Smiling villains

The Lady under the control of Comus: William Blake, 1801

“O villain, villain, smiling, damnèd villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…”
—Hamlet: Act I, Scene 5

I began with Comus, Milton’s 1634 masque, the touchstone of which I identified as chastity ensnared. Its horrifying story of a young woman trapped by a villain — smiling or otherwise — the likely victim of perdition through seduction is distressingly all too familiar these days. In Milton’s drama she puts up a spirited defence, but if it weren’t for the intervention of her brothers and a third party she may have indeed been lost; rescue, tragically, is all too rarely at hand in real life.

Many tales where the female is menaced by a male figure are still seen as inferring that it’s the woman who’s the instigator of her own victimhood, the architect of her own misfortunes. Like mythical Pandora or Psyche, who succumb to what’s often referred to as ‘transgressive curiosity’, they may stray where they shouldn’t, open storage containers, shine lights in dark corners, enter locked rooms or go widdershins. The astonishing message appears to be that it’s their own fault that they find trouble by, for instance, dressing provocatively, walking alone, or just being a woman.

But not all narratives take this line; whether implicitly or explicitly they pin the blame fully on the predator, the male — and more often than not it is a male — who perversely sees women as deserving abuse, rape or death. Many scholars have discussed this aspect and in what follows I shall allude to some of them (because, of course, my argument is in no way original). I want then to take up a couple or more threads: the implication that women bring misfortune on themselves; the intervention of one or more rescuers; and instances when sisters are actually doing it for themselves.

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Present tensed

Text to image: https://experiments.runwayml.com/generative_engine/

Do you remember those gauche reports you or your fellow pupils may have written about a school trip or what you did during the holidays? You know, the kind that went First we did this and then I did that and then my friend said this and then…? One thing followed by another with no real sense of direction or purpose and an absolute anticlimax when it all comes to an end: And then we went home.

That’s the feeling I have about some novels, accounts that leave me frustrated and tense, like those seemingly never-ending dreams from which you emerge restless, as if from some randomly edited student movie, thinking What was that all about?

Those narratives nearly all have one thing in common, a factor which leads me to put them aside pro tem or maybe in aeternum. That common factor is the historic present tense. And that’s exactly what it makes me: tense.

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The Walrus said

Andrew Morton Books, Lion Yard, Brecon

‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things…

But mostly books

We all know how this year has gone — what can I usefully add to what has already been said, and experienced, and suffered by so many? — so let me here consider positive things, like reading and stuff.

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The spirit of Christmas

Signed and sent Christmas postcard

Within a rustic framework sits a family consisting of a couple, their children (two with their spouses) and grandchildren, with the adults toasting the viewer.

The youngsters are tucking into the food and drink with a will, but the family aren’t forgetting their charitable duties: in the adjacent side panels individuals who are hungry and destitute are being attended to by the servants and given food and warm clothing.

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Bohemian rhapsody

Prague. Photo by Julius Silver, Pexels

“Prague is one of the most interesting towns in Europe. Its stones are saturated with history and romance; its every suburb must have been a battlefield. It is the town that conceived the Reformation and hatched the Thirty Years’ War. But half Prague’s troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.”
— Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel”

Prague. Not a city I’ve ever been to but it wears a kind of aura as the capital of the Czech Republic — a country right in the physical centre of Europe and an apt symbol of the heart of the continent — and is thus a place I feel I ought to visit.

Being set centrally in what is deemed Mitteleuropa—nestled within Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria—Prague has also been at the crossroads of movements of people, with a turbulent and troublesome history, and yet historically it seems to retain a mystical attraction for freethinkers and revolutionaries.

And of course as the main city of ancient Bohemia it has a huge cultural capital in fictional terms, as I have discovered from recent, current and future reads.

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Errant

Bastardised shop sign from Hereford (?)

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
— from An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope.

You may have noticed I’ve become a little bit obsessive in recent months: loads of books read — blog posts appearing every two days — reviews getting longer and wordier — strident statements occasionally appearing… If you’d wondered (if indeed you’ve happened to notice) then I think the time has come for a little bit of self-reflection on my part and an attempt at an explanation.

I think this flurry of activity comes as much from displacement activity as it does from genuine bookish pleasure. The reasons for that displacement aren’t hard to divine: the pandemic for one, which affects everyone; the crisis arising from global heating, which should be concerning everyone; and the nightmare political situation in too many countries which, closely bound up with the first two reasons, has divided everyone almost as much as any physical wall.

And because of all this I’ve alighted on the usually sage sayings of Alexander Pope.

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The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

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The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

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A desk of one’s own

Image credit: thegraphicsfairy.com

We are full of contradictions, are we not? Diligent one moment, listless the next; viewing life with equanimity yesterday, choleric today; thinking seven impossible things before breakfast but still insisting there is only one right way to boil an egg.

I’m a contrary type. To give just one example among many, the one which is the topic for this post: I’m normally a fairly tidy person — everything in its place — meaning I delight in uncluttered rooms, streets free of litter, political positions clearly stated. Dust and debris and detritus offend me; I’m pernickety about recycling in the correct containers; chaotic emotions confuse me.

That’s all well and good … until it comes to books. More specifically the spaces where books accumulate when they’re being used, such as desks and bedside tables. And then the contrariness kicks in, and tidiness goes metaphorically out the window.

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Is your journey really necessary?

Lundy Island

Repost, first published 17th December 2015: part of a series of reposts which I may schedule once a month or more

During World War II the British government tried to discourage travel at Christmas time with the slogan “Is your journey really necessary?”[1] But, as popular culture, psychology, history and of course literature all tell us, journeys are as necessary to human beings as love, food and shelter.

Time was that any reality or talent show featuring wannabe celebrities would feature the phrase “I/you/we’ve been on a journey,” implying that the individuals concerned had somehow grown or matured due to the experience regardless whether or not they had actually changed location.[2] The Journey has however always been a metaphor, sometimes characterised as a tripartite image schema: ‘source-path-goal’.[3] Though not all elements need be present whenever the metaphor is employed, the sense of beginning-middle-end is nearly always implicit, with the journey – the ‘path’ – as the central core. In this the metaphor encapsulates the Aristotelian definition of narrative plot as a ‘whole’: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Aristotle asserted in Chapter VII of The Poetics, a principle that can be applied not just to tragedy (as Aristotle did) but to most narrative structure.[4]

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Kept as they would dogs

Penguin Classics generator, https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

‘Kings, ministers, aristocrats, the rich in general, kept the people in poverty and subjection; they kept them as they kept dogs, to fight and hunt for their service.’
— Joseph Conrad, Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard

A statue has been pulled down in Bristol, my former hometown and, as is usually the case with events that capture news headlines, a number of narratives have been put forward to account for this symbolic act.

These narratives serve different agendas, many of them totally opposed, though some occupy a sort of No Man’s Land.

As I have a personal, even an emotional, investment in the city that witnessed this incident, I’d like to add my own narrative into the mix in the hopes that it may throw some light on the matter, but not add to the fuel.

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The nature of story

“What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” — Charlotte Brontë

A number of unconnected literary threads have come together and have somehow become inextricably tangled in my mind. After a review of Jenny Nimmo‘s The Snow Spider last month I’ve been ploughing through other fiction, including some of Charlotte Brontë‘s unfinished tales, until my current reread of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

It’s taken some comments from blogger Sandra to get me thinking about the nature of story for teller and audience, about how much storytellers might care to reveal about their creative processes, and about how precious is that fragile veil in every confessional box. What follows is a none too successful attempt to untangle those threads.

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Calan Gaeaf

Farmhouse in the Preseli Hills

Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider has been the subject of a conversation the inestimable Nick Swarbrick and I have been having on his blog and here over a number of weeks, and now we’re approaching the end with the final two questions we’ve each set ourselves to answer.

Briefly, the novel concerns young Gwyn Griffiths who has been given five gifts for his ninth birthday, four years to the day when his sister Bethan left their Welsh hill farm and disappeared in a snowstorm. The five objects — a mutilated model of a horse, a piece of seaweed, a musical pipe, a scarf, and a broach — exert an ancient magic when ‘offered’ to the wind, put in train by Gwyn’s innate talent inherited from his legendary ancestor Gwydion.

My intention is to end this series of posts with a review before I tackle the remaining two instalments of Nimmo’s trilogy, but for now we’re both looking at the novel’s Welsh contexts in an attempt to appreciate what makes The Snow Spider different from other fantasies written for children.

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A magical landscape

Foel Cwm Cerwyn, Mynyddoedd y Preseli

Over a few posts Nick Swarbrick and I have been discussing the first instalment of Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, The Snow Spider. Nick began with a fine piece entitled Dicter – Anger and a Family in Crisis and I followed with Motifs, emotions and myth. Next I discussed Loss in the novel to which Nick responded with
Need Called Knowledge Out, an analysis concerning young magic-users coming into their powers.

We now come to four questions we set ourselves to answer about the novel’s setting, in culture, landscape and time — we’ll each look at two today on our respective blogs, with the remaining pair given our consideration on another day.

We hope that you will appreciate and respond to our comments, whether or not you’ve read The Snow Spider. And if you haven’t read it yet maybe you’ll be persuaded to by these posts!

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Desperado philosophy

Inverted Commas 15: a vast joke

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
Moby-Dick, Chapter 49

When I’ve recently mentioned that I found Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick humorous I’ve received quizzical responses, as though this was a distinctly novel if not idiosyncratic concept. It may, as far as I know, be both, but I can’t help thinking that if not guffaws then wry smiles can only follow many of Melville’s passages.

And the passage quoted above only helps to confirm my view. How else but to view this vast literary exercise, like life itself, as a vast literary joke, though not all apparently discern the wit Melville invests it with?

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