Nearer the Sky

The Ridings, Headington

I was thinking and writing on St George’s Day of the hymn/school assembly song “When a Knight Won his Spurs,” and the moral ogres and dragons it prompts us to battle. Another of this genre is “Glad that I Live am I,” which M sang to me as we walked Jeff the Dog this morning. This site gives various versions, none matching the comforting wham-bam-plunk of a school assembly. Nostalgia and spirituality is a different blog post, but some of these versions really don’t work for me, and none of them take me back to Blandford Infants.

These are the words.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes
And the fall of dew

After the sun the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.

Do I mean “genre”? Perhaps for me they stick together just as the choices my teachers in State education made: vaguely religious lyrics urging a sort of morality in which we draw our understanding from the country lanes. No, it doesn’t make them bad lyrics. Yes, we sang “Praise my Soul the King of Heaven” and stuff too, but these stick in my head because of the odd mixture of woolly romantic nature appreciation and aspiration: Ladybird British Wild Flowers and an optimism I now see the twentieth century never really lived up to. They were all certainly different from Sundays, where as Roman Catholics we were still immersed in a vision of the Mass that Heaney (so to speak) celebrates. My dad can still sing a wonderful marching-band version of the music for the Easter rite of sprinkling Holy Water; I can still manage a lot of Compline with its Salva nos Domine vigilantes. This is a good source. And maybe this explains why knights winning their spurs and country lanes seemed something of an oddity to me. If Glad That I Live Am I was odd then, I think of it as more mainstream now: being outdoors is about wellbeing; the locus amoenus (a quick link here) being the locus salubris. Enough marking; enough screen time all round: when I post this blog I’m off for a run in the jolly springtime.

Perhaps the oddness resides in the nature of children’s spirituality. Perhaps closer to what I see in this mixture of ideals and imagery is Tony Eaude’s idea that spirituality is elusive, contested, as I explored some time back, something more basic, and wider, than religious faith or commitment. This would admit Lizette Reese’s final idea of growing nearer the sky, so that it becomes a metaphor rather than a child’s wish to grown nearer to heaven. I originally thought it was about growing taller. It may have that physical element, but there is more than that. As I’ve said before

It’s powerful stuff, all that wishing, all that desire for freedom

all that desire for growing nearer the sky.

Scrambling Up the Hill

Or Going Mad in Thursbitch

Someone on Twitter once sort of challenged me – or I provoked myself – to write as if Enid Blyton had strayed into Garner Country, or if Alan Garner had tried to write in the style of La Blyton. “Wot larx,” I thought – and although parody is not really something I can do very easily, I thought a quick go would be OK. After all, the Weirdstone begins with two children going on holiday, doesn’t it? How hard can this be?

Actually, it’s really difficult. Blyton, although occasionally mocked and frequently criticised – Joyce Grenfell is merciless – was hugely popular and does attempt a child’s-eye drama, but she has such a different point of view from what we see of Alan Garner, from use of language to views of landscape, that I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s often quoted ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’ – see, for example this blog post. Would an Alan Garner world be comprehensible to Enid Blyton?

And yet, poorly little Joe in Treacle Walker might (possibly with a sigh) tear himself away from his Knockout comic to read some escape with spies and danger if such a thing seemed exciting, and The Mountain of Adventure might have gone in a more Aikenesque or Garnerish direction. Garner’s Mossocks might stand for Blyton’s Evans, and we are, after all, in a misty, hilly landscape…

I am being cheeky here.

Where the task becomes impossible is evident from my subtitle. Imagine the tragedy, the earthiness, the spirituality of Thursbitch being reduced to a tale of spies and scientists up in the hills… or (more fairly) to keep to Garner’s earlier work, aimed more at a young readership, Selina Place in Weirdstone or Gomrath being tamed into simply an unpleasant figure with a big house on the Cheshire plain? It is where this taming would be necessary that the parody becomes worthless.

Witness:

Brambles were waiting for them on the other side, but they tore themselves free and ran as best they could through the scrub and matted fringe of the wood.

Garner: Weirdstone Ch 16: The Wood of Radnor

which might have come from either author, whereas

In [Roland’s] narrow angle of vision there was nothing but mountains; peaks, crags, ice and black rock stabbed upwards. The porch seemed to be at the top of a cliff, or a knife-backed ridge. Roland had the sensation of a sheer drop behind him in tge room.

Garner: Elidor Ch 14: The High Places

That sheer drop is astonishing landscape painting, the view through the letterbox that seeps into the everyday, and the image, a little further on, of the lance-carrying men “with the beauty of steel,” riding stags in the shadow-light completes this, a short but utterly brilliant fantasy scene. There is little place in Blyton’s mystery novels even for “Athens in the woods of Warwickshire,” and there is a lack of nuance and transcendence in her more magical writing that sets her apart from Garner. I cannot escape the idea of “lack,” but at its simplest, these are worlds and words far, far from each other. We might as well begin a Blyton adventure in Llareggub, with Dylan Thomas.

Now that would be a parodist’s challenge.

Thich Nhat Hahn

The man who brought Mindfulness to the west, Thich Nhat Hahn, has died. Biographies, ceremonies and tributes are already coming in on Social Media. The passages that follow are really all that I want to say from my own perspective.

His most immediate message is this simple verse:

Breathing in, I calm my body,

Breathing out I smile.

Rejoicing in this present moment

I know this is a wonderful moment.

Here he is in his core work The Miracle of Mindfulness:

Recognition without judgement. Feelings, whether of compassion or irritation, should be welcomed, recognized and treated on an absolutely equal basis; because both are ourselves. The tangerine I am eating is me. The mustard greens I am planting are me. I plant with all my heart and mind. I \clean the teapot with the kind of attention I would have were I giving the baby Buddha or Jesus a bath. Nothing should be treated more carefully than anything else. In mindfulness, compassion, irritation, mustard green plant and teapot are all sacred.

Thich Nhat Hahn  Miracle of Mindfulness.

and here he is on death:

I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say I am just this form, because the firm of leaf is only a part of me. I am the whole tree. I know I am already inside the tree, and when I go back into the soil I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and I will tell her “I will see you again very soon.”

Thich Nhat Hahn: The Heart of Understanding.

My post on Mindfulness is here; and here is Maria Popova’s Brainpickings saying a lot more, and rather better, on love. And here from a Glasgow Mindfulness page is his message in his own calligraphy:

Eyes as Clean as the Cold Sky

A first trip to Otmoor

The quotation that forms the title comes from Evening: Zero Weather, a poem by Thomas Merton commemorating these chill days after Christmas (text here). His view – a land without wildlife, where liturgy is a refuge and a celebration after hard physical work – was not what I experienced. He and his monastic brethren are

…sunken in our adoration,

And plunge down, down into the fathoms of our secret joy

That swims with undefinable fire.

And we will never see the copper sunset

Linger a moment, like an echo on the frozen hill…

Thomas Merton, Evening: Zero Weather

For our trip to the Otmoor Nature Reserve it was very different. We came in haste from the busy centre of Oxford through the twisty lanes and down to Otmoor, to throw back our hoods and watch the copper sunset and to see if we might get to watch the starlings and their drifting, balletic murmuration. We weren’t late, and more people came after us, some armed with sandwiches and massive-lensed cameras. In general we stood quiet, watching the other birds over the reeds and in the trees.

The light was itself a revelation. The deeper golds and the encroaching blues were like something from a medieval stained glass window, lit from within – but in contrast to the enclosure of a building, we were engulfed in light and space spreading wider and wider.

And as it faded, our expectation grew. A Marsh Harrier grazes the tops of the reedbeds; a Heron flies over much higher; a flock of Lapwings tumbles hastily into the reeds, and one Dunnock spends a good five minutes rather eccentrically hopping between my boots and the brambles. And then, in ones and twos and then in larger groups, joining together or catching up with one in front, came the starlings. Thousands of them: rank on rank.

Just as a church often has a big congregation watching and a smaller number of active agents as singers and celebrants, in contrast here, the observers were few – maybe twenty of us? – and the celebrants we watched were many. Some birding is detailed, organised and serious – this is a good website to indicate what’s going on – but some is excited but familial, even jolly in a hushed sort of way. I’m not sure where Maggie and I were in this spectrum, but I do know that, amateur that I am, I was immensely moved.

The swirls and sudden plunges of each group were beautiful in themselves, like cloths shaken in the wind (Julian of Norwich’s image of sorrow as men shakyn a cloth in the wynde but we also talk of an exaltation of larks). All those animals moving to their rest. Do they pick somewhere different every night? Are they opportunistic? I wonder about that Harrier – could it grab from this abundance of life? Then I remember seeing a video of a Peregrine stooping, and I think of that marvellous appreciation of the hunting bird by J A Baker. All sorts of expectations and delights are tumbled in me, my own internal murmuration.

So the birds are rushing for shelter against predators and a chill night to come, and we are standing watching them – and it is dazzling. Why do we find this beautiful? The rich colours like they were being distilled to wintry essence, the rush of the birds (and their singing in the reeds that sounded like running water), the way the last of the sun catches in the ditches: there was an overload of beauty – but can we talk of this? Can there be too much?

Perhaps the simplicity of Mary Oliver is a way forward:

But mostly I stand in the dark field,

in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name

but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.

I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass

and the weeds.

Mary Oliver: What Is There Beyond Knowing

I wish this were me, silent as I watch the crowds pass and gather over the fenny land beyond the trees and are then lost, but I bring too many words with me, I am already berating myself for my poor natural history knowledge; already, with photo after photo thinking of social media, of this blog. Percolating up, I remember Baker, but am also thinking of the Thomas Merton poem because I am pondering how this experience ties in with spirituality and I feel myself caught, somehow, between the intensity of nature and the anchoring of a moving encounter in something formal, regular. It is only when I come to write some notes that I realise how different this evening has been, inside-out and outside-in, from something enclosed, measured and organised. I am glad of the challenge. To use phrases from the Merton poem, the zero days before Lent are not just for huddling away, but for looking up, looking outwards, with eyes as clean as the cold sky.

This house is haunted

C S Lewis, as first-person narrator of the opening chapters of his book Perelandra, is on his way to meet the protagonist, his colleague Elwin Ransom, whose voyage to Mars has disrupted politics at quite literally a cosmic level. Forces are at work to disrupt this planned meeting, and Lewis is walking along through the 40s blackout, assailed by doubts about the whole project, even his own sanity:

 “They call it a breakdown at first,” said my mind, “and send you to a nursing home; later on they move you to an asylum.”

I was past the dead factory now, down in the fog, where it was very cold. Then came a moment–the first one–of absolute terror and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from screaming. It was only a cat that had run across the road, but I found myself completely unnerved. “Soon you will really be screaming,” said my inner tormentor, “running round and round, screaming, and you won’t be able to stop it.”

There was a little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish. Please understand that at ordinary times the idea of a “haunted house” means no more to me than it does to you. No more; but also, no less. At that moment it was nothing so definite as the thought of a ghost that came to me. It was just the word “haunted.” “Haunted” . . . “haunting” . . . what a quality there is in that first syllable! Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?

C S Lewis Perelandra (“Voyage to Venus”) Ch 1

While the forces for good are depicted in some detail (an interesting essay here on the power of Lewis’ vision in the book) – and form part of the chorale that concludes this Voyage to Venus, the forces for evil remain only ever seen indirectly in this trilogy. Hinted at in the first volume of his Science Fiction trilogy, in the violent meanness and grubby colonialism of Out of the Silent Planet, they are felt in the Satanic possession of the scientist Weston* later in the Perelandra narrative, and then in complex ways in the pervasive and destructive work of the NICE in That Hideous Strength. At the start of Perelandra, we see the psychological impact of their power in how they try to terrify Lewis into turning back.

Lewis has a lot to say about landscape, both extraterrestrial (see his depiction of Venus (“Perelandra”) and Mars (“Malacandra” in the first book of the trilogy) and more clearly fantastic in Narnia. This passage (along with some in That Hideous Strength, but that’s for another time) shows his ability in describing an English landscape. Here it is an inimical outdoors that Lewis is writing about, a place of peril, a chapel of mischance. They are worth looking at: here is Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak, in my mind as we come to the anniversary of my first visit to Thursbitch and Ludchurch; more here as I present the Wild Wood and the woods in Warrior Scarlet and others. The outdoors, as I have said before (maybe too often) are where the unwary get into trouble.

And Lewis is in trouble.

At last I came to the cross-roads by the little Wesleyan chapel where I had to turn to the left under the beech trees. I ought to be seeing the lights from Ransom’s windows by now–or was it past black-out time? My watch had stopped, and I didn’t know. It was dark enough but that might be due to the fog and the trees. It wasn’t the dark I was afraid of, you understand. We have all known times when inanimate objects seemed to have almost a facial expression, and it was the expression of this bit of road which I did not like. “It’s not true,” said my mind, “that people who are really going mad never think they’re going mad.” Suppose that real insanity had chosen this place in which to begin? In that case, of course, the black enmity of those dripping trees–their horrible expectancy–would be a hallucination. But that did not make it any better. To think that the spectre you see is an illusion does not rob him of his terrors…

Perelandra Ch1

And what terrors he puts into his landscape!

The basic terror confronting him is the animated nature of what he sees: the enmity of the trees, the one window staring. This is why, when the cat runs across the road he is terrified: for an instant this fear of the inanimate having will and purpose and movement takes over. It is not dissimilar from the fear of the boy Shasta in the fog in The Horse and His Boy, where the divine Aslan pads invisible beside him.

You’re not — not something dead, are you? Oh please — please do go away.

The Horse and His Boy, Ch11

and is in marked contrast to the area of England which starts Lewis’ SF trilogy, where the protagonist, Ransom, is on a walking holiday, and even dark bands of trees and a near-deserted house may hold misgivings but no terrors.

To return to his magnificent assertion

Would not a child who had never heard the word before and did not know its meaning shudder at the mere sound if, as the day was closing in, it heard one of its elders say to another “This house is haunted”?

New Buildings, Magdalen College. Photo by College President, Dinah Rose. Used with kind permission.

C S Lewis’ (and my) college, Magdalen, has had a number of ghost stories attached to it: the boy with the lantern seen in the small hours across the cloisters; a room in the old Grammar Hall where steps can be heard on the stairs, more recently the sighting of a group of shadowy figures and people hearing singing. I don’t know how ancient any of these stories are, although the boy and the steps on the stairs were current in the 70s. I wish I knew if Lewis had heard them – meaning either the stories or the singing and the footsteps – but certainly night time in an old Oxford college is a place to excite the imagination.

I am not sure Lewis in fiction or as the writer really believes there is an abstract power in the word “haunted,” although we should recognise, I think, that we have a number of cultural memes that are employed to notify us that something wicked this way comes. These emerge most powerfully in all sorts of ways in Perelandra, but get some reference in Ransom’s apprehension of some of the Martians in his first novel, appealing to an earlier, almost an infantile, complex of fears. Giants — ogres — ghosts — skeletons: those were its key words. In haunted, we have a socialised expectation: the sound of the word is associated with the fear the meaning excites, Whispers of living, echoes of warning, Phantoms of laughter on the edges of morning, as the trope in Bernstein’s Mass goes. It seems to me that using this tradition of the malevolent uncanny helps Lewis along very well, both in Out of the Silent Planet and in Perelandra. Bogeys, as Marina Warner suggests in her book No Go the Bogeyman, make present what we dread. This is currently being explored in Uncanny, a don’t-listen-with-the-lights-off series by Danny Robins for the BBC. Background sounds and music are brilliantly employed here, down to the slow, throaty theme song with the words “I know what I saw,” and its minor chords. The power of music to set a mood: here it is chillingly atmospheric.

The first seven notes of the Dies Irae (here is the chant) when part of a film score (a neat post here) suggest there are grim times coming (see the procession from The Devils where the link is explicit, or note the phrase adding another layer of menace to The Lion King), and Lewis suggests that haunted does the same. What he has done is to take us into a place where the connotations of haunted are given more work to do, and reflect the feverish imagination of Lewis-as-a-character. We don’t have to believe him, or associate the real Lewis with a belief in ghosts, but we can appreciate his ability to draw us in..

What we find ourselves exploring on this dreary path from a local train station is the fictionalised Lewis’ anxiety, and the landscape is his best aid. The dead factory is a great image, but even the down helps in down in the fog, and the cold, the dark, the little empty house by the side of the road, with most of the windows boarded up and one staring like the eye of a dead fish…. We seek the security of a building, whether we are Going on a Bear Hunt or resting in the Castle of Hautdesert on our way to the Green Chapel – cf Bachelard on “dreaming of security:” we might join Gawain in a sense of relief when he is welcomed and told

Ȝe ar welcum to welde as yow lykez

Gawain and the Green Knight https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/Gawain/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

“Make yourself at home:” and it is a deep fear that Lewis plays on: buildings with plots and pitfalls we have not seen, or intrinsic menace, shift any hope of security away from us, and we may discover a home that turns out not to be home at all, a friend that turns out to be no friend, but something other:

Full moon from my garden

Perhaps he would jump on me from behind. Perhaps I should see a figure that looked like Ransom standing with its back to me and when I spoke to it, it would turn round and show a face that was not human at all…

Perelandra, ch 1.

As Danny Robins explores What is it really like to live in… a haunted house? the comfortable family home that protects and nurtures us is violated by this fear, the fear that Michelle Paver exploits so well when, in Dark Matter, the narrator realises that the prowling, revenant fury outside his lonely hut can get in; it is the same as the moving sheets in the bedroom of M R James’ Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you My Lad. The hotel room where M R James’ professor should be safe… the friend’s house where someone will make it all right… the arctic hut,,, the welcome at the castle… Yet the intrusion of the uncanny breaks one of the most serious barriers we have. As Solnit proposes:

the formal enclosed garden and the castle are corollaries to a dangerous world from which one needs to be protected literally and aesthetically

Rebecca Solnit: Wanderlust, ch 6 “The Path Out of the Garden.”

and as Warner suggests, Fears trace a map of society’s values. Perhaps not belonging is one of the deepest of them.

___________________________________

*and yes, I think of Professor Weston every time I visit the Weston library in the Bodleian. I do not, however, see it as a place inhabited by physicists possessed by Miltonian demons.

Meȝelmas Mone

A Quick Review of the new retelling of Gawain…

“The story could not be more simple or more perplexing” writes Peter Bradshaw in his review of The Green Knight, and this is as true of the new film as it is of the romance found in MD Cotton Nero A.x., Art 3. Here we are nearly at Michaelmas, a special time for me as I reflect on forty years of being married, and also the season when I think again and again of Gawain, and Garner, and the challenges of those trips up to the Peaks, and so this is well timed for me, even though The Green Knight has been much delayed, at last we get to see the new film.

It presents a game of colours and shadows that intrigues, delights (for the most part) and challenges: the costumes were fantasy-wonderful – the peculiar crown was a particular favourite of mine. The scenery was mostly well researched: if the forests were a bit Forestry Commission, the high moors looked wonderfully bleak – was that actually Thor’s cave in one scene? Maybe it was an odd way to get from St Winifrede’s Well to Lud’s Church, but in Oxford we get used to scenes of people crossing one quad into an entirely different college. Loads of fog, and silhouettes of the lost traveller while crows caw and perspectives shift. The Green Chapel – over-lush for Christmas, but teeming with a Spring promise of greenery – was everything one might imagine of Lud’s Church painted in mythic colours. While it is a retelling rather than a cinema version of the poem (but yes, there is a very quick flash of the MS at one point) it maintains much of the tension and the ambiguity, and sticks with one of the poem’s principal dilemmas: how does Gawain prove himself when he is so out of his depth? Yes, I did like it.

But there are holes in the film – some deliberate (unless I missed it, we are not given many names other than Gawain and his girlfriend: is this all in Gawain’s head, some sort of Mantel-like psychodrama?); some…well, I’m not sure. A lack of reveal about the witchiness of the plot was odd – and although the ‘magic’ of the women was brilliantly portrayed, I was unsure why we were left to infer quite what they were up to, with Gawain’s mother in on it all, and a creepy Morgana an olde auncien wyf for sure, unintroduced, wandering around Castle Bertilak. And are those ettins, the giants that sort of added atmosphere but not much else? And what was the fox there for? What was St Winifred doing there? A sort of nod to a topography of Gawain’s journey, or a quick footnote on the folklore of the headless? Lots of questions – and it won’t be a hard task to sit and watch it again – but did we really need quite such a dim and draughty pile for Camelot?

Ah yes, Camelot. It was a bold move to set distant castles on hilltops, and some times looking rather (let’s be generous) storybook – but once one of us had humphed “It’s only a model,” and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (that excellent parody of Medieval Mud and All imagery) had been mentioned, it took some time to recover.

Recover we did. Bertilak goes off hunting and so does Lady Bertilak, openly sexually assertive towards Gawain, and a sight more explicit than the poem – and she is given the best speech in the whole film, a quick mini-keynote on what the imagery of Green might signify. Then the kiss of Lord Bertilak to Gawain was just long enough, just suggestive enough to make you think that the Bertilaks are well aware of each other’s game. Gawain (well played by Dev Patel from young and lost in his first scene to old and lost in a scene towards the end) is caught between ‘real’ goodness and the fake goodness of simply keeping up the Christian chivalric code. How does this play out?

Bradshaw and I agree on how successful the atmosphere of “shroomy toxicity and inexplicable moral grandeur” is: the second half, with all that wet-dream (or whatever) tension and the might-be visions of eschewing the Green Knight’s blow is a genuine tour de force. I’m going to avoid spoilers – but the end is every bit as ambiguous as the end of the poem, and I have to say completely won me over. It’s only a game, the King tells us – but what kind of a game are we playing?

Little Trees

…and the people who live with them.

I often think about the big beech tree (bottom right and below) by our front gate: its looming presence in wet weather; the leaves in the autumn; the squirrels, pigeons, whitefly… I worry about it in the high winds, and glory in it in the spring. I am also aware of the smaller trees that have come to be part of my life, and am always grateful for the life chances that allow me to go to the allotment and pick apples and damsons (fewer this year, after a surprise, cruel, late frost). And then there are my smallest trees: a bonsai ficus (top left) I bought at a student market and am nursing back to health, the little oak (centre) I have trimmed and wired for a few years, the seedling red oak (bottom left) I found on the allotment this year and didn’t have the heart to hoe up but replanted and brought home.

It’s as if my desire to feel trees as a healing presence is played out in large scale and small.

And then a pair of books come up for me to read, the first simply a chance find in a charity shop from a To Be Read list. Timothée de Fombelle’s Toby Alone and its “sequel” (really part 2), Toby and the Secrets of the Tree. Toby is one and half millimetres tall and his world, at least at the start, is a tree from topmost leaves to where it sinks into the soil. Small people – from Lilliput to Borrowers, from Hobberdy Dick to Hobbits – are nothing new, but de Fombelle is daring in making his characters so small. Daring, too, in then taking the ecosystem of the tree they live in and describing it in terms of landscape.

At the bottom of the Tree, before it comes into contact with the earth, the wood from the Trunk rises up to form high mountain ridges.

Needle rocks, bottomless precipices…the surface of the bark is crumbled, like rippling curtain folds. Moss forests cling to the peaks, trapping snowflakes in winter. the valley passes are blocked by ivy creepers. It makes for a dangerous, impassable terrain.

Timothée de Fombelle: Toby and the Secrets of the Tree Ch 3: Someone Returns
The Crater from Toby Alone, illus François Place

It is the scale that boggles the mind. The Tree is at once a massive entity and a vulnerable one, a stage on which the cleverly Dickensian drama of lost children and choices based on mistakes, and a body around which a drama unfolds like a hospital soap opera. The smallness of Toby and the rest of the Tree and Grass people allows this to be played out wonderfully clearly. The technology of living a (sort of) human life at the scale de Fombelle describes is passed over in many places, made much of elsewhere: the terrifying soldier ants and destructive weevils underline the issue of scale; cigarettes, prison door keys, carts, boots are accepted parts of this society. The author works hard to make these transitions unobtrusive. Essentially this is a meditation on power and corruption and ecocide and resistance: a competent political thriller and romance but very much in miniscule. So is the setting on a tree merely a backdrop?

Toby’s tree is a presence as much as a setting, and its fate is the matter of both books. Ruthless, populist entrepreneur Mitch digs sordid housing projects at the cost of the Tree’s health – and therefore at the cost of the society he is claiming to protect. Toby’s father is a marginalised and then persecuted scientist intent on protecting his world by exposing what’s going on (I am reminded of the HS2 project as I read Toby’s adventures, but then think that Toby’s Tree is just one; we have seen woodland after woodland, thousands of trees cut down – the emotive word is wilfully, and tonight it seems right). Friendship, loyalty, rivalry and love – these may be the strands which move the story along, but the politics of violence are violence not only to the people who live on and at the foot of the Tree but also to the Tree itself: ecocide as a sort of suicide.

I am therefore reminded of the protestors’ occupation of the massive tree in Powers’ The Overstory:

He has seen monster trees for weeks, but never one like this. Mimas: wider across than his great-great-great-grandfather’s old farmhouse. Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro to divinity. The tree runs straight up like a chimney butte and neglects to stop. From underneath, it could be Yggdrasil, the World Tree, with its roots in the underworld and crown in the world above.

Richard Powers: The Overstory: Trunk

And there is the connection: The World Tree. The Tree that Toby inhabits in the de Fombelle books is a world, to start with, just the one tree. Ravaged Mimas, the doomed chestnuts, the rewilded back yard with its pine tree,the Brazilian forest where all is fringe and braid and pleat, scales and spines are diverse but more interconnected in The Overstory, although it takes tree-years for the humans to grasp this, and then only some of them, and even then only imperfectly.

With that connection comes an answer to the riddle of scale: De Fombelle’s millimetre-high hero is related to his environment in much the same scale as the humans in The Overstory are related to the forests, the priestly tulip trees, the baobabs and quiver trees they inhabit or protest over or study. Toby is tiny to us, even tinier to the Tree, in the same way as we are tiny to the ancient forests of the human world – and what De Fombelle allows us to see is one tree in its fragility and complexity and then look up and ask: if that is one tree, what then is a forest? What mission might we be on, if Toby’s adventure is to save his Tree? Looking into Toby’s world is like contemplating the sudden shift in focus with a camera: new ideas come into view, new oportunities to see our place in the world. As Toby’s father Sim claims, Nature is a magician; as my perspective shifts from Toby to the trees in The Overstory and back again, I wonder how often I overlook the magic, that face-to-face intro to divinity.

Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives…

Do you think this world is only an entertainment for you?

Mary Oliver, Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives

The beech (I don’t feel I can call it “my” beech), like Mary Oliver’s Black Walnut

swings through another year

of sun and leaping winds,

of leaves and bounding fruit

and I am all of a sudden, looking at it entirely differently.

Re-reading Narnia

Almost a microblog, this – a notification that my friend Chris Lovegrove (with whom I collaborated on a read-though of the Snow Spider stories: see this example from Chris, and this from me) is giving notice of a read-through, in publication order, of the Chronicles of Narnia, starting in November, under the title Narniathon21. He is incredibly well read and thoughtful: it will be a wonder.

I come back to C S Lewis on my blog fairly often, but not always to Narnia, although the present scambling and unquiet time sends me back to Puddleglum more often than not if I catch the news. Perhaps I need to ponder why I have not come back to Narnia more often or in more depth.

Whatever the answer, I am looking forward to Chris’ look, book by book, at everyone from Lucy to Tirian, from Jadis to Shift, from Calormen to Stable Hill. And maybe confronting my discomfort.

People of the Sea

GOE, and catche a falling starre…Teach me to heare Mermen singing

I think that the first mer-character I really remember was a mer-boy who either rescues Rupert the Bear or who is rescued by the smartly-dressed ursine adventurer. Looking at various stories in which the merboy figures, I can’t say for certain which it was – I remember the putto-like character, the rocky shore, a sea-serpent…. All rather untamed, compared with the donkeys-and-pier seaside I knew in Cleethorpes, but somewhat like bits of Dorset. For me at the time, seaside was not a place of uncanny encounters, but I did recognise that such meetings, on a chilly shore, make for a great read. Katharine Briggs has some good stories of Merrows and seal-people scattered through her books but she does warn that

The mermaids are perhaps of the most ambivalent character. The very sight of them at sea is death to sailors, and it is their habit to decoy people under water, but at times they are benevolent …

K M Briggs: “Forgotten gods and Nature Spirits” in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature.

Human fear of drowning and perhaps a fear of the disruption to a society of a sort of seductive sexuality make the mermaid seem a dangerous creature. Note, however, that Briggs refers here to maids, to dangerous aquatic females – but she is aware, too, of male people of the sea.

While thinking of Mermen, it is worth turning to Walter Map, whose work De Nugis Curialium contains the story of Nicholas Pipe, described as

A true man with no hint of the inhuman in any of his limbs and with no defect in any of his five senses, he had been given, beyond his humanity, the aptitudes of a fish.

Illusions and Resurrections
selected from Walter Map’s De nugis curialium
translated and adapted by M. T. Anderson

but tellingly also less than a human and united with the fishes. (see this edition for all sorts of name-dropping, snarky comments and so on from Walter Map – and occasional folktales and horror stories). It strikes me that what Pipe is, is a creature, like many supernatural creatures, able to move between the accepted world and the unknown. In the book People of the Sea a seal inland worries islanders that it might be something more than a seal. That ambiguity is the stuff of the uncanny.

People of the Sea requires a bit of explanation. I’d seen merpeople in Narnia, read the Little Mermaid with its chilling message about hopeless love, and then was bought David Thomson’s rich and bleak The People of the Sea one Christmas in the early 80s. Here Thomson recounts the classic Selchie Tale of the seal-woman who raises a land family (in this case under duress) before returning to the sea. It’s a haunting tale that gets a beautiful modern retelling in the film Song of the Sea (Trailer here), and a different exploration around sibling bereavement in Brahmachari and Ray’s Corey’s Rock. (NB, I have explored Corey’s Rock before: link here). There are versions of Selchie tales of all sorts, told in almost orientalised contexts in David Thomson’s book, attesting to the power of these ambiguous creatures, and relationships between land people and magic sea people – and earthly seals too, hunted with respect but not sentimentality.

And the latest voices and images to attest to that power belong to Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew. Again drowning is a key dramatic element, and the story draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid – or perhaps the Disney version*. No Prince to be rescued here, but a scruffy-but-nice Fisherman called Ernest; no manipulative Sea-Witch, but a jealous ruler, Pelagios, Nen’s father, a gloriously imperious, almost gilded merman straight from an eighteenth-century fireplace.

The characters are “between worlds” (a phrase I picked up from the BBC series on the influence of Irish music and this piece by Michael O’Suilleabhain), like the unicorn Findhorn in Alan Garner’s magnificent and threatening fantasy Elidor (a great blog report here). Findhorn walks in high places and yet meets his end in the lap of a virgin not in a glorious, flowery tapestry but on a demolition site in 60s Manchester. Nen, in sharp contrast, lives in deep places, but finds fulfilment in the gaze of a lonely fisherman on a coast of rocks and cottages, and his father begins to wonder whether the two worlds are as different as he had thought.

Just as I like the way James Mayhew depicts the anguished hauteur of Pelagios – and while I promised not to think of Disney, it does match, if not exceed, the wrath of Triton in The Little Mermaid – the eye contact between the merman Nen and his lonely fisherman Ernest is also charmingly warm. The images stand in opposition to each other. The sighing ocean and the violent waves, are calmed by the merman’s song tender and brimming with courage – and Pelagios’ doubts over the human world abate like the storm, so that Nen and his (a little word but worth noting) fisherman are on a rock laughing and dreaming about the future.

It is here that the despair of Andersen is passed over, and the subtexts of abuse and grief from the Selchie stories of the Gaelic islands are rewritten. More tales could be told – maybe should be told – about Nen and Ernest as they grow and share their lives. We are not in the world of the uncanny – or with John Donne in the world of fantastic improbability as in the headquote – but in a world of acceptance.

*[And as an aside, I have to say that, tempting though it might be to read this (and write about Ian and James’ book) as a queering of Disney, I’m largely going to leave Uncle Walt to others.]

Waking Early

There is, of course, the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, praising the chance warming of the earth by the sun that I cited in the post Texts for Difficult Times: to ease us with warm touching,/ to hold us in the great hands of light… and when I woke at 04:40, (far too) early today I could have wished I’d had learned the poem.

And in the opening scene of Anouilh’s Antigone, the eponymous protagonist almost deceives us into thinking she has just been out exploring the glories of the early dawn:

Dans les champs, c’était tout mouillée, et cela attendait. Tout attendait. Je faisais un bruit énorme toute seule sur la route et j’étais gênée parce que je savais bien que ce n’était pas moi qu’on attendait…

It was cold – sandals, t-shirt, trousers weren’t quite enough. And damp, with mud from the May rains, with dew in the long grass. And oddly noisy. Antigone might have been aware of the noise she made, but I was aware of passing traffic, the waste disposal truck in the Old Road Campus and all the other hums and buzzes the buildings make. And then, in the shadow of the dip towards the brook, the sound of birds and water.

There really are few things as precious as the quiet morning where the running water and the songbirds are an obbligato to the experience. Is this because they signify food and water somewhere deep in my brain? I am struck by the question that looks bigger and bigger the more I look at it: why do we find these things beautiful?

Antigone is right: this wasn’t a show waiting for me to take my seat, and while we might take delight that the happy birds are singing their Te Deums (the reference is first to Mrs Oldknow, but I think Lucy Boston is referring to this Maytime hymn), their cries are for territory, for food, for sex.

Oh, but hang on a minute: does that mean that birds being birds isn’t exactly what they should be doing? And if you see any sort of purpose or numinous element to a dawn chorus, does it need to be imposed on the birds actually supplying the music? Mary Oliver, Gerard Manley Hopkins (maybe) have it right: to glory in these things, simply to see

…all around us

this country

of original fire

Mary Oliver: Humpbacks

On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Binsey Poplars

might involve us using these as image, symbol, metaphor – but the thisness of the birds and the brook really doesn’t need me to be there. Mary Oliver is almost brutal in her version of this message:

…there is still

somewhere deep within you

a beast shouting that the earth

is exactly what it wanted –

each pond with its blazing lilies

is a prayer heard and answered

lavishly,

every morning,

whether or not

you have ever dared to be happy,

whether or not

you have ever dared to pray.

Mary Oliver: Morning Poem

And from a theological standpoint, I can’t impose on the crows, the woodpecker, the thrushes my human-shaped pieties. The Te Deum of a bird is to be a bird. So to end here is Roger Deakin’s account of his own waking early, and hearing the birds around his Suffolk house:

It is actually quite noisy with birdsong here, all concentrated into a mile of hedgerows – full, wide, dense hedges like the ramparts of a castle. A kind of maze of them surrounds the little friend, and the birds love them for making nests. So there is great competition amongst all the birds for space, for a few square yards of territory, and do they sing longer and louder and more lustily… And for a bird the most important aspect of household management is singing. Perching as high up as you can and singing for as long and as hard as you can.

Roger Deakin’s “Notes from Walnut Tree Farm:” May