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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.)
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 Ringsbut 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.
“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”
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 Ringsfor 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.
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.
River fords are hugely symbolic as crossing places. Think of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea out of Egypt or equally the River Jordan into the Promised Land. Though the crossing may sometimes be done without getting one’s feet wet — by boat or over a bridge — the physical act of wading through on foot or on horseback often holds a psychological significance.
The end of Book I of The Fellowship of the Ring has Frodo fording the River Bruinen, not only putting distance between him and the Black Riders but marking the prelude to them being swept away, rather like Pharaoh’s army by the Red Sea waters. Such crossings by the hobbits are frequent in The Lord of the Rings, whether the Water on which Hobbiton sits, or the ferry across the Brandywine, or tricksy streams like the Withywindle; they almost always signify passing the point of no return as well as an attempt to leave some danger behind.
In this post, the latest of of my Talking Tolkien discussions for my sixth LOTR reread, I want to look at how Tolkien begins to structure Frodo’s journey and quest. This will only be a partial examination of course because the little party has so far just come a sixth of the way through the narrative.
Rarely has a review of mine generated so much commentary or so many viewings; and even more rarely has so much bile been directed to it and, by extension, to me. That review I entitled ‘Unreadable nonsense‘, a critique of a pseudohistorical publication pretending to have identified not just one but two candidates for King Arthur.
It provoked a range of responses, from readers agreeing with my assessments through to commentators prepared to politely disagree, and on to fanatical supporters of the book’s authors, many of whom share a common inability to answer criticism with any degree of logic. It is the comments from this third cohort I want to discuss here because they seem to me to exemplify the irrational side of some individuals, the type who believe that being contrary indicates a valid antiestablishment position, regardless of how nonsensical the taking that position is.
Note, roughly half of the sixty-plus comments on that post are my answers, and the antagonistic comments number just a handful.
May the Fourth be with you! Everyone understands the joke now — even those who take it very seriously — so of course I don’t need to explain it. But isn’t every day a special day? Of course it is, and there’s a plethora of sites that tell you when National This Day or International That Day takes place. From these I discover that in the US (where else?) today, 9th May, is National Odd Sock Memorial Day, as well as National Butterscotch Brownie Day. Several countries this year also celebrate Mother’s Day on this day, though the UK follows an early religious tradition by marking it on the fourth Sunday of Lent, usually somewhere around the third week of March, around the spring equinox and the Feast of the Annunciation.
I wondered what other serious (as opposed to flippant) events were commemorated on this day. Some are literary, of course, such as the Peter Pan author, J M Barrie being born on 9th May 1860, and others are quirky, for example Colonel Thomas Blood attempting to steal Crown Jewels from the Tower of London in 1671 — 350 years ago on this date (before the change of calendar) — before being captured. His 1680 epitaph is a wonderful piece of doggerel:
Here lies the man who boldly hath run through More villainies than England ever knew; And ne’er to any friend he had was true. Here let him then by all unpitied lie, And let’s rejoice his time was come to die.
No doubt we can think of some other colourful characters who deserve a similar eulogy. However, in the spirit of positivity I want to focus on three anniversaries or commemorative days this Sunday, beginning with an event that took place exactly eighty years ago.
In my reread of The Lord of the Rings I’ve paused at the Ford of Bruinen, the ending of Book I in The Fellowship of the Ring, so I can take stock of the way I’ve come. In so doing I note that the cover of my one-volume edition features a design by John Howe of Gandalf the Grey in full flow; however my first single volume copy had a design by Pauline Baynes front and back, adapted from her earlier slipcase design for the three volumes of Tolkien’s epic, with Gandalf and the hobbits gazing out over a Middle-earth landscape as one’s first view.
What sticks out for me from both Pauline Baynes designs is the strong use of colour — the yellow-gold of the trees framing the inset images, the bold red of the title and author’s name, the greens of the Shire-like landscape on the front cover, the blue tinge of Mordor’s spiky landscape on the reverse.
Memories of those colours, along with Tolkien’s own illustrations for the third edition in 1966 of The Hobbit, drew me back to an essay I remembered reading in Mythlore, a journal focused on Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams, as well as on general fantasy and mythic studies. Did I still have it? I rummaged amongst miscellaneous papers and magazines I’d brought with me over at least three house moves, and there it was, Mythlore 26, Winter 1981, Volume 7, No 4. I dived straight in.
You know how I keep rabbiting on about avoiding overcommitting to reading events? Well, it appears I’m a bit of a recidivist because, despite it being six months in the future I going to join in a meme run by Kaggsy and Simon.
I’d enjoyed taking a little while out of my then reading schedule to fit in a Lovecraft short story for the 1936Club at the very last moment. Now they’ve given notice of the 1976 Club to run from 11th to 17th October and I think with a bit of judicious planning I can just about sque-e-eze a few titles into that week.
And it turns out that I’ve already read and even reviewed quite a number of titles published some forty-five years ago.
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.