Farther up, farther in

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From Spare Oom to War Drobe:
travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self,
by Katherine Langrish,
introduction by Brian Sibley.
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2021

C. S. Lewis changed my life. He certainly influenced the way I thought, though it didn’t quite work out as you might imagine.

From the Afterword.

In a way that doesn’t quite apply to Middle-earth, Narnia’s magic seems to affect adults and children quite differently. And adults who only read C S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia in childhood tend to report a nostalgic delight, unlike readers like me, who only became acquainted with them in later life, and whose visits have proved rather more troublesome and even disturbing.

Katherine Langrish has done both, the initial visits and the later return, and this (along with being an accomplished writer herself) puts her in a good position to provide this guide for readers of more mature years. She began honing her skills as a writer with what we’d now call fanfic, eagerly writing her own Tales of Narnia, so when she subtitles her book ‘travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self’ she attempts that difficult balancing trick of simultaneously imagining herself at that impressionable age while observing from her adult perspective.

That she succeeds is of huge benefit for her readers if, like me, one is persuaded to both see with the eyes of one of the target audience and also observe with the mind of the adult critic. Like before and after photos placed side by side of a slightly decrepit house in the process of restoration one is able to see the details of the original building as well as the work done in revealing its materials and structure, all before it’s reassembled into an edifice fit for purpose and a new lease of life.

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The evolution of Aragorn

Bellerophon and the Chimaera
Bellerophon and the Chimaera: artefact in the British Museum © C A Lovegrove

Hobbit to Hero:
the making of Tolkien’s King
by Elizabeth M Stephen.
ADC Publications 2012

Aragorn son of Arathorn, the returning king of the third part of The Lord of the Rings, is as a character very familiar to us now from the Peter Jackson films, but he made little impression on me during my first reading of the trilogy in the late sixties, and not much more on subsequent readings. This, I’d imagine, was a very common situation until the turn of this century.

As is pointed out in Hobbit to Hero there has been, apart from a chapter in Paul Kocher’s 1972 study Master of Middle-earth, precious little extended discussion of Aragorn in any commentary, certainly not in Isaacs and Zimbardo’s Tolkien and the Critics (1968), Lobdell’s 1975 A Tolkien Compass (not, as twice in this text, The Tolkien Compass) nor even in Eaglestone’s Reading The Lord of the Rings collection of essays (2005).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Tolkien student — heaven knows I’ve tried and failed several times to read The Silmarillion, and I’m a stranger to most of Christopher Tolkien’s editings of his father’s incomplete drafts — so can’t vouch that this is so for all the scribblings of Tolkien scholars and fans. But Elizabeth Stephen is a lifelong student, so should know what exists on the subject of Tolkien’s king; and apparently “it is by no means unusual for the name of Aragorn to barely receive a mention”.

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Midgard myths re-mixed

Sigurd fights the dragon
Sigurd fights the dragon

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
by J R R Tolkien,
edited by Christopher Tolkien.
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)

Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.

One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures.

Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.

This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment.

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Ensnarèd chastity

Ludlow Castle © C A Lovegrove

Comus (1634) by John Milton,
edited by A W Verity.
Cambridge University Press 1927 (1909)

Come, Lady, while Heaven lends us grace,
Let us fly this cursed place,
Lest the sorcerer us entice
With some other new device.

With these words we’re taken to the nub of John Milton’s masque, which is that a wicked magician has entrapped a maiden, and that rescue may be at hand if nothing further awful happens. This is the stuff of fairytales, and we may expect a happy-ever-after ending, but this isn’t necessarily a given: after all it’s from the Stuart period, when nearly every bit of art had a political dimension, as it had been in the Tudor era.

And we may consider the audience of this intended narrative, the Earl of Bridgewater, lately ensconced in a castle on the Welsh borders where he might oversee a people possibly still uppity about being absorbed into English culture through new laws and a new official language. How would Milton bestride the fence between his Puritan leanings and the royalist sponsor it was written for?

This critical edition of the text has a certain historical value, it being more than a century old, but it still has much to say of worth, I think. Still, the play’s the thing, as another playwright wrote; and whomsoever’s conscience is caught Comus retains a certain curiosity for its poetry and for its concession to the masque genre with, admittedly, a rather sober frivolity.

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The townie’s godsend

Foxgloves, buttercups and orchid, Wales
Foxgloves, buttercups and orchid, West Wales

Wild Flowers of Britain & Europe,
by Wolfgang Lippert, Dieter Podlech,
translated and adapted by Martin Walters.
Collins Nature Guide, HarperCollins Publishers 1994

Wales, high summer, 2013. Hardly tautological as juxtapositions go, but with temperatures hovering near 30° Celsius (the mid-80s Fahrenheit, in old money) this may well be as good as it gets this year.

As usual, the varying combinations in spring of cold or mild and dry or wet weather produce a profusion or dearth of native flowers and their early or late blooming.

This year’s mix has been distinctive, and with the help of pocket guides like this we’ve been able to do a casual audit of what we can see in our excuse for an orchard and lonesome hay meadow.

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A bold but misguided exercise

King Arthur: engraving based on a 1874 photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron

King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend
by Rodney Castleden.
Routledge 1999

Rodney Castleden is well known as an investigator into prehistoric enigmas such as the Minoan civilisation, Neolithic Britons and giant hill figures, and has here turned his attention to Arthur. As expected, this is a widely researched book burrowing into scholarly literature, archaeological reports, fringe theories and texts both ancient and modern. There are photos of relevant sites and a generous helping of detailed maps, plans and figures mostly by the author himself (though, disappointingly, three illustrations by the present reviewer are uncredited and unacknowledged) and the whole is attractively laid out. There are a few typos, some of which didn’t seem to have been corrected for the paperback edition, but these don’t detract too much.

After setting the scene Castleden plunges into an examination of the nature of the available early documentation and what is known of the archaeology of post-Roman Britain; he then outlines the historical context before turning his gaze on the man himself, his possible power bases and his disappearance.

It won’t be giving too much away to say that he plumps for a West Country setting for Arthur, but that he places his demise and burial far away from Glastonbury and not at any of the expected sites.

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Raising self esteem

Anti-Bullying Week in the UK this year runs from Monday 16th to Friday 20th November. Under the umbrella of the Anti-Bullying Alliance it aims to “stop bullying and create safer environments in which children and young people can live, grow, play and learn.”

Of course bullying doesn’t just happen amongst children: it’s found in the workplace, in politics, in society in general — and people can feel bullied by circumstances as much as by other people — but this week is of necessity directed primarily at youngsters.

Psychologist Emily Lovegrove (Reader, I married her — and vice versa of course), also known as The Bullying Doctor (yes, I’ve heard the jokes), has authored two self-help books for youngsters on coping with bullying.

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Myths and therapy

Morgan le Fay

Brendan McMahon:
The Princess Who Ate People:
the Psychology of Celtic Myths
Heart of Albion Press 2006

First, I have to say this is a wonderful title for a book, encouraging the reader to delve inside the covers. The author here looks primarily at Irish and Welsh mythical narratives with his psychotherapist’s eye, seeking for ways in which these old tales can help modern patients make sense of their own dilemmas and help restore integrity and identity.

Though Irish tales dominate his study, native British stories put in an appearance, including some Welsh Arthurian narratives. The commentary is critical of aspects of classic Freudian analysis, and here I wish McMahon’s concluding chapter, which encapsulates his approach, had begun the book.

Some stimulating ideas are here, therefore, even for those unsympathetic with Freudian theory, so I will only mention a couple of niggles. First up are the typos – I can’t believe that there wasn’t time to proofread the text before publishing – and secondly, I was disappointed that the striking cover by Ian Brown was not really as representative of Mis, the Irish princess of the title, as I expected.

The final word must go to the author: “The fact is that the psychological complexity of the tales, with their rich interplay between the internal, interpersonal and social worlds, debars any simple reductionist interpretation, Freudian or otherwise.” Amen to that, I say.


Repost of a review first published online 25th March 2013, and before that in the Journal of the Pendragon Society, in 2006

The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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Allegorical narratives

Maria Sachiko Cecire: Re-Enchanted.
The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
University of Minnesota Press 2019

Described on the back cover blurb as a new genealogy for medievalist fantasy Maria Sachiko Cecire’s study is important for recalibrating — in literature, in other media, in philosophical outlooks — the assumptions of many of us admirers of this genre. Focusing on five areas, namely childhood reading, the Oxford University English syllabus, the fabricated enchantment of Christmas, so-called ’empires of the mind’, and developments in the 21st century, Cecire takes apart the foundations of 20th-century fantasy, examines them, finds what’s wanting but then also points out what remains of real worth.

She starts with her own childhood realisation that, as an American of Japanese-Italian descent she “would never grow up to be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed fairy-tale princess”; she later learnt that her experience of “racialized self-alienation [was] far from unique.” Re-Enchanted thus became a project searching for the origins of Anglo-American fantasy and, as she puts it, “its special relationship to ideas about childhood, modernity, and the raced, gendered self.”

I can’t emphasise how important this study is in helping not just academics but also a wider public to understand how white European medievalist fantasies adopted an imperialist and colonialist stance, one which has held sway for too long — but one which may yet have the capacity to evolve and change to suit 21st-century sensibilities, particularly where race and gender and culture are concerned. Tempting though it may be to quote extensively from the text (Cecire makes her points both succinctly and in depth, paradoxical though that may seem) I shall try to resist the urge — while simultaneously hoping my paraphrasing doesn’t misrepresent her argument.

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Life of Python

mpfoot

Graham Chapman (Estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam,
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Bob McCabe:
The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons
Orion Books 2005 (2003)

All the Pythons (one from his grave) give a collective account of the career of the owner of one Flying Circus, an account made up of extracts from interviews and extracts from diaries and published memoirs.

The late Graham Chapman is represented by his own surreal recollections and comments from family members and partner, while the rest discourse freely on their early lives, education, university experiences (principally Oxbridge) and occupations as comedy writers, actors and (in the case of Terry Gilliam) cartoonist, before fame, fortune, frustration and infamy beckoned.

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The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

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When legend becomes fact

Crickhowell Castle, 1831

Leonardo Olschki: The Grail Castle and its Mysteries
Translated from the Italian by J A Scott
Edited, with a foreword, by Eugène Vinaver

Manchester University Press 1966

Graal: “scutella lata et aliquantulum profunda in qua preciosae dapes divitibus solent apponi gradatim, unus morsellus post alium in diversis ordinibus” (a wide and deep saucer, in which precious food is ceremoniously presented, one piece at a time in sundry rows)
Helinand de Froidmont (early 13th century)

If you were thinking the mysteries of the grail castle were to do with long-lost holy relics, Last Supper chalices, magical stones, Celtic cauldrons, secret occult societies, witches, extraterrestrial visitors or even the blood of Christ you will need to look elsewhere. (There are whole libraries in Babel to cater for each and every taste in such mysteries.)¹

First published in 1961 as ‘Il castello del Re Pescatore e i suoi misteri nel Conte del Graal di Chrétien de Troyes’ (The Castle of the Fisher King and its mysteries in Chrétien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail) this is not a publication aimed at a popular market: with a foreword by a foremost Arthurian scholar, key extracts from the medieval romance in the original French, and furnished with footnotes, endnotes and a select bibliography, this monograph (less than a hundred pages) is very much a closely argued academic paper from someone very familiar with the literature and theology of the period in question. The author also effectively — though very politely — demolishes alternative theories from his fellow scholars as to the nature of those mysteries.

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Mainline in miniature

Southern Maid

Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
RH&DR 2016

Combine our fascination with small-scale models, dolls and simulacra of all kinds with the romance of railways (especially steam engines) and what do you get? Miniature railways of course! These naturally range from toy train sets to model railway layouts and beyond, including quite small locos that can pull a couple of extended families round a circular track; but I want to talk about a more ambitious type of miniature railway.

Often described (and with initials in capital letters too!) as The World’s Smallest Public Railway, the RH&DR was from the start conceived and built in the first third of the twentieth century as a miniature version of its bigger siblings, running on 15-inch gauge, with engines and rolling stock roughly one-third the size we’d expect to encounter.

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