Friday 26 July 2013

Magical Classics: The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith

Is this a fantasy? Maybe not: there's no actual magic as such.  Who cares? No apologies!  This book IS a Magical Classic.  Forget the Disney version (enjoyable as that was).  The real book is so much better, so much more.

First, it has one of the best villains ever – elegant Cruella de Vil with her black and white hair and her ‘absolutely simple white mink cloak’, her black-and-white striped car with ‘the loudest motor-horn in England’, and her truly devilish plan to murder and skin ninety-seven Dalmatian puppies for her husband’s fur farm. Cruella is ‘an old school friend’ of Mrs Dearly, Missus’s owner (or pet): and when Missus gives birth to seventeen puppies, Cruella has them stolen and spirited away to her family seat in Sussex – Hell Hall – to be guarded by her dastardly henchmen, Saul and Jasper Baddun.  If Cruella de Vil is not a witch, she comes pretty darned close.

As soon as the puppies go missing, their father, gallant Pongo, sets his immense intellect to work:

Long after Missus, utterly exhausted, had fallen asleep, he lay awake, staring at the fire, chewing the wicker of his basket as a man might smoke a pipe.
            Anyone who did not know Pongo well would have thought him handsome, amusing, and charming, but not particularly clever. He was often still so puppyish. He would run after balls and sticks, climb into laps far too small to hold him, roll over on his back to have his stomach scratched.  How was anyone to guess that this playful creature owned one of the keenest brains in Dogdom?
            It was at work now.  All through the long December night he put two and two together and made four.  Once or twice he almost made five.

The book is steeped in thirties fashions, literary and actual. If Sherlock Holmes was the ultimate pipe-smoking Brain, Albert Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey were the apparently foolish fellows whose ‘silly ass’ exteriors disguise forensic minds and nerves of steel. Pongo is a worthy addition to their number. He rapidly realises that Cruella is to blame, and on Primrose Hill above London, he and his wife Missus activate the Twilight Barking, that great chain of dog communication.

They barked to the north, they barked to the south, they barked to the east and west.  And each time they changed their positions, they began the barking with three very strange, short, sharp barks.
            “Anyone would think they were signalling,” said Mr Dearly. 
            But he did not really think it. And they were signalling.
            … All dogs know about the Twilight Barking.  It is their way of keeping in touch with distant friends, passing on important news, enjoying a good gossip. But none of the dogs who answered Pongo and Missus expected to enjoy a gossip, for the three short, sharp barks meant: “Help! Help! Help!”
            No dog sends that signal unless the need is desperate.  And no dog who hears it ever fails to respond.

Does your heart swell? Mine does. Dodie Smith taps into deep things here.  We long to believe animals can communicate with one another, that they are capable of far more than we realise.  We sense that although they live with us, we are ignorant of much of their lives – we feel they know us better and more nearly than we can know them. Through the Twilight Barking, Pongo locates his puppies in faraway Sussex, and, with his brave wife Missus, sets out to rescue them.

On the way there and back they have many adventures which never got into the cartoon or the film. One touching example is the chapter called ‘Hot Buttered Toast’, in which, when Pongo has been injured by a stone flung by a small child, he and Missus take refuge in a manor house belonging to an elderly black spaniel of great and dignified courtesy and his even even older ‘pet’ Sir Charles. The tired dogs sleep on a four-poster bed and descend for the evening to eat hot buttered toast and tea, and bask unnoticed by the fire while Sir Charles snoozes. But then he wakes:

The fire was no longer blazing brightly but there was still enough light to see that the old gentleman was awake and leaning forward.
            “Well if that isn’t Pongo and his missis,” he murmured smilingly.  “Well, well!  What a pleasure!  What a pleasure!”
            …The Spaniel whispered, “Don’t move, either of you.”
            “Can you see them?” said the old gentleman, putting his hand on the Spaniel’s head.  “If you can, don’t be frightened.  They won’t hurt you.  You’d have liked them. Let’s see, they must have died fifty years before you were born – more than that. …How often they sat there in the firelight. Hey, you two!  If dogs can come back, why haven’t you come back before?
            “…This house is supposed to be full of ghosts, but I’ve never seen any. I dare say I’m only seeing you because I’m pretty close to the edge now – and quite time, too.  I’m more than ready. Well, what a joy to know that dogs go on too – I’d always hoped it. Good news for you too, my boy.” He fondled the Spaniel’s ears. “Well, Pongo and his pretty wife, after all these years!  Can’t see you so well, now, but I shall remember!”
            The fire was sinking lower and lower. They could no longer see the old gentleman’s face, but soon his even breathing told them he was asleep again.

When Pongo and Missus finally arrive at Hell Hall...

... they discover the true scale of Cruella's wickedness. Not just their own fifteen puppies are incarcerated here - there are 97 little spotted victims, and the only reason they are still alive is that the criminals are waiting for them to grow.  Naturally Pongo and Missus decide to rescue the whole bunch - in spite of the logistics.

Holed up in Hell Hall, the Baddun brothers fail to notice that Dalmatians are escaping. Why?  Because they are glued to their favourite show ‘What’s My Crime?’, in which ‘two ladies and two gentlemen, in faultless evening dress, had to guess the crime committed by a lady or gentleman in equally faultless evening dress:

A wild gleam came into [Jasper’s] eyes. “Saul, I bet no one has ever murdered ninety-seven Dalmatians.  It might do the trick for us!  It might get us on to ‘What’s My Crime’!”
            “Now you’re talking!” said Saul Baddun. “You and me, in evening dress with carnatians in our buttonholes – and all England watching us.  But we must think up some really striking way of doing our crime. Could we skin them alive?

Dodie Smith seems to have had some uncanny prevision of modern reality tv shows...

Witty, touching, clever, fun – with a cast of memorable characters, an exciting chase, a splendidly happy ending and a satisfying revenge – this is an adorable book.

All artwork by Janet and Anne Grahame-Johnstone

Friday 19 July 2013

Magical Classics: "Puck of Pook's Hill" by Rudyard Kipling

John Dickinson on the midsummer magic of Kipling's children's classic:

Two children, Dan and Una, perform a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream three times on midsummer eve, in a fairy ring under the shadow of Pook’s Hill.  They find they have summoned Puck himself,  the last of the ‘People of the Hills’.  Through him they meet characters out of the past – a Norman knight, a Roman centurion, a Tudor craftsman, and in the second book, Rewards and Fairies, many others including St Wilfred and Elizabeth I.   Each one tells their story.

There are no dragons in Puck, no wizards, no spells except a little charm that Puck himself weaves with oak, ash and thorn.  The magic is a framework for the stories, like a hazy golden halo around each one.   So they are not really ‘fantasy’ as we now understand it.  They are scenes out of history: the things that over the centuries (Kipling believed) had made England what it was.  

At the beginning and end of each story there is a little poem: a sort of coda to the tale.  Some have become famous in their own right (this is where you will find If… for example). In one of these Kipling tells us clearly what response he hoped for from his young readers.   

 ‘Land of our Birth, our faith, our pride,
For whose dear sake our fathers died;
O Motherland, we pledge to thee
Head, heart and hand through the years to be!’

(From The Children’s Song)

We are wary, these days, about telling history to inspire patriotism.  We know what came next.  If Dan was eight or nine when the stories were written, as he seems to be, then he would have been the same age as Kipling’s own son who was lost in the trenches in 1915. Kipling did not know, then, what was coming.  But he knew what might.  

Read the stories again.  There’s a mischievous delight in them, but also a sadness, a sense of hopes extinguished and things lost. There are no rewards.  Crowds do not cheer and trumpets do not sound . ‘Finish’ says the word on the bricked up archway that the young centurion finds at the end of the road to Hadrian’s Wall. The Tudor architect gets his knighthood for entirely the wrong reason.  The fairies raise a young boy hoping to make him a king, and he is fated to become a slave.  As the cold iron ring clicks around his neck Puck says:

“…he must go among folk in housen henceforward, doing what they want done, or what he knows they need, all Old England over.  Never will he be his own master, nor yet ever any man’s.  He will get half he gives, and give twice what he gets, till he draws his last breath; and if he lays aside his load before he draws that last breath, all his work will go for naught.”

The words could have been spoken for any of the characters the children meet.  They could have been spoken for Dan and Una themselves.  It’s about unseen virtue, found where you least expect it.  Harsh, hook-nosed Baron de Aquila schemes in his castle to prevent another Norman invasion.  A fat, drunken Roman general, supplanted by younger men, is transformed in the desperate battle for the Wall.  And the lead role in the climax of the first book goes to a despised Jew.  It is Kadmiel who tricks the stupid Christians and traps a bad King, so that one key phrase passes into Magna Carta and becomes the heart of the law of England. And he never even sees it signed. ‘Nay. Who am I to meddle with things too high for me? I returned to Bury, and lent money on the autumn crops. Why not?’  That is Kipling’s kind of hero. 
Well.  We could call it Edwardian moralising, and sneer at it for that.  Fair’s fair.  He would have sneered at the easy, wish-fulfilling stuff, lightly peppered with teenage angst, that we serve up for children now.   But it’s a brave writer who sneers at Kipling. 

Read the stories a third time (that’s the magic, you see). Better still, find someone who will read them aloud with you.  His words were made to be heard. Curl up and listen. Remember the delight of finding a secret friend – a magic friend, on the bare hill above your house.  Imagine these strangely-dressed people, who tell stories of courage and cleverness and fate in voices as rich and grainy as the land they describe, and yet who respect you for the things you know that they never could.  It’s all there, the wonder and high adventure hammered together into the words with the skill of a smith of gods.  ‘Bold as a wolf, cunning as a fox was Witta!’ Hear the drum-beat in that line, as the Viking pirate steers his archers in to fight fierce apes for African gold!  PC Kipling was not (and his natural history was shocking)But he could write.  He really could. You didn’t need me to tell you so.

John Dickinson worked in the Ministry of Defence, Cabinet Office and NATO before leaving the civil service to begin writing. His distinguished YA fantasy novel ‘The Cup of the World’ and its sequels ‘The Widow and The King’ and ‘The Fatal Child’, set in a far-off, war-troubled medieval kingdom, are full of compelling, flawed characters and beautiful, ominous writing.  John has also published a historical novel for adults: ‘The Lightstep’, set in a German palatinate at the time of the French Revolution, a science fiction novel called ‘WE’ which was nominated for the Carnegie Medal, and for younger children, 'Muddle and Win: The Battle for Sally Jones', in which an angel and a demon struggle for the soul of the eponymous - and rather too Good - heroine. It's delightful, and you can find my review here.

Picture credits:

All illustrations by HR Millar, from 'Puck of Pook's Hill' by Rudyard Kipling,  Macmillan & Co 1906

Friday 12 July 2013

Magical Classics: 'The Lord Fish' by Walter de la Mare

I don’t remember when I first read this wonderful long short story – 46 pages long in my Faber edition pictured above – but it must have been a long time ago, and it’s haunted me ever since.
Many of you must know it as well as I do, but then you won’t mind me taking you back there – to the mysterious wild walled garden, enfolding woods and slopes deep with spicy bracken, to wander with John, the lazy boy who loves nothing better than to go fishing where ‘the stream flowed quiet as molten glass, reflecting the towering forest trees, the dark stone walls, and the motionless flowers and grass blades at its brim’ till we come to the ‘high dark house with but two narrow windows in the stone surface that steeped up into the sky above’ and where the stream ‘narrowed to gush in beneath a low-rounded arch in the wall, and so into the silence and darkness beyond it.’

And here, as John sits eating his lunch and listening to the cries of the jackdaws and the sound of the water gushing under the arch, he hears a voice, singing.

The thing about de la Mare’s stories is his way of combining freshness with inevitability, the one following upon the other.  The voice is a surprise, but immediately one realises that of course this is a place where you would hear an eerie singing. And... what then?

As John creeps closer to the house, hoping to peep in through a window,

…not more than an arm’s length from his stooping face a great fish leapt out of the water, its tail bent almost double, its goggling eyes fixed on him, and out of its hook-toothed mouth it cried, “A-whoof! Ou-ougoolkawott!” This at least to John was what it seemed to say.  And having delivered its message, it fell back into the dark water and in a wild eddy was gone.

Startled, John dislodges a stone which splashes into the water. At once, the singing ends.

He glanced back over his shoulder at the high wall and vacant windows, and out of the silence that had again descended he heard in mid-day a mournful hooting as of an owl, and a cold terror swept over him.

He runs, stopping only once the house is out of sight to catch a pike which gobbles down his bait so very quickly that –

John could hardly believe his own eyes. It was as if it had actually been lying in wait to be caught. He stooped to look into its strange motionless eye as it lay on the grass at his feet. Sullenly it stared back at him as though, even if it had only a minute or two to live, it were trying to give him a message, yet one that he could not understand.

This foreboding note is amplified when John’s mother, at the end of supper, remarks,

“What’s strange to me, John… is that though this fish here is a pike, and cooked as usual, with a picking of thyme and marjoram, a bit of butter, a squeeze of lemon and some chopped shallots, there’s a good deal more to him than just that. There’s  a sort of savour and sweetness to him, as if he had been daintily fed…”

Eating a fish which has tried to deliver you a message (or warning) is a portentous thing to do, so it’s the less surprising that John’s mother then almost breaks her teeth on an object which turns out to be a golden key covered in mysterious symbols – and that John can’t forget the strange, enclosed place – and that the next time his mother asks him to catch a fish for supper, he’s off there again...

And that this time he follows the stream right under the archway, and comes up for air inside the house, and climbs the stone stairs to a ‘high narrow room full of sunlight’ where he finds a girl with a fish’s tail.

When the lips in the fair small face of this strange creature began to speak to him, he could hardly make head or tail of the words.  Indeed she had been long shut up alone in this old mansion, from which the magician who had given her her fish’s tail, so that she should not be able to stray from the house, had some years gone his way, never to come back.

There’s something utterly de la Mare-ish about that – the chilling pointlessness of it all, the melancholy – the life trapped and transformed and ruined by some old magician who doesn’t even care enough to remember about it  – who doesn’t even come back.  For me, this is the quality that makes de la Mare one of the scariest of writers. He knows that people can do awful things and barely notice. This magician isn’t the sort who goes ‘Mwah-ha-ha’ and enjoys his villainy. He is no Sauron or Saruman.  He just wrecks a life and wanders off. This, I submit, is realism. And it’s terrifying.

Anyway, since John has serendipitously turned up – with a golden key, no less – it's down to him to pick up the pieces and save the lady. A pleasant duty? Not exactly. Because in no time at all, transformed into a fish, he finds himself hanging by the tail in the cold dripping stone larder of the magician’s servant who is a bony, glassy-eyed old fellow known as ‘The Lord Fish’, ‘glum and sullen as some old Lenten cod in his stiff, drab coloured overclothes. John is now entirely dependent for life and liberty upon the kindness of the Lord Fish’s little larder maid, who keeps the fishes alive until the Lord Fish wants to eat them…

If you don’t know this story already, do find it and read it. If you do know it, this is a nudge to go back and read it again. I don’t know why it’s not as well known as Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’; there’s so much to think about. About how to treat creatures which may or may not be human, about casual cruelty, selflessness and forlorn kindnesses and the impossibility of setting everything to rights. All wrapped in unforgettable beauty:

Now the Lord Fish who had caught him lived in a low stone house. Fountains jetted in its hollow echoing chambers and water lapped its walls on every side. Not even the barking of a fox or the scream of a peacock or any sound of birds could be heard in it; it was so full of the suffling and sighing, the music and murmuration of water, all day, all night long. But poor John being upside down had little opportunity to view or heed its marvels. And still muffled up in his thick green overcoat of moss he presently found himself suspended by his tail from a hook in the Lord Fish’s larder, a long cool dusky room or vault with but one window to it, and that only a hole in the upper part of the wall…

All artwork by Rex Whistler

Friday 5 July 2013

Magical Classics: 'The Exploits of Moomipappa' by Tove Jansson

Catherine Butler enjoys the wisdom, joy and occasional melancholy of the gentle Moomins

The Exploits of Moominpappa (1952)

I came rather late to the Moomins, reading Tove Jansson’s books for the first time only when my own children were small, but I have the zealotry of the convert. For those who have not come across them, a quick way to convey something of their quality might be “Winnie-the-Pooh as written by Jean-Paul Sartre”. Like Pooh, Moomintroll and his friends – who include a wide variety of creatures, not just the hippo-like Moomins themselves – inhabit a rural arcadia of sorts. Their adventures are amusing and apparently inconsequential, although those that take place in Moominvalley tend to be more dramatic and (on occasion) magical than those in the Hundred Aker Wood. The Moomins are given to philosophizing on family, freedom, happiness, friendship and other important topics, but this is an arcadia that can show a bleaker face than Milne’s, one subject not only to floods and snow but to comet strikes, in which depression (not just Eeyore-ish lugubriousness) is a felt presence, and in which even death casts a bony shadow. If you are familiar with Jansson’s writing for adults, such as The Summer Book, you will find the same poetic, lapidary wisdom in Moominvalley, as well as the same setting on the Gulf of Finland, where midsummer days last round the clock and midwinter barely sees the sun.

'The birds, the worms, the tree-spirits and the mousewives...'

Most Moomin fans have their favourite character. For many it is Snufkin – the placid and self-sufficient friend of young Moomintroll, who likes to spend the summers with his friends in Moominvalley but is also happy in his own company, and roused to anger only by petty displays of authority (park keepers and Keep Out signs being particular bugbears). For others it will be the minute but indomitable Little My, an atom of energetic, unsentimental feistiness. I too love Snufkin, and Littly My hangs (in plush form) from my rear-view mirror, but I also have a particular fondness for Moominpappa, the top-hatted patriarch of the Moomin family. Like several middle-aged males in children’s literature (think Bilbo Baggins, think Ratty with the Old Sea Rat) Moominpappa is perpetually torn between the instinct for domesticity (he cannot settle anywhere long without building a Moominhouse) and the call to the open sea and adventure, epitomized in his desire to join the mysterious and mute Hattifatteners in their endless ocean journeying.

In the early Moomin books Moominpappa watches benignly over the family’s adventures, leaving most of the work to the preternaturally accommodating Moominmamma; later, in Moominpappa at Sea, he succumbs to depression and something of a mid-life crisis. The Exploits of Moominpappa* (first published 1952) sits somewhere between these two phases. Set in high summer, is a retrospective book that nevertheless shows Moominpappa in festive mood, with an ending (I will not give it away) that absurdly and triumphantly redeems the time of his youth. Unlike the other Moomin books this is told largely in the first person, with Moominpappa sitting down to write his life-story up to the moment of his fateful meeting with Moominmamma, and stopping occasionally to read chapters to his son Moomintroll, Snufkin and their friend, the anxious and querulous Sniff. 

As a narrator, Moominpappa has something of Boswell’s bumptiousness and hunger for praise, combined with the blithe lack of self-awareness of an Oswald Bastable. We follow him as he escapes from the orphanage where he has been raised by a humourless Hemulen (aren’t they all?), and watch as he gathers a collection of friends as eccentric as himself, including practical, taciturn Hodgkins; Hodgkins’ flighty nephew, the button-collecting Muddler; and the free-spirited Joxter. Together they travel the ocean on a houseboat which (being both a house and a boat) combines Moominpappa’s contrary desires in one. Their journey takes in adventures with snout-devouring Niblungs, the icy and fearsome Groke, the gigantic but slightly less fearsome Edward the Booble, a Hemulen Aunt with a passion for multiplication contests, an Autocrat addicted to practical jokes, and a domesticated ghost who delights in talk of bones and dire revenges.

'A million billion fishes came swimming from everywhere...'

Exploits is not the place to begin with the Moomin books: for that I would recommend Moominsummer Madness or Finn Family Moomintroll, where you will be introduced to the major characters and get a more general feeling for Jansson’s world. However, if you prefer the Odyssey to the Iliad, or if The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is your favourite Narnia book, then this journey too will hold a special place in your heart, and I can only echo what Moominpappa writes in his foreword:

I believe many of my readers will thoughtfully lift their snout from the pages of this book every once in a while to exclaim: “What a Moomin!” or: “This indeed is life!”

* There is a later version of this book called Moominpappa’s Memoirs, which differs from Exploits in some small but – for Jansson completists – significant respects. Both, however, are well worth reading!

Catherine Butler is the author of some half dozen fantasy novels for children and young adults, as well as being Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of the West of England, where she specializes in children's literature. She has lived in Bristol since 1990, has two children (one grown up and one well on the way), and is currently trying to learn the piano and Japanese, though not in combination. She has edited a collection of spooky winter stories, Twisted Winter (A&C Black 2013).

Picture credits: All artwork by Tove Jansson