The Ents of Entwood

Bluebell wood near Crickhowell, Wales © C A Lovegrove

Among the hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and men in Middle-earth which readers now take for granted in The Lord of the Rings strides an even more curious figure: the guardian (‘herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’, as he’s referred to) of the trees of Fangorn forest, whose own name, synonymous with the woodland, translates as Treebeard.

How we picture him may owe much to the Peter Jackson film trilogy (2001-3) from the turn of the century, while older cinema fans may remember Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Treebeard (1978); but the fact is that however differently these image-makers have depicted him, even Tolkien himself wasn’t initially clear about either Treebeard’s appearance or even role.

So it’s a shock to find that he was first revealed to Tolkien as an evil figure in league with Saruman, and then when we first meet him in the published text to discover he may have an appearance which depends as much on the reader’s imagination as on film directors’ visions.

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A jovial comedy

Circe (The Sorceress) by John William Waterhouse: a model for Jadis?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
A Story for Children,
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1959 (1950)

Queen Susan said, ‘Fair friends, here is a great marvel, for I seem to see a tree of iron.’

‘Madam,’ said King Edmund, ‘if you look well upon it you shall see it is a pillar of iron with a lantern set on the top thereof.’

‘By the Lion’s mane, a strange device,’ said King Peter…

‘The Hunting of the White Stag’

When so much has been written and expressed about a children’s classic can there be anything new or even worthwhile added in respect of it? When that classic is C S Lewis’s first instalment of his Narnia septad, a series which has attracted so many contrary opinions for and against, should one risk possibly fanning the flames of controversy?

Speaking as a reader who has had different reactions to each encounter in the near half-century since I first picked it up, and having veered from disappointment to irritation and now to grudging admiration, I feel I may indeed have some new things worth adding to the reams of ink spilt over seven decades and more — even if it’s only to acknowledge that each individual could well have a personal and instinctive reaction which a rational argument mayn’t affect.

I first read this in the 1970s when our first child was growing up and felt that, compared to The Lord of the Rings, this was a poor patchwork creature, a Christian allegory in which the tail wagged the dog and different mythic lore sat awkwardly side by side, all couched in an impossibly patronising text. A more recent read of the Chronicles of Narnia seemed to reinforce my feeling of unease. And so to now.

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The end of the line

Joan Aiken 1924-2004

The Witch of Clatteringshaws
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox 2006 (2005).

Malise is the District Witch of Clatteringshaws, sometime in the 1840s of a Caledonia not of this world. She almost held the key to who was to be the monarch after the death of King Richard IV, if only she hadn’t been distracted by a tune composed by Dido Twite’s father. And if that last piece of a puzzle isn’t recovered, Dido’s friend Simon won’t be fully convinced he need not be King any longer.

This, then, is one facet of the final instalment of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, a series which ran to a dozen or more titles and which this novella, even in its seemingly truncated form, attempts more or less successfully to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.

But, as with each and every episode, the story is like a intricate mosaic: seen in a cursory way from a distance it presents a strong image with a narrative, but when examined closely its tesellated pieces give hints of different materials and unexpected relationships.

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Whispers of Dust

The third and final series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is due to air some time in 2022. If you’re a fan of the screen version you’ll be familiar with Scottish composer Lorne Balfe’s striking title music, especially its distinctive ‘Scotch snap’ in the opening theme (perhaps an echo of the rhythm in the name Lyra Silvertongue).

The middle section of the credits sequence includes a sung chorus, the largely indistinguishable words later confirmed in a tweet by the composer as being in Latin. The mystical-sounding words have since been translated in various ways but I favour an interpretation which whispers about Dust, about great cycles of Time, and about the part to be played by seemingly insignificant individuals.

But the murmurings and whispers also convey to me the promise of the third and final volume of Pullman’s The Book of Dust, the title of which we don’t yet know (the author has reportedly suggested The Garden of Roses or Roses from the South as possibilities) and which this summer he was still in the middle of writing. Still, I’m going to speculate a little on what it might contain, so expect several spoilers in this rather meandering post.

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Saga’s ending

Joan Aiken 1924-2004

Next year it will be sixty years since what is now regarded as a modern classic was published; as well as being a delightful children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) unexpectedly proved to be the start of a series of instalments set in an alternative world of the early 19th century.

Six years ago I began a reread of all of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles (as her daughter Lizza dubbed them) with a view to thoroughly exploring through reviews and discussion posts the alternative history world she’d created. (Incidentally, these posts can be read in chronological order via this link or in reverse order using the tag Wolves Chronicles.)

I’ve now, after a dozen or so titles, started on the last ever of these chronicles, The Witch of Clatteringshaws which was published in 2005, a year after her untimely death: Aiken, who was born nearly a century ago on 4th September 1924, in Rye, East Sussex, passed away on 4th January 2004, in Petworth, West Sussex, but not before completing the final instalment in novella form.

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Loving and hating

Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia McKillip,
Introduction by Pat Cadigan (2015).
Fantasy Masterworks,
Gollancz 2014 (1974).

For a novel written in her early twenties, Patricia McKillip’s award-winning fantasy is extraordinarily nuanced, with well-developed characters to the fore and the magical aspects only playing a supportive role. For this is a story of primal human emotions, of love and hate, of self-knowledge and fear, where even the ‘forgotten beasts’ of the title have human feelings. And individual wants and needs decide outcomes that affect many, whether for good or bad, in a world created from memories and echoes of ancient myths, legends and lore.

Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards, from Heald through Myk and Ogam. Her particular skill is ‘calling’, drawing beasts and humans to her and subtly bending their will to hers. This is a dangerous power to wield, and one that demands great responsibility; when we see her, either aged 16 or 28, it is a talent the ethics of with she still has to wrestle with.

In her mountain fastness within Eldwold, with her beasts around her, she can pretty much please herself, calling for another legendary beast and studying her library of magical books. But when the outside world comes calling in the form of a young warrior bearing a child, she has to balance her own desires with the reasonable and unreasonable demands of politics and power.

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Gods best unsung

Ragusa, modern Dubrovnik, Croatia

The Malacia Tapestry
by Brian Aldiss.
Triad/Panther 1978 (1976)

“Until you have understanding of your nature, your errors — like the errors of history — repeat and repeat themselves in an endless fiction. That is the only knowledge there is.”

‘The Ancestral Hunt’, Book Two

Picaresque, decadent, fantastical, political, dualistic — The Malacian Tapestry lives up to all of these aspects and more. As in the title of the dumb show, the staging of which threads its way through the novel, this novel is a Joyous Tragedy featuring intrigue and betrayal, love and hate, progressives and repressives, apotheosis and degradation.

Above all, its actors appear to be woven into a metaphysical tapestry which, in the opinion of one of the characters, is “presumably for the edification of the gods, who could then inspect us without interference.” Or, as a modern lyricist wrote, “Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know | He’s in the best selling show.”

In this rococo novel Brian Aldiss weaves a splendid tapestry for our edification, interlacing philosophy and art as viewed through the self-centred eyes of its coxcomb narrator: drama, mime, fantoccini theatre, shadow-puppetry and rituals vie with love, lust, licentiousness for the attention of our greedy eyes. But, master magician that he is, Aldiss casts a spell so beguiling that we’re prepared to believe in sorcerers and astrologers, in mythical and prehistoric beasts, in a corrupt city state of unknown antiquity and in inhabitants with a touch of the reptilian about them.

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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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