Beginnings

Oliver Tobias Arthur of the Britons, broadcast by HTV in 1972

“Never judge a book by its cover, except if it’s a Jeffrey Archer”
— Traditional saying

If, when looking for a good read, we have already been attracted by a title or author or blurb, then that first opening sentence is crucial — especially in an age of channel-hopping, soundbites and eight-second attention spans. Have you switched off yet?

As with all specialist literature, Arthurian prose literature should predispose the sympathetic reader to read on, not move on. Here, for that reader, is the beginning of the classic example of that literature, from the fifteenth century:

Hit befel in the dayes of Uther Pendragon, when he was kynge of all Englond and so regned, that there was a myghty duke in Cornewaill that helde warre ageynst hym long tyme, and the duke was called the duke of Tyntagil
(Thomas Malory, in Vinaver 1954).

How did that grab you? Are you on the edge of your seat? Or are you yawning already? And do 20th century re-tellings of Malory follow that pattern?

In the old days, as it is told, there was a king in Britain named Uther Pendragon (Picard 1955).

This is clearly a literary descendant of Malory, but some concession has been made for a juvenile readership in that it is shorter and punchier without losing its poetic, almost biblical cadences.

Here is another opening:

After wicked King Vortigern had first invited the Saxons to settle in Britain and help him to fight the Picts and Scots, the land was never long at peace (Green 1953).

A lot of information is offered, and assumptions made about prior historical knowledge. For this version, the author’s principle is that “the great legends, like the best of the fairy tales, must be retold from age to age: there is always something new to be found in them, and each retelling brings them freshly and more vividly before a new generation” (Green 1953, 13). There are some value judgements here, aren’t there? Malory is not vivid enough for us moderns; and Retellings are always fresh. In some instances there may be an element of truth in these assumptions. Here now is the beginning of T H White’s re-casting of Malory:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology (White 1958).

There is nothing here initially to suggest an Arthurian setting, but the combination of whimsy and exactitude may be sufficiently intriguing to draw a non-Arthurian further into the book. This is certainly both a vivid and a fresher approach to the Matter. How have other Arthurian authors approached their craft?

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A dangerous time of year

moon NASA
Moon (NASA image)

The Moon of Gomrath
by Alan Garner.
Endpaper maps by Charles Green,
jacket design by George Adamson.
Collins 1970 (1963).

“… the world of Magic that lies as near and unknown to us as the back of a shadow…”

This tale picks up soon after the events in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen when 12-year-old twins Colin and Susan are still staying in Cheshire whilst their parents are abroad. Evil witch the Morrigan has, along with her allies, finally been defeated, but Susan no longer has the teardrop heirloom, the weirdstone of the title. In its place is a curious silver bracelet, its shape echoing the young moon, and it is the moon — from the title of this sequel to Susan’s crucial role — which runs as one of the leitmotivs throughout this dark tale.

It’s hard to tell, but I’m guessing that these events take place sometime in the late 1950s; the date is immaterial but helps to get a handle on the narrative. Air pollution has driven a group of travellers from North Wales to Alderley Edge in Cheshire. No ordinary travellers these: they are lios-alfar, what we would call elves, and they are resting in the caves underneath the Edge before going on to the Northlands, where they hope to defeat whatever is destroying their kin there. They are let into the heart of the Edge by Cadellin, the wizard who befriended Colin and Susan in The Weirdstone and who still guards the sleeping knights under the hill.

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Teasing the dragon

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J K Rowling.
Ted Smart / Bloomsbury Publishing 1998

“It is our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
— Albus Dumbledore

A reread of this, the second instalment in the Harry Potter book sequence (following Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), impresses on a number of fronts: the continued fleshing out of the main characters which made them so appealing in the first place; the masterful plotting and juggling of elements, even more evident in a third read; and of course its emphasis on compassion, friendship and loyalty, all of which gain more relevancy during a time of pandemic and political upheaval.*

Harry Potter’s birthday on the last day of July — not insignificantly the same as the author’s — sees him chafing under the vindictiveness of his adoptive family. Escaping from virtual imprisonment he is then mysteriously stopped from catching the Hogwarts Express to school, and so begins a series of incidents that leads not just to the secret of the Chamber of the title but also further revelations about how and why Harry survived the attack by He Who Must Not Be Named.

As the book ends with Harry and Hermione walking “back through the gateway to the Muggle world” we readers with hindsight know that Harry’s current victory will prove just a temporary respite in the wizarding war that has only just begun.

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The teardrop expounded

sunset

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
by Alan Garner.
Puffin Books revised edition 1963 (1960).

Reading this at the end of the sixties, fresh from the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings, I felt confused and slightly underwhelmed. Despite its nod to Arthurian legend (sleeping king, Wild Hunt, sage wizard) and genuine sense of menace I missed the complexity of Tolkien’s saga, with its multiple locations, characters and interweave of plots. Nor did it share the light touch of The Hobbit despite featuring two youngsters in their early teens.

Perhaps the book’s misfortune was to be of its time, partly satisfying a hunger for epic fantasy but appearing, in contrast, as a pale imitation of The Lord of the Rings. Garner, whose first novel this was – he wrote it in his mid-twenties – recognised such weaknesses by first providing a revised edition for Puffin Books and later virtually disavowing it as “a fairly bad book”.

To dismiss it, especially now, would be unfair. For all the similarity of motifs – dwarfs, elves, underground mines, wizard, evil lord, powerful talisman, trolls, a final near-hopeless battle – what strikes me more on this re-reading four decades on are the differences. This is set in a corner of Garner’s native Cheshire, not in a secondary world like Middle Earth; the names and figures draw not on an invented mythology but directly from native traditions and languages, from Welsh, Manx, Irish and Norse folklore and literature (for example Angharad, Fenodyree, Morrigan and Grimnir, respectively); the main protagonists are not adult halflings but two, as it turns out, not-so-ordinary children; and the story is set not in some faraway land many millennia ago but in a here-and-now mid-twentieth century, with trains, waterproof macs, bikes, electric torches and ramblers. Even if the past is never far away, beginning with the milk-white steeds of the legendary but unnamed king…

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A thimble for a kiss

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’
by J M Barrie, in Peter Pan etc,
illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1906/1902)

Before Peter and Wendy (1911) there was this, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), published with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; and before that there was the stage play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (1904) following on from The Little White Bird (1902), from which Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was later extracted.

Amongst all this convoluted literary history are mingled clues to Barrie’s own psychology, hints about his relationship with his mother and his deceased brother David, and his relationship with the five Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother, Sylvia. Fascinating though these aspects may well be to many readers I’m more interested in the story which unfolds in the six chapters and the impact it may have on the innocent reader.

I say “innocent” reader, but it’s hardly easy to banish from one’s mind the boy who wouldn’t grow up in Peter and Wendy and in the many versions and retellings that have sprung up in the century or so since the play first saw the light. Here, instead of a boy “clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees” we find a week-old baby who matures without getting older, and instead of the varied geography of Neverland the action takes place almost exclusively in one of London’s Royal Parks.

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Now, and then

River scene (engraving by Thomas Bewick)

The River at Green Knowe
by Lucy M Boston,
illustrated by Peter Boston.
Odyssey / Harcourt Young Classics 2002 (1959)

A prosaic reader might say this is a story about three children who spend an idyllic summer at a mansion in Cambridgeshire mostly messing about on the river, and in this they wouldn’t be wrong. But this is no ordinary mansion, these are no ordinary children, and this is no ordinary river: this is Green Knowe, and these are children alive to imaginative possibilities, and this is a river where those possibilities can come true.

Mrs Oldknow, who owns the ancient Manor House of Green Knowe, has let it out for the summer to the distinguished archaeologist Dr Maud Biggin and her friend, the homely Miss Sybilla Bun. Dr Biggin promptly decides to invite her great-niece Ida and two refugee boys called Oskar and Hsu to stay for the holidays.

Ida (11), affectionately called Midget, along with Oskar Stanislawsky from Poland (also 11) and Hsu, known as Ping, who’s from China, happily get on well together and, left to their own devices, get on with enjoying lazy days and stealthy nights exploring and mapping the river. This being Green Knowe the trio soon find there is unexpected natural magic around every corner.

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Mums and kids

Shingle beach overlooking the English Channel, Dungeness © C A Lovegrove

Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox Books 1996 (1995)

Mums and kids better stick together
Hang in there whatever the weather
Hold in a chain that none can break
Hold together for the future’s sake …

The sequel to Is (US: Is Underground) is another of Joan Aiken’s unputdownable novels in her Wolves Chronicles. The villains are as villainish as ever, with few redeeming features, the young (and not-so-young) protagonists are regularly scrobbled, and much of the fairytale action which would normally be regarded as implausible acquires a degree of reality through Aiken’s powerful storytelling.

Rich in details, the novel dovetails chronologically into the rest of the series but can be enjoyed—just about—as a standalone. Most of the action takes place in Kent, along the coast from Aiken’s beloved Sussex, but in Aiken’s usual timeframe where the 1830s and early 1840s are not quite as the history we are more familiar with.

Young Is Twite, fresh from saving child miners from drowning when a tsunami caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla floods their undersea coal mine, comes south with her newfound cousin Arun to his hometown of Folkestone in Kent in a bid to reunite with his widowed mother Ruth. But, true to the ways of this alternative world, nothing is straightforward; and heartache, danger, villainy and death will be experienced before natural justice reassert itself.

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Intellect and imagination

The Secret Commonwealth:
The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019

“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’

Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.

Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.

At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.

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The Beloved Child

Piranesi
by Susanna Clarke,
Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

I am the Beloved Child of the House …

How else to describe this novel than as labyrinthine? Not only is it set in a physical maze-like structure but its narrator must, like Theseus, thread a path through confusing and sometimes conflicting revelations about who he is, what he’s doing there, and why his memory seems to be faulty.

He is named Piranesi by a colleague whom he thinks of as the Other, an older male who appears occasionally — usually twice a week — for an hour or so at a time, but otherwise his curious life is bound up with the House, with the seasonal tides that wash through some of its rooms, and with his journals in which, like a good scientist, he has been recording his explorations and annotating his observations.

But all is not well in the House: it is crumbling, worn away from the tides and the storms that invade the House; and when talk turns to death and killing Piranesi starts to realise that all he has taken for granted is based on uncertain, maybe even mendacious foundations.

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In the beginning

The ruins of Charn (Pauline Baynes)

The Magician’s Nephew
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Fontana Lions 1980 (1955)

In this, the penultimate Narnian chronicle to be published, C S Lewis describes how Narnia came to be. The Magician’s Nephew is set around 1900, the heyday of Sherlock Holmes and Edith Nesbit’s Bastable family adventures, in a suburban London street perhaps similar to Nesbit’s Lewisham (the place recalling the Narnia author’s own surname). Here Polly Plummer and Digory Kirke make friends in a walled garden behind a house terrace before explorations down a secret attic passage lead them in unexpected directions.

There can be few readers who haven’t read, or at least heard of, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, even if they’ve only encountered the first (and possibly the best) instalment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Less familiar perhaps is the genesis of this world, and The Magician’s Nephew fills in these details admirably.

Biblical imagery is mingled with motifs drawn from classical mythology (such as winged horses) and some overt moralising, all leavened with attempts at humour; but to me what comes over strongest in a second reading is a depiction of different aspects of human love.

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The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

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St Lucy’s Day

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Towards the end of Joan Aiken’s alternative history fantasy Midwinter Nightingale we are reminded that events are approaching St Lucy’s Day.

This feast, dedicated to an early virgin martyr whose name derives from Latin lux, ‘light’, is celebrated each year on 13th December, and marks the culmination of the novel’s action after a few jam-packed days.

Traditionally the feast day marked the winter solstice, when there are the fewest hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are the longest of the year. But nowadays the solstice tends to fluctuate between 21st and 22nd December, so somehow we appear to be nine days adrift. How to explain?

In this discussion of the chronology of Midwinter Nightingale I shall start with considering A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day by John Donne — specifically referenced in the novel — and then go on to my TWITE theory concerning the Wolves Chronicles, also known as the Time Wobbles In This Era hypothesis.

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An abyss next to you

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

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This other Eden

‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’: illustration by Henry Justice Ford in The Blue Fairy Book

This is planned as the first (and probably ‘final’) discussion post on Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass following my earlier review. What I want to do is pick up on a few random themes and thoughts which don’t necessarily or frequently appear in commentaries and reviews.

So there won’t be discussion on anticlericalism and religion; nor do I wish to discuss the science of Dust or lodestone resonators, the multiverse or quantum entanglement. But I do wish to make some observations about John Parry, Asriel and Marissa Coulter; about the broad structure of His Dark Materials; about one or two of the beings in the trilogy which I haven’t yet discussed; and a couple of other matters.

Above all, I want to point to His Dark Materials and in particular The Amber Spyglass as examples of Pullman’s skill at novelistic collage.

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A dangerous bunch

Bookshop interior

The Left-handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix,
Gollancz 2020

At one point in Garth Nix’s novel — Chapter Six in fact — we join two of the protagonists as they enter The New Bookshop premises somewhere off London’s Curzon Street. (Despite its name it only sells old books.) Susan spots Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Brontë, Blake and T E Lawrence among the titles, then some childhood favourites:

“There was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; and the C S Lewis Narnia books; and Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey; The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker; Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken…”

And so it goes on, with books published before 1983 by Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, and Edith Nesbit. As a roll call of her childhood reading it’s impressive; as books they’re indicative of the undercurrents swirling around in this enchanting thriller, and when I say enchanting I mean full-on fizzing and popping magic.

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