#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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The last flight

Waterstone’s bookshop, Edinburgh (photo: C A Lovegrove)

I’ve just got thirteen titles left on my original Classics Club list of fifty classics I opted to read in, um, the Cretaceous period and which I subsequently revised to exclude books I never would read. About half of these would be rereads (RR) of works I read before this century, with at least one example — Kipling’s Kim — first completed way more than a half-century ago!

Here are those 13 laggards, in author alphabetical order.

  1. Petronius Arbiter: The Satyricon RR
  2. Frances Hodgson Burnett: A Little Princess
  3. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist RR
  4. George Eliot: Middlemarch
  5. Hermann Hesse: The Glass Bead Game RR
  6. Charles Kingsley: Hypatia
  7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim RR
  8. D H Lawrence: The Princess and other stories
  9. Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince
  10. L M Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables
  11. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast
  12. Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer RR
  13. Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto RR

A fair old mish-mash this, with children’s classics, short stories, a couple of Gothick romances, a statesman’s handbook, tales set in the Roman Empire, and a couple or so written when Britain still had its own ill-gotten empire. Where to start on that final flight of literary stairs?

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#Narniathon21: Back to Narnia

© C A Lovegrove

Narniathoners! Here we are again, with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy back on Narnia soil, called back by the sounding of Susan’s horn. But all is not as it should be, is it, as the Pevensie children soon find out after emerging from a thicket.

Our Narniathon now takes us to the second of C S Lewis’s chronicles, Prince Caspian, published in 1951 a year after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As before I shall pose three general questions which you can answer or evade, depending on what you may want to say.

And as ever, feel free to to share here and elsewhere on social media your thoughts or your reviews, your favourite quotes or your photos, remembering to include the hashtag #Narniathon21 to let like-minded readers in on it all.

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The Ents of Entwood

Bluebell wood near Crickhowell, Wales © C A Lovegrove

Among the hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs and men in Middle-earth which readers now take for granted in The Lord of the Rings strides an even more curious figure: the guardian (‘herdsman’ or ‘shepherd’, as he’s referred to) of the trees of Fangorn forest, whose own name, synonymous with the woodland, translates as Treebeard.

How we picture him may owe much to the Peter Jackson film trilogy (2001-3) from the turn of the century, while older cinema fans may remember Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of Treebeard (1978); but the fact is that however differently these image-makers have depicted him, even Tolkien himself wasn’t initially clear about either Treebeard’s appearance or even role.

So it’s a shock to find that he was first revealed to Tolkien as an evil figure in league with Saruman, and then when we first meet him in the published text to discover he may have an appearance which depends as much on the reader’s imagination as on film directors’ visions.

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Big issues

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve noticed an interesting trend — if trend it is — in my reading of late, and it is this. Many of the titles I’ve  consciously or unconsciously chosen seem to have an ‘issue’ at their heart, whether racism, feminism, authoritarianism, environmentalism or some other pressing concern.

Sometimes there’s more than one of these, implicit or explicit, expressed as a factor that one could call the ‘inciting incident’, or as an injustice simmering away till everything boils over.

So, whether the choice of title turns out to be conscious or unconscious two questions rise to my mind. One, is there a reason (or more likely, are there reasons) for this to be the case, if it hasn’t always been so; second, is it a trend other bloggers have noticed?

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Told what to think

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Prefaces. Introductions. Forewords. They’re helpful, aren’t they, when they’re designed to give you an inkling of what’s in store, to whet your appetite for what’s to come. A bit like a extended blurb, maybe to give a bit of context to the work, or a potted history of the author. Useful stuff.

Except when they’re not. When they prove to be dull as ditchwater with extraneous material, or when you’re faced with egregious spoilers, or — if written by a third party — they prove to be principally about … the third party.

Above all, I hate it when introductions basically tell you what to think, to get you to form an opinion of a text which you haven’t yet read. Is there anything more annoying than arriving at a novel with a prejudice formed before the very first sentence, even if planted there with good intentions?

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Epilegomena

Sign welcoming visitors to Hay-on-Wye © C A Lovegrove

Prolegomenon

Despite my plan to discard books
(which then are destined, once completed,
for recycling) few spare nooks
are now appearing. Seems I’ve treated
this most worthy fine endeavour
not as fiercely as I sought to,
buying books as fast as ever,
not One In, One Out as ought to.

Epilegomena

The Ancient Greek for ‘things that have been chosen’ — epilegomena — applies to my outsize book collection, each title selected because, once upon a time, they somehow appealed, every one for which I entertained the intention of eventually reading. Yet a recent visit to nearby Hay-on-Wye — the World’s First Book Town — plus a trip to Bristol for babysitting duties found me in ensconced in bookshops behaving like a child in a sweetshop, a youngster whose eyes inevitably prove larger than their stomach’s capacity.

This of course is a litany you’ve heard me chant before, a psalm that has grown tedious in the repetition. Is there a worthy reason — or even an excuse — for this compulsive behaviour, or is it sheer greed that accounts for this seeming avaricious acquisition?

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Aperçus

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Just because a book is written by a woman or is about women doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer men. It opens their eyes to what it’s like to live as a woman, the first step to learning empathy. And it may help to burst the bubble many men have been inadvertently living in, allowing new thoughts and insights to germinate. Isn’t that what the arts are for?

M A Sieghart

In the Guardian Review for 10th July earlier this year Mary Ann Sieghart’s piece ‘Bookshelf bias’ quite rightly bemoaned the results of a research she’d commisioned which showed that “men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman,” and that of the “top ten of bestselling female authors only 19% of their readers are men,” the rest being women, while male authors had a more evenly split readership tilted slightly towards males.

I mention this because as a male I have in recent years been trying to ensure I get a better gender balance in the authored books I tend to read. This year, for example, of the 54 titles I’ve read so far 27 are by women and one is a collection of short stories by both male and female writers. And my intentions in so doing were for the very same reason Sieghart exhorts men to read women: to learn empathy. This then is the first bookish aperçu I want to share with you today.

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Writer’s block

© C A Lovegrove

I’ve just read and reviewed a novel which centred around an author who struggled to follow on from a successful first novel. He was offered a strategy to help deal with his writer’s block: write two thousand words of any old nonsense at set intervals. In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy this seems to have worked for him.

This fictional premise reminded me of an incident in the 1960s when I was in my teens. Around the age of sixteen and inspired by Treasure Island I began a novel set in 18th-century Bristol, having done some desultory research by cycling round the city’s historic sites. Unfortunately my parents got hold of the unfinished first chapter and made some really patronising comments, as a result of which I abandoned all attempts to write any fiction. That is, until I joined a creative writing class in my late 60s.

You’d think all those exercises I wrote — they eventually led to a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University — would have stood me in good stead, and that the sluicegate holding back all those imaginative juices would have been opened—but no. Instead I pour all my energies into blog post after blog post—reviews and such—perhaps in the firm belief that I’m still learning the craft from the masters.

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Urban gorilla war

Christmas Steps, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

[After Fire and Hemlock] I then started, immediately, to write Archer’s Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter’s night and discovered a baby. It is all very well my books coming true on me—it is a risk I take—but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’

Most if not all authors include bits of themselves, their lives, their family and friends in their novels, and that’s what often adds authenticity to their narratives and a sense of verisimilitude. That applies as much—if not more so—to fantasy as to contemporary fiction, but if authors find true life imitating fiction it can be disconcerting, to say the least.

Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Archer’s Goon (1984) has so much busy-ness about it that, outside a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps a discussion of its physical setting would be a good starting point, because after that the characters and the themes can be placed like pieces and moves on a gameboard.

The author spent a good many decades in the English town of Bristol until her death in 2011 and this novel, like a few other novels of hers — such as Deep Secret (1997), The Homeward Bounders (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985) — features aspect of Bristol in its topography and placenames. As it happens, she has borrowed a good many street names for her unnamed town which, as an ex-Bristolian myself, I have walked and know well. So the first part of this spoiler-filled post will start with places, and then I shall go on to discuss a little (or maybe a lot) about people and themes. The curious names encountered — Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus — refer to seven sibling magicians whose names will crop up later in the discussion. I shall also be mentioning Howard Sykes and his sister Awful — real name Anthea — who play central roles in most of the action when drawn into conflict with the enchanters.

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Stopping places

Tree of Life stained glass window design after Louis Tiffany

In my series Talking Tolkien I’ve looked at several motifs that have occurred to me so far during my sixth read of The Lord of the Rings. I’ve discussed the place of allegory, Tolkien’s use of colour, morality in the trilogy, and the One Ring. I’ve also looked at the significance of locations, in particular crossing places and portals.

I now want to consider stopping places, those places where Frodo and his companions, and certain others, stay for a time during the course of The Fellowship of the Ring. In a there-and-back journey such as the hobbits undertake there will be many rests taken, in the open, in overnight camps or rough shelters, but temporary stops are not what I want to discuss; instead I shall compare and contrast the places designed for respite, rest and recuperation between Hobbiton and the Rauros Falls, where the fellowship breaks up.

These locations will by and large feature habitations, whether in buildings or in woodland settings. Some will prove extremely dangerous, and the travellers will often only survive by the skin of their teeth; but in the main the places of safety will be shown to be where several days may be spent and plans laid almost ignoring the urgency of the mission.

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Archipelagos and islets

Burgh Island, Devon. © C A Lovegrove

Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.

In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.

I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)

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Through the portal

© C A Lovegrove

I’m in the Mines of Moria for the sixth time — literature-wise rather than literally — just after crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, and I thought this might be a good moment to consider the function of Middle-earth’s portals which Tolkien introduces us to, not just in The Lord of the Rings but also The Hobbit.

In this short (?) essay I’d like to particularly consider the doors and gates leading into and out of the ground — entrances and exits such the door at Bag End, the Side-Door to Erebor the Lonely Mountain, and the Doors of Durin on the west of the Misty Mountains. There will be other examples which will rate mentions but readers will recall certain of these hold great significance for the journeys undertaken by hobbits.

I also want to consider a few motifs that Tolkien borrowed from elsewhere to fashion his underground portals and how they may have influenced him. Hopefully I will identify the keys to help unlock the mysteries of these barriers, but in doing so I give fair warning: spoilers lie ahead.

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Precious, my precious

“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”

Gollum

The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.

In my continuing read of The Lord of the Rings for my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:

“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”

Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’

And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.

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When two wrongs make a right

I’ve now resumed my reread of The Lord of the Rings with Book II in The Fellowship of the Ring and it’s time to talk about another aspect of the saga: morality. Not in a theological sense, however, but related to Latin mores (in the sense of social norms) — and then I want to link everything to the so-called just world hypothesis or, if you prefer, the just world fallacy.

As I will try to argue, the narrative in The Lord of the Rings can be seen to operate on these two levels: from the viewpoint of the hobbits different social norms (or the lack of them) apply to the different peoples of Middle-earth, but Tolkien also implies that his secondary world is also a just world, chiefly through the sayings and counsels of individuals like Gandalf and Elrond but also in the way that events pan out.

As is fitting I shall be referencing some established scholars who’ve covered this ground before me, but will also attempt to give my own spin on it all; whether I’ll have anything really new to say remains to be seen.

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