Sunday, 2 May 2021

May Morning in Oxford

This post first appeared on The History Girls blog in 2015, all of six years ago! Judging by the apple blossom, the spring weather must have been warmer that year: today the blossom's only half out. And owing to lockdown, I doubt there were any crowds gathering below Magdalen Tower  on May Day morning to hear the choirboys singing madrigals. But this is a happy memory; and maybe, next year...

So on the First of May we got up in the grey twilight at 4.45am and drove into Oxford to listen to the choirboys singing the May in from the top of Magdalen Tower.

The sky was crimson, every moment changing and brightening towards amber and gold. We found a parking place somewhere near the station and hurried up through the town, which was strangely awake for such a time in the morning. Scattered pedestrians striding purposefully. Cyclists creaking by on ancient bicycles. Groups of worse-for-wear students who’d been up all night, noisy, laughing, hugging one another, stumbling along. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young… All of us heading the same way and for the same reason. Kebab and burger vans on Queen Street were doing a great trade. The air was chill, the buildings still shadowed. Towery city and branchy between towers, cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded… On the High, a homeless man sat in a college doorway and watched the crowd passing downhill towards Magdalen College and its bell tower.

No one is quite sure, it seems, how old this ceremony is, but it’s been going on for many hundreds of years. Every year at 6am on May Day, the choir of Magdalen College climbs to the top of Magdalen Tower to sing from the roof to celebrate the spring – first the Hymnus Eucharisticus and then English country songs and madrigals. 

As the crowd around the base of the tower became thicker, we came to a halt among a happy bunch of May morning sightseers – many in May costumes, crowned with real flowers and greenery. Tipping our heads back, we could just see the white robes of the choir moving between the finials of the tower top, and imagine the scene up there as Holman Hunt depicted it in his painting ‘May Morning on Magdalen Tower’. (Did they really scatter a carpet of flowers for the boys to tread upon?)

It must be the most popular of Oxford’s colourful college traditions. Some are stranger than others. All Souls (full name: The College of All Souls of the Faithful Departed) for example, owns to a custom as weird as anything out of Gormenghast: the Hunting of the Mallard. Once a century, the respectable Fellows of this wealthiest of colleges partake of a feast followed by a crazy ritual in which, led by a ‘Lord Mallard’ carried in a chair, they parade through the college with flaming torches in pursuit of a man carrying a wooden duck tied to a pole. This is to commemorate a huge mallard which, startled by workmen digging a drain, supposedly flew out of the foundations when the college was being built in 1437.  Whilst parading, the participants sing the Mallard Song, which dates from about 1660.

The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
Let other hungry Mortalls gape on
And on their bones with Stomacks fall hard,
But let All Souls’ Men have the Mallard.

Hough the bloud of King Edward.
By the bloud of King Edward
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

I have sometimes wondered if Mervyn Peake knew of this ceremony – and if so, whether it inspired any of Gormenghast’s strange rituals, such as the ceremony to Honour the Poet? Barquentine, Master of Rituals, outlines the requirements to Steerpike. Have the cloisters been painted the correct shade of darkest red? Has the Poet completed his poem? Has he been told about the magpie?

‘I told him that he must rise to his feet and declaim within twelve seconds of the magpie’s release from the wire cage. That while declaiming his left hand must be clasping the beaker of moat-water in which the Countess has previously placed the blue pebble from Gormenghast river.’
            ‘That is so, boy.  And that he shall be wearing the Poet’s Gown, that his feet shall be bare, did you tell him that?’
            ‘I did,’ said Steerpike.
            ‘And the yellow benches for the Professors, were they found?’

All Souls’ Mallard ceremony was last held in 2001 and so will not be held again until 2101, but the song (which has six verses) is apparently still sung twice a year. I don’t know if the Fellows have re-included the fifth verse which was ‘expunged on grounds of decency’ in 1821 – but most 21st century sensibilities will find it enjoyably ridiculous rather than obscene. Anyhow, no one prepared to canter through college after a duck on a pole has any right to complain.

Hee was swapping all from bill to eye,
Hee was swapping all from wing to thigh,
His swapping tool of generation
Oute swapped all the winged Nation.

Hough the bloud of King Edward.
By the bloud of King Edward
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!

Hunting the Mallard is a ceremony exclusively for the lofty Fellows of All Souls College, but the Magdalen College ceremony is for everyone, town and gown. As we watched, the corner of the tower slowly glowed in the sunrise. The clock chimed six. The crowd, five thousand strong by now, hushed. The chimes faded and the choir at the tower top began to sing. Their voices were amplified – and for a moment, braced as I’d been to listen for the high, clear, distant notes, I was disappointed. Then I realised that it was the only practical solution, given the numbers waiting below. And it was still lovely.  

After the Latin hymn, a prayer was read thanking God for the light of morning, remembering St Mary Magdalene and the women who were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus at the break of day, and praising God’s creation Mother Earth with all her spring flowers. As a happy combination of Christianity and nature worship, it seemed faultlessly medieval. Then the choir sang Thomas Morley's songs ‘Now is the Month of Maying’ and 'My Bonnie Lass She Smileth' – and it was over, the sun was up, and it was time to wander back through the city with the rest of the teeming multitude and find somewhere to eat breakfast. Our attention was caught by someone waving aloft a hand-written placard declaring the existence of  ‘Free Bacon Sandwiches at the Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street’ – but that seemed too far away from the action. 

The thump of a big drum lured us into Radcliffe Square where we found a colourful band playing oddly dirge-like marches on the cobbles around the Radcliffe camera. Then we looped back to the High for an expensive but delicious breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon, bacon rolls and coffee. And one Bucks Fizz, which we shared between us. It was still only 7am.  

Merry May!  

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Fairy Tales and Realism

When we were children my brother and I would sometimes bemoan our bad luck in never having any adventures. We were big fans of Enid Blyton, in whose books groups of children from nice safe middle-class backgrounds not very dissimilar to our own got into amazing adventures every single holiday. Every single Christmas, or Eastertime, or 'summer hols', something would happen to these children. The circus would arrive and the bad-tempered clown would turn out to be an international jewel thief. The tutor hired as a Latin coach would be either a spy or a detective. Those lights flashing out to sea beyond the ruined castle would be signals from an enemy submarine waiting to rendezvous with the tall stranger whose bad character had been clear from the moment he kicked Timmy the dog, and whose briefcase contained the stolen blueprints. The strange noises in the empty house could only come from smugglers’ barges gliding along the underground river gurgling beneath the trapdoor in the cellar. 

Although these adventures were in one sense sheer fantasy, they were presented with a veneer of realism which could deceive our inexperience. I loved to read of dragons and flying horses, but I never expected to meet one. The dilapidated old barn a mile up in the fields near the edge of the woods, however with the shotgun cartridges scattered around the doorway – surely that was something my brother and I ought to investigate? So we did, and were shouted at by the farmer for walking over his crops.



Well, we should have known better. Just because a book has a contemporary setting and contains nothing magical doesn't make it more realistic than a fairy tale: in fact some of them are fairy tales. Jacqueline Wilson’s nitty-gritty stories tussle with all sorts of issues: her young heroines and heroes live with unreliable parents, or in children’s homes, or have big stepbrothers who bully them, or are young carers themselves, or try shoplifting and smoking to impress their glamorous ‘bad’ best friend… isn’t this realism? Well, maybe not! I have great admiration for Wilson’s books, and my children loved them – but they are fairy tales. Like Cinderella, her characters go through all kinds of tribulations but always end up wiser, happier and in a better place than where they started. These are fairy tale endings – which I say with no shadow of disparagement.

Alison Lurie, in her book of essays on children’s literature ‘Don’t Tell the Grownups’ (Bloomsbury 1990), recounts how at the age of five she was given ‘The Here and Now Story Book’ written in 1921 by a writer named Lucy Sprague Mitchell whose credo was that fairy tales delayed ‘a child’s rationalising of the world’ and left him/her ‘longer than is desirable without the beginnings of scientific standards’. Lurie writes:


Inside, I could read about The Grocery Man (“This is John’s Mother. Good morning, Mr Grocery Man”) … The children and parents in these stories were exactly like the ones I knew, only more boring.  They never did anything really wrong, and nothing dangerous or surprising ever happened to them – no more than it did to Dick and Jane, whom I and my friends were soon to meet in first grade.


To be fair to Sprague Mitchell, Lurie has picked the dullest story in the book (you can view them all here at project Gutenberg: some of them are charming), but learning to read in the early sixties, I too encountered such children in the ‘Janet and John’ readers, and in the safe, sunny, pedestrian world of the Ladybird books, where all families were made up of a Mummy who stayed at home and baked, a Daddy who went to work carrying a briefcase, a little boy in shorts, a little girl in a frilly dress, and a spaniel. Plots would revolve around picnics, kite-flying, the collection of tadpoles in jam-jars, and the making and icing of fairy-cakes. (The Ladybird collection included an excellent series of illustrated fairy tales, but it’s their 1960s ‘contemporary’ stories I’m talking about.)

Lurie continues with devastating truth:


After we grew up, of course, we found out how unrealistic these stories had been. The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. 

To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck, and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence, and an eye for the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable – you never knew who might be useful to you later on.


And this still seems to me the best argument against those who still think that fairytales are unreal, or at least more unreal than books set in the everyday here-and-now. How much do we need to be taught, in Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s phrase, to ‘rationalise the world’? Do we really need protection from the obviously fantastic? Richard Dawkins appeared to think so, as quoted in The Guardian on 5th June 2014:


“I actually think there might be a positive benefit in fairy tales for a child's critical thinking ... Do frogs turn into princes? No they don't. But an ordinary fiction story could well be true ... So a child can learn from fairy stories how to judge plausibility.’

He added: “Fairy tales might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes… Santa Claus again might be a very valuable lesson because the child will learn that there are some things you are told that are not true. Now isn’t that a valuable lesson?”


It’s not completely clear from this quotation exactly what he means (the ellipses indicate that parts of what he said have been left out), but it looks as if he’s saying that children can usefully learn to distinguish between unbelievable stories (tales and fantasies with supernatural elements) and believeable ones (‘ordinary fiction’). But my brother and I were never deceived by fairy tales or fantasies. We never went looking for dragons or unicorns. We could, however, very well imagine ourselves in an Enid Blyton-style adventure – and so doing, explored potentially dangerous deserted barns and houses – because her books contained no obvious impossibilities. Yet fiction is fiction is fiction.

Sir Philip Sidney in his famous ‘Apologie for Poetrie’ – a defence of invention written some time in the 1580s to counter those of his contemporaries who felt uneasily that anything non-factual was somehow deceptive – wrote:


I think truly, that of all writers under the sun the poet is the least liar… for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth. For the poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes. 


‘No circles about your imagination’: if you know that what you are reading is pure invention without any pretensions to be history or fact, you can stop worrying about belief. The poet ‘nothing affirms’ – makes no claims. You are left free to apprehend the truth of the poetic imagination. Sidney recognised that the perceived gulf between fiction and non-fiction is more mirage than fact: he goes on to point out that – surely – only a fool would describe Aesop's fables as lies, or mistake a play for a real happening...


None so simple would say that Aesop lied in his tales of the beasts; for whoso thinks that Aesop writ it for actually true were well worthy to have his name catalogued among the beasts he writeth of. What child is there that, coming to a play, and seeing Thebes written in great letters upon an old door, doth believe that it is Thebes?


Aesop's fictions are not really about animals. Instead, they present succinct points about human morals and behaviour. To miss that would indeed be to miss the entire point – and Sidney shows more faith in the average child’s ability to suspend disbelief than Dawkins does. Where Dawkins suggests that ‘an ordinary fiction story could well be true’, Sidney says boldly that while every kind of fiction is of its nature untrue, it is the story masquerading as realism which is the most likely to deceive. A history book may be plausible and convincing while containing many errors and biases. 

I would unhesitatingly put my money on the basic stuff of fairy tales being far more likely to happen to the average child than the chance of capturing an enemy spy or discovering a nest of coiners. Your parents may abandon you, or die, or abuse you. You may be ignored and disregarded. Later in life your lover may forget you; you may have to work hard for little or no reward or recognition. 

Though at first sight fairy tales may appear simple or childish with their pre-industrial characters and settings, they offer a rich harvest of metaphors for life, as well as delighting in the beautiful world and applauding courage, kindness, innocence, wit and endurance. Stories are real and not-real at the same time. We need to allow ourselves and our children to discover the power of the imagination to transform experience. Fairy tales we have read as children may stay with us forever. Some are frightening, of course, for fairyland is a dangerous place: but so is this world, and we do children no favours by pretending otherwise. Fairy tales do not attempt to deceive and pull no punches. They tell us life often looks quite overwhelming, but they offer hope too. You may have to journey to the back of the north wind, ride over seven miles of steel thistles, weave shirts from nettles, suffer insults in silence, scale glass mountains – but ‘pack courage, leave fear at home’ and you will find a way.  




Picture credits:

The Goosegirl: Arthur Rackham

Illustration by Gilbert Dunlop to The Rockingdown Mystery by Enid Blyton:

Aesop's Fables, printed by Caxton: British Library

The Knight gallops up the Glass Mountain: Theodore Kittelsen


Wednesday, 14 April 2021

'From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self'


At the end of this month my book about Narnia will be published 'From Spare Oom to War Drobe', Darton Longman and Todd, 29th April 2021, £16.99: and available from all good book retailers. The map on the cover is one I copied as a child from Pauline Baynes' map of Narnia in Prince Caspian. I apologise for blowing my own trumpet! But this book had its genesis both here on my blog and more importantly, in the absolute and utter love I had for the Seven Chronicles when I was a child. I read and re-read them until the covers were dog-eared and creased and coming to pieces. I almost – almost! – believed Narnia to be real, and I desperately wanted to read more stories about that magical land.

Do you remember this passage from The Last Battle? It comes near the end, when Tirian, Jill and Eustace, with Puzzle the donkey and Jewel the Unicorn, are walking through the springtime woods hoping (it is a forlorn hope) to meet Roonwit the Centaur leading reinforcements from Cair Paravel to defeat the forces of evil. While they walk, Jewel begins telling Jill about the long and mostly peaceful history of Narnia:

He spoke of Swanwhite the Queen who had lived before the days of the White Witch and the Great Winter, who was so beautiful that when she looked into any forest pool the reflection of her face shone out of the water like a star by night for a year and a day afterwards.

Isn’t that lovely? Elvish enough for Tinúviel.

He spoke of Moonwood the Hare who had such ears that he could sit under Cauldron Pool under the thunder of the great waterfall and hear what men spoke in whispers at Cair Paravel. He told how King Gale, who was ninth in descent from Frank the first of all Kings, had sailed far away into the Eastern seas and delivered the Lone Islands from a dragon, and how, in return, they had given him the Lone Islands to be part of the royal lands of Narnia for ever.  … And as he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill’s mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields…

I wanted very badly to know these stories in full. So I tried to write some of them myself, and this was the result: my very own 'Tales of Narnia'! 

I was wise enough not to attempt a story about Swanwhite, whose whiteness by the way the warm whiteness of a swan’s feathers – is wonderfully different from the stark whiteness of the witch Jadis whose skin is variously described as white as salt (strong and bitter), white as paper (blank) or white as icing sugar (chokingly sweet).

No, I plumped for King Gale and his dragon. In my story a Talking Stag brings King Gale and his Best Flying Horse Friend, Diamond, terrible news of a dragon attack on the Lone Islands. Leaping into action, Gale and Diamond fly to Cair Paravel where a ship is waiting, and are soon at sea with exciting adventures along the waylike this one:

Suddenly, from the fighting top, the lookout shouted, “Land Ho!” “That’ll be Galma and Terebinthia, won’t it?” the King remarked to Drinian. “Yes Sire,” said Drinian. “And I think –” the King never knew what Drinian thought, because just at that minute, he was interrupted by the lookout yelling “Pirate ship on the starboard side, bearing up on us fast.” “Hm. Terebinthian by her rig,” muttered the King. He was roused by Drinian shouting orders. “All hands on deck, man the guns, look lively!”  At once all the crew came rushing to man and prime the guns… Meanwhile, the pirate was bearing down on them fast. Drinian waited till it was within range, then “Fire!!!” rang out across the ship. When the smoke cleared they could see that she (the pirate) was holed and slowly sinking. “Shall I fire again, Sire?” asked Drinian. “Aslan’s Mane! No! Aslan forbid that I should ever fire upon a sinking ship!” cried the King. “Your Majesty is the mirror of honour,” replied Drinian gravely. … Slowly she sank, until only a whirling, troubled patch of water showed where she had been.


I’m amused by the stiff Narnian dialogue, also that I felt it necessary to explain in brackets that ‘she’ was the ship; and I bet you never knew that Narnian ships carried cannons, let alone such effective ones. And it now seems to me rather a pity that in spite of his vaunted chivalry, Gale makes no attempt to rescue any of the drowning pirates. But in my view back then, baddies were baddies and deserved what they got.

I loved writing these stories, and they taught me at least two important things. First, I found out that I couldn’t write as well as C. S. Lewis. 😕 Second, I found that writing’s a very different pleasure from reading: you don't experience the story, live in it, in quite the same way. I didn't want to stop, though. I went on to write stories about the Seven Brothers of Shuddering Wood and the Lapsed Bear of Stormness and other marginal Narnian characters. My poem about The Beginning of Narnia (no less!) with its awkward rhymes and solemn footnote will probably make you both wince and smile; it does me, but oh, it was heartfelt! 

None of these tales of mine really succeeded in satisfying my longing for Narnia. Yet in the process of writing ‘Spare Oom’ over a year ago, I did feel I had at last got back there in revisiting, reliving my childhood passion for the stories, and exploring with delight the many vivid threads Lewis has woven into the tapestry of his world with references not only to Christianity and the Bible, but to medieval and Renaissance poetry, fairy tales, Shakespeare, Plato and Socratic logic, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Edith Nesbit… he poured into them everything that he loved. Like Lewis himself, the books have their faults, but they still offer a great richness of experience to any child who reads them. I count myself lucky to have been one.


In a free online event on Friday 7th May I will be discussing the book and the world of Narnia with the novelist and critic Amanda Craig. 

Register to attend at this link: !


Thursday, 8 April 2021

Banquets, Stews and Picnics: Food in Fantasy

Diana Wynne Jones, in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, warns travellers that the only thing they’ll ever be offered to eat on their Quest – whether in Tavern, Alehouse or Camp – will be Stew. Unless of course they are entertained by an Enchantress who intends to seduce them, in which case jellies soother than the creamy curd, and lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon will be the least of it.

Stew… she has a point, of course. Given all the stuff we have to provide for our characters so that they can make it over the mountains, through the forest, and across the desert – backpacks, ponies, waterflasks, sacks of oatmeal – most authors draw the line at dreaming up menus. Much easier to picture a cooking pot slung over the flames with something indeterminate bubbling away inside – and throw in a couple of references to rabbits spitted over the flames. What else after all can you cook in a pot over an open fire, except stew? Or possibly porridge? 


And whenever I watch the movie of The Fellowship of the Ring (that’s at least once a year), I wonder again about the fry-up of sausage, eggs and ‘nice crispy bacon’ the hobbits cook on the slopes of Weathertop. Days out from Bree, wouldn’t the eggs have smashed and the sausages gone off? Or been eaten already: how many eggs and sausages did they set out with? And that scene where Aragorn returns to camp with a dead deer slung over his shoulders: they’ll be moving on next day, so how much raw meat are they prepared to cart around with them? That's down to Peter Jackson rather than Tolkien of course, but no wonder the elves invented lembas. Portable, nutritious and clearly vegetarian, it is the culinary equivalent of the useful phosphorescent stuff that appears on the end of wizards' wands (or simply clings to the walls) to illuminate otherwise lightless caves.

But there is a lot more to food in Fantasyland than Wynne Jones' witty account allows. I must hold my hand up; I have occasionally given my characters stew (and mysterious glowing lights), but in my own Dark Angels, set in the late 12th century, I had fun referencing real medieval dishes such as blancmange – that’s ‘white food’: minced chicken with pounded almonds – for the meals at the high table of  Lord Hugo's motte-and-bailey castle, La Motte Rouge. One character in the book is a very food-centric house-hob:

The hob yawned, showing a lot of yellow teeth. “What's for supper tonight? Roast pork and crackling?”

            “It's Friday,” said Nest, wiping her eyes.

“Is it?” The hob's face fell. “No meat,” it grumbled. “Fasting on Friday. Who thought that one up? What's the point?”

Nest sat up. “Fasting brings us closer to the angels,” she said coldly. “Angels never eat. They spend all their time praising God.”

“Only cos they ain't got stummicks,” the hob muttered. “Go on then, what's for supper? Herbert's not the worst cook I've ever known. We won't starve. Fish, I s'pose? A nice bit of carp, or trout?”

And the meal turns out to consist of fish in batter with a sharp sauce, followed by a sweet omelette. 

Many fantasies are not affected – may even be enhanced – by the appearance of anachronistic or otherwise out-of-place types of food. In that affectionately ‘English’ area of Middle-Earth, the Shire, no reader will mind references to potatoes, fish and chips, buttered toast, birthday cake, etcetera. Early on in The Hobbit, Gandalf and the dwarves demand all kinds of food from poor Bilbo, all of it either very English or, like coffee, at least easily available in England. “Tea?” exclaims Gandalf, rejecting it –

“No thankyou! A little red wine, I think for me.”

“And for me,” said Thorin.

“And raspberry jam and apple tart,” said Bifur.

“And mince pies and cheese,” said Bofur.

“And pork-pie and salad,” said Bombur.

“And more cakes – and ale – and coffee, if you don't mind,” called the other dwarves through the door.

... “Put on a few eggs, there's a good fellow,” Gandalf called... “And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!”

Much of The Hobbit is lighter in tone and more frivolous than The Lord of the Rings (and I disliked the book as a child, I felt talked-down to) – so this stodgy English fare works well as comedy. But it’s impossible to imagine coffee or tea being offered to guests anywhere else in Middle-Earth – in Rivendell, Edoras or Minas Tirith. Even Sam’s throwaway remark about fish and chips to Gollum in Ithilien (in the chapter ‘Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit’) makes me a little uneasy: Middle-Earth is so clearly European in its culture/s that I feel there shouldn't be any potatoes. I can cope with pipe-weed because Tolkien has (thinly) disguised it. It might not be nicotiana: people smoke all kinds of things. But potatoes?

I was more comfortable with the frivolous tone in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Here for example, the Water Rat (a charming Oxbridge type) packs this magnificent picnic into a 'fat wicker luncheon basket':

“What's inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.

“There's cold chicken inside it," replied the Rat briefly, “coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwichespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater –”

“Oh stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstasies: “This is too much!”

“Do you really think so?” inquired the Rat seriously. “It's only what I always take on these little excursions, and the other animals are always telling me that I'm a mean beast, and cut it very fine.” 



Kenneth Grahame's animals are so anthropomorphised that even their size is indeterminate – the Toad drives a car and can pass himself off in human society as a washerwoman – so it feels all right for them to eat human food. Even bubble and squeak, that peculiarly British concoction of fried potato and cabbage, makes its appearance in The Wind In The Willows, and the jailer’s daughter, pitying the poor imprisoned Toad, brings him:

…a tray, with a cup of hot tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad…

As well it might. Mmmmmm... And thinking of comfort food, I read John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights to my daughters when they were small. There’s a point when young Kay despairs of ever managing to explain to the warm-hearted but slow Police Inspector that the villainous wizard Abner Brown is masquerading as the principal of a nearby religious college. The good Inspector advises him:

“You get that good guardian of yours to see you take a strong posset every night. But you young folks in this generation, you don’t know what a posset is. Well, a posset,” said the Inspector, “is a jorum of hot milk; and in that hot milk, Master Kay, you put a hegg, and you put a spoonful of treacle, and you put a grating of nutmeg, and you stir ‘em well up and then you take ‘em down hot. And a posset like that, taken overnight, will make a new man of you, Master Kay, while now you’re all worn down with learning.”

Both daughters insisted that I make it. I did, and it’s delicious, and they had it often over the years of their ‘school learning’… Try it! For treacle I’ve always used Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, in the traditional green and gold tin – not molasses. A little later in the book, Kay is entertained by the Lady of the Longwise Cross in her home in the oak tree, where:

…the squirrel, the moles, the most beautiful little mice and seven little foxes brought Kay strawberries, raspberries, red and white currants, ripe mulberries, plump blackberries, red and yellow cherries, black cherries, walnuts, beechnuts, hazel-nuts, filberts, little round radishes, little pointed wild strawberries, sloes all cracking with ripeness, a mushroom for a relish, a chip cut from a turnip, an apricot from the south wall, and a peach almost bursting its skin.

This rivals the tempting but far less wholesome fruit of Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market:

Plump unpeck’d cherries,

Melons and raspberries,

Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,

Swart-headed mulberries,

Crab-apples, dewberries,

Wild free-born cranberries,

Pine-apples, blackberries,

Apricots, strawberries,–

All ripe together

In summer weather,–

Morns that pass by,

Fair eves that fly;

Come buy, come buy…


In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Beavers eat impossibly English food. They do fry fish, which Mr Beaver has caught. But how do they manage ‘a jug of creamy milk for all the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table, from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes’? Where are the cows? And the meal ends with ‘a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot,’ and cups of tea. But it doesn't matter, any more than the appearance of Father Christmas matters, for this book is like The Wind in The Willows: to demand consistency is to miss the point.


In Prince Caspian, things have gone badly wrong in Narnia: under King Miraz the land is in a worse state than under the White Witch: so the children meet few comforts and have to eat what they can find. They start with apples, plucked from the wild orchard that has sprung up around the ruins of abandoned Cair Paravel; later they add bear steaks from a bear (not a Talking Bear) which they have shot. “Each apple was wrapped up in bear’s meat … and spiked on a sharp stick and then roasted. And the juice of the apple worked all through the meat, like apple sauce with roast pork…” This opportunistic feast is in some ways more convincing than stew, for which in any case the children have no cooking pot, but I think Lewis is way too optimistic about the success of the recipe. I’m sure it would have been both tough and very messy. But he manages to make the soil which the trees eat at the banquet at the end of the book sound delicious.

They began with a rich brown loam that looked almost exactly like chocolate…When the rich loam had taken the edge off their hunger, the trees turned to earth of the kind you see in Somerset, which is almost pink. They said it was lighter and sweeter.At the cheese stage they had a chalky soil and then went on to delicate confections of the finest gravels powdered with choice silver sand.

I was with him through most of it, but he lost me at the gravels.

Patricia McKillip, whose beautiful fantasies sustained me through much of the first lockdown, writes wonderfully about food. In The Book of Atrix Wolfe, a lost, mute child, Saro – daughter of the Queen of the Wood and the dangerous Hunter – is taken in and set to work as a scullery maid in the kitchens of the castle Pelucir. McKillip brings the busy kitchens and the people who work there to vivid life.

It was late; the King’s hunt had returned long before; supper and its confusion of plates and pots and tales carried down the stairs, coming in the back door, was long over. … The King had retired in fury and despair to his chamber, slamming the door so hard, the boom down the long corridor sounded, servants said, like one of the prince’s explosions. Supper – roast, peppered venison, tiny potatoes roasted crisp, hollowed and filled with cheese and onions and chive, cherries marinated in brandy and folded into beaten cream – sailed over the tray-bearer’s head and splashed in lively patchwork on the wall behind him. Brandy was taken up, and later, another tray which at least made it through the door. Dirty pots came to an end, fires were banked…

By dawn of the next day it’s all to do again:

… the spit-boys, groping, half asleep, sat up to toss wood on the fires beneath the bread ovens. The head-cook entered later to the smell of hot bread, followed by hall servants and yawning undercooks, and the tray mistress, red-eyed and grim.

            “Hunt,” the head-cook said tersely. The dogs were barking in the yard. “Again. Take up bread and cheese, smoked fish and cold, sliced venison. Mince the rest of the venison for pie. Also onions, mushrooms, leeks. Take up spiced wine.”

“Again.” I love the implied groan, and I love the attention McKillip pays to the actual work, the craft of cookery and running a kitchen. Though the King and his nobles are engaged in high matters – the terrifying Hunter may return – McKillip shows their interdependence with the servants, who make all kinds of decisions for them. No way does the head-cook intend to to waste all that perfectly good uneaten venison; the King and his party are going to be made to eat it one way or another! Next day’s breakfast for these pampered (yet worthy) nobles consists of “silver urns of chocolate, trays of butter-pastries, hams glazed with honey and cut thin as paper, eggs poached in sherry, birds carved out of melons and filled with fruit…” Lyrical as these descriptions are, they are functional as well: for with so much carrying of trays and setting of tables, and waiting upon them, the servants know and discuss all that’s going on: they are invested in the events of the story, for the return of the Hunter would be disastrous for them too. And all the time, mute little Saro is listening.

Patricia McKillip’s is the cordon bleu of fantasy food: I doubt it has ever been equalled. So... what fantasy banquet would you most like to be invited to?


Picture credits:

Histoire d'Olivier de Castille et d'Artus d'Algarbe:

Cooking pot: wikimedia commons

Rat and Mole's Picnic from The Wind in the Willows: Arthur Rackham

Animals bringing berries, from The Box of Delights: Judith Masefield 

Illustration to Goblin Market; Arthur Rackham

The Beavers' home, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Pauline Baynes 

Illustration of feast, from Prince Caspian: Pauline Baynes