At one’s convenience

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The Witch of Clatteringshaws is a last crazy jig of a book, a plum pudding of Aiken history and humour, whose wise men include a Fool, of course, and a talking parrot who everyone ignores throughout at their cost.

There are prehistoric monsters alongside Celtic saints, invading armies who become the backbone of an emerging nation, Kings who win their battles with games where no one dies, and the long suffering Dido Twite, ever indefatigable in defence of her fellow orphans, and now in the person of Malise another, unassuming heroine who wishes she had the words to save the world.

Lizza Aiken, ‘Joan Aiken’s Farewell’ on JoanAiken.wordpress.com

My own review of the last ever title in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, The Witch of Clatteringshaws, is now followed by the customary series of discussion posts, on people and places, timelines and themes.

Today, the day after the midwinter solstice, I will start a dramatis personae of the characters who appear and as usual it will be a prosopography, a study of an individual’s role, personality, and relationships; and — this title being of course a fiction — it will include speculation about their names and/or origins.

I start with the title character, the Witch herself, who appears virtually at the start in the Prologue when we read of her writing a letter to her cousin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, from a Ladies Convenience overlooking a Scottish loch. (Immediately you will have spotted that this is no ordinary alternative historical fiction, but uses seemingly anachronistic effects to confound expectations.) I’ll also be looking at a couple of the other protagonists in this post.

As ever there’s a big red warning triangle for SPOILERS.

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Chosen by myth

Mow Cop Castle (built 1754)

Red Shift
by Alan Garner.
Collins Lion Track 1975 (1973).

I see in my mind’s eye an exposed cliff which has been riven by some past cataclysm: strata from different periods composed of contrasting materials now sit side by side, yet they belong to the same cliff face. In such a way Alan Garner’s Red Shift presents to my imagination: three stories from different eras cleaving together in one extraordinary narrative.

Shifting from the present (Cheshire in the seventies) to the English Civil War in the same part of the world, or to a remnant of the Ninth Legion trying to go native among the Cornovii tribe in the second century CE, the novel slowly reveals how different people in different timelines can somehow be linked by a number of strands: topographical sites, artefact, geology, astronomy, a mythic tale.

As with many Garner novels the book is intensely personal. A native of Cheshire with local family roots stretching back centuries, he sets great store by a sense of place and by objects suffused with age, tradition or ritual. But he also features troubled characters in protagonist roles, a reflection of his own mental struggles over the years, all of which go towards ensuring his narratives have a firm substratum of authenticity and truth.

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Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis
by Michael Ward.
Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God.

Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

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The end of the line

Joan Aiken 1924-2004

The Witch of Clatteringshaws
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox 2006 (2005).

Malise is the District Witch of Clatteringshaws, sometime in the 1840s of a Caledonia not of this world. She almost held the key to who was to be the monarch after the death of King Richard IV, if only she hadn’t been distracted by a tune composed by Dido Twite’s father. And if that last piece of a puzzle isn’t recovered, Dido’s friend Simon won’t be fully convinced he need not be King any longer.

This, then, is one facet of the final instalment of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, a series which ran to a dozen or more titles and which this novella, even in its seemingly truncated form, attempts more or less successfully to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.

But, as with each and every episode, the story is like a intricate mosaic: seen in a cursory way from a distance it presents a strong image with a narrative, but when examined closely its tesellated pieces give hints of different materials and unexpected relationships.

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Ring cycles

© C A Lovegrove

As I proceed on my journey through Frodo’s Middle-earth — currently well into The Two Towers — it’s time to take up the metaphorical pen again as part of my #TalkingTolkien series in this, my sixth reread of The Lord of the Rings. As I approach the halfway mark — the end of Book 3 which signals the midway point of the second volume — a few more things strike me about how Tolkien paces and structures his work.

I’ve talked before about Portals, about Crossing Places and Stopping Places signposting significant points in the narrative. At some stage I want to talk about landscapes in more detail, for example how each book so far includes a mysterious woodland or forest at its heart with its odd denizens: Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the Old Forest, Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien, and Treebeard in Fangorn.

But right now I want to consider how The Lord of the Rings appears to incorporate a number of so-called basic plots; while the author’s use of interlacing stories offer a kind of covering garment, archetypal plots appear to provide the scaffolding on which the fabric hangs.

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#WitchWeek2021 Day 3: Intrigue in the Elflands

Map of Ethurevaz, after Sarah Monette

This year’s host looks at a (so far) two-book series by fantasy author Sarah Monette, here writing as Katherine Addison

Intrigue in the Elflands:
Katherine Addison’s Ethuveraz
Chris Lovegrove

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor was a near instant hit when it was published back in 2014, but the reasons of its success weren’t easily discernable at first sight: nothing much seemed to happen, there was a lot about courtly etiquette, a murder mystery was solved — off-camera as it were — and the protagonist initially appeared to have little or no agency.

Seven years later a sort of sequel, The Witness for the Dead, was set in the same world — Ethuveraz, the Elflands — except now in a provincial city with a different though equally diffident protagonist, threaded through with multiple strands and a key murder mystery to solve. As with its predecessor it’s hard at first sight to work out how its low-key approach might hold readers’ attentions and appreciation, but hold them it largely does.

Another prominent aspect to both novels, one that is pertinent to this year’s Witch Week theme, is the incidence of conspiracies, treason and plots: states like Ethuveraz and Barizhan, inhabited respectively by elves and goblins, are no less susceptible to these intrigues than those with humans; these being gaslamp fantasies — fictions set in some fog-shrouded late Victorian metropolis or other — Ethuveraz in particular could just as easily be a country on the fringes of Europe as in another world.

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Witch Week: the fuse is lit

Please to remember
the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.

Traditional rhyme

Welcome, one and all, to this year’s Witch Week which as you can see features the theme Treason and Plot.

Newbies might not know that the origin of this event, now run by Lizzie Ross and myself, stems from Lory Widmer Hess (Entering the Enchanted Castle) being inspired by a Diana Wynne Jones fantasy called Witch Week, the narrative of which ran from 31st October to November 5th—in other words, from Halloween to Bonfire Night.

Bonfire Night in the UK marks the anniversary of when conspirator Guy Fawkes was caught in 1605 ready to blow up Parliament with gunpowder, so it’s apt that we don’t forget conspiracy as a theme for our week as well as our frequent past focus on witchery.

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Loving and hating

Mount Hood reflected in Mirror Lake, Oregon

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia McKillip,
Introduction by Pat Cadigan (2015).
Fantasy Masterworks,
Gollancz 2014 (1974).

For a novel written in her early twenties, Patricia McKillip’s award-winning fantasy is extraordinarily nuanced, with well-developed characters to the fore and the magical aspects only playing a supportive role. For this is a story of primal human emotions, of love and hate, of self-knowledge and fear, where even the ‘forgotten beasts’ of the title have human feelings. And individual wants and needs decide outcomes that affect many, whether for good or bad, in a world created from memories and echoes of ancient myths, legends and lore.

Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards, from Heald through Myk and Ogam. Her particular skill is ‘calling’, drawing beasts and humans to her and subtly bending their will to hers. This is a dangerous power to wield, and one that demands great responsibility; when we see her, either aged 16 or 28, it is a talent the ethics of with she still has to wrestle with.

In her mountain fastness within Eldwold, with her beasts around her, she can pretty much please herself, calling for another legendary beast and studying her library of magical books. But when the outside world comes calling in the form of a young warrior bearing a child, she has to balance her own desires with the reasonable and unreasonable demands of politics and power.

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Worlds of possibility

‘River Landscape with the Church of SS Giovanni e Paolo, Rome’ by Jan Asselijn

Our world is only one of a number of alchemically conceivable worlds.

Book Two, ‘Woman with Mandoline in Sunlight’

In The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss (1976) we are given a portrait of an early modern Mediterranean city state, but one in which not homo sapiens but homo saurus is the dominant life form.

The author’s extraordinary vision envisages, in the words of the narrator-protagonist’s father, just one of many “other worlds of possibility”, and produces for our mind’s eye a series of tableaux of the landscapes and cityscapes the peoples of homo saurus stock inhabit, environments which are both like and yet unlike the ones we might be familiar with.

In preparation for a review (and very possibly another discussion post) I want to examine some of the real places Aldiss may have been inspired by in his creation of the maritime entrepôt that is Malacia.

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Kingsley’s riddle

Linley Sambourne
Linley Sambourne

The Water-Babies:
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)

The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:

Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.

Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.

This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.

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Echoes and anticipations

Detail from Sutton Hoo helmet © C A Lovegrove

Yet the apparently casual form of the interlace is deceptive; it actually has a very subtle kind of cohesion. No part of the narrative can be removed without damage to the whole, for within any given section there are echoes of previous parts and anticipations of later ones.

Richard C West, ‘The Interlace Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘.

As I start The Two Towers in my latest reread of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings I come to the fact that a fellowship of nine — consisting of hobbits, men, wizard, elf and dwarf — which the author has so carefully put together and taken through various vicissitudes, is now scattered almost literally to the four winds.

Why, a third of the way through his epic fantasy, does he deliberately unravel a plait that he has woven together out of various strands, the timelines of our nine individuals? Is it because, as we will soon intuit, he wants to replait these threads into a bigger whole?

An interpretation which has increasingly won favour in recent years — that Tolkien structured his narrative using interlace technique — serves us well enough in considering the apparent splintering of the plotline, and why any dismay felt by the innocent reader only makes sense when seen as part of a bigger plan.

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From whimsy to saga

winged

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien.
George Allen & Unwin (3rd edition 1972)

Wizard at the door?
Twelve dwarves too? You’ll be telling
me a dragon’s next!
I must have spent my childhood and adolescence skim-reading most of the literature I was introduced to, gaining impressionist pictures of those works but missing much of the subtlety of language, characterisation and narrative. Having taken it on myself in recent years to begin re-reading those books with more attentiveness The Hobbit seemed a natural choice.
Rather than merely summarising what must be one of the most familiar tales in modern fantasy I’ve opted to discuss the personal insights that this re-reading suggested to me.

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Bridgebuilding

imperial_sofa_topkapi
Interior of the Imperial Hall (Hünkar Sofası) at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul (by Gryffindor)

The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Tor Books 2014.

When readers whose judgement you trust recommend this novel and even go as far as re-reading it within a short space of time you know there is something special about it.

And yet what on the surface of it makes it outstanding? It’s fantasy, yes — the title suggests as much — and there’s worldbuilding, and there’s the disregarded child who’s an orphan, and there are seemingly unpronounceable names, everything in fact that screams at the lover of contemporary novels to pass over this book. And I too, who ordinarily enjoys fantasy, am one who tends to put a book back on the bookshop pile when faced with a cast list of — it feels like — thousands, all with alien names.

So I have to ask myself then why I found this such an unputdownable title, and then perhaps attempt to persuade you to give it a try.

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Once and Future

There and Back Again Lane, Clifton, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

Archer’s Goon
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1984).

Written and published during the Reagan-Thatcher years, when it felt as though some of the world at least was taking a dangerous lurch towards an confrontational and authoritarian triumphalism, Archer’s Goon explores some of that state of affairs in what presents merely as children’s fantasy.

It’s 1983, and the Sykes family find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy of squabbling siblings who plan to ‘farm’ the world; can Quentin Sykes, the father and a struggling author, stand up against the malevolent forces who besiege the family house and seek to use the power of the written word for nefarious purposes?

Or is the situation more complex than at first appears, and will the Sykes’ household of parents, son, daughter and student lodger each find they have a role to play, where their decisions and actions have unexpected consequences and their relationships be revealed as contrary to appearances?

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#Narniathon21 notice

Narniathon21 design based on a Pauline Baynes image

A little earlier than promised comes this announcement for a Narniathon, following the polls I conducted on this post.

As of the first week of July, the overwhelming majority of those who replied were in favour of a readalong of the Chronicles of Narnia. Not only that but almost all of you wanted to start at the end of 2021, rather than next year.

And finally, few were in favour of reading the series in chronological order, some didn’t mind, but most were for publication order. So here’s the beginning of a plan!

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