The heart’s desire

Red jasper ‘thet’-girdle amulet: to grant the protection of Isis. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Story of the Amulet
(third in the Psammead Trilogy)
by E Nesbit.
Illustrated by H R Millar.
Puffin Books 1999 (1906).

One summer holiday in the country four London siblings Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane discovered a strange creature, a Psammead or sand-fairy who granted wishes – a mixed blessing as they soon found out. The Christmas that followed found them lumbered with a Persian carpet and a Phoenix which got them into further scrapes.

Now it’s the next summer and they are staying in a London house owned by their old Nurse; left to their own devices, the heart’s desire of all four is to have their parents return home from abroad, one from reporting from the Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria, the other recuperating in Madeira. When the bored children start visiting shops selling caged animals they come across an old friend in dire straits who needs rescuing.

It is the Psammead, of course. And he has a plan to help each and every child achieve their heart’s desire.

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Knife, sting and tooth

© C A Lovegrove

The Return of the King,
Part 3 of The Lord of the Rings
by J R R Tolkien.
HarperCollins Publishers, 1999 (1955).

Part 2 of The Lord of the Rings ended with a cliffhanger: the Ring-Bearer was trapped alive in the tower of Cirith Ungol, the Pass of the Spider, with his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee locked outside. Meanwhile, though the siege of Helm’s Deep had been lifted, Minas Tirith was now in great danger; and though Gandalf and Pippin were racing towards it they had no clear idea of how things stood with the city of Gondor.

If the title of Part 2, The Two Towers, alluded to Orthanc and the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, we’ll have seen that the one has been bested by outside forces opposed to the Dark Lord while the other will, as soon becomes apparent, be defeated from within. Part 3 will also be dominated by two movements, one directed towards drawing the attention of Sauron away from the other, drawing steadily closer towards its goal of destroying the Ring of Power.

But the end of the War of the Ring, when it comes, is not indeed the end of all: the author has loose threads in his Middle-earth tapestry to tie up. This will take us back to the Shire and require us to consider the hurts Frodo has suffered: “Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden. Where shall I find rest?”

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Middle-earth doublets

‘The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

As I proceeded through Book VI – the second part of The Return of the King and the last book of The Lord of the Rings – I found I wanted to talk about ‘doublets’ and their place in the epic fantasy for this latest post in my Talking Tolkien series.

I don’t of course mean ‘doublet’ in the Elizabethan sense of an item of clothing worn by a courtier, though the derivation from the French doublé meaning doubled or folded over has some bearing. Nor do I mean its common usage in textual criticism as “two different narrative accounts of the same actual event.”

Instead I mean to use it to indicate, in a general sense, individuals who share some characteristics and who may follow a parallel path in the narrative. They are a little like narrative twins (almost but not quite as in Shakespeare’s plots) whose responses to finding themselves in similar situations may converge or diverge at significant points. It’ll be more helpful now if I give the instances I’m thinking of.

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Charged with story

© C A Lovegrove

The Imagination Chamber:
cosmic rays from Lyra’s universe
by Philip Pullman.
Scholastic / David Fickling Books, 2022.

Picture a mood board for interior design, or an evidence board for a police investigation: its images, press clippings and suggestions of cross-links are there to explore relationships, build a bigger picture and perhaps lead to conclusions.

Philip Pullman likes the metaphor of a cloud chamber, in which “the passage of charged particles, or cosmic rays” are made visible; he believes his mind “has become accustomed to working like a cloud chamber, in which minute particles charged with story can find something to condense around them and make them visible for a fleeting moment.”

Mood board, evidence board or cloud chamber – The Imagination Chamber is a collection of those very particles charged with story which throws light on Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust. Since 2007 some have been published in various editions under the heading Lantern Slides (the 2011 one-volume compendium in Everyman’s Library contains nine of these); a total of forty-two are included here, many apparently for the first time.

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Return to Dalemark

crown

The Crown Of Dalemark
by Diana Wynne Jones
in the Dalemark Quartet.
Oxford University Press, 2003 (1993).

Finale volume
where past and present meet and,
maybe, all’s resolved.

Young Mitt is from South Dalemark, but when he escapes its politics and intrigues he finds that the North is equally dangerous because he is manoeuvred into an assassination attempt on a pretender to the crown of Dalemark.

This novel’s plot also turns on a present-day girl, Maewen, who gets propelled into Dalemark’s past to play a role not of her own choosing, in a narrative that’s reminiscent of the premise in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper or Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.

And the Crown (which is more of a circlet than a fancy coronet)? That turns out to be not just a metaphor for gaining a throne but also part of a theme that mingles together motifs from modern Tarot imagery, the medieval quest for the Grail, and the curse of immortality.

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Disturbing visions

© C A Lovegrove

Coraline and Other Stories
by Neil Gaiman.
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009.

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers.

So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not.

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Holand to Holy Island

‘Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer’ by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Drowned Ammet (1977)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
in The Dalemark Quartet, Vol 1.
Greenwillow / Eos 2005.

People may wonder how Mitt came to join in the Holand Sea Festival, carrying a bomb, and what he thought he was doing. Mitt wondered himself by the end.

Chapter 1.

With this dramatic opening paragraph Diana Wynne Jones began the second book of what became known as the Dalemark Quartet – even though the last book wasn’t published till 1993 and, appearing fourteen years after The Spellcoats, evidently an afterthought. As with many of her series – Chrestomanci, Howl, or Fantasyland for example – she steadfastly avoided repeating herself, studiously refusing to conform to expectations that a sequel would merely be more of the same.

Here the events of the first Dalemark novel, Cart and Cwidder, are merely distant rumours, with none of those protagonists referred to by name even though the action is more or less contemporaneous in both. This means that Drowned Ammet can be treated on its own merits even though set in the same world – and that’s how I propose to deal with it now, almost as if it’s a standalone novel.

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Wonder and comfort

© C A Lovegrove

In Darkling Wood
by Emma Carroll.
Faber and Faber, 2015.

Can history repeat itself and, if so, does it repeat exactly? This is one of the questions underlying this children’s fantasy, one which on the surface seems to be about whether fairies are real but which has profound undertones of loss and fear.

There are two timelines running in parallel – one in November 1918, the other in the same month in the present day – but there is also a ghost timeline which only becomes more solid as the story unfolds. We read letters written by a young girl to her brother, a soldier in the Great War as it comes to an end, yet it takes a while for us to see what links this correspondence with Alice whose poorly brother Theo is waiting for a heart transport.

What is clear is that whatever inhabits Darkling Wood feels threatened by the woodland’s immanent felling and that this fear will have an impact on Alice, her family and the local community. Three threads then with sibling lives at risk: will the outcomes for each be the same?

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Talking beasts: #Narniathon21

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The Horse and His Boy
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2009 (1954).

With its quizzical title – how exactly does an equine creature somehow own a boy? – the fifth book in the Narnia sequence proves itself a bit of a puzzle but, luckily, also offers unsought delights, unspotted during a first read. How unspotted? Probably because mild prejudice blinded me as to this instalment’s merits.

And that prejudice? Twofold, I think: as a first-time adult Narniad reader I could only see painful proselytising and xenophobic slights; now I have a more nuanced view of the text, one where I switch back and forth between young and old eyes, revealing a novel which is more deserving of my admiration than derision.

The puzzle of course comes with an opening where, unexpectedly, we don’t start with youngsters from 1940s England but are thrown straight into a story seemingly straight out of the Arabian Nights. Reader, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Narnia anymore.

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Two threads

Perrott’s Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham, built 1758, 96 ft (29 metres) in height. Photo credit: Dominic Tooze.

The Two Towers
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings, Vol. 2.
HarperCollins 2012.(1954)

First there were nine. Then two were overcome by the Enemy’s minions. Two quietly slipped off and two others were captured, followed by the remaining three going on what appeared to be a wild goose chase. The fellowship so carefully put together to combat the Enemy is in complete disarray. Is the quest doomed?

The first part of The Lord of the Rings had us following an expedition eastwards from the Shire to Rivendell, where the Fellowship of the Ring was established. By devious routes the dwindling company then headed south to the point where the irrevocable split occurred, meaning a single strand narrative is no longer feasible if we are to keep track of the various players.

Thus begins The Two Towers, the central portion of Tolkien’s massive opus, when our focus shifts, now to the east, now the west, in a dangerous game of distraction, duplicity and bluff.

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In Bilbo’s footsteps

Hobbiton, by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1.
HarperCollins 2012 (1954)

One of the delights of rereading a favourite book, even one enjoyed multiple times, is the possibility of discovering new aspects to enjoy, despite much remaining familiar. So it is with this, my sixth or seventh visit to Middle-earth in this form, and the surprise is that the tale has not yet grown stale.

What I once saw as longueurs to skim through or skip altogether are now like an overlooked drawer or two in a treasure chest, and even passages I thought I knew well are now revealed new-minted and shiny as if I’d once considered them poor tawdry things. Knowing Tolkien had the capacity to revise and recast and rethink his material over several years has served as a lesson, for me as a reader, to re-evaluate.

Though he was, against his inclination, persuaded to publish his epic fantasy in three volumes (thus potentially jeopardising the integrity of the whole) The Fellowship of the Ring, comprising Books One and Two, does in fact hang together as a narrative, its ending acting as a caesura before the next stage when we follow different individuals and interwoven timelines in The Two Towers. This therefore justifies any overview of the volume as an individual entity.

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Throneless under earth: #Narniathon21

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The Silver Chair by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Diamond Books 1997 (1953).

‘Though under Earth and throneless now I be,
Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me.’

Chapter Ten

After escaping bullies two children from a coeducational school in 1940s Britain find themselves in a strange and extraordinarily vivid land — only to then be blown off a high cliff. They are to be sent on a quest to find a lost prince, but it will require inner resources, courage and imagination to achieve the quest, and it all hangs in the balance if they don’t recognise the signs they’ve been given.

The theme of The Quest may be a staple of myth, fairytale and fantasy but it has its strengths and weaknesses as a narrative driver. If the quest isn’t achieved it runs the risk of disappointment for the audience; if it is too easily accomplished it may seem preordained; only if there is a sense of peril and uncertainty can we feel that the task may have been a worthwhile one.

The Silver Chair (it seems to me) aims to fulfill the third of the criteria, but there are inklings of the first two which could potentially ruin one’s enjoyment of the story as a whole. And yet there is much that satisfies in terms of characterisation, drama and mythic resonances which may well overcome potential stumbling blocks to whole-hearted acceptance of this episode in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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Music, magic, maturity

Trees

Cart and Cwidder (1975)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
in The Dalemark Quartet, Vol 1.
Greenwillow / Eos 2005.

There is sometimes an assumption that if a novel’s protagonists are youngsters then the novel can only be for other youngsters to read. This is not always the case, and for me many of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘young adult’ stories can and ought to be enjoyed by youngsters of all ages.

It is also sometimes assumed that fantasy is a lesser genre than more mainstream novels. I don’t accept that needs to be so, and the author herself has made clear that to dismiss fantasy as escapist is a mistaken attitude. The best fantasy has as much to say about the human condition as more literary examples, and Jones’ fantasy mostly falls into this category. Add to that the fact that Jones attended lectures by Tolkien at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) as well as C S Lewis and then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be given more consideration.

The first three of the Dalemark Quartet were published in the 1970s, with the first two published in North America as Volume 1 nearly thirty years later. As Cart and Cwidder happens more or less contemporaneously with Drowned Ammet it made sense to have the two titles combined in one, as the publishers Greenwillow did back in 2005 (though just the former title is considered here). The action takes place in a land wracked by civil war between north and south, in which Jones’ young heroes and heroines must make their precarious way.

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Deserving more fantasy fans

knot
© C A Lovegrove

The Spellcoats
in the Dalemark Quartet
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Oxford University Press 2005 (1979)

A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey down a river in flood to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.

The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told.

We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction — which, as you all know, is defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’ — a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published.

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The untamed heart

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The House Without Windows
by Barbara Newhall Follett,
introduced and illustrated by Jackie Morris.
Penguin 2019 (1927)

This is one of the strangest books I ever remember having read: written a century ago by a precocious child of twelve, it doesn’t slip easily into any neat category. Neither fable or fairytale, morality tale or narrative of magical realism, it instead speaks of a yearning that supercedes any adherence to a life of accepted norms, a selfishishness that cuts itself free from social contact and familial ties.

And what is this windowless house? Why, it’s the great outdoors, Nature’s boundless domain; and this tale tells of a delight in the variety contained in the wild and — as the original subtitle announced — Eepersip’s Life There. Eepersip is a child of Nature, forsaking family and friends to dance and sing, and watch and listen, and merge with vegetation and living things and landscape in this house without boundaries, its ceiling the ever-changing sky.

In reality that yearning to be at one with wild creatures and natural elements was in part a reflection of the author’s own desires: after The House Without Windows was published, she even briefly tried the life of a cabin boy, using her experience in an adventure story (published as The Voyage of the Norma D.) on her return in 1928, when she was still just 14. The story of her own life reads as equally fantastical, but her first novel gives as good an impression of the vividness of her inner life.

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