Reading meaning in things

Lyra’s Oxford
by Philip Pullman,
engravings by John Lawrence.
David Fickling Books 2003

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— William Makepeace

The title enshrines a dichotomy. Superficially it asserts that this is a city from the world Lyra inhabits, a world both like and unlike ours, that ambiguity given visual force by a wonderful fold-out map in the first edition hardback depicting the moody streets of Oxford overlooked by an airship at the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station.

But by the final pages it becomes clear that it’s Lyra herself who is this world’s Oxford to keep: “The city, their city — belonging was one of the meanings of that, and protection, and home.” There is a feeling that Oxford is looking after her and her dæmon Pantalaimon, a sense that will last her through the rest of her teenage years. Will that protection last through the central events of The Book of Dust?

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“Tell them stories”

The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’

The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.

At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.

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A meditation on solitude

nagasaki

Z for Zachariah
by Robert C O’Brien,
Puffin 1998 (1974)

In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis.

I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.

But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit.

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Other lands

Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, ‘St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall’, engraved by J Stephenson (1836)

Another post looking at the landscape of Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) — a previous piece looked at places in the fictional Wetlands, the equivalent of the real life Somerset Levels, famed in legend — and now I want not only to wrap up places I omitted before but also to allude to the climactic and moving scenes in the fantasy.

As usual Joan takes aspects of history, legend and literature and shuffles them together before laying out her cards, so I hope to identify, somewhat tentatively, what she’s displayed for our edification and amusement.

Of course, the usual strictures about spoilers apply hereon in — but you knew that.

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“Blossoms passing fair”

An illustrated introduction to Shakespeare’s flowers
by Dr Levi Fox,
Jarrold Colour Publications 1977

A slim 32-page booklet with colour photos on all but a handful of pages, this introduction is designed to emphasise that Shakespeare’s acquaintance of flowers “was not that of a botanist or horticulturalist but rather of a countryman gifted with an acute sense of observation”. He knew the colour of his plants, the seasons they appeared in, the folklore associated with them. In addition the poet ascribed uses to them (some made up, some genuine) and delighted in descriptions of them, in adjectives, simile or metaphor.

Here you’ll find quotes from Cymbeline and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and the history plays, The Winter’s Tale and the poems; the late Dr Fox also includes an endpiece with mentions of Shakespeare’s herbs, from balm to savory, marjoram to wormwood and much in between. As with the flowers botanical names are included, relevant quotes, and interpretations or clarifications of a few more obscure names the poet uses.

Above all the author includes passages from Will’s works with brief commentary giving context, all supplemented by the opening essay. As an historian, archivist and then director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Fox was in a good position to give an authoritative summary of the Swan of Avon’s familiarity with blooms.

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Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

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Hexes, murder and politicking

Regency London street

Zen Cho:
Sorcerer to the Crown
Pan Books 2016 (2015)

Prunella had once thought life in London would be all flirting and balls and dresses, hitting attentive suitors on the shoulder with a fan, and breakfasting late upon bowls of chocolate. She sighed now for her naïveté. Little had she known life in London was in fact all hexes and murder and thaumaturgical politics, and she would always be rising early for some reason or other!

This is a fantasy that has frequently been described as a mash-up of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I’ve read) and Jane Austen (ditto) as interpreted by Georgette Heyer (whom I’ve not as yet read) but of course it is more than that. The author brings up issues of race, gender and class in a way that, in 2020, is even more pertinent than when it was first published, what with Black Lives Matter assuming even more urgency and administrations in certain democracies becoming more inclined toward fascist policies.

Yet Zen Cho deals with this not in a heavy-handed preachy way but with wit, humour and satire, all the more effective for being couched in a historical fantasy rather than a sermon. While it’s not perfect, as a debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown has made few missteps; and what’s cleverer is that its apparent obscurities and longueurs actually encourage a future rereading when one may hopefully spot and enjoy the clues one may have missed first time round.

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Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.


Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

Unreadable nonsense

Wilson with the Arthur II stone, and Blackett with the Arthur I stone

Adrian Gilbert, Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett:
The Holy Kingdom
Bantam Press 1998

I scarcely know where to start with reviewing this work except to say that it is one of the most misguided books produced by a mainstream publisher that I have ever come across.

With sensationalist claims (the publishers go for the hyperbolic “explosive” and “astounding”) the authors, calling themselves historians, purport to overturn orthodoxy: they claim there were not one but two kings named Arthur — one the son of the imperial pretender Magnus Maximus and the other his sixth-century descendant from Glamorgan — whose careers were conflated to produce the single King Arthur of legend.

They not only identify the supposed burial sites of both Arthurs, they then go on to justify the title of their book with madcap theories about holy dynasties and the quest for the grail; sadly it’s all puerile balderdash.

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“Hyr piteous tale”

Joan Aiken:
Midwinter Nightingale
Red Fox 2005 (2003)

The joint penultimate instalment in the series known as the Wolves Chronicles, Midwinter Nightingale is as imaginative as any of the preceding novels, giving us a chance to marvel at Joan Aiken’s inventiveness whilst also regretting her apparent rush to complete her final two novels before she prematurely left us in early 2004.

As if to anticipate that sense of mortality there are some rather perfunctory deaths towards the end, but also the leaving of a couple of threads dangling to be resolved in the concluding volume, The Witch of Clatteringshaws.

If the resulting dish here is at times rather indigestible it’s because she’s tried to throw in extra red herrings into the usual range of exotic ingredients and McGuffins; on the other hand it’s hard not to admire the sheer panache that has her principal protagonists having to cope with idiosyncratic sheep, werewolves, incompetent invaders, extreme weather and an increasingly disunited kingdom.

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The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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Angels, dæmons & witches

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.

I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.

As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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A thief in the night

‘Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter’ (Holbein’s Dance of Death / The Astrologer)

Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
in Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Everyman 1975 (1908)

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood.

Of Poe’s many Gothick tales this is one of the foremost and famous, and it unsurprisingly stuck in my mind more than the others I read many years ago. And why, especially when there’s so little to the plot?

Essentially Prince Prospero holes up in a castle with a load of his friends and plenty of provisions, leaving the populace outside to die from a horrible plague — after half a year he throws a masked ball in a suite of rooms — yet Death still manages to enter the castle, regardless of quarantine.

Given the coronavirus crisis it seemed an appropriate time to read this short story, especially as I forgot to mention it in a previous post about literary treatments of contagion until another blogger’s comment brought it back to mind.

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My brother’s keeper

Charlotte Brontë: The Story of Willie Ellin (1853)
in Unfinished Novels
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

This will be less in the nature of a review and more in the manner of a musing as I look over Charlotte Brontë’s several attempts at either rewriting or beginning a novel in the handful of years before her untimely death.

As I contemplate these five fragments called The Story of Willie Ellin I wonder at their cohesiveness or lack of it, their relationship to the then as yet unpublished The Professor, and their parallels with themes in Shirley, a novel which had already appeared in 1849.

And finally I discuss how Charlotte’s obsessions with sibling relationships and fairytale seem to coalesce in her various writings, as seems to be revealed in what remains of Willie Ellin’s tale.

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