Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

As Melville leads on to Aiken, so our path takes us onto one of the latter’s literary heroines, E Nesbit, whose influence she freely and frequently acknowledged: Aiken even gave the inaugural address In Celebration of Edith Nesbit to the Edith Nesbit Society in 1996. It so happens that I’ve almost finished Eleanor Fitzsimons‘s biography The Life and Loves of E Nesbit and will of course have much to say in a review.

Coincidentally this study fits in with two celebrations this month: Fitzsimons being an Irish author, resident in Dublin, her biography counts towards Reading Ireland Month. It’ll also count towards Women’s History Month: though Nesbit held contradictory views about universal suffrage and its relation to socialism, she was in fact a co-founder of the Fabian Society and was much involved in helping disadvantaged children in South London.

Here, though, I want to mention the final instalment of Nesbit’s Psammead trilogy, The Story of the Amulet. In preparation for writing this Nesbit had thoroughly researched a particular amulet in the British Museum (similar ones exist in other collections such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) and I’ll have more to say in a review after my upcoming reread. But the amulet’s shape — a tyet, similar to the Egyptian ankh symbol (though based on a folded knotted cloth) and associated with the goddess Isis — sharply reminded me of a puzzling symbol in another book I’m currently rereading.

Diana Wynne Jones, whose work I’ll be lauding for March Magics, was yet another Nesbit fan. She wrote The Homeward Bounders in the early eighties: regarded by some as a ‘difficult’ book (as I’ve discussed in an earlier post) it introduces a recurring motif of anchor and chain. The anchor’s shape ⚓ is of course well known as a Christian sign symbolising hope: in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapter 6) Paul introduces the metaphor of hope as “an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast”.

The observant reader will already have spotted that the anchor incorporates both cross and ankh symbols. Not all anchors are this shape of course, but the familiar traditional ship’s weight (called the fisherman’s anchor) includes the flukes for digging into the sea bed, the stock for turning the flukes into optimal position, and the ring or shackle for attaching the cable or chain.

Now Jones’s novel has youngsters travelling to different worlds via portals (called Boundaries) where they come across the anchor and chain in various guises. Nesbit’s story also has youngsters (the same ones from Five Children and It) travelling, courtesy of the amulet’s magic, but they visit different eras of history and even the future.

Here’s my thinking: The Homeward Bounders seems to partly be a parallel, conscious or otherwise, of The Story of the Amulet. How so? Well, there are a number of children (five plus a demon hunter in one, four plus the Psammead in the other); there is a symbol (an anchor, or a tyet like a ankh); there is travelling to different worlds in either space or time; and there is an attempt to right wrongs (putting a stop to the machinations of the demons known as Them, and bringing the two halves of the amulet together).

With the concept of the anchor as a sign of hope we seem to have returned to the Pequod, becalmed on the sea of my inattention. Before I take up that story however I have those threads of connection to examine more closely, fantastic though they may appear; and I imagine them made from a similar material to Nesbit’s curtain,

thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real.

19th-century whaler

Have you read any of the title’s mentioned? Are my speculations far-fetched? Do authors think in the same convoluted way that I do? Do let me know!

4 thoughts on “Gossamer thin

  1. That is an interesting connection indeed between The Homeward Bounders and The Story of the Amulet, and between the anchor and the amulet. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all! DWJ is one of Nesbit’s heirs, certainly. The homeward bounders bring the motif of children traveling and searching for “home,” for renewal and integration, to a new and deeper level. I’m rereading it myself now and I’m as always impressed at how profound thoughts can be expressed in such seemingly unprepossessing little tales. We dismiss and ignore them at our peril.

    I look forward to more connections. And I love the quote you pulled out. That’s an image that made a subconscious impression on me, I’m sure. I think I will always be looking for that curtain, and for what lies beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Profound thoughts expressed in seemingly unprepossessing tales” — I think this is why I’ve been drawn more to children’s and YA fiction so far this year, and why (as for you) THB is impressing me so much.

      I’m glad you approve the suggested anchor and amulet connection. That veil image is especially powerful, isn’t it? It struck me when I first read the Nesbit tale and I note Eleanor Fitzsimons also quotes it. So many religions have curtains or veils hiding sacred mysteries, whether in pagan temples or in front of tabernacles in Catholic churches, and it’s apt where the magic of Nesbit’s fiction is concerned.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really interesting, Lizza, prompting even further thoughts: is there a difference between adults and children here? Do children, more than adults, invest found objects — a feather, say, a pebble or a comfort toy — with a particular magic? Do adults instead give more regard to relics (a saint’s bone, for instance, or John Lennon’s guitar) and to ritual objects, artefacts which have been invested with numen from an external source? Perhaps adults who retain a child like imagination are able to partake of both mental states — at least, I know I hold objects which have a personal association in more esteem than something which I’d be forced to stick in a bank vault or insure for a great sum!

      Liked by 1 person

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