Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

Continue reading “Dark deeds and the Devil”

“This dismal place”

A part of Wales in the time of James III (map by Pat Marriott for The Whispering Mountain)

‘Hey, you — you there, you boy!’ The driver’s voice startled Owen by its loud, harsh, resonant tones.
‘Y-yes, sir,’ he stammered. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Is this dismal place the town of Pennygaff?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Thank God for that, at least. I’ve been traversing these hideous black hills for the best part of three hours — I wish to heaven I may never have to set foot here again!’
— Chapter I, The Whispering Mountain

With these words the wickedest man in Joan Aiken’s alternate history novel The Whispering Mountain dismisses the Welsh town of Pennygaff and, by extension, this part of Wales. In this instalment of my dissection of this Wolves Chronicle I’d like to compare and contrast the author’s vision of the Principality in James III’s time with Mid Wales as it actually is in our world. Maps and images will feature in order to give the interested reader a sense of this part of the world, and may help in judging whether it is, indeed, as dismal as the Marquess of Malyn suggests.

Continue reading ““This dismal place””

Irony and Ingenuousness

Blaise Castle
Blaise Castle folly, Henbury, Bristol

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
“By dozens.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”

Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

Continue reading “Castelophiles only”

Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”

Intimations of mortality

roch-castle-1880

Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones’ books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance request by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults? Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”