At the start of August I outlined my bookish plans for that month which, even at the time, seemed quite ambitious. How did I do, I hear you all cry. (Not.) Here’s a quick update, my original schedule now annotated in green (for those seeing text in colour.)Continue reading “Doing sums”
An insubstantial shadow
The Figure of Arthur
by Richard Barber.
Arthur of Albion, published in 1961 when the author was 20, was Richard Barber’s first book on Arthur. The present one is a reaction against the current vision,¹ among others, of a Cadbury-based Arthur:
“[T]he orthodox view of Arthur is in danger of becoming accepted as fact by default of a challenger. […] If it seems that all that has been achieved [in this book] is to offer a different but equally insubstantial shadow we can expect no more.”
This “historical Arthur” postulated by current opinion  is an attractive theory but it has its difficulties, he says.
- Documentary evidence in itself is insufficient: the authority of the evidence has to be considered since the writing of history was formerly regarded as a literary activity and not as the objective recording of facts.
- Archaeology rarely supplements historical detail but instead “provides the forest which the historian cannot see for trees.”
- Psychological traps abound for the unwary; since history abhors a vacuum a shape-shifting figure must be created by each era to fulfil its aspirational requirements.
a Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley.
Edited with introduction and notes by Brian Alderson.
World’s Classics, Oxford University Press 1995 (1863)
The Water-Babies first appeared in book form in 1863, more than a century and a half ago. Though I was probably aware of it when younger, I must have read it for myself in the early 1960s in one of those cheap Dent’s children’s classics editions. A decade later I was re-reading it and taking notes, spurred on by the challenge Kingsley issues in his dedication:
Come read me my riddle, each good little man:
If you cannot read it, no grown-up folk can.
Of course, The Water-Babies was written for his youngest son, Grenville Arthur, who was just five when the last chapter was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine, but I felt that I was included amongst the ‘all other good little boys’ of the dedication. But being from a hundred and more years later I could hardly be expected to get all the references, and so began decades of intermittent desultory research.
This 1995 issue with Brian Alderson’s introduction, extensive notes, select bibliography and chronology of Kingsley’s life both confirmed and hugely expanded my understanding of the novel; but to be honest I still feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating if flawed masterpiece. This review, therefore, can only hint at the solution to Kingsley’s sly riddle.
The Goblin Emperor
by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette).
Tor Books 2014.
When readers whose judgement you trust recommend this novel and even go as far as re-reading it within a short space of time you know there is something special about it.
And yet what on the surface of it makes it outstanding? It’s fantasy, yes — the title suggests as much — and there’s worldbuilding, and there’s the disregarded child who’s an orphan, and there are seemingly unpronounceable names, everything in fact that screams at the lover of contemporary novels to pass over this book. And I too, who ordinarily enjoys fantasy, am one who tends to put a book back on the bookshop pile when faced with a cast list of — it feels like — thousands, all with alien names.
So I have to ask myself then why I found this such an unputdownable title, and then perhaps attempt to persuade you to give it a try.
Many avenues to explore
Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)
Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.
The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter,
Virago Press 1981 (1967)
Bluebeard’s Castle hides
a puppeteer of humans
who defy their fate
Though this is an early work, I found it a much more engrossing read than some of Angela Carter’s shorter stories in the collection The Bloody Chamber. One of the fascinating things about humans is their propensity for confounding expectations, and while it was possible to see where the narrative generally was going, I was drawn to these grotesques (despite their very obvious failings) by their surprising resourcefulness as they tried to cope with Uncle Philip’s cruel and despotic regime and almost overpowering psychic vampirism.
In fact, despite their clearly delineated and sometimes unforgivable vices (unsavoury habits, voyeurism, unmitigated cruelty, incestuous relationships and acquiescent victimhood) you can’t help admiring their positive, mostly creative attributes: Finn’s painting, Francie’s musicianship, Margaret’s jewel-like cooking, Jonathan’s model-making, Melanie’s needlework, even Uncle Philip’s sheer inventiveness and craft.
A meditation on solitude
Z for Zachariah
by Robert C O’Brien,
Puffin 1998 (1974)
In the 60s and 70s I frequently had vivid dreams about nuclear bombs detonating, the images of blinding flash and mushroom cloud familiar from countless newsreel clips of the Hiroshoma and Nagasaki attacks, the subsequent atomic bomb tests by the major powers and the Cuba missile crisis.
I had also watched the BBC TV docu-drama The War Game when it was shown in cinemas in 1966, and that had made a huge impression on me, reinforced when I read Raymond Briggs’ 1982 graphic novel When the Wind Blows. All these impressions were re-awoken when I finally got round to reading Z for Zachariah and coloured my first responses to it, centred on the absolute futility of nuclear war.
But the more I think about this novel, the more I wonder at its richness in respect of what is implicit as well as what is explicit.
A ‘novel’ novel
Review first published 19th February 2015, then reposted 21st October when Tim Burton’s film of the same name was on general release. Reappearing again as part of Dewithon19, this is the last of my reposts of reviews for this event.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Quirk Books 2013 (2011)
There is a technique storytellers use whereby cues — words, phrases, scenes, characters suggested by audience members — are randomly inserted into an improvised narrative. Italo Calvino built up his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies upon a sequence of Tarot cards, using the images to suggest not only a possible narrative but also to link to other classic narratives. These processes are similar to the ways in which Ransom Riggs constructs 16-year-old Jacob Portman’s journey from suburban Florida to a wet and windy island off the coast of Wales. Authentic ‘found’ vintage photographs of sometimes strange individuals placed in enigmatic positions or curious scenarios — these are the bones on which the author constructs his fantasy of children (with, shall we say, unusual talents) and the dangers they potentially face. For the reader the inclusion of these photos at appropriate points in the text is not only an added bonus but an integral and highly effective facet of the tale.
A remarkable narrator
The Origins of the ‘Four Branches of the Mabinogi’
Gracewing Publishing 2009
Four medieval stories in Welsh — Pwyll Prince of Dyfed, Branwen Daughter of Llŷr, Manawydan Son of Llŷr and Math Son of Mathonwy — form a unique cycle of tales drawing in characters, motifs and tale-types from Celtic mythology and folktale, all set in the recognisable medieval landscape of Wales and adjacent parts of England. If they didn’t exist our understanding of Celtic myth and legend would be immeasurably the poorer, but our knowledge of the circumstances of this unique retelling and, very importantly, the author and their motivations for setting it all down are severely hampered by lacunae, scholarly suppositions and sometimes wild speculations.
The premise of this book is easily told.
Passant on a green and white field
Carl Lofmark (G A Wells, editor):
A History of the Red Dragon
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch (No 4 Welsh Heritage Series)
In 1959 the Queen sanctioned the flying of the now familiar Welsh flag on Government buildings in Wales and in London, whenever “appropriate”, officially recognising a national symbol that has had a long but mixed history. In this booklet by the late Carl Lofmark the convoluted story of its origins, use and development is traced to the point where the dragon and the colour red is ubiquitous on March 1st, the feast of St David, patron saint of Wales. Why a dragon? And why is it red?
A trio of recent micropoems from sister blog Zenrinji which you may have missed: an alphabetical, quizzical and musical triptych
Alpha et omigosh
Aetiologically, behind church dogma
exist fairytales, glossed historical
in Jewish knowledge: legends,
mythological now our periodic questing
reveals said tales unverified;
voices waxing xenial, yet zigzagging.
and a cat
entered a zoo, flew
through a maze. Exits
blocked, quick as a
Inspired by a recital given by pianist Llyr Williams
The audience is audibly awaiting:
chattering, anticipating, alert.
Now obbligato applause, a white noise,
greets our soloist, striding then still,
biding by keyboard, lid glinting, spotlit.
A waltz by Chopin, a mazurka or two,
insinuate themselves into the silence.
Tinkles and ripples and staccato notes
stipple the auditorium airwaves.
Seconds pass, minutes; a barcarolle beckons us
for an aural tour right round Europe,
through France and Poland and then into Italy.
But now a crescendo glissando, fortissimo:
an impromptu motorbike adding its basso
to the soundscape again and again.
And again. Then diminuendo.
Now, as Greig’s trolls begin their march
a monotone idée fixe intrudes
its extruded ostinato from the street:
the persistent trill of burglar alarm riffing its repetitive roundelay.
Through the Norwegian notturno it rings
and on into rippling brooklet arpeggios
till suddenly conspicuous by absence.
Interval over, Fauré leads us back
to La Serenissima with a barcarolle.
His nocturne’s punctuated by a percussive bark,
subsiding, stifled, as cough-calming,
transcendental Liszt breathes un sospiro,
his sighs and harmonies du soir checking chair creak
and soft yet sonorous snores.
Tumultuous hail-like clatter greets our virtuoso.
He smiles, he acknowledges, he returns
and settles to our final reward:
Schubert’s G flat Impromptu.
You can hear a piano drop to pianissimo;
a few tear drops are shed, and shared.
More poems, micropoems, senryu, haiku, doggerel and flash fiction on Zenrinji
R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)
There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.
Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?
Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.
The minx (1)
Repost, now 1/4 posts of a short story
Minnie was three going on four when she realised she had a special ability. With parents and siblings all keen on fantasy movies she naturally thought of it as her superpower, one she had to keep secret.
She knew all about secret identities — after all she was really Jasmine but everyone called her Minnie, and very apt as she was the youngest in the family. Her mum had wanted to call her after Hermione in the Harry Potter stories but she was shouted down by the rest of the family. So Minnie she became, at home, at playgroup and in nursery class.
She only gradually became aware of her superpower. A natural mimic, Minnie showed her dislike of certain individuals by copying and exaggerating their actions — behind their backs of course; she soon learned the folly of imitating them to their faces. With an unwelcome house visitor or an over-strict teacher she would stand or walk behind them, echoing their movements, perfecting an innocent look when the victim wondered why bystanders were laughing.
It was when she stumbled as she followed a flustered supply teacher to a corner that she noticed the teacher also stumble and collide with a stack of chairs. Her curiosity piqued, further experimentation seemed to indicate to her quick mind a causal relationship. If while staring intently at the back of an adult’s neck she nodded her head, so did the perplexed adult. If, sitting behind a new pupil in assembly, she slapped her own forehead, so did the confused child in front of her. If, on the bus to the shopping centre with her mum she rubbed her chin vigorously, so did the smelly woman sitting two seats ahead of her.
She was a bright girl; she realised she could turn this ability to her advantage so she practised in secret, without anyone watching, till her usual audience forgot her original antics. Sitting in the window of the family’s front room she would gaze intently at passers-by, picking her nose or scratching at an imaginary itch, and was always rewarded by the resulting copycat reactions. And she practised and practised, convinced there would come a time when she could save the world or defeat a Dark Lord with her amazing superpower.
One day, into Minnie’s class came a new boy, Darren. She took an instant dislike to him. In assembly she was delighted to find she was sat on the floor in the row behind him. She waited for the right moment and then, staring hard at him, began to pinch her upper left arm really hard. But Darren didn’t oblige; instead he turned around to her; and on his face was what she knew from superhero movies to be a supervillain’s evil smile. He knew! Her eyes widened in sudden fear.
Then, as he watched her, he began, very deliberately, to scratch his cheeks with his nails, ugly red marks appearing on his skin. And there was a lurch in Minnie’s heart as she involuntarily raised her hands to her own face.
Another exercise for creative writing class, inviting participants to imagine an individual with a superpower. In response to a few requests I’ve now continued Minnie’s story to a suitable conclusion in a series of four consecutive posts; you’ll be pleased to know that this then constituted the full assignment I completed for the unit on writing short stories
Stonehenge’s mythic history
Brian John The Bluestone Enigma:
Stonehenge, Preseli and the Ice Age
Greencroft Books 2008
Ancient man didn’t
transport stones hundreds of miles.
And nor did Merlin.
Brian John, who lives in Pembrokeshire (where much of this study is set), has had a long interest in this whole subject area. A Geography graduate of Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to obtain a D Phil there for a study of the Ice Age in Wales. Among other occupations he was a field scientist in Antarctica and a Geography Lecturer in Durham University, and is currently a publisher and the author of a number of articles, university texts, walking guides, coffee table glossies, tourist guides, titles on local folklore and traditions, plus books from popular science to local jokes. His credentials are self-evident when it comes to discussing Stonehenge.
One of the strongest modern myths about Stonehenge to have taken root is that the less monumental but no less impressive so-called bluestones were physically brought by prehistoric peoples from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Wiltshire. The second strongest modern myth is that the whole saga was somehow remembered over a hundred or more generations to be documented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century as a feat of Merlin. In this self-published title Dr John examines these and other myths and finds them wanting in terms of echoing reality. Continue reading “Stonehenge’s mythic history”
Tame by modern tastes
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen. Parthian Books, 2010.
Tame by modern tastes:
When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.
Though Machen only died in 1947, the year before I was born, his style of writing is very much of a different age, and untouched by any sense of urgency; it’s hard to believe his life and mine were so close to overlapping.
I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. By today’s standards the horror (and Machen tends to get his characters to refer to ‘horror’ in case we can’t put a word to their feelings) is pretty tame, more alluded to than described.