Angela Carter: Heroes and Villains
Introduction by Robert Coover
Penguin Modern Classics 2011 (1969)
“When I was a little girl, we played at heroes and villains but now I don’t know which is which any more, nor who is who, and what can I trust if not appearances?”
— Marianne, Chapter 6
In a post-apocalyptic Britain young Marianne runs away to join the gypsies. Or that would be the equivalent if Carter’s novel — fifty years old now — were a traditional folk ballad. The author was a stalwart of the folk music revival in the sixties and would have been familiar with Scottish ballads like ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ in which the female protagonist is attracted to the life of travellers.
Now it would be a gross simplification to say Heroes and Villains is essentially an escape from a pampered existence to an imagined romantic way of life but that, nevertheless, is the basic plot that drives the narrative. And yet Carter instils so much ambiguity and ambivalence in her novel while interweaving conceptual shreds and patches into the warp of her novel that the exotic elements distract the eye from the apparent plainness of the garment.
Marianne’s world consists of tribal groupings surviving after a war to end all wars, a blast that has destroyed much of civilisation. There are Professors — the caste to which Marianne belongs — Workers and Soldiers, who collectively maintain some kind of ordered life in isolated and insulated communities. Outside are the marauding Barbarians, and the even more fearful Out People, groups of genetically malformed individuals living in city ruins and preying on whoever comes within their grasp.
An unruly girl growing up in an antiseptic enclave, she is tutored by her Professor father while in the care of a witch of a nurse. Like Rapunzel she lives in a tower, a structure of glass and white concrete, perhaps a bit like like the inappropriate towers which started to be built in the Bristol she knew in the 1960s, sited amidst historic streets already disfigured by bomb sites dating from the Blitz, gaps in a mouthful of teeth.
But Marianne, perhaps like her namesake icon of the French Revolution, is a rebel. From her tower she sees her brother killed by a young Barbarian during an attack, and when she becomes an orphan and cuts off her hair it’s as if the ties that bind her to this world of conformity have gone. Enamoured of the glamour that surrounds the Barbarians, with their war paint, colourful rags and apparently carefree life the teenager escapes her metaphorical ivory tower in search of difference in the savage greenwood. Only to find she is a fish out of water:
And Marianne knew in her heart that none of this was real; that it was a kind of enchantment. She was in no-man’s land.
— Chapter 5
This future Britain is a jungle: wild beasts, descendants of escaped zoo animals, roam the wilderness; poisonous plants and snakes lurk in the undergrowth; the manor houses and villages and railway stations the nomads shelter in are decaying around their ears. And there is always the danger from the Out People. Violence, rape, pillage, abuse, sickness and death stalk any wanderers in this landscape.
How do they survive? By scavenging. By procreating, despite or because of a high mortality rate. By resorting to superstition, trusting in a charismatic shaman, an ex-academic who, Merlin-like in his esplumeor or moulting-cage of a study, seeks to advise and influence the most Arthurian of leaders, Jewel Lee Bradley, and his band of half-brothers. Dr Donally is partial to aphorisms that pass for great wisdom, such as
‘Religion is a device for instituting the sense of a privileged group.’
— Chapter 4
It’s hard not to be constantly reminded of literary and artistic parallels. In one sense this novel is a tragic adult version of Peter Pan: Marianne is a prototype Wendy figure, Jewel — descending from gypsies on his mother’s side — is an adult Peter, crowing and delighting in gaudy displays while yet melting into natural surroundings, his brothers the Lost Boys. Another Wendy is Mrs Green, who is a kind of housekeeper and nurse to the loose knit community; Donally, with his tattooing needle and caged snake, perhaps a Captain Hook for Jewel, both forever bound to each other’s fate. But there’s no guarantee of a return from Never Land.
Other parallels are more explicit: Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest is referenced in terms of Prospero’s tutelage of Miranda, even with this world’s Caliban; an Arthurian Dark Age is also conjured up, by name and also figuratively in the sorts of raiding Celtic war bands that archaeologists in Carter’s day theorised existed; Christian symbolism rears its head at significant points, and a whole intellectual hinterland opens up in conversations such as this advice given to Marianne by her father: “Rousseau spoke of a noble savage but this is a time of ignoble savages.”
Marianne is the beating heart of this novel, Maid Marian to an illiterate robber bowman. She vacillates from moment to moment and yet has an inner strength one can only admire, remarkable for a teenager who’d led an otherwise sheltered life. All other characters exist purely in relation to her — it’s almost as if they are emanations from a vivid dream or nightmare she’s having.
In retrospect it has the feel of magic realism but without the magic, an antecedent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant but set in an unspecified future, not a fabled past. And as with Ishiguro’s novel it continues to haunt my imagination long after I’ve turned the last page. A lot of that is down to the author’s use of language: pared down at times, lyrical at others; sensuous passages, from foetid smells to memorable and intense images; sensual moments punctuated by sudden violence — Carter’s lifelong obsessions with ideas, art, music, words and experiences all competing and jostling for attention like infants in a classroom.