It Doesn’t Have To Be the Way It Is – Lessons from Fairytales and Fantasy

Come with me to another place,   a hall house perhaps, where torchlight glances off stone walls hung with scarlet and gold tapestries to keep out the bitter winter draughts;  a world where people are not always kind to each other but they are at least allowed to meet – sometimes next the bridge, on horseback with a sword in hand – and sometimes in someone else’s bedchamber.

In another life (or so it seems) I have been a storyteller.   Equipped with tales of dastardly deeds and magical spells, and together with my lovely friend B, we ran a story circle in a local venue.

Live storytelling is on hold for the moment of course although some have taken their art online. Part of me thinks it would take more ingenuity than even the great wizard of Earthsea possesses to create a suitable atmosphere online.

And yet? One of the things that struck me about the experience of telling stories to a live audience is that however digital and relentlessly modern society, and however mundane the hired room that surrounds, it still takes very little to transport us back in our imaginations to that forest, to sit round the fire, breathing woodsmoke, listening.

So again just for a moment or two, turn down the striplighting and all the neon, replace with fairy lights – the prettiest ones you can find. Add a tall, woven, round backed storyteller’s chair, some candles (sadly batteries essential these days – even the elves have a safety department now) a couple of low, round wooden tables that could double as mushrooms, and I’ll begin…

Once upon a time in a cottage deep in the forest there lived an old lady with two beautiful daughters…

How deeply the forest lies in all our psyches.

 

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In the second volume of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein wrote of Ents, the tree shepherds, guarding their ancient realm of Fangorn Forest where a conversation between trees may take years but it will be one well worth having.  Other beings are scared to enter this forest, yet it is a place of mutual support, sustenance and regard where light, air and the earth’s nutrients are shared among all.

Our two intrepid hobbits Merry and Pippin ask Treebeard (the chief of the Ents) to marshall his forces in support of the war against Sauron and his odious orcs. Treebeard agrees to call a meeting – an Ent moot – to ask the others what they think. After some considerable days spent waiting Merry asks if a decision has been made, to which Treebeard replies: Yes. We have decided that you are not orcs.

It takes a long time to make a decision in Fangorn forest. Interestingly, the book presaged and foresaw the era of environmental catastrophe in which we now live in which Saruman the wizard who has gone to the bad, cuts down trees relentlessly to fuel his war efforts.

In a more scientific way Richard Powers’ stunning novel The Overstory references too the spiritual connections we are losing as we destroy the trees that have guarded over our air and our light for centuries. Powers’ book is more an elegy than a warning. It is almost too late for the latter. Yet there are still trees to save – and they are in our DNA. As are their stories. And there need be no idea of mutual exclusiveness between the realm of fantasy and the realm of science. Each needs the other.

 

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Tolkein’s first book The Hobbit (1937) was written with World War 1 in mind and with the intention of warning against a second world war. (Jack Zipes, Spells of Enchantment, Viking, 1991). Zipes further warns against the saccharine “Disneyising” effect of the film industry and especially its sexual stereotyping. It is fair to add that Zipes’ book is now 30 years old and thankfully in the 21st century some effort is finally being made to address at least this latter point in films such as Frozen.   It took a while.

In her collection of Essays No Time To Spare: Thinking About What Matters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2017, Ursula Le Guin writes:

The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

There are many people it our own world it might be said who don’t like that it doesn’t have to be the way it is. People who are used to pursuing their own ends and being what is regarded in cultural terms as successful. They are happy that everything should stay exactly as it is.  Within their control. People who have what Le Guin terms “rigid reality constructs” don’t like fantasy or the idea that things don’t have to be the way they are.

How, she asks, does the fantastic tale suspend the law of physics? There is a distinction, Le Guin tells us between It doesn’t have to be the way it is thus promoting the idea of other ways and other possibilities and “Anything goes” the latter invoking an idea of being completely irresponsible. The ultimate conclusion of the ‘anything goes’ philosophy is be damned to everyone and everything else.

Not everyone has such extreme views about reading fantasy fiction of course. Some just prefer to read something else – biography or crime or something – considering fantasy to be ‘escapist’. But then what is inherently wrong with escapism? As Le Guin points out, is not the purpose of an escape to move towards freedom?

And is not the whole point of literature to free the mind? So that we can truly believe it doesn’t have to be the way it is.

 

 

 

 

Knowledge is always a kind of magic – but some libraries hold the deepest secrets

Just about everything I thought I knew about this book was disrupted by the end.    I thought there would be bookish secrets from the past, lost keys, messages on torn paper,  appearances, vanishings, learned tomes in chained libraries.  And to a certain extent these things are present.  Books,  libraries and hidden secrets are hardly new in literature – even the cover design of the book is a romantic blazon of blue and gold with floral motifs.    But these are different secrets and a very different sort of library

 

Binding

Review of The Binding, Bridget Collins. Borough Press.

Part Copperfield with elements of Potter, my first impression was that this was a YA novel with a couple of four lettered words dotted around in order to aim the work at an adult market.   In this I was wrong I suppose.  Yet I often find I don’t understand artificial distinctions that are made between adult reading and young adult.  Yes there have always been children’s books –  but teenagers used to read pretty much the same as their parents – minus the Kama Sutra of course which was kept locked away somewhere.

It is ironic that the central characters in the narrative are themselves young adults.  The things which happen in the book, both good and bad,  happen to young people, while their elders and betters circle around creating havoc and making everything much, much worse.  And yet it is not considered suitable for certain age groups to read about things which happen to their own kind?

Anyway, to the book.  The title The Binding does not refer to the most obvious definition of a book binding – ie the gold tooled leather cover and marbled endpapers – although these certainly play a part in the story,  but ‘binding’ is a metaphor for quite a different field of endeavour.

Collins has a magic realist way of evoking settings and particularly the weather which is almost an extra character.  Here there is  a rustic way of life, tumbledown cottages on the moors, snow on the thatch,  the wind sighs, the cold sears, the sun when it shines casts its rays over dusty floorboards,  tools in the binder’s workshop wait patiently in the racks.

There are polished bannisters and light rooms with tall windows, there is quite a lot of moonlight and a young man who has suffered a mysterious illness is despatched from his family farm where he is happy and where he expects to spend his life,  to serve an apprenticeship in a book binding workshop which he knows nothing about and where he does not wish to be.  The reasons for this become clear as the book unfolds.

There is no definitive historical context for the work much of which is fantasy – yet there are horses and carriages and the postman calls once a week.    The shade of Mr. Dickens peeps out from among the pages of the narrative, particularly in the obsequious and sinister character of de Havilland,  descriptions of Castleford with its grime, its brothels, freezing alleyways and workhouse.

Knowledge is always a kind of magic, says one of the characters. Or is ignorance bliss?  That is the question that lies at the heart of the book.

As well as being a page turner The Binding is an elegant disquisition on memory, the meaning of memory and what constituent part of our mindset is played out by the things that have happened to us in the past.  What would we choose to forget if we were able and what would that forgetting do to us?  It is also a love story.

 

 

Always Winter, never Christmas: The Hero’s Journey to The Ivory Towers

Review of #Becoming C.S. LewisA Biography of young Jack Lewis (1898-1918) (Crossway)

 Harry Lee Poe

This biography of C.S. Lewis (1898-1918) covers the formative years:  his childhood, his mother’s untimely death, family relationships with especial emphasis placed on the rather miserable scool years  in a place called Wynyards, which thankfully doesn’t exist any more,  and later on,  Malvern College.

Poe writes:

“In September 1908, without benefit of trial by a jury of his peers, contrary to magna carta, and in the absence of habeas corpus, young Jack Lewis found himself interred in a concentration camp.”

(aka boarding school)

Written with a sense of irony perhaps but also not so far from the truth of what many endured at such institutions – many were scarred for life by such experiences.   I found this early section of the book the most interesting as Lewis negotiates life without his mother, surviving the horrendous Wynyards, his closeness to his brother Warnie (a closeness later lost) and their father Albert’s struggles to raise two motherless boys.

The latter half of the book deals with Lewis as a teenager from leaving Malvern to being tutored for Oxford Entrance in the private home of a man called Fitzpatrick – a friend of his father’s. There is also a lengthy section dealing with Lewis’ literary influences including:

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey,  Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Chretien de Troyes.  William Morris’ tales of Siegrfried and The Well at the World’s End – a story set in an historical medieval world where the four sons of King Peter of Upmeads set out to explore the world.  Spenser’s Faerie Queene,  The Norse myths.

The horrors of the First World War, in which his brother Warnie was fighting for his and everyone else’s lives, scarcely impinged upon the young Jack sheltered in his mentor Kirkpatrick’s house in Great Bookham in those days surrounded by open country.  Jack’s letters to his friend Arthur continue to reflect his literary obsessions.  Lewis referred in other writings to that sense of longing and desire that nothing in ordinary experience could satisfy and doesn’t strike me as being anyone who ever wished to engage with the world.  Given what was happening at the time perhaps that’s unsurprising.

But the values that he cared about in literature were not reflected in the ‘brute universe that consisted of a meaningless dance of atoms’

But then oddly after such arguments Poe states of Lewis:

“He could be dismissive of imaginations as a teenager because he thought the world of imagination was not real.”

Yet it seemed the imagination is where Lewis mostly dwelt. Rejecting his father’s faith in his struggle for his own identity and independence “the last thing Jack wanted was an interfering God from whom one could never escape,” there followed a struggle with various ideologies, materialist and metaphysical. Lewis embraced theories such as ‘logical positivism’ (the view that only what can be verified by sensory evidence actually exists and has meaning) and a confusion of scientific and philosophical strands.

Describing him as a typical teenager – a construct that barely existed at the beginning of the 20th century – Poe’s descriptions of Lewis immersing himself in classics, philosophy, literature and history from a young age, in Homer, Spenser and Ruskin,  show a young man earmarked for the ivory towers of Oxford,  where he meets and befriends J.R.R. Tolkein.

The book covers Lewis’ entry into Oxford and his concerns about the possibility of conscription.  In 1916 apparently oblivious to the fact that his brother was fighting in the Battle of the Somme, Jack and his father were making plans regarding his entrance examinations into Oxford.  Until a letter arrived from his brother describing being surrounded by “things which were once men”.

The author describes Jack as being adolescent and rebellious and perhaps for those days he was but he comes across more as complacent and the idea of a seventeen year old being considered rebellious because he doesn’t want to do what his father tells him is  a bit old hat.  Certain sections of the book covering whether or not Jack would enlist, or with whom he would spend the Easter holidays, which operas he may or may not have attended,  struck me as being superfluous.

For fans of the Chronicles of Narnia and other of Lewis’ writings,  there is some interest here in following the trail of white stones that led through the forest of his young psyche.

But for those who wish to find the wardrobe and pass through behind the fur coats to the forest where it is always winter, never Christmas – and especially for those who wish to meet Mr. Tumnus carrying his packages wrapped in brown paper –  you are much better off reading the books.

 

Thanks to #NetGalley and #Crossway for this review copy.

 

 

Literary separations – children with vanishing mothers

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman (Penguin, Random House)

Sal, Mick Kitson (Canongate)

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden (DelRey)

How to write for, of and about children and young people in an increasingly dysfunctional world? Finding a balance between an adult sounding narrative voice (and character arc) to make a book of interest to as wide a readership as possible  and yet maintain a sufficiently age appropriate voice is a difficult task. Then too how to write parents? Our world of parenting is becoming savagely complex like some sort of demented computer game with so many traps  one wonders who would ever want to start playing. Many writers with child protagonists in their stories avoid parents altogether by using orphans, or they turn parents or other carers into wicked stepmother style clichés in order to exaggerate a malign influence.  I have just polished off three books which in their different ways grapple with these issues.

The Book of Dust, Volume One. La Belle Sauvage. Philip Pullman

This first volume is intended as a prequel by Pullman to the His Dark Materials trilogy but I found I couldn’t live it or believe in it the same way as the original books.  The plot is based around unprecedented rains which have caused the Thames to burst its banks.    This saga which picks up the story 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights concerns the trials and tribulations of one Malcolm Polstead as he attempts a journey by boat – through the inundated landscape which was once Oxford towards London – to protect baby Lyra from the forces of the scary sounding Consistory Court of Discipline and other baddies who are chasing them.

Against this post-apocalyptic background, sinister forces gather and only poor Malcolm is there to sort it all out. Like some sort of Blyton-esque adventure on steroids, he and his friend Alice get into increasingly surreal scrapes and escapes from witch haunted islands, a graveyard, a masque in a grand house where the intrepid heroes go to beg food but find themselves utterly invisible to the assembled gathering. A good metaphor at least for how young people are treated in 21st century society.

But here was the problem for me.  That Malcolm at the age of 11 (or it may be 12) comes across as an insufferable know it all who never puts a foot wrong.  Fortunately for him, his friend Alice gets taken along on the journey so he doesn’t actually get to change Lyra’s nappies himself.  Heroes don’t change nappies, do they?

The second book is Sal – the debut novel of Mick Kitson. Sal (short for Salmarina) is a 13 year child from a highly abusive and dysfunctional family background. She finds herself on the run with her ten year old sister, Peppa, and the two are forced to live wild in a forest in Galloway, at least for as long as it is feasible to do such things in the 21st century where every bus ticket is a digital footprint and every visit to town an occasion for surveillance.

Sal is much influenced by, and no mean interpreter of, the SAS survival handbook, building shelters, fires, trapping rabbits and generally, well, surviving.   Both this novel and Pullman’s use the trope of taking the child/adult heroes and heroines outside of the real world – or at least a recognisable everyday version of it – and casting them into situation where they must survive by their own wits and largely without assistance from outside sources.

This is nothing new in literature, for children who must constantly refer back to some adult for instructions don’t make very interesting protagonists.  But author Jenni Fagan points out in her review of the Kitson book[i] that there is another angle to this separation of children from the adult world and one that does not relate to narrative convenience. That is children or young adults are finding ways to separate themselves from a world that neither understands nor seeks to protect them. Fagan notes too that 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK.[ii]  That’s 30% or 9 out of every class of 30. Child poverty is a form of abuse is it not? Even if it is a systemic one rather than a familial.

Fictional representations of mothers are not faring well in these particular novels.  Malcolm Polstead’s mother is a homemaker, a bringer of ample puddings and comfort.  Sal’s mother on the other hand is a drunk, a bringer of random men home at odd times of the day and night, one of whom turns out to be an abuser.  Both women exist at either end of the cliché spectrum and neither is a fully developed character.  Women are not stereotypes guys. It really is time for authors to give up reaching for the lazy allusion shelf of puddings and vodka bottles when writing mothers.

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden

has an intrepid young heroine called Vasya who has been cast out of her home and is alone or almost alone. As this is Russian folktale territory, there is no SAS survival handbook.   Instead Vasya has the assistance of a frost demon who can make fires from snow and diamond like ice combs and knives and who brings food when she runs out.  Such a demon we should all have.  She also has a talking horse called Solovey with a weakness for porridge laced with honey, all so exquisitely drawn that it really doesn’t seem like cheating.   In order to survive her chosen life of travel, Vasya has to pretend to be a man.  Plus ça change. But this is a great story with lyrical descriptions of a frozen, semi-mythical Russian forest, perhaps long since eradicated.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/14/sal-mick-kitson-debut-review-sisters-children-runaways Accessed May 2018

[ii] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures