Bleak midwinter

Beware the Rider

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
Vintage Classics 2013 (1973)

If, in a fantasy set during the twelve days of Christmas, you’re expecting lords leaping, geese laying or partridges in pear trees then you’d be sorely disappointed: despite the fact that there are seasonal gifts for young Will Stanton this is no twee tale of sweethearts, nativities or jolly old St Nicholas. Instead we get an intense battle between the Light and the Dark, accompanied by elemental forces in nature and threatened by betrayal.

Following on from Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) this novel focuses on a new protagonist, Will, but is linked with the earlier novel by the appearance of Merriman Lyon and passing references to the chalice which had featured in the earlier Cornish adventure. Will is due to have his eleventh birthday on December 21st, midwinter’s day: it’s already a magical time, with the sun ‘standing still’ for the solstice, but Will also happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact which marks him out for an epic struggle and for which he at first appears inadequate.

But Will is no ordinary youngster: he discovers soon enough that he is one of the Old Ones.

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Rex Futurus

King Arthur by Julia Margaret Cameron

I have a confession: I’m not a fan of Arthurian fiction.

There, I’ve said it. Why so? It comes from a half century of involvement in Arthurian matters, from archaeological research to editing a society journal, during which I came into forced contact with innumerable theories about ‘rex quondam’ in fiction, in non-fiction and creative non-fiction. Some were plausible, most were speculative, and whole libraries of them were, frankly, preposterous. So in a way I’m the last person to be enthusiastic about this particular literary genre.

And yet, there are aspects I delight in. In amongst the many servings of clichéd tropes (many even falling far short of Steinbeck’s 1976 Malory-inspired The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights) there are gems that catch the eye. Three overlapping areas I’ve noticed concern the King himself, Merlin and the Grail, so I shall divide this discussion into these three sections. Also, along the spectrum shading from history to legend is another axis taking us from an imagined past to a future via a notional ‘present’. To keep things a little focused I shall confine myself to the 20th century; needless to say this is neither a comprehensive survey nor an impersonal one.

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Stories both exciting and different

Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith
Peter Dickinson in 1999 Photo: Brian Smith (Daily Telegraph)

In my current phase (though I suspect it’ll be a permanent phase) of mixing re-reads in with titles and writers new to me it struck me that an overview of some of the authors I’m revisiting might give an indication of why I find them eminently readable. Oddly, the book I’m reading and enjoying now — The Ropemaker (shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2001 and winning the Mythopoeic Award in 2002) — is a fantasy novel by one of these writers which, even though it’s been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years, proves to be a title I hadn’t tackled before.

The Ropemaker‘s creator Peter Dickinson, who died at the age of 88 in December 2015, authored a wide range of books including children’s novels and detective stories. Rather to his disgust he was perhaps best known for The Changes Trilogy which appeared as separate children’s novels nearly fifty years ago, beginning with The Weathermonger (1968) and continuing with Heartsease (1969) and The Devil’s Children (1970). The Weathermonger, while perhaps the weakest of the three, is the most Arthurian, an aspect which attracted it to me when I first read it many years ago. In the author’s own words, “The Weathermonger sprang from a nightmare. I had lain awake retelling the dream, putting myself in charge of it, outwitting or defeating its monsters, in order to get back to sleep, but instead had spent the rest of the night finishing the story in my head.” This dream furnished the premise of the trilogy, “set in a near-future England in which use of machines is equated with witchcraft,” all brought on by the chance re-awakening of that archetypal wizard Merlin.

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Set in a bizarre Britain

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Diana Wynne Jones The Merlin Conspiracy
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2004 (2003)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

Until I first read this in 2004 my only previous acquaintance with Diana Wynne Jones was through her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Vista 1996), a thoroughly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek encyclopaedic tour of the conventions of post-Tolkien fantasy writing. This outing for the much-published children’s writer includes much of that irreverent humour (we meet an elephant called Mini and a coffee-addicted SF-detective writer called Maxwell Hyde, for example, whose name seems to be a compound of a well-known instant coffee brand and a literary split personality). And it all starts with the title, which is about a conspiracy concerning the Merlin.

From this we gather that the main setting for the plot is not Earth as we know it but an alternative world in a fictional multiverse. Nick Malory, supposedly originating from ‘our’ world, is eventually propelled into this other Britain which goes by the name of Blest; Blest is a rather apt name, not only for its Otherworld echoes in Greek and Celtic mythology but also because many of its denizens are witches and others adept at natural magic (such as the story’s other principal protagonist, Arianrhod). The conspiracy involves the replacement of ‘the Merlin’ — chief wizard of the country of Logres, England in our world — with a false Merlin. Naturally this has repercussions on Blest, its wider world and on parallel worlds. Oh, and did I mention time-travel as well?

Right up to its apocalyptic conclusion this is a very readable novel, despite its convoluted plot, and one you may well get through in very few sittings. For those with a penchant for legends a lot of the fun comes from spotting both the overt and subtler Arthurian references, along with undertones of William Blake and others. Then perhaps it’ll be time to search out those other titles of hers — such as Deep Secret, this book’s prequel in the Magids mini-series, or her posthumous The Islands of Chaldea, set in another bizarre Britain the equal of the Isles of the Blest.

  • March is remembered by Jones fans every year as an occasion to celebrate her work in the month of her death. DWJMarch (the brainchild of Kristen of the We Be Reading blog) — has now been expanded  to include Terry Pratchett and has therefore morphed into March Magics! This then is a DWJ taster in case I don’t get round to (re)reading one of her novels in March. By the way, this is an edited repost of an online review I did a few years ago for LibraryThing and Goodreads, adapted from a journal review I did around ten years or so ago

The essence of good storytelling

Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007

glastonbury_crossMy expectations for a historical-fiction Arthur-type character are rather specific. I don’t rate at all highly any back-projections of Malory, Tennyson or even Geoffrey of Monmouth into a sub-Roman context, with medieval concepts of round tables, grails and swords embedded in stones appearing anachronistically in Late Antiquity. And so my heart sank when I began reading a scenario involving a Lady in a Lake in this young adult fiction book.

But, dedicated Arthurian that I am, I persisted, and am very glad to have done so. For the essence of every good story-teller (and Philip Reeve is one of these) includes the gift of using such motifs sensitively. What we have presented here is a tale within a tale, where Reeve weaves a story of how Myrddin embroiders narratives around the exploits of a minor warlord, so that we almost believe that this was the way the Arthurian legends could have come about: with pagan mythology and imagination hijacked by a bard to boost the reputation of a barbarian chieftain.

In a note the author reminds us Continue reading “The essence of good storytelling”

The evolution of Merlin

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Geoffrey Ashe Merlin:
the Prophet and His History

The History Press 2008

Ashe produced his first book on the Arthurian legends – King Arthur’s Avalon – in 1957, and over half a century later he still returns to the Matter of Britain, most recently in this overview of Merlin (first published in 2006 as a hardback by Sutton, now subsumed into The History Press).

In his own words Ashe “traces the evolution of the legend, the growth of Merlin as a character, his possible historical aspect, and the principal treatments of him in literature,” and adds a supplementary list of modern transformations. There is a select group of illustrations which reflect different aspects of Merlin’s developing story, and a useful bibliography (would, however, that it had been divided up into fiction and non-fiction).

Ashe was famously described as a “middlebrow” author, Continue reading “The evolution of Merlin”