Metamorphosis

Kleeblatt: Eva Braun's monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt)
Kleeblatt: Eva Braun’s monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt) on a fork handle

Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war

Whole Sky Books 2015

It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.

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Less majesty

rider-of-rohan
One of the Riders of Rohan from Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Fotonovel Publications 1979

The road travelled by the illustrated story is long and, as it were, goes ever on. Its several origins can be found in ancient Mesopotamia and on Viking gravestones, in Palaeolithic cave paintings and on the Bayeux tapestry, on medieval church walls and in early modern chapbooks. In the 20th century we were introduced to French comics called bandes dessinées and to Japanese manga and the graphic novel, while the addition of photographs gave rise to Italian fumetti and the American photonovel. When Tolkien’s epic fantasy appeared in the middle of the last century it was only a matter of time before the film of the book was produced, leading much more rapidly to … the photonovel of the film of the book.

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Strangers in their own land

Wandering among Words 4: Strangers

What links a popular American TV series set in the 1930s, the recent UK referendum, and the End of the World? There will be a bit of wandering in this post while I follow words migrating around Europe (and further afield), all in an attempt to demonstrate those links. But first, I shall start at the end. Land’s End in fact.

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Destroying an empire

Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
Public domain image of Jupiter taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Robert Silverberg Sorcerers of Majipoor
HarperPrism 1998 (1996)

Is it true, as is often said, that there are no new plots in literature? That every story we hear or read or imagine has appeared countless times before? Whether there is just one basic plot or seven or whatever number one can conjure up — and the numbers do vary, despite one theory that there are only seven — it can be argued that pretty much every narrative conforms to an ur-pattern. One might think that there is no need to create new tales when they already exist in one form or another.

Well, of course there are infinite reasons why we continue to invest in narratives, many of them explicable in psychological terms. It’s maybe worth looking in detail at our need for novelty: if there are indeed no ‘new’ plots it’s how we dress them up that creates originality, as when mannequins are arrayed in different clothes and accessories. In any given narrative it’s the combination of elements, often reminiscent of other narratives, that gives it distinction, and this is certainly true for Robert Silverberg’s Sorcerers of Majipoor.

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Across a sea of stars

Majipoor globe
Majipoor and its three continents: illustration by Ken Seamon http://worldofmajipoor.free.fr/pagesimages/majipoor_planet.html

Majipoor — even the name sounds fantastical with its hints of both magic and a city on the Indian subcontinent. But no, this is the giant planet that I’ve previously mentioned which features in the planetary romances of Robert Silverberg, and which I’m going to discuss a bit more before I complete all my rereads, and reviews, of the first three ‘prequels’ in the series: Sorcerers of Majipoor (1997), Lord Prestimion (1999) and King of Dreams (2000). But first, a bit of science.

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Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws

angel

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens
Corgi 2011 (1990)

Good Omens is the inventive comic fantasy you’d expect from both these authors, a eschatological novel which in 1990 documented the final week of History. The cast of characters whose individual actions and thoughts gradually coalesce for the final denouement are easily distinguishable, from the angel who guarded the gates of Eden to the angel “who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”, from Witchfinders to fortune-tellers, from the group of mostly ordinary kids entertaining themselves over the summer to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (Equal Opportunities apply to supernatural beings these days too) appropriately sporting Hell’s Angels on their motorcycle jackets. Has Armageddon really arrived? Only this book can tell you. Continue reading “Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws”

Today Was

Thanks to unintentional encouragement by the inestimable Gert Loveday I’ve resurrected the slowly expiring poetry blog Zenrinji with this bit of whimsy.

Zenrinji

mist

Today Was

Monday was Hug-an-Atheist Day
but I found that my arms
couldn’t reach all the way
round my body

Tuesday was National Book Lovers Day
but I missed it
I was too busy
reading in bed

Next came International Xenophobia Day
and I spent all Wednesday
just hating
myself

Thursday was National Paradox Day
but it took me till nighttime
staying in bed
to puzzle it out

Friday was Who Gives A Damn Day
and I decided to do
just that and go
back to bed

Saturday was the thirteenth
day of the month
and my luck
just
ran
out

Sunday was the seventh day
when God rested

Who can argue with that?

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“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

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Starling taught to speak

starling-bewick
Starling woodcut by Thomas Bewick (1809)

Eva Ibbotson The Morning Gift
Macmillan Children’s Books 2015 (1993)

I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak …
— Shakespeare Henry IV Part 1

Here is a publishing curiosity. The Morning Gift was originally written in the 1990s for an adult readership but then, to the author’s surprise, reissued as a teen read in 2007 (presumably slightly revised then by the author, as a copyright notice suggests).

I can see how the temptation to repackage may have arisen: it’s a sort of Rags-to-Riches story, with the young heroine (she’s around twenty, I should add) playing a Cinderella role until she and her Prince Charming finally get together.

But within the Boy Meets Girl trope, where the course of true love rarely runs smooth, there is so much more to enjoy. For a start, there’s a generous dose of autobiographical detail that lends both honesty and authenticity to the narrative.

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Wanderer in lands remote

raven sutton hoo
Raven, from the Anglo-Saxon shield found at Sutton Hoo

Neil Gaiman American Gods:
the Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (2004/2001)

“Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
He num’rous woes on Ocean toss’d, endured,
Anxious to save himself, and to conduct
His followers to their home.” — William Cowper (1791)

Contrary to popular opinion the new millennium actually began at the start of 2001. This was the date celebrated by director Stanley Kubrick in the Arthur C Clarke inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey and with good reason — not only did this narrate a new beginning for humankind but it referenced the voyages of wily Odysseus after the sack of Troy. 2001 was also when the first and original version of Gaiman’s American Gods appeared and this too treated with new beginnings allied to wanderings, this time around the United States.

What’s it about? “It’s about the soul of America, really,” the author tells us. “What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.” It’s also about a wanderer called Shadow who, in Cowper’s words about Odysseus, discovers “various cities, and the mind | And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote”. Of course we can tell from the title that it’s about faith and belief: when we believe in gods do they have a kind of physical existence in this world? And if we then cease to believe in those gods do they cease to exist?

The novel begins realistically. Shadow (a Jungian name, if ever I saw one) is nearing the end of his jail sentence, imposed for an uncharacteristic act of violence. Looking forward to returning home and seeing his wife Laura, he is surprised to be released early. Shocked by the news he receives he heads home, only to be offered a job by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr Wednesday. Things then take a strange turn and his odyssey zigzagging around North America begins.

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Strange places

mount everest

One April afternoon in 1978 the author Robert Silverberg heard what he called “the old familiar voice in my head whispering things to me.” Rushing into his office he reports scribbling this on the back of an envelope:

“The scene is a giant planet-sized city — an urban Big Planet, population of billions, a grand gaudy romantic canvas. The city is divided into vast subcities, each with its own characteristic tone. The novel is joyous and huge — no sense of dystopia.

“The book must be fun. Picaresque characters. Strange places – but all light, delightful, rafish [sic] …”

This was the germ of his idea for Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), leading in time to a series of science fantasy novels set on the giant planet of Majipoor. I’ve already reviewed Kingdoms of the Wall (1993), a sort of prequel in all but name, and Tales of Majipoor (2013), a collection of novellas and short stories (aka ‘novelettes’); and am now planning a reread of the novels and of another, earlier short story collection called Majipoor Chronicles (1995). My reviews, I hope, will give a flavour of what I find attractive about the series for those who aren’t yet acquainted with it and, for those who do have that familiarity, perhaps provide a somewhat oblique view of why some of the entries in the sequence work better than others.

Just as an introduction, let’s look at some of the qualities Silverberg enumerates for what turned out to be the first Majipoor novel:

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