Pattern seeking

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Every so often I put up a post drawing together themes, or characters, or places. As we approach a turning point in the year — in this case, the end of 2019 — it is tempting to start a summative series of posts. But I shall resist that impulse, reserving such an approach for December.

This time I shall merely attempt to summarise what the last few books I’ve read have, or indeed don’t have, in common. Why? Because, like all of us, I am a pattern-seeking animal and like to check that life isn’t just a random sequence of events, with no meaning or significance at all.

Or so I’d like to believe!

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#WitchWeek2019 Day 1: the White Witch of Narnia

Book cover illustration of Jadis with Edmund Pevensie

Laurie Welch goes on a ‘classic literature journey’ on her insightful blog Relevant Obscurity, and we’re so lucky that she here shares her thoughts on a memorable Narnian figure — one who’s cold as ice — in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as well as helpfully listing four classic villainous traits for us.


Jadis, The White Witch of Narnia:
The Most High Villain

The White Witch of The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis, is the perfect villain of childhood nightmares. Her wickedness goes to the top of evil antagonists in fairy tales and books of fantasy. She is not even human, but the daughter of Lilith, Adam’s first wife and on the other side, of giants. She is physically large and powerful, cold-blooded and incredibly beautiful. Using all this to her favor as supreme ruler of Narnia, she is also known as The Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc

Jadis is the ultimate manipulator of youthful weakness and vulnerability and delights in fear tactics, humiliation and physical punishment. She is the consummate lurer of sensitive, curious children with promises of power over others and worldly possessions. Her force is felt not only over the inhabitants of her realm, but the very environment in which they live. She is the White Witch of a hundred years of winter, “and never Christmas,” who keeps every animal, tree and fantastic beast in an iron grip of fear and submission. And would happily turn them into statues for her castle courtyard with her dreaded magic wand.

Jadis fears the prophecy that states when two Sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve find their way into Narnia and are crowned Kings and Queens, her rule will end and she will die. To prevent this her kingdom is full of spies instructed to turn them over to her immediately.

Why does Jadis have the whole of the Kingdom of Narnia in her thrall? What keeps the majority of creatures from banding together to fight against her rule? Why is it only when Aslan comes on the scene are the inhabitants of the land empowered to stop her?

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Whale of a time

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In just a few days it’ll be time for Witch Week, but right now I want to look forward to a little beyond that. I’ve begun one particular classic a couple of times now, but was never quite in the right frame of mind for it.

But it’s a shame to let 2019 go without giving it another try. Why? Because its author was born exactly two hundred years ago, and because Moby-Dick is bruited to be more than a simple tale of a doomed quest. So, along with fellow blogger Lizzie Ross, I shall once again begin at the beginning.

But first, I shall now glance back at works I have read (links are to my reviews) that could almost have been preparations for this adventure, volumes that have owed a part of their existence to this great whale of a tale.

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A reprehensible rodent

The two Naughty Nancy picture books

John S Goodall:
Naughty Nancy, The Bad Bridesmaid
Macmillan 1975

John Goodall:
Naughty Nancy Goes to School
André Deutsch Ltd 1985

John Strickland Goodall (1908–1996) is an artist best known for his children’s picture books with Edwardian or Victorian themes, lovingly embellished with the paraphernalia of those eras, and all no doubt a nostalgic harking-back to the author’s own childhood straddling the reigns of Edward VII and George V.

The two Naughty Nancy books — both great favourites with our own children, and now their children — are typical of one of his approaches, that of using animals in period dress (mice, in this case).

These narratives, told entirely in images, without words, are laced liberally with the humour that comes from youngsters behaving badly but somehow getting away with it.

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Shirley’s neck of the woods

Gable of Gatehouse, Kirklees Priory (H P Kendall) 1937 © Calderdale Libraries

‘And that,’ asked Miss Keeldar, pointing to the forest—‘that is Nunnwood?’
‘It is.’
‘Was it not one of Robin Hood’s haunts?’
‘Yes, and there are mementos of him still existing.’
—Chapter XII ‘Shirley and Caroline’

Welcome to the most final post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (the very last despite what I suggested in an earlier piece) and welcome, especially, to the greenwood that is Nunnely Forest.

Newly established friends Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar have walked from the parish of Briarfield and are now overlooking the treetops surrounding the Nunnely Priory estate. In this novel, set towards the end of the Napoleonic wars and during a period industrial unrest, the thing we might least expect to come across might be the legend of a medieval outlaw.

But perhaps this is not so unexpected. For the two have not long before been extolling the virtues of each being a native of Yorkshire, and an independent thinker at that. Given that some Robin Hood legends are set in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire, but formerly part of the West Riding) the mention of the outlaw’s baunts is not entirely outlandish.

And there’s more.

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Real, cool and solid

Calm your expectations; reduce them to a lowly standard. Something real, cool and solid lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning.

Reader, I promised one last post on Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and here it finally is. This discussion will attempt to tackle structure and history, so do please still your beating hearts if you’re hoping to read about unalloyed romance.

Historical background

First, a bit of history. 1848 had been a year of upheaval in Europe, with attempted revolutions in several countries — only that in France achieved anything — and including Chartist agitation in Britain. The Chartism movement sought to widen suffrage and reform representation in Parliament, and this year saw demonstrations in England and a monster petition delivered. In the wake of these events Charles Kingsley, best known now for his ‘fairytale’ The Water-Babies (1863), published Alton Locke in 1850, an early novel of his which underlined the clergyman’s sympathy for the working man, for Chartist principles and Christian socialism.

After the relative success of Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë also contemplated a novel based on Chartist agitation, determined to produce something as “unromantic as Monday morning”. In the event she revised her plans which were ultimately to result in Shirley.

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Open locks, whoever knocks

Witch Week 2019

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.

[Knocking]

Open locks,
Whoever knocks!

—Macbeth, Act IV Scene 1

Thus speaks the Second Witch to her sisters, who have sensed the arrival of a certain ne’er-do-well. Macbeth swaggers into their cave: “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?” he declares. Dramatic irony, of course, for he is guilty of what he accuses them of being. (We know a few politicians who do this, don’t we?)

Running from Halloween to Bonfire Night, Witch Week 2019 is imminent. You may still have time to acquire and read Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy Cart and Cwidder, our featured book for discussion, but if that doesn’t appeal then do sit back and enjoy the guest posts to come. Our focus is on villains, and fellow bloggers will be discussing them in

  • graphic novels
  • plays by Shakespeare
  • a Diana Wynne Jones novel
  • a series by Joan Aiken
  • and the first volume of the Chronicles of Narnia.

So, not long now to wait: this is your final reminder!

Open locks, whoever knocks.

Entrance doors, Town Hall, Leeds, West Yorkshire