A thing more necessary

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)

‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.

There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.

To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.

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Meddling in Nature’s domain

Robert Holdstock: The Fetch,
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992

Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.

The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast.

The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.

Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit or doppelgänger, and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) which he interweaves into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family.

As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.

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A world of pure hue

In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.

What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.

Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.

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A complicated world

Carneddau landscape by Kyffin Williams, Amgueddfa Cymru (photo C A Lovegrove)

The Gift by Peter Dickinson.
Illustrated by Gareth Floyd.
The Children’s Book Club 1974 (1973)

“Were you knowing you had the gift, Davy? […] It is said to run in your family—Dadda’s family. Often it misses a generation. But usually there is one of your blood alive who can see pictures in other people’s minds.”

Chapter 1, Granny. The Gift.

The Gift is a powerful story for teenage readers from the pen of Peter Dickinson, a novel that works at several levels to appeal to many ages, emotional capacities and intellects. It also crosses the permeable frontiers between fantasy, social realism, and thriller, as well as border-hopping between North Wales and England’s South Midlands.

Davy Price is the youngest in a dysfunctional family, with a father who’s a fly-by-night chancer, a mother who occasionally ‘disappears’ on holiday with male acquaintances, an older brother who’ll become involved with a splinter group of Welsh nationalists, and a sister who doesn’t stand fools gladly but whom Davy values as a confidante.

After one particular familial upheaval the three children get dumped on the father’s mother — the trio’s fierce Welsh granny — and her gentle husband, known as Dadda, on a Welsh hill farm near a disused slate quarry. This is when Davy first discovers he has the ‘gift’ of seeing other people’s vision, the legend of how certain generations of the family have it, and how it can in fact be more a curse than otherwise. It will take a major crisis to bring things to a head, and a situation of great danger which may or may not free Davy of his dubious talent.

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Covens above!

Henry Fuseli’s 1796 painting ‘The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches’

As many of you know, the evening of April 30th, May Eve, is also known as Walpurgisnacht in Germany. The term comes of course from one of the religious feasts for St Walpurga, a 9th-century saint from Devon who went on to convert heathen Saxons on the continent, this particular feast day being 1st May.

Because May Day was an ancient seasonal festival — called Beltane in some cultures — some of the pagan beliefs and traditions associated with it have become mixed up with the saint, with the result that May Eve has become associated like Halloween with unchristian practices, with Saint Walpurga held up as a champion against magic, superstition and … witchcraft.

Witches have therefore had a mixed reception, from rabid persecution to modern mystique, from clichéd representations to wise women who are completely unassuming. That varied reception has been reflected in fiction and the media, and so I thought I might have a quick jaunt through some of the literary approaches authors have taken, using fiction (much of it for younger readers) which I’ve reviewed in blog posts over the last decade (links take you to those reviews).

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Looking forward to 1976

You know how I keep rabbiting on about avoiding overcommitting to reading events? Well, it appears I’m a bit of a recidivist because, despite it being six months in the future I going to join in a meme run by Kaggsy and Simon.

I’d enjoyed taking a little while out of my then reading schedule to fit in a Lovecraft short story for the 1936 Club at the very last moment. Now they’ve given notice of the 1976 Club to run from 11th to 17th October and I think with a bit of judicious planning I can just about sque-e-eze a few titles into that week.

And it turns out that I’ve already read and even reviewed quite a number of titles published some forty-five years ago.

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April Rainers

© C A Lovegrove

Hexwood
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins 2000 (1993)

Here’s another twisty plot from the girl Jones, somewhat similar to wandering around a curiously managed patch of spring woodland. One thing I have learned about rereading Diana Wynne Jones novels is that, whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.

In this fantasy, for example, much is made of the sense of déjà-vu experienced by principal characters, emphasising that this or that memory will always prove more or less elusive the more one tries to examine it. And so it proved with my reread — I kept having to turn back pages to check if and when something familiar seemed to turn up, and not always being successful.

In fact, then, Hexwood appears to be a kind of metaphor or indeed metafiction for the experiences a reader has when visiting the author’s novels for the first or, indeed, the nth time, highly apt then for a fiction which doggedly explores the unreliability of time perception.

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The evolution of Aragorn

Bellerophon and the Chimaera
Bellerophon and the Chimaera: artefact in the British Museum © C A Lovegrove

Hobbit to Hero:
the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012

Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.

As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.

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A flock of twites

Photo © C A Lovegrove

As is my practice after reviewing one of the instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles I explore four main areas: people, places, timelines and themes. Within these four categories answers are sought for the classic six questions — who? what? when? where? why? and how? — and applied to Cold Shoulder Road, one of the penultimate episodes in this alternative history saga set in the first half of the 19th century.

* Spoiler Alert *

Following posts on chronology, topography and themes, this post now begins exploring the personages in Cold Shoulder Road, many of whom (as the title suggests) aren’t particularly friendly to our principal protagonists, Is and Arun Twite. Unlike many previous instalments this novel includes fewer peculiar or even humorous names than before, but many nevertheless have likely or possible significances. And we get to discover yet more Twites, members perhaps of the extended family with a name recalling a rather undistinguished-looking finch.

As the blurb of the Red Fox edition has it, young Arun Twite

returns to his mother’s house on Cold Shoulder Road, only to find it deserted and flood-ravaged. […] With the help of his indomitable cousin, Is Twite, Arun sets off in search of Admiral Fishskin — their only key to discovering the real truth, whatever it may be.

Fellow author Nina Bawden wrote that Joan Aiken is such a spellbinder, and she wasn’t far wrong.

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Imagine unquiet slumbers

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Glass Town Wars
by Celia Rees,
Pushkin Press 2019 (2018)

I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: […] I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, chapter XXXIV

Confusing. Puzzling. Strange. As I proceeded through the pages of this novel I had similar reactions to many readers in online reviews, but it wasn’t till I got to a mention of “true Thomas” that I began to pick my way with more confidence through Celia Rees’s episodic and kaleidoscopic narrative. And then I began to understand how its various strands interlaced, and was able to stand back and see the vision the tapestry offered.

Tom is in a coma in hospital after some unclear incident, tended by a solicitous male nurse. Tom’s fickle girlfriend posts selfies of herself with his comatose body on social media in order to capitalise on his misfortune; his computer whizz schoolfriend Milo is using Tom as a guinea-pig for an experimental dark web implant; and Lucy sits by Tom’s bedside reading aloud her class’s set book Wuthering Heights in the hopes that he might keep a hold on the outside world.

And so without his acquiescence Tom finds himself emmeshed with a paracosm created by the four Brontë siblings, the world of Glass Town and its warring polities; it becomes a world dangerous for the dreamer because events in this virtual existence will have consequences for him in the 21st century.

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A closely woven story

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

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#1936Club: The Shining Trapezohedron

Illustration by Virgil Finlay for ‘Weird Tales’, 1936

‘The Haunter of the Dark’ (1936)
by H P Lovecraft,
in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories,
edited by S T Joshi. Penguin Books 1999.

With its suitably macabre title ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ was the last published fiction of H P Lovecraft, who died from intestinal cancer in the year following its appearance. It follows the narrative pattern of much that he wrote in this genre: a student of the occult, inevitably a male, sticks his nose into a place or situation which any sensible person would steer clear of, ignoring all the telltale signs. But then, we wouldn’t have a story if they really were as sensible as the rest of us!

Set in contemporary Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s home town, this short fiction conceals beneath its lugubrious exterior a glee that incorporates in-jokes shared with fellow writers and acolytes, along with his individual literary style marked by a superfluity of favourite adjectives and repeated words which conversely risks becoming banal.

But then one doesn’t read collections of Lovecraft stories for its range but for the familiar slow build-up of immanent alien presence and the inevitable demise of the protagonist, or the narrator’s reduction to a gibbering wreck or, at best, transformation to a sadder and wiser man.

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Shouldering themes

The Great Storm of 1703 when hundreds of ships were wrecked off the Goodwin Sands

By internal chronology one of the penultimate instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Cold Shoulder Road (1995) nevertheless shares several of the thematic motifs of the preceding volumes, one of the features that helps to characterise the whole sequence. As is my practice I shall be listing and discussing these, with a certain big proviso …

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Just deserts

Lipizzaner horse and rider, from a vintage postcard

The Star of Kazan
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2008 (2004)

‘Oh God, she had to believe that her mother was good. How did people live if they thought their mother was dishonest?’
— Chapter 37

Two striking images, among so very many, stand out for me in this novel: one is of a Lipizzaner horse and its rider, working together as one, and the other is of an armoured fist sometimes accompanied by the motto, ‘Stand aside, Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us’. And between the two uneasily sits the figure of 12-year-old foundling Annika who finds herself emotionally torn between the community which has raised her and the family she never knew she had.

Brought up at the turn of the 20th century in a Vienna then at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she is raised below stairs in an academic household, loved and repaying that love in countless ways. She is quick to learn, to make friendships, to develop and enjoy skills such as cooking. But all the time she harbours dreams of her birth mother coming to claim her, explain her abandonment and then whisk her off to a new life.

But when that day does come and she is taken to North Germany to live in a castle, she finds that dreams are rarely the same as reality — and in her innocence she is unable to accept that people can be dissembling and not have her welfare truly at heart.

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Talking ’bout Tolkien

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.

How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.

Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.

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