In the last three months we’ve lost two women who, between them, contributed hugely to the world of the human imagination. I say lost, but in truth we were privileged to have found them in the first place. One was a folklorist known for collecting childhood ephemera — both virtual and real — in Britain, the other a writer and poet who, through the genres of fantasy and science fiction, brought an anthropologist’s eye to considerations of how we function as individuals and as social animals.
These two outstanding individuals are of course Iona Opie and Ursula Le Guin.
Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)
“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920
Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.
One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.
Joan Aiken’s award-winning novel The Whispering Mountain is chockfull of Arthurian allusions, some of which I’ve adverted to in previous posts. Here is where I bring these and other relevant themes together to point out how thoroughly this book is soaked in what used to be called the Matter of Britain. The usual caveat applies in this as in all my other discussions of the James III sequence: spoilers, minor and major, are more than likely.
The very phrase “King Arthur” — perhaps with the addition of “and his knights of the Round Table” — is enough to get many people excited, be they romantics, conspiracy theorists or sceptical historians. Many of you may know about my longtime interest in matters Arthuriana (which you may have noticed in the section Arthuriana in the pop-down menu of this blog) and will have spotted the occasional review of fiction or non-fiction with an Arthurian theme.
For some months I’ve been thinking about republishing various essays I’ve written for magazines many decades past, the result of which is the debut of a new WP blog called Pendragonry. Why Pendragonry? Easy choice: ‘pen’ for writing, ‘dragon’ for fantastical, ‘Pendragon’ because I was sometime editor of the journal of the Pendragon Society and ‘-ry’ because this emphasises the European dimension of Arthurian history and legend (as in boulangerie, charcuterie, papeterie or librairie).
Intrigued? Want to know more? Do go have a look at this newly started blog where I hope to post maybe every ten days or so, and feel free to comment, criticise or croon over the opinions expressed there! https://pendragonry.wordpress.com/
“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury
In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.
In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.
R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)
There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.
Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?
Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.
Sarah Singleton: The Poison Garden
Simon and Schuster 2009
The ultimate origin of Paradise is a walled enclosure, an enclosed space where one can cultivate plants and enjoy the delights of running water. Since its Iranian beginnings five or six centuries before the birth of Christ it has accumulated so much symbolism, associations and expectations but that image of the walled garden has remained a constant, whether in the guise of parkland or as the smallest suburban plot. How much do we all, gardeners or not, see it as a place of peace, of repose, as a piece of heaven on earth!
But that walled garden concept is never so tightly bounded as by the confines of our own skull, within the folds of our brains: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space,” as Hamlet said, and that idea of a garden at once expansive and yet contained is at the heart of Sarah Singleton’s haunting novel.
Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines
Scholastic Children’s Books 2002 (2001)
[…] Oh, now forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumèd troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! Oh, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.
— Othello, Act III Scene 3
Even with a reread the first instalment in Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines sequence astonishes with its vision, humour, tragedy and sheer storytelling — and to think this was his debut novel! Set in a far distant dystopian future, it imagines a devastated world dominated by Municipal Darwinism, a town-eat-town mentality in which large Traction Cities gobble up smaller towns for their raw materials. But successful entities like London are running out of prey, and the hunt is on for a way not only to become top predator but also to gain access to so-called statics and their defended resources.
In this future London is young Tom Natsworthy, a lowly apprentice in the Guild of Historians. He hero-worships Thaddeus Valentine, a successful archaeologist in the Indiana Jones mode. But when a girl from a mining town which has just been caught attempts to assassinate his hero, Tom discovers that the historian is not who he thought he was, and is literally and figuratively precipitated into a life that he could not have in all his years envisaged.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.