Excelsior

Exaltabunt omnia ligna silvarum

Then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice

When the Catholic liturgy describes one particular tree – perhaps it needs an upper-case T – it is notable that it is described in very positive terms: fidelis, nobilis, dulce lignum. Faithful, noble, a sweet wood. In the great C6th hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, the cross, Roman instrument of shameful execution, is turned into something of beauty. The shame of imperial Rome, the curse of Deuteronomy, the paradox of Pauline theology are seen in the context of the good thing these pieces of wood have done. The poem Pange lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis Sing, tongue about the the battle, of the glorious struggle places this tree sola digna, the only worthy one, uncomfortably side by side the images of torture. Far enough in time from the grim reality of the cross, Venantius brilliantly uses the repeated dulcis – sweet – to apply to what later writers call the Instruments of the Passion and to the body of Jesus: sweet iron, sweet wood, a sweet burden. The poet is writing in praise of this particular wood as part of the cult of the Holy Cross: crudely put, we might see this as an advert for the cross whose veneration he is proposing.

When Psalm 95 (or 96 in some versions) suggests a primacy for the God presented in the books of the Faiths of the Book, it bursts its banks towards the end, and the poet pictures a world where the heavens and the earth, the field and the woods, are alive with joy. It is part of that same thread of nature poetry that runs through these songs, perhaps too often missed because of the overlying themes of later exegesis. I have discussed this with another psalm here. I sometimes wonder whether we miss a big idea when ignore these great Biblical bursts of exuberant delight in the natural world, although other poets do well with the vision of the warmer days (often a little later than early April) and the trees in blossom, from Sumer is i-cumen in through to the pastoral lute songs and madrigals of the C16th. Time spent cooped up when blood is nipp’d is more or less over: a time to be liberated from close supervision, from chores and obligations is here. I look up from my typing just now at the (of course, wisely still bare) ash tree in the garden and am reminded of Peter Fiennes’s comment:

The ash is one of nature’s friendliest trees – its Latin name Fraxinus excelsior is a shout of joy and wonder.

P Fiennes “A river runs through it” in Oak and Ash and Thorn

A chill, bright day in Shotover on Easter Monday echoed that and shout – and if the ash is not yet up to budburst, many of the other trees of the wood are awake and rejoicing. Where I had been sitting on my birthday in February is beginning to dapple with light coming through honeysuckle and hazel; cherry and blackthorn are shining with new blossom. The sky is a clear blue. April, chill but bright, is here.

Water

Scallywag Press have sent me some intriguing titles to look through and maybe write about, and I will, in various fora. But this is is spring, varying in its weather; and Lent (as I write this), full of its water imagery: Antionette Portis’ Hey Water seems a good place to start. After all, here in Oxford we have had water-butt-filling rainstorms, dry days so warm as to encourage t-shirts to be discarded… and the end of March, that month that for me is encapsulated in Jobim’s watery theme song: the Waters of March is a wonderful, chaotic evocation of bringing spring rain and floods which “carry sticks, stones, bits of glass, and almost everything and anything” (Wikipedia actually being lyrical for once). And this brings me to the various images and descriptions of water in Portis.

With a picturebook like this it is sometimes easy to fall into the line of describing it as “deceptively simple.” After all, this isn’t the disturbing, rich imagery of Maurice Sendak in Dear Milli or Outside Over There or the detail of a busy page of detail in any one of a hundred beatiful books – say, Castagnoli and Cneut’s The Golden Cage .

Simplicity is not always easily achieved; it requires as much dedication as complexity if it is to succeed. Design is crucial (see Mat Tobin here on another watery glory, The Tale of the Whale ). Portis really has one thing absolutely, beauitfully in her control, and that is balance. What might have been a duller “Look at this – now look at that” has a richness about it that comes from the varying colours and from the ways in which water floods some pages and is minimal in others. “Tear” exemplifies this perfectly: a line of text, a closed eye and a grey, translucent tear has a huge impact where one might have been tempted by all sorts o of distracting commentary. It is followed in the same opening by rain (see above), maybe the wettest page in the book – and my photo here hints, I hope, at this strophe/antistrophe that Portis handles so well.

We see water as snowflakes, fancier than lace, fog hiding the world, steam, clouds… the ubiquity of water is shown through all sorts of forms in which a reader might encounter it or might have seen it in other books. Each opening invites a very basic appreciation of the visual power, and the text skips alomg with it. The illustrations and text are – until the coda of more instructive material at then end – in a dance of images, spare and generous, and text, beautifully plain. All sorts of ways of looking at water are presented – again, like The Waters of March, there is a flow of all sorts of ideas here, all presented with a refreshing simplicity.

But this is not “deceptively simple” in some tricky way that invites us to look here and there for clues, but just that one thing: simple. In reading it now I am reminded of St Francis too, and his portrayal of “Sister Water…”

…la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

…who is very useful, humble, precious and chaste.

Canticle of the Creatures

The direct and simple style of Antionette Portis is perfect here for that most varied – and yet most simple – of the building-blocks of life of earth.

An Earlier Life

Jim Crumley’s The Great Wood is full of rich phrases, odd corners of words, just like an established woodland where patches of light fall, water glints, brambles trip. He writes about the symbolic harmony of pine and granite and the space between them, of the bold flourishing of a pine marten fronting up against a human. He describes how your gaze snags wide-eyed on the first trees. He writes of the over-cooked and over-seasoned broth of Victorian invention that too many people swallowed whole. His writing is an enviable marvel.

So it was odd to find a very everyday image so striking tonight.

I had a spell in what now feels like an earlier life…

The Great Wood, ch 5: Sunart

And it has set me thinking (as ever) about reading landscape and reading books as an adult and as a child.

First day at school; Communion; puberty; sex; University; love; marriage, parenthood: all the thresholds. And now in my sixties I look back and think with regret or shame or a grin or a wry smile about them all. And reading: ah yes: I look back and think about Fudge and Speck; Pookie; Orlando; Narnia; King and Sutcliff and Tolkien and Lewis for grown-ups: I’ve written about my own “reading journey” before, and how I have to think consciously of myself as a reader of what we might call ‘children’s books:’ am I now a reader or simply a critic? And how does that play out when I think about my other interest, the landscape of these stories?

Let’s take Shotover, the hill to the east of Oxford where I have been walking recently. I’ve seen a historical angle in tracing the arrival of John Wesley in Oxford in 1720; he will have come over Shotover and past the place that would become my house. It also has moments of other histories: Roman pottery for example, an intersection with a Roman road – and a way to walk for whoever in even earlier times carved out the sunken lane that descends to Wheatley. Maybe Ethelred hunted here; maybe Frideswide or Matilda travelled this way (if not along the Thames). Old Road is an Old Road on either side of the hill.

There was time when I didn’t know Shotover, and I remember my first visit with Stephen and Gerry in maybe 1977 – but I cannot remember a time when such places didn’t hold some power for me. Even way back, in Harrogate, woods and crags, oblique sunlight through pine trees. Then Badbury Rings in Dorset, with the wood where the hillfort enclosed it. Then the huge trees and their green light in Epping Forest where I played my recorder and I swear that a cuckoo answered. Then the Pennines and the little shaws in the hidden cloughs. They are particular places and particular times. There is, when a new place is visited – or (and this is important) when a place is visited with a new eye – a sense of a threshold crossed, an earlier time and a now. The first view of the caldera in Santorini; the sun rising as I sat on the sand in Boggle Hole; the first sight of a face in the rock at Ludchurch. I suppose all I’m saying is that there are places that have the potential to be thresholds to cross, and for me these might also be places of awe and wonder: thin places – or thresholds to the numinous. Cross over into the wood, pass out onto the moor and who knows where you’ll be?

By the very way we describe those significant moments, we acknowledge that place can be the site of a peak experience: Moses’ encounter with the burning bush would be one, now represented in the monastery of St Catherine; Christianity is full of them, from Tabor, the Mountain of the Transfiguration to sites of apparitions such as Knock or the tombs of saints such as Vezelay and if I start from my own traditions here, that is not to deny the call of pilgrimage in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism… People come with expectations fuelled by stories of previous experiences or of the fame of the people buried at the spot. These visits are grand events, full of expectation and ritual. It is as if the expectation of a peak religious or spiritual experience is taught, explained, made important by the story, built up to by the publicity and the journey.

The story is part of the journey; the explanation of the story is part of the experience. This is another threshold: between exegesis and eisegesis; what you take out, what you put in. When as an undergraduate I studied Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing I was warned beforehand to read them as spiritual texts before I started on them as academic source material. Even at its crudest, it is not bad advice for anyone who thinks they might be coming up to a threshold: acknowledge what you bring to the act of interpretation. It can be books, it could be a place, and I contend that who I am as a reader or walker allows me to depend on both places I have been before and books I have read. At our last visit to Uffington this time last year my friend Mat and I brought books and a sense of awe. It was a wonderful day, and remembering it has sustained me through the gloomier parts of this year – but I come back to Jim Crumley’s over-cooked and over-seasoned broth: look for the peak experience in landscape and you may not find it; go out simply (never merely) attentive and open-hearted and maybe there is a threshold to cross.

So there was time when I didn’t know Uffington. The fact that this post commemorates my last visit there, just before lockdown was imposed (another earlier life), is a sign of how important this place has become. When Rosemary Sutcliff describes the place in Sun Horse Moon Horse, her vivid description makes her hero Lubrin, I have suggested previously, the stuff of legend. Is it possible that this descriptive power also creates a threshold? Or maybe that the narrative itself is the threshold, into a place full of significance, full of a possibility of transcendence?

The very sky no longer high

Comes down within the reach of all.

John Betjeman: Uffington (The Best of Betjeman, p110)

So does this turn out to be more about terminology than anything? Is a thin place a threshold? Or is a thin place a threshold on which we linger, waiting to be invited or drawn in? Peak experiences are often ones that come at me sideways: Malham Cove was amazing, but I was readied for it by doing a geology component of my geography class at school; I was not at all prepared for the waterfalls at Ystradfellte. But even there, on my weekend training in Forest School, I brought waterfalls from other visits (Janet’s Foss, while I remember Malham; the waterfall in Lewis’ The Last Battle). Where does the wonder come from? Does it, in some paradoxical way, require you to be prepared for the encounter you didn’t look for?

Jim Crumley again:

If you walk the Gleann Einich track from Coylmbridge you are immersed almost at once in a depth of trees such as you will not encounter anywhere else in Scotland – trees to darken a sunny day…

An atmosphere of trees bears down. You look left and right and at first all that happens is that the forest moves past you, tree by tree by tree by tree. You hear your own feet, your own breathing, and these move to to the rhythm of the pibroch in your head.

A foot stamps.

You startle, whirl towards the sound, freeze.

The Great Wood, ch 8; Rothiemurchus

Jim stands looking at – and being observed – by a Roe Deer. This mutual gaze, as powerful as Rob Cowan‘s encounter in Common Ground, differs in the insight gained:

She was trying to tell you something about the worth of stillness in the company of nature, in the company of trees.

Ibid

Stillness, a encounter with nature. Looked for and not looked for.

I

held my breath

as we do

sometimes

to stop time

when something wonderful

has touched us.

Mary Oliver: Snow Geese

I walk into a wood, a known wood if I’m thinking about Shotover, and find something else to discover. I look at the overgrown coppice in Brasenose Wood and I can think of the words of Oliver Rackham about light and seasons and underwood, or the mycelial insights of Merlin Sheldrake, but something else remains. Quiet. Attention. Wonder. I am not just a critic: I drink in the not-quite-there leaves of early spring, and the sound of running water, the possible thickets to explore and the paths I have not walked, when something wonderful has touched us.

Worms

It might be that at some point I write about worms as mythic beasts, maybe dragons, or the pull of the Lambton legend, or its folkloric influences, or (as I have before) about Mayne’s retelling. This is not that post; this is a brief reflection on worms on my allotment.

Thanks to a colleague of Maggie’s we have some generous piles of muck ripening on the plot. Turn but a spade and start a wriggling congregation of worms, working away in the wet bins this poo is in, and from time to time I move some manure (and worms) into the compost bins or to round the rhubarb or the fruit trees, or wherever. It feels good to help the soil and the plants along, and the worms do their bit, eating their decaying organic surrounding (and by the way, this isn’t an advice piece on wormeries: check out the RHS or someone) and helping turn rather odd claggy and sandy soil into the stuff that gives us pumpkins and potatoes,

And there I have it: helping. I have phrased this in such a way as to making these co-habitants appear to be working with us to produce something for our consumption – yet really I am using the same material they are, and profiting from their industry.

This isn’t a plea for a kind of extreme pro-animal gardening in which I avoid using any animals’ processes to better my plot, my enjoyment, my diet. I am aware, with the poet Anne Stevenson that lost to the angels, it appears/We share with rats and fleas a murky source. Acknowledging this, I find worms fascinating in what they do and how they live (look at this for guidance in schools, again from RHS, or this, from the Earthworm Society of Britain) yet as I dug, and spread, and mixed I did wonder: if it freezes tonight will I have harmed the worms? That writhing pink mass that got distributed to the new rhubarb and the goosegogs: was it some wormy gathering I broke up, a striving for mating, even in some sort a family? And the robin on the plot, and the corvids in the trees – will they profit from my digging at the expense of these worms? At home the chickens will slurp up a worm they find like a child attacks spaghetti.

So I dig and spread. The robin keeps an eye on what it can have when I am gone. The blackbird too is carefully noting what I am up to. The jackdaws (and even the raven, I think) patrol the allotments for what they might have. The worms are our – what? Helpers? Coworkers? Victims?

And if I think that at least my warming compost and sticky middens are a nice place for these creatures, what does that mean? I am not farming them, keeping them there to break up my manure (well, not my manure, but you know what I mean, I hope); they simply arrive in a way that makes me see the plausibility of spontaneous generation, and I am profiting from it, using their consumption to make better compost, to enrich my soil, feed me. Me, me me, mine, mine mine. Maybe it is this framing that shows how lost to the angels I am.

Our plaited genes mean nothing to the spheres;

contingency, not prayer, will plot your course.

Anne Stevenson, To Phoebe (at five months)

I can’t leave it there. Even in a wormy pile of farmyard clearings, there is much more than this. A history of hunter gatherers bettering themselves, of birds pecking and cows shitting: as Hopkins sees it, a rich pattern of everything that is swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim. Anne Stevenson, too, is aware of the to-and-fro of divinity and the secular (in part what Andrew Wright, in moving towards a definition of spirituality calls the mind-matter dualism that shapes our struggle for meaning) and brings it out wonderfully:

The sea is dark

by virtue of its white lips;

the gannets, white,

by virtue of their dark wings.

Gannet into sea.

Cross the white bolt

with the dark bride.

Act of your name, Lord,

though it does not appear so

to you in the speared fish.

Anne Stevenson: Gannets Diving

When blood is nipp’d

Shotover, and a birthday walk.

I took with me one of the books I was given as a present: Qing Li’s Into the Forest, (pictured above, left). This is a well-produced and scholarly look at Shinrin-Yoku, Forest Bathing – and this blog post is, in part, a response to the book and the practices it affirms. Qing Li is an epidemiologist in Japan, and the book is at once a toe-in-the-water popular account of the research, and a “how-to” guide to a practice of which Dr Li is a major proponent. Oh yes, in the West it’s a fad perhaps, and, at its lightest, simply a wish-list of mindfulness practices in nice places, but its underlying messages are worth consideration – the kind of thing I clumsily contemplated back in 2018. For example, here (p121) are Qing Li’s proposals for engaging the senses:

  • Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees
  • Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches
  • Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural therapy of phytoncides
  • Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths
  • Place your hands on the trunk of the tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground
  • Drink in the flavour of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness

And here I was on my birthday with a walking pole – a bare, stout stick – in a sunny, chilly local wood. A raven kronks and kaarks overhead. I sit by a brook and watch a robin. A muntjac comes up to me and then, suddenly spooked, disappears into the bushes and bracken. What did I go out into the wilderness to see?

I didn’t go out to see the beautiful photography that genuinely enriches this book (so much so that I sent it to my rather immobile and certainly locked-down dad). I know Shotover, I know Oxfordshire in winter when blood is nipp’d and ways be foul; this is not the hinoki tree, or the Sagano bamboo forest in the book – or the massive stands of bamboo we met while in Montpellier on holiday. This isn’t a criticism of the book, which has, I know, to have a wider appeal that just to me – but its gorgeous photographs of forests and leaves and sky make me wonder about the woodlands we have access to here in southern England in winter.

Connection to people may well be part of the human condition, and certainly forms part of what I would think of as my own experience of spirituality (I look back at this post and see how it is crammed with names) but on my birthday I spent time alone, not fretting over tasks to be done, or mooning over missed friends or thinking of crass mistakes and mishaps of the past. It was as if my present to myself, or maybe my present from Maggie (who gave me the Into the Forest book) was an opportunity to look over the shoulders of these concerns. I’m aware of the human activity around me, aware of what human activity there has been in the past, but today it’s about hearing the leaves. It’s not even remotely transcendent: it’s just leaves and robins.

As Qing Li puts it,

The sounds of the forest soothe our frazzled heads, lift us out of mental fatigue and give us the silence in which to think… In the forest we can let our ears be captured by the sounds of the natural world and have our senses refreshed and rejuvenated.

Into the Forest, p166.

Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is worth citing here, both from the 1989 book The Experience of Nature she and Steven Kaplan wrote, and from other writers looking at their work such as this readable little introduction. I explored it here in a blog post just as my last year at Brookes was coming to a close. To relieve the overburdening experiences of desk bound, urban life, “mental fatigue,” she recommends being engrossed in the environment, purposeful exploration and a real sense of “being away.” It is remarkably similar to the Japanese movement – but again, can we truly escape in suburban Britain? The wood I was in, Brasenose Wood, at the foot of Shotover, has a constant thrum of traffic from the Oxford ring road, and although it is possible to screen it out, doing so is an extra task.

The trees were so grey it made the greens of mosses stand out as if they were lit from within; the sky, when it is blue, is likewise full of light, and on my birthday, it was like Inchbold’s Study in March. As the recent snow melted the trickles were everywhere. At my first stop, I listened under the traffic burr to the water, the robins, a kite high up in the sky. The increased quiet as I went further up and further in (the reference is to C S Lewis) was obvious. The high trees moved and rattled in the wind. On Shotover I am not away in a wilderness miles wide, but making the Edgelands a place where at least some of this escape is possible.

Coracoid processes

Some thoughts on my Christmas reading

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

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

A Shadow Above, Ch 2: Bird of Omen

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

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

The Abundance, One Foot in Virginia’s Roanoke Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ch 4, Speaking with Ravens

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

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

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

Ch 8 A Night in a Raven Roost

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

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

Annie Dillard, The Abundance, Paganism

A Christmas Star?

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

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

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

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

C S Lewis: Prince Caspian Ch 4

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

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

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

C S Lewis The Silver Chair, ch 12

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

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

Hear the Leaves

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

UKLeG The Finder, Tales from Earthsea

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

Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle puts it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porteous Ch IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R0bert Holdstock, Mythago Wood, Part Two: 9.

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

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

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

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

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

Penelope Lively, Astercote, Ch 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ursula K Le Guin, Tales from Earthsea, Dragonfly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Monbiot: Feral: p169

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

Family, Friendship and Loss

‘There is no family any longer.’

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

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

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

Tove Jansson: Moominvalley in November: ‘Snufkin.’

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

And Snufkin forgot about Moomintroll as easily as that.

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

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

Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll

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

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

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

‘Are you crying?’ asked Bob.

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

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

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

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

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November, ch 11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

No More Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah you dragons,” Tenar said.

It was spoken lightly but it was not lightly said…

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

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

Le Guin: The Other Wind.

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

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

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

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