Having written about Blyton this month I started Peter Fiennes’ excellent book Footnotes, the opening chapter of which takes us to Dorset with its pleasant pastures and the clouded hills, and I feel I need to have a rethink. Hisstaunch defence – amid a no-holds-barred exploration of her life – makes me at least want to add on some of his ideas about the ways in which Blyton writes. Although he is aware of her shortcomings, Fiennes likes Blyton, and puts her in context: immensely popular, a great manager of her own “brand,” with a love of nature and adventure that meant she was influential and lasting. With the prejudices of her time (a polite circumlocution for her attitudes to race and class), ambiguously portrayed or even attacked by her children, she nevertheless conjured her stories and teased at our childish longings. I have tried, since reading this chapter in Footnotes, to like her. I still can’t – but I can understand something more of her.
I chose the title for this blog because Fiennes gleefully points out how Blyton uses the adjective so much in what he calls her lumpen prose. However, rather then simply criticising her, he has this brilliant insight:
The simple fact is that Enid writes in archetypes; another word would be cliches. She had no interest in writing with the evocative precision about specific places. It is certainly hard to pin them down in her writings… Enid preferred to write her books and live her life on the surface. And to keep things vague. But even if it is hard to locate specific places, here in the Isle of Purbeck, the truth is that everything inside an Enid Blyton book is instantly recognizable. She takes the world and makes it less confusing, kneading her ingredients into something manageable, safe, tidy and above all familiar.
Peter Fiennes Footnotes, Ch 1.
This is, of course why comparison with Garner doesn’t work. His interest is all to do with evocative precision about specific places; that’s what Garner does. In Arboreal, for example, his essay on the Alder Bog (note: the boggy woodland will re-emerge in Treacle Walker), is much more than a history: it is biography, autoethnography, where ‘he,’ the protagonist, has renewed the tamed wild. Garner has cleared the mess of derelict woodland, and from it has brought a poetic insight reminiscent of Hopkins, an historical sense of place like that of Kipling’s Tree Song, but earthier, deeper, more powerful. There is a love of the land and the language here that is worth more than repeating: it is worth celebrating:
Archaeologists came and trowelled one of the Bronze Age barrows near the house. With burnt bone they found the turves that built the burial mound and in them the pollen of the plants that lived then: willow, hazel, ivy, ash; alder, lime, elm, pine and oak; moss, fern, bracken, heather, sedge, and gorse; meadowsweet, vetch, daisy, buttercup; spelt, grass, corn spurrey, wheat; dandelion, chickweed and fat hen. Four thousand years ago the wild was cleared and gone. All was fields, farms, crops, cattle, order; rule: an open world.
The dead men in the ground had worked the same land.
I was thinking and writing on St George’s Day of the hymn/school assembly song “When a Knight Won his Spurs,” and the moral ogres and dragons it prompts us to battle. Another of this genre is “Glad that I Live am I,” which M sang to me as we walked Jeff the Dog this morning. This site gives various versions, none matching the comforting wham-bam-plunk of a school assembly. Nostalgia and spirituality is a different blog post, but some of these versions really don’t work for me, and none of them take me back to Blandford Infants.
These are the words.
Glad that I live am I; That the sky is blue; Glad for the country lanes And the fall of dew
After the sun the rain, After the rain the sun; This is the way of life, Till the work be done.
All that we need to do, Be we low or high, Is to see that we grow, Nearer the sky.
Do I mean “genre”? Perhaps for me they stick together just as the choices my teachers in State education made: vaguely religious lyrics urging a sort of morality in which we draw our understanding from the country lanes. No, it doesn’t make them bad lyrics. Yes, we sang “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” and stuff too, but these stick in my head because of the odd mixture of woolly romantic nature appreciation and aspiration: Ladybird British Wild Flowers and an optimism I now see the twentieth century never really lived up to. They were all certainly different from Sundays, where as Roman Catholics we were still immersed in a vision of the Mass that Heaney (so to speak) celebrates. My dad can still sing a wonderful marching-band version of the music for the Easter rite of sprinkling Holy Water; I can still manage a lot of Compline with its Salva nos Domine vigilantes. This is a good source. And maybe this explains why knights winning their spurs and country lanes seemed something of an oddity to me. If Glad That I Live Am I was odd then, I think of it as more mainstream now: being outdoors is about wellbeing; the locus amoenus (a quick link here) being the locus salubris. Enough marking; enough screen time all round: when I post this blog I’m off for a run in the jolly springtime.
Perhaps the oddness resides in the nature of children’s spirituality. Perhaps closer to what I see in this mixture of ideals and imagery is Tony Eaude’s idea that spirituality is elusive, contested, as I explored some time back, something more basic, and wider, than religious faith or commitment. This would admit Lizette Reese’s final idea of growing nearer the sky, so that it becomes a metaphor rather than a child’s wish to grown nearer to heaven. I originally thought it was about growing taller. It may have that physical element, but there is more than that. As I’ve said before
It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom
Someone on Twitter once sort of challenged me – or I provoked myself – to write as if Enid Blyton had strayed into Garner Country, or if Alan Garner had tried to write in the style of La Blyton. “Wot larx,” I thought – and although parody is not really something I can do very easily, I thought a quick go would be OK. After all, the Weirdstone begins with two children going on holiday, doesn’t it? How hard can this be?
Actually, it’s really difficult. Blyton, although occasionally mocked and frequently criticised – Joyce Grenfell is merciless – was hugely popular and does attempt a child’s-eye drama, but she has such a different point of view from what we see of Alan Garner, from use of language to views of landscape, that I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s often quoted ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ – see, for example this blog post. Would an Alan Garner world be comprehensible to Enid Blyton?
And yet, poorly little Joe in Treacle Walker might (possibly with a sigh) tear himself away from his Knockout comic to read some escape with spies and danger if such a thing seemed exciting, and The Mountain of Adventure might have gone in a more Aikenesque or Garnerish direction. Garner’s Mossocks might stand for Blyton’s Evans, and we are, after all, in a misty, hilly landscape…
I am being cheeky here.
Where the task becomes impossible is evident from my subtitle. Imagine the tragedy, the earthiness, the spirituality of Thursbitch being reduced to a tale of spies and scientists up in the hills… or (more fairly) to keep to Garner’s earlier work, aimed more at a young readership, Selina Place in Weirdstone or Gomrath being tamed into simply an unpleasant figure with a big house on the Cheshire plain? It is where this taming would be necessary that the parody becomes worthless.
Brambles were waiting for them on the other side, but they tore themselves free and ran as best they could through the scrub and matted fringe of the wood.
Garner: Weirdstone Ch 16: The Wood of Radnor
which might have come from either author, whereas
In [Roland’s] narrow angle of vision there was nothing but mountains; peaks, crags, ice and black rock stabbed upwards. The porch seemed to be at the top of a cliff, or a knife-backed ridge. Roland had the sensation of a sheer drop behind him in tge room.
Garner: Elidor Ch 14: The High Places
That sheer drop is astonishing landscape painting, the view through the letterbox that seeps into the everyday, and the image, a little further on, of the lance-carrying men “with the beauty of steel,” riding stags in the shadow-light completes this, a short but utterly brilliant fantasy scene. There is little place in Blyton’s mystery novels even for “Athens in the woods of Warwickshire,” and there is a lack of nuance and transcendence in her more magical writing that sets her apart from Garner. I cannot escape the idea of “lack,” but at its simplest, these are worlds and words far, far from each other. We might as well begin a Blyton adventure in Llareggub, with Dylan Thomas.
I’m starting – and won’t finish – this on St George’s Day. But while I’ve written about dragons before here, and on St George’s Day, too. And as is often the case, I’m spurred into action by a remark elsewhere – in this case Martin Flatman’s comment on Twitter that suggested we should have a St George to fight bots. A clever thought: some internet warrior whose job is to deal with the time and emotion devouring interjections into our e-life. But what are our foes? How do we counter them? Let’s look at some dragons.
Notice that it isn’t a dragon. As Tolkien suggests of a wider range of literature, dragons, real dragons, essential both to the machinery and the ideas of a poem or tale, are actually rare…There are massive brontosaurus-like creatures (the magnificently irascible Edward the Booble), and this lizard like a dragon, but of all the fantasies Tove Jansson conjures up, traditional creatures such as dragons hardly figure. We may have plants eyeing up Snork Maidens, and knitting ghosts, and the howling fire of the Comet’s nuclear blast – but no dragons.
“No dragons” makes me think of Thor Nogson, whose failure to confront his fear makes him so much a figure I recognise.
Then there is the sorry figure of the dying dragon whose form luckless, soulless Eustace inhabits/inherits much to his regret in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, that uncomfortable fantasy of redemption and repentance at the heart of the Pilgrimage of Perfection (or the earlier Pilgrimage of the Life of Man or maybe Pilgrim’s Progress?), and the awesome (in the earlier sense of the world) dragons in Earthsea [Cue at least one fantastic, menacing, serpentine LeGuin dragon from the artwork of Charles Vess: compare and contrast with poor Eustace].
And nearer to my heart are the Knight and the Dragon, trying so hard to live up to the myth of who they are meant to be in Tomie de Paola’s parable of reconciliation and self-realisation, and the very modern, urban and urbane Franklin, in Jen Campbell and Katie Hartnett’s Franklin’s Flying Bookshop. Dragons have changed, been tamed (or come closer at any rate to us). Franklin seems a long way from Orm Embar.
Few of these – and I know they are self-selected (where, for example, would I put the greedy and self-centred dragon from The Paper Bag Princess?) – are the dragons we would fight. These last two in particular play with the terror, the aggression and turn it on its head.
So far, so predictable, perhaps. Beyond those texts, behind my understanding of what a dragon might be, is this song that I loved so much in school assembly. Martin Simpson performed a gentle, thoughtful version of When a Knight Won His Spurs, linked here.
“Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed Against the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed,” the song goes. These monsters that attack us, that with the current war in Ukraine seem closer than ever – and, it is noticeable, the war is fought most fiercely in the ruins of cities – but is also fought with anger and misinformation on the web. And not only this war, but the miry lies of governments, our own self-deception. I no longer wield a “sword of youth” but I still fight to set free the power of truth in myself. It’s never an easy task.
So with this simple song from my childhood we might be back to where we might need to fight dragons. Maybe this is the place.
So dragons from the past in Western literature stand as images of aggression, greed especially, and are a species apart. They are (often) merciless, or with their own way of thinking: symbols of our inability to think ourselves into the minds of others. The battle here is with an enemy we don’t understand – maybe one that is set not to understand us.
This is where Martin Flatman’s remark becomes clearer and cleverer: how do we stand against the slow acid attack on our ideas or our spaces in the maze of the Internet or in real life: intrusive, poisoning, interrupting. How would a St George deal with them? Perhaps it s not the clumnsy sword-weilding that deals with them; you wouldn’t use a sword to bash away flies after all. Simply saying “don’t” to bots (and their fleshier imps, the trolls) is like saying “Thou shalt not,” as Pullman suggests in his surprising praise of Jesus as storyteller: Thou shalt and thou shalt not are easily ignored and soon forgotten; but Once upon a time lasts forever. We need stories of hope, stories that laugh at the invading, venomous half-truth. I am holding out, not so much for a hero, but for a Teller of Tales.
A bit of a tortuous introduction to a simple theme. I was looking for a Name Day for Jono, our daughter’s partner, and was a bit stuck for a Saint Jonathan. It turns out – with a bit of a wobble – that Jonathan, the son of King Saul and confidant of the man who will become King David, is commemorated on 1st March. I rather suspect that Jonathan, son of Saul is commemorated here in a confusion with Saint David, the fierce and energetic patron saint of Wales, but the story of David and Jonathan refers to the early kingship struggles in Israel, and to the mutual friendship between the two. I also see that Jonathan is commemorated as one of the patron saints of friendship in some Churches.
So today is today. The feast of St David of Wales and (very much in its shadow), a commemoration of Saint (?) Jonathan, and although John the Beloved Disciple and a choir of others might join him, it strikes me as a day one might celebrate friendship. We are a long day from the International Day of Friendship, the world looks awful, I am coughing and coughing: we need our friends… So here is a quick roll-call, not much more, of some Significant Male Friendships in (mostly) young people’s literature.
In High Fantasy the obvious Tolkien friends might be Frodo and Sam – but what about Legolas and Gimli? Sparrowhawk in A Wizard of Earthsea has Vetch; their true names are Ged and Estarriol, which I cannot omit because of how the latter name rolls around in the mind, echoing the stars, or Tolkien’s Estel.
Historical fiction takes me to Dara and Lubhrin the Heart-Brothers in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse, Moon Horse, and to Vortrix and Drem, to Artos and Bedwyr, to the tragic story of Randall and Bevis (I have discussed close male friendships in Sutcliff before) – but to other friendships, too – maybe to Thomas Becket and King Henry, for example. Not all friendships go well. Perhaps I unfairly stretch out of “children’s literature” with Sword at Sunset and with Mydans‘ Thomas anyway
Picture Books? Well, if I exclude Nen and the Lonely Fisherman it’s only because the significance of this male friendship seems to me to be much more romantic than many encounters, although almost its contemporary, Emmett and Caleb, provides a poignant example of ambiguity. The ambiguity of text is a thread for a labyrinth of half-meanings and unstated feelings going back to the story of Jonathan and David after all, and maybe its time to acknowledge the subtleties of such tales. But back to those passionate, wild child younger friends: how about Bernard and Alfie? How many Bernards did my children meet up with, or for how many of their friends were my children the Bernard? Rambunctious, up for a laugh, just on the edge of “naughtiness.” Whose house were they in when all the children took mattresses off the beds and used them to toboggan down the stairs? Who encouraged a young visitor to write her name on our bookcase?
In fiction as in real life we meet friends on the edge of tragedy, comrades in arms and united in more gentle fellowship. We meet friends whose devotion to each other is deep and sustaining; comic; brotherly; on the cusp of romantic (and sometimes a coded version of this), so many invitations to adventure, to joy, to wholeness. Happy feast day, friends.
The man who brought Mindfulness to the west, Thich Nhat Hahn, has died. Biographies, ceremonies and tributes are already coming in on Social Media. The passages that follow are really all that I want to say from my own perspective.
Recognition without judgement. Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I \clean the teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant and teapot are all sacred.
Thich Nhat Hahn Miracle of Mindfulness.
and here he is on death:
I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say I am just this form, because the firm of leaf is only a part of me. I am the whole tree. I know I am already inside the tree, and when I go back into the soil I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and I will tell her “I will see you again very soon.”
The quotation that forms the title comes from Evening: Zero Weather, a poem by Thomas Merton commemorating these chill days after Christmas (text here). His view – a land without wildlife, where liturgy is a refuge and a celebration after hard physical work – was not what I experienced. He and his monastic brethren are
…sunken in our adoration,
And plunge down, down into the fathoms of our secret joy
That swims with undefinable fire.
And we will never see the copper sunset
Linger a moment, like an echo on the frozen hill…
Thomas Merton, Evening: Zero Weather
For our trip to the Otmoor Nature Reserve it was very different. We came in haste from the busy centre of Oxford through the twisty lanes and down to Otmoor, to throw back our hoods and watch the copper sunset and to see if we might get to watch the starlings and their drifting, balletic murmuration. We weren’t late, and more people came after us, some armed with sandwiches and massive-lensed cameras. In general we stood quiet, watching the other birds over the reeds and in the trees.
The light was itself a revelation. The deeper golds and the encroaching blues were like something from a medieval stained glass window, lit from within – but in contrast to the enclosure of a building, we were engulfed in light and space spreading wider and wider.
And as it faded, our expectation grew. A Marsh Harrier grazes the tops of the reedbeds; a Heron flies over much higher; a flock of Lapwings tumbles hastily into the reeds, and one Dunnock spends a good five minutes rather eccentrically hopping between my boots and the brambles. And then, in ones and twos and then in larger groups, joining together or catching up with one in front, came the starlings. Thousands of them: rank on rank.
Just as a church often has a big congregation watching and a smaller number of active agents as singers and celebrants, in contrast here, the observers were few – maybe twenty of us? – and the celebrants we watched were many. Some birding is detailed, organised and serious – this is a good website to indicate what’s going on – but some is excited but familial, even jolly in a hushed sort of way. I’m not sure where Maggie and I were in this spectrum, but I do know that, amateur that I am, I was immensely moved.
The swirls and sudden plunges of each group were beautiful in themselves, like cloths shaken in the wind (Julian of Norwich’s image of sorrow as men shakyn a cloth in the wynde but we also talk of an exaltation of larks). All those animals moving to their rest. Do they pick somewhere different every night? Are they opportunistic? I wonder about that Harrier – could it grab from this abundance of life? Then I remember seeing a video of a Peregrine stooping, and I think of that marvellous appreciation of the hunting bird by J A Baker. All sorts of expectations and delights are tumbled in me, my own internal murmuration.
So the birds are rushing for shelter against predators and a chill night to come, and we are standing watching them – and it is dazzling. Why do we find this beautiful? The rich colours like they were being distilled to wintry essence, the rush of the birds (and their singing in the reeds that sounded like running water), the way the last of the sun catches in the ditches: there was an overload of beauty – but can we talk of this? Can there be too much?
Perhaps the simplicity of Mary Oliver is a way forward:
But mostly I stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.
Mary Oliver: What Is There Beyond Knowing
I wish this were me, silent as I watch the crowds pass and gather over the fenny land beyond the trees and are then lost, but I bring too many words with me, I am already berating myself for my poor natural history knowledge; already, with photo after photo thinking of social media, of this blog. Percolating up, I remember Baker, but am also thinking of the Thomas Merton poem because I am pondering how this experience ties in with spirituality and I feel myself caught, somehow, between the intensity of nature and the anchoring of a moving encounter in something formal, regular. It is only when I come to write some notes that I realise how different this evening has been, inside-out and outside-in, from something enclosed, measured and organised. I am glad of the challenge. To use phrases from the Merton poem, the zero days before Lent are not just for huddling away, but for looking up, looking outwards, with eyes as clean as the cold sky.
There is a deliberate ambiguity in this choice of title. I am aware of the journalistic shorthand that tells us that “studies suggest x…” or (to my mind even worse since COVID-19 seems to have required us all to be experts in epidemiology) “science tell us…” and while I wish in the age of URLs and sidebars of info we could have links to open-access versions of what is being reported, I see what a BBC report, for example, might need to achieve: a quick, digestible bit of news. This is not, however, a model for students learning how to put an academic essay together.
Take, for example, the essay which uses a BBC report on an OfSTED report. Still fairly responsible: but these are utter killers for first-year Education students. In the example I’m citing – and I see this or similar often enough for it not to be an identifiable case – the reporter has maybe 1000 words to make a complex argument simple enough to be followable and interesting enough to make a reader want to follow it. Will schools be open in January?Private Eye might encapsulate this as “We don’t know.” Poor behaviour is not taken seriously enough in schools. We might explore who says this, why, and what the underlying factors might be. How do we get students to explore this kind of text?
The temptation for the student is that might see a piece of fairly authoritative reporting and think “that sounds good: this is the way I’ll go,” and that isn’t unreasonable – but is dangerously close to the student who cones to an essay and thinks “Ah, I know about this: what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” Fast food essay writing.
The title’s other meaning suggests it is about asking that students work out some of what their essay might entail by intelligent reading that might take them off and away from their expectation of “doing what the tutor asks.” In other words, in Education (and Early Childhood) Studies, this is about looking at what a tutor sets and moving away from the grey area between “what is s/he asking?” and “what can I get away with doing?” A good essay should never be about this. The problem is that sometimes “Studies suggest” and “Research shows” actually indicate that the student really wants to write “I read somewhere” as if that were good enough. The double edge of the blog post title is that “Lack of research shows, too.” Part of it is knowing where to stop – how much is enough reading? – and part of it is about knowing how to use the reading you have done. Jane Godfrey in How to use your reading in your essays advises
Don’t be tempted to just type your essay title straight into an online search engine in the hope that something useful will come up. First think about what type of information and material you need – this will result in finding more appropriate sources more quickly.
Think about where you need to go and how to get there. Where you need to go for this class, for that essay – and what tools you need. Where do go for this year, for this second semester – and look back at what you have learned, what you enjoy, what you’re good at. They may not be all one thing, of course. This then is about reading wisely – but that is a complex set of skills and attitudes in itself: is a maze within a maze. It would be easy to make this into a muddled rant about the old term of “reading for a degree,” and or echo the Professor in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in saying “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools.”
What I suspect is left for Y1 in Higher Education is often the challenge of increasing independent work. For next week, I’d like you to…. and I don’t think I’m alone in seeing laptop lids go down at this very common start of the rite of dismissal. And yet I am taking over a very well-respected module this semester and find that the previous tutors set really quite a big chunk of reading every week. With a bit of juggling I have kept this approach, and for next week is already settled – but one of the additions I’ve made is to put a midway “Reading Review” into the schedule. Not a test, probably not even a quiz per se, but a way of saying “This way through the maze.”
How much is enough reading? Well, that’s going to be the big question. I have co-marked and moderated on this module for enough years already to know that the script of “what authoritative-sounding sources are there that I can use to back up my argument?” is still a mental tool students can be tempted to use, and if we’re not careful this becomes: find the argument, then find the sources, then nick the quotes and away we go. So as well as set reading on the weekly schedule I have begun to rank the texts by essential and recommended. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is one module out of four, a mass of work in different themes and at different paces.
But this ranking itself has taught me something. How long ago did I read that – and what did I make of it when I first met it? Is that really the text they need? So what began as a reshelving exercise in my own bays in a mythical e-library becomes something much bigger: a self-evaluation of the reading I am setting the students. I may be only adding one book this time (Twitter followers might guess which it is, or click here) but the rest takes me back to at the very least my MA classes in 1998(ish) and then the kid-in-a-sweetshop days as a new lecturer at Oxford Brookes; how do I instill that same wow factor in the reading I suggest/propose/impose?
Because, in the end, that is the thing that will move students beyond doing what I ask into sharing my enthusiasm.
A grey November afternoon, and Lizzie, Maggie and I go to Uffington Castle and then to Wayland’s Smithy.
The grass cut within the “castle” might have made hay for the horses of the past, but now trips us and lies damp in lines. I have brought with me Alan Garner’s new book Treacle Walker but find that I have also brought in my head lines from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, which I recently finished, and, of course, the novel set in the castle, by Rosemary Sutcliff that I have explored in this blog so often before. I was sharply reminded on the challenge of Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints: Name the saints that go with you, as I cited him in March 2020. The world, as Rob Macfarlane says (cited here), is endlessly relational and if our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world I think our reading and mulling over those books is shaped by the landscapes we know. The books we have read and loved or set aside come with us, even if only dimly; the people who have been here before walk the Ridgeway with us:
…it is as though the still small pool of one’s own identity has been overrun by a great flood, bringing its own grand collective desires and resentments
Wanderlust: Citizen of the Streets
Solnit is writing here about urban wandering, streets of protesters and the leisured, but taken (maybe a trifle meanly) out of context, it is worth pondering her words in a less busy place, so full of imagined pasts. In this case the collective desires are the imagined desires of lost communities: failed crops; successful alliances; a thicket cleared; a winter without wolves. This is where the writing of the calibre of Rosemary Sutcliff is so engaging, but of course she is not alone. Cynthia Harnett, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, those writers who sought to make sense of England in a violent and chaotic century were with her; writers from Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, to Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel stand their watch for older readers. In Robert Macfarlane’s study of Edward Thomas in The Old Ways, he remarks that he approached paths as not only solitary places but also sociable ones, where once-silenced voices might be heard. The historical novelist, or (like Alan Garner) the writer who moves between times, has to be attuned to those once-silenced voices.
The three characters in Treacle Walker – the eponymous Rag and Bone sage, the bog man Thin Amren and Joseph Coppock, the boy at the heart of the story, are each in a way personifications of these imagined desires. A lad tries to make sense of his growing realisation that time is not what he thought it was, but has elements of past cultural insights that are far more vivid than he had expected. Joe walks into Big Meadow and down to the bog, and such is the power of Alan Garner that these worn tracks, these refrains, these iterations, have a reach beyond ritual into something deeper: a walk into the past, a walk into where past and present have no meaning. Writer as psychopomp, or at least as guide along a way in which the dead walk with us and before us.
In a similar way, when we walk out on an ancient path, we can feel we walk with the people who preceded us. I am often prompted to wonder why Sutcliff didn’t include Wayland or the ‘Smithy’ in Sun Horse Moon Horse; the horse imagery, the life of humans spent around horses, seems so tempting… but on we walk, down from the high places of Uffington (yes, I am remembering the line on the unicorn Findhorn in Elidor, but also the High Places as cultic places in the Bible) down and then up to Wayland’s Smithy. Buzzards fly overhead. A kestrel calls. I feel I am in the landscape of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Iceni in Sun Horse, Moon Horse. Hedley Thorne is nearby, flying a drone above the bronze of the Ridgeway’s autumn beeches, and taking some immense photographs from high in the grey sky. I am glad to see him, so real and so in touch with the beauty of the place -and then we turn to the mouth of the chambered long barrow. .
English Heritage tell us that some fourteen people were buried here. Is there still a body here, in this place of burial and remembering? Is there a dreamer under the hill, a Merlin in waiting? I think at once of the bog man whose dreaming calls together the characters and places in Treacle Walker, and of Solnit’s vision of reader and writer:
To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide-a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere.
Wanderlust. Labyrinths and Cadillacs
She could be describing my experience of reading Garner. Travelling a literary and historical landscape like the Ridgeway, or more generally in those parts of England where place and story work together, I feel powerfully her words
Roads are a record of those who have gone before and to follow them is to follow people who are no longer there-not saints and gods anymore, but shepherds, hunters, engineers, emigrants, peasants to market or just commuters
Wanderlust. Labyrinths and Cadillacs
I have touched on the ambiguities of historical fiction before. I think I stand by my conjecture (such is the flimsiness of my theory) that what counts are not the accidentals of context but the matter of the story. In this case I do not need Wayland’s Smithy to be in Sutcliff’s novel, any more than I need an archaeologist to find a body to substantiate the sacrifice in her book. The novelist plays with her conceptions of a Britain made up of countless individual sacrifices – the death of Arthur, the hope of Drem, the exodus to the horse-runs of the North bought by Lubrin, and places them vividly in the landscape. Perhaps my wonder really extends to how a person facing Sutcliff’s physical challenges, communicates this landscape so brilliantly.
The worlds created in her imagination have had to stand in for the world of much everyday actuality. From her therefore we can learn what the imagination does, and how it allows us all to explore what’s possible, the realm of virtual experience.
Books for Keeps, cited here in the Rosemary Sutcliff web site.
Does it seem odd to use the image of walking still? The embodied characters whom she depicts make it seem appropriate to me: the painful arthritic condition that marked her life is one factor in this embodiment; the wide ranging movement of her characters is another, and we walk, ride, wade with them through her stories as we appreciate the vivid, complex, evolving world she creates. And on this trip to the Ridgeway on a gray November afternoon, this was where her work really struck me as being in harmony with Solnit’s insights: Sutcliff entices us into a world of changing cultures and aspirations, changing seasons and landscapes, so that actually visiting her sites opens up new interpretations of her worlds – but the detail of this way of reading her books and landscapes I leave to my good friend Mat and his Doctoral research.
The last word, therefore, to Rebecca Solnit:
Walking has been one of the constellations in the starry sky of human culture, a constellation whose three stars are the body, the imagination, and the wide-open world.
Wanderlust: Las Vegas, or the Longest Distance Between Two Points.
C S Lewis, as first-person narrator of the opening chapters of his book Perelandra, is on his way to meet the protagonist, his colleague Elwin Ransom, whose voyage to Mars has disrupted politics at quite literally a cosmic level. Forces are at work to disrupt this planned meeting, and Lewis is walking along through the 40s blackout, assailed by doubts about the whole project, even his own sanity:
“They call it a breakdown at first,” said my mind, “and send you to a nursing home; later on they move you to an asylum.”
I was past the dead factory now, down in the fog, where it was very cold. Then came a moment–the first one–of absolute terror and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from screaming. It was only a cat that had run across the road, but I found myself completely unnerved. “Soon you will really be screaming,” said my inner tormentor, “running round and round, screaming, and you won’t be able to stop it.”
There was a little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish. Please understand that at ordinary times the idea of a “haunted house” means no more to me than it does to you. No more; but also, no less. At that moment it was nothing so definite as the thought of a ghost that came to me. It was just the word “haunted.” “Haunted” . . . “haunting” . . . what a quality there is in that first syllable! Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?
C S Lewis Perelandra (“Voyage to Venus”) Ch 1
While the forces for good are depicted in some detail (an interesting essay here on the power of Lewis’ vision in the book) – and form part of the chorale that concludes this Voyage to Venus, the forces for evil remain only ever seen indirectly in this trilogy. Hinted at in the first volume of his Science Fiction trilogy, in the violent meanness and grubby colonialism of Out of the Silent Planet, they are felt in the Satanic possession of the scientist Weston* later in the Perelandra narrative, and then in complex ways in the pervasive and destructive work of the NICE in That Hideous Strength. At the start of Perelandra, we see the psychological impact of their power in how they try to terrify Lewis into turning back.
Lewis has a lot to say about landscape, both extraterrestrial (see his depiction of Venus (“Perelandra”) and Mars (“Malacandra” in the first book of the trilogy) and more clearly fantastic in Narnia. This passage (along with some in That Hideous Strength, but that’s for another time) shows his ability in describing an English landscape. Here it is an inimical outdoors that Lewis is writing about, a place of peril, a chapel of mischance. They are worth looking at: here is Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak, in my mind as we come to the anniversary of my first visit to Thursbitch and Ludchurch; more here as I present the Wild Wood and the woods in Warrior Scarlet and others. The outdoors, as I have said before (maybe too often) are where the unwary get into trouble.
And Lewis is in trouble.
At last I came to the cross-roads by the little Wesleyan chapel where I had to turn to the left under the beech trees. I ought to be seeing the lights from Ransom’s windows by now–or was it past black-out time? My watch had stopped, and I didn’t know. It was dark enough but that might be due to the fog and the trees. It wasn’t the dark I was afraid of, you understand. We have all known times when inanimate objects seemed to have almost a facial expression, and it was the expression of this bit of road which I did not like. “It’s not true,” said my mind, “that people who are really going mad never think they’re going mad.” Suppose that real insanity had chosen this place in which to begin? In that case, of course, the black enmity of those dripping trees–their horrible expectancy–would be a hallucination. But that did not make it any better. To think that the spectre you see is an illusion does not rob him of his terrors…
And what terrors he puts into his landscape!
The basic terror confronting him is the animated nature of what he sees: the enmity of the trees, the one window staring. This is why, when the cat runs across the road he is terrified: for an instant this fear of the inanimate having will and purpose and movement takes over. It is not dissimilar from the fear of the boy Shasta in the fog in The Horse and His Boy, where the divine Aslan pads invisible beside him.
You’re not — not something dead, are you? Oh please — please do go away.
The Horse and His Boy, Ch11
and is in marked contrast to the area of England which starts Lewis’ SF trilogy, where the protagonist, Ransom, is on a walking holiday, and even dark bands of trees and a near-deserted house may hold misgivings but no terrors.
To return to his magnificent assertion
Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?
C S Lewis’ (and my) college, Magdalen, has had a number of ghost stories attached to it: the boy with the lantern seen in the small hours across the cloisters; a room in the old Grammar Hall where steps can be heard on the stairs, more recently the sighting of a group of shadowy figures and people hearing singing. I don’t know how ancient any of these stories are, although the boy and the steps on the stairs were current in the 70s. I wish I knew if Lewis had heard them – meaning either the stories or the singing and the footsteps – but certainly night time in an old Oxford college is a place to excite the imagination.
I am not sure Lewis in fiction or as the writer really believes there is an abstract power in the word “haunted,” although we should recognise, I think, that we have a number of cultural memes that are employed to notify us that something wicked this way comes. These emerge most powerfully in all sorts of ways in Perelandra, but get some reference in Ransom’s apprehension of some of the Martians in his first novel, appealing to an earlier, almost an infantile, complex of fears. Giants — ogres — ghosts — skeletons: those were its key words. In haunted, we have a socialised expectation: the sound of the word is associated with the fear the meaning excites, Whispers of living, echoes of warning, Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning, as the trope in Bernstein’s Mass goes. It seems to me that using this tradition of the malevolent uncanny helps Lewis along very well, both in Out of the Silent Planet and in Perelandra. Bogeys, as Marina Warner suggests in her bookNo Go the Bogeyman, make present what we dread. This is currently being explored in Uncanny, a don’t-listen-with-the-lights-off series by Danny Robins for the BBC. Background sounds and music are brilliantly employed here, down to the slow, throaty theme song with the words “I know what I saw,” and its minor chords. The power of music to set a mood: here it is chillingly atmospheric.
The first seven notes of the Dies Irae (here is the chant) when part of a film score (a neat post here) suggest there are grim times coming (see the procession from The Devils where the link is explicit, or note the phrase adding another layer of menace to The Lion King), and Lewis suggests that haunted does the same. What he has done is to take us into a place where the connotations of haunted are given more work to do, and reflect the feverish imagination of Lewis-as-a-character. We don’t have to believe him, or associate the real Lewis with a belief in ghosts, but we can appreciate his ability to draw us in..
What we find ourselves exploring on this dreary path from a local train station is the fictionalised Lewis’ anxiety, and the landscape is his best aid. The dead factory is a great image, but even the down helps in down in the fog, and the cold, the dark, the little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish…. We seek the security of a building, whether we are Going on a Bear Hunt or resting in the Castle of Hautdesert on our way to the Green Chapel – cf Bachelard on “dreaming of security:” we might join Gawain in a sense of relief when he is welcomed and told
“Make yourself at home:” and it is a deep fear that Lewis plays on: buildings with plots and pitfalls we have not seen, or intrinsic menace, shift any hope of security away from us, and we may discover a home that turns out not to be home at all, a friend that turns out to be no friend, but something other:
Perhaps he would jump on me from behind. Perhaps I should see a figure that looked like Ransom standing with its back to me and when I spoke to it, it would turn round and show a face that was not human at all…
Perelandra, ch 1.
As Danny Robins explores What is it really like to live in… a haunted house? the comfortable family home that protects and nurtures us is violated by this fear, the fear that Michelle Paver exploits so well when, in Dark Matter, the narrator realises that the prowling, revenant fury outside his lonely hut can get in; it is the same as the moving sheets in the bedroom of M R James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you My Lad. The hotel room where M R James’ professor should be safe… the friend’s house where someone will make it all right… the arctic hut,,, the welcome at the castle… Yet the intrusion of the uncanny breaks one of the most serious barriers we have. As Solnit proposes:
the formal enclosed garden and the castle are corollaries to a dangerous world from which one needs to be protected literally and aesthetically
Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust, ch 6 “The Path Out of the Garden.”
and as Warner suggests, Fears trace a map of society’s values. Perhaps not belonging is one of the deepest of them.
*and yes, I think of Professor Weston every time I visit the Weston library in the Bodleian. I do not, however, see it as a place inhabited by physicists possessed by Miltonian demons.