A thing more necessary

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)

‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.

There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.

To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.

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Meddling in Nature’s domain

Robert Holdstock: The Fetch,
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992

Adopted boy gains |
gift of fetching gifts; travels |
through time and space too.

The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast.

The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.

Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit or doppelgänger, and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) which he interweaves into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family.

As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.

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A world of pure hue

In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.

What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.

Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.

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April Rainers

© C A Lovegrove

Hexwood
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins 2000 (1993)

Here’s another twisty plot from the girl Jones, somewhat similar to wandering around a curiously managed patch of spring woodland. One thing I have learned about rereading Diana Wynne Jones novels is that, whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.

In this fantasy, for example, much is made of the sense of déjà-vu experienced by principal characters, emphasising that this or that memory will always prove more or less elusive the more one tries to examine it. And so it proved with my reread — I kept having to turn back pages to check if and when something familiar seemed to turn up, and not always being successful.

In fact, then, Hexwood appears to be a kind of metaphor or indeed metafiction for the experiences a reader has when visiting the author’s novels for the first or, indeed, the nth time, highly apt then for a fiction which doggedly explores the unreliability of time perception.

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The evolution of Aragorn

Bellerophon and the Chimaera
Bellerophon and the Chimaera: artefact in the British Museum © C A Lovegrove

Hobbit to Hero:
the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012

Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.

As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.

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A flock of twites

Photo © C A Lovegrove

As is my practice after reviewing one of the instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles I explore four main areas: people, places, timelines and themes. Within these four categories answers are sought for the classic six questions — who? what? when? where? why? and how? — and applied to Cold Shoulder Road, one of the penultimate episodes in this alternative history saga set in the first half of the 19th century.

* Spoiler Alert *

Following posts on chronology, topography and themes, this post now begins exploring the personages in Cold Shoulder Road, many of whom (as the title suggests) aren’t particularly friendly to our principal protagonists, Is and Arun Twite. Unlike many previous instalments this novel includes fewer peculiar or even humorous names than before, but many nevertheless have likely or possible significances. And we get to discover yet more Twites, members perhaps of the extended family with a name recalling a rather undistinguished-looking finch.

As the blurb of the Red Fox edition has it, young Arun Twite

returns to his mother’s house on Cold Shoulder Road, only to find it deserted and flood-ravaged. […] With the help of his indomitable cousin, Is Twite, Arun sets off in search of Admiral Fishskin — their only key to discovering the real truth, whatever it may be.

Fellow author Nina Bawden wrote that Joan Aiken is such a spellbinder, and she wasn’t far wrong.

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Imagine unquiet slumbers

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Glass Town Wars
by Celia Rees,
Pushkin Press 2019 (2018)

I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: […] I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, chapter XXXIV

Confusing. Puzzling. Strange. As I proceeded through the pages of this novel I had similar reactions to many readers in online reviews, but it wasn’t till I got to a mention of “true Thomas” that I began to pick my way with more confidence through Celia Rees’s episodic and kaleidoscopic narrative. And then I began to understand how its various strands interlaced, and was able to stand back and see the vision the tapestry offered.

Tom is in a coma in hospital after some unclear incident, tended by a solicitous male nurse. Tom’s fickle girlfriend posts selfies of herself with his comatose body on social media in order to capitalise on his misfortune; his computer whizz schoolfriend Milo is using Tom as a guinea-pig for an experimental dark web implant; and Lucy sits by Tom’s bedside reading aloud her class’s set book Wuthering Heights in the hopes that he might keep a hold on the outside world.

And so without his acquiescence Tom finds himself emmeshed with a paracosm created by the four Brontë siblings, the world of Glass Town and its warring polities; it becomes a world dangerous for the dreamer because events in this virtual existence will have consequences for him in the 21st century.

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A closely woven story

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

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Shouldering themes

The Great Storm of 1703 when hundreds of ships were wrecked off the Goodwin Sands

By internal chronology one of the penultimate instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Cold Shoulder Road (1995) nevertheless shares several of the thematic motifs of the preceding volumes, one of the features that helps to characterise the whole sequence. As is my practice I shall be listing and discussing these, with a certain big proviso …

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Talking ’bout Tolkien

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.

How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.

Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.

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Secrets underground

Sketch map of Kent to illustrate Cold Shoulder Road locations

In a previous post, ‘Dark doings in Kent’, I discussed some of the sites in Kent, real and imaginary, which featured in Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel Cold Shoulder Road, one of her Wolves Chronicles. In this post, therefore, I want to mention the remaining locations, primarily down on the Kent coast but also near Calais, visited by our young protagonists Is and Arun Twite.

What exactly is the purpose of this kind of discussion and others like it? I suppose there are actually three purposes.

  1. Because I can. I worry away at details in each chronicle because it’s fun, and it helps me, if no one else, to inhabit the series as much as is possible.
  2. Because nobody else much will. Apart from a few correspondents (and thank goodness for them and their engagement!) most readers and reviewers are happy to ride the crest of the narrative, and occasionally puzzle about something obscure, before moving on.
  3. Because Joan Aiken’s worldbuilding deserves acknowledging. Though she’s often inconsistent there’s a glorious mix of imaginative terraforming and flexible timelining into which she places her colourful characters.

Without further ado I shall now plunge into the remaining, rather peculiar, geography of the novel.

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Unputdownable

Angel niche
Angel niche © C A Lovegrove

Ghost of a Chance
by Rhiannon Lassiter.
Oxford University Press 2011

This, if it’s not too contradictory a description for a ghost-cum-detective story, is a delightful novel, often deeply satisfying and always captivating. The narrative is set within the span of a month, from April Fool’s Day to May Eve, and features the ghost of young Eva, who has to act as a kind of detective to uncover the details of her own murder.

Good detective stories include a cast of suspects and a shoal of red herrings, and we get plenty of both here. Ghost stories, by definition, must offer us a closetful of skeletons, spooks and denizens of the spirit world and there are enough here too for all the proverbial hairs on your neck.

Particularly memorable are the maid Maggie, the Witch and, most chilling of all, the Stalker, who feeds off other ghosts.

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Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)

Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.

As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.

For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.

So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.

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Granny’s memento

Engraving of sea urchin fossil in ‘La vana speculazione’ by Agostino Scilla (1670)

The Shepherd’s Crown
by Terry Pratchett,
illustrated by Paul Kidby,
afterword by Rob Wilkins.
Doubleday 2015

In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.

There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.

At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.

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Dark doings in Kent

Kent, from a 1930s atlas

In this post, part of a series discussing Cold Shoulder Road in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, I want to focus on the county where most of the action takes place, namely Kent.

As we shall see, some of the places mentioned exist in our world while others do not, and some distances remain the same while others appear to be telescoped. But all these places, while principally the background to the action, are often imbued with a significance that almost makes them characters in their own right.

The discussion that follows is of course preceeded the usual warning notice. 🙂

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

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