A rebel angel

‘Futurity.’ © C A Lovegrove. Image created using Wombo.Art app

The Question Mark
by Muriel Jaeger.
Introduction by Jo Moulton.
British Library Science Fiction Classics, 2019 (1926).

“You are the natural rebel, the Satanist—one of those unfortunates born with inverted instincts. Your necessity is to attack and to suffer. You may not know it, but, whatever your circumstances, you would seek out suffering. […] In no place nor time would you be at home. You are he who goes up and down upon the earth and to and fro on it.” — John Wayland to Guy Martin.

Chapter X, v.

Guy Martin is in a dead-end job in London in the 1920s, disappointed in love and feeling a great ennui for the world he lives in. In a moment of desperation he goes to his room, lies down and wills himself to enter a trance, a kind of akinetic catatonia or coma, which allows his consciousness to withdraw from the world. And then…

And then, after what seems to be an out-of-body experience, he finds himself apparently waking in the 22nd century in a kind of Utopia – literally ‘Nowhere’ – where energy is free, technology is beyond all 20th-century imagining, and labour is not only minimal but optional for many. Introduced to his new way of living by the Wayland family, he believes all is perfect, a socialist dream where all have access to whatever they need or want.

But all is not perfect in this future England, and Guy finds that neither human nature nor society adapt well to an idealised system, and especially a oerson such as himself who has existed in and experienced the Depression of the twenties. What will his reaction be to this growing realisation?

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Intrinsic irrelevance

Nemesis (1502) by Albrecht Dürer

The Genius and the Goddess
by Aldous Huxley.
Vintage Classics 2015 (1955).

“The trouble with fiction,” said John Rivers, “is that it makes too much sense. Reality never makes sense.”

“Never?” I questioned.

“Maybe from God’s point of view,” he conceded. “Never from ours. Fiction has unity, fiction has style. Facts possess neither.”

Though called The Genius and the Goddess this novella could equally have included the 28-year-old Virgin or the Self-pitying Egotist in the title. It recounts – in the form of a mostly one-sided dialogue – how John Rivers, a British scientist working under the gifted American quantum physicist Henry Maartens in the early 1920s, finds himself compromised, and how as the son of a Lutheran minister he continues decades later to suffer the resulting pangs of guilt.

I have to be honest and say I struggled to enjoy this cross between a Socratic dialogue and a drawn-out drone – warning, a spoiler follows, though it’s mentioned on the cover blurb – of how a jejune man loses his virginity on the night of Shakespeare’s birthday in 1922. Much of it is presented as a monologue describing delayed gratification which, though intriguing at times, verges on the unedifying even when it’s couched in dry intellectual language.

Having slated the novella, can I bring myself to give some more detail and perhaps even praise what came across as more successful? I’ll try.

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The giving of gifts

Having arrived at the end of The Return of the King and the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings, just the appendices remain before I start some overviews in my #TalkingTolkien thread. But I’m not done with the main narrative yet, not by a long chalk! Nor have I finished with themes and motifs I’ve noted, not forgetting discussions of early published commentaries that steered me in my readings over several decades.

In this discussion I want to focus on the giving of gifts, a practice that epics and sagas featured as a means of forging bonds of friendship, sanctioning alliances and displaying largesse, a custom not limited, as now, largely to high days and holidays such as Christmas, birthdays and other anniversaries – and the occasional middle-class dinner party. (I shall omit any discussion of political bribes now because consideration of that odious practice will only lead me astray into intemperate ranting… )

Tolkien, knowing that gift-giving (and gift exchange) was an important aspect not just of the literature he was familiar with but of the early societies he admired, naturally included plenty of examples in his own legendarium, some instances of which I want to examine here.

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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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Simple yet elegant

Dust jacket based on Wyndham Payne design for Christmas wrapping paper

Design: Wyndham Payne
by William Connelly and Paul Payne.
ACC Art Books, 2020.

A designer of dust jackets for crime fiction by Agatha Christie, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and novels by Vera Brittain and Richmal Compton; an illustrator for books and magazines like Punch and Vogue; a designer of advertisements, greetings cards and calendars; a printmaker and model maker. Who am I referring to?

I must admit Wyndham Payne was not a name I’d ever heard of let alone rated till this book came into my hands. With a biographical essay by William Connelly (which first appeared 2005-6) and additional material by one of the artist’s grandsons, this well-illustrated retrospective gives an excellent introduction to a largely self-taught artist who deserves to be better known and appreciated.

He also was an avid collector of bric-a-brac and bargains from junk shops – what he called ‘gubbins shops’ – resulting in the purchase of what appeared to be a later copy but was in fact an original 15th-century painting of the Crucifixion on vellum by Herman Scheerre, now in the British Library. And a watercolour copy of a Rembrandt painting he purchased at auction later turned out to be by Constable.

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Love and authenticity

‘The Skin Horse tells his story’: Illustration by William Nicholson

The Velveteen Rabbit
Or How Toys Become Real
by Margery Williams,
illustrated by William Nicholson.
Carousel 1976 (1922).

A classic tale first published a century ago, The Velveteen Rabbit can come across as insufferably sentimental, and it was the rumour of this sentimentality that has stopped me from reading it for so long.

But unfounded prejudice is never a good attitude to cultivate, whether in a critic or in general, so in its centenary year I deigned to pick up a decades-old copy from the shelved books of our now grown-up children, in order to judge for myself and see whether the common opinion of it was justified.

I now find that it was justified, but – and this is a big ‘but’ – I’ve also experienced the magic that, sentiment or not, undoubtedly lingers around this story and renders it a true classic, aided immeasurably by the delightful original illustrations by William Nicholson which complement the text so well.

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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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Almost unclassifiable

Hardback illustration by Lynton Lamb

The Twelve Dancers
by William Mayne, 
illustrated by Lynton Lamb.
Hamish Hamilton 1962.

In the upper reaches of the Severn a Welsh valley bordering England retains a centuries-old tradition. A folk dance enacted annually by the village schoolchildren precedes a ritual whereby the locals use a battering-ram to force the local lord at the castle to accept their rent and to drink their mutual healths from a cup.

But Emrys ‘Plow’ Jones wants the Commons Wood for himself. If he can find the long-lost Cup he might be able to curtail the ritual and thus justifiably claim rights over the land.

Newcomer Marlene Price and her schoolmates involved in the dance think they are in a position to alter the outcome of events and save the Commons Wood, but will the tightly-knit valley community be able to sort things out amicably before matters turn sour?

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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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A dish served cold

Magician: AI-generated artwork via Wombo Dream app

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood.
Vintage 2017 (2016)

Now does my project gather to a head:
My charms crack not; my spirits obey; and time
Goes upright with his carriage.

‘The Tempest’ Act V Scene I

How could you go about updating while at the same time respecting the plot of a four centuries old play? One way would be to simply set it in the present and have everyone ignore the fact that characters resemble, even share the same names as, those in the old story. Another way would be to recast it as a genre work – magic realism, say, fantasy, or science fiction – that allows for a parallel presentation of plot and characters where the original wouldn’t impinge because it mayn’t have existed.

An approach involving huge risks would be to utilise metafiction, in which original characters and plots are deliberately referenced: how then to avoid individuals consciously knowing they’re playing pre-existing roles and so deliberately sabotaging outcomes? Margaret Atwood turned these risks to her advantage by copying Shakespeare’s own trick of a play-within-a-play, as when the revenge tragedy Hamlet includes the dumb show ‘The Murder of Gonzago, or The Mousetrap’ in which to “catch the conscience of the king.” Or, indeed, when The Tempest itself includes a masque.

With Hag-Seed she cleverly refashions The Tempest as a kind of ‘revenge comedy’ that takes place within a Canadian correctional institution, with Shakespeare’s own words forming a means by which a vendetta may be enacted against unsuspecting victims. By using a light touch she is able to avoid any accusation of over-earnestness, yet she still manages to include issues ranging from the purpose of prisons through corruption in politics and on to coping with loss.

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Talking beasts: #Narniathon21

WordPress Free Photo Library

The Horse and His Boy
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2009 (1954).

With its quizzical title – how exactly does an equine creature somehow own a boy? – the fifth book in the Narnia sequence proves itself a bit of a puzzle but, luckily, also offers unsought delights, unspotted during a first read. How unspotted? Probably because mild prejudice blinded me as to this instalment’s merits.

And that prejudice? Twofold, I think: as a first-time adult Narniad reader I could only see painful proselytising and xenophobic slights; now I have a more nuanced view of the text, one where I switch back and forth between young and old eyes, revealing a novel which is more deserving of my admiration than derision.

The puzzle of course comes with an opening where, unexpectedly, we don’t start with youngsters from 1940s England but are thrown straight into a story seemingly straight out of the Arabian Nights. Reader, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Narnia anymore.

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