Innocent and heartless

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

Peter Pan by J M Barrie,
illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)

Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.

I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.

I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.

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A dangerous time of year

moon NASA
Moon (NASA image)

The Moon of Gomrath
by Alan Garner.
Endpaper maps by Charles Green,
jacket design by George Adamson.
Collins 1970 (1963).

“… the world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow…”

This tale picks up soon after the events in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when 12-year-old twins Colin and Susan are still staying in Cheshire whilst their parents are abroad. Evil witch the Morrigan has, along with her allies, finally been defeated, but Susan no longer has the teardrop heirloom, the weirdstone of the title. In its place is a curious silver bracelet, its shape echoing the young moon, and it is the moon — from the title of this sequel to Susan’s crucial role — which runs as one of the leitmotivs throughout this dark tale.

It’s hard to tell, but I’m guessing that these events take place sometime in the late 1950s; the date is immaterial but helps to get a handle on the narrative. Air pollution has driven a group of travellers from North Wales to Alderley Edge in Cheshire. No ordinary travellers these: they are lios-alfar, what we would call elves, and they are resting in the caves underneath the Edge before going on to the Northlands, where they hope to defeat whatever is destroying their kin there. They are let into the heart of the Edge by Cadellin, the wizard who befriended Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone and who still guards the sleeping knights under the hill.

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A shoreless kingdom

Cover illustration of a generic Middle European walled city for Le Guin’s Malafrena by an uncredited artist for Panther Books 1981

Having recently completed and been impressed by Ursula K le Guin’s Malafrena (1979), a novel set in her imagined country of Orsinia in the early 19th century, I thought I would compose a few thoughts about its history and geography before posting a review.

I’ve already discussed her bleak but beautiful short story collection called Orsinian Tales, in which a series of vignettes detailing lives lived during a thousand years of Orsinian history gives us a flavour of this fictional nation somewhere east of central Europe. Referenced as Orciny in China Miéville’s fantasy The City and the City, Le Guin’s landlocked country is the sort of polity that may well have existed in Europe’s chequered history which — not unlike Miéville’s twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma somewhere at the edge of Europe — seems to have slipped out of most Europeans’ consciousness.

Now may be a good time to set the scene for what we may expect in a review of Malafrena, and for that we need maps and a bit of historical context.

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Teasing the dragon

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J K Rowling.
Ted Smart / Bloomsbury Publishing 1998

“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
— Albus Dumbledore

A reread of this, the second instalment in the Harry Potter book sequence (following Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), impresses on a number of fronts: the continued fleshing out of the main characters which made them so appealing in the first place; the masterful plotting and juggling of elements, even more evident in a third read; and of course its emphasis on compassion, friendship and loyalty, all of which gain more relevancy during a time of pandemic and political upheaval.*

Harry Potter’s birthday on the last day of July — not insignificantly the same as the author’s — sees him chafing under the vindictiveness of his adoptive family. Escaping from virtual imprisonment he is then mysteriously stopped from catching the Hogwarts Express to school, and so begins a series of incidents that leads not just to the secret of the Chamber of the title but also further revelations about how and why Harry survived the attack by He Who Must Not Be Named.

As the book ends with Harry and Hermione walking “back through the gateway to the Muggle world” we readers with hindsight know that Harry’s current victory will prove just a temporary respite in the wizarding war that has only just begun.

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The teardrop expounded

sunset

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner.
Puffin Books revised edition 1963 (1960).

Reading this at the end of the sixties, fresh from the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, I felt confused and slightly underwhelmed. Despite its nod to Arthurian legend (sleeping king, Wild Hunt, sage wizard) and genuine sense of menace I missed the complexity of Tolkien’s saga, with its multiple locations, characters and interweave of plots. Nor did it share the light touch of The Hobbit despite featuring two youngsters in their early teens.

Perhaps the book’s misfortune was to be of its time, partly satisfying a hunger for epic fantasy but appearing, in contrast, as a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. Garner, whose first novel this was – he wrote it in his mid-twenties – recognised such weaknesses by first providing a revised edition for Puffin Books and later virtually disavowing it as “a fairly bad book”.

To dismiss it, especially now, would be unfair. For all the similarity of motifs – dwarfs, elves, underground mines, wizard, evil lord, powerful talisman, trolls, a final near-hopeless battle – what strikes me more on this re-reading four decades on are the differences. This is set in a corner of Garner’s native Cheshire, not in a secondary world like Middle Earth; the names and figures draw not on an invented mythology but directly from native traditions and languages, from Welsh, Manx, Irish and Norse folklore and literature (for example Angharad, Fenodyree, Morrigan and Grimnir, respectively); the main protagonists are not adult halflings but two, as it turns out, not-so-ordinary children; and the story is set not in some faraway land many millennia ago but in a here-and-now mid-twentieth century, with trains, waterproof macs, bikes, electric torches and ramblers. Even if the past is never far away, beginning with the milk-white steeds of the legendary but unnamed king…

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A thimble for a kiss

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc,
illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)

Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.

Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.

I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.

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Wolfish Chronicles

Thomas Bewick, The Wolf

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s Cold Shoulder Road — the first of a series of discussion posts about this entry in the Wolves Chronicles — but before concluding with an examination of the very last chronicle of all, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, I want to do an overview of the series.

Long term followers of my posts will be well aware of my obsession with the Wolves Chronicles, for far too long an underrated sequence which, I think, deserves as much love and attention as, say, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter stories or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Unless you’ve sampled these often complex yet diverting novels for yourself it may be hard to work up enthusiasm for them, and I can understand why my in-depth explorations of people, places, timelines and themes in the dozen or so titles attracts little comment or interest when I’ve posted about them. (It’s me, not you!)

But if you were to at least try the first three or five titles you might start to understand why they are special and, perhaps, hopefully, may even be persuaded to try some more. In which case this post is an attempt to provide the bare bones of where to start and where to go on next.

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Mums and kids

Shingle beach overlooking the English Channel, Dungeness © C A Lovegrove

Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox Books 1996 (1995)

Mums and kids better stick together
Hang in there whatever the weather
Hold in a chain that none can break
Hold together for the future’s sake …

The sequel to Is (US: Is Underground) is another of Joan Aiken’s unputdownable novels in her Wolves Chronicles. The villains are as villainish as ever, with few redeeming features, the young (and not-so-young) protagonists are regularly scrobbled, and much of the fairytale action which would normally be regarded as implausible acquires a degree of reality through Aiken’s powerful storytelling.

Rich in details, the novel dovetails chronologically into the rest of the series but can be enjoyed—just about—as a standalone. Most of the action takes place in Kent, along the coast from Aiken’s beloved Sussex, but in Aiken’s usual timeframe where the 1830s and early 1840s are not quite as the history we are more familiar with.

Young Is Twite, fresh from saving child miners from drowning when a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla floods their undersea coal mine, comes south with her newfound cousin Arun to his hometown of Folkestone in Kent in a bid to reunite with his widowed mother Ruth. But, true to the ways of this alternative world, nothing is straightforward; and heartache, danger, villainy and death will be experienced before natural justice reassert itself.

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The mother of invention

The Jewel Seed by Joan Aiken,
illustrated by Peter Bailey.
Hodder Children’s Books 1998 (1997)

What is the Jewel Seed, and why are various people looking for it? These are the questions teen orphan Nonnie Smith keeps asking herself in this rumbustious fantasy novelette penned by the indefatigable Joan Aiken.

In ten action-packed chapters we discover how it is that Nonnie becomes parentless, how a twice-stolen shirt leads her into dire danger, how she comes to stay in northwest London and what befell her there. Along the way we encounter witches, a mysterious lodger and an even stranger cat, and wonder how a grandfather clock, apples, snakes, bootlaces and a three-note musical motif fit into the bigger picture.

And for those who like to rummage beneath the bubbling surface of her cauldron’s concoction there are hints as to the ingredients the author has selected to add to her rich stew.

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The House Beautiful

Sebastiano Serlio, Set design for a comic scene

“Behold there was a very stately palace before him, the name of which was Beautiful; and it stood just by the highway side.”
— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Reading Susanna Clarke‘s novel Piranesi awoke all kinds of echoes for me. The repetition, especially, of the narrator’s paean of praise to the place in which he resided — The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite — reminded me of texts such as John Bunyan‘s Pilgrim’s Progress and the refuge to which Christian sought entry, the Palace Beautiful, the way to it guarded by a pair of chained lions (not unrelated to Aslan, I suspect).

But there were other literary reverberations which were set up in my mind, stretching from classical Greece and Rome to this century; in the event that you may find of interest I’ve put together the following illustrated essay.

Be warned, though: in discussing the ideas behind various works of fiction I shall be giving away the odd secret or spoiler so, if you haven’t read them, you may want to skim over or even skip the text and just enjoy the illustrations.

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Intellect and imagination

The Secret Commonwealth:
The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019

“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’

Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.

Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.

At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.

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The Beloved Child

Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

I am the Beloved Child of the House …

How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.

He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.

But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.

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In the beginning

The ruins of Charn (Pauline Baynes)

The Magician’s Nephew
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Fontana Lions 1980 (1955)

In this, the penultimate Narnian chronicle to be published, C S Lewis describes how Narnia came to be. The Magician’s Nephew is set around 1900, the heyday of Sherlock Holmes and Edith Nesbit’s Bastable family adventures, in a suburban London street perhaps similar to Nesbit’s Lewisham (the place recalling the Narnia author’s own surname). Here Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke make friends in a walled garden behind a house terrace before explorations down a secret attic passage lead them in unexpected directions.

There can be few readers who haven’t read, or at least heard of, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, even if they’ve only encountered the first (and possibly the best) instalment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Less familiar perhaps is the genesis of this world, and The Magician’s Nephew fills in these details admirably.

Biblical imagery is mingled with motifs drawn from classical mythology (such as winged horses) and some overt moralising, all leavened with attempts at humour; but to me what comes over strongest in a second reading is a depiction of different aspects of human love.

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Blue jewel in the darkness

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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St Lucy’s Day

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Towards the end of Joan Aiken’s alternative history fantasy Midwinter Nightingale we are reminded that events are approaching St Lucy’s Day.

This feast, dedicated to an early virgin martyr whose name derives from Latin lux, ‘light’, is celebrated each year on 13th December, and marks the culmination of the novel’s action after a few jam-packed days.

Traditionally the feast day marked the winter solstice, when there are the fewest hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are the longest of the year. But nowadays the solstice tends to fluctuate between 21st and 22nd December, so somehow we appear to be nine days adrift. How to explain?

In this discussion of the chronology of Midwinter Nightingale I shall start with considering A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day by John Donne — specifically referenced in the novel — and then go on to my TWITE theory concerning the Wolves Chronicles, also known as the Time Wobbles In This Era hypothesis.

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