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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Many avenues to explore

hemlock

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)

Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.

The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.

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Farther up, farther in

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From Spare Oom to War Drobe:
travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self,
by Katherine Langrish,
introduction by Brian Sibley.
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021

C. S. Lewis changed my life. He certainly influenced the way I thought, though it didn’t quite work out as you might imagine.

From the Afterword.

In a way that doesn’t quite apply to Middle-earth, Narnia’s magic seems to affect adults and children quite differently. And adults who only read C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia in childhood tend to report a nostalgic delight, unlike readers like me, who only became acquainted with them in later life, and whose visits have proved rather more troublesome and even disturbing.

Katherine Langrish has done both, the initial visits and the later return, and this (along with being an accomplished writer herself) puts her in a good position to provide this guide for readers of more mature years. She began honing her skills as a writer with what we’d now call fanfic, eagerly writing her own Tales of Narnia, so when she subtitles her book ‘travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self’ she attempts that difficult balancing trick of simultaneously imagining herself at that impressionable age while observing from her adult perspective.

That she succeeds is of huge benefit for her readers if, like me, one is persuaded to both see with the eyes of one of the target audience and also observe with the mind of the adult critic. Like before and after photos placed side by side of a slightly decrepit house in the process of restoration one is able to see the details of the original building as well as the work done in revealing its materials and structure, all before it’s reassembled into an edifice fit for purpose and a new lease of life.

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Terror at the Tor

tor

Marco’s Pendulum
by Thom Madley
Usborne 2006

The cover blurb gives it away: Is the Holy Grail buried at Glastonbury, or something much darker? Well, of course, you know the answer to that, because this would otherwise be a rather tame young adult novel.

Townies Marco and Rosa find themselves separately set down in Somerset, both saddled with parents who don’t seem to understand them and set about both by bullies and by strange and very unsettling psychic experiences.

Pretty soon they find themselves thrown together and flung into a claustrophobic labyrinth under Glastonbury itself (reminiscent of the endings of both Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) in a narrative that is hard to put down and preferably not to be read at night. Well, not by adults anyway.

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Wild magic waiting

© C A Lovegrove

Harklights by Tim Tilley.
Usborne Publishing 2021.

A match factory which masquerades as an orphanage. A manikin which it emerges was once alive. A monster which in reality mayn’t be alive. Butterflies which aren’t insects. A boy who doubts he has what it takes to put things right. It’s all here in Harklights, a debut novel from the first ever winner of the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize, set in a vaguely Victorian world with elements of fantasy and steampunk.

I’m not usually a fan of long narratives told in the present tense but here I think it works well: Wick’s first person tale gives both a sense of urgency and also uncertainty, just as youngsters’ accounts often are, and while the reader may guess at some of the things Wick puzzles over nothing is truly known until all is revealed.

While our focus is on the narrator’s hopes and fears, behind them all is a tale of despoilation, exploitation and cruelty fully relevant in our contemporary world which will resonate even with the most innocent young reader.

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A thing more necessary

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.

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Meddling in Nature’s domain

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.

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A complicated world

Carneddau landscape by Kyffin Williams, Amgueddfa Cymru (photo C A Lovegrove)

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.

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April Rainers

© C A Lovegrove

Hexwood
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins 2000 (1993)

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.

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