Touchstones

Ladybird (credit: https://liveknowledgeworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/ladybird.jpg)

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.

Iona Opie died at the end of October 2017. The Guardian obituary described her as a “folklorist who collected, codified and published children’s rhymes, riddles and street culture”, but unusually she wasn’t trained as an academic. Her curiosity was instead piqued by the meaning and origins of a rhyme about what North Americans call a ladybug:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children all gone.

Together with her husband Peter that germ of an idea grew into a mammoth study called The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes when published by Oxford University Press in 1951. The 550 entries give not only the rhymes in English but also point out analogues in other cultures and discuss theories as to their origins. (The Ladybird rhyme is number 296 in this book.) A companion work is The Oxford Nursery Rhymes Book (1955, reprinted in 1980 by Book Club Associates): this features 800 “rhymes and ditties” along with 600 charming illustrations — woodcuts and engravings, some anonymous but also examples by the 19th-century engraver Thomas Bewick and by Joan Hassall (d 1988).

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren was published by Oxford University Press in 1959. My 1973 paperback is well thumbed, proof of my then burgeoning fascination with the British folk tradition in one of its many stages of flux; it revealed to me how such traditions have deep, almost conservative roots going back centuries but are yet susceptible to up-to-date fashions, transformations and, inevitably, corruptions. The Opies’ study demonstrated that recording these precious manifestations was crucial in ensuring they remained as evidence of a living, evolving tradition and not merely as archaic lore somehow preserved like an insect caught in amber.

OUP continued to publish the fruits of their collaboration (she did the research, he the writing up) and in 1974 came The Classic Fairy Tales, again copiously illustrated but now adorned with both coloured and monochrome plates culled from historic publications. The text of the earliest versions in English of some two dozen tales, some famous, others more obscure, are here preserved, along with discussion about origins, analogues and so on. In her late seventies (Peter had died in 1982) Iona was still immersed in the subject: she was therefore ideally placed to pronounce Jack Zipes’ The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000) as “authoritative and fascinating”, a quote which appeared on the cover of the paperback edition.

I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasise the pioneering work of the Opies and of Iona in particular. Reference works are usually hard things to review in a few words, but when they represent glittering treasuries of half-remembered, half-forgotten memories — especially for an aging English-speaker such as myself — it’s terribly easy to believe that they are priceless relics to be preserved and protected; but more than that, they give us food for thought concerning challenges such as continuity and change, renewal and replacement. And for this I — we — must be grateful to Iona Opie.

In a review I wrote nearly three years ago I waxed lyrical about what is possibly Ursula Le Guin’s most famous novel:

When I first read The Wizard of Earthsea I could almost believe in magic, so credible was the description of Ged’s emerging talents. Years later, magic of a different kind was uppermost in my second reading of the trilogy (along with Tehanu and the two other sequels). This magic was to do with sympathetic characterisation and with the creation of credible imaginary cultures and worlds as much as with hope and tragedy, with human triumphs and failings, with empathy and enmity.

Perhaps unfairly I contrasted her Earthsea sequence with C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, to the detriment of the latter:

A  relatively recent reading of The Chronicles of Narnia impressed me so much with the degree that Le Guin has surpassed Lewis in her depiction of a humanistic as well as humane alternative universe; superficially there are some similarities (many common to much fantasy, such as magic, maps and mythical animals) but the tone and the richness and the “rightness” of her creation is what sets it apart from Lewis’ world: if Narnia is a tapestry then Earthsea is a working model of a reality.

I ended the mini-review with the hope that Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence would be “one of those works that reveals further treasures with each successive reading”. I think, with the recent passing of UKLG, that this reread must be imminent. In fact a Twitter thread begun by author Nicola Davies and hashtagged by Ed Finch #ReadingEarthsea has suggested exactly that for February.

But Earthsea is not the only accomplishment that she should be remembered by. I have been slow but steady with first reads and rereads of her works, whether you class them as fantasy or science fiction or — the label I prefer — speculative fiction. Some I’ve even got round to reviewing, but not as much as I’d have liked.

As with Iona Opie’s researches what underlies Ursula Le Guin’s writing is a fathomless curiosity: a ceaseless questing about what it means to be human, and how the touchstone for what makes us human lies in the culture we produce. I’m looking forward to having my preconceptions challenged all over again.

16 thoughts on “Touchstones

  1. Ursula LeGuin is one of my favorite authors, and some rereading is definitely in order. I just bought the Library of America editions of her Hainish novels and Orsinian tales, and I could spend a year happily working through those, along with the Earthsea books.

    I loved Narnia as a child, but as adult reader, I agree with your assessment of LeGuin and Lewis. She took world-building seriously as a craft, while he used it as a vehicle to pour out certain contents of his unconscious. There’s value in both, but her artistic achievement is unquestionably greater.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You and me both, Lory — and clearly a favourite author of a lot of others (just looking down the list of tributes on her official website: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/UKLTributes.html). I do hope you enjoy her Orsinian Tales — I took notes after a second read but never got round to reviewing the collection. And there’s Malafrena as well to add to that, so just as well I’ve already got a copy of that or I’d’ve had to be forking out more pennies for the compendium edition of the two volumes brought out in the last year or so!

      My first reaction to the Narnia tales — as a teenager — was mild irritation, especially after I spotted the allegorical nature of TLTW&TW, and that persisted when I read all of them in sequence. But, interestingly, I’ve hung on to the one-volume edition in the hopes I suppose I might re-evaluate them some time in the future. In case you haven’t come across it Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia does help to elucidate some of the symbolism that Lewis brought to bear on the chronicles (reviewed https://wp.me/s2oNj1-narniad); Ward even brought out a slimmer volume on his researches into the keys to Lewis’s septet though I’ve yet to see that.

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      1. There’s a ton of symbolism in Narnia (and I do want to read Planet Narnia because I’m really interested in the planetary angle) but I now find it used in a sometimes questionable way. As a child I simply lapped it up and it all had a tremendously formative influence on my imagination. Which was a good thing!

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        1. Yes, Lory, I certainly don’t want to utterly decry Narnia — there was so much that was magical, so much imaginative creativity on offer. So what if Lewis mix-‘n’-matched his mythologies, so did Alan Garner’s Alderley Edge novels; so what if the religious allegory was heavy-handed at times, so were Bunyan’s and Spencer’s works and yet all there is a sheer theatrical quality to their secondary worlds; and so what if the final novel is ultimately a disappointment, John Masefield’s wonderful pair of children’s fantasies were also founded on them being merely dreams (as was Lewis Carroll’s) and yet that shouldn’t stop us enjoying the ride.

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            1. I’ve now ‘decried’ Lewis big time in response to Colonialist’s comment below, despite trying to be balanced — and failing. I really am betraying my disappointment with him, aren’t I!

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            2. No, I haven’t, though I’ve seen it often referenced. The only other fiction of his I’ve read is the Ransom trilogy and that was eons ago, the 70s probably. Anyway, one to look out for, clearly!

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  2. piotrek

    I’d never guess the chorus from “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” is inspired by a children’s rhyme 🙂

    I wholeheartedly agree with your view of Le Guin, and the tapestry/model of real world comparison is particularly fitting, as a sociologist by training I value that quality of her books greatly! There is magic, but also, underneath, a deep understanding of how societies work.

    That doesn’t mean there is no place for tapestries, Fionavar or other 😉

    Of Iona Opie I’ve never heard, but I will remember her next time I’ll want to explore English folklore. Last time I was in the mood, I quite enjoyed a short collection of Alan Garner’s stories Gaiman recommended somewhere…

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    1. Thanks for pointing me, Piotrek, to the Tom Waits song which — yes, I’m uncultured! — I’d never knowingly heard before. I can’t guess all the other influences but I can also spot Treasure Island with its references to Captain Morgan (a pirate Silver mentions as well as being a drinks brand) and to “fifteen men on a dead man’s chest”.

      As for tapestries versus working models, I agree, no need for one to obliterate the other! But you know by now where my sympathies and inclinations lie. 🙂

      Do look out the Opie’s body of work. I only mentioned published works of theirs that I happened to have on my shelves, and even those I haven’t read in their entirety, but every time I open randomly to a page I’m offered new insights into — particularly — British traditional culture, a culture which has had a disproportionate influence, it’s true, on world literature and popular culture.

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  3. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to compare Le Guin’s impact with that of Lewis. The books belong in different stages of reading progress, and if one tackles them at the right juncture for oneself they are both superb imagination-grabbers.

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    1. I see what you’re saying, Col, and by and large I agree, but it’s a bit like saying that it’s unfair to compare Noddy books with, say, ‘Paradise Lost’ (to take the argument to extremes). That’s true in its way but to me the logic of your argument is that one should never compare, only contrast.

      I think that with Narnia and Earthsea the respective authors were aiming for a similar audience, young readers between around 8 to 18 (pre-teens to young adults). This being so it’s legitimate to compare them. And I would argue that in terms of poetry, psychology, narrative, suspension of disbelief and immersion in a secondary world Le Guin beats Lewis hands down.

      Yes, they are both superb imagination-grabbers. Who can forget the first emergence into Narnia, the unexpected appearance of the faun, the despair at the death of Aslan and wonder at his subsequent resurrection? There are equally memorable moments in the Earthsea stories (and I could take up a lot of space listing them!).

      But I don’t feel real growth with Lewis’s creation as I do with Le Guin’s. To put it another way, each of the Chronicles is like viewing different continents from an orbiting space station, fascinating but the world itself remains the same. Le Guin on the other hand not only makes us see her world through the lens of experience but evokes a growing sense of maturation that to me is missing in Narnia.

      Sorry, I seem to have waxed hot and excessively in defence of Le Guin at the expense of Lewis’s undoubted achievements. And you actually only said it was “a bit’ unfair” to compare their relative impacts! I guess Narnia was never ever going to be encountered “at the right juncture” for me, and I’ve let my deep disappointment get the better of me. Apologies again.

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      1. There is a lot in that. I think I, on the other hand, encountered Narnia at the ideal time for me and Earthsea was not as perfectly timed. Ergo, the Narnia impact was greater. Funnily enough, it never occurred to me during the first reading of the series that there could be any religious connotations. It came across as pure fantasy.

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        1. I twigged the allegory, can’t remember how old I was, as soon as I read about Alan going willingly and quietly to be sacrificed. Spent the rest of the series trying to spot all the allusions, though few others were so obvious. It’s all about timing, isn’t it? I couldn’t as a pre-teen imagine never enjoying cartoons on TV, and now most of that aimed-at-kids animated stuff bores, even irritates, me to absolute distraction.

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          1. I wondered who Alan was, and then I said, ‘Oh, S!’ The influence of the grandkids is turning me into quite an expert on modern animations, and I must admit that those I started off by considering infantile are now steadily growing on me.
            Also films like the modern take on Groundhog Day, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children; the ‘different’ hero, Shrek; and ‘Tangled’, I am finding enjoyment from.

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            1. Alan/Aslan, bloody predictive text on my phone’s to blame!
              Kids’ animations: I’m thinking here of the repetitive programmes that churned out to fill daytime TV on children’s channels. ‘Proper’ filmed animations — with or without live action — now that’s in a different league. Most of the Disney/Pixar oeuvre is outstanding and can be enjoyed on many levels, and I particularly appreciate the Japanese Studio Ghibli animations.

              If you haven’t come across the latter I can recommend a few productions that will appeal to both you and your grandkids: ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ , ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ , and ‘Ponyo’ are all delightful and also tug at the heartstrings; ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ are perhaps for older ones, and ‘Princess Mononoke’ is long but involving.

              They all have a different aesthetic from Hollywood animations but retain a humanity at their core. They’re also available in both subtitled and dubbed versions.

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