A book of Fillory tales

Fillory map
Map of Fillory (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Christopher-Plover-The-Fillory-Series/101804169642)

Lev Grossman The Magicians Arrow Books 2009

Martin Chatwin was not an ordinary boy, but he thought that he was. In fact he was unusually clever and brave and kind for his age, he just didn’t know it. Martin thought that he was just an ordinary boy…
Christopher Plover The World in the Walls

You will of course have heard of the Fillory series by the late Christopher Plover (pronounced ‘Pluvver’, like the wading bird). In order the five titles are The World in the Walls, The Girl Who Told Time, The Flying Forest, The Secret Sea and The Wandering Dune. You will know all about the Chatwin children — Martin, Rupert, Fiona, Helen and Jane — and how they manage to escape to the magical land of Fillory, where they have adventures before they are called back to their own world. And you will remember that Martin was the only sibling to remain in Fillory because after The Wandering Dune the series just stopped, not long before Plover died in 1939.

You don’t remember? Surely you must — there’s even a Facebook page, Christopher Plover: The Fillory Series, to remind us.  Continue reading “A book of Fillory tales”

Fathering Gothick

NPG 6520; Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757 NPG 6520 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757): the father of Gothick
NPG 6520 licenced for non-commercial use © National Portrait Gallery, London

We’ve come to regard the late 17th and early 18th centuries as the Age of Enlightenment, a period when science and rational thought were promoted as philosophical ideals in Europe. Come the mid-18th century there was the inevitable backlash, of sorts, and particularly in the arts. A kind of romanticism — before that term came into being in the closing years of the 18th century — was in the air, and in Britain its epitome may be seen in the strange figure of Horace Walpole.

Continue reading “Fathering Gothick”

Master of his own fates

William Blake's The Ghost of a Flea
William Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea

Diana Wynne Jones Conrad’s Fate
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2006 (2005)

In the English Alps
Conrad tries to change his fate.
Unsuccessfully.

Conrad’s Fate is a first-person narrative by the eponymous Conrad Tesdinic, a boy who lives in a world where England is geologically still attached to continental Europe, in an alpine town called Stallery dominated by the slightly sinister Stallery Mansion. Ironic, really, when it’s possible that the author may have derived the name via St Allery (of possible French origin, a variant of St Hilaire) from Latin hilaris meaning cheerful: Stallery is anything but a happy place.

Like many a traditional fairytale hero Conrad is thrust into a magical adventure where he has to balance his innate gifts with the usual resourcefulness required of such a hero. These gifts aren’t really identified till the end, but his other talents seem to include getting into trouble.
Continue reading “Master of his own fates”

Genre reading and writing

plotsIt’s been a while since I did evening classes. The last course I attended was for learning Welsh; I was a tenacious attendee — those like me who didn’t fall by the wayside managed, over some two years, to get through three different tutors with very different teaching styles — but I can’t say I have any proficiency in the language. It’s a difficult tongue for English-speakers to become acclimatised to, very different from Italian, the language I also lasted two years with; English shares so much more in the way of word roots with Latin languages, and for me familiarity with French made things so much easier.

Before that I took a course in teaching English as a foreign language, and even got a qualification for it. Now can you see a pattern here? Language, language, language — it was surely time to do something different. And so it was that I found myself signing up for a creative writing course.

I can hear you groaning from here. Continue reading “Genre reading and writing”

Intimations of mortality

path

Diana Wynne Jones
The Lives of Christopher Chant
HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2000 (1988)

This Diana Wynne Jones book has an intriguing title: we are used to The Lives of the Caesars (where more than one person is involved) or, on the other extreme, The Life of Brian (which is about just one person). The Lives of Christopher Chant, on the other hand, reflects the notion that one person can have, like a cat, more than one life. This notion is an old one, from the transmigration of the soul to the Russian folk-villain Koshchei, whose external soul is hidden away in one object enclosed within another, and so on; most recently the concept has become familiar from the Horcruxes within which Harry Potter’s nemesis hides pieces of his soul, but before you surmise that Jones copied Voldemort’s strategy it’s worth pointing out that The Lives of Christopher Chant predates Rowling’s series. Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Chrestomanci who?

Bosch Garden of Delights

Long regarded merely as children’s fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci novels, like most of her work for the young reader, deserve more respect from adult readership. Her mix of apparent whimsy and magic with a small pinch of science fiction, plus the alliance of young protagonists with the most curious adult magician imaginable (he has a penchant for elaborate dressing-gowns, rather like Sherlock Holmes, but with added sorcery), might persuade those of us who have reached and passed the teenage years that the series is not for us. But they would be wrong, as I hope to show in an occasional series of reposts over the next few weeks.

Literally challenged: the sequel

Bookshelves still awaiting sorting
Bookshelves still awaiting sorting … and reading

Just before Christmas I reposted a Reading Challenge which had appeared in Goodwill Librarian’s Facebook feed. This listed ‘cues’ (as I called them) to help the reader focus on what to read for 2015. Though there were fifty-two of these cues I’d chosen not to interpret them as challenges for each week of the year but as a checklist to see, as I go through the year, if I could roam a little wider than the genres I tend to made a beeline for. We’re now halfway through the first month, so how have I done so far?

Continue reading “Literally challenged: the sequel”

A Cinderella in Brazil

 

Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil
Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil

Eva Ibbotson Journey to the River Sea
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

Eva Ibbotson, if still with us, would have been celebrating her 90th birthday this month, but sadly she died in 2010. Born in Vienna, she had to move to England in 1935 when Hitler came to power. That experience — of being uprooted  — was drawn on directly for novels like The Morning Gift (about a girl from a secular Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany) and indirectly, I suspect, for Maia, the young protagonist of Journey to the River Sea. Who has not imagined what life might be like if one was an orphan forced from their familiar environment? Ibbotson experienced some of this, while the fictional Maia is a genuine orphan — not impecunious, it is true — who at the beginning of the 20th century has to travel away from her boarding school to live with distant relatives. On the banks of the Amazon. Continue reading “A Cinderella in Brazil”

Apprentice psychopomp

roof boss
Grotesque roof boss, Southwark Cathedral, London

Chris Westwood Ministry of Pandemonium
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2011

A sensitive boy who frequents graveyards. Who sees the spirits of the recently departed. Who displays extraordinary artistic gifts. Who finds it hard to make friends when he starts a new school. And a boy whose father has mysteriously disappeared and a mother who is seriously ill. In other words, a youngster who fulfils many of the prime requirements for the outsider protagonist of a novel. This is Ben Harvester, who is drawn into a world of ghosts and demons and, in the process, discovers the latent abilities he has arising out of that sensitivity, a sensitivity that encompasses both his artistic gifts and his concern for those less well off than himself.

Through a rather odd stranger, Mr October  — whose name conjures up that witching period of Halloween or Samhain, with its feasts of the dead — Ben is introduced to the secret Ministry of Pandemonium. As you might expect from a word coined by Milton for Paradise Lost, this synonym for disorder and chaos simply means “all the demons”. It transpires that the Ministry’s job is to locate lost souls and open the door to another world for them before demons gets to them — no easy task given the magnitude of the task. Will Ben manage to put off his inquisitive new friend Becky Sanborne before she discovers his unlikely calling? And what is the secret of his mother’s exhaustion and the explanation for his father’s disappearance? Continue reading “Apprentice psychopomp”

Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

 

Michael Ward Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis

Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God. Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

Continue reading “Contemplating the Narniad”

Landscapes to walk in

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?

 

C S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
HarperCollins Children’sBooks 2004

seven children’s tales
underpinned by magic, myth
and theology

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Narnia, that magical world reached by various rather devious means, most famously through a wardrobe? The films and, before them, British TV serials, not to mention DVD sales, have widened the audience for the books which, decades after their first publication, still sell by the shelf-full. Aided and abetted by Pauline Baynes’ classic illustrations this collection of the novels in their chronological sequence in a one-volume hardback edition is clearly designed to be enjoyed, kept and treasured. And I intend to keep it and treasure it, but I wasn’t as enraptured by Lewis’ tales as I was led to expect. Continue reading “Landscapes to walk in”