legends and lore.

Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards, from Heald through Myk and Ogam. Her particular skill is ‘calling’, drawing beasts and humans to her and subtly bending their will to hers. This is a dangerous power to wield, and one that demands great responsibility; when we see her, either aged 16 or 28, it is a talent the ethics of with she still has to wrestle with.

In her mountain fastness within Eldwold, with her beasts around her, she can pretty much please herself, calling for another legendary beast and studying her library of magical books. But when the outside world comes calling in the form of a young warrior bearing a child, she has to balance her own desires with the reasonable and unreasonable demands of politics and power.

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Told what to think

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Prefaces. Introductions. Forewords. They’re helpful, aren’t they, when they’re designed to give you an inkling of what’s in store, to whet your appetite for what’s to come. A bit like a extended blurb, maybe to give a bit of context to the work, or a potted history of the author. Useful stuff.

Except when they’re not. When they prove to be dull as ditchwater with extraneous material, or when you’re faced with egregious spoilers, or — if written by a third party — they prove to be principally about … the third party.

Above all, I hate it when introductions basically tell you what to think, to get you to form an opinion of a text which you haven’t yet read. Is there anything more annoying than arriving at a novel with a prejudice formed before the very first sentence, even if planted there with good intentions?

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Messenger with a sealed letter

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The Ghost-Seer.
Der Geisterseher: Aus den Papieren des Grafen von O** und andere Erzählungen
by Friedrich Schiller.
Translation, introduction and notes by Andrew Brown. (2003)
Alma Classics 2018 (1789)

“I am like a messenger who is carrying a sealed letter to the place of its destination. What it contains might well be matter of indifference to the messenger — he is simply out to earn payment for delivery.”

Book Two

Venice, La Serenissima, is the setting for this curious novel by the poet Schiller, but in this work its serene surface conceals a cauldron seething with plots and intrigues, secrets and lies, subterfuge and mysteries. The protagonist is a German prinz who has no prospect of advancing to secular power and so is enjoying a sojourn on the Adriatic, away from his Baltic homeland with its chill climate and cold Protestant theology.

He is accompanied by a Count, the Graf von O***,  who narrates the first half of the story, and then Baron von F***, who a year later writes letters to the now absent Count to appraise him of how matters stand with the Prince. The pair attempt to advise and support the lord as the sojourn proves to be anything but convivial and relaxed.

Beginning during the Venetian carnival the trajectory followed by the initially incognito Prince over a year or so proceeds in unexpected ways, only to be resolved abruptly when, as commenters suggest, the author grew bored with this particular narrative. It’s those unexpected twists and turns that ultimately sustain our interest in Schiller’s novel until the final denouement leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions.

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Unreliable evidence

Berkeley Castle from an old print
The courtyard of Berkeley Castle from a lithotint of the 1840s (public domain)

Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II
by Paul Doherty.
Robinson 2004 (2003).

On the one and only time I visited Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, way back in the sixties, the chamber where Edward II was reputedly murdered was billed as a highlight of the tour.

Later, as a student at Southampton University in 1969, I remember Ian McKellen playing Edward II in Marlowe’s play of the same name, raising shocked intakes of breath as he entered planting a kiss on the lips of the King’s favourite, Piers Gaveston.

The notorious manner of the king’s death — “by a red hot poker being thrust up into his bowels” according to the contemporary Swynbroke chronicle — often overshadows the complicated life and reign of Edward. Paul Doherty’s study promised a new look not only at Edward but also at Isabella, the wife he was betrothed to when both were still young.

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Gods best unsung

Ragusa, modern Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Malacia Tapestry
by Brian Aldiss.
Triad/Panther 1978 (1976)

“Until you have understanding of your nature, your errors — like the errors of history — repeat and repeat themselves in an endless fiction. That is the only knowledge there is.”

‘The Ancestral Hunt’, Book Two

Picaresque, decadent, fantastical, political, dualistic — The Malacian Tapestry lives up to all of these aspects and more. As in the title of the dumb show, the staging of which threads its way through the novel, this novel is a Joyous Tragedy featuring intrigue and betrayal, love and hate, progressives and repressives, apotheosis and degradation.

Above all, its actors appear to be woven into a metaphysical tapestry which, in the opinion of one of the characters, is “presumably for the edification of the gods, who could then inspect us without interference.” Or, as a modern lyricist wrote, “Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know | He’s in the best selling show.”

In this rococo novel Brian Aldiss weaves a splendid tapestry for our edification, interlacing philosophy and art as viewed through the self-centred eyes of its coxcomb narrator: drama, mime, fantoccini theatre, shadow-puppetry and rituals vie with love, lust, licentiousness for the attention of our greedy eyes. But, master magician that he is, Aldiss casts a spell so beguiling that we’re prepared to believe in sorcerers and astrologers, in mythical and prehistoric beasts, in a corrupt city state of unknown antiquity and in inhabitants with a touch of the reptilian about them.

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Remember, remember

Guy Fawkes setting the fuse, by George Cruikshank

“Remember, remember the Fifth of November”… and also all the dates leading up to it: this post is a reminder that Witch Week 2021 will be have as its focus the theme Treason and Plot for a series of guest posts between Halloween and Bonfire Night, all inspired by momentous events back in November 1605.

Duke Prospero’s conniving brother and his associates appeared in Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the first time on 1st November 1611, in front of King James who, you may remember, was the intended target of the Guy Fawkes and the other Gunpowder Plotters.

The play naturally forms an ideal text to consider as part of our week-long event. In a post entitled ‘Rough Magic’ I have discussed D G James’s collected essays on the play, The Dream of Prospero (1967), which included the conventional belief that Shakespeare himself took the part of Prospero, as a kind of farewell to the stage in this his final play.

But much more is being offered as part of our Treason and Plot theme, so in the meantime here are some bookish suggestions for you to get you in the mood.

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Worlds of possibility

‘River Landscape with the Church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, Rome’ by Jan Asselijn

Our world is only one of a number of alchemically conceivable worlds.

Book Two, ‘Woman with Mandoline in Sunlight’

In The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss (1976) we are given a portrait of an early modern Mediterranean city state, but one in which not homo sapiens but homo saurus is the dominant life form.

The author’s extraordinary vision envisages, in the words of the narrator-protagonist’s father, just one of many “other worlds of possibility”, and produces for our mind’s eye a series of tableaux of the landscapes and cityscapes the peoples of homo saurus stock inhabit, environments which are both like and yet unlike the ones we might be familiar with.

In preparation for a review (and very possibly another discussion post) I want to examine some of the real places Aldiss may have been inspired by in his creation of the maritime entrepôt that is Malacia.

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Epilegomena

Sign welcoming visitors to Hay-on-Wye © C A Lovegrove

Prolegomenon

Despite my plan to discard books
(which then are destined, once completed,
for recycling) few spare nooks
are now appearing. Seems I’ve treated
this most worthy fine endeavour
not as fiercely as I sought to,
buying books as fast as ever,
not One In, One Out as ought to.

Epilegomena

The Ancient Greek for ‘things that have been chosen’ — epilegomena — applies to my outsize book collection, each title selected because, once upon a time, they somehow appealed, every one for which I entertained the intention of eventually reading. Yet a recent visit to nearby Hay-on-Wye — the World’s First Book Town — plus a trip to Bristol for babysitting duties found me in ensconced in bookshops behaving like a child in a sweetshop, a youngster whose eyes inevitably prove larger than their stomach’s capacity.

This of course is a litany you’ve heard me chant before, a psalm that has grown tedious in the repetition. Is there a worthy reason — or even an excuse — for this compulsive behaviour, or is it sheer greed that accounts for this seeming avaricious acquisition?

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Steal not this book

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book.
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie.
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1992)
Walker Books 2000 (1947).

‘I saw Esau sittin’ on a seesaw,
Esau he saw I…’

I was brought up with this version of the tongue-twister, which doubtless continued though I have no memory now of how it ended; I was much more enamoured of the doggerel which went “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” The version recorded by Peter and Iona Opie was very different (“I saw Esau kissing Kate, | The fact is we all three saw; | For I saw him, | And he saw me, | And she saw I saw Esau.”) though the helpful endnotes admit that the first half of the shortened version I knew is often all that’s recited.

But this process of looking for familiar rhymes and ditties is one of the first things the new reader is likely to do; the second is to admire and rejoice in the visuals added to virtually every page. Originally published during the years of postwar rationing, I Saw Esau was reissued in 1992 with coloured illustrations by the redoubtable Maurice Sendak, making this probably the most heartwarming pocket book of “traditional rhymes of youth” (as the original subtitle informs us) I’ve had the fortune to see and now own.

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Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill.
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill.

The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

The answer, surprisingly and disappointingly, is no.

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No smoke without fire

Antique Corona typewriter, Book-ish, Crickhowell © C A Lovegrove

The Moving Finger
by Agatha Christie.
Miss Marple No 4.
Fontana / HarperCollinsPublishers 1961 (1942)

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

From ‘The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam’, translated by Edward Fitzgerald.

Our narrator, Jerry Burton, has arrived in Lymstock to recuperate after an aircraft accident, accompanied by his not unattractive sister Johanna. However, instead of the countryside tranquillity he has been prescribed by his surgeon he finds the village a hotbed of wagging tongues after poison pen letters have been delivered to selected individuals — including, in next to no time, his sister.

Then a solicitor’s wife apparently commits suicide as a result of receiving one of these notes. A week later a maid in the same household is found brutally murdered and her body hidden; despite the police investigating nobody seems very close to finding out who the killer is and how the murder might be related to the anonymous letters.

That is until, finally, the vicar’s wife decides to call in someone whom she describes as an expert, someone who knows the ins and outs of village life in all its labyrinthine ways. It’s Jerry who unexpectedly provides the clues he has been unconsciously sifting through, and which lead to the correct solution the expert arrives at; also unexpectedly, he discovers the true love he has, unknown to himself, been seeking for a while.

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An Enchanted Summer

Talisman. With magic formulae, Ya c Ali at top right. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Half Magic
by Edward Eager.
Drawings by N M Bodecker.
Puffin Books 1968 (1954).

It was fine weather, warm and blue-skied and full of possibilities, and the day began well, with a glint of something metal in a crack in the sidewalk. ‘Ooh, a lucky nickel!’ Jane said, and scooped it into her pocket with the rest of her allowance, still jingling there unspent.

Chapter 1, ‘How It Began’

Thus begins a period of enchantment for four young siblings from Toledo, Ohio, a week when they learn the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for” but also the understanding of when to give it all up. Along the way we the readers gain enjoyment from a narrative that appeals both to young imaginations and to maturer minds who love witty yet also wise writing.

Jane, who finds the talisman, is the oldest: a little hot-headed and bossy but otherwise admirable. Mark is the only boy, around eleven years old, and fairly pragmatic. Katharine is the most bookish of the lot (though they’re all avid fans of the nearest library) and often spouting literary references. Martha is the youngest, easily bored but surprisingly full of sensible ideas.

Their mother Alison, working as a “woman’s journalist” to keep the family afloat in 1920s Toledo after the death of the children’s father, fears for her sanity when odd inexplicable things start happening, and dares not get too fond of the funny but nice Mr Smith who rescues this very 20th-century damsel in distress. All is made more complex by the existence of the weird half magic which the “lucky nickel” bestows on whoever possesses it. And worries begin to grow that its magic will eventually wear out.

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Up to no good

Gunpowder Plot conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe

October the First is Too Late.

Note ¹

Of course it isn’t: you’ve just been told a great big fib! I’m merely alerting you to a season of treason and plot, betrayal and conspiracy, unfriending and dissembling, all of which are looming over the horizon.

… Because it’s less than a month to Witch Week 2021, and our theme for this week-long event takes its cue from the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, when renegade Catholic conspirators planned to blow up King and Parliament at the State Opening in November that year. Luckily our event doesn’t start till the end of this month so October the First is not in fact too late.

I solemnly swear I am up to no good.

Note ²

Lizzie Ross and I have planned — plotted? — a series of posts on this theme by guest bloggers — conspirators? — in which we examine the theme’s appearance in fiction, whether in high fantasy or tales of espionage, whether at the court of kings or in the setting of an ordinary suburban garden.

Our readalong, meanwhile, is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play in which an ousted duke of Milan schemes to take sweet revenge on his usurping brother. And there are conspiracies, including regicidal intentions. Oh, and there’s magic as well. We hope you’ve located a copy to read! Or maybe you’ve formulated a strategem for watching the play?

Marry, this is miching mallecho; it means mischief.

Note ³

#WitchWeek2021 runs from 31st October to 6th November, with a key to what will transpire posted on 30th October. At the very end we will be able to declare Mischief managed! — at least until 2022, when further mayhem will be ours to devise!


¹ Title of a 1966 speculative novel by Fred Hoyle.
² Spell to reveal the Marauder’s Map in the Harry Potter novels.
³ Hamlet, Act III Scene V

Around the world

© C A Lovegrove

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. That’s as may be but, even though I don’t believe in hell, good intentions have certainly paved my route to reading more widely in world literature of late.

If ‘Around the World in Eighty Books’ as a popular meme smacks of hubris, Around the World in a Few Books seemed more realistic as far as I’m concerned. I therefore picked a couple or more flags to wave just to signal my intentions this year. One was Gilion Dumas’s European Reading Challenge, and another was Lory Hess’s Summer in Other Languages (whether works read in the original language or in translation).

As we approach the three-quarter point of the year Twenty Twenty-one dare I pause to take stock of where I’ve got to and what I’ve achieved? Well, of course I dare, hence what follows!

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Big Thinks

Illustration for Comus by Arthur Rackham, 1921

The Island of Doctor Moreau
by H G Wells.
Introduction by Adam Roberts (2009).
SF Masterworks.
Gollancz 2017 (1896).

These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes.

Chapter 14: ‘Doctor Moreau explains’

After a collision at sea Edward Prendick survives by being picked up by a ship delivering supplies to Noble’s Island in the South Pacific. But the vicissitudes he has already suffered are as nothing to those he encounters after being reluctantly landed on the domain of a certain Dr Moreau: as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest “the island is full of noises” and Prendick is unprepared for the creatures that produce them.

Francisco Goya captioned his famous aquatint The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters with “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.” In The Island of Doctor Moreau Wells only just reins in the novella’s impossible monsters with a veneer of rationality, and even then the impossible monsters strain our credulity, reinforcing our sense of a nightmare scenario: the reader will wonder what fresh hell awaits them as they turn each page.

Our protagonist narrates how, despite his biological training, nothing has prepared him for the devastating year he will experience on this slumbering sea-girt volcano. For here in this isolated dystopia he meets horrors he could never have imagined: a House of Pain, a sociopathic autocrat, a drunken assistant with his “man Friday,” M’ling, and other perversions of Creation.

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