The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

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“Tell them stories”

The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’

The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.

At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.

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A meditation on solitude

nagasaki

Z for Zachariah
by Robert C O’Brien,
Puffin 1998 (1974)

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis.

I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.

But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit.

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Incidental extras

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

I seem to have abandoned — temporarily, I hope — my original summer reading plans and, instead of the titles I’d chosen for my Ten Books of Summer, other works (mostly rereads) are clamouring for my attention. And as I’ve always maintained that leisure reading should be for pleasure I’ve yielded to the temptation … which is absolutely fine in my book.

So I’ve just finished a reread of The Amber Spyglass and am preparing a considered review of that, followed with a quick shufti through Lyra’s Oxford to refresh my memory of that. Then it’s on — finally! — to The Secret Commonwealth.

While I gather my thoughts on the end of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy this may be also a good moment to pause and reflect on some incidentals.

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Other lands

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, ‘St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’, engraved by J Stephenson (1836)

Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.

As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.

Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.

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“Blossoms passing fair”

An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977

A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.

Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.

Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.

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Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

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The Inside and Out Book Tag

I borrowed this tag from Bookforager — who borrowed it from other bloggers — who had no idea where it came from — so that’s the accreditation done.

I’m not a habitual tag-user on this blog — many tags, especially those ubiquitous blogging ‘awards’, seem designed to elicit the kind of private details (name of pet, favourite place) that fraudsters seek to ferret out — so I only introduce such Q&A posts sparingly, and only when I like the tone of the questions.

As here, in which the prompts are all book-related. And, even better, there are only eight questions, substantially less than on a tax form…

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Geognostic

Map from Frank Ferneyhough’s ‘The History of Railways in Britain’ (Osprey Publishing 1975)

[H]e has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis […]. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said […] there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.

A few chapters into George Eliot’s Middlemarch I came across this hapax legomenon,* the word geognosis (géognosie in French) uttered by Edward Casaubon when describing his second cousin Will Ladislaw.

Will’s preference for unknown regions remaining accessible only by the poetic imagination is analogous not only to George Eliot’s own setting of her novel — in an imaginary Loamshire — but to the paracosms that fantasy writers conjure up, such as the virtual world described in the Wolves Chronicles.

Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) has the geography and geopolitics of her offshore island in the 1840s heading in a very different direction from that in our world. This post attempts to start charting that alternate Britain using what we might therefore call virtual or alternative geognosis.

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Hexes, murder and politicking

Regency London street

Zen Cho:
Sorcerer to the Crown
Pan Books 2016 (2015)

Prunella had once thought life in London would be all flirting and balls and dresses, hitting attentive suitors on the shoulder with a fan, and breakfasting late upon bowls of chocolate. She sighed now for her naïveté. Little had she known life in London was in fact all hexes and murder and thaumaturgical politics, and she would always be rising early for some reason or other!

This is a fantasy that has frequently been described as a mash-up of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I’ve read) and Jane Austen (ditto) as interpreted by Georgette Heyer (whom I’ve not as yet read) but of course it is more than that. The author brings up issues of race, gender and class in a way that, in 2020, is even more pertinent than when it was first published, what with Black Lives Matter assuming even more urgency and administrations in certain democracies becoming more inclined toward fascist policies.

Yet Zen Cho deals with this not in a heavy-handed preachy way but with wit, humour and satire, all the more effective for being couched in a historical fantasy rather than a sermon. While it’s not perfect, as a debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown has made few missteps; and what’s cleverer is that its apparent obscurities and longueurs actually encourage a future rereading when one may hopefully spot and enjoy the clues one may have missed first time round.

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Novels about gardens

Kirsty from The Literary Sisters recently reposted one of their pieces with the title Books about Gardens, which I was so taken with that I’m going to do my version, now, at the height of summer.

As the title suggests, I’m going to refer to books I’ve read, with links to any reviews, that have dealt one way or another with gardens in the modern era. I could have included references to gardens in the wider sense — the Middle Eastern concept of the paradise garden, or Thomas Browne’s 1658 overview The Garden of Cyrus, or turf mazes and labyrinths and the wildernesses of landscape gardening — but I’ve chosen to limit myself mostly to fiction, with just a couple of excursions beyond the paling.

Additionally, I note that these are in the main the grand gardens of English country houses or urban mansions rather than the more modest domestic examples of town terraces and the suburbs or examples from abroad. It’s something I need to address in a future post, whether they exist, say, in Mesopotamian mythology, in Chinese culture, the global tradition of public open spaces or Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories.

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Worlds apart

Gliffaes Country House Hotel walled garden © C A Lovegrove

Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.

The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.

Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.

Warning: spoilers ahead

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Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.


Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

Quandarification

I’m still in a state of ‘quandarification’. (Is there such a word? Well, there is now!) At the start of the year, when the word pandemic was something most of us associated with ancient history, I made a resolution to reduce book acquisition in the noble pursuit of tsundoku reduction.

Anybody afflicted by tsundoku will know that bittersweet feeling of guilt and pleasure with accumulations of unread books, but in a bid to support local business during lockdown I broke my resolve at the end of March.

Now, halfway through this crazy year, I think it may as good an opportunity as any for a quick bookwise review, and to also check on that quandarification.

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Unreadable nonsense

Wilson with the Arthur II stone, and Blackett with the Arthur I stone

Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett:
The Holy Kingdom
Bantam Press 1998

I scarcely know where to start with reviewing this work except to say that it is one of the most misguided books produced by a mainstream publisher that I have ever come across.

With sensationalist claims (the publishers go for the hyperbolic “explosive” and “astounding”) the authors, calling themselves historians, purport to overturn orthodoxy: they claim there were not one but two kings named Arthur — one the son of the imperial pretender Magnus Maximus and the other his sixth-century descendant from Glamorgan — whose careers were conflated to produce the single King Arthur of legend.

They not only identify the supposed burial sites of both Arthurs, they then go on to justify the title of their book with madcap theories about holy dynasties and the quest for the grail; sadly it’s all puerile balderdash.

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