Effie’s fairy tale

Euphemia ('Effie') Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins, albumen print, late 1850s
Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers (née Gray), Lady Millais by (George) Herbert Watkins: albumen print, late 1850s, National Portrait Gallery

John Ruskin: The King of the Golden River, or
The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria (1851)
Illustrated by Richard Doyle, E.P.Dutton / J.M.Dent 1925
Illustrated by Charles W Stewart, Edmund Ward 1958

The King of the Golden River was written in 1841, at the request of a very young lady, and solely for her amusement, without any idea of publication…”

The very young lady was the twelve-year-old Effie Gray and the writer was John Ruskin, ten years her senior.

Ruskin was eventually to marry Effie in 1848 but the marriage foundered and was annulled, Effie then marrying the artist John Everett Millais. All that turbulence was in the future, however, and Effie must have been delighted with her present, along with later generations too after the tale was published in 1851.

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No scruples

Inverted Commas 18: Hands tied

“Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ’em.” — Farder Coram, Chapter 15 ‘Letters’

Parts of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (2018) have both a universal relevance and one equally specific regarding the times we live in now. A chapter in which Lyra as the main protagonist is trying to escape detection in the Norfolk Broads is just such an instance. She is discussing with the gyptian elder Coram how it is that the Consistorial Court of Discipline is able to achieve what it does, and Coram gives her his view of the current political situation in Lyra’s world.

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Jack a Nory

The Graveyard Book, Volume 1
by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P Craig Russell.
Illustrated by P Craig Russell, Kevin Nowlan, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, and Stephen B Scott.
Bloomsbury 2014

This, the first volume of the graphic novelisation of Neil Gaiman’s 2008 Gothick award winner, is as one would hope a quite faithful adaptation of the original. The author’s text is itself quite visual, and this must have made it a lot easier for P Craig Russell to produce storyboards that matched the action and the pace of the narrative.

Here won’t be the place to critique Gaiman’s story, nor do I intend to refer to volume 2 of the adaptation in this review; what I will do is outline what worked for me in this presentation and what puzzled me. To misquote Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, “I have come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him;” however, the wording on the epitaph will be even-handed.

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The force of destiny

Fantasy is a Marmite®™* genre for many readers: though there is often a middle ground of those who can take or leave it, there are plenty for whom it is anathema and others who regard it as the only true reflection of their hopes, dreams and, occasionally, nightmares. I myself enjoy many manifestations of the genre but not all appeal to me, by any means.

I often wonder what the sticking point might be for those who are anti-fantasy. Not enough realism? Magic too arbitrary or illogical? Aimed mainly at children or the childish? Too full of clichés? Or is there a deeper root that irks the sceptical?

Much of so-called Epic or High Fantasy is predicated on a sense of Fate or Destiny, with prophecies about someone (a Chosen One, if you like) who will bring about changes to a world order. The term Chosen One was used humorously of Harry Potter, but Lyra’s prophesied role in the worlds of His Dark Materials was specifically hidden from her.

But the whole notion of Fate is a controversial one involving whether free will truly exists, or if there is a Being who has their hands on the controls. I don’t intend to get into the philosophy behind the arguments — it’s beyond my wit, let alone my remit here — except to say that bloody wars have been fought over this very issue.

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A light in the darkness

Sophia Jansson with Signe Hammarsten (circa 1968 image: Margareta Strömstedt)

Moominvalley in November
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson,
translated by Kingsley Hart.
Puffin 2019 (1971)

Set as autumn is on the turn towards winter in Moominvalley, this last of all the Moomin novels is, as expected, a bittersweet tale of friendship, absence, loss and hope. Six disparate individuals feel a yearning to visit the Moomins in their valley, but when they all get there they find the family gone and the house empty. How do they react when they realise that and how do they get on with each other while they wait for the Moomins’ return?

I loved this for so many reasons — the apparent whimsy hiding psychological insights, the individual quests the characters found themselves on, the autumnal atmosphere beautifully recreated with hints of hibernation and the faint promise of spring, and of course for the delicate line drawings that delight the eye.

While it’s common knowledge that the author wrote this after losing her 88-year-old mother Signe, and that a deep sense of loss pervades the novel, most readers will be intrigued by the interaction between the six characters in search of a meaning for the empty home they visit, and of their reasons for undertaking their quests.

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Reading meaning in things

Lyra’s Oxford
by Philip Pullman,
engravings by John Lawrence.
David Fickling Books 2003

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— William Makepeace

The title enshrines a dichotomy. Superficially it asserts that this is a city from the world Lyra inhabits, a world both like and unlike ours, that ambiguity given visual force by a wonderful fold-out map in the first edition hardback depicting the moody streets of Oxford overlooked by an airship at the Royal Mail Zeppelin Station.

But by the final pages it becomes clear that it’s Lyra herself who is this world’s Oxford to keep: “The city, their city — belonging was one of the meanings of that, and protection, and home.” There is a feeling that Oxford is looking after her and her dæmon Pantalaimon, a sense that will last her through the rest of her teenage years. Will that protection last through the central events of The Book of Dust?

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“Tell them stories”

The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’

The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.

At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.

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Incidental extras

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

I seem to have abandoned — temporarily, I hope — my original summer reading plans and, instead of the titles I’d chosen for my Ten Books of Summer, other works (mostly rereads) are clamouring for my attention. And as I’ve always maintained that leisure reading should be for pleasure I’ve yielded to the temptation … which is absolutely fine in my book.

So I’ve just finished a reread of The Amber Spyglass and am preparing a considered review of that, followed with a quick shufti through Lyra’s Oxford to refresh my memory of that. Then it’s on — finally! — to The Secret Commonwealth.

While I gather my thoughts on the end of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy this may be also a good moment to pause and reflect on some incidentals.

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Hexes, murder and politicking

Regency London street

Zen Cho:
Sorcerer to the Crown
Pan Books 2016 (2015)

Prunella had once thought life in London would be all flirting and balls and dresses, hitting attentive suitors on the shoulder with a fan, and breakfasting late upon bowls of chocolate. She sighed now for her naïveté. Little had she known life in London was in fact all hexes and murder and thaumaturgical politics, and she would always be rising early for some reason or other!

This is a fantasy that has frequently been described as a mash-up of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which I’ve read) and Jane Austen (ditto) as interpreted by Georgette Heyer (whom I’ve not as yet read) but of course it is more than that. The author brings up issues of race, gender and class in a way that, in 2020, is even more pertinent than when it was first published, what with Black Lives Matter assuming even more urgency and administrations in certain democracies becoming more inclined toward fascist policies.

Yet Zen Cho deals with this not in a heavy-handed preachy way but with wit, humour and satire, all the more effective for being couched in a historical fantasy rather than a sermon. While it’s not perfect, as a debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown has made few missteps; and what’s cleverer is that its apparent obscurities and longueurs actually encourage a future rereading when one may hopefully spot and enjoy the clues one may have missed first time round.

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Worlds apart

Gliffaes Country House Hotel walled garden © C A Lovegrove

Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.

The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.

Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.

Warning: spoilers ahead

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Angels, dæmons & witches

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.

I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.

As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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Æsahættr

Jacob wrestling with the angel by Delacroix (detail)

I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.

But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.

Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.

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Dark matters

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife
Scholastic 2001 (1997)

What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others? (Chapter 4)

The sequel to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is as much a roller-coaster of emotions as it is a cauldron of ideas. After Lyra Bevilacqua discovers that nothing is as she thought it was and ends the first volume walking into another world in the sky, we find ourselves at the start of The Subtle Knife in our own world, with a fatherless boy anxious for the safety of his mother.

The contrast in scene-setting between the two novels was shocking to me when I first read this: Will Parry’s sense of isolation arising from awareness of his mother’s vulnerability has burdened him with a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone his age; and when intruders break into his Winchester home and one — after being pushed — trips over the cat and falls to his death, Will is forced to go on the run. Having previously left his mother safe with his former piano-teacher, he arrives in Oxford; here he sees an odd square patch in the air, a window into another world.

And so it is that he finds himself in Cittàgazze, an oddly deserted Mediterranean-type town with a few children running loose, and where he comes face to face with Lyra and her daemon.

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A wondrous web

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales

This review is the final instalment of a series of posts of Jenny Nimmo’s fantasy, all part of an online discussion between Nick Swarbrick and me.


Jenny Nimmo: The Snow Spider (1986)
in The Snow Spider Trilogy
Egmont (2004)

Child Rowland to the dark tower came.
His word was still “Fie, foh, and fum,
I smell the blood of a British man.”
King Lear, Act III Scene 4

Such a curious title: can spiders be active and survive in the outside temperatures that allow snow to fall? Of course, being cold-blooded creatures, this isn’t the case, which may be what makes the concept so appealing. Once, however, you can accept the premise that at least one special spider can survive it makes it easier to suspend disbelief about the other things that happen in this story.

This paradox will be the first of many, for Jenny Nimmo’s novel, the first title in a trilogy, is often underrated as a fantasy because there is so much under the surface of the narrative that may not be evident to the casual reader.

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