The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes. Puffin Books 1996 (1872)
‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’
‘What is that, grandmother?’
‘To understand other people.’
Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.
There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.
To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.
Robert Holdstock: The Fetch,
Time Warner Paperbacks 1992
Adopted boy gains | gift of fetching gifts; travels | through time and space too.
The Fetch (the US title, Unknown Regions, is taken from a subtitle of Holdstock’s Lavondyss) revisits one of Holdstock’s favourite tropes, the wood as gateway to other times, places and parallel worlds (as in the Mythago Wood series) but on this occasion the tale is set within the undergrowth which has grown up in a disused chalk quarry on the English south coast.
The action revolves around the boy Michael, adopted by a middle-class professional couple, who brings with him a maelstrom of psychic activity, changing their lives forever.
Holdstock’s starting point is the three meanings of ‘fetch’ (the act of retrieving, a spirit or doppelgänger, and a dialect word meaning ‘fetish’) which he interweaves into a narrative that also draws in archaeology, folklore, ritual, ESP, scientific ethics and a dysfunctional family.
As with many Holdstock stories there is a sense of escalating claustrophobia and menace, unleavened by any humour but told with a profound love of words, sense of place and concern over human meddling in Nature’s domain.
The Gift by Peter Dickinson. Illustrated by Gareth Floyd. The Children’s Book Club 1974 (1973)
“Were you knowing you had the gift, Davy? […] It is said to run in your family—Dadda’s family. Often it misses a generation. But usually there is one of your blood alive who can see pictures in other people’s minds.”
Chapter 1, Granny. The Gift.
The Gift is a powerful story for teenage readers from the pen of Peter Dickinson, a novel that works at several levels to appeal to many ages, emotional capacities and intellects. It also crosses the permeable frontiers between fantasy, social realism, and thriller, as well as border-hopping between North Wales and England’s South Midlands.
Davy Price is the youngest in a dysfunctional family, with a father who’s a fly-by-night chancer, a mother who occasionally ‘disappears’ on holiday with male acquaintances, an older brother who’ll become involved with a splinter group of Welsh nationalists, and a sister who doesn’t stand fools gladly but whom Davy values as a confidante.
After one particular familial upheaval the three children get dumped on the father’s mother — the trio’s fierce Welsh granny — and her gentle husband, known as Dadda, on a Welsh hill farm near a disused slate quarry. This is when Davy first discovers he has the ‘gift’ of seeing other people’s vision, the legend of how certain generations of the family have it, and how it can in fact be more a curse than otherwise. It will take a major crisis to bring things to a head, and a situation of great danger which may or may not free Davy of his dubious talent.
Here’s another twisty plot from the girl Jones, somewhat similar to wandering around a curiously managed patch of spring woodland. One thing I have learned about rereading Diana Wynne Jones novels is that, whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.
In this fantasy, for example, much is made of the sense of déjà-vu experienced by principal characters, emphasising that this or that memory will always prove more or less elusive the more one tries to examine it. And so it proved with my reread — I kept having to turn back pages to check if and when something familiar seemed to turn up, and not always being successful.
In fact, then, Hexwood appears to be a kind of metaphor or indeed metafiction for the experiences a reader has when visiting the author’s novels for the first or, indeed, the nth time, highly apt then for a fiction which doggedly explores the unreliability of time perception.
Hobbit to Hero: the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012
Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.
As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.
Glass Town Wars by Celia Rees, Pushkin Press 2019 (2018)
I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: […] I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, chapter XXXIV
Confusing. Puzzling. Strange. As I proceeded through the pages of this novel I had similar reactions to many readers in online reviews, but it wasn’t till I got to a mention of “true Thomas” that I began to pick my way with more confidence through Celia Rees’s episodic and kaleidoscopic narrative. And then I began to understand how its various strands interlaced, and was able to stand back and see the vision the tapestry offered.
Tom is in a coma in hospital after some unclear incident, tended by a solicitous male nurse. Tom’s fickle girlfriend posts selfies of herself with his comatose body on social media in order to capitalise on his misfortune; his computer whizz schoolfriend Milo is using Tom as a guinea-pig for an experimental dark web implant; and Lucy sits by Tom’s bedside reading aloud her class’s set book Wuthering Heights in the hopes that he might keep a hold on the outside world.
And so without his acquiescence Tom finds himself emmeshed with a paracosm created by the four Brontë siblings, the world of Glass Town and its warring polities; it becomes a world dangerous for the dreamer because events in this virtual existence will have consequences for him in the 21st century.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.
I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.
How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.
Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
by J R R Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien.
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)
Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.
One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures.
Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.
This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment.
Ghost of a Chance
by Rhiannon Lassiter.
Oxford University Press 2011
This, if it’s not too contradictory a description for a ghost-cum-detective story, is a delightful novel, often deeply satisfying and always captivating. The narrative is set within the span of a month, from April Fool’s Day to May Eve, and features the ghost of young Eva, who has to act as a kind of detective to uncover the details of her own murder.
Good detective stories include a cast of suspects and a shoal of red herrings, and we get plenty of both here. Ghost stories, by definition, must offer us a closetful of skeletons, spooks and denizens of the spirit world and there are enough here too for all the proverbial hairs on your neck.
Particularly memorable are the maid Maggie, the Witch and, most chilling of all, the Stalker, who feeds off other ghosts.
The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones, illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)
Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.
As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.
For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.
So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.
The Shepherd’s Crown
by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby, afterword by Rob Wilkins.
In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.
There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.
At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.
A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books / Harper Trophy 2001 (1987)
And it seemed to be true that all your life came flooding into you mind in your last moments. She thought of Mum and Dad and London and the War and Time City, and she wanted to shout at Mr Lee, Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!
Time certainly does play tricks on you; in my case I was certain I’d read this fantasy when I acquired it a decade and a half ago, but now that I’ve finished it very little seems familiar other than the initial premise. In a way, however, that’s quite appropriate for a novel about time travel in which the past is sometimes not only a different country but also not what you thought it was.
The first thing the title does is remind the reader of A Tale of Two Cities, and whether that was fortuitously arrived at or chosen from the start it does indicate that one of the themes the author intended to make use of was the trope of confused identities: young evacuee Vivian Smith escaping a London about to undergo the Blitz is of a kind with London barrister Sydney Carton during the period of the French Revolution. Dickens’ doppelgänger motif is one of a number of parallels Diana Wynne Jones plays with here, and you will note that as well as London being one of the cities of the Dickens novel there’s another city involved, Paris in one and Time City in the other: both are in turmoil from a Revolution, Time City almost literally so.
What is Time City? It’s a environment outside of time and space: its architecture takes inspiration from our own past, present and, presumably, future, and at times resembles Escher’s famous Relativity etching; and if Time itself can symbolised by a clockface, Time City is situate precisely at that infinitesimal moment represented when the clock’s hands all point to 12. Its function is to oversee Earth history, filled as it appears to be with periods both stable and unstable; meanwhile its functionaries patrol and where necessary intervene in history, tweaking events to ensure all is well. That is, however, providing that chronons — particles which destabilise time — don’t attach themselves to someone who then travels through time. Somebody like 11-year-old Vivian.
Peter Pan by J M Barrie, illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)
Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.
I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.
I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.
“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?
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.
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.