Two Christmas Projects

Or rather two projects for Advent that deal with two of the major Christmastide feasts, Epiphany and Candlemas. Yes, trees come down earlier every year (perhaps they went up earlier this year, too) and the foodfest came and went in a fog of tiers, but the Christmas story continues (as Chris Lovegrove attests) with festive decoration – and in the liturgy various bits of Infancy narrative – to end just before Lent.

Everything is out of sequence is preparing stuff: projects have their own timetables and participants, run-in time for one thing can be longer than for another. Turkeys are raised before Puddings are made, after all. So I’m going to describe these – ah, the wonders of word-processing – in the order that I did them, and then store this up for beyond Twelfth Night.

The Polonsky/Bodleian Chant Project

Candlemas looks out into the darkness of the darkest days of þe crabbed lentoun – although I see the excellent Clerk of Oxenford can find joy even here, and Thomas Merton too proclaims

For we have found our Christ, our August Here in the zero days before Lent

And this is just some brief reflections and a link…

The podcast itself explains the Polonsky-Bodleian project looking at a multi-layered liturgical MS; watch it by all means. I can’t ask anyone to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” because it was precisely a drawing aside of a curtain that so disturbed and delighted me: the ‘singing teacher’ (I was so billed) with MS scholars and liturgists: Andrew Dunning and Henrike Laehnemann,

What did the participants learn? I can only speak for myself. The brief was to present chant in a manuscript for the people joining the podcast to get the feel of singing from an early source. Not hugely early, but different enough for people to get a feel of the medieval liturgy and its books. They/ we were aided and abetted by the setting and small schola in the dark of St Peter in the East, now part of St Edmund Hall in Oxford, but of course we couldn’t rely on that to do more than afford a quick look into the complexities of performance: here, Henrike’s expertise and clarity told the story of the manuscript and the meaning of the music, and Andrew’s understanding – and physical handling – of the manuscript (Bodleian Libraries MS. Lat liturg. e. 18) and MSS in general brought a high appreciation of the book, its most gothick embellishments being from the nineteenth century.

I look at the podcast and wish I didn’t wave my hands towards the camera quite so much, and wish I didn’t stumble and look down at my text so much either…

Is that what I learned? I learned about MS. Lat liturg. e. 18 and felt I got to grips with how MSS change use as well as context. This guide to the Cistercian ritual of a Provost and clergy, and the nuns and the people shows how difficult producing a liturgical text is, as if the text cannot quite reconcile itself to use by all sorts of people (compare an altar missal even in the newest editions with people’s missals). Even when a rough depiction of the medieval liturgy is the “private breakfast” (to use a phrase from the Reformation) of the celebrant, the needs and the participation of the wider church attendees demand attention. Henrike and Andrew were good at explaining this, setting the book in the history of its uses – and I found myself thinking of those MSS – books of devotion, books of hours, books with the list of the best indulgences near London – I wandered through in the 80s l, that I scathing joked about when they had this text or that, or something scribbled out. I spent too long on the crossword puzzle to see it was actually a biography. This December I learned again the living use of these books, and how that life meant change.

I also found how much I still knew, how much I had forgotten. Perhaps there is another page here for Books of Life and Death.

Journey of the Magi

T S Eliot recorded a sonorous, meditative – may I say parsonically dull? – rendition of one of his most famous shorter poems, John Gielgud gave it more blood if not more warmth (it is not a warm poem) and my good friend Roger Dalrymple asked me in November to join him and others in a version in which he would sew together lines read in various places and by various people. I was gobsmacked at being asked to join in, even more amazed to be asked to read the opening lines:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

Having been given these overture lines, I set about thinking how the poem should be introduced. I felt I was given the compere role: after all they set the theme, don’t they? Yes and no. It was a relief to hear that each participant brings to it their own voice; like a children’s Nativity, there are more kings than three (and why not?), and if I was freezing (I should have worn boots for early morning in a damp meadow) and the weather chill, well, that’s one king’s view. It might be argued that the whole thing should have been filmed in a Summer Santorini – or a ruined Syrian city – but this one king in a foggy field recalls and reinhabits the wintry cold to set the scene. And on reading the poem through for clues as to how to deliver those lines, I saw very starkly that it is the last line, not the first three, that provides the tone.

Gielgud’s petulant tone tells us how much the mage has lost as much as how much there is to gain in the Theophany – costing, as Eliot says elsewhere, not less than everything. So I am happy with my slightly moany start to the poem. Transport lets you down; plans change; it is not what you expected when you get there: the same kind of travel as anyone might have – until nearly half way through, when the feeling that this was all folly changes. In the Epiphany we look out over the dark fields – the little torches of lesser festivals almost lost in the dark – towards Lent and Easter.

…The lights that we have kindled,

The light of altar and of sanctuary;

Small lights of those who meditate at midnight…

T S Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

How much of this year has seemed folly? How much more of this is there to do?

Preparing for the performance – selfishly not counting Roger’s editorial time and the other participants’ efforts – entailed a very close reading. I tried it first of all as recitation – almost as I might read a poem from Isaiah in Church. Maybe that was what Eliot was trying; it certainly didn’t work for me. So as I explained I went out and tried it a number of times in various ways – with me in camera, with the frosty sunrise on Warneford Meadow along the Old Road down from Shotover, in a chilly fog, without me to be seen. These were more successful, and I think this was because I wanted more than just “saying my lines” (more echoes of the Primary School Nativity) I looked at the whole poem, went back to Matthew’s Gospel, tried to see the white horse galloping, the gamblers. But the ones without me in perhaps were bloodless: the speaker was needed, just as Eliot’s rendition seems to me. I sent various copies to Roger for him to choose, and his choice works, I think. Working with Roger reminded me sharply of reading the speech from Gawain’s guide for the Wild Spaces Wild Magic group when we went up to the (possible) Green Chapel, and how the different translations – and for Roger the ME text – needed acting more than some kind of ecclesial declamation.

I found working with the T S Eliot so challenging and so revelatory – is the word fun permissible? – that I set about doing a version just for close friends of Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day. All those long echoes… and the dear love of friends. Cooper’s poem, is much more like the secular Yule and, as this bleakest year dies, a warming message, hoping against hope, maybe…

Coracoid processes

Some thoughts on my Christmas reading

Trying to pick common themes from my Christmas present gifts is a tall order, but with the title I have given this post, I have to start from Joe Shute and his book A Shadow Above, an account of ravens, the bird that, as the author says, embodies our best and worse impulses and symbolises our deepest fears. It is Joe’s book that takes me to the Sutcliff-like Iron Age and, taking in The Wanderer, to the mind- boggling archaeology of Danebury, where ritual mutilation and burial of ravens has been discovered:

Why did our ancestors choose to be buried alongside ravens? The theory now being suggested by a growing number of academics and archaeologists is that by placing ravens in these pits, they were offered up as gifts to the gods of the underworld… In a society where birds and animals were seen as a continuum of human life rather than as something existing alongside it, the ravens were there to perpetuate the existence of the human soul and be our companion and guide in the afterlife.

A Shadow Above, Ch 2: Bird of Omen

Ravens as corpse stealers, wisdom bringers, companions in death and scavengers of battle-fields bring me to Annie Dillard, the inescapable prophet of what it’s like to live alongside ‘nature.’

Cruelty is a mystery, and the waste of pain. But if we describe a world to encompass these things, a world that is a long, brute game, then we bump against another mystery: the inrush of power and light, the canary that sings in the skull…

The Abundance, One Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley

…the canary that sings in the skull, or the raven that sits on (in) the shoulder?

It is by pure coincidence that I chose to put my three ravens high up by my clavicle, a palpation (or less) away from the raven-like (or raven’s-beak-like) structure in the shoulder, but today, thanks to these two authors it strikes me as significant – we make a bony structure seem like a raven, I sit three ravens on my shoulder – and as Dougie Strang, standing on the mound Diarmaid’s Grave, proclaims in his essay in Antlers of Water

I’d no idea what lay beneath me. Stories attach themselves to ancient sites, building layers of meaning that aren’t always consistent with the archaeology. The mound at Cunside is ambiguous: it might be the remains of a Bronze Age cairn, or the graver of a Viking raider who sailed up the Kyle, or simply a pile of stones, cleared from the infield byu early settlers. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that those who lived at Cunside knew that this was Diarmaid’s grave and that his story put them in their place.

Dougie Strang, Diarmaid’s Grave, in Antlers of Water, ed Kathleen Jamie

and I wonder about that raven in my shoulder, another bump in the landscape that carries a story, a symbol. We make patterns, we explain, we tell stories – and maybe we tell stories about our bodies like we tell stories about our land, our past. The Highland grave of a long-gone hero, looming over Christmastide Bethlehem and the green shadows of Ludchurch and Gawain… travel writing, nature writing, spiritual writing: stories in a time of lockdown

At once I am relying again on the contemplative footsteps of Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff, on the keen eye of Mat Tobin, to see what there is to see, to learn the legends that explain landscape – and with them I can hear my own worry that we are becoming incurious about the wild spaces and about their stories.

A word or two from Joe Shute, to ground me in the real worlds of the ferocious intelligence of ravens. Here he is meeting Loki and Elliott, one of his humans:

He is startlingly tactile with Elliott, jumping onto his shoulder and head and allowing him to stroke his black, glossy plumage. It takes a few minutes for him to settle and grow used to the strange faces looking in at him, then he permits us to stroke his soft neck-feathers too. This close the raven’s plumage is an array of purple, greens and brown that pool shimmering together.

Ch 4, Speaking with Ravens

And here we see Joe out in the dark, in the wilds of Anglesey, and despite the shadows this is vivid, grounded writing:

We stand together in silence as the ravens settle and the nightly dialogue begins.

How to describe the calls? The pig snorts, rolling logs, horse hooves on a hard road, chittering primates and popping champagne corks that come to my ears, seem far too parochial manifestations of this preternatural medley. As the night passes, we even hear snatches of raven song, a whispered ethereal sound barely audible through the chorus.

Ch 8 A Night in a Raven Roost

As with so much in Antlers of Water, the really vivid in A Shadow Above is in the actual, the seen and touched, the place driven to. But this reading week after Christmas has included the transcendental nature writing of Annie Dillard: she must have the last word in this post, a call for reverence and beauty, the stuff that has sustained me in troublesome 2020 and will doubtless be needed in the coming year:

This is the one world, bound to itself and exultant…loud as music, filling the grasses and skies

Annie Dillard, The Abundance, Paganism

A Christmas Star?

In a monumental stumble – or set of stumbles – the current government have altered the COVID-19 restrictions from those they imposed so recently – and with such derision of others. They have proved themselves unequal to the pressures they face within and without. Today’s U-turn is one no amount of privileged bluster and Oxford Union rhetoric should be able to cover. This is not Isaiah’s or Vergil’s messianic comfort; this isn’t even a dull year of personal and societal trudge – so what is it?

It is not just the “cancelling of Christmas” that makes me think of Narnia and its blighted time of always winter and never Christmas (a thoughtful little post here), but as people look for the gathering conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn I look for the first turnings to justice and restoration that are the pivot in the first chapters in the story of the young prince Caspian. Here the prince is with his tutor Doctor Cornelius:

https://images.app.goo.gl/tNNLJDpvLm6QAtJa6

There was no difficulty in picking out the two stars they had come to see. They hung rather low in the southern sky, almost as bright as two little moons and very close together.
“Are they going to have a collision?” he asked in an awestruck voice.
“Nay, dear Prince,” said the Doctor (and he too spoke in a whisper). “The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that. Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace. They are just coming to their nearest.’

C S Lewis: Prince Caspian Ch 4

All of a sudden the half-glimmers of hope of Caspian’s story begin to come true, and the Kings and Queens of old come back, and Narnia is restored. There is, in Caspian’s terror and joy, something of Betjeman’s repeated question And is it true? And is it true…?

And tonight it feels very far from the cosy querulousness of Betjeman – but while I am thinking of Lewis and Betjeman, I can skip forward to more earthy and grounded words of comfort from perhaps the greatest character in Lewis’ Narnia, Puddleglum:

Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.

C S Lewis The Silver Chair, ch 12

So I may not see a Christmas conjunction, when we see with Vergil redeunt Saturnia regna, the kingdom of Saturn returns, and next year I may see, along with the rest of Britain, a poor excuse for a country run by self-servers pandering to xenophobes. But I may hope for more – as Betjeman looks beyond The sweet and silly Christmas things I have to look at more than the ways deep and the weather sharp,/The very dead of winter (more on this poem another time, but the conjunction and the Magi couldn’t be passed over).

And my response (to return to gloomy Pugddleglum) will have to be to stamp on the fires of deceit and hopelessness – including my own self-deceit and self-pity.

The Fear that walked the forest

Very much as a continuation of the post from the start of December, I wanted to look at woodlands that are not contemplative spaces but may also be places of danger and menace. There is a bear in Brendon Chase, a giant – and weasels, and so on – in the Little Grey Men, but I will leave B.B. for now and look first at perhaps the most famous of menacing woods, Mole’s entry to the Wild Wood:

There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.

Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.

Then the faces began.

It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face, a little, evil, wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.

He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then—yes!—no!—yes! certainly a little, narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated—braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.

Then the whistling began.

Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he—he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.

Then the pattering began.

He thought it was only falling leaves at first, so slight and delicate was the sound of it. Then as it grew it took a regular rhythm, and he knew it for nothing else but the pat-pat-pat of little feet still a very long way off. Was it in front or behind? It seemed to be first one, and then the other, then both. It grew and it multiplied, till from every quarter as he listened anxiously, leaning this way and that, it seemed to be closing in on him. As he stood still to hearken, a rabbit came running hard towards him through the trees. He waited, expecting it to slacken pace or to swerve from him into a different course. Instead, the animal almost brushed him as it dashed past, his face set and hard, his eyes staring. “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” the Mole heard him mutter as he swung round a stump and disappeared down a friendly burrow.

The pattering increased till it sounded like sudden hail on the dry leaf-carpet spread around him. The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or—somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither. He ran up against things, he fell over things and into things, he darted under things and dodged round things. At last he took refuge in the deep, dark hollow of an old beech tree, which offered shelter, concealment—perhaps even safety, but who could tell? Anyhow, he was too tired to run any further, and could only snuggle down into the dry leaves which had drifted into the hollow and hope he was safe for a time. And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listened to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fulness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment—that thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from—the Terror of the Wild Wood!

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, ch 3, The Wild Wood

The inexperienced, the unwary learn a lesson here – so much of Wind in the Willows is about self-discovery – and a parallel section – again, early on its story, and with a rescue at the end – occurs in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, where the boy Drem has run away from home, has turned to the wilderness in an attempt to avoid a looming and unpleasant truth:

Only – only it seemed change was coming over the forest.

Or maybe it was that he was awake and aware of the forest now as he had not been before; awake to the darkness and the crowding trees that were suddenly – not quite what trees should be, not quite what they were in the day-time; to the furry that was full of voices,  the whispering, rustling, stealthy voices of the forest, that were not the voices of the daytime either.  There were little nameless rustlings through the undergrowth, the soft swish of  wings through the branches overhead; in the distance a small animal screamed and Drem knew that somewhere a fox had made its kill. Surely the whole forest was disturbed tonight. But those were not the sounds that are raised the hair on the back of his neck. Once he thought he heard the breathing of a big animal close at hand, and as he checked, his own breath caught in his throat; something brushed through the undergrowth towards him, and there was a sudden silver pattering like rain among the leaves – but it was not raining.  He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him. He whirled about, his hand on the knife in his belt, but there was nothing there.  Nothing but the furry darkness.  And far off through the trees, he thought that something laughed. His heart was racing now, sickeningly, right up in his throat; he struggled on again, blindly. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. But even as he blundered on, above the brushing and crackling that he made, above the drubbing of his heart, he heard a soft, stealthy panting as though the Thing prowled at his heels. But it was not only at his heels now, it was all around him, in front as well as behind, and the forest itself, the whole forest was like some great hunting cat crouched to spring. ‘Don’t run!’ said the hunter that was born and bred in him that knew the ways of the wild through hundreds of generations.  ‘Don’t run!’ But terror had him in its power, and he was running, with no more sense of direction than a mouse with a stoat behind it.

Brambles tore his skin, fallen branches tripped him, low-hanging boughs slashed across his face as he crashed from the undergrowth that seemed to lay hold of him with wicked, clawing hands. This was the Fear that walked the forest, the Terror of the Soul.  He had never felt it before, but the hunter within him knew it; the Fear that prowled soft footed beyond the cave mouth and the firelight.

Rosemary Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet. 2: Talore the Hunter

It is much less consciously poetic than Grahame’s Wild Wood, but picks up the same theme: the crisis of the small creature in a world that is unsafe. For Graham the menace grows in those single and then the …began lines. Each one of them heralds a growing feeling of discomfort, all indistinct to start with. The growing menace is all the more chilling for its being all but intangible.

Rosemary Sutcliff also pulls out all the stops. The second only marks the change, reflected in the ways her writing suggests that all those semi-colons and oddly placed commas are stage directions for reading aloud. Consider, for example the ways they she gives the reader to “perform” this example:

He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him.

Her text is broken up, so that it reads like fragments: He pushed on again – more quickly now – carelessly – stumbling suggesting the boy’s intention scattering as the fear – sorry the Fear – takes hold. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. We have lost the externality of the narrator and fallen into Drem’s own breathless panic.

I wonder if these two tenser images of the terrifying aspects of the Woods are longer because I revel in them and therefore chose the longer sections or because, as Tolkien famously says things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a great deal of telling anyway. The negotium perambulans in tenebris – as the English puts it the pestilence that walketh in darkness – the “acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility” as M R James warns the curious – is a fear from before the time of the Psalms.

I mentioned previously the slow burn of violence and sex and mistrust and uncertainty in Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and won’t labour the point: Mythago is not a landscape written with children in mind anyway. The increase of fear in Moominland Midwinter as the wolves approach the little dog Sorry-oo; in Mirkwood, the dark, spider-infested nightmare in The Hobbit, escape is just into another problem; but in Tolkien’s Old Forest in Lord of the Rings, rescue comes – because the binary of narrative asserts itself here (as in Mole’s Wild Wood and Drem’s wilderness) – in the impossible jollity of Tom Bombadil: but each time the hunted finds refuge. It is the turning point of the journey: as Sara Maitland explains

It is when you are going out into the forest, not when you are trying to return home from it, that you get lost, that the forest is at its densest and most frightening.

Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: Staverton Thicks

Peril and escape, peril and rescue in the Forest – could we call it the Woodcutter Imperative, perhaps? – occur elsewhere, too, of course. We sometimes find a solution in the woods, despite the fear: Drem will, Mole will, Frodo and Bilbo will, although in a switchback of perilous events – and of course Merry and Pippin will too, in the curious encounters with the Ents.

The Wart , the future King Arthur of T H White’s tragedy The Once and Future King, pursues the hawk into the Forest Sauvage, and White draws on the same themes, but at this point is knowingly engaging the reader (‘nowadays”), and by doing so lessens the panic:

Wart would not have been frightened of an English forest nowadays, but the great jungle of Old England was a different matter. It was not only that there were wild boars in it, whose sounders would at this season be furiously rooting about, nor that one of the surviving wolves might be slinking behind any tree, with pale eyes and slavering chops. The mad and wicked animals were not the only inhabitants of the crowded gloom. When men themselves became wicked they took refuge there, outlaws cunning and bloody as the gore-crow, and as persecuted. …

There were magicians in the forest also in those legendary days, as well as strange animals not known to modern works of natural history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws…who lived together and wore green and shot with arrows which never missed. There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.

Added to this, there was the fact that it was getting dark. The forest was trackless and nobody in the village knew what was on the other side. The evening hush had fallen, and the high trees stood looking at the Wart without a sound.

T H White, The Once and Future King: The Sword in the Stone Ch II

The woods, therefore, are not always the joyous and therapeutic place we might imagine, but part of the inimical outdoors, a place of magical, dangerous encounter, the space for menace and danger that will resolve itself or become a meeting with someone or something that will rescue or transform the person who has ventured in (Badger for Mole; Talore for Drem; Merlyn for the Wart; Fangorn for Merry and Pippin – and is it too fanciful to suggest Mellors for Lady Chatterley?). Not comfortable places – but places for an important meeting to take place.

Here is an Old Man Willow up the Windrush valley, on a winter afternoon – possibly not really that old, given willows’ life spans – but a bit of pareidolia suggests a face – and I think of the trees of the Old Forest, the Winter King and thus of course to The Green Knight and to the Christmas that is coming.

Which brings me to a tree end with: my admission that the first tree in the greenwood that I found truly terrifying still has the power the raise the hairs on my arms, and is, of course; not Tolkien’s willow, but

a tree where no tree should be – a tree shaped roughly like a stooping man, that waved its long arms before it and clutched at the air with its long fingers.

Hear the Leaves

A fool could sit under the trees forever and grow no wiser.

UKLeG The Finder, Tales from Earthsea

The impatience of a person asked to undertake the tasks of contemplation is beautifully encapsulated in this little interchange. It is rings true with the Zen stories where a disciple asks a Big Question and is told to look at the landscape or clean his rice bowl. We are only free to “feel…what we feel in this moment” as Alan Watts suggests: “no way to free ourselves… the you that you imagine to be capable of transforming yourself doesn’t exist.”

Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle puts it like this:

At times of crisis when one realises that one is not free after all and serious doubts about oneself begin to arise, then one can no longer find a hold on what one always believed was one’s own. A difficult choice must then be faced: there must be a complete inner surrender… or else one must take hold of something else that is not yet this final and absolute reality.

H Enomiya-Lassalle, The Practie of Zen Meditation, Day 7

This week, the last in November and leading into December, is National Tree Week, so it seemed appropriate – if a little rushed on my part – to look at some trees that have recently been on my social media and my own reading. My friend Roger sends me a moving short bit of footage of an extract for Journey of the Magi recited in a forest; Jon posts a magical picture of a tree in foggy West Oxfordshire; Mat and I discuss (on social media and elsewhere) the still, warm place that is Lewis’ Wood Between the Worlds – and at home we are reading a more inimical view of trees in The Children of Green Knowe (broad hint for Christmas: Diana Boston has a shop). I cannot really make an anthology, not a proper one, of writers about trees, and Fiona Stafford has a whole book on trees and British culture, so the sample here is really on the well-trodden ground of Lewis, Le Guin and the other fantasy writers, with a quick glance at some other commentators. There are all sorts of woods to discover: here I will look only at two versions: the everyday and the transcendent, and I acknowledge my selection to be idiosyncratic: they are just extracts to draw attention to the glorious richness there is in the ways writers think of trees and woodland.

Alexander Porteous, in his 1928 book The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, gives forty pages over to 

…these sacred groves…watered by some consecrated fountain or river…surrounded by a ditch or mound to prevent the intrusion of strangers. No one was permitted to enter these consecrated groves except through the passage left open for the purpose. 

It is a work, rather like Watkins’ 1925 The Old Straight Track where speculation and the topological understanding of the author’s time are brought to bear, sometimes with some success (Watkins may have some methodologies we might challenge but sometimes his guesswork is impressive), on the phenomenon under discussion. Porteous has, for example, a peculiar view of palaeobotany that suggests people planted trees on sacred spots rather like C18th landowners – but what Porteous does do – perhaps unconsciously – is lay out a popular understanding of woodland as sacred landscape: 

They would have vague glimmerings of some power higher than themselves whom it was necessary to propitiate and to worship… The popular conception of the character of a grove is an assemblage of beautiful trees which together impart a peculiar beauty to the scene: the external forms of these trees possess so much beauty, and their overhanging boughs afford so welcome a shelter, that we need not wonder if in earlier ages groves were considered as fittest temples for the gods, and it was believed by the ancients that ghosts and spirits tool a delight in making their appearance there.” 

Porteous Ch IV

Holdstock and BB have interesting woodlands, at once fantastic and everyday. The woods of BB’s Little Grey Men are fantastic because they have gnomes in them, and the world is depicted from their diminutive point of view, so that Crow Wood is a place of menace dominated by the gamekeeper-ogre, and yet BB’s delight in the depiction of ordinary, everyday nature still comes through.

Their way now led them down a narrow grassy path hedged on either side with tall bracken. It had not yet reached its full stature for the tips were still curved over into little shepherd’s crooks. It made a fairy adventure of green on either side of the track, for the path they were on was only an animals’ ‘runway’. It wandered here and there, under brambles, round the stumps of trees, under fallen branches, in and out beneath dense blackthorn, and under the winding tendrils of wild honeysuckle. You or I could never follow it…

B.B. The Little Grey Men, ch 8, Giant Grum

Follow it, in the eyes of his gnomes, we do, of course, and debate game birds and private property as we go… The gnomes provide a new way of looking at woodland, a new height, and this adds to B.B.’s showing a world where size brings its own challenges and adventures to the resourceful little people. Themes of self-sufficiency return with similar power in his novel Brendon Chase where again, the author Denys Watkins-Pitchford displays his naturalist’s eye, and this wood, big enough for three boys to live in more or less undetected, is both the setting for the book and in some ways the star attraction. Here the boys are settling into an evening in the wood that is to be their runaway hideout all summer and autumn:

In the quiet of evening the nightingales were singing, whitethroats were bubbling their merry woodland music from the hazels and sallows, and now and again a pigeon passed over, high in the sunlight, its breast lit by the low rays of the setting sun.

One of them, spying the thick crown of the oak below it in the clearing, closed its wings, wheeled round, and cam to a clattering rest among the green leaves. It was amazing that so large a bird could alight so swiftly it seemed to pierce the wall of foliage with ease, almost as if it were an arrow.

B.B. Brendon Chase, Chapter 3, Gone to Ground.

In both woods, we are dealing with a key theme of penetration, a real (enough) wood that for the runaway Hensman brothers in Brendon Chase provides shelter as well as danger, and for the Little Grey Men a critical encounter with humans and the animals the humans have subjected to themselves. In Brendon Chase, it feels colonial, from the boys’ entering and settling in the wood to their parents in Simla; in The Little Grey Men the outdoors beyond the gnomes’ known world is dangerous: for me there is a sense of trespass amid the beauty. The passage from B.B, I cited here is echoed in the much more tangled and disturbing fantasy Mythago Wood, published some forty years later.

To call, it a path was overly to dignify the barely perceptible routeway between the towering oak trunks, winding up and down the ragged contours of the land. Dog’s mercury and fern strokes my legs: ageing brambles snagged my trousers; birds gave frantic flight above, in the darkening summer canopy… I seemed to arrive deeper in the edgewoods, and felt mildly triumphant.

R0bert Holdstock, Mythago Wood, Part Two: 9.

Ryhope, Holdstock’s expanding, dangerous, layered fantasy wood, is a landscape unlike any other. More disturbing than Tolkien’s Old Forest or Mirkwood, more claustrophobic than Fangorn, it defies conquering, demands acquiescence from those that penetrate its secrets. We are in the realm of fantasy, yet Holdstock still keeps the reader grounded in a recogniseable woodland – maybe this is where I find the greatest horror: that we are drawn into the occult through a series of obsessions and myths and timeslips (is that what they are?) yet encountering at first a tangled woodland of old fences and brambles B. B. would recognise.

The field treacherous with cow-pats… the tangle of rose briars, bramble and knee-high nettles…gnarled young oak trees….

Overture and beginners for a forested world where language is mangled, loyalties upended, a “natural order” questioned: things will get much more confused as the protagonist Steven enters the dark fantasy of the wood. Ryhope is a place of threat – and yet some of its terror comes from the balance of recognising the world of menace just inside the wood. Holdstock’s woodland is not so different from Brendon Chase – until you venture in deep, or its inhabitants come and find you.

At that point, to return to a real wood, I have to mention the wood grown up around the deserted village of Astercote: ‘Just the forest taking over again.” It is a representation of an ordinary woodland that shows the same love and care as B.B. demonstrates:

The wood hummed and sang, life flickering and rustling at every level: insects underfoot, birds above and around, small ones flitting neatly from branch to branch, pigeons crashing noisily overhead. Sunlight crackled down through the leaves, dust spinning in the yellow shafts. A squirrel poured soundlessly down the trunk of a tree and vanished into the brambles: somewhere ahead a woodpecker thumped. It was a busy place, preoccupied with its own affairs.

Penelope Lively, Astercote, Ch 2

It reminds me of the search for ancient woodland in Oliver Rackham’s masterpiece, Trees and Woodlands of the British Landscape:

It is observed that woods with a long history, and especially ancient coppices, often have a richer flora than recently established woodland., and contain certain plants which the latter lacks. Continuity, management and development all contribute to the difference. An ancient wood will either have inherited species from the wildwood or – if secondary – will have had sufficient time to acquire all but the least mobile plants…The plant communities of an ancient wood will have had perhaps a thousand years in which to come to terms with management.

Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British landscape, ch 6: What woods now mean

We are back from Ryhope, back from Astercote, back in the real wood again, and can breathe.

But there is another view of woodland: the mallorn of Tolkein’s Lothlorien, the nameless yet named trees of Le Guin’s Grove, places of a slow redemption that Robert Macfarlane describes as the green where shadow meets leaf. The Immanent Grove on Roke – a high wood crowned in starlight –  makes some powerful appearances in the Earthsea sequence. In the last, the deeply troubled Alder – a significant name, just as Ged is called Sparrowhawk – explains he was able to sleep in the Grove:

Even at night I could sleep. In daylight, if the sun’s on me…if the warmth of the sun’s on me and the red of the sun shines through my eyelids, I don’t fear to dream. But in the Grove there was no fear at all, and I could love the night again.

The grove is a different thing from the tangled woods so far, a space of a more enlightening spirituality than a dangerous encounter. People have commented about the eerie Wood Between the Worlds in C S Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew as a place of almost lotus-eating forgetfulness, a place of letting go to the point of loss, of stupefaction – but if this near-oblivion might seem a disabling thing, and the quiet and warmth make the wood a place impeding action, it is worth looking at the Witch-Queen Jadis and her reaction: cruel, manipulative and decisive, she begs to be rescued from the place where her power is powerless, her desire to grasp is worthless. As my headquote suggests, this is not always easy: letting go and hearing the leaves can be a frustrating sort of learning, but with Porteous, the people who venture there experience glimmerings of some power higher than themselves in ways that are healing and sustaining. Jadis cannot bear it, Lucifer-like she cannot choose surrender; but Medra, the eponymous Finder in Le Guin’s novella and the man to whom the headquote belongs, is at least willing to start learning, and asks what the significance is of the Grove at the heart of the Mages’ experience, only to be told

You can learn about the Grove only in it and from it.

And in another of the Tales from Earthsea, locality and peace are discovered by Irian in the Grove into which the mage, the Master Patterner, has inducted her: To be there was enough, was all.

This episode gives Le Guin the opportunity for her best woodland manifesto:

She had no wish to explore for herself. The peacefulness of the place called for stillness, watching, listening; and she knew how tricky the paths were, and the Grove was, as the Patterner put it, “bigger on the inside than the outside.” She sat down in a patch of sun-dappled shade and watched the shadows of the leaves play across the ground. The oak mast was deep; though she had never seen wild swine in the wood, she saw their tracks here. For a moment she caught the scent of a fox. Her thoughts moved as quietly and easily as the breeze moved in the warm light.

Ursula K Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, Dragonfly.

The echo of the Tao seems very obvious to me. The named and nameless trees, the named and nameless Path, the path through the trees that is not fixed.

“How far does the forest go?” Medra asked, and Ember said,” As far as the mind goes.”

The Grove beyond the Mages’ Great House on Roke has a special place in my reading of Earthsea partly because what I might fancifully think of as my own Great House also has a Grove, a Deer Park, and maybe – maybeC S Lewis’ imagining the snowy woods of Narnia – but actually the woods closest to my time of reading Le Guin are the woods around the Harcourt Campus at Oxford Brookes. They have been a therapeutic space when times felt hard, a place to talk things over with friends – both from my need and theirs, a delight of solitarinesse. And, of course, they are the place where my Outdoor Learning students practise and play.

As one of the principal characters in Powers’ The Overstory puts it Our brains evolved to solve the forest… Forest and grassland, valley and high place: landscape formed how we think and feel.

George Monbiot in his chapter The Hushings in Feral explores this, and takes up the challenge of outdoor play with some typically (and movingly) lyrical praise:

Missing from children’s lives more than almost anything else is time in woods. Watching my child and others, it seems to me that deep cover encourages deep play, that big trees, an understorey mazed by fallen trunks and shrubs which conceal dells and banks and holes and overhangs, draw children out of the known world and into others. Almost immediately the woods become peopled with other beings, become the setting for rhapsodic myth and saga, translate the children into characters in an ageless epic, always new, always the same. Here, genetic memories reawaken, ancient impulses are unearthed, age-old patterns of play and discovery recited. 

George Monbiot: Feral: p169

And if as he says …the outdoors has an endless capacity to surprise,  we should recognise this capacity in the wide variety of woods in literature.

Family, Friendship and Loss

‘There is no family any longer.’

Except, Tove Jansson will tell us in a roundabout way, there is – but this is not where she starts from. As Jake Hayes’ fantastic exploration of the book will tell us, Moominvalley in November “is a story about unfulfilled desires.’ And what we find is a different kind of family, where familial fit – the way a community wraps its skills and needs around one another – is re-explored, without most of the familiar main characters of the Moomin stories. But Snufkin is here, irresolute and disturbed.

One of the saddest sections in any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books is where Snufkin, on his way for the autumn, remembers he hasn’t left his usual letter for his friend Moomintroll.

I forgot my goodbye letter, I didn’t have time. But all the letters I write are the same: I’ll be back in April, keep well. I’m going away , but I’ll be back in the spring, look after yourself. He knows anyway.

Tove Jansson: Moominvalley in November: ‘Snufkin.’

He knows anyway: the heart leaps at that comforting assurance, the two friends knowing that the other is secure in their friendship. And then Jansson pulls the rug out from under my feet:

And Snufkin forgot about Moomintroll as easily as that.

Way back, in what to me seems the sunnier autumn of Finn Family Moomintroll (the first of the books I had read), we had already seen Snufkin leaving before the end, to explore

all the strange places [he] longed for and would go to quite alone.

Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll

And he will enjoy being quite alone. His solitude is part of his complexity, as is his detachment. I live all over the place, Snufkin says when introduces himself in Comet in Moominland; my hands are free, because I don’t have to carry a suitcase. And along with garnets or any other precious things (apart from hat and mouth-organ) he carries little, physically or emotionally. Not for Snufkin any regret, the hopes for kindness at a distance. All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails playing on his mouth organ, he is off, answering the call he felt in the night of the storm on the Hattifatteners’ Island.

In the relationship between Moomin and his friend Jansson does a spectacular thing: she shows an unequal friendship, a love that Moomintroll feels and cannot really articulate, a friendship Snufkin picks up and puts down easily.

Moomintroll was left alone on the bridge. He watched Snufkin grow smaller and smaller, and at last disappear among the silver poplars and the plum trees. But after a while he heard the mouth organ playing All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails and then he knew that his friend was happy. He waited while the music grew fainter and fainter, till at last it was quite quiet, and then he trotted back through the dewy garden…

‘Are you crying?’ asked Bob.

‘N-no,’ said Moomintroll, ‘it’s only that Snufkin has gone away.’

Jansson gives us a simple, hesitant denial: it is the pain of absence that shows us the depth of Moomintroll’s feelings. What began in Comet in Moominland with Snufkin jumping up and down [shouting] Fancy that! What fun! Coming all this way to see me! leads to Moomintroll in Finn Family Moomintroll toasting his friend with a wish for a good pitch for his tent and a light heart, but sad for himself, as Moominmamma wisely notices.

But when Snufkin, in the much later Moominvalley in November, ponders his relationship with the family, Jansson gives us further revelations. Snufkin, significantly in search of some creative completion, has returned to the Moomin valley to find assorted hangers-on have come too, looking for hospitality and companionship – locality and peace as Auden puts it – and while he is not pleased, the new arrangement at least gives him pause for thought:

And how different they are from the Moomin family. They were a nuisance too, they wanted to talk. They were all over the place, but with them you could at least be on your own. How did they behave, actually? Snufkin wondered in surprise. How is it possible I could have been with them all those long summers without ever noticing that they let me be alone?

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November, ch 11.

Moomintroll has all sorts of people he depends on and who depend on him: the annoying-little-brother-figure of Sniff; the prototype for Miss Piggy in the Snork Maiden; his father (who has taught me so much about being a father that I am sat upstairs in my study writing); the rarely flappable and always wondrous Moominmamma. But only one Snufkin: there is a beautiful, slow-burn depiction of Moomin’s close friendship with the wanderer, that comes to a half-spoken resolution in November.

In some ways, with the Moomin family following the mid-life crisis of Moominpappa, figuratively and literally at sea (my blog post here), Moominvalley in November is another of Jansson’s meditations on family, but this time, it is Snufkin’s turn to learn. He leaves the valley and his friend Moomintroll with hardly a second glance, but finds himself blocked artistically, and makes his way back – only to find that the annoying, noisy, emotionally engaged Moomins have been replaced by a cast of disfunctional who-are-we-and-what-are-we-doing? characters. But they are a rewriting of the Moominhouse community; another sort of family. Just as Moomintroll on the island in Moominpappa At Sea is struggling with the frustration of his growing into adulthood, here Snufkin is wrestling with similar Angst, questioning what family means to him. On this reading (nth of n times) it seems to me that it is the irritation and pain as much as the joy that suffuses all the Moomin books that makes them so real.

It is his interaction towards the end of the book with little-boy-lost Toft* which marks the turning point in Snufkin’s understanding: when Toft, wrapped in his own fears, seeks reassurance, Snufkin has to step up, making (we should note) two cups of tea, two sandwiches:

‘It’s me,’ Toft whispered. He went inside the tent, where he’d never been before. It smelt nice inside-of pipe-tobacco and earth. Beside the sleeping-bag was a candle on a sugar box and the floor was covered with wood shavings.

‘It’s going to be a wooden spoon,’ Snufkin said. ‘Were you frightened by something?’

‘There is no family any longer,’ answered Toft. ‘They’ve deceived me.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ said Snufkin. ‘Perhaps they just want to be in peace for a while.’ He picked up his thermos flask and fill two mugs with tea. ‘There’s the sugar,’ he said. ‘They’re sure to come home some time.’

‘Sometime!’ exclaimed Toft. ‘She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!’

Snufkin shrugged his shoulders. He made two sandwiches and said: ‘I wonder what it is that the Moominmamma cares about…’

It will lead Snufkin to resolve his own creative block and liberate the anxious Fillyjonk, and by experiencing a different mode of community, Snufkin comes to realise, uncomfortably, what it is he appreciates about the Moomins. However he will not be there to greet them when they return: he has his music and has learned his lesson, but does not cease from being a snufkin. Transformation is not a magic reinvention, but a genuine change: not a Hobgoblin’s Hat change – the kind I was always hoping for for me – but something deeper that allows Snufkin to stay true to himself. At least this time, less careless with his friendship, he remembers to write to Moomintroll.

*

Real is an odd term. This is a world created by an author whose artistic talent is way beyond me, whose life in boats, on islands, in Scandinavian high culture is just as strange – but it is a world that becomes alive because we are invited (gently, subtly) into an emotional world we can understand. The little dog who longs to run with the wolves – until his wish starts to become true; the array of confusions we encounter in ourselves and others; peculiar friends and relations and their foibles and stamp collections; wrong decisions and adventures we hardly chose; how I met your mother; memories, regrets, death and rebirth… Huggably tubby trolls (and irritatingly fussy Fillyjonks, amenable ghosts, and Hattifatteners and the rest) standing for an array of characters we recognise and can see ourselves in.

*Jake connects this insightfully with Tove Jansson’s own loss of her mother. This adds powerfully, for me, to Toft’s break in understanding: Snufkin says “They’re sure to come home,” and Toft responds, “She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!

Mindful of Hardships

Swa cwæð eardstapa,

earfeþa gemyndig

So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships

I’ve been here before, bemoaning the state we’re in. So spoke the wanderer, mindful of hardships. It is an amazing bit of poetry, and way outside my discipline to comment on the poet’s meaning or even, truth be told, to get through it without a parallel text (this is the one I’m using) and a dictionary/thesaurus. As the world gets bleaker, I find my thinking informed by the voices of poets condemning what we might think of as alienation, sin-sickness, the prophetic Leonard Cohen telling us to “say the mea culpa which you probably forgot,” Shirley Collins’ moving images of powerlessness, locked in ice.

And yet today has gone well. Yes, for me at least, friends have made a difference. It shows me how fragile my feelings are, but on the first day back in the Bodleian (and admittedly only getting my new reader’s card) and noting that my last day of “proper” research was up on the Downs on a blowy March day, things have gone well.

Most of them. The desolation of the Wanderer was not really in my brief, but made my own annoyances seem petty – but the actual devastation of England by those with grubby paws, and people’s disquiet (partly exacerbated by the ways in which so much emnity is washing around) made it seem rather apt. Early morning sleeplessness is of no use, nor is a way of thinking that is rough and sorrowful. Physical affection is barred us; we have each become the wineleas guma, friendless man.

Swa þes middangeard

ealra dogra gehwam

dreoseð ond fealleð

So this Middle-earth, a bit each day droops and decays.

And so I felt I was back in a low mood about the state of things at the present: precious and venerable woodland desecrated, MPs snidily threatening that people who help the poor cannot expect help from Government themselves, MPs’ pay rises and subsidised food while children even in this locality go hungry… But the one thing that has always given me a small shred of comfort has been the notion that my response has to be one I own fully: not a bandwagon (however righteous) or sense of despair (however justified). And this is where we need kind-ness, that feeling of people belonging, of my belonging and the duty of care that brings*.

And then Richard Powers, he of The Overstory, had a short essay in the paper yesterday. He is not overly hopeful about the American election and suggests that whatever the outcome

It will take decades to heal the deep wounds.

Richard Powers, How do we become a serious people again?

…but then suggests lines I had not read from Walt Whitman. The poem from which they are taken is a longer plea for a United America, but these lines brought me back to a plea from earlier blogs:

OVER the carnage rose prophetic a voice,

Be not dishearten’d, affection shall solve the problems of freedom yet,

Those who love each other shall become invincible,

Walt Whitman, Over the Carnage, Leaves of Grass

and continues

The most dauntless and rude shall touch face to face lightly,

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,

The continuance of Equality shall be comrades

(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?

Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?

Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)

So Whitman was there before me (this is not really a surprise) in a plea for affection, friendship, fellow-feeling triumphing over institution and when earlier I asked about the human aspect of wholeness, “When This Is All Over” what will wellbeing be like? and maybe more urgently how might we get there, the personal is what we are left with, and knowing one another as of the same kind, kind-ness, compassion, is the place we start.

*I have to acknowledge, especially since I was amazed and delighted to see that this has received a bit more attention than I usually get, the thinking and personal warmth of my colleague Jon Reid whose work around compassion has illuminated so much of my own reflection.

No More Dreams

“Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.”

C S Lewis’ Christ-like hero Elwin Ransom, Pendragon of the mystical Logres, virginal (Lewis’ own term) channel of the celestial powers, Doctor of the University of Cambridge, dismisses Jane Studdock, the main female character of his Fantasy/Sci-Fi That Hideous Strength with these words. She gives up her power as a Seer to descend the ladder of humility (Lewis’ own image) to become a dutiful Christian wife. In the final paragraphs we know she will enter into a more generous (I think this is a word Lewis could appreciate, but I am at a loss) relationship with her wayward husband Mark: her impulse is to realise she will start by tidying up before the sex.

My first readings of this novel* saw Lewis explore – as in Perelandra, its predecessor- the gendering of mythological/angelic creatures, and the imperious Venus leading Mark to his own understanding of the new relationship seemed key to the finale. I got that.

Later readings caused me some disquiet. Is this really Lewis setting out a theology of marriage? Does Christianity for Jane have to entail submission to her husband because of some inherent maleness in Divinity? Not helped, perhaps, by the ‘of their time’ references to Mark and Jane’s troubled sexual relations (C S Lewis is not D H Lawrence), we are in a rather coy world of Jane needing to submit and Mark appreciating the stupidity of his importunity. I don’t necessarily need to have much more detail, but it is clear their times together has not been fulfilling in some way. Lewis is entitled to his authorial choices; it’s just that we have to acknowledge that if we are not at Wragby, then we are not On Chesil Beach either. The time of love-making (or whatever we call it) immediately after the end of That Hideous Strength is somehow for Lewis’ characters going to be more successful – successful because Mark and Jane will come together with a view of their relationship much more conformable to the reciprocity of St Paul’s vision in Colossians: wives be subject; husbands love your wives and be not bitter; children obey; fathers provoke not, &c.

But it would be a cheap trick to confine Lewis’ thinking about sexuality and the Great Dance of Being (his image) to the bumpy start to one young academic couple starting married life He may use them as exemplars, but his myth of gender is more fully explored in Perelandra, Lewis’ Eden-Myth, second in the trilogy. Limited still we might see it – written in the 40s, after all – he is at least open to a bigger picture than the who-does-what minutiae of Jane and Mark – or even the feelings of Elwin Ransom, the virginal and attractive Cambridge don whose adventures with the ancient gods pull all three books together.

In the final section of this second book, a sort of grand opera Finale, Ransom is witness to the establishment of the rule of the “humans” in Perelandra, in the presence of the tutelary spirits of Malacadra-Mars and Perelandra-Venus, the warrior and the lover. He explores a binary M/F sexuality while dividing masculine from male, feminine from female (and this will sit at odds with the depiction of the cruel, cigar-smoking Lesbian in That Hideous Strength), which fits this in his overall intention: to wed traditional Graeco-Roman mythologies with his world view:

Malacandra seemed … to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance… But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings.

and it is with this insight that Ransom (and with him, Lewis) understands

…why mythology was what it was – gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.

And so with his gods sorted (sort of), Lewis pulls out all the stops, his prose full of beauty, of awe and wonder and celestial power, his own quasi-scriptural voice pouring out: but is it only in myth that he can confront the realities of gender and sexuality?

This recognition of the mess of human understanding is key, and Alister McGrath ends his essay on Lewis in Curtis and Keys’ Women and C S Lewis with something of a plea for clemency:

Yet there is a more compassionate and more realistic way of understanding Lewis – as someone trapped within the social norms and conventions of a bygone age in British culture.

We are all condemned to live in a specific historical context, which we struggle to transcend.

McGrath “On Tolkien, the Inklings and Lewis’ Blindness to Gender.”

As an aside Lewis’ old Oxford College (and my own) has just elected its first woman President.

Lewis turns finally (before Ransom’s return to Earth) to the Adam and Eve of this new-founded society on Perelandra-Venus, Paradise in its two Persons, Paradise walking hand-in-hand. Lewis glories in the both the wonder of the woman’s breasts, a splendour of virility [sic] and richness of womanhood unknown on Earth, and the feeling trembling on the lips and sparkling in the eyes, the might of the man’s shoulders.

He writes here with what seems to me to be more conviction than he does in his hinting at the post-wedding courtship of a young male academic and his (it seems to me) oppressed wife. Certainly

All this is a roundabout way of highlighting the contrasts in the sexual politics of Earthsea. Ged’s ordinariness at the end of Tehanu is part of this, but it is worth noting the sequence of events: the destructive High Fantasy episodes in The Farthest Shore (I knew I would return to this) have left Ged weak and wounded. He is already at the end of his power in The Farthest Shore, enduring, and longing to avoid, some pain with a restlessness…greater than his strength, which soon gave out. As it turns out (at this stage at least) in facing death Ged is no longer the thing that we have defined him by: a man full of magic, archmage. It is his liberation by Tenar, whom he liberated in The Tombs of Atuan, that allows the two to come together in companionship and love, in physical affection and sex – and in the ordinary life of farming. Vocation – Rise – Fall – and then… Then, a restitution of life in the work of herding and in the house of someone who loves him. If, like me, readers had not seen the sequence of books as an elaborate Princesse Lointaine narrative resolving after long years and painful crises, there is at least a sense of completion.

The Finder, in LeGuin’s next text, Tales from Earthsea, picks up the story – or revisits it by asking why Le Guin’s great mages are celibate anyway, and what is the sociology of the mage world, and where this comes from. It is a story bursting with themes of oppression and resistance, with quotable quotes relevant to any reading of the news at the moment (The great and the mighty go their way uncheckedThe lords of war despise scholars and schoolmasters), as well as insights into a more personal spiritual life (We must keep to the center. And wait…).

“My master Highdrake said that wizards who make love unmake their power”

And do they? It would seem not: but they lose their status. Celibacy in Earthsea is a construct of power, and in various ways it is the setting aside of power that allows people to be something more (?better?) than powerful: it allows them to be loving, to be good. I come back again and again to images of pomp from secular and religious occasions and how the set, pious expression seems deliberately enclosed, distant, even disdainful. Cardinals in Cappa Magna; Presidents almost pouting to look grand: they look to me stiff necked and cruel: Gilbertian Mikados. Tenar was freed by Ged in the Tombs of Atuan from her awe-inspiring, dread-full charge as the priestess, the devoured one (shades, to refer maybe more charitably to C S Lewis, of Orual, his brilliantly drawn narrator/protagonist in Till We Have Faces), celebrating empty rites over the dark labyrinth. Ged was freed from the weight of death and of power by Tenar, by warmth, love, and a final setting aside of the burdens of his magic and his status.

The moving story in The Finder – the high-fantasy novella at the start of Tales from Earthsea – has a touching Male-Female relationship at its turning point, where avoidance and coyness become a sexual relationship and a lasting love. In the shorter story that follows, we deal with the simple idea that some people just don’t feel cut out for life as a mage: young Diamond comes home (to the disappointment of his wizard-tutor), picks up with Darkrose, his old girlfriend, and (to the disappointment of his father) goes off as a singer. Ordinary might also mean disappointing the visions grown-ups have for you – but you might end up being happy. There are other ways to unmake or set aside your power.

We see more of Ged in the book The Other Wind, no longer a mage – as the old order changes – but one with experience and knowledge. Tenar in this final book is in ascendance, advising the king, facing the dragons – and the role of women and power is explored further.

And it is Tenar’s wisdom with Tehanu her adopted daughter that in some ways brings this long arc back to earth:

“Ah you dragons,” Tenar said.

It was spoken lightly but it was not lightly said…

“I don’t know what I am, mother,” [Tehanu] whispered in her voice that was seldom more than a whisper.

“I do,” Tenar said. And her heart beat heavier and harder than before.

Le Guin: The Other Wind.

When she returns to Ged he is watering the cabbages like an extra from Voltaire’s Candide, and they share a glass of good red wine. Breaking the world to make it whole sums all the Earthsea revolution (not {but this is another story} unlike the twin volumes of the Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments).

“Well, I’m back,” she said – to paraphrase.

Ursula K Le Guin The Other Wind:
Endpaper (extract)

*I should note that Piers Torday and Neil Gaiman have commented with more thoughtfulness and authority that I can on his portrayal of girls and women in Narnia. In a piece looking wholly at Lewis I would have explored their ideas, and given Alister McGrath’s interesting essay more than a passing mention. For the record, Michael Ward’s work on Jane Studdock is very clear sighted and less defensive. It was a chance comment of mine that Perry Nodelman picked up that started me thinking about LeGuin’s Earthsea as a whole.

The Right to be Ordinary

Perry Nodelman generously shared his detailed and insightful essay on gender in the developing narrative of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, full of wisdom and rich in neat phrases. His Reinventing the Past: Gender in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Tehanu and the Earthsea\” Trilogy\” looks at how LeGuin seeks to make sense of a Jungian landscape of shadow and a search for wholeness. This post (as I stand in awe at Perry’s scholarship) seeks not to contradict him – I can see what he is doing – but to see the fourth book of the Earthsea Trilogy [sic: and Perry reminds me that there is more to comment on after Tehanu] as a genuine attempt at a conclusion, and especially to assess its impact on my own thinking. I can’t do it without spoilers, and I can’t do it without at least some self-disclosure: apologies all round, perhaps.

A Wizard of Earthsea begins with the identification of a young wizard, a neglected young goat herder. Stumbling into his maturity he encounters power and the ambiguity of failure. His quest brings him close to the primal dragons and across into a land of death, the enemies he encounters only really being faced down as the trilogy unfolds. This is the highest of high fantasy.

The sense of magic ending or fading, marking a lot of great fantasy writing – Tolkien’s elves going into the West, followed by the apotheosis at the end of all things in Lewis’ Narnia, the departure of Merriman and the Old Ones for Susan Cooper – is also present in Ged’s magic world: we see its shadows, its limits, and witness its increasing weakness. Ged finally confronts death, and in a powerful scene the great dragon Orm Embar dies where his father died,

…and the fire died in his nostrils till they became like pits of ash…

LeGuin, The Farthest Shore, ch 11

Fantasy in Earthsea, it seems to me, is in its death-throws on the remote island of Selidor.

In the ending of The Tombs of Atuan Ged’s liberation of Tenar from being a priestess of shadows allows her a recuperation from the grandiose myths she has served,

Tenar’s loss of the power of darkness earns her the right to be ordinary

Nodelman

I see a justice in Tenar liberating the lost and visionless Ged in Tehanu. No longer taking his place is palaces and magic, he learns love and desire and rediscovers the plain concerns of the everyday. Candide-like, the characters turn their backs on the doings of the great and cultivate their own gardens in what Julian Barnes has called horticultural quietism. It was this phrase, and Perry’s line about ordnariness that took me back to Thomas Merton, and although I cannot begin to suggest LeGuin and Merton knew each other or that their common interest in Tao and Zen inspired anything more than a chance convergent evolution, this poem strikes me as having something to say about the ending of Tehanu:

When in the soul of the serene disciple

With no more Fathers to imitate

Poverty is a success,

It is a small thing to say the roof is gone: He has not even a house.

Stars, as well as friends,

Are angry with the noble ruin,

Saints departs in several directions.

Be still:

There is no longer any need of comment.

It was a lucky wind

That blew away his halo with his cares,

A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.

Here you will find

Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.

There are no ways,

No methods to admire

Where poverty is no achievement.

His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction.

What choice remains?

Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

Thomas Merton “When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple” The Strange Islands

The image that is near the top of this blog is the three first Earthsea books and then my iPad; I realise I don’t own a hard copy of Tehanu – which is symbolised by the iPad and a picture of the dawn, the same dawn that ends this post. Sun rises; work impinges: to be ordinary is not a choice. It was this line and similar ones that made me think more than twice about (as the phrase goes) “trying my vocation.” I think my Mertonitis took me away from the monastery more than towards it – and I read Perry’s work and re-read the end of Tehanu on my thirty-nineth wedding anniversary. Thirty-nine years ago… And since then, so much has changed. I am struck by how in my own life and society at large – and immensely so since Earthsea first was published – still there are New things to be learned, no doubt. It is, I think, becoming for the final judgement at the end to belong to Tenar:

She thought of the rows of beans and the scent of the bean flowers. She thought of the small window that looked west. ‘I think we can live there,’ she said.

Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive, tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.