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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Witch Week Day 4: A Famous Witch

Circe with leopards and a book of spells: J W Waterhouse’s The Sorceress (1911-1915)

Many of you know Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, as the creator of the Witch Week blogging celebration to honor Diana Wynne Jones. Lory announced last year that she was ready to hand over the reins to any interested blogger. We’re lucky (and grateful) that she was willing to be one of our guest bloggers this year.

Lory Widmer Hess shares her reading journey at Emerald City Book Review. Books based on fairy tales and mythology are among her favorite things, along with long walks, knitting, singing, and chocolate. She came up with Witch Week five years ago as a new blogger, and still considers it one of the best ideas ever. For more information about (and images of) the infamous witch of Greek mythology, Lory recommends a read of Madeline Miller’s photo essay.

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Operating in the dark

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex, Crete (Wikimedia Commons)

Ursula Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
in The Earthsea Quartet 1993 Penguin

Sequels are notoriously hard things to pull off; many authors struggle. Does one offer a second helping of the same ingredients on the grounds that readers seem to like more of the same, with just a few details changed for the sake of variety? Or does the writer go with something radically different and risk alienating fans of the original?

The second of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels goes with the second option, and certainly this is tough for some readers; but Le Guin is of that class of author who not only needs to challenge herself through her craft but to also avoid treading the same tracks as before. It’s a measure of her talent as a writer that she rises magnificently to the challenge while being a doggedly resolute pathfinder. So it’s entirely appropriate that much of The Tombs of Atuan involves the protagonists negotiating the complexities of a multicursal labyrinth with all its twisting passages and dead ends.

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The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

Treading the labyrinth

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)
Reconstruction of part of the Knossos complex (Wikipedia Commons)

Patricia Highsmith:
The Two Faces of January.
Sphere 2014 (1964)

With the action mostly set in Athens, Crete and Marseille — the French port an ancient Greek colony — it’s hardly surprising that Highsmith’s crime novel has the feel of a classical legend. From the title (The Two Faces of January is a nod to the Roman two-headed god Janus whose month opened the year) to a crucial scene in Knossos (reputedly the inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth) we can’t help but be aware that this very 20th-century tragedy has its affinities, its roots even, in the ancient world; for all its modern trappings the story turns on eternal human failings like hubris, that pride that can bring down both the guilty and the innocent.

This novel is a play with just three leading characters and a small cast of bit players. Chester MacFarlane is an American conman hiding out in Europe with his young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is an intelligent young American avoiding confrontation with his critical father before feeling guilty for having not attended his funeral. Chester survives under numerous aliases but has little facility with modern foreign languages like Greek; Rydal is fluent in French, Italian and Greek and so is in a position to help Chester and Colette when a Greek detective is inadvertently killed. Why does Rydal help the couple? Is it just because Chester reminds him of his father and Colette of his first love?

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Hayley and the Mythosphere

Halley's Comet, 1910

Diana Wynne Jones The Game Puffin Books 2007

virgoThe concept of the mythosphere is a wonderful thing, typical of Diana Wynne Jones and full of creative potential. It is the place we go to in dreams, the realm of the Collective Unconscious, the landscape where mythical archetypes roam and Jungian symbols are to be encountered, collected and treasured.

Young Hayley gets drawn into the mythosphere when she is sent by her grandparents to stay with relatives in Ireland, who have invented a pastime called The Game where they have to fetch back mythical objects against the clock. However, there are repercussions which not only put her in danger but also reveal who she really is and the nature of her large extended family. A clue comes from her name which, as in many of Jones’ books, has a significance beyond it being a girl’s name chosen at random: it is a closet reference to Edmond Halley who identified the periodicity of the comet that bears his name and whose surname is popularly pronounced as in the girl’s forename. Hayley, like the comet, has the capacity to blaze away in the heavens… Continue reading “Hayley and the Mythosphere”