Incidental extras

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

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

The recently published short story The Collectors by Philip Pullman was a moderately satisfying stopgap while we awaited the final volume of his The Book of Dust, which is anticipated as the completion of the saga of Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon.

Following on from the His Dark Materials trilogy The Book of Dust has been extending the long journey that began in 1995 with Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America in case the UK title was assumed to indicate a nonfiction book, but erroneous in that the alethiometer is neither golden nor indeed a compass).

But Pullman has been filling in some of the gaps with what I consider as incidental extras, giving us bits of history to enlarge the background to places and personages in Lyra’s world, feeding us tantalising tidbits to assuage our literary cravings.

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Blue jewel in the darkness: #LoveHain

Starry sky (WordPress Free Photo Library)

Rocannon’s World (1966)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion.
Orb Books, 1996.

“I ride with Olhor, who seeks to hear his enemy’s voice, who has traveled through the great dark, who has seen the World hang like a blue jewel in the darkness.”
— Chapter VII

An ethnologist from the League of All Worlds is studying one of the hominid species on an unnamed planet, formally known as Fomalhaut II, when his returning team are killed by a bomb. It appears that the League’s opponents, the inhabitants of the planet Faraday, have established a secret base on this uncharted world from which to launch a preemptive strike against the League. This is the major inciting incident that propels the novel forward.

But before this scenario establishes that we are in science fiction territory a prologue (based on a short story from 1964) places us firmly in a fantasy setting with an account of an heirloom being retrieved from underground troglodytes: we are introduced to a pseudo-medieval society, living in castles, mounted on flying steeds, treating with elvish and dwarvish beings, and a heroine who visits and journeys from a subterranean kingdom, only to return home to find everyone she knew has either died or grown old.

The author’s first published novel, Rocannon’s World was also the first title set in the author’s Hainish universe; as a work we could justifiably term a science fantasy it lays out many of Le Guin’s principal concerns — balanced and sustainable living, environmentalism, psychology and anthropology, morality, human imagination, and much more — all contained within a rarely predictable narrative framework.

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#LoveHain: Rocannon’s World

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin “redrew the map of modern science fiction, imagining a galactic confederation of human colonies founded by the planet Hain, an array of worlds whose divergent societies—the result of both evolution and genetic engineering—allow her to speculate on what is intrinsic in human nature.”

https://www.ursulakleguin.com/hainish-novels-and-stories

Incorporating ‘The Dowry of Angyar’ – a short story from 1964, here retitled as ‘Semley’s Necklace’ – Rocannon’s World (1966) was Ursula Le Guin’s first published novel and the first work to be considered in our #LoveHain readalong starting today, as 22nd January is the fifth anniversary of the author’s passing in 2018.

As I indicated in the introductory post, ‘Reading UKLG’s sf: #LoveHain’, for each of the eight published Hainish/Ekumen titles I shall pose three general questions (which you may either answer or ignore) to get discussion started in the comments; and here too is where you can link to your own discussions and/or reviews.

(Incidentally, you don’t have to sign up to join in the chat. And no need to commit to reading all the titles – dip in and out as and when it suits you!)

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12 TBR in 2023: #TBRyear10

This is self-explanatory. I hope so anyway! Twelve books from my to-be-read pile(s) that have been around since before 2022 and need to be given due consideration are slated to finally get the recognition they deserve – or had coming to them.

At the rate of roughly one every month that shouldn’t be too hard, should it? And it will be an additional incentive to create more shelf space of course – for new titles!

Adam Burgess (RoofBeamReader.com) is hosting this jamboree for the tenth year, and I’m duly tempted to join in, as detailed on this post. So – temptation having been yielded to – here goes!

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A strong sense of place #TDiRS22

Cadair Idris range, Gwynedd

The last instalment of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Silver on the Tree, is set in several places – by the Thames in Buckinghamshire at the start, mythical lost lands out in Cardigan Bay – but principally in the southwest corner of Snowdonia, Gwynedd, centred on the seaside town of Aberdyfi on the edge of the Cadair Idris range.

Having spent a couple of recent breaks in Aberdyfi with relatives who had links with the area, I was in a good position to become more acquainted with the background to both Silver on the Tree and the preceding volume in the sequence, The Grey King. It reinforced the strong sense of place that Cooper embedded in these two titles.

This post then is an attempt to give a pictorial impression of some of the landscape mentioned in the final novel for those who’ve not visited here; a later post will go into some detail of the literary, legendary and mythical influences that the author drew on to give both grounding and significance to incidents in the narrative.

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#LoveHain: Reading UKLG’s sf

Ursula K Le Guin 1929-2018

“People write me nice letters asking what order they ought to read my science fiction books in — the ones that are called the Hainish or Ekumen cycle or saga or something. The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones. And some great discontinuities […]”

UKLG

The late lamented writer Ursula K Le Guin died five years ago this month, on 22nd January 2018. A prolific author of novels, essays and poetry, she is deservedly best known for her Earthsea novels, but equally she has a loyal following of fans for her science fiction series, variously known as the Hainish or Ekumen series. To those allergic to the very notion of science fiction I can only say that, as with the best of this genre, the narratives – for all that they’re set in other worlds – are essentially about what it means to be human.

With this new year comes new projects, does it not? So throughout 2023 I’m planning to read (or, in a few cases, reread) the principal novels in the Hainish series in the order they were published, on a month by month basis, starting this month. If you’d like to join me you’d be very welcome – I shall be using the (hash)tags #LoveHain and #UKLGsf – and after the novels you may like to continue with the short story collections as an additional option.

As I did with #Narniathon21 I shall post three questions for readers’ consideration on the last Friday of each month (except for this month when it will be on the anniversary of Le Guin’s death, Sunday 22nd January). Please feel free to join in with any discussion in the comments, post links to your reviews or thoughts on social media. Below is my proposed schedule, plus – for completists among you! – the sequence of novels and stories as they were published and the collections they appear in.

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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. 

https://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/

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).

Speaking freely

Quote from Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ as it appeared in many Everyman editions

“This is true Liberty where free born men
Having to advise the public may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise,
Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace;
What be juster in a State than this?”

Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)

Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.

Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.

Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.

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Susan of Narnia: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

“Oh, Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”


“Grown-up, indeed. I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Jill and Polly ¹

In successive books of the Narniad Susan Pevensie, Queen of Narnia, also known as Susan the Gentle and Susan of the Horn, slides from grace to such a degree that she is no longer considered a “friend of Narnia”. The consequence of this is that in The Last Battle she is not in the fatal train crash that ensures her siblings go “further up and further in” to enter the “true” Narnia.

In many ways this seems dreadfully unfair on the poor girl – not only is she not to know the joy of entering Aslan’s Country with the others, but she is to be left without a family. And this for many readers feels like a betrayal.

What is the reason Lewis denies Susan her reward at this stage, the culmination of his grand design? Do the persistent rumours, that he planned to write a further volume entitled Susan of Narnia, have any foundation in fact? Or is there a practical reason why she’s not on the roll call of the Friends of Narnia?

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Twilight: #Narniathon21

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For many readers The Last Battle in C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is either a triumph or a letdown. I’ve already given some of my thoughts on its successes and failures in a review, and intend later to look at Lewis’s vision of the world of Narnia as depicted in the previous six chronicles, before going on to that final Narnia which is further up and further in.

Lewis as usual draws his imagery and his themes from several sources: the Bible – of course – but also from myth and medieval cosmology, from history and archaeology, and from his favourite reading in childhood as well as academia.

In this post I intend discussing the aspects that naturally interest me, leaving those points that interest readers with a theological bent for them to expound on. In a future post, along with the several Narnias I’d like to examine the issue of the Pevensie child who never returned to Narnia and hopefully come to some conclusions regarding Susan; but now I want to consider Puzzle, Tash, and the end of Narnia.

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The dream ends: #Narniathon21

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The Last Battle: A Story for Children
by C S Lewis,
Illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books, 1964 (1956)

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

16: ‘Farewell to Shadowlands’

A bitter disappointment or a valedictory farewell? A heavy-handed religious allegory or an exciting yarn embellished by an array of symbols and motifs? A betrayal of the reader’s innocent trust or a fitting conclusion to a saga that could only end one way after much signposting? The Last Battle is all these and more, though depending on the reader’s point of view they may lean more towards the former assessments than the latter.

What’s clear to me though is that my second read of this final instalment of the Narniad has adjusted my previous attitude to both it and the entire sequence, leading to a more charitable judgement; that’s not to say that there aren’t infelicities and missteps – the prejudicial racial stereotypes being the most obvious – but any fair review would also point out the positives, of which there are many.

The upshot of this re-evaluation is that The Last Battle can be seen as not just an amalgam of the Apocalypse, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Armageddon and the end of the Golden Age ruled by Cronos or Saturn: it also reflects the attributes of the twins Epimetheus and Prometheus (“Hindsight” and “Foresight”) in that it looks back to all that had gone before as well as anticipating what is to come.

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A rebel angel

‘Futurity.’ © C A Lovegrove. Image created using Wombo.Art app

The Question Mark
by Muriel Jaeger.
Introduction by Jo Moulton.
British Library Science Fiction Classics, 2019 (1926).

“You are the natural rebel, the Satanist—one of those unfortunates born with inverted instincts. Your necessity is to attack and to suffer. You may not know it, but, whatever your circumstances, you would seek out suffering. […] In no place nor time would you be at home. You are he who goes up and down upon the earth and to and fro on it.” — John Wayland to Guy Martin.

Chapter X, v.

Guy Martin is in a dead-end job in London in the 1920s, disappointed in love and feeling a great ennui for the world he lives in. In a moment of desperation he goes to his room, lies down and wills himself to enter a trance, a kind of akinetic catatonia or coma, which allows his consciousness to withdraw from the world. And then…

And then, after what seems to be an out-of-body experience, he finds himself apparently waking in the 22nd century in a kind of Utopia – literally ‘Nowhere’ – where energy is free, technology is beyond all 20th-century imagining, and labour is not only minimal but optional for many. Introduced to his new way of living by the Wayland family, he believes all is perfect, a socialist dream where all have access to whatever they need or want.

But all is not perfect in this future England, and Guy finds that neither human nature nor society adapt well to an idealised system, and especially a oerson such as himself who has existed in and experienced the Depression of the twenties. What will his reaction be to this growing realisation?

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#Narniathon21: Farewell?

Durham Cathedral sanctuary knocker

The Chronicles of Narnia come to a conclusion with The Last Battle, a title which raises strong feelings in readers, not all of them good. And theoretically we come to an end with our #Narniathon21 – though as I’ve already indicated there is a chance to extend it, for those for whom the sudden dissipation of magic is too painful!

As with the previous titles in the septad I shall pose three questions for you to consider, though as usual you are free to ignore them in any comments you may wish to add below; either way, your reactions and opinions will be of huge interest – especially for this, often regarded as the most problematic of the Narniad.

There is no rush for you to join the discussion, particularly if you have yet to finish (or indeed to start) The Last Battle; but do, if you want, add links to your own reviews or discussions, or add pointers to related literature you’ve come across that may add to our appreciation and enjoyment!

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Jack and Daisy: #Narniathon21

Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Split, 1764

[Amabel] went straight to the Big Wardrobe and turned its glass handle. ‘I expect it’s only shelves and people’s best hats,’ she said. Of course it wasn’t hats. It was, most amazingly, a crystal cave, very oddly shaped like a railway station. It seemed to be lighted by stars…

E Nesbit, ‘The Aunt and Amabel’

Having previously reviewed The Magician’s Nephew (1955) – but in advance of a scheduled review of E Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906) – I now want to discuss C S Lewis’s indebtedness, both generally and specifically, to his predecessor for not only details but also his general approach to the Chronicles of Narnia.

Not the least of his indebtedness is to Nesbit’s story ‘The Aunt and Amabel’ in The Magic World, in which a well-meaning little girl goes through a wardrobe to a place called Whereyouwantogoto and meets The People Who Understand – does this not sound a teensy bit familiar? I also want to enlarge a bit on aspects of the themes which Lewis introduces to The Magician’s Nephew that weren’t borrowed from Nesbit but yet which mattered enough for him to include in the novel. (When I say “a bit” it appears I mean “quite a lot”. Sorry about that.)

And here, as an aside, I shall just mention in passing other titles that play on aspects of Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, namely Diana Wynne Jones’s The Homeward Bounders (1981) which heads in a very different direction from that which Lewis took, and Edward Eager’s Half Magic (1954) which while very much sharing Nesbit’s sympathy for the child also involves some North American children discovering a mysterious talisman not unlike the amulet.

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