Sunday, 27 June 2010

Other Worlds (2 ) - Modern writers

Earthsea, Narnia, Middle Earth – the three classic fantasy worlds I talked about last week – are distinctive places. Most children – most people you meet – have a pretty clear picture of at least the last two, and even if they haven’t read the books, will certainly have heard of them. I venture to suggest, as a thought experiment, that if you were dropped at random into one of these worlds you would soon be able to guess which one it was.

There has been a lot of fantasy written since these worlds were created, but not much that competes with them in iconic status and recognisability. Try thinking of names of other worlds, and “Discworld” is the only one that springs readily to my mind. At the border where fantasy and science fiction blur, there may be others – but what in fact are modern writers doing with fantasy worlds? Is sub-creation, as Lewis called it, their primary concern?

Here follows a roundup of some of the ‘other worlds’ I myself have encountered in children’s and YA fiction. I’d be interested to hear of others.

First of all, there are the other worlds which are a slightly different version of our own. An obvious example is Joan Aiken’s wonderful alternative Georgian England – not Georgian at all, of course, because the Stuart kings are still in power, and instead of Bonnie Prince Charlie, we have ‘Bonnie Prince Georgie’ and a whole series of wonderfully bizarre Hanoverian plots to bump off the reigning monarch and put him on the throne. We know we are not going to get historical accuracy, so we play a happy game of follow-my-leader through the wildest places. Pink whales (“Night Birds on Nantucket”), a sinister overweight fairy queen in a South American Welsh colony (“The Stolen Lake”), a plot to roll St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames in the midst of a royal coronation (“The Cuckoo Tree”), foiled by tent-pegging it down from the back of a galloping elephant… That one initial twist, parting her fantasy world from history, gave Aiken permission to let her imagination loose. And her imagination was powerful, joyous, puckish. Her books are always full of energy, but they can also be eerie, sad. It’s a long walk in the dark/on the blind side of the moon, a character sings in one of her short stories; and it’s a long day without water/when the river’s gone…

Diana Wynne Jones followed Aiken’s lead: many of her books are set in alternative universes that closely parallel our own except for one crucial difference: the existence of magic. Indeed, she goes so far as to suggest that the absence of magic in this world is something of an aberration. Each world diverges from the next in its ‘series’ because of a different outcome to some historical event – Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo, for example. Since every author is inspired by others, it wouldn’t be surprising if this had been suggested by Aiken’s books. And the ‘In-Between Place’ in ‘The Lives of Christopher Chant’ owes something in concept, though not in presentation, to Lewis’s ‘Wood Between the Worlds’ in “The Magician’s Nephew”: a neutral, mediumistic jumping-off ground between universes. Again, the main advantage of escaping the confines of our own world and its history is to allow Wynne Jones’ imagination free range, and perhaps also to enable us to consider our own world from an outsider’s point of view. (Handled interestingly in ‘Power of Three’ where the threatening Giants turn out to be, well, us.)

Fascinating, fun, and sometimes thought-provoking though these books are, they are not – and were never intended to be – creations of fantasy worlds in the classic sense. But they share a purpose with the next one I’m coming to: Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’.

Discworld has grown enormously over the series. It began – in “The Colour of Magic” as a spoof, a comic take on sword-and-sorcery novels, with characters like the incompetent wizard Rincewind and the warrior Cohen the Barbarian. It was brilliant comedy, spot on the mark. But Pratchett was too good a writer to remain content with such an easy target. The books rapidly deepened and became more serious of purpose (though still extremely entertaining). Discworld fits the criteria for an instantly recognisable, self-contained imaginary world. It is carried through space by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle. It has a consistent geography, with its central mountain range at the Hub, the Ramtops, the city of Ankh-Morpork, the cabbage fields of Sto Lat; its directions (hubwards and rimwards rather than north and south ). There is nowhere quite like it... except that nearly everything in it is a deliberate borrowing from our own Earth, viewed through a slightly distorting fantasy lens that paradoxically allows us to see it rather more clearly. I don’t know of a more passionate advocate than Pratchett for racial and sexual equality. We might be reading about dwarves and trolls, but we’re not fooled. When Commander Vimes employs trolls, werewolves, dwarves, zombies and vampires in the City Watch, it’s not because they all live together in Ankh Morpork like one big happy family. Read ‘Feet of Clay’; read ‘Equal Rites’. Discworld, like the worlds of Aiken and Wynne Jones, sets Pratchett free to say exactly what he wants in a way quite different but not less seriously intended than so-called ‘realistic’ fiction.

But does fantasy have to have a ‘message’? Can’t it just be for entertainment? I wouldn’t like to pronounce on that, but I do think that it has to have a purpose: you have to know why you are writing fantasy and whether, as C.S.Lewis said about children’s fiction, it’s the ‘best medium’ for what you want to say. The charge of ‘escapism’ so often levelled against fantasy, implies that reading and writing fantasy is a frivolous occupation. Even if that were true, I see no reason why it should be disapproved. Plenty of human occupations are frivolous, yet no one objects: popular music, days on the beach, fashion, eating out, good food and wine. Yet many of us who love fantasy feel there is something more to it than this, that at its best it can provide something essential to the spirit. Escape, as either Lewis or Tolkien pointed out, is judged according to what it is you are escaping from. If reading fantasy impairs us for real life, that would be bad, but it’s by no means proven.

Many children and teenagers develop their own private fantasy worlds – perhaps because it’s healthy to stretch the imagination? I had one of my own. Once upon a time I was the imaginary leader of the red horses of the sunset clouds... my name: ‘Red-Gold’. My friend was the leader of the white summer clouds (‘Cloud’); our adversary, the black horses of the thunder. It was obvious enough (and of course I was horse mad), but it gave me a lot of pleasure and sent me off to sleep composing adventures. To give you a feel for the intensity of the thing, here’s a prose poem I wrote when I was twelve:

And out of the mist come horses galloping, born of the wind with wings like to it, dancing and running, plunging through the cool air, out of the golden, out of the glory, straight from the sun as it shines through the mist: dazzling, glorious, horses of the morning, horses of the sunrise, horses of the dawning, shining horses of the steel-blue sky. 

Can’t see it did me any harm at all. But here are three interesting books which study the effects of fantasy worlds built by young people, and ask what purposes they serve for good and for harm.

The first and earliest is ‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest, published in 1961, part of her series of novels/school stories about the Marlow family which began with ‘Autumn Term’(1948). Forest was a writer who transcended genre, and her well-characterised, insightful stories (now reprinted by Girls Gone By) are well worth attention. In this one, set during the Christmas holidays, the younger Marlows and their friend Patrick begin using an old stable loft (‘Peter’s room’) as their daily meeting-place. Inspired by the Brontë sisters’ Angria and Gondal, they pass the time by inventing an imaginary world with themselves as characters – role-playing, if you like. Gradually, their fantasy characters begin to exert influence on their real lives. It nearly ends in disaster...

Forest was writing with unusual foresight about the seductive power of role-playing (think of Second Life) – but also, the book is about the creative process – the way characters develop lives of their own and often take their authors and creators in unexpected directions. When Patrick’s ‘avatar’ – the heroic sounding ‘Rupert Almeda’ evolves into a traitor and coward, it throws Patrick himself into existential doubt. Is he really Rupert? Who is he? Forest is in no doubt that the process can be extremely dangerous. The reader doesn’t have to follow her all the way, though. It could be argued that role-playing is (usually) a safe way of exploring the possibilities of individuals and relationships. Just so long as it doesn’t take over…

A more playful but no less thoughtful exploration of the subject is Jan Mark’s “They Do Things Differently There” (1994) in which two bored and lonely teenage girls living in a very ordinary new town called Compton Rosehay, form a friendship by inventing an utterly bizarre alternative neighbourhood called ‘Stalemate’. Local landmarks become ‘Lord Tod’s Corpse Depository’ and ‘The Mermaid Factory:

“There is a mermaid factory?”
“You know that big iron barn place at the end of Old Compton Street, just opposite the bus stop at the end of the slip road.”
“Where it says O GLEE...?”
“That’s the place.”
“It’s got petrol pumps outside; I think it used to be a garage.”
“You may think so,” said Elaine, “but remember, here in Stalemate what you see is not necessarily what is there. Earth’s fabric hath worn thin. The real Stalemate is all about us, but we only get occasional glimpses of it. You’ll just have to take it on trust. It’s a mermaid factory.”

In this book, the fantasy world the girls create is the basis of the friendship between them. The book’s a celebration of the delights of invention and imagination, and of the joy of finding someone else with the same sense of humour. In the end, though, as the name suggests, you cannot stay in Stalemate. You have to move on.

The most recent book I know which looks at this subject is “The Traitor Game” (2008) by B.R.Collins. Michael and Francis share an imaginary world called Evgard, involved in bitter civil war, with a city called Arcaster. Michael invented it, and it’s been a refuge from the bullying he endured at his last school. Now Francis has been allowed in.

There was only one other person who knew where Arcaster was; who even knew it existed: Francis. It was as secret, more secret, than a love affair or a drug habit...
And sometimes… when they worked on something together, and ... when both of them were talking about Evgard, arguing, joking, pushing at each other for ideas, Michael felt like he could stretch out his hand and nearly, nearly feel the world of Evgard beyond the real one... He’d catch Francis’s eye when he looked up from his drawing, or hear him say, ‘No, but no, you couldn’t get from Than’s Lynn to Arcaster in two days, it’s winter, you’d have to go the long way round, via Gandet and Hyps,’ and suddenly he’d want to grin like an idiot. It was crazy, they were fifteen, for God’s sake, it wasn’t like they were kids, but here they were inventing a country.

So when Michael believes Francis has betrayed him, his emotions are catastrophic; and the betrayal occurs in Evgard too. This is a dark unflinching book which delves deep into jealousy, cruelty, anger and fear.

All three of these very different books are powerful explorations of friendship and selfhood, and the dark as well as the joyful side of the impulse to create.

And so we move on to wholly self-contained invented worlds. (I’m still excluding Elfland, which seems to me a different kettle of fish, and I’ll explain why some other time.) Some have been created for the sheer delight of experiencing something fantastical and other: but in the best fantasy that is never the be-all and end-all. They still have something to say. Katherine Roberts’ Echorium Sequence is a good example:  it reminds me of the Earthsea books.In the first volume, "Song Quest":

The day everything changed, Singer Graia took Rialle’s class down the Five Thousand Steps to the west beach. They followed her eagerly enough. A Mainlander ship had broken up on the reef in the recent storms, and the Final Years were being allowed out of the Echorium to search for pieces of the wreck.

Already the reader has picked up hints of reservations about the culture which treats a shipwreck as an excuse for a class outing. The task of the Singers on the Island of Echoes is to spread healing and harmony; they are the diplomats of their world, and are able to talk with the Half-Creatures, such as the Merlee who live in the sea and are trawled for by sailors who sell their eggs as delicacies. The boy, Kherron running away and picked up by fishermen, is told:

“You wait right over there with your bucket. When we draw them in, there’ll be lots of wailing and shrieking. Don’t you take no notice. Soon as we toss you one of the fish people, you get right in there with your knife. No need to wait for ‘em to die first. They ain’t got no feelings like we humans do. Got that?”

Kherron does – but soon:

Soon he was surrounded by flapping rainbow tails, coils of silver hair tangled in seaweed, gaping mouths and gills, reaching hands, wet pleading eyes – and those terrible, terrible songs.
“Help us,” they seemed to say.
He shook his head. “I can’t help you,” he whispered... [He] watched his hand fumble in a pool of green slime and closed on the dagger. He began to hum softly. Challa, shh, Challa makes you dream...
The creatures’ struggles grew less violent. One by one their arms and tails flopped to the deck, and their luminous eyes closed. Kherron opened their guts as swiftly as her could and scooped out handfuls of their unborn children. It helped if he didn’t look at their faces. That way he could pretend they were just fish.

This is strong stuff, and Roberts is clearly interested in the differences between a superficial adherence to peace and harmony – the soothing songs of the Singers, the diplomatic missions – and the blood and guts reality that it may not be possible even literally to keep your hands clean. Colourful adventures in imaginary places don’t have to be anodyne: even heroes and heroines may do some very bad things. But in YA fiction, the learning process is usually what counts, and hope is never forgotten.

John Dickinson’s fantasy trilogy – beginning with ‘The Cup of the World’ (2004) – is a more downbeat series. It’s set in a claustrophobic medieval-style kingdom, in a world pictured as held in a vast cup and circled by a snake or cosmic serpent. All of the characters are flawed: civil war is rife, and the main characters are themselves descendants of invaders from over the sea. Long ago, their ancestor Wulfram led his sons against the indigenous hill-people, whose goddess Beyah still weeps for the death of her son. It’s an intricate story which no brief summary can do justice: but the narrative is dark and fatalistic, with a gloom bordering at times on pessimism. This trilogy is a great corrective to the notion that fantasy is all about crude oppositions of good and bad, white and black. The main characters’ best intentions can lead to disaster, and often their intentions are selfish anyway. The descriptions of the world are lovingly detailed and rich, the writing is beautiful, and these are books I greatly admire. They are well worth reading – but not if you happen to be feeling low.

Last, and most recent, Patrick Ness’s trilogy “Chaos Walking” is set on another planet. I haven’t really had time to discuss science fiction, and the border between sci-fi and fantasy is blurred at best. Is this a fantasy trilogy? Why not? There is no reason other than convention why a fantasy world has to be (a) medieval and (b) in some other dimension. The books ask: is there ever an excuse for violence? And there isn’t a clear answer: Todd, the adolescent main character, has a good heart and wants to do the right thing. But, the books ask, how do you know what the right thing is? Can you trust your own judgement? Are people what they seem? Can even first love – the most intense of experiences – sometimes be a selfish excuse for doing harm to others? Like Katherine Roberts’ Kherron, like Antonia Forest’s Patrick, Todd learns that you can’t always keep your hands clean.

I enjoyed “Chaos Walking” immensely, but began to feel towards the end that I could have done with just a little less non-stop, breathless action, and a little more world-building. This is a trilogy which takes the moral choice to the level of a sixty-a-day habit. I loved the first book the best, maybe because there was more leisure to examine Todd and Viola’s (and Manchee’s) surroundings:

The main bunch of apple trees are a little ways into the swamp, down a few paths and over a fallen log that Manchee always needs help to get over…
The leap over the log is where the dark of the swamp really starts and the first thing you see are the old Spackle buildings, leaning out towards you from shadow, looking like melting blobs of tan-coloured ice cream except hut-sized. No one knows or can remember what they were ever s’posed to be…
… I start walking all slow-like up to the biggest of the melty ice-cream scoops. I stay outta the way of anything that might be looking out the little bendy triangle doorway… and look inside.

There are so many other books with fantasy worlds – Susan Cooper’s “Seaward”; Jan Mark’s “The Ennead” and “Riding Tycho”; Sally Prue’s “The Truthsayer” trilogy – but I have run out of space. These titles surely show that modern fantasy writers are still creating all sorts of other worlds for all sorts of different reasons.

So next week I want to go into that a little further. Why do we do it? And what are the pitfalls? When shouldn’t you be writing fantasy?

What’s it all for?

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Other Worlds


This will be the first of two posts about other worlds in children’s and YA fiction – about fantasy worlds; the sort of magical countries many children invent for themselves as refuges and playgrounds for the imagination. In this post I want to discuss the three classic fantasy worlds I entered as a child: in the next, I’d like to take a wander around some of the more recent ones.  (There's no way I can fit them all into one piece.) 


And I’m not talking about Elfland - which is a place no one invented, a place which in spite of its various glamours is always itself and always the same.  I’m talking about complete, self-contained worlds like Middle Earth which seem – in their own terms – solidly real. 
Of course the first such world to come my way was Narnia, a place which shares one characteristic with Elfland, in that it’s possible to get there from here.  I certainly wasn’t the only child to half-believe Narnia might really exist.  I don’t think I peered into wardrobes (though we had several that might have modelled for the one in the picture), but at the age of nine or ten my best friend and I longed terribly to get into Narnia ourselves – to wander through the woods talking to dryads, to sail those magical seas... 
...when they returned aft to the cabin and supper, and saw the whole western sky lit up with an immense crimson sunset, and thought of unknown lands on the Eastern rim of the world, Lucy felt that she was almost too happy to speak.
Lewis believed such longing was a common human experience; for him it suggested the existence of God, and I think he believed at least one of the purposes of art was to create a yearning for something above and beyond this world.   Whether he was right or not, I do know that he was enough of an artist to create a powerful yearning in many of his own readers.  I longed for Narnia at least as much as I longed for a pony of my own; and both desires, at the age of ten, could compare in strength of feeling and emotional highs and lows, with being in love. 


Having gobbled up the last of the Narnia books, I began writing my own.  (It was the next best thing to getting there.)  “Tales of Narnia”, I called it, and filled an old hardbacked exercise book with stories and pictures based on hints Lewis had left in the Seven Chronicles: “The Story of King Gale”, “Queen Camillo”, “The Seven Brothers of Shuddering Wood”, “The Lapsed Bear of Stormness”.  (You can see more of it here.) And I copied out Pauline Baynes’ map of Narnia in loving detail.  There it all was, as if looking down from an eagle’s eyrie:  the indented east coast with Glasswater Creek and Cair Paravel; Archenland to the south; Dancing Lawn and Aslan’s Howe and Lantern Waste in the centre of the map; Harfang and Ettinsmoor to the north.  Looked at in realistic terms, I suppose the map is really pretty sparse, but it didn’t matter.  Narnia isn’t the sort of fantasy world in which one worries about economics, transport, coinage, or supply and demand.  In fact, as soon as any of the characters start thinking in those terms themselves (Miraz, for example, or the governor of the Lone Islands) they get into trouble.  (“We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia,” as Caspian magnificently remarks.)  Narnia self-corrects in that respect: it will allow the existence of a Witch Queen who rules over a century of winter, but it will not permit the existence of taxation and compulsory schooling.  This can hardly be because Lewis disapproved of taxation and compulsory schooling.   It’s because Narnia is a child’s world, and no ideal world for children is going to include anything so dull.
People talk a lot nowadays about the Narnia stories as religious allegories.  They really aren’t.  There is Christian symbolism in the books, but that is not at all the same thing. And it went clean over my head as a child.  Indeed, talking to some teenage Muslim girls lately, I got surprised looks when I mentioned the Christianity in the Narnia stories.  They hadn’t noticed it either; I had to explain why, how Aslan is a parallel to Christ.  I think Lewis, who only came to Christianity through stories, actually minded more about the story than the allegory.  It’s perfectly possible for a child to read “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” under the impression that Aslan is no more and no less than the literal account makes him: a wonderful, golden-maned, heroic Animal. I know, because that’s the way I read it, and that is why I loved him – the Platonic Form of the Lion, if you like, though I couldn’t have put it in those terms.  “The Last Battle”, in which the Christian parallels become more explicit, is far less popular with children, because everything goes wrong, and Narnia ceases to be, and Aslan turns into Someone Else: “And as He spoke, He no longer seemed to them like a lion...”  What?  What?  I didn’t want the new heaven and the new earth and the new, improved Narnia, thank you very much.  I wanted the old one, and Aslan the Lion, and things to go on as they always had. 
After Narnia, then where?  Luckily for us all, there was Middle Earth waiting to be explored.  Aged about nine, I’d paid a brief visit via “The Hobbit” and hadn’t liked the place at all.  I was sensitive to tone, and detected a certain flippancy and condescension in Tolkien’s writing.  Those elves at Rivendell, singing silly songs in the trees: “Oh tra-la-la-lally, come back to the valley,” indeed!  And the grumbling, cowardly, squabbling dwarves weren’t at all the sort of people I liked to be fictionally associated with. (Needless to say, this was a personal reaction, no more.  One of my daughters adored “The Hobbit”, and reading it aloud to her as an adult, I found it more tolerable than I’d remembered…)
I might never have picked up “The Lord of the Rings” if it hadn’t been recommended to me by my maths teacher Miss Parker who found me drawing dragons in the back of my exercise book.  I admired her (she was young, with short curly hair and a cheerful smile), so dutifully sought out “The Fellowship of the Ring” in the school library, and was swept away forever.  Gone was the semi-detached air of facetious patronage I’d disliked in “The Hobbit”:  here was a self-consistent written world that took itself entirely seriously. 
There was no way of getting there from here, no view from the outside.  If Middle Earth is connected with ours at all, it’s far away in the depths of time.  It’s a bigger, more grown-up place than Narnia, and an advantage of the quest theme is that we get to travel through it, solving one of the big problems with fantasy and sci-fi worlds:  Worlds are huge places, and one spot cannot be representative of all.  The length of the book ensures the sense of scale, too: travelling on foot, or at best by boat or on horseback, it takes the characters a realistically long time to get anywhere.  The detail of the journey is part of the pleasure: fantasies in which deserts, ice-caps, jungles and seas flash by at bewildering speed give me motion sickness.
Instead Tolkien loiters and lingers through the woods of the Shire: 
...after a time the trees began to close in again... then deep folds in the ground were discovered unexpectedly, like the ruts of great giant-wheels or wide moats and sunken roads long disused and choked with brambles.  These lay usually right across their line of march, and could only be crossed by scrambling down and out again, which was troublesome and difficult with the ponies. Each time they climbed down they found the hollow filled with thick bushes and matted undergrowth...
This richness of visual, almost tactile detail is what makes the world of “The Lord of The Rings” so particularly actual and real.  You feel you could dig a hole in the ground.  And note how Tolkien uses description to make us feel uneasy: those “sunken roads long disused”, who made them?  When, and for what purpose?  Though we never find out, I’m willing to bet that Tolkien knew, and it is such small touches that build up the sense of Middle Earth as a place with a deep and often unsettling past. 
Is it odd that the things which make a fantasy seem most real are the things borrowed from our own world?  Narnia often seems like a glorified Britain: those sunny woodlands with their ranks of blossoming cherries, those bright coves with their sea-splashed rocks, those dour rocky highlands patched with snow.  Middle Earth is a sort of ur-Europe, with its mountain ranges and plains and forests, all in the temperate zone.  (For some thoughts about Mordor, see my post here.) We hear vaguely of hot southern lands in both fantasies, and neither Lewis nor Tolkien treats the south fairly.  Calormen is an ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasyland, and Lewis avowedly hated the Arabian Nights.   (It’s probably unwise to try writing about something you hate, and no amount of special pleading can quite let him off the hook.  If you doubt this, imagine trying to explain to someone from Turkey or Iran, why this place whose entire idiom and setting is clearly based on an imaginary Baghdad, also includes the worship of Tash and a character like the Tisroc?)  Tolkien’s dark-skinned southerners (“swarthy men in red” with “black plaits of hair” and “brown hands”) from Far Harad are in league with Sauron.  In either case, the south is viewed as a place of delusion and error, of false opinions and false gods.  Though I noticed this as a child, I did not recognise it as prejudice.  Children accept things in books at face value.  This is why it is important to think about what they are being offered.   I certainly noticed – again without any sense of being taught a lesson – that the people in the next fantasy world I visited were all dark-skinned – except for the outlandish and savage Kargs. 
The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked North-east Sea, is a land famous for wizards.
So begins Ursula K LeGuin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, the third in the triumvirate of imaginary worlds I discovered as a child.  The Earthsea books aren’t a polemic.  They are not satire: white readers are not supposed to see themselves in the Kargs, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels.  LeGuin simply upends convention and supposes that for once, the ‘savages’ have white skin and blue eyes.  Here is a strength of fantasy, the chance to see and do things differently: how often is it taken advantage of?  I think writers often discover their own fantasy lands a bit at a time.  LeGuin began the Earthsea books by asking questions about wizards: must they always be old, like Gandalf and Merlin, with long white beards?  Why are they never young?  Gradually these questions led to others.  Why are wizards always male, anyway?  What is it about wisdom, that we always picture it in this male form?  Where do women come into it all?  When, eventually, Ged relinquishes his wizard’s power, he grows in wisdom and humanity. 
Once again there was a map, this time of islands like jigsaw pieces scattered across the sea. The Archipelago, with Havnor in the middle, the East Reach and the Kargad Lands; the West Reach, Pendor, and the Dragon’s Run.  Perhaps even more than in Middle Earth, there was a sense of space: you could take a boat like Lookfar, and sail and sail until you sailed right out of the Archipelago into the Open Sea, and find the colonies of the Raftmen who never come to land; and beyond that, what? 
And beyond that, what?  Because in many ways, the boundary of Earthsea isn’t a physical one at all.  We don’t know whether there are other islands beyond the rim of the horizon, or where the dragons come from.  The true limit of Earthsea is the wall of tumble-down stones that separates us from the land of the dead.  Here is Ged, trying to save a dying child:
Summoning his power all at once and with no thought for himself, he sent his spirit out after the child’s spirit, to bring it back home.  He called the child’s name, “Ioeth!”  ...Then he saw the little boy running fast and far ahead of him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill.  There was no sound.  The stars above the hill were no stars his eyes had ever seen.  Yet he knew the constellations by name: the Sheaf, the Door, the One Who Turns, the Tree.  They were those stars that do not set, that are not paled by the coming of any day.  He had followed the dying child too far.
C.S. Lewis wrote of:  “That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan”, the morning cobwebs in late summer...”
Is it longing?  Or is it more simply a pang of mingled delight and pain: sic transit gloria mundi?  You can cram all things into a book.  There’s a fairytale (which A.S. Byatt retold in “Possession”) about someone who goes underground and discovers a miniaturised enchanted castle under a glass dome.  Fantasy worlds are a bit like that: little bottled universes that we can hold up to the light and use to examine huge questions about life and death and loss and the beauties and cruelties of the world.


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Cultural Appropriation and the White Saviour

I’ve always been a little impatient with fantasy worlds whose inhabitants are so feeble they are unable to sort out their own problems until a small number of English schoolchildren arrives to put everything to rights. The Narnia books are a classic example. In a deliberate reflection of Genesis, C.S. Lewis puts humans (‘Sons of Adam’ and ‘Daughters of Eve’) in charge from the very start. There is no question that dryads or talking animals, intelligent though they are, can rule themselves. In this delightful illustration to 'Prince Caspian' by Pauline Baynes, to the right, we see the animals and dwarfs, giants and fauns waiting and watching while Peter and Miraz - both human - engage in combat for them. The actual running of the country of Narnia is done by humans.

This is a still quite common fictional device, which for the purposes of this post I’m going to call the ‘White Saviour’: when a native population (of whatever provenance) is saved by the intervention of a hero or heroes foreign to it, but with whom the average white Western reader can readily identify. And I was prompted to think beyond this question by the death back in mid-March of the great Australian children’s writer Patricia Wrightson, and consider a related problem which has been simmering away in the back of my head for several years – the question whether it’s ever appropriate for a writer to ‘use’, as fictional material, the myths and legends of a culture to which he or she does not belong.

Since Narnia does not in fact exist, no group of real people is being insulted, but there is still a danger when parallels can be drawn, even subconsciously, between fiction and life. In the recent movie ‘Avatar’, the hero Jake isn’t one of the blue-skinned Na’vi, the native people of Pandora. He’s human, one of us, and we see the new world through his eyes and from his viewpoint. Eventually of course he saves his new friends from his own kind. They are dependent upon his intervention. And we, the audience, don’t identify with the ruthless and selfish corporation RDA, we identify with Jake: and by doing so, exonerate ourselves. Yes, aspects of our own civilisation are exploitative and mercenary – but we aren’t personally tarnished with all that. In such a situation, we would be the good guys. Of course we would!

This is why I am uncomfortable with some Holocaust books such as Roberto Innocenti’s admittedly beautiful picture book “Rose Blanche”, and John Boyne’s children’s novel “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”. In each instance, the protagonist is a young and innocent Aryan child who shows instinctive generosity and compassion towards Jewish concentration camp prisoners, and ends up ‘sharing’ their fate. Little Rose Blanche takes food to the children on the other side of the wire, and is eventually shot. Bruno, in “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”, befriends Shmuel, and finally disappears with him into the gas chambers. Leaving aside the question of plausibility, to me both stories – well-meant as they are – are fantasies in the worst sense: the sort of wish-fulfilment in which one daydreams of behaving improbably and heroically well in terrible circumstances. Bruno and Rose Blanche are not White Saviours so much as little white martyrs, avatars for ourselves. Isn’t there something distasteful about the way they are thrust to centre stage? Isn’t it a way of letting ourselves off the hook? Don’t they effectively allow us to pretend that, in the same circumstances, we too would be brave and true and self-sacrificing to the death? And maybe we would. But much more likely, we wouldn’t.

Why couldn’t these books have had Jewish children as the main characters? Or gypsy children, or handicapped children, or any group which was in fact targeted by the Nazis? It’s not that I object in principle to Aryan German protagonists. Leslie Wilson has written two brilliant YA novels from the ordinary German child’s point of view during the Third Reich. ("Last Train from Kummerdorf" and "Saving Rafael".) Her books are the more valuable because they deal realistically with the kinds of danger that did threaten such children – including protecting and losing Jewish friends – but without the emotionally dishonest switch-around that focuses the tragic spotlight on the Aryan child.

Is it possible, though, that a non-Jewish writer who wants to write a Holocaust book, feels awkward about creating a Jewish character? Does it seem like taking a liberty? Or is it laziness, an unwillingness to undertake the research, obtain the moral permission? Is moral permission even necessary? Aren’t we novelists, isn’t it our job to be able to create and imagine other lives from the inside out, to think ourselves into other people’s shoes? Isn’t this business of creating imaginative fiction a worthwhile effort at empathy? Don’t men write about women, and women about men?

I’ll leave those questions unanswered for the moment, and just say that I don’t believe any subjects should be out of bounds for any writer. If you feel the creative urge to write about the Holocaust, you should be able to do so. The way in which you do so, however, is important.

Patricia Wrightson, the Australian writer whose death prompted these thoughts, wrote some exceptional children’s books, many of them ‘fantasies’ - in a loose sense - rooted in Aboriginal legend. As I child I read and loved “The Rocks of Honey” and “The Nargun and the Stars”. John Rowe Townsend, in his classic study “Written For Children” praises her for ‘never [using] anything resembling a formula’ and for the sense in her books that ‘ “reality” is not enough; that there is more to life than common sense can take account of.’ Wrightson won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1986. But, in later years, her books fell out of favour in Australia as examples of cultural appropriation: she was judged as a white woman who had taken the precious lore of a culture not her own and used it in ways that were neither traditional nor appropriate. Knowing little of Aboriginal stories or culture, I cannot say whether the accusation was justified, but from my recollections of her books, they were certainly not intentionally disrespectful: it was clear Wrightson delighted in the Aboriginal material she was using. In his recent obituary in the Sidney Morning Herald, the Australian academic Maurice Saxby recounts how the Aboriginal poet Jack Davis defended her at a literary conference, and adds, ‘It was not that Wrightson annexed Aboriginality for literary purposes, but that she believed passionately in what Aborigines themselves – speaking for us all – call “country”; not simply the physical environment but the deeply inherent force of the human mind.’

But, in the socio-political environment of later 20th century Australia, this was not enough. The indigenous population, which had suffered so severely at European hands, was finding a voice, and educators were paying attention. Today, the Australia Council for the Arts has formed a set of protocols for the use of Indigenous material in writing, which can be found on their website www.australiacouncil.gov.au, and includes obtaining permission from and working in conjunction with the traditional owners. While I find it terribly sad that Wrightson’s books were shunned, I can see also that when so much has been stolen, people are going to feel strongly about ownership of their own stories. Stories are the signature of a culture. And sometimes stories are all you have left. Marilyn Carpenter of Eastern Washington University discusses this in an article called ‘Fairy Tales – Zero Tolerence?’ on the blog Worlds of Words,  and asks, ‘Should we have zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in a book? Or, should we tolerate minor inaccuracies when only a few books about a culture are available?”

For me, this issue became of personal importance when I began to write the third and last in my series of ‘Troll’ books – fantasies set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, in which the human characters co-exist with creatures out of Norse folklore such as trolls, nisses and ghosts. In a way, I was writing ‘history with the beliefs put back in’: people in the 10th century did believe in the existence of trolls, just as much as in physical dangers like bears and wolves and raiders.

While I’d tried from the beginning to be reasonably true to the Norse way of life, it’s fair to say the books became more historically accurate as I went on. In the third book, ‘Troll Blood’, I wanted my hero and heroine to sail across to Vinland in a Viking ship – as the Norse actually did – and there they would inevitably encounter Native American people, just as the Greenlanders’ Saga describes. It seemed to me legitimate to introduce Native American characters into the book: it was either that, or pretend North America was unpopulated, a clear impossibility. What may not have been so legitimate – yet what seemed to me important – was that I wanted also to introduce, as players on the North American scene, creatures in some way parallel to the trolls my Norse characters cohabited with. A belief in trolls is part of one people’s way of describing the world and its perils, which helps define them and their differences from another group, for example one which believes in satyrs and nymphs. (Trolls are rougher-edged, with snow on their boots.) If you understand a folklore, you will have a better understanding of the men and women who made it. I wanted to use stories from Native American folklore because without some such dimension, without some reference to the belief systems of the people I was writing about, I didn’t think they would be ‘real’.

The whole thing was immeasurably complicated. I doubt I would have had the nerve to set out from scratch to write from the point of view of a Native American boy; but here was a situation in which my Norse characters would have to meet Native Americans, and it was important that the latter should have a voice. ( I don't have to worry about writing about Norse legends.  Partly because, as I am European, any European folklore feels like a common heritage and partly because the Vikings, the Greeks, the Romans are not examples of colonial repression. If anything, they were the oppressors. We need hardly feel we are exploiting them.)

I spent at least six months – it was probably more – doing the research, going through ancient copies of the Journal of American Folklore in the Bodleian, tracking down primary sources wherever I could, especially verbatim stories from named individuals. Even so, compromise was the name of the game. Nobody today knows or can know what stories, what beliefs, were current among the Native American people the Vikings encountered in the early 11th century. The first preserved accounts were written down by Frenchmen visiting or living in the New World in the 17th century: some of the best (and the first stories collected, as opposed to mere ethnographic accounts) were preserved by a Recollet priest living in the Mirimachi/Restigouche area of New Brunswick, named Chrestien LeClercq.  Later on Silas Rand, a Baptist minister, collected many stories.  Many had their axes to grind; all were subject to accidental misunderstandings. One thing I decided early on was that every story, custom, belief or – in our terms – ‘supernatural’ creature would be referenced. And in the US edition, this was done. Anyone who cares may look in the index and find out just where I found my information about the jenu, for example, the wiklatmuj’ik, or the belief that you should not tell stories in summertime.

Then I had the manuscript checked over by a scholar of Mi’kmaq studies (for reasons I won’t go into, it was the Mi’kmaq of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia on whom I decided finally to base the Native American characters in the book). She put me right on a whole load of things which in spite of my care, I had got wrong. One fundamental mistake came up in the very first sentence, which originally read ‘The Mist Spirits are busy, crouching on wave-splashed rocks out in the gulf, blowing chilly whiteness over the sea.’ ‘You mustn’t use the word ‘spirits,’’ she told me, explaining that the body/spirit dichotomy (so familiar to Europeans we hardly even notice it as a construct) is foreign to the Mi’kmaq, as is the idea of the supernatural. Instead, everything is natural – but some things are also persons, including some plants, some rocks, some trees. The sentence was therefore changed to ‘The Mist Persons are busy…’

On another occasion, I wanted to describe some diminutive creatures named in an account collected in the 1920’s as ‘the hamajalu’. This came back corrected to ‘the wiklatmuj’ik’ – which I viewed with dismay as a far more difficult word to pronounce. ‘Why?’ I asked, ‘after all, the word ‘hamajalu’ is there, written down in a verbatim account.’ ‘Because,’ she said, ‘there is no ‘h’ in modern Mi’kmaq, and this word is obsolete. The word used today is the one I have given you.’ I wanted to be sensitive, yet felt I had to express surprise. How could it be that a word used so freely in the 1920’s – there were several stories about the ‘hamajalu’ – could have died out? Back came the passionate response: ‘You would not find it so surprising if you were aware that, during the course of the 20th century, generations of Mi’kmaq children were taken from their parents, put into homes, taught European ways, and punished – beaten, shut in cupboards, thrown down stairs – for speaking their own language.’

Sometimes you have to listen to the emotion.  I accepted her correction - though it's good to be able to point out my doubts here. Was it the right decision?  Not everyone has the privilege of visiting a major library like the Bodleian. For many ordinary Mi'kmaq and other indigenous peoples whose word-of-mouth culture has been almost erased, the only way of discovering their own heritage may be via a modern European filter such as my own writing. This is why referencing sources is important.  At least, then, if it's important to someone, they can go back to the primary sources and make these decisions for themselves.

The Mi’kmaq characters in my book are not the main protagonists, because the protagonists were already established in the two earlier books of the series. But they are, I believe, strong and attractive. I would imagine that no one these days would portray Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages? But I did not wish to write them as victims: you can tell from the sagas that the original inhabitants of Vinland stood up extremely well to the aggressive but small number of Viking settlers who landed on their shores. Neither did I want to fall into the trap of portraying a band of peace-loving tree-huggers. Native American nations were not politically different from other human nations: they made treaties and alliances; they also fought wars. The characters in my book show restraint and mercy to the small Viking boy left in their hands: but they go to war against the aggressors when that becomes necessary. They are, in fact, grown-ups who make their own decisions. (My adolescent young Viking hero Peer does not affect the course of events; he does not save them; he is saved by them.)

This did not stop one reviewer writing approvingly about the way I had contrasted the warlike Vikings with the ‘peace-loving’ Native Americans. Sometimes, readers’ own assumptions get in the way.

There will be people who will feel I should not have written ‘Troll Blood’, that I had no right to create a speculative fiction about a culture I have no personal knowledge of or connection with. They have a right to their opinion: and I would agree that it is always a question open to discussion. My own feeling is that we need to understand one another, and rather than forbidding writers to stray beyond the boundaries of their own culture, we should be encouraging a better awareness of the sensitivities involved. A tremendously helpful blog dedicated to eradicating ‘racist, biased and outdated information’ in literature is Professor Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children's Literature: as she says, ‘there is no point in laying blame…the point is to start doing things differently.’


The Australia Council for the Arts may have got it about right, for the moment. Ask permission where you can, get the work vetted by someone who knows what the subject is all about and can warn of the pitfalls and clichés and traps: write with care and respect. And whatever you do, avoid the old cliché of the White Saviour, rushing in where angels fear to tread.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Sailing with the Vikings


In about 1030 AD, the people of Roskilde Fjord in Denmark deliberately sank five old ships to block two of the three navigable channels leading into the fjord. This meant the only remaining entrance could easily be controlled, and any ship wishing to come down the fjord to Roskilde town would be spotted, challenged, and perhaps charged a toll for use of the harbour and the chance to trade.  Handy for the townsfolk then – and handy now: for those five scuttled ships have been rediscovered, raised and preserved, and are now a major tourist attraction as well as offering invaluable insights into Viking ship construction.  As an amazing bonus, while digging the foundations for the new Viking Ships Museum  they discovered not one, but nine more Viking ships buried in the silt.  One of them is the very longest longship ever found – over 36 metres!

Replicas of those first five ships, the ‘Skuldelev ships’, have now been built, and it was on some of these – five years ago this month – we were about to sail.

Arriving at Roskilde on a hot sunny June evening, we walked down through the town, past the great cathedral where no less than 28 of the Kings of Denmark lie buried, across the slanting cobbled square, and downhill under cool trees to the broad fjord.

The sun was low, but it wouldn’t set properly till eleven o’clock or later.  The western sky was full of colours, reflected in the fjord: stripes of tangerine, purple and blue.  And there they were, outlined against the sky: the tall masts and upcurved prows and sterns of four Viking ships, tethered to the jetty.  We walked past staring at them greedily: the two longships, Helge Ask and Sea Stallion of Glendalough; the fishing vessel, Kraka Fyr, the cargo ship, Roar Ege.  And then we saw a square sail, black against the sunset.  Another Viking vessel sailing towards Roskilde harbour, just as it would have done over a thousand years ago…and two swans swam across its path, like little Viking ships themselves, proud prows uplifted.

I was there because I was in the middle of writing the third and final book of a series of historical fantasies about the Viking era, and in this book, ‘Troll Blood’, my characters would sail across the Atlantic to the shores of ‘Vinland’ – the far-distant northeast coast of America – just as Leif the Lucky, son of Eirik the Red, did over a thousand years ago.  


And, no matter how much research you do in libraries, no matter how many books you read, there’s nothing to beat hands-on personal experience.  I’d found out that the Viking Ship Museum here at Roskilde ran a week-long sailing course in which I could learn a great deal about how to handle those great square-rigged sails, and all sorts of general things about how it really felt to be on the sea in a Viking age ship. 
Well, I learned a lot.  Here are some of my scribbled notes:

The sail towers over the boat – how big it is! – seems to cut off the sky and a large part of the horizon. 

The chuckle and truckle of water running along the sides and under the bottom boards.  Jellyfish pass by the end of my oar – ghostly circles in the dark water, frilled, pulsating.

It’s really hard work on the sheets when we change the tack, wrestling in these yards of struggling, flapping sail – the ropes are harsh and soft at the same time, dark horsehair, softish but prickly to the hand.  We yank and yank again, and the rope comes in through the hole in the gunwale, soaking wet, scattering spray like a dog shaking its coat. 

The boat heels, but nothing like so far as a modern yacht.  To change tack, the opposite lower leading corner of the sail changes and is fastened close to the bow to the ‘tack stick’.

Søren tells how his grandfather thought nothing of sailing thirty miles up and down the fjord to market, or of wheeling a barrow of live fish to Copenhagen and returning in a day

I learned how the mast could be taken down (unstepped) in a couple of minutes by flipping up the ‘shroud nails’; how a longship on a raid might cross the sea in three days rowing continuously: if one bench at a time rested, little speed was lost, so the resting period would ‘roll’ down the ship in a relay for the rowers to relax, drink, and answer calls of nature in turn.  And I learned that the round shields (so often depicted in overlapping rows along the ships’ sides) would only be hung out in an actual battle, ‘to cower behind’, said our skipper Søren, with a laugh.  ‘You can’t sail or row,’ he added, ‘with the shields in the way.’

Of course, most of the technical stuff never made it into the book; but I came away with confidence to write more truly, more realistically, about my characters’ voyage – even though they were headed out into the wild Atlantic, and I’d been sailing and rowing only in the fjord.  Who says research is dull?  We were there over midsummer.  On St John’s Eve, we camped in a hayfield with the boats on the shore below, ate barbecued fresh salmon, and watched the bonfires being lit along the fjord, and later the fireworks competing with a full, yellow moon.  

One of the things I liked best about being on our ship was the feeling of camaraderie amongst the crew, and the way, when things got lazy and the wind was blowing, those of us not needed to handle sails could lie back, relax, and tell stories, jokes and tall tales.  You realise how those Viking sailors must have done just the same thing.  

Thorstein, leaning back on the benches, says shyly, ‘So do you want to know about trolls?  We have lots of stories in Iceland about trolls.’

I say I’d love to hear, so he begins. ‘There was once a farmer’s wife, a lazy woman who would not weave the wool her husband provided.  One day a huge, ugly woman came to the farm, and offered to card, spin and weave it for her – but on condition that the farmer’s wife should guess her name, and if she didn’t guess right, she would have to go away with the troll (for this is what the ugly woman was) and serve her.

So the farmer’s wife agreed.  She thought it wouldn’t be hard to guess the troll woman’s name.  The troll woman sat down and carded and spun all the wool, and wove it into good cloth as fast as lightning.  The farmer’s wife was very happy – but not so happy when she tried to guess the troll’s name.  She tried this name and that, and they were all wrong.

‘Very well,’ said the great ugly troll woman, ‘I shall come back tomorrow, and if you can’t guess my name then, you shall come and serve me.’

The farmer’s wife was very frightened and began to cry and wail because she didn’t want to have to go with the troll.  And that evening the farmer came home…  ‘A funny thing happened to me today, wife.  I was passing a hill and saw a cave, all lighted up.  And inside, a huge troll woman was dancing and singing, “Tomorrow I shall have a new servant to do all the work for me.  She’ll never guess my name is Gilitrutt!”’

I tell Thorstein we have the same story in England, called ‘Tom Tit Tot’ (‘Rumpelstiltskin’ in Germany, and I think there’s a similar North of England story called Dame Habbitrot).  He adds with a smile, ‘But my mother’s father, who told me this story, used to say, ‘You know, probably the tall ugly troll woman was really the farmer himself – in disguise – to teach his wife a lesson…’





Friday, 4 June 2010

Unicorn Glitter Award

What a surprise!  The Reclusive Muse of fantasy writer Katherine Roberts (her muse is in fact a rather splendid magical unicorn) has awarded this blog one of her very first Unicorn Glitter Awards, "for bloggers who post in the spirit of the enchanted mists."  I've always been a big fan of Katherine's books (look out for the Echorium Sequence, beginning with Song Quest), so I'm especially pleased with this.  You can see the award in the margin to the right of this post.

Like other magical gifts, however, the rule is not to hang on to it in a selfish way, but to pass it on. 

And so, in no particular order, I'd like to give the Unicorn Glitter Award to Scribble City CentralThe Fairytale Cupboard, Charlotte's Library, and Imagination in Focus

Under the terms of the award I am also enjoined to tell you all my favourite book, film, poem or song, myth or legend, and enchanted creature (this is hard!):

Fantasy book:  Almost impossible to say, there are so many.  But I would find it hard to do without Tolkien and Ursula K Le Guin.


Film:  Hmmm - I don't watch that many!  But one which made a big impression was Jean Cocteau's black and white classic of 'La Belle et la Bete'.


Poem/song:  'Byzantium' by WB Yeats (and Cavafy's 'Ithaka')

Myth/Legend:  Again, very difficult, but perhaps the Orpheus myth from the Greeks, and Yggdrasil the World Tree from the Norse mythology.

Enchanted Creature:  Has to be the Phoenix!

Many thanks to Katherine and her Muse!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Shadow Hunt

Will you all excuse me today if I  indulge in a little fanfare?  Because this is the publication day in America of my book 'The Shadow Hunt' - and you can see the cover, to the right of this post. 'The Shadow Hunt' is what I would describe as a children's historical fantasy based on Celtic and medieval legends, and it took over most of my life for one and a half years.

Ta-ran-tara, ta-ran-tara!

Writing a book is such darned hard work, and frankly such a lonely occupation, that a publication day is genuinely a time to rejoice.  As I've explained, I gave this blog its name because writing is very much like crossing seven miles of hill on fire and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea. 

When you begin writing a new book - as I'm doing now - it feels impossible.  IM-possible.  I have these ideas, and these characters, and a situation, and I feel I don't know half enough about them, and I set out on a long journey of discovery, all the time with the fear that I'll never get there.  But gradually, at a snail-like pace, the pages stack up till there are twenty... fifty... a hundred... (I print out and revise as I go: it may well take me months to write a hundred pages) ...till I find myself in the middle of the book, in the middle of this long stretch of work that's been going on seemingly forever, and will go on seemingly forever.  And at this point, I sleep, eat, dream the book.  I go to bed at night with my mind running the characters like a computer simulation, and I wake in the small hours and in the mornings thinking about them and understanding a little bit more and a little bit more.  It's exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying, and highly anti-social. 

My life is subsumed into the writing process.  I read, but only books which will help with the research, the background, the symbolism, or the actions of the characters.  I go for walks or drives, so that I can think and think about the book.  I shut myself up to go over and over the pages already written, to rewrite, to shred, to revise, to - as far as lies within me - to perfect.

The tipping point comes.  A day arrives when I recognise that the book WILL BE WRITTEN: that enough has been done to give the story a life of its own.  Like an unborn child, it's viable.  Life gets a little easier then.  And at last the final chapter, the final pages get written in a rush of euphoria.

It's done!  I've finished!  Free at last of the awful tyranny of the powerful god or daemon of creation.  Free for a while to do ordinary things, think ordinary thoughts, dig the garden, go shopping. The editing and all that - that's just work, to be enjoyed or grumbled through in an everyday way.  It's not to be compared with the sucking-you-down-into-the-deeps, never-letting-you-get-a-breath, octopus-grip of the creation-god.

So here's to publication day, along with a couple of starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist, and the very pleasant news that 'The Shadow Hunt' has been chosen by the Junior Library Guild, to be reviewed in its July edition.  You can find out more about it on my website.

If you think the book sounds like something you might like, please give it a go!