Flights of fancy

Illustration: Mackenzie Crook

Mackenzie Crook: The Windvale Sprites
With illustrations by the author
Faber 2011

That is when the thought struck him. ‘I’ve found a fairy.’ Just like that with no exclamation mark. […] Not wand-waving Tinkerbells but sinewy insect-men: wild creatures that must be secretive and hardly ever spotted.

A boy. A storm. An unexpected encounter. A library. Wild places. Classic ingredients for a children’s mystery, written and illustrated by Mackenzie Crook who knows how to spin a yarn that’ll draw in any imaginative young reader (and the odd adult too). Though this is a tale about fairies it’s not a fairytale in the conventional sense; while there are traditional elements this is essentially an adventure story involving young Asa Brown attempting to solve a centuries-old conundrum, and what he did after he found the answer.

What do we think of when we encounter traditional fairytales? Magical beings no doubt. Do they appear, only to disappear when humans burst in on them? Are they our size, only dressed in outlandish or anachronistic garb, or are they diminutive with butterfly wings? Do they grant wishes, or do they bring down misfortune upon our heads? Does time warp and change when you stray into their realms, or are there taboos which you must not contravene?

Asa will find some answers to these questions when investigating these sprites. But first he has to research the eccentric Benjamin Tooth, an eighteenth-century antiquary locally notorious for his flights of fancy, who has reputedly left some documents to the town which may or may not reside in the local library. It’s only just a matter of Asa somehow finding the key…

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Opening the door on Jane

knocker

Penelope Hughes-Hallett ‘My Dear Cassandra’:
Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen

Collins & Brown 1991 (1990)

The late Penelope Hughes-Hallett (she died in 2010) had the great fortune to be brought up in Steventon in Hampshire, Jane Austen’s birthplace and where the future novelist herself lived between 1775 and 1801, so it’s not a surprise that she maintained a lifelong interest in the Regency author. In ‘My Dear Cassandra’ she makes a selection from the letters Jane wrote to her older sister, introducing key periods in Jane’s life (changing residences in Steventon, Bath, Southampton, Chawton and Winchester) and supplying a linking commentary. Hughes-Hallett clearly knew her stuff, highlighted by the way she elucidates obscure references in the letters and cross-references the numerous personages with whom Jane was acquainted.
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A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library)
Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library) http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Arthurian_coats_of_arms

Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl
Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)

This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.

Part of a series of souvenir guidebooks by Pevensey Press, Arthur’s Britain consists of Continue reading “A curate’s egg of a gazetteer”

Maze crazy

Saffron_Walden_Turf_Maze_Diagram
Diagram of Saffron Walden turf maze (Wikipedia Commons)

Jeff Saward Magical Paths:
labyrinths and mazes in the 21st century

Mitchell Beazley 2002

Mazes and labyrinths are indeed magical paths, whether as pastimes or puzzles, whether as art or for ritual uses, or experienced visually or physically. They have a great antiquity, seen in natural features such as subterranean caverns or on artefacts such as coins, mosaics or pots. They can have a perplexing randomness or a mathematical precision, there can be several routes or just one to the goal — if indeed there is a goal — and you can simply enjoy it or you can panic, as I did when there was only 15 minutes to get a coachload of school students out of Longleat’s maze, then the world’s largest hedge maze. Continue reading “Maze crazy”