The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.
I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.
Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby, afterword by Rob Wilkins. Doubleday 2015
In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.
There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.
At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.
Comus (1634) by John Milton, edited by A W Verity. Cambridge University Press 1927 (1909)
Come, Lady, while Heaven lends us grace, Let us fly this cursed place, Lest the sorcerer us entice With some other new device.
With these words we’re taken to the nub of John Milton’s masque, which is that a wicked magician has entrapped a maiden, and that rescue may be at hand if nothing further awful happens. This is the stuff of fairytales, and we may expect a happy-ever-after ending, but this isn’t necessarily a given: after all it’s from the Stuart period, when nearly every bit of art had a political dimension, as it had been in the Tudor era.
And we may consider the audience of this intended narrative, the Earl of Bridgewater, lately ensconced in a castle on the Welsh borders where he might oversee a people possibly still uppity about being absorbed into English culture through new laws and a new official language. How would Milton bestride the fence between his Puritan leanings and the royalist sponsor it was written for?
This critical edition of the text has a certain historical value, it being more than a century old, but it still has much to say of worth, I think. Still, the play’s the thing, as another playwright wrote; and whomsoever’s conscience is caught Comus retains a certain curiosity for its poetry and for its concession to the masque genre with, admittedly, a rather sober frivolity.
So, Milton’s Comus is a masque, a curious piece of theatre to our modern sensibilities. In some ways masques are total theatre: there’s a story acted out, there are also fantastic costumes, music, dances, songs, along with visual and sound effects. Yet also there is high-flown language, and classical allusions, and frequent instances of what we’d now call virtue signalling (which may seem the whole point). And Comus has all this in abundance.
What’s the story? Comus is a sorcerer, the son of Bacchus and Circe, who has inherited his father’s debauched nature as well his mother’s skill for transforming humans into beasts. His name is from the Greek word for revelry which is one of the roots of our word ‘comedy’. When a Lady from Ludlow gets separated from her two brothers in a wood Comus tries to persuade her to swallow a potion, to no avail for she is virtuous beyond her years; her distraught brothers fortunately meet a spirit in the form of the shepherd Thyrsis who gives them a botanical charm to protect them from Comus’s wand.
However, when they rush forward to thwart the sorcerer’s design they fail to seize his wand, and so it is left for Thyrsis to invoke Sabrina, the nymph of the River Severn which flows past Ludlow Castle, to lift the stasis that keeps the Lady to her seat: she affirms that it’s “my office best to help ensnarèd chastity.” The Lady and her brothers are restored to their parents in the Castle and we are left with a dance, a song, and a moral from Milton in the guise of Thyrsis:
Mortals, that would follow me, Love Virtue: she alone is free; She can teach ye how to climb Higher than the sphery chime; Or if Virtue feeble were,Heaven itself would stoop to her.
This is a rare example of the use of trochaic tetrameter in Comus which, along with rhyming couplets is left to songs and scenes of a pastoral nature. Mostly, however, the masque consists of blank verse in iambic pentameter, as when the bespelled Lady says of Comus
I had not thought to have unlocked my lips In this unhallowed air, but that this juggler Would think to charm my judgement, as mine eyes, Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb.
Such phrases as this suits its lofty subject and its characters, since the siblings being originally acted by the sons and daughter of the Lord-Lieutenant of Wales and the Borders, namely Lord Brackley, Thomas Egerton and Lady Alice Egerton. The one and only performance took place at Ludlow Castle in the Marches, on Michaelmas Eve in 1634.
As a drama Comus is as static as the Lady’s forced entrapment in her seat, and for this reason some critics consider this as belonging with Milton’s other poems of around the same period, at a time when the phoney war preceding the English Civil War was ratcheting up. However, though Milton couldn’t help moralising (he even added improving lines to later printed editions) the fairytale framework underlying the flowery diction shines through, with jeopardy and villainy, as in any fantasy script, moving the narrative forward to its eventual resolution. In the skilled hands of a professional company Comus might even work as a modern musical, with or without the original music by Henry Lawes.
I first read this some years ago as I thought it might be a counterpart to Shakespeare’s The Tempest — both have a magician centre stage, there is a young heroine in both and the action of both takes place in an enchanted locale (one an island, the other a “wild wood”). But any resemblance is superficial: Prospero is benign, Comus malign; Miranda is rather more than an innocent pawn but the Lady is both steadfast in her virtue and determinedly assertive in the face of Comus’s importuning; and Prospero’s Isle “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not” is the obverse of Comus’s “adventurous glade”, described in the stage directions:
COMUS enters, with a charming-rod in his hand, his glass in the other; with him a rout of monsters, headed like sundry sorts of wild beasts, but otherwise like men and women, their apparel glistering: they come in making a riotous and unruly noise, with torches in their hands.
In his introduction to this edition Arthur Verity suggests a parentage for this tale of sister lost in a wood, trapped by a sorcerer and rescued by brothers, namely George Peele’s Old Wives’ Tales, the name Comus borrowed from a masque by Ben Johnson, and further details from a Dutch play called Comus written by a Puteanus. My mind went straight away, however, to the Scottish fairytale of Childe Rowland and his sister Burd Helen which, with its similar storyline involving the King of Elfland, hints at a traditional tale lost in the mists of time.
A final word about this edition is in order. Verity’s 1909 volume went through several printings before and after the First World War, attesting to its usefulness; forty pages of introduction plus notes, glossary, appendix, other critiques and an index means the student can fully immerse themself into the poem, its background and its import; and its small format means the reader can easily carry it about in order to increase their familiarity, as I have been doing.
I’ve reviewed this as a contribution to Lory’s Reading the Theatre this March; also its connections with Ludlow in the Welsh Marches make it of peripheral relevance to Paula’s Dewithon, the Welsh Readathon. More, this is a classic play from my Back to the Classics challenge, another book ticked off on my Classics Clublist and one more of my #21TBRbooksin2021
A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books / Harper Trophy 2001 (1987)
And it seemed to be true that all your life came flooding into you mind in your last moments. She thought of Mum and Dad and London and the War and Time City, and she wanted to shout at Mr Lee, Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!
Time certainly does play tricks on you; in my case I was certain I’d read this fantasy when I acquired it a decade and a half ago, but now that I’ve finished it very little seems familiar other than the initial premise. In a way, however, that’s quite appropriate for a novel about time travel in which the past is sometimes not only a different country but also not what you thought it was.
The first thing the title does is remind the reader of A Tale of Two Cities, and whether that was fortuitously arrived at or chosen from the start it does indicate that one of the themes the author intended to make use of was the trope of confused identities: young evacuee Vivian Smith escaping a London about to undergo the Blitz is of a kind with London barrister Sydney Carton during the period of the French Revolution. Dickens’ doppelgänger motif is one of a number of parallels Diana Wynne Jones plays with here, and you will note that as well as London being one of the cities of the Dickens novel there’s another city involved, Paris in one and Time City in the other: both are in turmoil from a Revolution, Time City almost literally so.
What is Time City? It’s a environment outside of time and space: its architecture takes inspiration from our own past, present and, presumably, future, and at times resembles Escher’s famous Relativity etching; and if Time itself can symbolised by a clockface, Time City is situate precisely at that infinitesimal moment represented when the clock’s hands all point to 12. Its function is to oversee Earth history, filled as it appears to be with periods both stable and unstable; meanwhile its functionaries patrol and where necessary intervene in history, tweaking events to ensure all is well. That is, however, providing that chronons — particles which destabilise time — don’t attach themselves to someone who then travels through time. Somebody like 11-year-old Vivian.
Peter Pan by J M Barrie, illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)
Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.
I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.
I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.
I was born the year before Nineteen Eighty-Fourwas published: it was doubtless written and completed during 1948, with the future date arrived at by simply reversing the final two digits. I’ve now read a couple of titles for Vintage Scifi Month but, as with 1984,Flowers for Algernon doesn’t apparently strictly doesn’t count as “vintage” because it was published in 1966, well after I was born (the rule of thumb for this “not-a-challenge”). But, luckily for me, 1898’s The War of the Worlds indeed does count, and has now been read and reviewed here.
As a matter of interest, I decided to see what did qualify as vintage SF for someone of my age. And, depending what one counts as Science Fiction, it turns out the answer is … “quite a lot”, providing one includes scientific romances, allegories and other speculative titles that seem to cross genres.
Here then is a list of what I currently estimate as a personal Vintage Scifi, calculated from a couple of online timelines of the genre: I shall be travelling backwards in time which, in the circumstances, seems quite apt.
The Snow Goose
by Paul Gallico, illustrations by Peter Scott.
Michael Joseph 1946 (1941)
This classic novella is so well known but I have to confess I’ve never got round to it until now. Yet it was worth the wait to enjoy this little offering of bittersweetness, a story with one foot in fable and the other in fact, to relish the natural world it celebrates and the poetic language it’s couched in.
Published eight decades ago in 1941, amidst the dark days of war and threatened invasion, The Snow Goose is set in a specified time and place but also retains a universal appeal, talking as it does about local suspicions and latent love, about conflicts and about kindness.
It also has the ring of authenticity in being inspired by real places and people and events, and while clearly highly fictionalised there is a kind of truth about it that becomes almost mythic.
The War of the Worlds by H G Wells.
— ‘Evolution and Ethics in The War of the Worlds‘ by John Huntingdon (1982).
Penguin English Library 2012 (1898)
And before we judge of [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
Though we’d rightly take issue with the narrator’s term “inferior races” for the Tasmanians, he is correct to refer to genocide as one atrocity among many that humans have long visited on populations, along with species extermination. Throughout Wells’s alien invasion story he constantly has the narrator compare the Martians’ treatment of humans with our lack of concern for social insects like ants, bees and wasps, or gets him to comment on the belief that animals are only useful when treated as a food source.
But The War of the Worlds isn’t only framed as a moral tract (the narrator identifies himself as a speculative philosopher): it pretends to be a journalistic first-hand account of a few weeks in June in the last decade of the 19th century, from the first intimations of activity on Mars to the arrival of the supposed vanguard of a colonising force, the devastation of the hub of a global empire, and finally the defeat of the aggressors by the humblest of terrestrial allies, microbes.
Yet Wells is also having fun with his apocalyptic scenario as described by his unreliable narrator, and even while he includes scenes of horror and of wanton destruction and death he’s alert to his story’s satiric impact.
There’s a meme going around under the heading of 21 books in 2021 — and I’m very tempted to adapt it for my own purposes as yet another prompt to guide my reading. I’ve already decided on a number of other prompts to take me month by month (or season by season) through the year, so you’d think I’d have enough by now to get on with. So did I until an anniversary hoved into view.
Today marks three years since the untimely death of Ursula Le Guin and I’ve realised that I have one of my periodic yearnings to revisit her worlds. I’ve therefore been trying to decide whether to reread one of her novels (as I did recently with Orsinian Tales and Rocannon’s World) or to tackle a title new to me (such as Malafrena, The Eye of the Heron or Four Ways to Forgiveness). Or indeed whether to go for both options.
And then I thought of how I might in fact use this meme: in amongst all my other prompts I’d not calculated how to create space on my bookshelves for any new tomes, so why not formulate my own twist for this twelvemonth, when lockdown has knocked down any physical bookshop browsing? I present to you … 21 TBR Books in 2021.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.