Worlds of possibility

‘River Landscape with the Church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, Rome’ by Jan Asselijn

Our world is only one of a number of alchemically conceivable worlds.

Book Two, ‘Woman with Mandoline in Sunlight’

In The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss (1976) we are given a portrait of an early modern Mediterranean city state, but one in which not homo sapiens but homo saurus is the dominant life form.

The author’s extraordinary vision envisages, in the words of the narrator-protagonist’s father, just one of many “other worlds of possibility”, and produces for our mind’s eye a series of tableaux of the landscapes and cityscapes the peoples of homo saurus stock inhabit, environments which are both like and yet unlike the ones we might be familiar with.

In preparation for a review (and very possibly another discussion post) I want to examine some of the real places Aldiss may have been inspired by in his creation of the maritime entrepôt that is Malacia.

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An Enchanted Summer

Talisman. With magic formulae, Ya c Ali at top right. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Half Magic
by Edward Eager.
Drawings by N M Bodecker.
Puffin Books 1968 (1954).

It was fine weather, warm and blue-skied and full of possibilities, and the day began well, with a glint of something metal in a crack in the sidewalk. ‘Ooh, a lucky nickel!’ Jane said, and scooped it into her pocket with the rest of her allowance, still jingling there unspent.

Chapter 1, ‘How It Began’

Thus begins a period of enchantment for four young siblings from Toledo, Ohio, a week when they learn the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for” but also the understanding of when to give it all up. Along the way we the readers gain enjoyment from a narrative that appeals both to young imaginations and to maturer minds who love witty yet also wise writing.

Jane, who finds the talisman, is the oldest: a little hot-headed and bossy but otherwise admirable. Mark is the only boy, around eleven years old, and fairly pragmatic. Katharine is the most bookish of the lot (though they’re all avid fans of the nearest library) and often spouting literary references. Martha is the youngest, easily bored but surprisingly full of sensible ideas.

Their mother Alison, working as a “woman’s journalist” to keep the family afloat in 1920s Toledo after the death of the children’s father, fears for her sanity when odd inexplicable things start happening, and dares not get too fond of the funny but nice Mr Smith who rescues this very 20th-century damsel in distress. All is made more complex by the existence of the weird half magic which the “lucky nickel” bestows on whoever possesses it. And worries begin to grow that its magic will eventually wear out.

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Of campfires and sagas

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The Brothers Lionheart
by Astrid Lindgren.
Swedish title: Bröderna Lejonhjärta (1973)
translated by Joan Tate (1975).
Illustrated by Ilon Wikland (1973).
Oxford University Press, 2009.

“This can’t be real. It’s like something out of an ancient dream.”

Karl Lionheart, Chapter 12.

King Richard of England received his nickname of Lionheart during the Crusades, but legend has it that when on the way home he was captured and a ransom demanded for his release, his troubadour Blondel discovered the castle in which he was imprisoned by hearing the king sing a verse of his favourite song.

Brothers Jonathan and Karl Lion have a similar relationship to each other, Jonathan telling his invalid young sibling tales about the country of Nangiyala where they will live after they die. When a succession of incidents means they are reunited in Nangiyala may they expect an idyllic existence, passing their days in campfires and sagas?

The Brothers Lionheart turns out however to be a tale of bravery and betrayals, and of cruelty and compassion when Nangiyala comes under threat from the neighbouring polity of Karmanyaka. Will little Karl find the courage he needs to live up to their acquired epithet of Lionheart and overcome his fears before tragedy strikes?

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Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.

This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.

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From whimsy to saga

winged

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice.
Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

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Nights at the opera

The Witness for the Dead
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Solaris / Rebellion Publishing Ltd 2021

He stared at me as if I’d told him I could hear fishes singing.

Sometimes the effectiveness of a novel can be judged by whether it can make you believe in impossible things, such as being able to hear fish singing. On this basis The Witness for the Dead fulfils this criterion with flying colours, even though no piscine choirs are involved. Elves and goblins are involved, however, as are listening to the dead, dowsing for individuals’ whereabouts, and confronting ghouls and ghosts; and yet far from been presented with a succession of tired fantasy tropes we’re instead served a nuanced character study and an engaging crime fiction.

In the imperial state of Ethuveraz Thara Celehar is a prelate of Ulis, the divinity who has charge of both death’s dominions and the moon. Thara is also a Witness for the Dead in the provincial city of Amalo, a calling that depends on his ability to tap into the emotions and last thoughts of those who’ve died either by violent means or in unclear circumstances, and thus to speak for them.

But Celehar’s status within the Ulineise hierarchy is anomalous, attracting political jealousy as well as support, and though accorded respect for his abilities he is regarded by many with suspicion, even fear. And his past hides a potential scandal which, though previously hushed up, could jeopardise everything for him.

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Doing things differently there

© C A Lovegrove

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

L P Hartley, ‘The Go-Between’ (1953)

The famous opening sentence of The Go-Between is such a powerful statement, not only because it’s undoubtedly true but also because it taps into our profoundest perceptions of living in the here and now while retaining a sense of the past as being somehow alien.

‘Alien’ is itself a word freighted with several values — sometimes meaning something extraterrestrial, or in a pejorative sense as somehow wrong or unwelcome — unsurprising when we consider it derives from the Latin alienus indicating “of or belonging to another; not one’s own; foreign; strange.” That quality of otherness, of difference in kind, is thus added to the notion of distancing, as suits alienus deriving from an Indo-European root meaning “beyond”.

Hartley’s phrase therefore combines our perceptions of difference and distance while expressing much that both attracts and repels us about even our own history. And it may explain why we have a fascination for stories that take us out of ourselves, and which deliberately confront us with what may be very unfamiliar.

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Bridgebuilding

imperial_sofa_topkapi
Interior of the Imperial Hall (Hünkar Sofası) at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul (by Gryffindor)

The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Tor Books 2014.

When readers whose judgement you trust recommend this novel and even go as far as re-reading it within a short space of time you know there is something special about it.

And yet what on the surface of it makes it outstanding? It’s fantasy, yes — the title suggests as much — and there’s worldbuilding, and there’s the disregarded child who’s an orphan, and there are seemingly unpronounceable names, everything in fact that screams at the lover of contemporary novels to pass over this book. And I too, who ordinarily enjoys fantasy, am one who tends to put a book back on the bookshop pile when faced with a cast list of — it feels like — thousands, all with alien names.

So I have to ask myself then why I found this such an unputdownable title, and then perhaps attempt to persuade you to give it a try.

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Landmarks

Built in 1758, Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham towers 96 ft or 29 metres. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

I began my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in April this year and got to ‘The Breaking of the Fellowship’ at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring in July, when I decided to have a bit of a pause for the summer.

Along the way I used the tag Talking Tolkien in several posts whenever I felt constrained to discuss aspects of Tolkien’s writing or themes that struck me strongly as I read, or featured reviews of Tolkien-related titles.

In September I intend to pick up the journey again with The Two Towers, the middle section of the ‘trilogy’ (in fairness not a description that the author favoured) and I hope you will again join me, if not with the reading then at least with comments on my reviews and discussions.

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A lady’s slipper

© C A Lovegrove

The Silence of Herondale
by Joan Aiken.
Introduction by Lizza Aiken.
Orion Books, 2019 (1964)

… a silent village, a wandering fugitive whom no one seemed anxious to discuss, a missing pistol, a face at a window, a damp patch in a dead man’s room—but now? The deliberately half-cut rope could not be easily dismissed.

‘The Silence of Herondale’

Deborah Lindsay is a young Canadian teacher, orphaned and now jobless in 1960s London. Following a burglary at her lodgings she accepts a position tutoring Careen Gilmartin, a precocious 13-year-old who has achieved fame as a playwright. Unfortunately the teenager has disappeared from her hotel room and could be heading for a number of places.

The girl’s aunt, Marion Morne, and her rather vulpine associate Willy Rienz suggest Deborah heads for Yorkshire where Careen’s grandfather is dying, and against her better judgement Deborah is bounced into taking a sleeper train to Leeds before heading for Herondale. Unbeknown to Deborah (but as we readers know with hindsight) the UK winter of 1962-3 was the coldest for more than 200 years, with blizzards and snowdrifts blanketing the British Isles from Christmas to March—and Christmas is just around the corner as Deborah’s train steams north.

And so the scene is set for Joan Aiken’s modern Gothic thriller, with its echoes of Brontë classics, nods to children’s classics, and touches of autobiography meshing with crime and thriller genres.

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Last train to Willoughby

© C A Lovegrove

“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.”

— Anne Brontë, ‘Agnes Grey’, Chapter XV

Yesterday (9th August) was Book Lovers Day, a day (they say) for encouraging people “to pick up a book (or two) and spend the day reading.” So it was for me: Joan Aiken‘s 20th-century Gothic romance The Silence of Herondale (1964) — which I’ve been steaming through — involves a young woman reluctantly travelling up by train in winter to an isolated mansion in Yorkshire, all full of Brontë-type brooding. Enjoyable though it is in its own right (and I’ll be reviewing it in due course) I can’t help but be reminded of another female taking a similar journey: Silvia Green in the same author’s children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which had in fact been published just two years before.

Although one novel is set in the 1960s and the other in the 1830s they have several themes in common; but for this post I want to change onto a parallel track. I’m presently about to embark on the final instalment of Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, the name her daughter Lizza Aiken has given to the saga of a dozen or so related novels which had began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Witch of Clatteringshaws was the final book that Joan completed before her death in 2004, a novella that represented the terminus for a sequence of tales stretching over a decade of alternative history, a chronology in which the Hanoverian dynasty never ruled Albion and the Stuart line still sat on the throne.

And, running like a railway line through many of these tales is the theme of travel — by carriage or by Shank’s pony, by ship or, indeed, by train. So, before opening the page on a narrative set largely in Scotland (from where, possibly, Joan Aiken’s ancestors hailed) I’d like to consider the mode of travel which features strongly not only in many of the Wolves Chronicles but also in The Silence of Herondale.

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Urban gorilla war

Christmas Steps, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

[After Fire and Hemlock] I then started, immediately, to write Archer’s Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter’s night and discovered a baby. It is all very well my books coming true on me—it is a risk I take—but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’

Most if not all authors include bits of themselves, their lives, their family and friends in their novels, and that’s what often adds authenticity to their narratives and a sense of verisimilitude. That applies as much—if not more so—to fantasy as to contemporary fiction, but if authors find true life imitating fiction it can be disconcerting, to say the least.

Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Archer’s Goon (1984) has so much busy-ness about it that, outside a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps a discussion of its physical setting would be a good starting point, because after that the characters and the themes can be placed like pieces and moves on a gameboard.

The author spent a good many decades in the English town of Bristol until her death in 2011 and this novel, like a few other novels of hers — such as Deep Secret (1997), The Homeward Bounders (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985) — features aspect of Bristol in its topography and placenames. As it happens, she has borrowed a good many street names for her unnamed town which, as an ex-Bristolian myself, I have walked and know well. So the first part of this spoiler-filled post will start with places, and then I shall go on to discuss a little (or maybe a lot) about people and themes. The curious names encountered — Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus — refer to seven sibling magicians whose names will crop up later in the discussion. I shall also be mentioning Howard Sykes and his sister Awful — real name Anthea — who play central roles in most of the action when drawn into conflict with the enchanters.

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Once and Future

There and Back Again Lane, Clifton, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

Archer’s Goon
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1984).

Written and published during the Reagan-Thatcher years, when it felt as though some of the world at least was taking a dangerous lurch towards an confrontational and authoritarian triumphalism, Archer’s Goon explores some of that state of affairs in what presents merely as children’s fantasy.

It’s 1983, and the Sykes family find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy of squabbling siblings who plan to ‘farm’ the world; can Quentin Sykes, the father and a struggling author, stand up against the malevolent forces who besiege the family house and seek to use the power of the written word for nefarious purposes?

Or is the situation more complex than at first appears, and will the Sykes’ household of parents, son, daughter and student lodger each find they have a role to play, where their decisions and actions have unexpected consequences and their relationships be revealed as contrary to appearances?

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Stopping places

Tree of Life stained glass window design after Louis Tiffany

In my series Talking Tolkien I’ve looked at several motifs that have occurred to me so far during my sixth read of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve discussed the place of allegory, Tolkien’s use of colour, morality in the trilogy, and the One Ring. I’ve also looked at the significance of locations, in particular crossing places and portals.

I now want to consider stopping places, those places where Frodo and his companions, and certain others, stay for a time during the course of The Fellowship of the Ring. In a there-and-back journey such as the hobbits undertake there will be many rests taken, in the open, in overnight camps or rough shelters, but temporary stops are not what I want to discuss; instead I shall compare and contrast the places designed for respite, rest and recuperation between Hobbiton and the Rauros Falls, where the fellowship breaks up.

These locations will by and large feature habitations, whether in buildings or in woodland settings. Some will prove extremely dangerous, and the travellers will often only survive by the skin of their teeth; but in the main the places of safety will be shown to be where several days may be spent and plans laid almost ignoring the urgency of the mission.

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Through the portal

© C A Lovegrove

I’m in the Mines of Moria for the sixth time — literature-wise rather than literally — just after crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and I thought this might be a good moment to consider the function of Middle-earth’s portals which Tolkien introduces us to, not just in The Lord of the Rings but also The Hobbit.

In this short (?) essay I’d like to particularly consider the doors and gates leading into and out of the ground — entrances and exits such the door at Bag End, the Side-Door to Erebor the Lonely Mountain, and the Doors of Durin on the west of the Misty Mountains. There will be other examples which will rate mentions but readers will recall certain of these hold great significance for the journeys undertaken by hobbits.

I also want to consider a few motifs that Tolkien borrowed from elsewhere to fashion his underground portals and how they may have influenced him. Hopefully I will identify the keys to help unlock the mysteries of these barriers, but in doing so I give fair warning: spoilers lie ahead.

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