Cool and aloof

Engraving by Thomas Bewick

The Winter Swan by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press, 2018 (1949)

Beyond the windows the grey, immense afternoon folded like a cloth across the quiet square, the railed-in trees and the glimpse of meticulous grass. A carriage clipped along the road, its miniature thunder trailed flamboyantly before and after it. When it had gone the clock in the corner of the room ticked more distinctly, marking off the seconds, scratching in the odd corners of infinity.

Chapter Twelve

1949. Rosemary Hallam is buried as the thawing snow starts slipping off the church roof, Cedic Garland her only mourner. Somewhere, somehow, her consciousness drifts into those odd corners of infinity, pausing at key moments in her life, seeing herself as others saw her: she becomes, in death more than in life, “a spy, a reluctant, bewildered eavesdropper on the lives of others.”

Sam Youd’s debut novel, begun when he was only 24 and completed a mere matter of months later, is an assured, lyrical and wise work. In revealing both the agonies and joys of its characters it underlines what the author identified as its main theme — that “relationships matter more than anything and spiritual isolation is hell” — an axiom that remains as pertinent to us now as it did then to the author.

Yet Rosemary, its principal character, does seem spiritually isolated, whether because, orphaned at 13, she has determined not to be bullied by life or whether she is by nature calm and unruffled or, as others mostly see her, cool and aloof. Her last admirer, Cedric, is reminded of a serene swan riding effortlessly over waves; during the course of this novel we get to see how troubled those waves were.

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In Bilbo’s footsteps

Hobbiton, by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring
by J R R Tolkien.
The Lord of the Rings Vol. 1.
HarperCollins 2012 (1954)

One of the delights of rereading a favourite book, even one enjoyed multiple times, is the possibility of discovering new aspects to enjoy, despite much remaining familiar. So it is with this, my sixth or seventh visit to Middle-earth in this form, and the surprise is that the tale has not yet grown stale.

What I once saw as longueurs to skim through or skip altogether are now like an overlooked drawer or two in a treasure chest, and even passages I thought I knew well are now revealed new-minted and shiny as if I’d once considered them poor tawdry things. Knowing Tolkien had the capacity to revise and recast and rethink his material over several years has served as a lesson, for me as a reader, to re-evaluate.

Though he was, against his inclination, persuaded to publish his epic fantasy in three volumes (thus potentially jeopardising the integrity of the whole) The Fellowship of the Ring, comprising Books One and Two, does in fact hang together as a narrative, its ending acting as a caesura before the next stage when we follow different individuals and interwoven timelines in The Two Towers. This therefore justifies any overview of the volume as an individual entity.

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Northernness: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Stephen Lavis for the Diamond Books edition of The Silver Chair

For at the top of the shrubbery was a high stone wall and in that wall a door in which you can get out in to open moor. […] But when the door actually opened, they both stood stock still. For what they saw was quite different from what they had expected.

Chapter One

Now, after reviewing C S Lewis’s portal fantasy The Silver Chair (1953), I want to dedicate a couple of posts to discussing two related aspects: the emotions and philosophies which a reading reveals, and — for this post — the kinds of influences that may have been absorbed by the novel.

The Cambridge University chair in Medieval and Renaissance English — a professorship in English literature — was especially created in 1954 for Lewis, a year after this novel appeared. I won’t even attempt to compete with the range and quality of the texts this erudite scholar would have known and loved, instead identifying from my limited reading the literary resonances and form that I believe can be detected in The Silver Chair.

If my discussion seems a bit random or episodic that’s because it is, as suits a There and Back Again tale. Warning: there are spoilers galore coming up.

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A Cinderella in Brazil

Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil
Teatro Amazonas, Manaus, Brazil

Journey to the River Sea
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2002 (2001).

Born in Vienna in 2025, Eva Ibbotson had to move to England in 1935 when Hitler came to power. That experience — of being uprooted — was drawn on directly for novels like The Morning Gift (about a girl from a secular Jewish family escaping Nazi Germany) and indirectly, I suspect, for Maia, the young protagonist of Journey to the River Sea.

Who has not imagined what life might be like if one was an orphan forced from their familiar environment? Ibbotson experienced the displacement while the fictional Maia is a genuine orphan — not impecunious, it is true — who at the beginning of the 20th century has to travel away from her boarding school to live with distant relatives.

On the banks of the Amazon.

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A few special years

A selection of classics

1872, 1922, 1954. Three years. What do they have in common? They all feature in this post, for a start!

1872. A century and a half ago George Eliot’s Middlemarch was first published in book form, after being serialised by Blackwood magazine. I began this a year or so ago but got distracted, so I’m determined to get back to it this special year. How can I not read this, a classic that’s so highly regarded, not least by Virginia Woolf?

1922. A hundred years ago two particular writers were born whose work I want to explore this year. One was Kurt Vonnegut whose birthday in November I want to mark with a read of one or other of his titles; the other is Sam Youd — who’s better known as SF author John Christopher but also wrote under other names in other genres — and his centenary occurs this month.

1954. A week this month is being set aside to read a book or two from a more recent year, as part of a reading event called — not unnaturally — the 1954 Club. And the whole month is set aside for Reading the Theatre, so as it happens I have possible titles to pick for both of these events.

But have I bitten off more than I can chew? Interestingly, in March I managed to complete books for Reading Wales, Reading Ireland, March Magics, and Narniathon, so there may be hope!

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Throneless under earth: #Narniathon21

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The Silver Chair by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Diamond Books 1997 (1953).

‘Though under Earth and throneless now I be,
Yet, while I lived, all Earth was under me.’

Chapter Ten

After escaping bullies two children from a coeducational school in 1940s Britain find themselves in a strange and extraordinarily vivid land — only to then be blown off a high cliff. They are to be sent on a quest to find a lost prince, but it will require inner resources, courage and imagination to achieve the quest, and it all hangs in the balance if they don’t recognise the signs they’ve been given.

The theme of The Quest may be a staple of myth, fairytale and fantasy but it has its strengths and weaknesses as a narrative driver. If the quest isn’t achieved it runs the risk of disappointment for the audience; if it is too easily accomplished it may seem preordained; only if there is a sense of peril and uncertainty can we feel that the task may have been a worthwhile one.

The Silver Chair (it seems to me) aims to fulfill the third of the criteria, but there are inklings of the first two which could potentially ruin one’s enjoyment of the story as a whole. And yet there is much that satisfies in terms of characterisation, drama and mythic resonances which may well overcome potential stumbling blocks to whole-hearted acceptance of this episode in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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April with his sweet showers

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Venus Verticordia

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote …

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Tomorrow is kalendae apriles — the kalends of April — and in ancient Rome it was was marked by the festival known as the Veneralia, the feast day of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the changer of hearts”). April then would have been the month dedicated to the goddess Venus.

It seems an apt time to conjure up the notion of love when there’s a lot of hating going on the world: as Peter and Gordon sang in 1964 in the Paul McCartney song, “I don’t care what they say I won’t stay | In a world without love.”

Below I list ten related facts for your edification, but in honour of the better known association of the first day of April one of them will be a factoid or fake news; can you guess which one it is?

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Music, magic, maturity

Trees

Cart and Cwidder (1975)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
in The Dalemark Quartet, Vol 1.
Greenwillow / Eos 2005.

There is sometimes an assumption that if a novel’s protagonists are youngsters then the novel can only be for other youngsters to read. This is not always the case, and for me many of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘young adult’ stories can and ought to be enjoyed by youngsters of all ages.

It is also sometimes assumed that fantasy is a lesser genre than more mainstream novels. I don’t accept that needs to be so, and the author herself has made clear that to dismiss fantasy as escapist is a mistaken attitude. The best fantasy has as much to say about the human condition as more literary examples, and Jones’ fantasy mostly falls into this category. Add to that the fact that Jones attended lectures by Tolkien at Oxford (he mumbled a lot, apparently) as well as C S Lewis and then this series of four related fantasy novels deserves to be given more consideration.

The first three of the Dalemark Quartet were published in the 1970s, with the first two published in North America as Volume 1 nearly thirty years later. As Cart and Cwidder happens more or less contemporaneously with Drowned Ammet it made sense to have the two titles combined in one, as the publishers Greenwillow did back in 2005 (though just the former title is considered here). The action takes place in a land wracked by civil war between north and south, in which Jones’ young heroes and heroines must make their precarious way.

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#Narniathon21: the Lost Prince

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Esteemed Narniathoners, we are now at the halfway point in our readalong of the Chronicles of Narnia. The Silver Chair (1953) is the fourth published title in the septad of titles C S Lewis set in his portal world although, chronologically speaking, it’s actually the penultimate story.

You will, by now, have hopefully read The Silver Chair but, if not, never fear! It’s never too late to complete it and return here to add your comments.

As is usual, in this #Narniathon21 post I shall pose three general questions to get you started on a discussion — but of course it’s not compulsory to answer them! Feel free to state your thoughts or respond to others who’ve expressed themselves, for this is yet another tale rich with images, ideas and emotions. And don’t forget to link to your own posts and reviews.

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Deserving more fantasy fans

knot
© C A Lovegrove

The Spellcoats
in the Dalemark Quartet
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Oxford University Press 2005 (1979)

A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey down a river in flood to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.

The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told.

We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction — which, as you all know, is defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’ — a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published.

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A skein of tales

Celtic head, Newport church, Pembrokeshire © C A Lovegrove

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi:
Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi
by Sioned Davies.
Gomer Press, 1993.

Four medieval native tales from Wales, known collectively as the Mabinogi, have rather remarkably survived for a millennium in two codices compiled somewhat later. Each tale in the quartet is known as a bough or branch (keinc, in Modern Welsh cainc) suggesting they derive from a common narrative tradition.

Sioned Davies, who was later to provide a readable  English translation of The Mabinogion, long established as the extended collection of medieval Welsh tales, offered us here a translation and adaptation of her 1989 Welsh essay on the Four Branches; it proves, for those whose familiarity with Welsh — such as myself — is as best very rusty, an extremely useful companion.

What are the tales about? Why should they still be read? And who wrote them? These and a few more exercise the minds of many, whether or not they are Welsh speakers, scholars, or merely lovers of story. Having long studied medieval narrative Dr Davies is in a good position to offer some solutions, but as any academic knows we can never give definitive answers, not while there is more research to do.

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Pilgrims and proselytisers

Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio, by Abraham Ortelius (ca 1570): the ghost terrain St Brendan’s Isle is marked bottom left.

Lives of the Saints.
The Voyage of St Brendan;
Bede: Life of Cuthbert;
Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid.
Trnslated with an introduction by J F Webb.
Penguin Classics, 1970 (1965)

Three insular saints —  a sixth-century Irish abbot, two seventh-century English clerics — form an interesting contrast in this trio of hagiographies translated from the Latin. By far the bulk of the text deals with the lives of English saints Cuthbert and Wilfrid, both composed in the eighth century CE by named authors, but at the head of this collection is the curious Navigatio which I personally find more interesting and which will be the main focus of this review.

All three narratives — two being true hagiographies or vitae sanctorum, while the navigatio is really a fantasy travelogue — are full of miracles and homilies, designed to encourage belief and strengthen faith but, beneath accounts of devils being cast out, the dead being restored to life, and hermits being sustained for years solely by spring water, one can discern historical facts and chronological events, all attesting to growing religious influence in the early medieval period.

But in addition to all that is the sense of two different cultures, one Celtic and the other Anglo-Saxon, struggling for primacy on these islands on the northwestern fringes of Europe, cultures that were outward-looking while also closely connected with their continental neighbours.

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The Utter East: #Narniathon21

Illustration by Pauline Baynes

“Where sky and water meet, | Where the waves grow sweet … | There is the utter East.”

Chapter Two

I promised I’d discuss some of the possible influences on C S Lewis’s conception of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. You may remember that this instalment in The Chronicles of Narnia featured a journey by sea eastwards, ostensibly on a quest to locate seven missing Telmarine lords but which stopped at the World’s End before reaching Aslan’s country.

It is generally accepted that Lewis’s own Christianity played a large part in the symbolic import of the story: with Aslan as a parallel to Christ where else would he be found than in an Eden-like place to the east? That this would require some form of pilgrimage towards the dawn seems to be implied in Matthew’s gospel:

For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

Matthew 24:27, King James Version

But Lewis framed his Narnian pilgrimage to the east not as a trek but as a journey by sea; and he drew on a variety of exemplars from mythology, literature and history for the form and detail of his children’s fantasy. In this extended essay I want to mention a few of the concepts that fed into Lewis’s fictional odyssey.

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When the hurly-burly’s done

Generated by a text to image app

Witches Abroad
by Terry Pratchett.
A Discworld novel,
Corgi Books 1992 (1991).

‘They must have witches here,’ said Magrat. ‘Everywhere has witches. You’ve got to have witches abroad. You find witches everywhere.’

Three witches meet, not on a blasted heath but by a blinking swamp. Rather than concocting their own cauldron stew they sup a gumbo cooked up by a voodoo witch. And instead of prophesying to a would-be monarch they try and thwart another witch’s nefarious plans to gain power by controlling stories.

I like a bit of metafiction, especially metafiction that hides itself in plain sight. Witches Abroad is a novel that plays with the relationship between stories and being human, even if the author’s humans are denizens of the Discworld; and while spinning a yarn about individuals who want to manipulate narrative tropes for personal gain Pratchett’s well aware that he’s doing the very same himself.

This is a story about stories. Or what it really means to be a fairy godmother. But it’s also, particularly, about reflections and mirrors.

And now to the story.

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Dawn-treading: #Narniathon21

Everhardus Koster: Viking ships on the river Thames (1847)

The Dutch artist Everhardus Koster, who died in 1892, in 1847 painted a fanciful picture of Viking ships in the river Thames. This being a while before any sleek clinker-built Viking era vessels were scientifically excavated Koster’s imagined ships appear somewhat clunky, but at least they feature the familiar square sail and single mast, together with the animal head prows we know from the Oseberg longboat (a serpent’s head ornament found with other detached animal-head posts) and from depictions of Norman ships on the Bayeux tapestry.

What I find interesting though is the fact that their appearance closely resembles the illustrations that Pauline Baynes drew for C S Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952).

In this post for #Narniathon21 I want to say a bit about the sea journey undertaken by the Dawn Treader (this name somehow feels typical as a kenning for a ship of the early medieval period in Northern Europe); but I want to leave the kinds of sources and influences Lewis very likely drew on for his narrative to a later post.

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