A Familiar Outdoors

Tulip, from Benjamin and Tulip

Sorry: this is a long post written over quite a few days. I hope it still holds together. We’ll start with a very odd but charming landscape drawing from Rosemary Wells. Detail is reduced and reduced: character becomes a threatening little tail from a barebones sketch of a tree. We will come to know this tree, and the owner of the tail, as the eponymous Benjamin and Tulip‘s relationship develops, but for now it is a tree: it is a stage set for a conflict, nothing more.

When Peter Feinnes raises the question if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? (I cited him here but felt as I wrote that piece there was more to say) I wondered – right back to my first thinkings of a research project that didn’t make it to PhD – about depicting familiar landscapes. Here are two to explore: on the left a building identified as “Playschool” in Sarah Garland‘s 1990 book “Going to Playschool” and on the right, a wood in “The Wild Woods” by Simon James.

“Playschool” is different from the woods for me in that the building and its environs are South and West Oxford: the tower behind the school building is the Seacourt Tower in Botley, whereas the woods are everywhere-woods, at least everywhere in England. Does the fact that I recognise how Sarah Garland uses places I recognise alter my reading of the book? Yes it does, and although I can see how she has used locations imaginatively here and in her books about Polly to tell a good story (shortening roads, reworking shop locations) the connection with Oxford that our family felt reading her books when we had left for Durham was an important part of our decision to come back. That map of South Oxford in Henry and Fowler had a real effect in that it was instrumental in our deciding to move back. But this is only (only?) personal: does this pull of recognition have to be there?

I suggest it doesn’t need to be exact; otherwise Polly’s Puffin and the rest would have a limited audience, and Simon James’ grandad would be doomed to walk the woods unnoticed. What they need is a location that can be recognised enough for the reader to sympathise: for example the “playgroup” (I keep the inverted commas because the actual school is a fully-fledged, free-standing Nursery School) just needs to look like somewher readers (adult and child) can sense some familiarity with – as the Head Teacher of that very Nursery once said of a good Early Years setting “lots of interesting things to do and lots of people to do them with.” Woods, likewise, when not places of fantasy and peril, are a mixture of trees and streams and wildlife, and I have written lots on these: they are a unit of understanding in exploring nature in UK, changing from environment to environment, set up, fought for, mourned, looked after, neglected…. but woods are recognisable, a meme, to use Dawkins’ idea, a topos if we follow Jane Carroll’s framework (worked out via Cooper, Garner et al in her book and discussed in part by me here, but see her staff page for an extensive list of writings) – and in Simon James’ everywood, where grandad and granddaughter explore, get wet, meet a squirrel in a place that, if not every child’s common experience, are at least, well, part of their cultural landscape. That itself begs all sorts of questions about cultural capital and landscape, into which this is a first tentative step.

The universal wood of Simon James – and the tree that starts off this blog post, the hiding place of Rosemary Wells‘ disruptive raccoon Tulip – are places the reader can see and say “Yes, I know that place.” Not so, when an illustration seeks to depict a landscape that may be unfamiliar to the reader, and this is worth a brief digression. The lovely Handa from Eileen Browne’s Kenya is at the heart of a number of stories, and still well appreciated, still “going strong,” but not without difficulties: especially where that familiar is a false familiarity, we are in real danger of stereotypes.

There is a tricky line for authors and illustrators – and their readers – to tread in making the places in stories stand for universals. Handa cannot stand for every African – I think the link to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the danger of a single story is pertinent here. Just in the same way as she found she did not need to see rural Nigerians as without creativity, to see them as simply “poor,” Browne has a difficult task here in showing a girl in rural Kenya as resourceful, generous, but choosing a very traditional rural setting – it was my own third visit to Africa that showed me round houses like these (at any rate, ones that were not built for tourists). “We all know” too readily what Africa is like: it is Kenya, and in Kenya it is a rural Kenya. In setting a story in a place the reader will recognise, the danger is that familiar is also uncontested and over-generalised.

To move for a moment to “adult lit,” this is what makes a book like Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest an intersting read (and I really should stress it is for adults). When she retells Red Riding Hood she begins

Once upon a time there was a man who lived all alone in the forest

and we are intrigued. “That’s not how it starts,” we might think, but we press on, up a rough track until we come (actually in the next sentences) to

He worked in the forest, tree felling, track filling, ditch digging, and deer killing. Power saw and rifle.

Sara Maitland, November: Kielder Forest , Gossip from the Forest Ch 9

In other words, this is the Story of the Woodcutter set in Maitland’s Kielder Forest section, and a bleak retelling it is. However what it does – what the book attempts – it to wake the sleeping wood into being a repository for stories, in particular women’s stories. Now this is an adult example without illustrations, but we might look at other books and ask What is the author/illustrator trying to wake in us about landscape? It might be that the very traditional setting of Janet and Allan Ahlberg is itself a parody trying to provoke – to wake up a sense of fun (Jeremiah in the Dark Woods does precisely that, I think, and the question I have raised before is the kind of challenge it brings: Do they all live in the same wood?). And if it wakes a sense of fun, it might also provoke a question: Does it have to be like that? Or a set of questions: Does Goldilocks need to find that kind of cottage, does Sleeping Beauty have to be blonde, does Red Riding Hood need a woodcutter? The stuff of the classroom discussion, and the problem of “using” children’s literature (see this from a couple of years ago).

We are into the difficult challenge posed by Jacqueline Rose:

Fiction becomes a central tool in the education of the child, and it should be taught to the child according to a notion of competence and skills.

Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.

Is she at loggerheads with Phillip Pullman when he states

But fiction doesn’t merely enteratin – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways: in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together…

Phillip Pullman: Balloon Debate “Why Fiction is Valuable” in Daemon Voices

or am I trying to set them in opposition? I understand what Rose is saying about the confining of literature to the pedagogic practices of the classroom and I take her point about the danger of differing modes of representation between play and a “canon” of children’s literature, I am unsure about the dichotomy she stresses where “rhythm and play” and “narrative fiction” are worlds apart. Indeed, I think play and storytelling have a lot in common even when we are not specifically looking at or engaged in the kind of role-play or dramatic play that might begin “I’ll be the dragon and you be the swamp monster.” [Yes that reference is intentional: read the article {abstract here} if only because it is the best title for an academic article ever!] One of the things they have in common is what Pullman describes above: the intimate relationship between humanity and action. But a step behind that is another commonality: the slipperiness of their language, and how in writing about play and story we are very quickly drawn to using imagery and metaphor.

Here, for example, is Pullman (in my opinion) at his bardic finest:

…Most of all, stories give delight….They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral…In one way fiction has no more strength than gossamer – it’s only made of words, or the movement of air, of black marks on white paper – and yet it’s immortal. You couldn’t throw it out of the balloon even if you wanted to because if you did, you’d only turn around to find it still there; you would be telling yourself the story of how it fell to earth, or grew wings and flew away, or got eaten by a bird that laid an egg that hatched and out came…another story. You couldn’t help it. It’s how you’re made.

So I return to a word I explored recently: delight and to Bruner’s notion that deep play is playing with fire. Defining a pedagogy of play is this kind of dangerous activity. Are we talking here about how adults can justify something they feel is uncomfortably out of their control? Or moving fun activities up a few notches in status so that there is an entertainment aspect to the input adults make?

Sue Rogers puts it well – so well that I would suggest you, dear Reader, look at her whole chapter Powerful Pedagogies and Playful Resistance in Brooker and Edwards’ Engaging Play, of which the following is a quick highlight:

Two distinct positions are suggested…: first that play is viewed as the undisciplined activity of young children. Thus schools and other early childhood institutions are designed to control and sanitise play so that it reflects adult views of what is good play/bad play. Second, that play is viewed as less important than other activities in classrooms because of the way it is positioned at the margins of what counts as real and necessary activity…

Set against this, opportunities for social pretend play offered children the possibilities to explore identities within their relationships with others and in the process of navigating the dominant pedagogical practices of their classrooms. These identities are not fixed but rather shift with particular play events and social groupings.

Sue Rogers in Engaging Play

Let’s get back outside. Story – and its pull of delight, much the same as play – offer those possibilities to explore identities. That is not to say that they have to be Bibles moralisées, or the instructional tales of early books aimed at children, or even stories with what Jacqueline Rose calls the invisible adult directing the moral purpose, but that there is, in the pull of delight, a need for the familiar reference point as a jumping off into a different world, a different set of speculations. Is Tulip up her tree? Any old tree? What might a tree stand for (I am restraining myslef from more than a link to poor old Vladimir and Estragon and their tree but I found this enlightening) – a useful resource in a forest or a menace from a family history in an ornamental garden? What is life like for the woodcutter – Sara Maitland’s or another storyteller’s? What is life like for Mrs Oldknow when Tolly is gone? The questions – sorry if this sounds fanciful – branch out all over the place, and we have no immediately clear idea, no schema to attach them to. As I have mentioned before, Bettelheim asks What is the kingdom which many fairy tale heroes gain at the story’s end? The ambiguity of this kingdom requires an imaginative leap. In the stories I started with – the anarchic Tulip, the distraught Polly, the girl and her grandfather in the woods – there is always a possibility for this leap beyond the story, but perhaps it is strengthened by the elements of familiarity in a story’s setting: it is like the stepping stone from which the reader can launch themselves into the unfamiliar. For any of us who approach children’s literature with a critical eye, some element of topoanalysis is a vital, enlivening and enriching experience – whether we are booksellers, publishers, librarians, parents, teachers, outdoor instructors: yes, and even grandads who take a walk in the woods with the children.

Sort of footnote: Simon James records that His ideal day out is trekking with The Adventurers (four children he knows and who feature in his book Days Like This) wading through streams – with rucksacks full of chocolate. Sarah Garland, until her change of style and pace with Azzi in Between, wrote and drew in locations largely reflecting her experiences in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds.

Assorted Immortals

Some interestingly synchronous arrivals today.

I am reading – and enjoying – Dara McAnulty’s book Diary of a Young Naturalist. Quite apart from his candid dissection of his own mental states in a time of change, and what “nature” (my shorthand) gives him, Dara has a gift for a brilliant turn of phrase. He observes the origami of a bat taking flight; he points out that When you visit a familiar place it’s never stagnant. And so one arrival (I’m cheating here, so as to include this book) is my arrival with Dara and family at their new home in County Down.

We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.

Diary of a Young Naturalist, 14th August

I was also greeted – halfway through scrubbing the kitchen floor – by two books by Flora McDonnell: her collection of writing on Depression and her Out of a Dark Winter’s Night.

And a recommendation of another book – David Lucas’ The Wonderbird – suggests to me I might look again at spirituality and children’s literature. I will reserve The Wonderbird for another time, but want to think about spirituality in books at least accessible to children and young people.

Dara and his writing demonstrate powerfully and painfully his struggle with identity and mental health. Flora McDonnell likewise depicts her small child wandering in the dark, a moving image, beautifully illustrated, of a self not knowing but never giving up in search of personal integration, of “home.” So while this isn’t a review of Dara McAnulty or of either Flora McDonnell book, I do want to look again at some of the complex relationships about literature and spirituality these books lay open to view.

Of the various definitions of spirituality I’ve explored with students, the ones that talk about wrestling with a sense of meaning are often the ones I stumble over. It works for some – maybe it works for older readers. When you are four, there are questions that will lead up to this, but making sense of your life may not elicit challenges to a set of abstracts, but will very often concern affections, attachments, food, bedtime. An ‘ultimate sense of the meaning of life’ is seriously imperilled when a favourite toy gets lost in town or someone needs to buy a present and feels they cannot. These are everyday occurrences but in a good storyteller are recognised as having tremendous significance in the life of a young person. The line from Bettelheim I cited previously (and I’ll be coming back to Little Pete in a bit) about the all encompassing nature of a child’s emotional landscape needs to be taken into account when thinking of a child’s spirituality – but so, I think, does the complexity of that landscape: it is not a two-dimensional fairy tale, but a rich set of interlocking patterns, something Kathleen Harris likens to a kaleidoscope:

“Just as the images produced by the kaleidoscope are extremely complex, varied, and continuously changing, a young child’s spiritual development is similarly intricate, mysterious, and imaginative in nature and relational, interconnected, and directive to both the self and others within a community of learners that is continuously transforming.”

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality Vol. 12, No. 3, December 2007, pp. 263–275

This is what makes children’s literature an amazing repository of dilemmas and questions around spirituality – and also a rather hard place to see the fundamental questions. Even defining spirituality is a maze of wordings, ideologies and ideas.

Older readers in the Primary phase – we might return to Gwyn in the Snow Spider – can encounter questions of the transcendent and of belonging frequently enough; what is now termed Young Adult literature has dilemmas in authors from Alan Garner to Patrick Ness. When dealing with spirituality, we have to look at the explicit and implicit ideologies of formal religion, and similarly at thinking that would usually reject those structures; at mental health and wellbeing, compassion: assorted gods* indeed! To simplify (or at least cut short) the argument, this is another of the authors I would present to the MA class on children’s spirituality: Tony Eaude’s definition of spirituality as

“…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…”

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development, Exeter: Learning Matters

and it is perhaps with this definition that I can look at Children’s Literature and spirituality. It’s not about “making sense” or “struggle” but about finding a place for personal integration.

This is brilliantly illustrated by Dara McAnulty’s moving home: he does not spare the reader his anxiety or sense of loss, or the careful negotiation of new spaces and new relationships, and so good is he at the description that I am back in the move I found so difficult when I was but thirteen or so (a sort of reference to W J Turner). Of course, as a teenager writing a long text in diary form, what Dara gives us isn’t strictly speaking “children’s literature,” but the vivid self-searching, and the political uncertainties of his (and our) worries about the environment are very pertinent. Here, he and his family are settling into their new life, and watching bats and moths in the garden:

This is us standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and re-lived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering starts calmed a storm in all of is.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist, 1st August

Flora McDonnell’s Out of a Dark Winter’s Night is also a tricky book to put in here because the illustrations – bold steps into dramatic landscapes with a child protagonist – might be seen a children’s literature, but then again they might not: is this about dual audience, or the use of one genre (reminiscent of John Burningham) for a different audience? I’m including it here, but I am aware of the complexities of that decision. It stands with Charlie Mackesy‘s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse as having some place in both the world of the illustrated children’s book and being a book dealing with adult themes illustrated in a style accessible to children.

[As an addendum, I might point anyone who is looking at this post towards my good friend Mat Tobin’s detailed and engaging blog post on looking at picturebooks: his post crossed with mine {hence my insertion here} and the illustrations I have used from Flora McDonnell are best understood from his development of theory around “picturebook codes.”]

The links to mental health would be a blog post – or a book or two – in their own right! Images themselves (a bit of a digression here) are revelatory: the wide sea like in Corey’s Rock, the marvellous play of light – and its absence: there is a shock in Flora McDonnell’s book of a dark sky with just a sliver of moon way up on the top left, and the threat of ultimate extinction – the pages were so dark I couldn’t do them justice. In thinking about evening and night it’s interesting to note how sunsets and bat flight seem to be part of a set of positive and calming images – batflight reminding me of that paean to Light in T S Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight, 

Moon light and star light, owl and moth light…

T S Eliot https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/choruses-ôç£the-rockôçø

I said it was a digression – but of course beauty has facets that connect with/reflect back nature; spirituality likewise is interpenetrated by natural occurrences. Hopkins says it much better.

While there are books for a young readership that explore beauty and nature, there are books that are specifically “to do with spirituality,” too, of course: I think of Simon James’s anthology Days Like This, which presents beautiful vignettes of a child’s life, or the religious work of Tomie de Paola: there are others that look at Big Questions about love or death: Chabbert’s The Day I Became a Bird or Lunde and Torseter’s My Father’s Arms Are a Boat. I’ve tried to explore the possibility of existential threat elsewhere, but other questions also arise: Who am I? Why am I like this? Why are things the way they are? At one level, most high quality picture books will ask this kind of question.

I may be creating a circular argument here: high quality texts are in some way “about” spirituality because they ask these questions: the issues of spirituality in texts for children are a marker of high quality. I need to think about this – but certainly subject matter, wording and artwork do contribute to effective communication around the Big Questions. They don’t need step-by-step clarity, still less a glib answer; but they need an affective element, something to draw in the reader, to lead us to an appreciation of beauty, or belonging, or transcendence.

Little Pete‘s succession of good days takes an interesting turn in story 11, Pete and the Sparrow. Chasing a cat that is after a bird, Pete ends up walking on a wall and finds a baby bird.

Pete looked at it. It was a very little bird.

He sat down on the wall, and put his face quite close to it. The bird blinked its bright eyes at him.

Very slowly Pete put out a finger and stroked the little bird on the head. It was soft and warm and knobbly.

Then he put out his finger and did it again, because he had never done such a thing before. Then for a long time he looked right into the bird’s eyes and the bird looked at him.

Then he jumped off the wall and started to walk up the hill again

This quiet, unplanned encounter is a wonder: a wonder to Pete in the story, but also to us as readers: while the story, as ever, has Pete complaining when the bird spotter he meets doesn’t say “please,” central to it is this quiet awe and concern for the baby bird. His reactions are understated – the author, Leila Berg, does do well in not giving us a long explanation: Pete leaves the bird once, and then again when the baby bird is settled, but the chapter ends, tellingly:

Yes, that was a special day.

There is a healing in the ways in which nature impinges on the crises in these narratives. Dara’s world turns a little as the origami of a bat unfolds and flies, and the moths and the stars come out; Flora’s tired, journeying child turns to home. And Pete goes on his way singing.

*The title of this blog post? It’s a laconic quotation from U A Fanthorpe’s poem “Water Everywhere.” In a comic/serious voice she explores the role of water in the modern society:

Officially they do not acknowledge this god.

Officially they honour assorted immortals

In stone buildings with pioneering roofs.

A mention of water when thinking of spirituality does not come amiss. Maybe this is for another day…

Little Pete

It is a sort of running gag with me that my Goodreads account ought to have a shelf on it marked “Books Mat Showed Me That Made Me Cry.” Mat has the great gift of seeing a book through and through, welcoming the shadows as well as the sunshine: often he suggests I read a book so moving, so poignant, that when I have finished I have a lump in my throat. It is good, therefore, to move from these wondrous books that wrench the heart, to a very old but certainly gold collection: the Little Pete Stories by Leila Berg. Mat, thank you for these, and for the joy they have brought as I’ve shared them with my granddaughter.

When Pete is disturbed playing at not treading in the cracks in the pavement he rails at the lady in the Bath Chair who has interrupted him:

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” he cried.

“You don’t look like an elephant,” said the lady who sat in the chair.

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” Pete shouted. “You’ve made me tread on hundred and millions of lines and now I’m an elephant and I wasn’t going to be an elephant till I got to the top of the hill, so I could run all the way down!”

Leila Berg “Pete and the Letter” (Little Pete Stories ch 7)

There is a knowing wink to the reader here: we all know he isn’t a elephant, any more than his personification of his shadow (which occurs throughout) is someting that is actually “true,” and we also know that Pete understands that he isn’t an elephant, but that he is expressing his dismay at an imaginative game being interrupted. The rational adults who encounter Pete’s anger and impatience usually get round it in some way, and very often this is by their involving him in something – such as posting a letter, the subject of this story – and this strikes me as crucial in Berg’s vision of childhood. Pete is not to be told “don’t shout:” it doesn’t work, although practically every adult tries it; Pete, they discover, is best distracted and redirected, but in a very specific way, in that the adults find ways of engaging him in meaningful activity.

The child’s despair is all encompassing – because he does not know gradations, he feels either in darkest hell or gloriously happy…

As Bettleheim puts it, describing the role of the Happy Ever After of becoming a King or Queen in the finale of a fairy tale:

There is no purpose to being the king or queen of this kingdom other than being the ruler rather than being ruled. To have become a king or queen at the conclusion of the story symbolizes a state of true independence in which the hero feels… secure, satisfied and happy…

Bruno Bettleheim ‘Transcending Infancy with the Help of Fantasy in “The Uses of Enchantment”

Pete is given agency from the start – Berg allows him to express his frustration when he is crossed – and in the denouement of his narratives of crisis, and that leads to the stories’ punchline invariably being about that day being “good.”

He has quite a lot of agency. He is out on his trike on his own, going to the shops, watching builders: this neighbourhood is full of interesting things for a small boy to do. He even gets a lift to buy a notepad from a man on whose car he has been writing with a stick, although in the version I have (1971) he asks his mum, who does check and allows him. The stories thus stand as testament to a childhood I think we rarely see in the UK these days – at least, one that is not recorded. This is the same world as the US childhood depicted in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (from 1′ on in this clip, in the 80th birthday tribute to Maurice Sendak), although Sendak’s is much more social. Pete’s world was described maybe ten years before I experienced it, and the world was changing. I felt sad having to explain this to a seven-year-old when I started on sharing these stories, in much the same way as a discussion of lifts from strangers feels like a necessary introduction to The Elephant and the Bad Baby (lots more to say about that story!).

Pete explores with confidence and copes with the events that thwart his plans. He reacts with an unregulated anger or impatience – and in some ways the best thing about this is how the narrator allows this expression of anger. He has the much-pined-for freedom that is deep in the narrative of nostalgia: in some ways his physical and emotional freedom is the epitome of this version of childhood freedom. It is one I recognise from my own childhood: my own tricycle when I was three or four, the casual interactions with people I knew or at least who knew me: Harrogate; Charlton Marshall and Blandford Forum in Dorset, even before the freedoms of bike-friendly Harlow in Essex when I was eight (two-wheeler by now! – I still have the scars)…

So in Leila Berg’s 1950s we have a small person – just beginning to write (and that and the trike suggest he is four, but I’m happy to be corrected) out and about with adults keeping a regulatory eye but not systematically organised on his explorations. Pete is a lone hero with odd cats and dogs and sticks – and of course his shadow – for company. The interactions with adults are gradually – very gradually – teaching Pete about the world around him. For me the most touching is Pete’s interaction with a builder. It starts with Pete being cross about how people build – up, he thinks, with walls, not down into foundations. But the builder gives him some time:

“Well,” said the man, “if you’ll listen very carefully – and quietly – and lave my spade alone – I’ll explain it to you.” And he wiped his hands on his trousers, for there were feeling rather sore and sticky.

And because Pete could see that what the man was going to tell him would be the truth, he stopped being angry and listened.

Pete and the Whistle.

The man was going to tell him the truth. That is one of the most insightful lines in the book: and if we expect the dance of adult and child regulation to be success, it is at the heart of our parenting and pedagogy.

In The Sign on Rosie’s Door the regulation more or less comes from the group of children; the flock keeps the flock safe, although it is interesting that joining a group and leaving it is very casual. There is freedom here too, freedom for slightly older children, freedom of a different order from Little Pete – freedom from the ties of the adult. The entertaining autobiography of David Benjamin has similar insights, reflecting on Wisconsin (of maybe a slightly older child) from a similar period:

Kids are instinctively feral. Unleash them from school and church and home, as every kid was invariably set loose every summer in the Little-League-less Fifties, and kids will hunt down whatever wild game crawls into their territory.

The summer hunt is an ecstasy of freedom. Suddenly, the last days of May, after a useless morning in class, school ends. The doors open and kids stumble, blinking, into the sun. We hear our first robin sing. We see our first forsythia. We breath chalkless, nunless, heathen air. We break into a run…

David Benjamin ‘Koscal’ in “The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.”

Two final questions

This blog post forms the final part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. I have really enjoyed working with someone of Chris’ studiousness and perspicacity, revisiting a book my children loved, and looking (at least in part) at how Jenny Nimmo’s work has transferred to TV, and where she sits in the circle of British fantasy writers. Here I hope to look at tradition and folklore and at Jenny Nimmo as a re-presenter of Welsh culture – not so much as a summary, more as further lines of enquiry. As before, Chris will be responding to the same questions on his own site, but, beyond shaping the questions and agreeing when we should post, we have not colluded….

So the first question (our third in the series), and posed by Chris is:

3. The backstory and the action in the story’s ‘present’ both point to the Halloween/All Saints period as a moment of transition, Noson Galan Gaeaf leading to Calan Gaeaf, the first day of the Celtic winter. Do you think the setting in the Welsh countryside ensures this threshold moment is more rooted in the past — and perhaps more ‘authentic’ — than a ‘modern’ Halloween tale located in suburbia? 

Hmmmmm. I am not the greatest fan of Hallowe’en in its present format, in part because the patterns of play and trickery have been overlaid by material from US fim and TV and an ensuing rush for tacky costumes and upstaging neighbours: a sort of full-circle, I suppose. I wrote about it here, so I won’t go on moaning, but I will pick up on a fascinating point in Chris’ question: Hallowe’en as a threshold moment.

I’ve written about Hallowe’en as smiling at the shadows – and when I worked in Nursery, this was how we approached it – but in The Snow Spider we encounter a different set of thresholds. Gwyn, coming (at his birthday) to the end of the first part of his childhood, with his models for adulthood skewed, missing, off-script; he stands on the threshold between an older way of life in the Welsh hills and a set of outlooks in a more modern world (with all its faults it is what he is growing into); he stands – as part of this, perhaps – on the threshold between “our” world and another. And here, as the Autumn blasts fold the farms of Pendewi into Winter, we stand with him at Hallowe’en.

Nimmo manages this well. On All Saints’ Night – the “night after Hallowe’en'” as Nimmo tellingly has it – Bethan, doomed big sister to Gwyn, had gone out looking for Gwyn’s ewe. The pumpkin from Hallowe’en stared out at her as she went, “grimacing with its dark gaping mouth and sorrowful eyes.” It is as if the folk-horror is to be underplayed on purpose: just a pumpkin represents the play Hallowe’en, when, the night after, things take a sudden plummet and we are into the main action of the book. Gwyn’s black ewe and Bethan are never seen again. Gwyn’s years as a sunny little boy are at an end. “Shut the door tight, when I am gone,” Bethan says as she leaves, and that is just what the family do. They plunge into a wintry landscape of anger and loss – and confusion, too – the end of which is presaged by the arrival of Eirlys, whose name means snow-drop in Welsh. It is a slow and an emotional version of the melting of the long winter in Narnia.

It is up to Gwyn to challenge his father – and he can, it seems, only do this by finding a link to the mythic past, by the magic gifts from his grandmother, by the help of the mysterious girl from another world: by stepping over the threshold of his father’s expectations. Gwyn leaves the house (like his sister), crosses the threshold to call the names of his ancestors, to meet the dark. This is as about as far from Trick or Treat as we can go in today’s Hallowe’en, where we – or our urban gangs of children, or maybe even before the start of the story Bethan and her little brother – go from house to house, half-joking, half-threatening, jolly tricksters.

A suburban telling would have been different in so many ways: street lamps and the ease of access to transport. Not that it would have been worse – think of the desolation of the children in Garner’s Elidor, all chill wastelands, alienating buses and dark demolition sites – but it would have had a hard time taking a lone boy out to meet something as monstrous as the anger of prince Efnisien. Which brings us (back, maybe?) to the question of Nimmo and Welsh myth – and other fantasy writers who have crossed a border into Wales.

4. (The final question: mine), thinking about Nimmo as writer. Jenny Nimmo and Alan Garner and Susan Cooper have all written with a great deal of thought about the places and myths of Wales. Is there a common theme that makes their approach successful – or are they all still writing as outsiders?

Perhaps I am over-ambitious here. Catherine Butler’s work on Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, after all, takes over seventy pages on Myth and Magic alone. This is, therefore, a quick set of side thoughts.

There is a wonderful and inspirationally broad sweep in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence in which various combinations of protagonists meet the story of Arthur, the ancient trackways of England, Cornish folklore, and the struggle between good and evil in Gwynedd. Cooper magpies her way through a range of historical traditions to bring us to the conclusion and the departure of the Old Ones, the curtain falling on the transcendental drama of good and evil. I have already mentioned Alan Garner’s Gwyn, another descendant of ancient rivalries and magic, and Garner has immersed himself in the Welsh language, is respectful of its history and legend. In contrast to Nimmo’s Gwyn, whose delve into his past is primarily about self-identity and a distant legend, or Susan Cooper’s children whose task is the Matter of Britain, the Garner version is made up of claustrophobia and recent history as well as repeating magic. Big images, big motifs in all three are brought down to recognisable characters: Will, from the hills above the Thames, a disaffected Gwyn sulking in a valley where he should be Lord, a nine-year-old Gwyn playing with his watch and with tasks to do on the farm. When myth works, it works through concrete images – that is through story, Catherine Butler asserts, and then suggests that story functions like a repeated ritual such as the Mass… as providing access to that event’s reality. In other words, we have the great themes of myth and legend made flesh.

Whose myth, however? Whose legends, whose culture are these authors writing?

In The Snow Spider, The Owl Service and The Grey King all three English authors have come over the border into a world that is not wholly their own. Why have they done this? Without referring to any critical writers or biographers (very possibly there are statements of intent from any of these three: but the texts have to stand on their own, I think) I would want to see the three bodies of writing as needing Welshness to give a freshness and a detail to the mythic landscape. It is as if the Celtic – twilight or no – adds something vital that the English corpus of story cannot. Cooper visits, and finds a theme that excites, engages and carries her sequence further; Garner watches, strikes up relationships, ponders and then produces an anxious and hemmed-in story in which the figures of legend are uncomfortably close; Nimmo lives in Wales, celebrates her family’s roots, asks her protagonist to do magic for us to see. In The Snow Spider, she gets a boy, his friends, his farm, his village to show us the stories that in part define them. The relationship between the three authors and Wales is as different as the authors themselves, and as different as their individual reasons for looking at the myths of legends of the Mabinogion.

And there, for me, is the nub of the reason why a fantasy writer might look to Wales. English magic, English beginning-myths have little in the way of consistent telling of stories – we have Hobberdy Dick and the local goblins, ghosts and fairies. Apart from Arthur (Two points, however: yes, I know “Arthur” and “English” may not sit together too happily, although I am mindful that Henry VII – Henry Tudor, descendant of Owain Tudur – called his eldest son Arthur to try and give us another king with that name; and there are genealogies linking the Royal family back to Woden) we do not really have anything of the power, of the rich seam of story that we get in Wales. English history might be heroic – but it is prosaic, too.

Puck, for example, in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, has a hard time bringing English myth to life – in fact Kipling really uses Puck as a doorway into English heritage rather than a discussion point in his own right (there is an exception to this: the shadowy relationship between Old Hobden and his mysterious visitor Tom in Dymchurch Flit). For Kipling there was an inspiration other than his own at work, perhaps (I cite it here): but the genius loci in the brook by Kipling’s house is a sense of Englishness more than a sense of English magic, which is portrayed as passing and fading. He can write with resonance about the magic that has gone – but Puck/Kipling is clear that the glory has departed.

What then attracts, if the English Twilight of the Gods is long past? Again, I have thought before about the persisting fairy tales, and maybe another way of seeing them is that these are the little flowers that grow where a big tree has been cleared: we have local place stories; we have the intense locality of Alan Garner but no grand narrative of what Englishness means. Fantasy writers look for something to inspire, and find it – Nimmo certainly does – in the wildness and energy of the mountains of Gwynedd more than the Sussex Weald or the Woods of Warwickshire.

Confusions

To reflect on the moving Corey’s Rock by Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray has required a number of shifts in my thinking. I’ve had to screen out some of the praise for the book as well as the discomfort I feel at a personal level for a subject that – in part at least – touches my own life. There are already confusions here, and what I want to do is to return to the questions of ambiguity I’ve looked at before (in fact just over a year ago in my post Understanding).

Corey’s Rock tells an uncomfortable story. Isla, the young first -person narrator, has returned to the island where her mother’s family have roots. In the aftermath of the death of Corey, Isla’s younger brother, the family of four – Mum, Dad, girl and dog – are a family seeking, in Auden’s words, locality and peace. The narrative at its simplest is about the weeks in which Isla begins to settle into her new life while mourning her brother.

But I see that I have already strayed away from the simple into the complex, and in referring to Auden I have returned to my own confusions, and a post in which I look at the

the cramped frustration of attempting

the jigsaw with pieces missing

And if the posts from that time are about a lost me, this book is a story of a lost family.

So I think there are three sets of confusions to be addressed here: the ambiguities of the text and illustrations; the complexity and detail of narrative and art work; the twinges and uncertainties of the reader.

They are not all things we should fight shy of: life is confused; endings are uncertain. If the current crises in health, society and the economy (insofar as they can be disentangled) can teach us, we are an uncertain bunch: too reflective to suffer dumbly, but unable to make much sense of sudden changes, sudden downturns in our fortune. This is not always to the advantage of the writer, who has to contend with issues of clarity. Jenny Nimmo writes a piecemeal and sometimes unclear narrative when she looks to set out the relationship between the magic world and our world in The Snow Spider; Sita Brahmachari does the same with a similar brief: how to look at a child’s grief through myth and landscape. The issue, it seems to me, is connected with the genuine confusions in the minds of Isla and Gwyn – and the pain of their adults. Ivor, Gwyn’s father, is the more confused of the two dads, lost in his anger as much as Bethan was lost on the mountain; Isla’s father (and some cost to himself, I think), sighs as he tells his daughter “You know Corey can’t come back, don’t you?”

The truth does not make him any less beautiful or eloquent: Jane Ray’s luminous artwork gives him soulful eyes and a deep connection to his children and Sita Brahmachari gives him the best lines:

“How deep does the colour go?” I ask Dad.

How deep is the sea,” he answers.

He is an archaeologist with the soul of a poet. Kathleen Jamie, meeting him on a beach in the bleak north of Scotland, would have found a friend.

Back to my three confusions: I suppose I am trying to distinguish in my own mind between what seems the author’s deliberate blurring of edges (which is as much at the heart of this as it is David Thomson’s classic People of the Sea and the film Song of the Sea) and the fact that I am not (or not yet) at ease with the rich complexity of the story Brahmachari is telling. Shapes shift, roles move, tragedy and freedom walk hand in hand, and in this story we trace other themes, too, besides myth and landscape: race, disability, belonging, refugee children washed up on the shores of Europe; the roles of incomers in an island community; a mother coping with grief and a father’s efforts to keep his family whole; and the big question of little Isla:

Do you think this island will make us happy again?

Have the author and artist been over ambitious, or is it, perhaps, that I don’t feel able to embrace this complexity? I struggled with this on my first two readings, but then was struck by the Celtic knotwork on one of the double-page spreads, and thought of those complex interweavings that are part of so many pre-conquest crosses, ornaments (like this from a Viking grave in Orkney) and tombs and manuscripts – and I honestly think this was my misreading. This is an ambitious book, but look at Sendak (link here to the haunting and complex My Brother’s Book, again a richly illustrated and complex text about death); Foreman; look, even at the stories of Katie Morag and her own island life. I know picture books and richly illustrated texts aren’t always easy. Of course I know that.

So what was my problem here? My third confusion. It is possible for a story to be poorly written, badly drawn: in my teaching on a module called Becoming a Reader we would look at texts with ideologies long dead, books with clumsy pictures or inconsequential, often derivative stories. Corey’s Rock is not one of those, although the threads of detail take some following. The third confusion is where the reader looks but does not see how those threads might go.

Because in the end there are more and more threads to follow: where author and artist brings their research, their pasts (including their past work: the dad in Corey’s Island recalls – although not exactly – the beautiful, caring father in A Balloon for Grandad)… or where a reader’s own reading past or visits to a place or similar sadnesses lead off in the wrong direction.

So to end, not in any way to try and trump the painful story at the heart of Corey’s Rock, but maybe to explain part of my confusion as I read and re-read it, joining in the sea song of all those times Isla’s family walk along the beach or look out for the bobbing head of a seal, is one of my twenty-year old poems for our son Theo.

Recalling you is a daily conjuration.  In solitude

I know my sadness, know your face, but you appear

where least expected: at the corners of sleep;

at the bruise of unkindness; in a flower

unlooked-for, by a cliff’s edge.

Today I called you,

throwing a stone

into the receding tide,

trying to write your name in the wet sand;

but as I made the first stroke, crossbar of your T,

the wave returned,

unbidden, sudden –

And the mark my writing didn’t leave was you.

Landscape and Community

Chris Lovegrove and I have been trying to explore aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider together: this blog post forms part of the concluding dialogue between me and Chris. In this week’s blogs we are answering the same questions, but doing so, to some extnent “blind:’ we have agreed our two questions and then we are posting our blogs on the same day.

Here’s the first, posed by Chris:

1. The Snow Spider is very much set in the Welsh landscape, not just by the language and the myths but also by the descriptions — the hills and the sheep farming, for example, and the apparent proximity of the sea (which Gwyn is able to smell after a short tramp through over the hills). Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting or does it work equally well in a mythic setting (as it has to for those unfamiliar with The Snow Spider’s cultural matrix)? 

My response: I’ve been to Wales four times: once to Conwy and Betws-y-Coed on a coach trip with a pile of nuns when I was nineteen;  once, in 2000, to the Brecon Beacons to get soaking wet while training as a Forest School Leader in the pouring rain; once to stay in a cottage at the foot of the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. My  last visit, rather later in my life, was to help at a Quality Assurance event in Carmarthen. My understanding of Wales is therefore built on brief and specific visits – and at no time have a stayed in a claustrophobic valley like in The Owl Service, nor really had any dealings with Welsh hill farmers beyond being told a footpath was no longer in use. So what, therefore, is my response to the landscape in The Snow Spider? How realistic do I need it to be?

It was not a high mountain, nor a dangerous one. Some might even call it a hill. It was wide and grassy, a series of gentle slops that rose, one after another, patterned with drystone walls and windblown bushes. The plateau at the top was a lonely place, however. From here only the empty fields and surrounding mountains could be seen and, far out to the west, the distant grey line of the sea.

This is Nimmo’s early setting the scene. Gwyn ascends the mountain to practise his powers, but here we are being told simply what the upland looks like. There is a lot, of course, that a reader (particularly, perhaps a reader of Gwyn’s age) might want to disentangle in the language and topology: How can a hill be a mountain? What’s a plateau? As we sort out the vocabulary of place in a possibly unfamiliar place at the start of the narrative, we are on the cusp of a deeper understanding, almost a curtain-raiser for the mythic and developmental battles young Gwyn is beginning to engage in.

But in order to come close to Chris’ enquiry I feel I need to distinguish between the everyday depiction and the descriptions that that move the story along. Michael Bonnett and certainly Michael Farrelly seem to suggest that “human-environmental interrelationships” are aided by powerful storytelling. We have that here, in Jenny Nimmo’s three Magician Trilogy novels. In the Snow Spider it seems to me that the author chooses weather as a way of inviting her readers into the hill farms, rather than more explicit topography. Here, for example, in Chapter Eight the young magician is poised to fight in the face of a snowstorm:

There was a sudden stillness and the mountain held its breath. Clouds of snow began to gather on the summit; they intensified and rolled downwards in a vast, ever-thickening ice-cold wave.

It is atmospheric writing of a high order. Nimmo has brought us to this point by vivid and intensifying descriptions of weather in a hill country. From much earlier in the story, this is the arrival of a November gale, the first major encounter with wind as an elemental, magical force:

Then, one Sunday, the wind came; so quietly at first that you hardly noticed it. By the time the midday roast had been consumed, however, twigs were flying, the barn door banging, and the howling in the chimney loud enough to drive the dog away from the stove.

The storm, a dominant motif – and an important factor when anyone is up in a mountainous region – will come to provide the wintry arena for a final conflict . Even Gwyn’s prosaic father Ivor has to admit it is “a damn peculiar kind of wind” ; by doing so we come to understand that this is a hard life, and see quite how the tragedy of Gwyn’s older sister being lost on the mountain might have occurred. In these earlier sections, however, Nimmo is also careful to give us little domestic details: the barn door, the dog, the stove… So I come (finally) to Chris’ question: Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting?

I think it does. Part of the power of the depiction of Gwyn’s father (see below) is that he is ordinary; the ambiguities of learning to be a wizard are all the more painful for Gwyn than the flamoyant Owls from Hogwarts and cartoon familial abuse are for Harry Potter because in Gwyn’s story they are depicted as taking places in a believable world. Nimmo leads her readers through the fields with open gates, cows that need milking, the circle of trees where the septic tank lies… and into a world of magic spiders and a past full of ancient tales. It’s a clever way of convincing the reader of the reality of the Gwyn’s challenge as he grows – but for a little more of this, see below.

The second is posed by me:

2: The tight-knit community of The Snow Spider allows for powerful reactions between a limited range of characters: Gwyn’s family, his friends, the neighbours. In a more widely connected world – mobile ‘phones, internet & c (shown in the new TV version) the world is a wider place. Does this date the plot unduly? And if not, why not?

I started by wanting to consider the Hui Clos of Pendewi, the village in the Snow Spider, but of course the most famous line from Sartre’s play is L’enfer c’est les autres, and the more I ponder the community the less sure I am of this. There are family tensions here, and the neighbourly relationships of a small village, but these are not people trapped in Hell together, but a Pobol y Cwm, a people of the valley. When Alun, Gwyn’s friend, is lost in the storm, the ‘grapevine” works fast to rustle up a search party. When Bryn and Gladys Davis confront Gwyn’s family about Gwyn injuring their son Dewi it is uncomfortable – but not on an epic scale. Gwyn is like many a child who needs to make sense of his family as he grows: what does his family history tie him to? Does he like being with them? As with landscape (above), it is the ordinariness that provides the power to the scene and to the magic that interrupts it.

The new TV version gives some nod to the passing of time since the original publication of the Nimmo books, starting in 1986, in that there is some mention of the internet, and the watch Gwyn gets as a birthday present in the book has become a tablet (with remarkably good connection). This in turn allows some further plot exposition, some idea of the past which Gwyn is inheriting. It also serves to underline that very odd nature of the old Welsh manuscript the young magician reads. As a reflection on the updates in the series it works well.

Does this make the actual text creak at all in retrospect? I didn’t think so. The IPad/tablet would have been no further use in the story than the rewrite has allowed it. (In pondering updates I did think of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where for the tragic failures of communication to take their toll, the modern audience needs not to think how simple a quick couple of texts or emails could have sorted everything). Gwyn’s father’s quad bike was a nice touch, too: this was a family more like Emmerdale (or God’s Own Country) than Cold Comfort.

But what of magic in the modern world? Where might the Tylwyth Teg live now? For Alice Thomas Ellis the uncomfortable magic of the Welsh tradition in Fairy Tale suggests they live where they have always lived: in edgelands, woods, odd meadows and lanes with a strange feel to them, very much alive in the affairs of humans. In Pendewi, the stories live on by being reenacted (more explicitly in the later books in the trilogy), and the parallels with Garner’s The Owl Service are many, from common roots in the Mabinogi to the recurrence of tensions dating back into myth and legend. Where is the magic? In both books (“all the books,” if we count the Ellis, the Garner, all three by Nimmo and Susan Cooper [who will come into my next post]) it is frighteningly close: it exhibits in the fallible humans who cross its path. (Just as it would be amusing to think up how M R James’ stories could be updated effectively, it would also be a challenge to think quite where his ghosts might reside now: in mobile numbers that link to conspiracy theories long dead, catalogues whose URL summon destruction, internet stalkers whose only real presence is to hunt the curious through the pdfs of manuscripts…) But Nimmo’s Gwyn, it seems to me does not needs this. It is his ordinariness that saves him. Tensions between generations, Ivor Griffiths’ incoherent anger at his family’s loss, the petty rivalries of the playground: these are universal enough to contain the introduction of the internet, while a small village up in the hills (Chris may take a different view) may not be able to rely on mobile signal quite as much as I do for sustaining its relationships.

Chris and I are planning to post our blogs on 4th May, having not seen one another’s responses. Do please visit https://calmgrove.wordpress.com to see what Chris has made of these two questions.

At Sea

When Moominpapa leads his little tribe away from Moominvalley he is trying to negotiate a new way of being the Father. In Moominpappa at Sea he has left his study and gone back to his childhood wanderings as depicted in his memoirs – except that this time he has family to deal with, and instead of hilarious annoyances like the Hemulen Aunt and Edward the Booble, settles on an island and is concerned with keys to the lighthouse, protecting his family, and the fact that – as we maybe all discover in some ways – that our shadows follow us when we make changes to our lives. Change in purpose, in attitude, in relationship (to one another, to the landscape we inhabit, to our selves) is at the heart of the story.

Following them in her inexorable, inexplicable, icy rage is the worst Nemesis in any book for children: the Groke. Symbol of crushing depression, she kills everything in any place she sits. This is perhaps the most terrifying illustration of the creature in all of Jansson‘s depictions (I am even fond of the darkening paper of my soon-to-fall-apart copy). She frightens me like the revenant in the final sections of Michelle Paver‘s terrifying Dark Matter.

The Moomin family have been described as “surprisingly complex and plausible.” Part of me wants to jump up and down at that “suprisingly,” but it does reflect something of my own disquiet when I first read this book – and I read it as an adult. In fact I did remark to one of my children that “I didn’t think it was a book for children.” I think my opinions about “for children” have changed now – but it reflects some of the themes Tove Jansson presents. These are characters with depth, full of love, sadness, frustration, loneliness: capable of wrong decisions, reconciliation, fear and delight – and because they are Jansson’s characters, able to worry too about the lack of paraffin and to enjoy a birthday tea.

Reviews on Goodreads go from a five-star “poignant and empathetic” to “a deeply distasteful story of toxic masculinity.” It is worth remembering this is a book from 1965, of course, but in the way that Moominpappa is trying to restart his life, and the ways Moomintroll is trying to make sense of the haunting chill of the Groke that has pursued him and the beauty of the seahorses he encounters, we are looking at an exploration of growing that goes way beyond the anachronism of “toxic masculinity.” If anything, these two male characters are asking for ways to make sense of their place in family and society: how can I be a “family man” when so much is beyond my control? asks the father. How do I tame the depression that seems to negate my inner need for beauty and transcendence? asks the son. Or perhaps I read the two characters like this because in some way those are my own questions… Let’s return to the text. (NB: It would take a lot longer than a blog post to bring in here a discussion of Little My, or Moominmamma or the sea horses – they need looking at in their own right. This post will have to be about Moomintroll and Moominpappa, and revisists/revises some of my thinking from an earlier post.)

The way Moomintroll and his father interact in Moominpappa at Sea appears to me to be an indicator of both characters growing. With his comfortable self-assurance, Moominpappa in Ch 4 (“The North-Easter”) starts off in control when he and his son go to bring in a haul of fish: Now you can see I know something about the sea, he says, but he is panicky, unable to direct Moomintroll effectively, and the nets are full of seaweed rather than fish. All the father’s expertise temporarily ebbs away – and their boat capsizes. Tove Jansson knows her boats, and takes us through this disaster assuredly – but even though father and son come through the crisis, here, in this brief interchange, her characters show they are less sure of themselves:

“Well, we managed that all right,” said Moomintroll, looking cautiously at his father.

“Do you think so?” said Moominpappa doubtfully.

It is a revealing little scene: the self-assured, bungling dad loses face with his growing son, and when Moomintroll looks cautiously for reassurance, it is at this point that Moominpappa expresses his doubt. Simply told, but in an effective few words.

The chaos of the botched fishing trip is a metaphor for frustration (as Keith Negley describes his pirate in an interview with Mat Tobin), and is followed by the usually imperturbable Moominmamma’s sighs as Moomintroll’s obsession with the lantern (and the demands of the Groke) interrupt her plans. It is as if in this landscape of frustration, nothing can come right.

Moominpappa is contending with his island, his family, his worries. Instead of a study where the family interrupt him, he has a crag on which to sit: this life change has not been the success he had expected.

The ending is ambiguous, Moomin Valley is (maybe) lost, the characters (certainly) challenged, and if their issue around the custodianship of the lighthouse are resolved, I still feel a chill when reading

The thought of the Groke crossed Moomintroll’s mind. But he didn’t feel that he must think about her. He would see her later as usual, but he didn’t have to.

It now reminds me (with important distinctions, of course) of the final of Dark Matter. The narrator, Jack, having been menaced and haunted (“It can open doors“) in Gruhuken in the blackness of an arctic winter where his friend has drowned, now lives in balmy Jamaica, and once a year visits the sea:

When I’ve mustered my courage, I can just bring myself to crouch at the water’s edge and di[ in my hand, and hold it there while I talk to Gus. It’s a kind of communion. But it’s a dangerous one, for I know that I’m also communing with Gruhuken, and with what walks there in the dark…

The worst is not knowing if you’re still there.

What has Moomintroll’s repeated encounters in the dark with the Groke, this vengeful granddaughter of Nordic Frost Giants, brought him? An appreciation of his father’s ennui? There is a significant change in understanding between Moomintroll and the Groke so that she

…started to sing. Her skirts fluttered as she swayed to and fro, stamping on the sand and doing her best to show him that she was pleased to see him…

and I would – maybe even ought to be – happy with that, but what is the Groke’s new relationship with the Moomins? Is she in some way healed? Changed? She appears to me a figure of terror, but gradually Jansson introduces other ideas: her sadness; loneliness the coldest thing that ever was… Why do I come back to her as something to be scared of negotium perambulans in tenebris, Scaduhelma…wan under wolcnum? Is it, maybe, that these frustrated monsters are for me like the thursen of our research – and that what I am looking for is the very opportunity to grow? Moomintroll himself has grown, it seems – but what of Moominpappa?

The title in English gives us the “at sea” of this blog post: lost, aimless, adrift. The title in Swedish translates as “Moominpappa and the Sea,” reminiscent of Hemingway. Moominpappa has uprooted his family, tried to rewrite their relationships, and come adrift from the way his family works. Who lives in the lighthouse – who controls this important part of the environment? Most crucially: whose job is it to do these things? Who is using all the paraffin (it is his son’s night time meetings with the Groke herself). In the dialogue with the raging sea – which parallels his son’s gradual reconciliation with the Groke – Moominpappa rebukes the sea which in turn gives him a sign that the family should stay. It is not the task Moominpappa envisaged, but it is a mission nonetheless, to settle down there and enjoy themsleves, although they were surrounded by a vast, never-changing horizon closing in on them. Settle into this new life, and accept what is offered: re-invent this landscape not as one of frustration but as one of change. Just as it is not Moomintroll’s job to tame the Groke, but to live with her, to accept her, it is not for Moominpappa to control his environment, but to live with its ambiguities. The crucial symbolic action for Pappa is therefore much closer to home (for him and me? – and do I wear a hat so much because he does?):

[The lighthouse keeper] completed the puzzle. It was a picture of birds flying round a lighthouse. He turned round and looked at Moominpappa.

“Now I remember,” he said.”We’re both wearing the wrong hat.”

He took off the hat he was wearing and offered it to Moominpappa. They exchanged hats without saying a word.”

The lighthouse keeper, the lost Ben Gunn-like fisherman, gets his old hat back, along with his role as lighthouse keeper – and Moominpappa, who had said he didn’t need his top hat any more, has his iconic hat returned to him.

The blurb at the start of the Puffin edition (1974) tells me it is “for readers of eight and over,” and describes it as a “haunting, moving, beautiful book…perhaps the most satisfying of all the Moomin stories.” But just as I take issue with the word “surprising” from the Guardian, I wonder quite what “satisfying” really means here. So many unanswered questions remain – not least whether they will stay in the end – and for me, the psychodrama of Moomin and the Groke, and his father’s loss of faith in his role, pound at my reading like the breakers on the rocks.

Need Called Knowledge Out

This blog post forms part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. This was my post on anger; this was his exploring the Myths and the Gifts that Gwyn receives, and this is Chris on Loss, which I will cite below.

Many stories take off at the point where a protagonist realises something about their place in the narrative. The variations are worth a quick look. The title of this post comes from the complex beginnings of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged discovers, little by little, the power of magic, and it is this particular sequence from LeGuin that for me embodies the best of these understandings of who these young heroes are – or might become. Will Stanton has a more dramatic set of encounters in the Dark is Rising; the growing menace that threatens Martha and the other children of a quiet Oxfordshire village in The Whispering Knights shows another way of introducing the dilemma at the heart of fantasy. Caspian, Eustace and Polly in various of the Narnia stories have similar vocational events; the children in Elidor fall into their task by accident and are all, in various ways, unwilling heroes. The two most famous (at the moment) are where Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard and where Frodo takes up the task of destroying the Ring. Here, as a shortcut, is the film version of the Harry Potter interchange; likewise here is Frodo at the Council of Elrond. It is debatable whether this is the moment at which Frodo decides, of course, and there could be various readings of this. It would make an interesting task to take these narratives of self-realisation and tabulate them: gender (What happens when Lyra is given the alethiometer? Is this her “vocational event”? Is Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the same in terms of “vocation” and belief [a theme repeated in Prince Caspian] as her brothers here? What about Susan?); does it come about by self-discovery or an external message; how does use of past histories explain the state the hero is entering (what does Miss Hepplewhite’s back story do to help the children along?); age of the young hero (nine? ten? thirteen?); pace of discovery, point of self-realisation…

Ah yes: the point at which the hero accepts the quest makes for an interesting point*. In Harry Potter, this is a surprise, almost comic, as the boy discovers (by being told) something about who he “really is” in the teeth of opposition from his oppressive family; in Lord of the Rings this is an unwelcome realisation on the part of Frodo Baggins – that his part in the story is not over, a culmination of a whole load of plot development, near-death adventure and background in-fill: while Harry is described as unhappy, abused and lost, with his inchoate powers hinting at him that there is more to come, Frodo (not a magician any more than his Sam) has learned of the peril of the Ring, the need to get it secretly away from the terrors that are seeking it, and has experienced its addictive and destructive power. Such is the pace of Rowling and Tolkien in a nutshell: Tolkien is creating his world, while Rowling throws us in medias res. In a story written with children in mind the choice for a sudden exposition is also connected to a desire to get on with the plot – so that when Gwyn is given the news he is (or may be) a magician in The Snow Spider it is abrupt like the news Hagrid gives Harry:

“‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain.

‘A magician?’ Gwyn inquired.

‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

‘Who?’ ‘

The magicians, boy!”

and just in the same way as Harry Potter and Ged will take time to find their place in the world they are entering – one might argue that Ged struggles all his life, after his early (literally schoolboy) errors – Gwyn takes all three books of The Snow Spider to realise his power, his place in Nimmo’s grand continuum of myth and location.

Vocational Event: self-realisation. When a story takes off like this, somewhere along the line there is a task to take up, a burden to shoulder.

Frodo becomes the hero (and maybe even more so, Sam) by his involvement in the story, whereas Harry’s status goes before him. Gwyn, Ged and Will are an uncomfortable mixture of the two, which makes these stories have an undertow of Bildungsroman to them: their growth into their magic is what makes them interesting protagonists. While Will is looking for his place among the Old Ones as their mission reaches its conclusion, Ged is literally (and figuratively) at sea, looking, as the books progress, at the encircling gloom he has, in part, released. Gwyn, however, is a new creation of the mythic past – less an inheritor than (as I said before) “growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.” The demons he encounters are therefore not just the spirit of Efnisien but what Chris Lovegrove calls “the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever -” the thousand natural shocks.

The need that calls out his knowledge is not just the immediate – to find Bethan his lost sister – but to stand in the breach of his family’s pain. As Chris explains it “Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can.” He needs to contain, to hold, to heal. The symbolism of the gate not shut is subtle – but insistent throughout the first book of the trilogy, and the clumsiness of Gwyn’s attempts at healing recurs in the third.

Gwyn (or young reader of The Snow Spider), please note: no-one – apart, perhaps, from your imperfect parents – expects you to be perfect, and if Nain looks like she wants to rest the whole weight of the history of early medieval Wales on your shoulder, she, too, is over ambitious.

This is where the reader’s identification with a questing protagonist is key. We ride alongside Gringolet to earn, with Gawain, the true value of knighthood; we learn to deal with adults with Harry Potter, with belief and faith in Narnia: we negotiate family dynamics in a time of transitions with Roland in Elidor and in a time of pain and loss with Gwyn in The Snow Spider… Growing up in not without pain, struggle –

And as Will concludes in the final words of the Dark is Rising books “I think it’s time we were starting out…We’ve got a long way to go.”

*There are parallels here with many Biblical (and non-Biblical) narratives: the call of Abram/Abraham; the vocational encounter of Moses; the desert experience and Baptism of Jesus – the questioning about suffering of Siddhārtha Gautama, the call of St Francis, the Sword in the Stone… I might then want to explore the lines between the sacrificial journey of Abraham and Isaac, the journey to Calvary, and the sacrifice of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse… There isn’t really space in this post to do any exploration of these justice. But at least that thought gives me an excuse to finish with the view from Uffington.

Escape, extent and serendipity

There was a time long ago – say, last Sunday afternoon – when nipping off for a run seemed easy and natural. And on Monday, when Jeff and I went for a walk – well, it seemed a normal thing. Bloke. Dog. Biscuits. Sunshine. The political clouds of isolation and the warning that people had to be more responsible were looming, but dogs gotta walk, and man’s gotta be sensible about “social isolation.” That seemed about it.

Jeff the dog and I went to South Park and Warneford Meadow. We got muddy, he more than I, we looked at the various corvids and the people playing basketball, he ate dog biscuits and I didn’t, and we were sensible about keeping ourselves to ourselves. We didn’t do the reckless “last weekend before we have to be indoors” congregating, but yes, it seemed that keeping to guidelines was easy. A new politeness was emerging around how far apart we needed to be from people we passed, it’s true, but in any case they weren’t people either of us knew, not even nodding acquaintances. A quick chat with the basketballers a good 4m away and then we moved on. We got closer to magpies, to be honest. Three for a girl, if I remember rightly.

Only with yesterday evening’s pronouncements did that mood really change, and I think in retrospect we pushed it a bit. Maybe it was my day’s exercise. It will have to stand as such.

Wind back a week and I am with Mat high on the Downs, and you could not wish for a lovelier day. Sunny again, breezy, a sharp-eyed, sharp-minded kestrel of a good friend, everything bright and fair. As I discussed here, human relation to place is, for Robert Mcfarlane, grounded in language; but language is itself grounded in relationship. I’m coming back to this.

Back to the Friday before and Lizzie, Maggie and I walk through the Aberlady nature reserve and across the beach to Gullane. A bright sun, a brisk wind. Family enjoying one another’s company.

But these are not excuses to show snapshots. What is it that gave these trips significance? Why feel better after them? They both lacked the challenge of Rob Macfarlane’s exploration of the treacherous Broomway or even the experience of our face-to-face encounter at Ludchurch. What is it that some trips into the outdoors bring? and how do we represent that in time and place without it being, like these photos, just a grown-up version of What I did on My Holidays?

The absolutely seminal book on the psychology of the outdoors for me is the 1989 book The Experience of Nature, by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. In it, they explore dimensions that may provide a framework for how “nature” helps and supports psychological wellbeing. Extent; fascination; action and compatibility. Because their work looks to the “wilderness” they address the nation of escape as well, which they view with some caution because it has in it “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present and presumably not always preferred.” I can see their point, but given that it is early work (thirty years ago) and has been superseded in many ways (partly by the new nature writing itself), I want to raise the question of escape with someone. Here, further off on the Aberlady sand dune, is Maggie; Mat not only drove the two of us to Uffington, his insights enriched our visit. We are “political animals” – not because we are forever tuned into the depressing power games (or, if you like, selfless and inspirational leadership) that cram our news until we cannot see what’s actually happening – but because we are defined by how we live in the company of others. I go out on my own but with me come meetings to have, people I want to see (or don’t), ideas to bounce off others. I bring the city with me. And similarly I contend that a visit to Uffington means I am “with” (metaphorically) Rosemary Sutcliff, or that to go to Ludchurch “with” Alan Garner is not to travel alone. In some ways, the accompanying author or characters provide what the Kaplans call action and compatibility, and of course are the spur to action via the notion of fascination. We go “Backpacking with the Saints” according to Belden Lane (article here; link to the [excellent] book is here. Name the saints that come with you.

Lane, a “scholar in recovery” takes with him insights from the Desert Monastics and “a few lines of Rumi” and is wedded to the silence that wilderness can bring. Not as far into my recovery I have taken Gawain, most recently Sun Horse Moon Horse and the Land of the White Horse. Somewhere in my mental backpack are lines and vistas from writers such as Robert Macfarlane, C S Lewis, Oliver Rackham…. This isn’t a boast: I sometimes wonder whether I could leave them in the car. Would this then be more of an escape, or given the liberating nature of some of this writing, less of one? And what about extent? Do we need the wide open wilderness of the Ozarks are we OK with the view from the White Horse down into the farmlands of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire? I think of Aberlady, where I have no literary baggage to bring: an escape, as the Kaplans would see it from particular content, “a rest from pursuing certain purposes.” I wonder if writing about his wilderness hikes took the edge off the experience from Beldin Lane…

But for the trips that fall under the Wild Spaces Wild Magic umbrella I really have to take the authors firmly in my hand and my mind: last week for example I was reading the episode of Lubrin Dhu’s planning of the White Horse from Rosemary Sutcliff and looking for where she might have sited the Wych Elm. She comes with me and by extension the characters she calls into being; David Miles comes with me – my copy of his book has a smudge of Uffington soil on the page of his site plan (p101, if you’re interested); Mat of course comes with me. Identifying where this Wych Elm might have been, we find some wild apple trees by chance and wonder: are these the inspiration for the sacred apple trees in Sun Horse Moon Horse?

Social aspects of serendipity (see for example Morrissey’s “An autoethnographic inquiry into the role of serendipity in becoming a teacher educator/researcher,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 2014) seem to me to work alongside the changeability of being outside. Less is in the enquirers’ control, expectations have to change. Two pairs of eyes are able (sometimes) to be more alert to these changes: sagacity (Morrissey again) enhances serendipity but are two heads better than one? If we are aware of the dangers of shoring up each other’s ideas, might collaboration, like identifying mistakes (Morrissey) “also uncover for the researcher… fears, preconceptions or beliefs …of which he/she had hitherto been unaware”?

And if we are accompanied by the cloud of witnesses from literature – such as nature writers and their places, fiction writers and their characters – then we might address two notions (or one single notion with two aspects? I’m not sure as I write) of psychogeography and autoethnography. How much, in other words, does setting (in its broadest sense) and personal history of setting enhance or detract from personal reading of landscape? I am conscious of the dilemmas where Dyson writes “In recognising that I was a subject and an object of the research I realised that at the same time I was and could be both an insider and an outsider within the culture that I was investigating.” (From his article My Story in a Profession of Stories: Auto Ethnography – an Empowering Methodology for Educators, https://ro.ecu.edu.au/ajte/ 2007). I rejoice in being on the Downs with Mat; I am very glad we have purpose in a book I love; I am exhilarated in the chill breeze and bright sun. To change from his journey metaphor to one of wind or water, being the reader and a colleague in an investigating team involves recognising how all sorts of things flow over one another: the reader and her/his history; the researcher and her/his concerns and limitations; the authors under investigation, their sources, their motives, their depiction of place and character; and being a research partner multiplies these complexities. For me this links with Rob Macfarlane’s lines from his introduction to The Living Mountain:

…the world itself is therefore not the unchanging object…but instead endlessly relational. It is made manifest only by only by presenting itself to a variety of views, and our perception of it is made possible by our bodies and their sensory-motor functions… We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits…

We are human, language-loving and people-loving; we are also placed: physically located on a windy ridge above a deserted farmhouse in the Peak district, or searching for a tree that may never have been at the foot of the Downs.

To conclude with Belden Lane, who may be close to an answer here (I know I’m not): The Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, Tell me the place where you live, and I’ll tell you who you are. I think he also could have said, Tell me the place to which you are drawn, and I’ll tell you who you are becoming. 

Sword-grey sky, daffodil light

To do no more this morning than record this astonishing section from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Mark of the Horse Lord. The protagonist, newly made king of the peoples of what we might describe as Western Scotland, Red Phaedrus, img_2217
is out to catch the woman appointed as his wife. These are horse-people, as the book’s title suggests, and this rough “courtship” (here as in the Lantern Bearers Sutcliff does not shy away from the nature of marriage and being given in marriage and its impact on woman) is the bridgegroom’s chase after his bride. They are both mounted, and she has a head start as the groom’s party pursue her through the country of the Dál Riata.  Just look at this amazing use of colour and shade, and how Sutcliff anchors this in the landscape features – the whirlpool of the Old Woman, the mountain of Cruachan she has already introduced us to in map and in narrative.

The track was pulling up now, out of the great flats of Mhoin Mhor, and the quarry, striking away from it, was making north-eastward for the hills around Loch Abha head. And the wild hunt swept after her, hooves drumming through the blackened heather, skirting little tarns that reflected the sword-grey sky, startling the green plover from the pasture clearings. Far over to the west the clouds were breaking as they came up into the hills, and a bar of sodden daffodil light was broadening beyond the Island, casting an oily gleam over the wicked swirling water of the Old Woman, while away and northward, the high snows of Cruachan caught the westering beams and shone out sour-white against the storm-clouds dark behind.