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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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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Night music

© C A Lovegrove

The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman,
illustrated by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III,
cover art by Dave McKean.
Introduction by Patrick Rothfuss, foreword (1995) by Karen Berger.
30th anniversary edition, DC Vertigo 2018 (1988-9).

In his 1991 Afterword to this volume the author describes how he proposed reviving “an almost forgotten DC character […] and doing a story set almost entirely in dreams.” Editor Karen Berger suggested that the Sandman be created as a new character, “Someone no one’s seen before.”

And so it turned out: Gaiman had an image in his mind of a man, “young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell […] deathly thin, with long dark hair, and strange eyes; Dream. That was what he was. That was who he was.”

It’s extraordinary how that initial image survived as the opening chapter of Preludes & Nocturnes, and how the scenario of an imprisoned Lord of Dreams was arrived at and then resolved. What’s even more extraordinary is how the series developed into The Sandman Library, with its thirteen volumes all going on to achieve cult status and, more than three decades later, to morph into an adaptation for a streaming service. But for someone like me coming completely new to it is it, was it, worth the hype?

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An ever-fixèd mark

Nathan Field, 1615 (Dulwich Picture Gallery)

King of Shadows
by Susan Cooper.
Heinemann New Windmills, 2001 (1999).

“… Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken …”

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

Fiction – and especially fantasy – for children and young adults is often disparaged by a certain class of critic (who should know better) as being light, frivolous or somehow lacking in serious intent or, worse, literary worth. And yet the concerns of young people, their hopes and anxieties, are worth respectful consideration because they are the adults of tomorrow formed by childhood experiences.

So it is with Susan Cooper’s King of Shadows, ostensibly a slight timeslip novel where a youngster finds themselves back four centuries in the past, about to perform at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. “Sheer fantasy” may be the verdict of the jaded reviewer, “wish fulfilment” the cynic’s assessment; but the author’s intentions are more than just an entertaining narrative – though it is that as well.

Nathan Field is part of a company of young American actors trained to perform some of Shakespeare’s plays in the newly-built replica Globe Theatre on Bankside in the late 20th century. But on the eve of rehearsals in London the youngster falls ill, and wakes to find himself another Nathan Field in a different London – in 1599.

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Tolkien’s Sidmouth

Tolkien’s Hobbitonon-the-Hill

Many are the parts of Britain that are claimed as the inspiration for The Shire in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Sarehole in Warwickshire, where Ronald’s widowed mother moved in 1896, is a convincing part-model; then there’s Buckland in Powys, Wales where it’s argued the young Ronald and his younger brother Hilary later spent a holiday with their guardian after their mother’s death in 1904. A recent item by a trainee reporter for Devon Live caught my eye with yet another claim for primacy as the original Shire:

Although you may know that Tolkien had connections with Oxford, you may be less familiar with his affection for the Jurassic Coast. According to his biographers, Tolkien essentially turned Sidmouth into the Shire.

Toby Codd, Devon Live

My not being a Tolkien scholar in any shape or form this assertion was therefore news to me, since I was only vaguely aware of Tokien having been to Devon’s Jurassic Coast on holiday at some stage. But is Sidmouth really the Shire? What’s the evidence for this assertion? Or is it all down to lazy journalism?

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Trailing the grail

© C A Lovegrove

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper.
The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1965).

“You can search and search, in a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” — Barney

When I first read this in the late 1960s or early 70s I was on the lookout for stories featuring quests for the Holy Grail in modern times. It joined Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), Arthur Machen’s The Great Return (1915), Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and other titles, some best forgotten, as examples of how the notion of a grail, as cup as well as symbol, could inspire so many different tales of quests and trails followed by those seeking it.

A more recent second reading revealed more subtleties than I remembered and now a third has raised the novel even higher in my estimation, for its pacing, its verisimilitude (for all that it’s a fantasy) and above all its characterisation of the three siblings who are at the core of the fiction.

Among other things that struck me was the fact that apart from one or two details that set it firmly in the sixties this was a narrative which had scarcely dated, meaning that it’s perfectly enjoyable by today’s readers whatever their age.

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Peake Gothick

Moat at Raglan Castle © C A Lovegrove

I’m currently revisiting Gormenghast Castle – in the form of the second part of the trilogy chronicling the last of the Groan dynasty. Gormenghast is yet another instalment that encourages the reader to linger and relish successive vignettes, and I’m taking my time.

As with Titus Groan I’m drawn, weakly struggling, into the web Mervyn Peake has woven; and as with that title I’m (re)engaging with the distinctive names which so conveyed the grotesque nature of the castle’s denizens and the decayed atmosphere of the sprawling structure.

In a similar fashion I started (in this post) to jot down the peculiarities of Gormenghast itself and to consider from where Peake may have drawn inspiration. But right now I want to add a few extra observations in preparation for a summative piece when I’ve completed Gormenghast, and before I eventually move on to Titus Alone, and then Titus Awakes.

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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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