A closely woven story

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

Continue reading “A closely woven story”

Step by step

Durer’s Knight

Anne Wilson: The Magical Quest.
The Use of Magic in Arthurian Romance
Manchester University Press 1988

This book, though seeming of the mystical camp popular in the 70s and 80s, is rather more academic though nonetheless exciting for all that. It asks the question ‘Why are there so many apparent contradictions in medieval Arthurian romances?’

The answer is that the authors use traditional plots. And the rationale of these plots, like the closely-related fairytales, is that of a different order to that of so-called realistic novels. What, then is this rationale?

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The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature

Aurora Borealis (WordPress Free Media Library)

John Sutherland: Frankenstein’s Brain,
Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece
(including John Crace’s ‘Frankenstein Digested’)
Icon Books 2018

Frankenstein is, despite its iconic status, so full of inconsistencies and plot holes that it’s a wonder it holds together at all. In fact, those weaknesses have meant that subsequent treatments of the narrative — in film, on stage, in comics, in parodies and retellings — have tried to gloss over, patch up or even reconfigure Mary Godwin Shelley’s story, with the result that those reading the novel for the first time are often confused, their expectations confounded. Where is the laboratory? Why are we caught up in Arctic ice? How come the monster isn’t called Frankenstein?

Literary critics of course have the answers, editors give lengthy details of history, chronology, context, differences in text and so on, but usually in academic language buttressed by obscure scholarly papers and archived documents. Up steps John Sutherland, an academic with a light touch making the inaccessible accessible with bite-size chapters, contemporary references and online links, and using humour to demystify a two-centuries-old classic.

Add to that an appendix with one of Guardian writer John Crace’s digested reads, meaning that if you’re still resistant to Mary Shelley’s original you can pretend you know all about it with a handy (and very funny) cheat.

Continue reading “The Alps, the Arctic and the Creature”

A little piece of Middle Earth

Looking towards Buckland Hill from the Black Mountains, with the Brecon Beacons beyond

Seamus Hamill-Keays
‘Tolkien and Buckland: An Analysis of the Evidence’
Brycheiniog: Cyfnodolyn Cymdeithas Brycheiniog /
The Journal of the Brecknock Society XLIX 2018

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote that The Shire of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee” — that is, around 1897 — and “based on rural England and not on any other country in the world.” And yet, in South Powys, Wales, there’s a persistent local tradition that Ronald based the easternmost outpost of Middle Earth’s Shire in the Vale of Usk, in particular between Brecon and Abergavenny. Buckland in LOTR was suggested to be based on Buckland near Bwlch, and Frodo’s house at Crickhollow was presumed to be inspired by Crickhowell.

In addition, Tolkien is reputed to have spent time at nearby Talybont in the early forties while putting LOTR together. When I examined the evidence, such as it was, I concluded that “if the Buckland and Crickhollow of The Lord of the Rings really were inspired by the Buckland and Crickhowell of the Usk valley then [the visit] happened before the forties,” when the trilogy was complete. But I had no real inkling when exactly that could be.¹

“The closest [Tolkien] admits to first-hand contact with everyday Welsh is on coal-trucks marked with placenames, railway station signs, a house inscription declaring it was adeiladwyd 1887 (‘built 1887’), all presumably from one or more holiday trips to places far to the west,” I wrote. “That Tolkien visited Wales at some stage seemed undeniable to me; but when?” A recent article by Seamus Hamill-Keays, kindly brought to my attention by the author, plausibly suggests the answer, buttressing his hypothesis with a wealth of supporting material.

Continue reading “A little piece of Middle Earth”

Ugly duckling to swan

“Shakespeare Droeshout 1623” by Martin Droeshout Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/files/2012/06/portrait-96-square.jpg

James Shapiro Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber and Faber 2010

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James! — Ben Jonson

When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. According to Sir Edwin the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all those plays. Typical is the nonsense word in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which Durning-Lawrence claimed was an anagram in Latin for hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“these plays F Bacon’s offspring preserved for the world”). For an impressionable young mind there was much to mull over, but I wasn’t gullible enough to be convinced, and especially not by that coded ‘message’ — how many other phrases or sentences, in Latin or otherwise, can be concocted from that word?

Yet the fancy that Shakespeare was too much of a country bumpkin to be capable of writing such gems was one I was to come across again and again, with a bewildering array of candidates paraded for acceptance. Where was the comprehensive and informed rebuttal which would take all the claims seriously while marshalling killer counter-arguments?

Continue reading “Ugly duckling to swan”

“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.

“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”


— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

Continue reading ““My hideous progeny””

Promethean fire

Theodore Von Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

One can never say enough about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published just two hundred years ago — certainly a short review can never do it justice. Those with an academic background will be in a position to expound at length about the many aspects of this superb Gothic novel. I’m not an academic, however, so I can only talk about what strikes me most after a reading of the first edition of 1818. And what better place to start than the frontispiece to the 1831 edition, an engraving heavily influenced by Gothick sensibilities and based on an illustration by the remarkable Theodor Von Holst.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen.  It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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Blogs I follow (4)

Library card catalogues (credit: http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-card-catalog.htm)

We come now to the fourth (but unfortunately not the final) instalment in the Blogs I follow mini-series. Here is where I list the last few of the sixtyish WordPress sites with a literary focus that I’ve kept a watching brief on. Previous posts have featured creative blogs (both image and word-based) and those that concentrate primarily on book reviews. This post looks at blogs with a bookish bent (some reviews but mostly writing and authors), while those of a more miscellaneous nature (lifestyle, travel, philosophy … you get the drift) I’ll leave for a final instalment.

Again, these are mostly in random order, though I do separate active blogs from those which only post intermittently or may be classed as zombie blogs (still ‘live’ but to all intents and purposes ‘dead’) — though some I prefer to think of as sleeping beauties, waiting to be woken.

Continue reading “Blogs I follow (4)”

A useful prosopography

Silhouette of “l’aimable Jane” pasted in an early copy of Mansfield Park (http://wp.me/pCurp-1zS)

Glenda Leeming, Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës
Foreword by Phyllis Bentley
Elm Tree Books 1974

What’s not to like about prosopography? Conventionally this is defined as a description of an individual’s appearance or life, but in general a Who’s Who offers a collection of such descriptions. These days prosopographies cover not just real-life biographies (mostly of historical personages, in Ancient Rome, say, or Victorian England) but also cast lists of fictional characters from literary works.

In Who’s Who in Jane Austen and the Brontës Dr Glenda Leeming lists all the characters found in the literary canons of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. Austen’s characters come first, plucked from the pages of Jane’s six novels (but not the juvenilia or unfinished writings like Lady Susan and Sanditon). They’re followed by seven of the best-known Brontë books — four by Charlotte, two by Anne and one by Emily (again, juvenilia is not included, nor Charlotte’s Angrian pieces written in her twenties). A short section on animals mentioned (particularly in the Brontë siblings’ writings) follows, and then a helpful list of characters book by book, noting the appropriate chapter when each first appears.

Phyllis Bentley’s foreword mostly renders any comments I might have perfectly superfluous. “This is a really intelligent and useful little book,” she declares, and praises Leeming’s notes for “vividly” presenting characters and personalities: “a nice tinge of irony, a very neat use of the novelists’ own words, a brevity decidedly marked by wit, make these notes pleasurable reading.” (Sadly, Bentley herself died just three years after this appreciation was published.) That brevity marked by wit is evident in the descriptions of the main protagonists, never longer than the equivalent of a page but containing everything you need to know.

Leeming also includes individuals mentioned only in passing, one line descriptions often providing no more than each writer herself offered. Opening at random I read of Goton in Villette (“Flemish cook in Mme. Beck’s school, with whom Lucy is a favourite”) or Miss Prince in Emma (“a teacher at Miss Goddard’s school”).

These days online sites freely and profusely provide such lists of characters; forty years ago though this would have indeed been “a useful little book” for readers losing track of which individual was being referred to, or what relationship they had to another individual. Here it is also done with sly humour, capturing the piquant observations of the novelists.

(By all accounts John Sutherland’s recent The Brontësaurus: An A-Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë also treats the novels with wit,** but as this work omits Austen altogether I’ll happily make do with Leeming for a while longer.)


** I assume Sutherland penned his own description of himself in the Guardian, where he is distinguished as “Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL (“emeritus” being Latin for “scrapheap” and “Northcliffe” journalistic shorthand for “you cannot be serious”).” If so, then readers of The Brontësaurus (and indeed his other writings) must be in for a treat.

“Very great and most tragic”

Kullervo, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)
Kullervo, statue by C E Sjöstrand, from Finland in the Nineteenth Century by Finnish authors. Illustrated by Finnish artists, edited by Leopold Mechelin (1894)

J R R Tolkien The Story of Kullervo
Edited by Verlyn Flieger
HarperCollins 2015 (2010)

Tolkien’s reputation rests on two parallel streams of his work. First, and the more renowned of the two, is his creative work, his fiction, much of it founded on his secondary world of Middle Earth: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion and so on. The second stream is what was his day job, so to speak, his work as a scholar, the academic who specialised in languages and literatures and was well regarded by his peers and students.

Less well known, except to a host of die-cast fans and Tolkien scholars, is his work in which those two streams — the creative and the academic — co-mingle. His fascination with mythologies and folktales and legends led him to recast disparate ancient materials into what he must have hoped were coherent wholes, though none of it was published in his lifetime. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (2009) was his reconfiguring of the Northern myths that were to famously inspire Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, while The Fall of Arthur (2013) dealt with the Matter of Britain, tidying up plot inconsistencies through his own verses inspired by Old English alliterative verse. The latest Tolkien re-envisioning (ironically one of the first he attempted) is The Story of Kullervo, which first appeared in Tolkien Studies VII in 2010, and then in an expanded form by HarperCollins in 2015.

Continue reading ““Very great and most tragic””

The most beautiful play

Giovanni Strazza's Veiled Virgin is located in the Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John's, NL.
The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza, Presentation Convent, Cathedral Square, St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada

A D Nuttall Shakespeare: The Winter’s Tale
Studies in English Literature No 26
Edward Arnold 1979 (1966)

I studied The Winter’s Tale at school, and while I didn’t then really appreciate it fully it continued to linger for several decades in my subconscious. I’m not entirely sure why: it may be the hint of Sleeping Beauty in the ‘revival’ of a dead Hermione; it may be memories of the famous stage direction Exit pursued by a Bear that stuck in the brainbox, or the notorious ascription of a coastline to landlocked Bohemia that struck me. Whatever it was, this was a play that I felt I ‘ought’ to read again, though I never seemed to get round to it. I even acquired a secondhand copy of Nuttall’s study of The Winter’s Tale though it only ever served as a talisman — I never even got round to reading that either.

Shakespeare’s impending quatercentenary finally provided the spur I needed for both. Nuttall’s commentary is split into four sections, an introduction followed first by the scenes set in Sicilia (with jealousy and guilt as the main themes), then those set mostly in Bohemia (‘varieties of innocence’ is the note struck here) and finally a conclusion. He begins with a ringing endorsement of the play:

The Winter’s Tale is the most beautiful play Shakespeare ever wrote. It is a less intelligent play than Hamlet (but not much less intelligent). It is less profound than King Lear (but not much less). It is not (as some readers will have begun to conclude) a pretty play, of ‘merely aesthetic’ appeal. For it is far less elegant than Love’s Labour’s Lost and much more disturbing than A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The beauty of The Winter’s Tale does not so much charm the eye as pierce the viscera. It does not divert the spectator; it turns him inside out.”

And so on and so forth, in glorious hyperbole as suited the style of esteemed academics of yesteryear. But is what he asserts true? Continue reading “The most beautiful play”

The Art of Reviewing

bookmarks

I enjoy reading reviews, especially book reviews of course, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be something I’ve already read or even intend to read. And most of you will know I also enjoy writing reviews, and therefore have always tried to keep a few pointers in mind as advice for myself.

A recent query in Quora, the question-and-answer website, got me trying to fill out the details of those pointers, for my own sake as well as for other interested folk. The question was, What are the things to keep in mind when reviewing? Here’s my edited answer, for what it’s worth.

*  *  *  *  *

Continue reading “The Art of Reviewing”

A book about novels

The-novel-reader
The Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh http://www.vincent-van-gogh-gallery.org

David Lodge The Art of Fiction:
illustrated from classic and modern texts

Penguin 1992

The cover of this collection of essays features a striking image by Van Gogh of a woman reading a novel. Her surroundings are strongly lit by a bright light, while she herself, her face especially, is in shadow (you can still see the anxiety in her face); the only blemish for me is the clumsily rendered fingers of her left hand.

In a way this perfectly captures the impact of this non-fiction study: a lot of light is thrown on how British and American writers achieve the effects that are found in their works, but we are mainly in the dark as to how ordinary readers themselves may react. (The critics however lapped it up, if the cover quotes are typical.) All that we can be sure of is what the essayist thinks of the extracts he discusses: it is up to each reader to make up their minds whether that works for them individually.

Reader, would you like to know what this individual felt? Then read on.

Continue reading “A book about novels”

Uncertainty principles

castle keep
The roofless keep of Dinefwr Castle, Carmarthenshire, Wales

This is the third and last interim post about Titus Groan before I publish my review. This discussion will circle around certain patterns that I’ve detected in the novel, though whether they’re patterns which Mervyn Peake intended or merely the phantasms of my fevered mind I’ll leave for you to judge.

Peake himself was born on the ninth day of the seventh month, in a year — 1911 — which featured double digits. Was this what encouraged him (around 1940, when his first son Sebastian was born to Maeve Gilmore) to put the titular hero’s birthday as “the eighth day of the eighth month, I am uncertain about the year”? The 8th of August is the day before and a month after Peake’s own birth.

Is there any significance to this? Possibly. I think that there is a kind of duality to much of Titus Groan which the eighth day of the eighth month in a way prefigures. Let me give you some examples. Continue reading “Uncertainty principles”