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?

Continue reading “Reading meaning in things”

Is your journey really necessary?

Lundy Island

Repost, first published 17th December 2015: part of a series of reposts which I may schedule once a month or more

During World War II the British government tried to discourage travel at Christmas time with the slogan “Is your journey really necessary?”[1] But, as popular culture, psychology, history and of course literature all tell us, journeys are as necessary to human beings as love, food and shelter.

Time was that any reality or talent show featuring wannabe celebrities would feature the phrase “I/you/we’ve been on a journey,” implying that the individuals concerned had somehow grown or matured due to the experience regardless whether or not they had actually changed location.[2] The Journey has however always been a metaphor, sometimes characterised as a tripartite image schema: ‘source-path-goal’.[3] Though not all elements need be present whenever the metaphor is employed, the sense of beginning-middle-end is nearly always implicit, with the journey – the ‘path’ – as the central core. In this the metaphor encapsulates the Aristotelian definition of narrative plot as a ‘whole’: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Aristotle asserted in Chapter VII of The Poetics, a principle that can be applied not just to tragedy (as Aristotle did) but to most narrative structure.[4]

Continue reading “Is your journey really necessary?”

Weird and wilderness

Sketch map (not to scale) of Rotherweird, based on the text of the first instalment and the cover art of all three books in the trilogy (image © Chris Lovegrove)

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (reviewed here) kicks off a fantasy trilogy being published in the UK, with the final volume due to appear in July this year. I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with maps both real and imagined and even suggested that the author, whose distinguished grandfather lived in Sussex and Kent in the far southeast of England, may have based his concept of Rotherweird on the town of Rye in East Sussex. You may remember that Rye boasted many literary associations such as (in alphabetical order) Joan Aiken, E F Benson, Rumer Godden, Radclyffe Hall and Henry James.

Now, I have no idea if Andrew Caldecott visited here, though given its relative proximity on the south coast to London it’s not unlikely, but I believe there are a few clues pointing to Rye faintly being a possible model for the fantasy town.

Continue reading “Weird and wilderness”

The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

Continue reading “The map fantastic”

Tegleaze

The Dolphin & Anchor, Chichester (credit: J D Wetherspoons)

Those who’ve been following my vademecum as I explore Joan Aiken’s The Cuckoo Tree will realise that, unlike some of the other Wolves Chronicles, the author has based many of her fictional places on ones still existing in our world. For example, the Dolphin Inn in Chichester, where Dido hired a carriage for the wounded Captain Hughes and herself, is an 18th-century coaching inn just north of and opposite the cathedral, and now a Wetherspoons pub known as The Dolphin & Anchor. It’s from here that landlord Ben Noakes lent two of his horses and where ‘Bosky’ Dick proved the least reliable carriage driver to take the pair overnight to London.

In this illustrated post we’re going to follow the hapless passengers through a small part of West Sussex; later we’ll be plotting Dido’s journey through Petworth and on towards London.

Continue reading “Tegleaze”

“This dismal place”

A part of Wales in the time of James III (map by Pat Marriott for The Whispering Mountain)

‘Hey, you — you there, you boy!’ The driver’s voice startled Owen by its loud, harsh, resonant tones.
‘Y-yes, sir,’ he stammered. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Is this dismal place the town of Pennygaff?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Thank God for that, at least. I’ve been traversing these hideous black hills for the best part of three hours — I wish to heaven I may never have to set foot here again!’
— Chapter I, The Whispering Mountain

With these words the wickedest man in Joan Aiken’s alternate history novel The Whispering Mountain dismisses the Welsh town of Pennygaff and, by extension, this part of Wales. In this instalment of my dissection of this Wolves Chronicle I’d like to compare and contrast the author’s vision of the Principality in James III’s time with Mid Wales as it actually is in our world. Maps and images will feature in order to give the interested reader a sense of this part of the world, and may help in judging whether it is, indeed, as dismal as the Marquess of Malyn suggests.

Continue reading ““This dismal place””

Fantasyland

Non-specific Fantasy World Map (credit: http://freefantasymaps.org/

Diana Wynne Jones
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Gollancz 2004 (1996)

Dark Lord (dread lord). There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS (forces of Terror, bound to his will), of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black […] and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. […]

In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Diana Wynne Jones created an imaginary tourist’s guidebook to a generic world where magic is a given — in fact the kind of world conjured up for almost any example of the epic fantasy genre you can name. Think Middle Earth, Narnia, Earthsea or, less familiarly, the Old Kingdom, Prydain, Zimiamvia or Pellinor. Jones imagines them all perhaps as aspects of Fantasyland, though it’s clear that the Disney version is not really what she has in mind. As pretty much all fantasy is predicated on conflict leading to some sort of resolution the nemesis of each world is thus nearly always some incarnation of a Dark Lord. It’s hard to think of any dread adversary who doesn’t conform in some way to Jones’ description, their motivations exactly those of Milton’s Satan:

One who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

But a Dark Lord alone does not a Fantasyland make.

Continue reading “Fantasyland”

Pre-echoes

Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)
Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (image: public domain)

Alison Croggan The Bone Queen
The First Book of Pellinor
Walker Books Ltd 2016

After a gap of eight years Alison Croggan has fulfilled her promise to her fans that she would further enrich the narratives of her epic fantasy series known as Pellinor. Her world of Edil-Amarandh — in which Pellinor is merely one city — is set in a dim and distant past where not only magic is a reality but also perilous realms exist beyond the everyday world of humans, realms where entities like the Bone Queen can survive. If we want to imagine Edil-Amarandh we can do worse than picture it as a pre-echo of Atlantis, a continent positioned somewhere between the Old World and the New with mountainous spines somewhat reminiscent of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. All of the action of The Bone Queen takes place in the north, in the lee of the Osidh Elador mountains, between Lirigon and Pellinor.

So much for context: we read fiction primarily for stories concerning characters, not worldbuilding, and it is to people we now turn.

Continue reading “Pre-echoes”

Globetrotting with Dido

sarah-casket-chartIn a previous post I mentioned that in Night Birds on Nantucket our young heroine Dido Twite would go a-voyaging from her native London all around the world. In this, the third instalment of the Wolves Chronicles, she manages to cross the equator four times — though two of those occasions were while in a coma. In this post I intend to look at the places visited by Dido, while further posts will focus on people, themes and Dido’s use of language.

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A mountain to climb

John Keay The Great Arc:
the dramatic tale of how India was mapped
and Everest was named

HarperCollins 2001 (2000)

At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — the legend appears plausible until one considers the likelihood that the present building was only constructed between 1797 and 1803. Be that as it may, there is a neatness about George Everest’s possible connections with the Black Mountains and the mountain named after him in 1865, with the added irony that he never actually set eyes on the world’s highest summit.

Lieutenant, later Colonel, George Everest — the name should be pronounced Eve-rest, by the way, not as three-syllabic Ever-est — succeeded William Lambton as principal surveyor of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, which in time became the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The Arc closely followed the meridian 78° east of Greenwich, spreading its triangulated tentacles east and west in its effort to accurately map the whole of British India, from Cape Comorin in the south to the Himalayan foothills in the north and beyond. The rate of attrition for the army of surveyors, their assistants and support was equivalent to the decimation of an army over its half-century of existence; malaria, fevers, animal attacks and sheer exhaustion exacted a heavy price for the inch-perfect survey.

The epic story of Lambton, Everest, their assistants and successors as told by John Keay is one of slow but steady success despite Continue reading “A mountain to climb”

A fine weird imagination

1881 unexplored
The parts of the world (vertical stripes) still ‘unexplored’ by Western nations around 1881

H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)

Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.

As with Treasure Island the author tries hard to create verisimilitude by seemingly accurate details. Continue reading “A fine weird imagination”

Westward Ho!

Oz
Map of the Countries near to the Land of Oz

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …
— Kipling 1889

Many years ago I had a Chinese poster from the Communist era showing the interior of a classroom. On a wall was a world map which — and this is what particularly interested me — positioned China dead centre. In a flash I understood where much of that country’s paranoia came from: to the left was Western Europe and Soviet Russia and its satellites, to the right was the USA, and it was quite clear that Red China felt completely beset by rivals or foes. Are we surprised that Chinese corporations are now busy exploiting commercial opportunities all around the Indian Ocean, South America and elsewhere if their maps continue to suggest China’s a beleaguered country?

It was a natural step for me to realise that America’s own Cold War paranoia stemmed from its world view, US maps showing the country surrounded by Chinese communists to its west and, to its east, communist Eastern Europe and Russian Soviets. No wonder conservative Americans worried about Reds under the bed and commie sympathisers.

On the other hand, the British psyche was long buoyed up by its being centrally placed on its world maps, the globe’s chronology even being set by Greenwich Mean Time. Huge swathes of the world were coloured pink — Canada, bits of Africa, Australia and innumerable colonies and possessions — until, in the mid-20th century, that Empire was slowly but surely eased from its hands. Right now Britain also feels embattled, cut loose from its former Empire, increasingly casting itself adrift from Europe and encouraged to believe itself menaced by ‘swarms’ and ‘floods’ of immigrants.

It’s interesting how we create and maintain a view of the world from our own perspective, despite Donne’s reminder that  Continue reading “Westward Ho!”

Topographical diversions

Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887
Part of Tabula Peutingeriana, Konrad Miller´s facsimile from 1887 showing the heel and toe of Italy; east is at the top of the map

Of course, books aren’t the only things that we can read. Anything with written or printed words count, naturally, but if you are musically literate you’ll also be familiar with notation, the ‘dots’ that singers and instrumentalists can transform into sounds as much as letters do for speech. And there’s more. There are maps.

I love maps. I love the virtual reality they offer for those who like wandering around landscapes or streets, for the bird’s eye view one can gain of an environment.

Now I know that not everyone gets on with maps. It’s occasionally said that dyslexics can have especial difficulties — our son has some dyslexia and so prefers to use satnavs for road journeys, for example — though this seems to be a problem to do with spatial thinking, with creating a mental picture of that space, a cognitive map. Topographical Disorder or Disorientation may be the wrong diagnosis here, because that condition appears to result from some damage to the brain. Maybe it’s more to do with easily confusing left and right, which many if not most of us experience to a greater or lesser degree.

But I digress. Continue reading “Topographical diversions”

Contemplating the Narniad

Ptolemaicsystem
The spheres of above the Earth: Luna, Mercurius, Venus, Sol, Mars, Jove, Saturn, the Stars and the Empyrean

 

Michael Ward Planet Narnia:
the seven heavens in the imagination of C S Lewis

Oxford University Press 2008

It is of supreme importance [in the construction of the human person] that children hear good fables and not bad. — Plato The Republic

I have been on the look-out for Michael Ward’s study of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia ever since his 2009 BBC TV documentary The Narnia Code (also the title of a condensed version of Planet Narnia published in 2010). The seven titles of the so-called Narniad have garnered praise and criticism in almost equal part, frequently fixated on the author’s Christian subtext. Sometimes there have been attempts to ascertain Lewis’ grand design for the Chronicles: why seven? Does each have a distinct theme? Is there a hidden meaning other than that obvious subtext?

Michael Ward has come up with a closely-argued and fully-referenced proposition that Lewis, long enamoured with classical and medieval literary traditions, fashioned his sevenfold book series according to the seven pre-Copernican heavens, each ruled by a ‘planet’. The Narniad (as the sequence is sometimes known) “was a literary equivalent of Holst’s Planet Suite; each one of the seven heavens gave the key to a different Chronicle” (page 251). Above the earth in the pre-Copernican universe were a set of concentric spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Above that were the stars, the Primum Mobile and the Abode of God. Each book of the Narniad is based on the mood, atmosphere and characteristics of one of these bodies as personified in pagan mythology and appropriated by medieval Christianity. Lewis, so Ward suggests, wanted to suffuse each book with those planetary aspects that he had assigned to them, such as joviality, saturninity, mercurialness and so on.

Continue reading “Contemplating the Narniad”

Landscapes to walk in

An old photograph of Dunluce Castle, Country Antrim, Northern Ireland: the model for Cair Paravel?

 

C S Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia
HarperCollins Children’sBooks 2004

seven children’s tales
underpinned by magic, myth
and theology

Is there anyone who hasn’t heard of Narnia, that magical world reached by various rather devious means, most famously through a wardrobe? The films and, before them, British TV serials, not to mention DVD sales, have widened the audience for the books which, decades after their first publication, still sell by the shelf-full. Aided and abetted by Pauline Baynes’ classic illustrations this collection of the novels in their chronological sequence in a one-volume hardback edition is clearly designed to be enjoyed, kept and treasured. And I intend to keep it and treasure it, but I wasn’t as enraptured by Lewis’ tales as I was led to expect. Continue reading “Landscapes to walk in”