A northern struggle

Ursus maritimus (http://thegraphicsfairy.com/polar-bear-printable/)

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North
Engravings by John Lawrence
David Fickling Books 2008

A Texas cowboy. A gas balloon. A settlement by the Barents Sea. A polar bear. Local politics. Dirty secrets. And … Action! Philip Pullman’s fantasy of derring-do near the Arctic Circle paints a vivid picture that reads like a film script synopsis as well as playing in the mind’s eye like a graphic novel. Set some 35 years before the events in the His Dark Materials trilogy Once Upon a Time in the North directly references a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in its title; like Once Upon a Time in the West we have a frontier town and potential conflict based on land exploitation (oil reserves here instead of a railroad), plus a hero figure determined to defeat a vicious gunslinger with whom he has unfinished business.

But this is where the comparisons end. While Pullman may have been inspired by Leone’s film, his main purpose is to introduce the story of how the young Lee Scoresby gets to meet Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørne or fighting polar bear, and how they establish an alliance long before they meet Lyra in Northern Lights. This novella then is a prequel — unlike the standalone movie — giving us background on Lee and Iorek’s characters and how it is that a cowboy appears to be an accomplished aeronaut in the frozen north.

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New Cumbria (1)

A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire
A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire

It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).

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Culture clash

Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur (credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg)
Laguna Verde and Mt Licancabur. Credit: http://www.paxgaea.com/images/Laguna_Verde_and_Volcano_Licancabur_on_the_border_between_Chile_and_Bolivia.jpg

Joan Aiken The Stolen Lake
Red Fox 2005 (1981)

It is 1835 and Dido Twite is heading back to England from Nantucket Island on board HMS Thrush. Or so she thinks: she has been at sea for most of the 18 months since she was shipwrecked in the North Sea at the end of 1833, and can’t wait to get back to London and her friend Simon. But things aren’t going to plan. First pirates and a rebel ship have to be dealt with, and then she finds that the naval vessel has been sent two thousand miles down the eastern coast of South America to go to the aid of Britain’s oldest ally. And her real troubles start just as soon as she sets foot in New Cumbria.

New Cumbria? This is not a country known in our world, but it does exist in the alternate world of the Wolves Chronicles, Joan Aiken’s highly idiosyncratic series set in a world where Victoria didn’t rule in Britain but where the Stuart king James III did. We have to sweep away all that we thought we knew about the 19th century — and indeed previous history — and accept that we are in a parallel existence where, instead of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, we hear of Biru, Hy Brasil, Lyonesse and New Cumbria.

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Dido goes south

South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)
South America 1821 (public domain: Wikimedia Commons)

With Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake I am continuing my exploration of Dido Twite’s voyages and the world as it was in James III’s day, during the 1830s. This is in the nature of a taster post as I shall of course be reviewing this, the fourth of the Wolves Chronicles, and discussing the geography, history, people and peculiarities of this alternate world. Joan tells us in her prefatory note

Everybody knows that the Ancient British didn’t migrate to South America when the Saxons invaded their country; this is just my idea of what it would have been like if they had. But Brazil did get its name from the old Celtic idea that there was a beautiful magic country called Breasal’s Island, Breasail, or Hy Brasil, somewhere out in the Atlantic, west of Ireland, where the sun sets.

I would only dispute that the country of Brazil derives its name from this mythical land — it’s actually from the Portuguese pau-brazil, the red brazilwood tree — but it’s true that belief in this land, downgraded now to an island, persisted until the mid-19th century.*

The note also informs us that this book “follows the adventures of Dido Twite, after she sets sail for England at the end of Night Birds on Nantucket, and before she gets there, in The Cuckoo Tree.” But Joan calms us by reminding us that this is “a separate story, and you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.”

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Slow and stately

Pavane
Pavane, “The Dance in the Garden” Early 16th-century illumination from Roman de la Rose, Toulouse, British Library Harley MS 4425, fol. 14v http://www.britanynica.com/media/full/6868

Keith Roberts Pavane Victor Gollancz 1995 (1968)

On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin’s bullet lodged in abdomen and chest. Her face was lined, her teeth blackened, and death lent her no dignity; but her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elizabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more…

In between a degree in Music and, amongst other things, playing in an electric folk band I sang lute songs. Not very well, I must add, but accompanied very ably by a lutenist and a bass viol player. Rather than being seen as art songs these airs — by Campion, Morley, Dowland and others — telling of love and woe and of paganism and nature must have displayed a clear kinship with the traditional airs and folk themes normally sung in the club, and seemed to go down well despite my artless renditions.

One of the best known of John Dowland’s collection of airs called Lachrime (‘Tears’) is the heart-rending ‘Flow My Teares’ from his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres of 1600. It is in the form of a pavane, a slow and stately dance of the period, the sections structured here as AABBC (where C is the coda or tailpiece and A and B contrasting melodies). Whether Keith Roberts intended it so or not, it’s possible to use Dowland’s words as a counterpoint to Roberts’ narrative, and that’s what I intend to do.

But first, the Prologue…

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Beyond superlative

raven
Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)

Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.

This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.

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Chameleon

http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/
http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-chameleon-images/

Dear Reader, you will not be surpriz’d to observe that in recent days a steady consumption of Regency period and related writing may be persuading me to pursue certain patterns of speech in my writings. Having recently completed First Impressions, Charlie Lovett’s Austen-inspired cozy mystery, while simultaneously reading a selection of Jane’s letters to her sister Cassandra, I find that it is difficult not to chuse similar turns of phrase and even spellings.

I have also finished Black Hearts in Battersea, the second of Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books, set in the 1830s in what might have been a pre-Victorian world … if Queen Victoria had in reality come to the throne. You will doubtless recall that Aiken was much enamoured of Miss Jane’s novels, even to the extent of penning some continuations. And now I am deep into Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a work which deliberately echoes — without straying into parody or pastiche — the writing of that late Georgian era.

But then, I cannot but observe that I myself have leanings towards overblown phrases, for I rarely eschew the liberal usage of the comma, colon, semi-colon and dash. The reason must be an obsession with qualifying every statement, so as to excise ambiguity and evade accusations of generalisation. Where are the instances when I heed the injunction “Write as you speak”? When will I cleave to the modern style of writing plainly? Can I ever cast off the clout of anachronistic circumlocutions? Will I further descend into the slough of circuitousness, the whirlpool of wordiness, the maelstrom of mellifluence?

I digress.

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The hand of the poet

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Owen Sheers: Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)

‘What is it?’ she asked.

Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’

Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.

All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.

Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?

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A new Troy?

pagoda Jan Morris Hav:
comprising Last Letters from Hav;
Hav of the Myrmidons

Faber & Faber 2006

Despite irritating minor typos (not even corrected in the paperback edition) this is a wonderful fiction obsessing on dualities: ancient and modern, East and West, Light and Dark, land and sea, transparency and the occluded. The addition of Hav of the Myrmidons in 2006 to the 1985 Last Letters from Hav (presumably written as if to Morris’ partner Elizabeth) adds to that sense of duality: as the earlier Letters ended a half year of somnolent unreality with the brutal suddenness of the Intervention, so does the mirroring second half of Hav end a six day tour of puzzling contradictions with a brusque departure. Hav appears to be an independent state on a peninsula of Asia Minor, close enough to the known site of Troy to have been considered, Morris suggests, a contender; like Troy it has been coveted by other nation states, squabbled over by invading armies and temporarily ruled by transient empires.

Hav itself is like an amalgam of all those liminal territories such as Hong Kong or Trieste that Morris herself has visited for her travelogues, and resonant with echoes of a few other polities such as Istanbul or Malta which have been at the crossroads of cultures. The Hav of the 1980s is a little quaint, a relic of its past histories but decaying in its inertia. While no less Kafkaesque post-9/11 Hav no longer retains its picture postcard attraction: all that has mostly been swept away by the sinister but shadowy forces behind the Intervention, leaving tourists in a modernist enclave and a population that is even more reticent to disclose what, if anything, is controlling Hav. Continue reading “A new Troy?”

Truth, terrible as death

aber tower

Philip K Dick The Man In The High Castle
Gollancz 2009 (1962)

Alternate history | given alternate history; | what’s true? What isn’t?

Authentic. Genuine. How often are these words used, and abused. Clothing stamped with ‘authentic’, meaning imitation US sports wear. Sweatshop items I remember seeing in the 60s labelled ‘genuine imitation leather’. Beguiling items sold right now for their ‘cosy faux fur’, as though faux was a kind of animal.

Authenticity is one of the big ideas residing at the heart of this haunting novel, one of Dick’s earliest and one for which he won a Hugo Award. Does authenticity reside in objects purporting to be historic relics or in the minds of humans who trade and purchase and use and treasure them? Who really won the last global conflict? What is the significance of the alternate history of the world written by the Man in the High Castle? Is there really a High Castle in the medieval sense? Indeed, are the characters we meet really who or what they say they are? Moreover, can writings such as the I Ching truly predict the future, or do they merely offer solace to the humans who use them? Continue reading “Truth, terrible as death”