Bibliophile’s Progress

Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire
Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Actually, this title’s a sprat to catch a mackerel: my reading progress appears to have been minimal this month, as you may have noticed from my February posts. I’ve read a couple of kids’ books (one of which was a reread and actually completed in January), a non-fiction history (granted, it’s over 500 pages of smallish print) and a modern take on the Alice books; and I’ve started a couple of classics. That’s still barely one a week.

True, I’ve been involved in other matters, mostly musical — choral singing (a scratch Mozart Requiem as well as a scratch Mahler Resurrection Symphony for example) and piano accompanying — but that shouldn’t really have impinged much on reading time, though it did reduce the time I might’ve dedicated to composing posts.

But, really, what I should be considering is less progress than process.

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New Cumbria (3)

Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens, Bath
Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens, Bath

Dido Twite has been doing a lot of travelling, first on a British naval ship from Nantucket to Tenby, and then by riverboat and railway to Bath Regis. Why Joan Aiken chose to bring her young heroine here is complex — I’ve discussed some of the background elsewhere — but as this is the most involved part of the story in The Stolen Lake where geography is concerned it’s only right that I outline, in greater detail and in a separate post, how matters stand.

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New Cumbria (2)

Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest summit in the Andes, by Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, at nearly 7000 metres the highest summit in the Andes. Credit: Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Yet more now on Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, to the possible delight of fans of the Wolves Chronicles and the certain dismay of everyone else.

We left Dido Twite at the port of Tenby, at the mouth of the River Severn in Roman America. (New readers will no doubt be confused so it’s best they consult the previous post to discover what exactly is going on. Otherwise this post will make little or no sense.) Tenby being the only entry to New Cumbria, it will require a journey of some 200 miles to get to the country’s capital, Bath Regis. But trying to relate Roman America to its model, Latin America, will prove rather difficult — distances simply refuse to tally up — and therefore all linear measurements will need to be taken with a exceptionally liberal pinch of salt.

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Where was The Shire?

Black Mountains
Black Mountains above Crickhowell, Powys, with Table Mountain’s silhouette on the right

Harken, friends of Halflings, I have a question! But before I ask it, let me lay bare the background.

Here in the Black Mountains of Wales, in the Vale of the Usk, there is a popular local tradition that J R R Tolkien was inspired by the local scenery and placenames to borrow several locations, thinly disguised, for his vision of the Shire in Middle Earth. Among the several places I’ve either seen or heard touted are Buckland near Brecon, Llangattock Mountain north of the South Wales Valleys, Sugar Loaf Mountain by Abergavenny, and Crickhowell, all in this southeastern corner of Wales.

For example, as part of the annual Crickhowell Walking Festival (“Now in its 10th year!”) is a walk which is described thus: A Walk Through Tolkien’s Shire.

Crickhowell is thought to be the inspiration for “Crickhollow” village in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”.

Of course you will immediately note several objections to this statement. The phrase “is thought” is a wonderful catch-all: no reference, no evidence, and no doubt easy to conclude that it is the actual inspiration. Secondly, Crickhollow is not mentioned in The Hobbit, though it does appear in The Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it is not a village. In Chapter V of The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ we’re told that Crickhollow is “Frodo’s new house”:

It was an old-fashioned countrified house, as much like a hobbit-hole as possible: it was long and low, with no upper storey; and it had a roof of turf, round windows, and a large door.

Let’s put these objections aside for the moment as probable misrememberings. Here is my actual question, and I’m genuinely interested in the answer: Did Tolkien actually visit this part of Wales? And where might I find the evidence? (Yes, I know technically that’s two questions, but they are inter-related!) Only then can we evaluate whether south Powys has a genuine claim to be a model for the Shire.

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A mountain to climb

1882 sketch of Mount Everest http://asketchofthepast.com/2015/04/08/forever-upward-sandy-irvines-summit
1882 sketch of Mount Everest (credit: http://asketchofthepast.com/2015/04/08/forever-upward-sandy-irvines-summit)

The jokey noticeboard outside a local pub reads JANUARY NEARLY OVER THANK GOD and while I’m not in a hurry to skip on to February it’s been a surprise how quickly this month has come and nearly gone. At least it’s a good point at which to look back and see how I’ve been doing with my reading over the last 30-odd days, and how I’m progressing with my Mount To-Be-Read Challenge.

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The story so far …

puffin-club-movie
Joan Aiken introduces the Wolves Chronicles in this Puffin Club movie

Before embarking on Dido Twite’s voyage to South America and discovering what she did there, I thought I might share with you this archive Puffin Club film from around 1970 or 1971. It’s about the origins of the Wolves Chronicles, as shared with members of the Puffin Club.

In it Joan Aiken, then in her forties, introduces those young readers to the first few books in the saga — The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Night Birds in Nantucket and the then imminent The Cuckoo Tree, published in 1971. We see her on the Sussex Downs, in her house in Petworth (a young Lizza Aiken, her daughter and co-author of the Arabel and Mortimer tales, puts in an appearance) and the tree that gave its name to the book she was then working on.

To accompany her account there are reconstructions and readings from the books, all very much redolent of the period in which the film was made, illustrated by the talented Pat Marriot. My thanks to Lizza Aiken for drawing attention to this exquisite and atmospheric short, available at http://www.joanaiken.com/pages/funstuff_movie.html (or just click on the image above). For new readers and seasoned Dido fans alike this will be a real treat.

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As well as the official Joan Aiken website — a gorgeously interactive and attractive resource — there is a wonderfully entertaining and informative blog written by Lizza Aiken at http://joanaiken.wordpress.com which I urge you to visit and, hopefully, follow.

The Puffin Club was dreamt up by Kaye Webb, the long-established editor of Puffin Books; it lasted from 1967 to 1989 before, sadly, being disbanded. For more on the Puffin Club go to http://puffinclubarchive.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://puffinclub.co.uk/

The printed word

Title page of Robert Greene's Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft
Title page of Robert Greene’s Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft

The title page of Robert Greene’s play Pandosto — published in 1588 and providing a model for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1611?) — has some wonderful phrases which, incidentally, have a universal application to much fiction. This ‘pleasant Historie’ is claimed to show that, although Truth may be concealed ‘by the meanes of sinister Fortune’

yet by Time in spight of fortune it is most manifestly revealed.

In these post-truth times it may be heartening to believe that truth will eventually out, though that’s little consolation when we’re in the middle of so much that causes us grave consternation. Greene’s expressions of optimism are underlined by the first half of a statement he gives and which are attributed to the astronomer Johannes Kepler: Temporis filia veritas; cui me obstetricari non pudet. (‘Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife.’)

A little further on we’re assured that this Historie is ‘pleasant for age to avoyde drowsie thoughtes’ — that’s us older readers — as well as ‘profitable for youth to eschue other wanton pastimes’ — though what these wanton pastimes might be that younger readers should eschew we can only guess. The final promise is that it shall bring ‘to both a desired content’, thereby turning tragic thoughts to happy ones.

Yet another quote is appended, this time from Ars Poetica by the Roman writer Horace. The full sentence (Greene includes only the first part) is Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci, lectorem delectando pariterque monendo. One translation gives this as, ‘He wins every hand who mingles profit with pleasure, by delighting and instructing the reader at the same time.’

Delight and instruction, pleasure and profit: these are the twin virtues of reading, are they not, especially in the sum of their parts. Instruction and profit may to the epicure seem like dirty words, sullied as they often are by puritan ethics, but reading fiction can be a relatively painless way of learning and of gaining insights, all to our intellectual advantage and increase of wisdom. I need not add that reading is also a consolation devoutly to be wished.

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