Think Human and Think Literature

In among teaching, marking, and research, Mat Tobin has convened a really exciting evening panel conference (with me as whipper-in) and really to advertise this event as part of the Think Human festival at Oxford Brookes, I thought I’d post a brief reflection – and if you aren’t already aware of how to book in, or what the details are, this is the link to the details on Eventbrite.childrens literature conference (1)-1

The award-winning panel we will meet at the event – Daniel Hahn, with discussants Catherine Johnson, Beverley Naidoo and S F Said – will of course have their own things to say, and Jon Appleton will reflect on Jan Mark as well, to start us off. I may get a chance to reflect by blog on the issues they raise later. I won’t subvert the discussion by starting it now. Well, not much.

I wanted to take a step back and think – as this blog title puts it – about how Think Human seems to me just has to be something to do with story. Over Christmas Chris Lovegrove followed closely the Twitter conversation about Masefield’s Box of Delights and in his summing up on his blog suggested that there is “fictionalising of autobiographical elements” in Masefield. Do we – or if I’m not going to overgeneralise, do I – do the reverse when I read? Did I need in some sense to become Kay Harker, the orphaned hero, when I first read The Midnight Folk and its sequel with my mum and dad comfortably having a Middle Class cup of tea downstairs? Do I autobiographise (that’s a terrible word; I promise not to use it again) elements of fiction as I read?

In the MA module I participate in, I ask the students to look at a chapter (15, if you’re interested)  of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he writes

Narrative history of a certain kind turns out to be the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions.

(I must admit one reason for including this chapter in their discussion is MacIntyre’s example of the young man at the bus stop and the duck – but that’s by the way).

In life, MacIntyre suggests

We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making.

It would seem natural that, if we live this metaphor, we would try to discover patterns in our own narrative by looking at other people’s – fictional or actual. Empathy and even compassion are part of our participation in a story. It is interesting that MacIntyre’s own example includes this identification between storyteller and audience specifically in a drama/story context:

Each of us being a main character in his own drama … In my drama, perhaps,I am Hamlet or Iago or at least the swineherd who may yet become a prince…

I think it is fundamental to the conversation of drama, novel, even the everyday “You’ll never guess who I saw in town today…”  and perhaps it always has been. The hunter returns to the fire and tells us of the kill she or he has made, and we try and empathise ourselves into their account. Or they return and tell us of the deer that leapt past them into the undergrowth and how it lives and we think what it must be like to live like that, the choices it might make (and maybe how we might catch it) – and all of a sudden I am at one with Rob Cowan’s magnificent empathetic account of the deer in Common Ground. 4000 BCE or today.  The act of storytelling may have become more complex over millennia, but has an element of identification between telling and hearing: what one of the characters in Alan Garner’ Boneland pronounces as a ‘True Story,” a story in which we understand something more of ourselves, a story that makes us “think Human.”

But this is just my take: does everybody – writers, translators, readers – see it this way?  One of the main ideas of getting such major voices together was to urge people who come to Boxes of Delight to try and see what links there might be between how writers communicate. Are there common themes on how they approach their task? What is the importance of the values they communicate? Do they write for the child they once were; do they write with a specific audience in mind? 

See you on 11th Feb.?

 

 

Which Moomin Character?

A lot can be said – and has been said – about Tove Jansson’s relationships within the books and cartoon strips, and she does indeed present a child’s Hogarth of a world, where foibles and strengths are all on show, from Sniff’s immaturity to a similar self-centredness in the Muskrat, hiding in his mauvaise foi in a dismissive attitude. And all this in a landscape that (for me when I first read the books in Harlow [as it then was] “New Town”) enticing and alien: mountain streams with crocodiles, and observatories and impromptu woodland dances…  Part of me wondered if this was how Scandinavia really was, and maybe it took reading the Summer Book at Brookes for me to see how clever Jansson was about these ways marrying of reality and fantasy. Part of me wondered if those weird and engaging people were real too, whether I had some part of me in those stories.

Turn but a tweet and start a blog, to paraphrase Francis Thompson.  A discussion today on Twitter prompted me to offer reading about the Fillyjonk as an example of the joy of private, quiet reading.  Why, when discussing reading, did I suggest a Fillyjonk as the person I want to meet in my private reading? I was thinking of Tales from Moominvalley, I suppose, and she was the first person I could think of, a minor character rather than Moomin (see below) or from his immediate friends or family.  Showing off, I suppose, like Sniff…   A Fillyjonk is essentially an anxious person “dutiful to the point of tedium – not a character I immediately  identify with, although I can see what I was getting at, I suppose: a catastophizer who meets with a real disaster.   So who would I like to be?

  • I am too much of a home body to join the Hattifateners – whom I loved because I could draw them.
  • Bingummy and Thob taught me so much about language play – but I was an only child, in effect: that wasn’t the bizarre little twins.
  • The ghost in the Exploits, with a gentle side and a macabre turn of phrase?
  • The Hemulen Aunt? There have been times when, as an Early Years teacher, I have heard her voice come out from my mouth. And Edward the Booble’s grumpy tones. 
  • The Groke? Well, she was my avatar for our Virtual Learning Environment for quite some time. I wonder whether she sloped off when I changed it, leaving a trail of frost across the internet.

This isn’t the quiz that you can do.  I haven’t done it. Really, even when I first read Finn Family Moomintroll (and heard it on Jackanory in the mid-60s), I think I had it worked out, albeit dimly: Moomintroll pining after Snufkin. And so often I could characterise my relationships – certainly the ones that had me roaming morosely around as an undergraduate – as ones in which my inner Moomin longed and longed to be the adventurous and carefree Bohemian. Jansson may not be Maimonides, but the Moomins were a family when I was so perplexed I felt I had none, and “which Moomin character are you?” would have had only one answer.  And there were quite a lot of candidates for Snufkin…

But of course the joy and the cleverness of Jansson’s characters is that you can be more than one. Dutiful to the point of tedium like Mrs Fillyjonk; self-centred Sniff; fussy and obsessive like a Hemulen, full of unrealistic hopes like the little dog who wished he was a wolf  – and now? Well, Maggie is making cakes in the kitchen, and I am in my study pondering my youth.

Down in Yon Forest

This is a bit of a mish-mash, with all sorts of sources bunged together. I’d like to think of it as an enquiry into why Christmas a time of nostalgia but suspect it is a pile of stuff under a Christmas tree with no labels: sort through the pile and see what you can find. But why do we look back at Christmas? img_1806-1Why does the glorious The Friendly Beasts by Tomie de Paola have choristers and candles to sign/sing us to the stable? It is as if the validity of Christmas in some ways springs from this appeal to the past. Is it because Christianity has created a feast in which “history” is one of the most important guests?  I’m not sure. De Paola often has this sense of tradition, such as his retelling of Italian folk tales, the beautiful Clown of God, and representations of Bible stories – and the Night Before Christmas, which is our family’s standard version of the poem (follow this link to Jake Hayes who has some lovely photos of this version). There is some of that, certainly, right from St Luke’s dating of events and the genealogies he and St Matthew produce. Perhaps it is also because, in the partial extirpation of a pagan Yule, one of the things that remains is an echo that says “remember how it used to be…” – and could this be an attempt to return to a (mythical) Christmas of our own childhoods?  And then maybe in England that nostalgia includes a sorrowing for some good old days, a golden age around  1500 CE or maybe 1600, or 1800…  There is more than one ghost of Christmas past, I suspect, and maybe as well as our personal ones we carry ones for our society too, whether we acknowledge them or not.

It is not only Dickens that feels the weight of past Christmasses. Cole Hawlings who “does date from pagan times” in The Box of Delights sings the rescued Cathedral staff back to their Midnight Mass  where they are greeted by the monks from years past

…for on such a Christmas Eve what one of them would keep away?

and Tolly’s dream-like experience of Midnight Mass moves between his own twentieth century and the past of his family in the seventeenth. As I have just cited recently, Susan Cooper celebrates this looking back when celebrating the Solstice:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day…

What is the attraction of the past for this festival?

In the run-up to this Christmas I come back (again) to poets Thomas Merton and R S Thomas. Here are two poems that seem to me typical of their approach to Christmas. Merton first of all, surrounded by the traditions of his faith and practice like Duccio’s Maesta or Martini’s: All those hopes and fears of all the years gathered around the Virgin and Child:

Flocks feed by darkness with a noise whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
and lull the solemn night with their weak bells.

The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.

God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than low candlelight
Under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom is born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.

And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;

While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet smelling hay
Beside the wise men’s golden jars.

Merton: Carol

and Thomas, well, Thomas is aware of the biting wind of doubt and silence in the Nada Nada Nada, Y En El Monte Nada of St John of the Cross. Here he captures a Christmas purity that I think is hard to beat:

The moon is born
and a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass.

Thomas: Nativity

RST is like this: grounded but bleak, with a now rather than a history in his poem. This is often his way, I think (although not always): a doubting impatience in the spiritual –

Will you continue to torment us?
If you are ubiquitous, why
not be here when we say : Now?

Thomas: Could Be

I have been a student of your love

and have not graduated. Setting
my own questions, I bungled
the examination…

Thomas: Incarnation

Merton,  however, pours out his love not only for the God he seeks in monastic profession but also in places for the life itself:

The sun that plays in the amazing church
Melts all the rigor of those cowls as grey as stone – Or in the evening gloom that clouds them through those tintless panes,
The choirs fall down in tidal waves
And thunder on the darkened forms in a white surf of Glorias.

Merton: St Ailred

I’m not sure I can answer my own question, to be honest: Christmas is a time of looking back, looking forward – and inwards too. For me, the tensions between the very grounded (and dark) spirituality of R S Thomas and the almost ecstatic exuberance of Thomas Merton is resolved in a medieval lyric:

This is the text:

Lully, lullay, lully, lullay,
The fawcon hath born my mak away.

He bare him up, he bare him down,
He bare him into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall
That was hangid with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede;
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bed ther lythe a knyght,
His woundes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston :
Corpus Christi wretyn thereon.

It is known as a Christmas carol in a slightly altered version, where the moon shines bright on a saviour… born this night, but the earliest version seems to me to be a visit to the Sacrament where the Passion is clearly discerned.  Benjamin Britten’s version is here, but the version of Britten’s setting I know best and love is Jeff Buckley’s anguished countertenor.

But let’s go back a bit. Here I am, in the mid-70s, eighteen or nineteen years old, and opening my new Breviary for the first time, exploring what it has in it. It has an appendix of poems as well as hymns and in coming for the first time to the Corpus Christi carol I remember myself (a year or so before) back to a little gothic church in the hills above Guildford.

Lully lulley; lully lulley.

The fawcon hath born my mak away.

So why the falcon? And why the lullaby refrain? The idea of being suddenly snatched now makes me think of a sparrowhawk or peregrine, but I will let my C16th predecessor (who doubtless was more at home with such things as this MS/blog from the British Library suggest) have her/his way. In a near-sleep, dreamlike state, a soul is snatched away to a hall –

He bare hym up, he bare hym down;

He bare hym into an orchard brown.

…and in the hall in a wood (or Eden after the Fall, its trees bare), sees the truth of the link between Passion and Eucharist.

The trees surrounding the Franciscan Friary church (now Chilworth Abbey) could well be leafless in winter, and at any rate the “truth” of this matters less than what the image said to me in my late teens: a religious experience that was sudden and rooted in mediaeval imagery brought me (I am unsure who “my mak” is otherwise) to an altar, to the reserved sacrament on its bed. We might well be beyond the limits of medieval orthodoxy here, in the realm of the eternally bleeding Fisher King perhaps, as we look at the knight in bed and his attending virgin. The song remains sited for me in a small monastic/friary choir, all gothic and quiet. What strikes me some forty-odd years later is how powerful the medieval imagery is.

This seems to me to be important for a number of reasons, and at the moment, prominent in these for me is that whatever we make of this kind of medievalism it remains a touchstone of Christian – or perhaps Catholic Christian – piety. It allows us back into a time (or a mythology) where there was space for a rich visual and linguistic expression of religious practice. I might contest this, sometimes – a sort of liturgical Sealed Knot where historical re-enactment is what it’s all about – but I cannot deny its power. It allows me to read The Cloud of Unknowing, or Bl Julian of Norwich with a sense of continuity that draws on aesthetics as much as reason or ipsissima verba. It opens a door, as it were, to the MSS I love to read.

I sometimes wonder whether, somewhere along the line, I learned (probably wrongly) that this allowed me to say “I belonged;” I belonged to something big and beatific. Seeing it at Chilworth was therefore a step towards the belonging I felt for a time at Magdalen and then Ampleforth and then Blackfriars. And therefore for me Christmas might be some kind of looking backwards to see what Christmas means; to some extent, looking at might-have-beens.

Puddleglum

Above Dr Slop and Mr Slope And Mrs Proudie and all the Blooms, Flashmans [sic], Golightlies and Trunchballs (and Honeys) and other characters with significant names – even Agnes Nutter – one character in fiction stands out for me as having not so much a name as a character description:

Puddleglum the Marsh Wiggle in C S Lewis’ The Silver Chair.

The Narnian ancestor of Fungus the Bogeyman, Puddleglum is never one to look on the bright side of life. His fenny existence is as dull and damp and depressing as his expectations are low. When Eustace and Jill and Puddleglum reach the giants’ gastle, he very typically says “We’ve done the silliest thing in the world by coming at all: but now
that we are here, we’d best put a bold face on it.” I might have wished him voiced by one of the more lugubrious characters created by Les Dawson or some maungy character from Last of the Summer Wine.  Today, 13.12.19, maybe I could voice it myself.

And the genius of Lewis’s depicting such a gloomy character is that The Silver Chair is enlivened by the warmth with which Puddleglum is presented: a comic character ” as doleful as a funeral,” a caricature of an adult whose task seems to be to depress the enthusiasm of the child protagonists. But then comes this, his best speech, and the heart of Lewis’ contra mundum (or at least contra Senior Common Room) beliefs: fighting the lulling enchantments of the Witch who wants to entrap the heroes in her Underland, he stamps on her fire and returns to her:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. 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. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
The Silver Chair (and I have to admit it is my favourite of the Narnian chronicles) deals with enslavement to enchantment as the allegory of sin with such vivid detail – the eponymous silver chair being the beautiful instrument that holds Prince Rilian in thrall to the Witch – that it makes me wonder whether Lewis is doing something autobiographical here. One of the beauties of the storytelling is that it works at all sorts of levels, religious and non-religious spirituality: sin and redemption; exile and homecoming. And what are we in thrall to? And who liberates whom?
And if we are on a quest to find a way to be free, what is the role of Puddleglum in our lives?
There is a danger in seeing a superficial mindfulness as the touchstone of happiness, “I have been mindful today” being the spiritual equivalent of “I must, I must improve my bust.” What Puddleglum does is remind us that jollity is not happiness, that it is not always necessary to look forward to a glorious dawn in order to be righteous or holy or whatever. And today I think of the cruelty of the death of St Lucy, the plight of many in a false dawn for a brand new (= same old, same old) Britain, and I wonder if, with so little cause for carolings, I can be glum for a while, and alongside Puddleglum can “take a serious view of life” – and still be prepared to stamp out, when needed, the seductive sweetness of a sorcerer‘s fire.

Statio

The year’s midnight. 

“Always winter and never Christmas.” C S Lewis’ ultimate baddie, the White Witch, keeps Narnia frozen in a time when the natural cycle of death and birth cannot continue. Will Stanton in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising has his midwinter birthday interrupted, threatened, brought into its rightful place by the crises in the book. Kay Harker’s dream (or not-a-dream) sees the Christmas of Merrie England restored when the dark powers of   sorcery threaten to destroy it. I feel I also have to note en passant the most terrifying version of this for me, Michelle Paver’s adult work Dark Matter, where the narrator faces months of night time and solitude – and something far worse out on the Arctic ice. The time in late December is reenacted in these stories as a time of crisis, and the subtext seems to me to be a worry that as the days darken, the sun will not return, no hope for love “At the next world, that is, at the next spring.” A fear that This is It.

As Catherine Butler in Four British Fantasists suggests of the interplay between magic and humanity in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence

The Light is opposed in turn by the Dark, and most of the activity of the other mythical and historical figures involved in the sequence is related in some way or another to their struggle. Given Cooper’s insistence (as in the description of Herne) on the wildness of some of these figures, this moral alignment of their magical power might be problematic.

Problematic indeed. The complexity of this vision is one of the things that Masefield is beginning to explore, and that Lewis more or less avoids, but which Cooper meets head-on in The Dark is Rising – and in more meditative and lyrical form in a poem she first published in 1974.

The publication of Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis’ The Shortest Day , which re-presents Cooper’s 1970s contribution to a larger work, has prompted renewed interest (it never really goes away) in the interplay between UK fantasy writers and the folklore they draw on. There are some lovely reviews already out (e.g. Kirkus, Brainpickings (who [of course] beat me to the Dillard reference, although that doesn’t often stop me) praising the text and artwork, and this is not a review but some thoughts at a tangent. Again, I am not alone in this tack: Calmgrove’s Christmas Delights (which already sounds like a box of candied fruits) has a wonderful post exploring a selection of writers from Nesbit to Masefield, and then Lewis, and so to Cooper herself. By celebrating Solstice (check out Solstice here)  she sets up not a Pagan in the sense of antiChristian but an unChristian, a preChristian festivity, gloriously underlined by the images Ellis gives us, as wanderers move through a land that they increasingly mark as their own.

Through all the frosty ages you can hear them

Echoing behind us – Listen!!

All the long echoes sing the same delight,

This shortest day…

In Ellis’s paintings we see the “precarious business” as the palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer puts it, of early humanity’s existence in our inhospitable winter, and we see our efforts – the our, I think, underwires the charm and power of this book – at keeping the dangers and demons at bay across the centuries.  It is a similar nostalgia (thank you again, Chris Lovegrove, for this insight into Masefield ) to the gathering of the ancestral (ghostly) Oldknows in Tolly’s first Christmas in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe, that we celebrated on our visit. All those long echoes in the stones of Hemingford Grey.

It sends me back to Ronald Hutton and his Stations of the Sun. In the opening chapters he carefully dissects Christmas customs with judiciously chosen details (I was intrigued by the mummers who menaced people having been “drinking, playing at cards and fiddling all day in disguised habits”) and drops in details that have resonances elsewhere, such as the apotropaic torch rituals in the Staffordshire moorlands town of Stanton.  It has to be remembered that Hutton, although with strong ties to various aspects of Paganism, is suitably cautious in his methodology:  Hutton looks at the Roman feasts of midwinter, Saturnalia and Kalendae, and then states

The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake…

before going on to explain the rise of the Twelve days and the Epiphany/Theophany in the Western and Eastern Churches.

In most of northern and central Europe, where the cold and darkness were much greater…it would have run into local patterns of pre-Christian seasonal celebrations….

But Hutton warns us that

Literary sources do not tell us anything conclusive about the midwinter festival practices of the ancient British Isles…

He find the early English sources more enlightening than many others, and his trail leads him to the conflation (as he suggests) of a Modranicht, or Mother Night, a middum wintra, with the Nativity. The festivities may predate Christian Christmas or draw on earlier practices*… And then he turns his gaze on Yule (jol, jul, juul), the jolly time of Norse festivities.

Stations of the Sun is not a pagan handbook but a scholarly exploration, suggesting that seasonal rituals were fluid, open to change, to diminishing and reinterpretation. It is right, therefore, that in his conclusion some 400 pages and a ring-round year of celebrations later he writes:

It is one of the arguments of this book that the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs: a yearning for light, greenery and warmth and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth…

[However] What is also plain is that the last couple of centuries, in this as in every other aspect of British life, have produced a completely unprecedented amount of change… No amount of nostalgia or anxiety for a rapidly diminishing or deteriorating natural environment can alter the essential irrelevance which it now possesses for the daily lives and seasonal habits of most of the British; however, this very fact may cause it to play an ever greater part in religious symbolism.

And not only there, I think.  Children’s literature – the work written “for children” and the work written meditating on childhood – seems to me often drawn to these natural cycles, and most of all to the changes of dark and light, for which the stores of story and ritual and symbol stand ready for writers and artists to draw on. I do wonder about the place of folklore and a kind of vision of archaic beliefs in the writings of fantasy – and marvel at the power of this time of year to bring out our need to explore these themes…

IMG_7731

*

Oh, I see you haven’t spelled Station right – and what is that about anyway?

I have, and this is my final point. To return to another of Hutton’s delightful side-comments, he suggests that Yule is connected not only to the world “jolly”  but perhaps to the word we know as wheel;  I can’t help thinking of the Sun Cross, the sign of the Old Ones in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and the ‘ring with the longways cross” the Oak Lady wears in The Box of Delights, but the symbol of the sun as wheeling around might suggest that while we think of Solstice as when the sun stands still, another version might be that it is that tipping point before a wheel starts to turn again. Nature holds its breath, much as St Bernard suggests we all do when the Angel presents Mary with her choice at the Annunciation (Nota Bene: this impassioned, dramatic passage from Bernard is set in Roman Rite breviaries as the non-scriptural reading for 20th December).  The holding of our breath: can we get out of this darkest time? The site Spirituality and Practice has a brief extract on Statio as the sacred pause.  The moment, maybe, before the liturgy starts, where everyone is standing ready, not awkwardly waiting but attentive. Birdwatching for the moment of grace. This is not to say that the Solstice is now simply that for Christian practice or post-Christian jollity – but that the winter Solstice in particular invites us to pause, to listen as the new world turns and does it all again.

 

*Bede is his source here. Hutton is, in case you are wondering, suitably cautious when we get to Easter and its original. 

 

PS:  The photo, by the way, is not an Old Way or my own Old Road outside my front door, but unexpected snow before Christmas a few years ago, taken on the feast of St Lucy, the old “Shortest Day” that John Donne celebrates (and I cited at the start of this post) and the birthday (not the feast) of Bl Lucy of Narnia. Well, sort of.

 

 

 

Carnival chaos

To recap some of my thoughts about Hallowe’en. The use of such conquering fear of the dark activities seems to me pretty obvious:

winter nights enlarge/The number of their hours

and we can make the best of it by smiling at the dark. Thomas Campion‘s lyrics have it just right, and youthful revels have their place in the honey love of the closing-in evenings.

The pro and con tensions in part arise from the abuses these revels engender. “Psychos” and “Slutty Vampires” sit uncomfortably with my English folk-horror. Yet they’re not wholly American: Trick or Treat at least has an element of bargaining amid the demanding money with menaces, unlike much of its ancestor, Mischief Night, whose joys seem vengeful or gleefully malign. A door latch has a drawing pin attached to it with dog poo, so the unwary person who pricks his thumb goes at once to suck it… a sooty chicken is induced to cause havoc at a WI meeting…

Yes, these are both occurrences from North Yorkshire I’ve been told about.  They are the same Carnival as the Big Skeleton, the Little Skeleton and the Dog Skeleton go in for as they riot their way home in Funnybones, or the menacing pumpkin head that gets its comeuppance in the story of the hopping pumpkin  who meets an ignominious end with a goat (this is a link to a longer text than the one I tell).  But the Carnival is there because we are at a sort of seasonal fault-line, where summer’s lease is up and the dark is at the door.

There is a sense for me that this big change is the Autumn answer to May Day. The nights close in, the socialisation is indoors, defined, more visible, with the freedoms of warmer weather lost or at least traded for friends and firesides.  When C S Lewis envisages this in the hearts of his heroes in That Hideous Strength they think of

…stiff grass, hen-roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the Sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars.

No mischief or carnival here s we stare into the dark.  Mischief, however, is close friends with these shadows and darkness, of the almost-known, the footsteps partly recognised. It is the younger sibling of more menace, and this is partly why it is disquieting: does it licence the bully, the vandal? In looking into the shadows, does it, as Kathleen Raine so evocatively puts it:

Let in the dark,

Let in the dead…

(Northumbrian Sequence IV is cited in extenso here in my post about poetry and spirituality)?

It seems to me that this week or so – Hallowe’en to Remembrance/Martinmas – is a real blending of a gleeful naughtiness, the swede or pumpkin lantern and the restlessness of wind and dark, wet evenings, as the chaos of Carnival mimics and mocks – and presages – the chaos and pain of the storms of winter and death, “þis andwearde lif manna on eorðan” “Talis vita hominum praesens in terris…”

So when we smile at the shadows when we look at books for (and with) children, how do we approach death and disaster?  The too-brief nod recently to the BBC adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials asks about the Beeb’s decisions to show it pre-watershed. We might similarly ask about Erlbruch’s Death, Duck and Tulip, that strange and lovely meditation on the role of death in our lives – or Thummler’s Sheets, or McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends, or Ness’ A Monster Calls…  In fact, although the list isn’t endless, there are plenty of books that offer wonderful and painful insights as they look at death and pain and loss.

The good writer who perceives a good story need not shy away from the issues; the reader who comes to these texts comes prepared for challenge, maybe for tears – but trusts the writer to deliver something that will bring them safely to shore. Raine puts it well when she suggests that in our innocence it is still within us to

bind in human form
A living power so great,
A living impulse great and wild

and (for me the subtlest line)

Have pity on the raven’s cry

 

 

 

Lewis, Merlin and Our Most Perilous Time

My mention of Jane and the Pendragon in my earlier post suggested to me that some of the good things about C S Lewis’ problematic text That Hideous Strength come from the interplay between the modern world and the enigmatic emergence of Merlin, meeting with his leader, Elwin Ransom, the Pendragon, a Cambridge academic who by chance or design now holds the fate of an embattled world in his hand. In a comfortable country house in England the two men are in discussion about how to save Britain – the Arthurian Logres – from the grasp of its power-hungry and immoral leaders:

Suddenly the magician. smote his hand upon his knee.
“Mehercule!” he cried.“Are we not going too fast? if you are the Pendragon, I am the High Council of Logres and I will counsel you. If the Powers must tear me in pieces to break our enemies, God’s will be done. But is it yet come to that? This Saxon king of yours who sits at Windsor, now. Is there no help in him?”
“He has no power in this matter.”
“Then is he not weak enough to be overthrown?”
“I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres. I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”
“Is it then his great men — the counts and legates and bishops — who do the evil and he does not know. of it?”
“It is — though they are not exactly the sort of great men you have in mind.”
“And are we not big enough to meet them in plain battle?”
“We are four men, some women, and a bear.”
“I saw the time when Logres was only myself and one man and two boys, and one of those was a churl.Yet we conquered.”
“It could not be done now.They have an engine called the Press whereby the people are deceived.We should die without even being heard of.”
“But what of the true clerks? Is there no help in them? It cannot be that all your priests and bishops are corrupted.”
“The Faith itself is torn in pieces since your day and speaks with a divided voice. Even if it were made whole, the Christians are but a tenth part of the people.There is no help there.”
“Then let us seek help from over sea. Is there no Christian prince in Neustria or Ireland or Benwick who would come in and cleanse Britain if he were called?”
“There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease.”
“Then we must go higher.We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms.We must call on the Emperor.”
“There is no Emperor.”
“No Emperor…” began Merlin, and then his voice died away. He sat still for some minutes wrestling with a world which he had never envisaged.

No Emperor.  Lewis’ meditation on the collapse of morality and faith comes immediately after the Second World War, another episode in the devastation of Europe in the C20th.  It is a fantasy novel, of course, and has moments of comedy, insight – and a troubling theological sexism. It would make a wonderfully quirky film – with some very notable rewriting.  It is a harking-back to a golden age that Lewis tries explicitly in some of the Narnia books, and indeed the kings and queens and heroes who come to rescue Narnia are in some ways reimaginings of the Arthurian rescue: they do not sleep under a hill, but take another life in our mundane England.

It is this that Susan Cooper is answering in her charge when her Merlin tells the children that their task is to take up the Matter of Britain themselves, not as fantasy readers or antiquarian scholars but by engaging with the power that harms and grasps and mocks. Cooper’s Merlin is more worldly wise than Lewis’ when she has him say “ the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control.” I have discussed this hard lesson before – but it is a hard lesson. Arthur will not do it; no Archbishop or Monarch is going to save us: we have to do it. Lewis’ Merlin, under the guidance of his Pendragon, rises to the challenge, and the difference between Cooper and Lewis is that his Science Fiction does have rescuers, in the tutelary spirits of the solar system who endow Merlin with supernatural power. Lewis is playing with allegory here, and in the passage cited above shows how the disjunction can be an effective plot line. Cooper saves her message for the last pages of her sequence of books, and the message is clear: in times of crisis, of confrontation, a new post-War morality requires us to step up, to make choices and to act on them.

And the “Most perilous time”?  A line from a monk on the eve of the dissolution of his monastery, another period of question, of violence, manipulation and painful reemergence. Not always are these moments of crisis just the matter of fiction.