#TDiRS22: By Pendragon’s sword

The Square, Aberdyfi, 2022 © C A Lovegrove

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper.
With a note by the author, 2013.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1977).

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

‘Silver on the Tree’

The longest and the last of Susan Cooper‘s fantasy sequence is also the most far-ranging and complex of the series. Bringing together many if not most of the principal characters we’ve met previously, it also introduces us to one final individual who has a key part to play in the sequence’s resolution. It’s fitting therefore that like Cooper herself he should be a maker and a wordsmith as well as a poet out of history.

Moving from Buckinghamshire to Gwynedd, and from the ‘present-day’ – the 1970s – to times historical and legendary, this tale takes the unwary reader, like the five youngsters in the novel, through a whirlwind of emotions, information and impressions; it conjures up dreamlike images and primeval, nightmarish fears; and it provides both comfort and wonderment.

Above all, the narrative thrust artfully conceals the poetic skill that Cooper brings to her creation; like a finely-wrought artefact its splendour dazzles, but closer inspection reveals its subtle intricacy, balance and presentation of motifs. Ungainly it may at times appear but I believe this quality gives it its distinctive character; and of course life is nothing if not ungainly.

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My Life in Books 2022

© C A Lovegrove

Using only books you have read this year, answer these prompts. Try not to repeat a book title. 


My Life in Books? I’ve borrowed this meme by Lizzy Siddal via Annabel of Annabookbel.net, having found it a fun exercise in the past. Below is my attempt for 2022 using 15 of my 74 titles read, though I’ve not included links to my reviews; feel free to join in!

In high school I was King of Shadows (Susan Cooper).
People might be surprised by The Dunwich Horror (H P Lovecraft).
I will never be The Velveteen Rabbit (Margery Williams).

My life post-lockdown was The Aftermath (Rhidian Brook).
My fantasy job is Stage Designs (Wynne Jeudwine).
At the end of a long day I need Human Voices (Penelope Fitzgerald).

I hate being In Darkling Wood (Emma Carrol).
I wish I had That Hideous Strength (C S Lewis).
My family reunions are A Far Cry from Kensington (Muriel Spark).

At a party you’d find me with Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans (Luis Fernando Verissimo).
I’ve never been to The House Without Windows (Barbara Newhall Follett).
A happy day includes The Bookshop (Penelope Fitzgerald).

Motto I live by: The Question Mark (Muriel Jaeger). 
On my bucket list is The Imagination Chamber (Philip Pullman).
In my next life, I want to have The Spirit of Science Fiction (Roberto Bolaño).

Mighty pleased with herself

Balthus: ‘Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge’ (1944)

The Collectors by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books, 2022 (2014).

‘What a very pretty girl. D’you know who she is?’ ‘No idea,’ said the Bursar, ‘but she looks mighty pleased with herself.’

p 68

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” opines a character in The Winter’s Tale, thus confirming that the tradition for ghostly, tragic accounts has a long and distinguished pedigree. Many and varied are the expected ingredients for such narratives, their purpose to excite shivers of nervous anticipation. The author of this short story duly delivers the shivers with his particular concoction.

In order to give grounding to some aspects of the unspecified ivory-towered institution mentioned in the story Pullman seems to have based it on his own Oxford alma mater, Exeter College, setting it a couple of years after he’d graduated in 1968. But this college seems to be an altogether spookier place, and that’s down to the recipe typically specified for such winter tales.

The ingredients, many chosen from late Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, include a cloistered setting with academics, curious objects which exude a baleful influence, a hint of mysterious or even otherworldly origins, and of course an unexplained death or two. What gives The Collectors its especial flavour is its implicit link with the worlds of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, but – as with any good winter’s tale – it has to stand on its own merits. Does it do so?

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Death dons the false beard

© C A Lovegrove

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
Penguin Books, 2022 (1996).

Was the Hogfather a god? Why not? thought Susan. There were sacrifices, after all. All that sherry and pork pie. And he made commandments and rewarded the good and he knew what you were doing. If you believed, nice things happened to you. Sometimes you found him in a grotto, and sometimes he was up there in the sky…

On Discworld every Hogswatchnight the Hogfather is expected to take his sledge drawn by four pigs to visit  every child and deliver appropriate gifts. But this particular Hogswatch there is a problem: the figure widely believed to be merely a figment of the collective imagination appears to have been assassinated, and it therefore falls to another figure to secretly stand in for the role of “the Fat Man”.

But his dissembling has aroused the suspicion and then irritation of his granddaughter Susan of Sto Helit, who feels compelled to get involved as Hogswatchnight plays out. Temporarily abandoning her role as governess to Gawain and Twyla Gaiter she steps outside time in an attempt to resolve matters, picking up a decidedly odd divinity along the way.

Nothing in Discworld is straightforward, however, for on its ill-lit motorways of logical narrative there inevitably lurk dirty great big DIVERSION signs, with traffic cones leading the unwary traveller on to confusing roundabouts; take any exit and it’ll lead to murky backstreets thronged with shady characters and clueless bystanders. All that’s certain is that we’ll eventually reach Journey’s End, but where that will leave us is anybody’s guess.

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Quarter days and others #TDiRS22

#TDiRS22 annabookbel.net

Today marks the winter solstice, the day when in the northern hemisphere the sun ‘stands’ at its most northerly limits at dawn and dusk, bringing about the shortest 24 hours of the year. In times past both solstice and equinox periods were marked by quarter days, when in Britain workers were hired, rents were collected, and school terms began.

In England these quarter days were settled on Lady Day (25th March, the feast of the Annunciation), Midsummer’s Day (24th June, the feast of St John the Baptist), Michaelmas Day (29th September, the feast of St Michael and All Angels) and Christmas (25th December).

But there were also so-called cross-quarter days, holidays occurring roughly midway between quarter days, which corresponded closer to feast days celebrated in Celtic nations such as Scotland and Ireland. These were Candlemas (2nd February), May Day (1st May), Lammas (1st August), and All Hallows or All Saints (1st November). Some of these days are popular dates in much fantasy fiction whenever supernatural events take place, and that has been the case with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, completed by the final volume entitled Silver on the Tree.

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The copy-editor and her nemesis

Kensington in the 1950s (Roger Mayne Archive)

A Far Cry from Kensington
by Muriel Spark.
Introduction by Ali Smith.
Virago Books, 2009 (1988).

Spark’s novel is a deliciously piquant story about truth-telling, told by a character one almost suspects at times to be an unreliable narrator when her account is so spiky and vicious. Yet how can one doubt that war-bride Mrs Hawkins, whose training as a copy-editor is to shear away redundant prose, is giving us the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Her nemesis is Hector Bartlett, a dreadful literary hack whom she calls to his face un pisseur de copie, an act which will have repercussions in the form of lost employment, subterfuge, conspiracy, pseudoscience and suicide.

But A Far Cry from Kensington is far from being a satirical revenge tragedy involving a pisseur de copie and a copy-editor. Set in postwar London in the mid-50s during a period when Spark was herself beginning to establish herself as a novelist, this evokes conditions in the capital and the personnel she was then familiar with, even fictionalising a vendetta she’d been involved in, so that it’s easy to accept this account as reflecting veracity.

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Back to a former future

Towards the end of 2021 I did a little musing about the coming year, and mentioned a few authors and books I was considering on my wishlist for 2022. As we near the end of this year I shall indulge in a bit of reflection, considering what I actually read compared to what I listed.

First of all, I’m glad I managed to mark the birth of two authors in 1922, Sam Youd – better known under his pseudonym John Christopher – and Kurt Vonnegut with reads of, respectively, The Winter Swan and Cat’s Cradle. Regrettably I never got round to reading any authors who were born in 1972. Nor any titles published either a hundred or fifty years ago – except, I think, for Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit (1922). Oh, and the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1972) . . .

But I did get round to enjoying writings from elsewhere in those two decades, thanks to several memes such as Novellas in November. The 1920s included Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, H P Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Question Mark; the 1970s have featured most of The Dark is Rising sequence, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, and Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings, among others. And of course loads of other stuff.

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Making the transition

On the Welsh coastal path © C A Lovegrove 2013

The Broken Bridge by Philip Pullman.
Young Picador, revised edition 2004 (1990).

‘You’re interested in painting?’
‘It’s the only thing—’ 
‘It’s not the only thing. It’s not even the most important thing.’ 
‘What . . .’ Ginny still couldn’t speak properly. ‘What is the most important thing?’ 
There was a long, long silence.

Chapter 14

Ginny Howard’s mother was from Haiti, and it’s from her that Ginny apparently inherits her artistic talents. She now lives with her widowed father in a Welsh village near the sea, and for a sixteen-year-old of mixed descent that isn’t easy.

Come the summer holidays after her exams and some of the mysteries concerning her mother and family start to emerge, upsetting the sensitive but determined teenager at that crucial period when she is making the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood.

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Beeb and blitz #BBC100

15th October 1940 bomb damage, Broadcasting House © BBC

Human Voices
by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Preface by Hermione Lee, 2013,
introduction by Mark Damazer, 2014. 
4th Estate, 2014 (1980).

“I prithee, | Remember I have done thee worthy service; | Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served | Without or grudge or grumblings…”

The Tempest, I ii

If a novel can be termed ‘worthy’ it suggests that it deserves respect for its particular qualities, though not necessarily that it’s admirable or invites fondness. But describing it as ‘worthwhile’ implies that investment in terms of time, effort and consideration, and maybe even emotion, is its own reward.

How then to judge a story that, while supposedly merely focusing on a year in the life of a national institution and a handful of individuals working there, seems to address eternal human concerns such as what constitutes untruths, selfishness, injustice, and love, and which forty years after its publication (and itself forty years after the events it describes) remains not just relevant but as urgent as ever?

However fictional the novel’s characters patently are, the fact that the author actually worked at the BBC during the year in question gives the narrative the ring of authenticity. The closing references to Shakespeare’s The Tempest serve then as a metaphor for how fiction may reflect reality despite being, as Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

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Love, hate, or indifference

Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si (credit Daphne Lee)

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho.
Macmillan, 2021.

“She wasn’t Malaysian or American. Just as she wasn’t straight but she definitely wasn’t gay, if anyone was asking. She wasn’t her family’s Min, but she wasn’t the Jess who’d had a life under that name, before her dad had gotten sick. […] She was a walking nothing—a hole in the universe, perfect for letting the dead through.”

Chapter 17

Jessamyn Teoh accompanies her parents from the US back to Penang in Malaysia, a country she barely remembers. So it’s a shock for her to hear a very opinionated voice in her head claiming to be the ghost of Ah Ma, her maternal grandmother.

First shock over, Jess discovers Ah Ma had fallen out with Jess’s mother, and it’s something to do with Ah Ma having been a medium for a powerful local deity called Black Water Sister, named from a neighbouring locale. The third shock comes when she realises that Ah Ma, now a spirit herself, wants Jess to stop Black Water Sister’s shrine being developed by a powerful gang boss.

Jess – or Min, to use her Malaysian Chinese name – is therefore placed in a very difficult position, having to balance demands from all fronts – her parents, her secret girlfriend Sharanya, her relatives, her grandmother’s ghost, the boss, his gangsters, the boss’s son, construction workers, assorted gods and ghosts including, of course, the enraged Black Water Sister herself. What’s a girl to do?

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Darkness in Gwynedd #TDiR22

The 9th-century monolith known as the Cadfan Stone © C A Lovegrove

When Susan Cooper was writing the fourth title in her The Dark is Rising sequence, The Grey King (1975), she was drawing from family connections with the southwestern corner of Merionethshire (now part of Gwynedd) where she had holidayed as a child, where some of her relatives lived and where her parents retired. So some of the places referenced in the novel were based on real locations, while others were inspired by places she was familiar with.

She also was inspired by local legends attached to specific sites, legends which she either borrowed wholesale or freely riffed on. In this discussion post I want to give readers some background to both the locations and the legends, drawn from a couple of recent visits to the area (one of those around Hallowmas, the time of year The Grey King is set) and my longterm interest in folklore, archaeology, and Arthurian legend.

Needless to say, if you haven’t read the novel there will be spoilers galore.

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