Wordplay and swordplay

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish
Ostatnie życzenie (1993),
translated from the Polish by Danusia Stok (2007)
Gollancz 2012

What fun this is to read, and what fun Sapkowski must’ve had writing it! It both pays homage to and takes the mickey out of the swords-and-sorcery genre; it subverts the classic fairytales it plunders while respecting their power and integrity; and it revels in witty dialogue and pithy wordplays only to cut them short with bloody cut-and-thrust swordplay worthy of a movie swashbuckler like Douglas Fairbanks Snr.

This is a prime example of the author accomplishing that seeming paradox, having his cake and eating it. He simultaneously deconstructs so-called High or Epic Fantasy by pointing out its use of problematic clichés and then celebrates them by taking them seriously.

And what a character to have take centre stage: Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher trained to tackle the monsters that threaten the communities of this late medieval world, using weapons-skill and magic, and all in the face of fear and suspicion from those very societies he is trying to save.

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The mirror not yet crack’d

A woman stands in front of an oval mirror. She is seeing if a shawl she is trying on suits her. She has been standing there for more than a century — since 1910 in fact. And I too have stood for a long time looking at her looking at the looking glass, in which I wasn’t reflected.

The Mackerel Shawl was painted by Algernon Talmage (1871–1939) and has been hanging in Bristol Museum & Art Gallery since it was acquired in 1913. Whenever I visit the gallery I am often drawn to it, but have not really thought why. Until now.

For it has stories to tell, and I want to tell you what it has told me.

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A book of delights

The Box of Delights (prop for the TV series: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danacea/491582034)

John Masefield: The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
Mammoth 2000 (1935)

Imagine a child whose parents have separately died in tragic circumstances; a child who up to the age of ten is home-schooled, living with guardians who limit his reading so that he largely has recourse to just his own imagination; a child who has returned from his first term among strangers at boarding school, able to retreat back into that fantasy world of his own making.

Then imagine that child several decades later, successful in what he really wanted to do — to use his imagination in creative ways — looking back to that childhood. How would he recapture that wonder, the sense of play and the closet anxieties without turning his writing into autobiography?

Perhaps the way forward for John Masefield — given the accolade of Poet Laureate in 1930 — was to turn his past history on its head and make the dreamworld he’d conjured up more real than reality. This he appeared to have done in 1927 with The Midnight Folk, and this too is what he may have also done in 1935 with The Box of Delights.

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A circuitous tale

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Ariana Franklin: The Death Maze
(published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US)
Bantam Books 2008

With a first name reminiscent of Ariadne it’s hardly surprising that the author penned a novel about a labyrinth, nor that the figure at the centre of intricate paths should sit there like a bloated spider (aranea is Latin for this arthropod). As is appropriate for a medieval whodunit Franklin’s novel ensnares characters and readers in a web of lies and false leads as it draws towards its close and the final trap.

Based on a popular medieval legend, The Death Maze is set in the late 12th century and involves Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was said to have been housed in a labyrinth at Woodstock, where reputedly she was poisoned on the orders of Queen Eleanor (herself captive in France) and later buried at the nearby nunnery of Godstow.

Franklin takes the bare bones of this story and weaves a circuitous tale of detection and deceit around and through it. But our principal concern is not for Fair Rosamund (not as fair as we might think) but for Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian anatomist who is drawn against her will into investigating the crime for the King himself.

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Serene economy

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie library

Ray Bradbury:
Summer Morning, Summer Night
Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller
Harper Voyager 2015 (2008)

Its suburbs housed young and old, hermits and gossips, conservatives and eccentrics, the love-lorn and the unlovable; Green Town, Illinois, was — maybe still is — a town of mystery, secrets and heartaches underneath its bland exterior.

Bradbury’s chronicles of lives lived under his microscope extended from the observational vignettes in Dandelion Wine to the magic realism of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on the author’s childhood experience in Waukegan, Illinois, its aspiring middle-class neighbourhoods are portrayed as a hothouse harbouring secret passions and private obsessions, all seething beneath a thin veneer of respectability.

This selection of short stories (some only half a page long) similarly let the reader eavesdrop or spy on the everyday doings of townsfolk; but rather than it being an abusive relationship our fly-on-the-wall position allows us to extend our compassion to many of the denizens, just occasionally permitting us to be judgemental.

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Square pegs

WordPress Free Photo Library

Louis Sachar: Holes
Bloomsbury 2000 (1998)

This immensely readable YA novel is a delight: it presents like real-life contemporary fiction but is littered with almost impossible coincidences; it feels like a piece of fantasy at times but is unrelenting in its portrayal of societal realities; it’s peopled by individuals who one moment may be stereotypical and the next become complex and unpredictable.

Stanley Yelnats has been accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. His sentence is to go to Camp Green Lake, a correctional institute where boys are expected to dig regulation-sized holes to build good character.

And yet all is not as it seems: we are already alerted to the fact that Stanley didn’t commit a crime, that — suspiciously — his name is palindromic, that the institute is neither green nor by a lake, and that everyone there is a metaphorical square peg who will never fit the round hole they’re expected to dig.

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New Year wishes

Shelfie

It’s at the tail end of the year that I look forward to what literary delights the coming year has in store for me, what my wishes are concerning books to be read and discussed.

I’ve already put up a retrospective post here detailing how I got on with the challenges and goals I’d set myself for 2019; now it’s time to see if, knowing what I’ve actually achieved this year, I intend to be as ambitious for 2020.

The answer turns out to be both “yes” and “no”.

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