“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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“Kind to his fellow creatures”

Andrew Crosse and his drawing of an acarus he noted during experiments on minerals

Peter Haining: The Man Who Was Frankenstein
Frederick Muller 1979

A review I read nearly forty years ago of Peter Dickinson’s The Flight of Dragons mentioned how the author used scholasticism, biology and chemistry “to prove how dragons could have physically existed, breathed fire, and flown.” This put me in mind of a discussion of dragon legends in the Quantock Hills of Somerset where, of at least nine dragons mentioned, only one breathed fire: the dragon of Kingston St Mary. Peter Haining’s The Man Who Was Frankenstein suggested to me why this might be so.

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Return of the shadow

Still from Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

“[The] shadow is that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors. [It] can now be ascertained on closer investigation that the unconscious man, that is his shadow, does not consist only of morally reprehensible tendencies, but also displays a number of good qualities …” — Carl Jung (1963)

Ursula Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
in The Earthsea Quartet, Puffin Books 1993

When I first read A Wizard of Earthsea (this is now my third read) I almost believed magic could exist, just as I had when I was a child. Le Guin’s words themselves wove a spell — it takes a special skill to make such art appear artless — and I could credit an adept affecting local weather, imagine I, shaman-like, could transform into a bird of prey, even converse with dragons … if they existed. Yet the magic that gripped me most was the terrifying moment when the newly apprenticed wizard conjured up a nameless shadow. Nameless, shadow — what else speaks to our most basic fears than something we can’t identify that manifests in our peripheral vision?

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A witch’s trial

The Uffington White Horse (as it appeared in 1892)

Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
Corgi 2012 (2004)

We’re all familiar with Alice going through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world, a world where she is able to look at things in a different way. Unexpectedly, Alice makes no attempt to find her own reflection: “The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one.” For a child who could make the observation “Curiouser and curiouser!” she is singularly incurious about her own reflection; perhaps she is not as prone to self-reflection as we have thought.

This is not the case however with the heroine of this Terry Pratchett novel when she finds that she has no mirror in which to check her appearance, for when she devises a way to observe herself without one she finds she has to indulge in self-reflection of a different kind. A Hat Full of Sky is the second of the Tiffany Aching novels, set on Discworld. We not only get to meet the Nac Mac Feegles, Granny Weatherwax and lesser witch Miss Tick all over again but also to encounter new characters, especially Miss Level and her neighbours. But really the focus is Tiffany herself, how she is growing into her powers and how she’s becoming more mature (although, to be sure, she has already shown herself to the equal of many adults in maturity).

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Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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What the child’s eye saw

Edward Ardizzone illustration for The Little Bookroom (1955). More on Ardizzone at http://tweedlandthegentlemansclub.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/edward-ardizzone.html

Eleanor Farjeon: The Little Bookroom
Eleanor Farjeon’s Short Stories for Children Chosen by Herself
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press 2011 (1955)

Of all the rooms in the house, the Little Bookroom was yielded up to books as an untended garden is left to its flowers and weeds. There was no selection or sense of order here. In dining-room, study, and nursery there was choice and arrangement; but the Little Bookroom gathered to itself a motley crew of strays and vagabonds, outcasts from the ordered shelves below, the overflow of parcels bought wholesale by my father in the sales-rooms. Much trash, and more treasure. Riff-raff and gentlefolk and noblemen. A lottery, a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.

From the very start of the Author’s Note we are drawn into the world of the bookroom. I could easily quote the whole of Farjeon’s introduction, so exquisitely does it conjure up a storeroom of reading matter, and so perfectly does it fulfil the maxim that a piece can be more than the sum of its parts. The whole — twenty-seven stories succeeding the author’s note — is delightfully complemented by Edward Ardizzone’s line illustrations, a fact the author acknowledged in a 1956 poem “To Ted” included as a introduction: ‘what the child’s eye saw, through you | The ageing eye remembers.’

Twenty-seven stories, some longer, some shorter, grace this collection. Some of the titles deliberately evoke the fairytale tradition, such as ‘The Giant and the Mite’, ‘The Seventh Princess’ or ‘The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon’. Other tales can be viewed as parables (such as ‘The Lady’s Room’), fables (‘The Goldfish’), or simply enjoyed for their quiet humour (for instance ‘The Clumber Pup’ and ‘Pennyworth’). A couple or so hark back to traditional rhymes or literary pieces, riffing on phrases and names to seemingly ‘explain’ their obscurities (‘Leaving Paradise’ and ‘Pannychis’, for example).

Whatever their form many have a bittersweet melancholy that reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson’s offerings or a Wilde fairytale, though a little gentler perhaps. Several pieces stick in my mind. ‘The Connemara Donkey’ though set in an early 20th-century England speaks of the traditional belief that made-up stories can overcome any antagonism by becoming true, all seen through the eyes and ears of little Danny O’Toole. ‘The Girl Who Kissed the Peach-tree’ feels like a traditional Sicilian tale, one of a handful of tales in this collection that evince a genuine love for growing beautiful things despite a knowledge that life can be hard. Pre-echoes of this appear in the author’s own introduction to The Little Bookroom:

No servant ever came with duster and broom to polish the dim panes through which the sunlight danced, or sweep from the floor the dust of long-ago. The room would not have been the same without its dust: star-dust, gold-dust, fern-dust, the dust that returns to dust under the earth, and comes up from her lap in the shape of a hyacinth.

The best tales, in my opinion, come towards the end, and somehow evoke a deep-seated yearning for things that stretch back into time. ‘San Fairy Ann’ is a beautiful tale about the love poured into a doll and how it is paralleled in the connections that we make with other humans. ‘The Glass Peacock’ with its themes of compassion and generosity is a perfect Christmas tale, a beautiful little drama contained within a forgotten urban courtyard. And what can I say about ‘And I Dance Mine Own Child’ that does it justice? This treatment of the Patient Griselda tale-type is a worthy descendant all the way from Boccaccio via Chaucer and Thomas Dekker, muting any inherent cruelty but dwelling on a basic humanity that should never go out of fashion. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a little tear at the end of this, and that it wasn’t because dust had got into my eyes.

When I crept out of the Little Bookroom with smarting eyes, no wonder that its mottled gold-dust still danced in my brain. its silver cobwebs still clung to the corners of my mind. No wonder that many years later, when I came to write books myself, they were a muddle of fiction and fact and fantasy and truth.

Fiction and fact and fantasy and truth, yes there is that aplenty in these tales. I challenge anybody not to feel better after reading this collection, or not to resolve to act better. These are stories to remember, and reread, and cherish, so that — as with Farjeon’s own little bookroom — we will all be able to truthfully declare that “Seven maids with seven brooms, sweeping for half-a-hundred years, have never managed to clear my mind of its dust …”


February 14th is also International Bookgiving Day, when individuals give or pass on a book or three to a child to encourage them to enjoy reading. Maybe a book such as this?

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book of short stories

Final whispers from the mountain

The Sugar Loaf and Skirrid, with the sun setting in the west, from an old print

With this post I hope to complete my explorations of Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain before finally returning to Dido Twite’s continuing adventures. If you’re new to Joan Aiken’s worlds this is one of the instalments in a sequence which began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chases and which have now reached the sixth episode. If you’re new to this particular novel then here are my previous discussion posts:

1. A review.
2. Prominent themes in this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles.
3. The inhabitants of the part of Wales covered in this novel.
4. Visitors to this part of Wales.
5. The Arthurian influences in The Whispering Mountain.
6. The distinct geography of this part of Wales and how it differs from the topography of Wales in our world.

Now we come, finally, to the chronology of The Whispering Mountain. How does it fit in with the overall timeline of the Wolves Chronicles and how long does the story take to unfold? I’ve already alluded to these conundrums:

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