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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Grave concerns

A Tale of Two Glass Towns
by Nicola Friar.
Olympia Publishers, 2023.

Two timelines: 1999-2000 and 2019-2020. Two settings: Norfolk and Cheshire. Two protagonists – or are they the same? And multiple themes: computer bugs and viruses, aliens and refugees, glass manufacturing and Verdopolis. Nicola Friar’s debut children’s novel weaves personal matters into a more universal narrative about how we, whether young or old, try to deal with weighty matters like acceptance of difference, fear of the unknown, and the ache of bereavement.

Seen largely through the eyes of seven-year-old Theo, this tale aims to reflect the anxieties of a youngster trying to make sense of a confusing world on the cusp of the 21st century, anxieties manifested in vivid dreams involving an amorphous fog, a graveyard, and Bob – a bichon frise – who acts as Theo’s psychopomp through the mists of time.

It’s a brave endeavour to write about what one personally holds dear in a story that ostensibly is pure fiction, but the author to a large extent walks that liminal path with a careful and determined tread. The result is a narrative which, though not quite perfect, should appeal to the sensitive young reader who shares similar worries about what the future may hold for themselves and for their nearest and dearest.

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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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#TDiRS22: By Pendragon’s sword

The Square, Aberdyfi, 2022 © C A Lovegrove

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper.
With a note by the author, 2013.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1977).

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

‘Silver on the Tree’

The longest and the last of Susan Cooper‘s fantasy sequence is also the most far-ranging and complex of the series. Bringing together many if not most of the principal characters we’ve met previously, it also introduces us to one final individual who has a key part to play in the sequence’s resolution. It’s fitting therefore that like Cooper herself he should be a maker and a wordsmith as well as a poet out of history.

Moving from Buckinghamshire to Gwynedd, and from the ‘present-day’ – the 1970s – to times historical and legendary, this tale takes the unwary reader, like the five youngsters in the novel, through a whirlwind of emotions, information and impressions; it conjures up dreamlike images and primeval, nightmarish fears; and it provides both comfort and wonderment.

Above all, the narrative thrust artfully conceals the poetic skill that Cooper brings to her creation; like a finely-wrought artefact its splendour dazzles, but closer inspection reveals its subtle intricacy, balance and presentation of motifs. Ungainly it may at times appear but I believe this quality gives it its distinctive character; and of course life is nothing if not ungainly.

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Mighty pleased with herself

Balthus: ‘Jeune Fille en Vert et Rouge’ (1944)

The Collectors by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books, 2022 (2014).

‘What a very pretty girl. D’you know who she is?’ ‘No idea,’ said the Bursar, ‘but she looks mighty pleased with herself.’

p 68

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” opines a character in The Winter’s Tale, thus confirming that the tradition for ghostly, tragic accounts has a long and distinguished pedigree. Many and varied are the expected ingredients for such narratives, their purpose to excite shivers of nervous anticipation. The author of this short story duly delivers the shivers with his particular concoction.

In order to give grounding to some aspects of the unspecified ivory-towered institution mentioned in the story Pullman seems to have based it on his own Oxford alma mater, Exeter College, setting it a couple of years after he’d graduated in 1968. But this college seems to be an altogether spookier place, and that’s down to the recipe typically specified for such winter tales.

The ingredients, many chosen from late Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories, include a cloistered setting with academics, curious objects which exude a baleful influence, a hint of mysterious or even otherworldly origins, and of course an unexplained death or two. What gives The Collectors its especial flavour is its implicit link with the worlds of Pullman’s His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, but – as with any good winter’s tale – it has to stand on its own merits. Does it do so?

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Death dons the false beard

© C A Lovegrove

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
Penguin Books, 2022 (1996).

Was the Hogfather a god? Why not? thought Susan. There were sacrifices, after all. All that sherry and pork pie. And he made commandments and rewarded the good and he knew what you were doing. If you believed, nice things happened to you. Sometimes you found him in a grotto, and sometimes he was up there in the sky…

On Discworld every Hogswatchnight the Hogfather is expected to take his sledge drawn by four pigs to visit  every child and deliver appropriate gifts. But this particular Hogswatch there is a problem: the figure widely believed to be merely a figment of the collective imagination appears to have been assassinated, and it therefore falls to another figure to secretly stand in for the role of “the Fat Man”.

But his dissembling has aroused the suspicion and then irritation of his granddaughter Susan of Sto Helit, who feels compelled to get involved as Hogswatchnight plays out. Temporarily abandoning her role as governess to Gawain and Twyla Gaiter she steps outside time in an attempt to resolve matters, picking up a decidedly odd divinity along the way.

Nothing in Discworld is straightforward, however, for on its ill-lit motorways of logical narrative there inevitably lurk dirty great big DIVERSION signs, with traffic cones leading the unwary traveller on to confusing roundabouts; take any exit and it’ll lead to murky backstreets thronged with shady characters and clueless bystanders. All that’s certain is that we’ll eventually reach Journey’s End, but where that will leave us is anybody’s guess.

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Quarter days and others #TDiRS22

#TDiRS22 annabookbel.net

Today marks the winter solstice, the day when in the northern hemisphere the sun ‘stands’ at its most northerly limits at dawn and dusk, bringing about the shortest 24 hours of the year. In times past both solstice and equinox periods were marked by quarter days, when in Britain workers were hired, rents were collected, and school terms began.

In England these quarter days were settled on Lady Day (25th March, the feast of the Annunciation), Midsummer’s Day (24th June, the feast of St John the Baptist), Michaelmas Day (29th September, the feast of St Michael and All Angels) and Christmas (25th December).

But there were also so-called cross-quarter days, holidays occurring roughly midway between quarter days, which corresponded closer to feast days celebrated in Celtic nations such as Scotland and Ireland. These were Candlemas (2nd February), May Day (1st May), Lammas (1st August), and All Hallows or All Saints (1st November). Some of these days are popular dates in much fantasy fiction whenever supernatural events take place, and that has been the case with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, completed by the final volume entitled Silver on the Tree.

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Darkness in Gwynedd #TDiR22

The 9th-century monolith known as the Cadfan Stone © C A Lovegrove

When Susan Cooper was writing the fourth title in her The Dark is Rising sequence, The Grey King (1975), she was drawing from family connections with the southwestern corner of Merionethshire (now part of Gwynedd) where she had holidayed as a child, where some of her relatives lived and where her parents retired. So some of the places referenced in the novel were based on real locations, while others were inspired by places she was familiar with.

She also was inspired by local legends attached to specific sites, legends which she either borrowed wholesale or freely riffed on. In this discussion post I want to give readers some background to both the locations and the legends, drawn from a couple of recent visits to the area (one of those around Hallowmas, the time of year The Grey King is set) and my longterm interest in folklore, archaeology, and Arthurian legend.

Needless to say, if you haven’t read the novel there will be spoilers galore.

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When the year dies #TDiRS22

Llyn Mwyngil, Tal-y-llyn lake © C A Lovegrove

The Grey King by Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising sequence, Book 4.
Illustration by Julie Dillon.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1975).

“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.”

The Grey King

The fourth book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence opens with a prophetic rhyme which, with its alliterative phrases, antonyms and allusions, reads like a riddle to be solved – which in a way it is. The day of the dead is the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain, the modern Halloween, which once upon a time marked the end of summer and the start of the new year as autumn begins ushering in winter.

Noson Galan Gaeaf – ‘the eve of the first day of winter’ – is the Welsh term for All Hallows Eve, an ysbrydnos or ‘spirit night’ when the departed walk abroad in spirit. Cooper’s The Grey King is set in Gwynedd, the northeast corner of Wales, at precisely this period, and it’s especially fitting that I completed it at the very time and in the area where the story’s action takes place, around Tywyn near Aberdyfi.

It was in 1950s Aberdyfi – where, Cooper tells us, she spent many teenage holidays – that her Welsh Uncle Llew told her about the Brenin Llwyd or “Grey King” who features at the sinister heart of this spellbinding fantasy. It’s to nearby Tywyn and its hinterland that eleven-year-old Will Stanton comes to recuperate from hepatitis and where he has to call on all his powers to combat the malign forces on the slopes of the Cadair Idris massif.

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Otherness

In the continuing struggle between the Light and the Dark that features in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence we’ve so far seen the Dark manifested in Mr Hastings and in Mr Withers and his sister Polly in Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), while in The Dark is Rising (1973) it’s principally represented by Mr Mitothin, the Dark Rider himself, along with two humans who are somehow drawn across time as allies of the Dark.

Now, in Greenwitch – the third title of the sequence – we have another human who’s allied with the Dark, a counterpart of Merriman Lyon’s associate Hawkin who also tried to betray his allegiance, though in this instalment the motivation is different.

I’m talking of the unnamed painter, the artist who claims he’s half Romany and who covers his canvases and his caravan’s ceiling with nightmarish daubs that sicken those who see them. But as well as this character there are other aspects of this novel I’d like to note in this post.

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#TDiRS22: Neither Light not Dark

© C A Lovegrove

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1974).

“Though they make me in the form of a creature, yet they are making no more than an offering, as once in older days it might have been a slaughtered cock, or sheep, or man. I am an offering, Old Ones, no more.”

Chapter Eleven

Greenwich, the meridian, marks the notional point when one day becomes the next but is neither, the point of balance when time is an orphan.

The Greenwitch – fashioned from hawthorn and then sacrificed as dawn breaks and a fishing fleet returns to a Cornish village – it too feels like an abandoned orphan, being a creature of Wild Magic and thus subservient to neither the Dark nor the Light.

And, in the interval between Easter and May Eve when spring gives way to summer, this wild child, this scapegoat naturally seethes and is ready to have a tantrum; is there anyone who doesn’t want to use her, who will instead show her kindness and wish for her to be happy?

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Herne and the hunted #TDiRS22

Horned deity, Gundestrup cauldron

In a previous post (“Hunter’s combe”) I discussed some of the personal, topographical, historical and archaeological associations I fancied I’d detected in Susan Cooper’s fantasy The Dark is Rising (1973). The area north of the River Thames, to the south of  Slough (Buckinghamshire) and east of Maidenhead (Berkshire) provides the essential geography and history for the events in the novel, places the author knew from childhood.

In this companion piece I want to look at the folkloric and mythic aspects of the novel, and to try to chase up symbolic and psychological clues. Again, local legends, particularly to the south of the river (in the Royal Borough of Windsor) provide some of her inspiration, but also her interest in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and her literary studies at Oxford feed into the fantasy.

All this ferreting around in what some might see as “only a fantasy” represents my approach to exploring what seems to make this particular instalment in the five-book series such a significant title for many fans of Cooper’s writing as well as striking in a new direction after Over Sea, Under Stone.

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Hunter’s combe #TDiRS22

‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’ (detail) by Caspar David Friedrich

A second read of Susan Cooper’s fantasy The Dark is Rising helped reveal to me several layers of possible inspiration that went towards making it such a rich concoction, layers which I’d like to examine in a little more detail.

These layers are personal and topographical, historical and archaeological, folkloric and mythical. It may also be possible to detect symbolic and psychological depths which we might try to dig down through.

But as with my first read there remains much to ruminate on and be impressed by in this, the second instalment in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. To make this discussion manageable I’ve split it into two posts; this first one looks at personal and topographical layers, plus historical and archaeological aspects; the rest appears separately.

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Treasure in her belly

Great Orme’s Head in the 19th century

Ormeshadow
by Priya Sharma.
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor.com, 2019.

“You must be sad to be here alone.” Gideon was about to say, But I’m not alone, but then he understood.

130-1

A headland jutting out into the Irish Sea. A tramway for tourists leading up and back down to Llandudno. Kashmiri goats roaming the headland and invading the town. Bronze Age copper mines worked for nigh on four millennia.

This is the Great Orme, named by the Vikings for the worm or sea serpent they imagined the promontory resembling. For the visitor such as myself the essence of natural beauty, its breath the stuff of history, mystery and legend.

Then, not to be confused with Great Orme, there’s Priya Sharma’s Orme, a sea-girt headland with the feel of being a part of northwest England; no goats, just sheep; a farm called Ormesleep; and a close-knit community of dispersed settlements set in a landscape saturated with legends of dragons and a hidden hoard of treasure. All is set for a tale of Gothic sensibilities and self-imposed solitude, set in what feels like the Regency period (though we’re never explicitly told so).

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#TDiRS22: The gift of gramarye

© C A Lovegrove

The Dark is Rising
by Susan Cooper.
Introduction by Susan Cooper, 2013.
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Book 2. 
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1973).

“Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

From the winter solstice, through Christmas and the New Year and on to Twelfth Night – the twelve days of Christmas are rarely so joyless and bleak as here when the Dark threatens the Light. Yet for all its fantastical elements – and there are many – The Dark is Rising is, I sense, a deeply personal tale for the author, set in the southeast corner of Buckinghamshire where she grew up and where, aged eleven, she will have experienced the severe winter of 1946-7 which affected so much of postwar Europe.

Our protagonist is Will Stanton, seventh son and the youngest in a family of nine surviving siblings, about to celebrate his eleventh birthday on midwinter day. But unbeknown to him he is something other than the amiable baby in the family, a personage who will have a crucial role to play during the assault of the Dark. He will have helpers but also a dread assailant, and there will be a betrayal that will put the fate of many at a risk beyond imagining.

Alongside this archetypal conflict which threatens a Ragnarök-scale disaster and the several players who have parts to play is the corner of England that the author knew so well from childhood, a landscape that is as integral to the plot as the people. As Cooper wrote in her introduction to this edition, “every inch of the real world in which Will Stanton lives—and some of the fantasy world too—is an echo of the Buckinghamshire countryside in which I grew up.” In this, my second read of the novel, that knowledge quite literally grounded the novel for me.

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