Saturday 31 August 2013

Witches: Queens and Crones and Little Girls

The witches from children’s fiction who appeared in my last post were all wicked. But their authors wrote about them with humour, and a relish for the sheer range of social possibilities open to a character possessing magical powers and zero scruples. Miss Smith, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer and Madam Mim are most unlovable, but we can thoroughly enjoy their subversive wickedness in complete assurance that all will be well in the end. Theirs is the evergreen appeal of seeing someone behave appallingly badly in ways you secretly long to do yourself, but haven't the nerve.

In this post, though, I’m thinking about some much darker witches, whose authors take them – and expect us to take them – very seriously.  All the examples in this post are from books I've been reading and rereading for years, and deeply admire. These witches are quite diverse, but two things are constant: they are all bad characters, and we are not expected to feel any secret sympathy for them.

And you can forget about the old crone with nutcracker nose and chin, wearing a pointed hat and riding on a broomstick. Instead, we meet a range of variants on the ‘witch queen’ theme, plus a scatter of adherents to black magic including a scholar, a postmistress and a little girl.

The witch queen is a stereotype as old as the hills, coming down to us from many an ancient goddess (Ishtar, Astarte, Diana Queen of the Night) whose worship was suppressed. This picture of Medea by the Pre-Raphaelite Frederick Sandys suggests the type. Patriarchal monotheism doesn’t go in for powerful females. They’re difficult to keep out, as the cult of the Madonna shows – but the Madonna personifies male-approved feminine qualities of tenderness, mercy, beauty and maternal love. Patriarchal systems save the tougher qualities of justice, wrath, vengeance etc, for the male deity. The Madonna never said ‘Vengeance is mine’. But Diana had Acteon torn to pieces by his own hounds.

Descended from disapproved goddesses, it’s usual for fictional witch queens to be beautiful, sexual women of great power, selfishness and cruelty. Check out T.H. White’s Morgause, Queen of Orkney, busy – on the first occasion we meet her – boiling a cat alive, and all for nothing: nearing the end of the spell, Morgause can’t be bothered to continue. She’s the mother from hell. Adored by her sons, she alternately neglects, torments and smothers them. She uses everyone she meets and is the ruin of most of them. The title of the book in which she appears, "The Queen of Air and Darkness", comes from the well known poem by  A.E. Housman, worth quoting in full:

Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
And the knife at her neck

The Queen of air and darkness
Begins to shrill and cry,
'O young man, O my slayer.
Tomorrow you shall die.'

O Queen of air and darkness,
I think 'tis truth you say,
And I shall die tomorrow,
But you shall die today.

It's an extraordinary conjuration of fear and violence, and antagonism not only between the sexes but possibly between the generations.  There is no sympathy, no possibility of mercy towards this Queen.  She is to be destroyed as one might kill a snake.

T.H. White was a man tormented by his own sexuality and suppressed sado-masochistic tendencies. He had a terrible relationship with his own mother, and once wrote to his friend David Garnett (asking him to call on her), “She is a witch, so look out, if you go.” In Elisabeth Brewer’s critical work, ‘T.H. White’s The Once and Future King’, 1993, White is quoted as describing Morgause thus:

She should have all the frightful power and mystery of women. Yet she should be quite shallow, cruel, selfish…One important thing is her Celtic blood. Let her be the worst West-of-Ireland type: the one with cunning bred in the bone. Let her be mealy-mouthed: butter would not melt in it. Yet also she must be full of blood and power.

Blood and power (and racism): White is clearly very frightened of this woman, who both fascinates and repels him. He didn’t find his Morgause in Malory. Malory’s Queen Morgawse isn’t even an enchantress like her half-sister Morgan Le Fay. ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’ presents her as a great lady whose sins are adulterous rather than sorcerous. No: White created his Morgause out of his own fears and loathings.

Whether or not ‘The Once and Future King’ is really a book for children – I first read it as a young teen – the Narnia books certainly are, and contain two excellent examples of the Witch Queen: Jadis of ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, who reappears as the White Witch in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’; and the Green Witch of ‘The Silver Chair’, who shares many characteristics with fairy queens of the Unseelie Court. (But let’s stick to witches for now.) Jadis is proud, cruel, ruthless and ambitious, and as the White Witch and usurper of Narnia, actually sacrifices Aslan the Lion. Lewis traces her descent from Lilith and – in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’ – she is seen stealing the apples of Life in a scene echoing the transgression of Eve. The comedy of the chapter in which she riots through London, balancing on top of a hansom cab as if it were a chariot, does suggest some wicked delight on the part of the author –  perhaps mostly because of Uncle Andrew’s complete discomfiture. Lewis is making a point about different types of evil: where Uncle Andrew is slimy and small-minded,  Jadis has beauty, style and magnificence: but we are not to approve of either of them. The Green Lady, by contrast, is softly spoken, charming, ‘feminine’ – and sly, dangerous and deceitful. Women, Lewis clearly feels, should be neither domineering nor manipulative…

Celtic legends have provided the attributes of many a witch-queen of modern times. The foremost is Alan Garner’s ‘the Morrigan’, a name borrowed from Irish legend and originally probably that of a war goddess. The name is variously translated as Great Queen or Phantom Queen. At any rate, in Garner’s ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, she appears as the death or crone aspect of the triple Moon Goddess: the roles of maiden and mother being taken respectively by the young heroine Susan, and the Lady of the Lake Angharad Goldenhand. Dividing up the feminine in this way allows the author to approve maiden and mother (on the time-honoured Madonna pattern) while disapproving the crone. The Morrigan isn’t all that old, but she seems so to Susan, and is physically unattractive:

She looked about forty-five years old, was powerfully built (“fat” was the word Susan used to describe her), and her head rested firmly upon her shoulders without appearing to have much of a neck at all. Two deep lines ran from wither side of her nose to the corners of her wide, thin-lipped mouth, and her eyes were rather too small for her broad head. Strangely enough her legs were long and spindly, so that in outline she resembled a well-fed sparrow, but again that was Susan’s description… Her eyes rolled upwards and the lids came down till only an unpleasant white line showed; and then she began to whisper to herself.

('But again that was Susan's description' - this is oddly arch, for Garner.  It's as if he's disassociating himself from Susan's opinion:  the subtext is that you might not want to believe her - but why?  Because Susan might be jealous?  Because you can't ever wholly trust what one female says about another?)

Anyway.  Frightening, powerful, ruthless, the Morrigan wastes no time in trying to conjure the children into her car so that she can take the ‘Bridestone’ from Susan. Later, in the second book, ‘The Moon of Gomrath’, the Morrigan is revealed in her true strength. In a chapter which still makes my spine prickle after years of re-reading, Susan faces the Morrigan outside the ruined house which is only ‘there’ in the moonlight:

Now Susan felt the true weight of her danger, when she looked into eyes that were as luminous as an owl’s with blackness swirling in their depths. The moon charged the Morrigan with such power that when she lifted her hand even the voice of the stream died, and the air was sweet with fear.

Susan and the Morrigan vie with one another, black and silver lances of power jetting from their mirror-opposite bracelets, and when at last Susan wins by blowing the horn of Angharad Goldenhand, it’s an all-female victory by which the world is unsettlingly changed: Susan’s brother Colin hears a sound ‘so beautiful he never found rest again’, and ‘the Old Magic was free for ever, and the moon was new.’ Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Garner’s answer appears to be that it’s an unavoidable natural force, and each individual will have to come to his or her own terms with it.

Powerful, magical, beautiful as the books are, Garner is forced into an awkward distinction between the Black Magic supposedly practised by the Morrigan, and the Old Magic of the elemental Wild Hunt and the moon maidens Susan and Angharad. It seems a little illogical to brand the Old Moon as evil while the New and Full Moons are good… I’m not sure quite where the Morrigan’s evil really resides, and I think LeGuin would say that we need to accept the darkness as well as the light. (In Garner's recent sequel, 'Boneland' he take a fresh look at the Morrigan.)  But the books are brilliant, and the Morrigan is another unforgettable witch-queen.

Moving on from the Celtic goddesses, we come to some witches of more mundane appearance. First, Emma Cobley of Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘Linnets and Valerians’. Goudge was a spiritual, religious writer: also an intelligent, questioning one, and there are some moving passages in her adult books about the trials of mental illness. She was conscious of goodness as a great force, and of evil as a force almost as strong. In this book, Emma Cobley is an elderly postmistress of humble background; as a young, vivid girl she was in love with Hugo Valerian, the squire; and when he married the doctor’s daughter Alicia, in jealous hatred she cast spells on him and his wife and child. Spells for ‘binding the tongue’, for causing loss of memory, for ‘a coolness to come between a man and a woman’: little images carved of mandrake root with pins piercing the tongue or heart. Emma keeps the village shop, full of tempting sweets like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel, and owns a black cat which can change size. The wickedness in the book is an expression of the capacity of the human soul to cling to destructive passions.

As is the acquisitiveness of the next witch: Dr Melanie D. Powers, of Lucy Boston’s ‘An Enemy at Green Knowe’. (For those who don’t know the Green Knowe series, it’s a set of gentle but eerie ghost stories set in Lucy Boston’s own wonderful 11th century manor house, and I can’t praise it too highly.) The grandson of the house, Tolly, and his friend Ping, pit themselves against his grandmother’s new neighbour, a prying, malicious woman, a Cambridge don and scholar of the occult, who has – we slowly realise – struck a Faustian bargain with the devil. She has got wind of an ancient occult manuscript to be found in the manor house, and will stop at nothing to get hold of it. Miss Powers (who has an unaccountable dislike of passing in front of a mirror) invites herself to tea at the manor, and makes ultra-sweet conversation with such ominous lines as:

“One can sense that yours is a very happy family. Happy families are not so frequent as people make out. And unfortunately they are easily broken up. Very easily.”

She refuses to take a small cake:

“Grown-ups do better without extra luxuries like that. It is enough for me to look at them.”

In fact, it seemed to Tolly that she could not take her eyes off them… About half an hour later when tea was over… Mrs Oldknowe offered to lead the way upstairs to see the rest of the house. Miss Powers was standing with her back to the table, her hands clasped behind her, lingering to look at the picture over the fireplace, when Tolly… saw one of the little French cakes move, jerkily, as if a mouse were pulling it. Then it slid over the edge of the plate… and into the twiddling fingers held ready for it behind Miss Powers’ back.

And this tells us everything we need to know about Miss Powers. Petty, deceitful, covetous, full of malice, she is a truly evil person. The damage she causes is real: the boys’ beloved grandmother, Mrs Oldknowe, is nearly defeated by her; and the triumph of good over evil – the grand climax when, in the midst of a total eclipse of the sun, her demon is finally driven out of her – is only precariously achieved.

Pettiness and selfish ambition are qualities lavishly displayed by Gwendolen Chant, of Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘Charmed Life’. Wynne Jones writes even-handedly about good and evil witches, warlocks and wizards, but Gwendolen is one of the worst of the bunch. What Wynne Jones despises above all is exploitation of others and betrayal of trust. Gwendolen, a pretty girl with blue eyes and golden hair, exploits and betrays her younger brother Cat to the extent of actually causing his death on several occasions – since Cat, as she knows and he doesn’t, is a nine-lifed enchanter. Gwendolen uses his extra lives to enhance her own powers of witchcraft. Like some of the witches I wrote about last week, Gwendolen has no problem with the sort of anti-social behaviour which can be entertaining to behold – as Cat says, ‘I quite liked some of the things she did’ – but we are left in no doubt that she has gone too far when she conjures up what we later discover to be the apparitions of Cat’s lost lives:

The first was like a baby that was too small to walk – except that it was walking, with its big head wobbling. The next was a cripple, so twisted and cramped upon itself that it could barely hobble. The third was… pitiful, wrinkled and draggled. The last had its white skin barred with blue stripes. All were weak and white and horrible.

So there’s the range of seriously presented evil witches in children’s fiction, from glamorous witch queens to extremely nasty little girls. All of the witch queens I could call to mind have been created by men; women writers have created more domestic and less obviously dramatic characters. I leave you to decide what the different examples say, individually, about the various authors’ attitudes to women. Next post will be about the sympathetic presentation of witches – children’s books where witches are given an altogether more positive aspect.

 © Katherine Langrish 27 August 2010

Saturday 24 August 2013

Witches in Children's Literature

Macbeth:  How now, you secret, black and midnight hags?  What is’t you do?
Witches: A deed without a name.

“Witch” is not a neutral word. You can have good wizards or bad wizards, it seems, and when you encounter a fictional wizard you cannot be certain what leanings he may have.  (Gandalf is good, Saruman is bad.) But the default option for a fictional witch is that she will be wicked, unless the qualifying adjective ‘white’ is used. There is a gender-based difference here.

My friend the YA writer Leslie Wilson has pointed out to me that African witches can be men. I wonder, though, if there are translation issues here, as there were for the ‘witch’ of Endor.  Who was it who first chose ‘witch’ as the correct translation for whatever the African words for these people are?  Why ‘witch’ rather than ‘sorcerer’ or ‘shaman’?  The name you give to something affects or reflects the way you think about it.  I notice that we in the west tend to refer to African ‘tribes’, which sounds primitive.  When we refer to ourselves we speak of nations – or, on a more familial level, clans.  Was ‘witch-doctor’ a term used in disparagement?  Someone reading this may know.

But in any case, I still think the ‘wicked’ aspect of the witch is linked to male fear of female power.  Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books turned into an almost philosophical exploration of this thought. In the first book, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, wonderful and complex though it is, the usual stereotypes apply, as expressed in a couple of Gontish proverbs: Weak as women’s magic or  wicked as women’s magic.  ‘Good’ women in the book are unlearned and domestic.  The others are either ignorant crones with a few half-understood cantrips and charms, or else powerful, beautiful, ambitious and ruthless.  Reading the Earthsea books through in sequence is to follow LeGuin’s impressive journey from acceptance of this stereotype, to questioning of it, to utter rejection. 

In popular usage, even in this day and age, calling a woman a ‘witch’ is never complimentary – but neither is it entirely without positive implications.  A ‘witch’ is a woman who may be perceived as (illicitly) powerful, throwing her weight about, inspiring fear or envy. (As Cherie Blair and Hilary Clinton have been perceived.)  A ‘witch’ is a woman who cannot be ignored.

And in this spirit, a spirit of subversive enjoyment, I think many of the witches of children’s fiction have been conceived.  I’m going to start off with a favourite from my own childhood, out of print now for many years: Beverley Nichols’ fantasy series   for children beginning with ‘The Tree That Sat Down’.  Here we meet the unforgettable Miss Smith.  She looks like a Bright Young Thing, ‘as pretty as a pin-up girl’; she is actually three hundred and eighty-five years old; her familiars are three quite disgusting toads whom she keeps in the refrigerator; she puffs green smoke from her nostrils in moments of stress; she flies a Hoover instead of a broomstick, and she takes an energetic delight in wickedness with which the author clearly had enormous fun.  As Miss Smith walks through the wood (on her way to make trouble for little Judy and her grandmother who keep a shop in the Willow Tree),

… all the evil things in the dark corners knew that she was passing… The snakes felt the poison tingling in their tails and made vows to sting something as soon as possible.  The ragged toadstools oozed with more of their deadly slime… In many dark caves, wicked old spiders, who had long given up hope of catching a fly, began to weave again with tattered pieces of web, muttering to themselves as they mended the knots…

Miss Smith’s fetching exterior allows her to inveigle her way into all sorts of places.  For example, she deals with the evil Sir Percy Pike who preys upon widows and orphans by lending money at extortionate rates.  Miss Smith is ‘also very keen on widows and orphans’, and – driven by professional jealousy – presents herself to Sir Percy in the guise of a beautiful widow, bedizened with diamond rings.

At the sight of these rings Sir Percy began to dribble so hard that he had to take out a handkerchief and hold it over his chin. … No sooner had he shut the door, than she spat in his face, hit him sharply on the chin with the diamond rings, knelt on his chest, and proceeded to tell him exactly what she thought of him. 

You can’t help cheering – even though Miss Smith is just as bad herself.  She comes into all Beverley Nichols’ children’s books: the others are ‘The Stream that Stood Still’, ‘The Mountain of Magic’ and ‘The Wickedest Witch in the World’.  Though she is of course foiled on every occasion, hers is the energy that drives the narrative. 

Next on my list is the witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer in John Masefield’s ‘The Midnight Folk’ (Heinemann, 1927) and – though appearing to a lesser extent – in the sequel, ‘The Box of Delights’.  Little Kay Harker is a lonely, imaginative child: the book is peopled with his imaginary friends, toys, pet cats and ancestors who may or may not be ‘really there’.  His life is ruled by the strict and over-fussy governess Miss Pouncer:

“Don’t answer me back, sir,” she said.  “You’re a very naughty, disobedient little boy, and I have a very good mind not to let you have an egg.  I wouldn’t let you have an egg, only I had to stop your supper last night.  Take off one of those slipper and let me feel it.  Come here.”
Kay went up rather gingerly, having been caught in this way more than once.  He took off one slipper and tended it for inspection.
“Just as I thought,” she said.  “The damp has come right through the lining, and that’s the way your stockings get worn out.”  In a very pouncing way she spanked at his knuckles with the slipper…

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that at night when the Midnight Folk reign in the old house, Miss Pouncer is cast in the role of the chief witch:

There were seven old witches in tall black hats and long scarlet cloaks sitting round the table at a very good supper.  They were very piggy in their eating (picking the bones with their fingers, etc) and they had almost finished the Marsala.  The old witch who sat at the top of the table…had a hooky nose and very bright eyes.
            “Dear Pouncer is going to sing to us,” another witch said.

And Pouncer does, to great effect:

“When the midnight strikes in the belfry dark
And the white goose quakes at the fox’s bark,
We saddle the horse that is hayless, oatless,
Hoofless and pranceless, kickless and coatless,
We canter off for a midnight prowl…”
            All the witches put their heads back to sing the chorus:
“Whoo-hoo-hoo, says the hook-eared owl.”

No wonder Nibbins, Kay’s cat, exclaims, “I can’t resist this song.  I never could.” Wicked the witches may be, but once again the author relishes their energy, their subversive delight. 

Another small boy in the clutches of a powerful female is the Wart in the hands of Madam Mim, in T.H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone”.  This passage was cut from “The Once and Future King” – perhaps White thought it was too burlesque for the soberer, more epic quality of the longer work?  (The witch of “The Once and Future King” is of course the Queen of Air and Darkness, the terrifying Queen of Orkney.)  Madam Mim is a humbler creation, but probably all too familiar to any little boy whose mother or nurse undressed him for an unwanted bath.  Madam Mim forcibly undresses The Wart with an eye to popping him in the pot and cooking him, singing a chicken-plucking song as she does so:

“Pluck the feathers with the skin
Not against the grain-oh.
Pluck the small ones out from in,
The great with might and main-oh.
Even if he wriggles, never mind his squiggles,
For mercifully little boys are quite immune to pain-oh.”

The Scots writer Nicholas Stuart Grey created another memorable witch in ‘Mother Gothel’, the desperately evil witch in “The Stone Cage” (Dobson 1963), his retelling of the fairytale Rapunzel.  Here, the fun and energy of the story belongs to the narrator, Mother Gothel’s cat Tomlyn – whose cynical and laconic style belies the fact that his heart is in the right place.  The witch herself is powerful, terrifying, slovenly, sluttish, but ultimately pathetic and redeemable. 

More wicked witches next week – this time, some of the darker and more serious treatments.
 © Katherine Langrish 23 August 2010
Picture credits:
Miss Smith the witch: illustrations by Isobel and John Morton-Sale from Beverley Nichols' 'The Tree that Sat Down' 

Friday 9 August 2013

Good News! And Bad News -

Please don't worry though!  Actually the bad news isn't so bad.  I'm about to take a break from this blog, but I fully intend to be back here some time in the autumn with a new selection of wonderful guest writers, Magical Classics, Folklore Snippets, and  possibly even Fairytale Reflections, as well as anything else that strikes me about the wonderful world of folklore, fairytale and fantasy.

I began 'Steel Thistles' in December of 2009, and I've been blogging pretty well steadily ever since, at least once a week and sometimes more.  I've enjoyed every moment of it. But - and  here is the good news! - during that time I've also been researching and writing my new book. In fact, I even mentioned the book in that very first post of more than four years ago - which is a rather scary thought!  It's the longest I've ever taken over writing a book - I'm one of those 'revise as you go' writers - and I'm now finally beginning the last chapter.

I'll tell you a little tiny bit about it: it's YA (ie: for Young Adults), and it's set in the future, in the same world as the short story 'Visiting Nelson' which I wrote for the Terri Windling/Ellen Datlow anthology AFTER (whose cover you can see in the right hand column). I've been living and dreaming it for so long, I can hardly believe I'm nearly there. (Except, and this is good,the next thing I have to do is write the sequel!)

So, dear reader, I need to take time off, have a breathing space, let the well of inspiration refill - all that stuff. In the mean time, I hope you'll keep visiting, because I'm going to be reposting one of my older posts each week, things you may have not seen - or forgotten.  Also, I'd like to tell you again the story of how this blog got its rather strange title - 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles'.

It comes from a phrase in a West Irish fairytale called The King Who had Twelve Sons, in which the hero has to ride 'over seven miles of hill on fire, and seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea'.

I read that, and I thought it was a good metaphor for life in general and the craft of writing in particular. It can be a long hard journey, but you get there. In the end.

Even though I won't be writing new posts for a while, I'll be dropping in myself regularly, so I hope you'll leave comments, and we can keep talking.  And here's the very first post I ever wrote for this blog, with that reference to the now-almost-completed-book.

See you in the autumn!


For nefarious reasons connected with my next book, I’ve been investigating towers, and as one thing leads to another and fictional towers tend to carry the mind to Dark Towers, I found myself – and not for the first time – considering the economy of Mordor. You could hardly complain about the amount of creative thought and background research that JRR Tolkien put into creating the world of Middle-Earth, but he was undeniably stronger on history and languages than he was on geography and economics. 

A look at the map is instructive.  Mordor is a landlocked country, surrounded on three sides by suspiciously straight lines of mountains.  In the north-west is the Plateau of Gorgoroth, perhaps volcanic; doubtless dry and cold, for no rivers run from it.  To the south-east is the low-lying and bitter Sea of Nurnen.  No navigable rivers flow out of Mordor, though the River Harnen has its source just beyond the southern border.  The Great River Anduin curves provocatively close to Mordor’s western frontier, but there appear to be only two passes through the Ephel Duath: Minas Morgul represents one; the Morannon or ‘Black Gate’ the other. 

Trade-routes to the west, therefore, are few and far between.  To the east Mordor lies open, but although we sometimes hear of ‘Easterlings’or ‘Wainriders’ – enemies of Gondor – they are characterised as wild nomadic tribesmen, unlikely sources of supplies.  South Gondor is marked on the map as ‘a debatable or desert land’, and Near Harad, Haradwaith and Khand appear utterly devoid of forests, rivers, cities or hills.  It’s a complete puzzle how the ‘Southrons’ who ally themselves with Mordor find the resources to muster their vast armies mounted on oliphaunts.

Mordor itself is an ecologist’s nightmare: a wasteland of slag and ash, scored with gaping fissures and rocky ridges, governed by an evil all-seeing Eye on the top of a vast Dark Tower not too far from an active volcano which pours out ever more ash and smoke.  Nothing grows.  There’s hardly any rain, and any trickle of water running through the polluted land swiftly becomes poisoned.

In the course of rescuing Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol, Sam raises a question that suggests Tolkien may have experienced a slight frisson of doubt about the non-availability of food in Mordor.  ‘Don’t orcs eat, and don’t they drink?  Or do they just live on foul air and poison?’  Frodo assures Sam that on the contrary, orcs do eat:  ‘Foul waters and foul meats they’ll take, if they can get no better, but not poison.’ 

Armies, as we know, march on their stomachs.  I can see that an enormous fiery Eye isn’t going to care that in all his wide lands there’s not a bite to eat; and the Nine Ringwraiths probably don’t mind much either.  But the orcs?  How do they benefit from serving Sauron?  And Frodo watches whole armies marching into Mordor via the northern Black Gate:  ‘men of other race, out of the wide Eastlands, gathering to the summons of their Overlord.’   What on Middle-Earth are they thinking of?  What can they expect to gain from rallying to the aid of a Dark Lord who rules a bankrupt country with no agriculture, no exports or imports and no internal food supplies?  There isn’t even the prospect of future riches if Gondor falls to Sauron – for in that case Gondor itself will become a similar wasteland.

In any normal world economy, Mordor would be over its ears in debt.  Refugees – orcs, Easterlings and Southrons – would be streaming westwards in the hope of better lives for themselves in Gondor.  Rather than closing its gates against an invading army, Minas Tirith would be coping with an influx of immigrants.  The tough and hardy orcs would hire themselves out as cheap labour in exchange for a few coppers and a square meal.  Mounted bands of Rohirrim would patrol the borders of Rohan to turn away fugitives.  Dark Lord or no Dark Lord, Sauron would have no choice but to borrow money from the coffers of Minas Tirith – or from the metal-rich dwarfs – in order to keep Mordor from emptying itself.  The power is with the purse strings. 

Still, The Lord of the Rings is not a political satire.  Perhaps we can be grateful that Tolkien didn’t look too closely at the economy of Mordor.  Middle-Earth is a polarised world.  The brave, the beautiful and the good are all grouped together on one side, while the wicked, the ugly and the cruel gravitate together on the other. So let’s hear it for the all-powerful Dark Lord, Ruler of the Wastelands, Commander of Ringwraiths, Leader of the Axis of Evil. 

So long as we remember he doesn’t exist. 

(21 December 2009)

Picture credits: John Bauer: illustration from The Ring - the link is here, with a fascinating essay about visual influences on Tolkien's world:

Map of Mordor, from The Return of the King.

Friday 2 August 2013

Magical Classics: 'Harding's Luck' by E Nesbit

Delia Sherman on a favourite time-travelling hero
Harding’s Luck  (1923) is not one of E. Nesbit’s better known titles, so I was delighted when Delia Sherman chose it as her ‘Magical Classic’; I love it too. It’s the story of young Dickie, lame and poor, who lives in a London back street near New Cross:

At least the address was New Cross, but really the house where he lived was one of a row of horrid little houses built on the slope where once green fields ran down to the river, and the old houses of the Deptford merchants stood stately in their pleasant gardens ... All those good fields and happy gardens are built over now.  It is as though some wicked giant had taken a big brush full of yellow ochre paint, and another of mud-colour, and had painted out the green in streaks of dull yellow and filthy brown; and the brown is the roads and the yellow is the houses. 

One day Dickie sows a packet of Artistic Bird Seed in his wretched little back yard, hoping that they will 'come up parrot-coloured': and up comes a moonflower: a great flower like a sunflower, only white. 

“Why,” said Dickie, “It’s as big as a dinner plate.” It was. It stood up, beautiful and stately, and turned its cream-white face to the sun.
“The stalk’s like a little tree,” said Dickie, and so it was.  It had great drooping leaves, and a dozen smaller white flowers stood out below it on long stalks, thinner than that need to support the moonflower itself.  “It is a moonflower of course,” he said, “if the other kind’s sunflowers. I love it!  I love it!  I love it!” 

Dickie’s adventures really begin when he tries to exchange the flowers for his only treasure, a silver rattle he calls Tinkler, which his aunt has pawned. Before long he's off on adventures with a kindly but unscrupulous tramp called Beale, sleeping out of doors in 'the bed with the green curtains' and being used – as Oliver Twist was – for a burglar's assistant. Caught, he returns home to find his house empty and his 'aunt' gone. Alone in the moonlight, he makes a pattern with the moonflower seeds, a six-pointed star. 'And then the magic began’ – and lame little Dickie Harding is transported into the past by two of E. Nesbit’s magical creatures, the white mouldiwarps, to awake as Richard Arden, heir to a great house – and no longer lame. But which life is real?

Here is Delia to tell you more. 

I can’t remember when I first read E. Nesbit or even which book I began with, except that it was not The Railway Children.  I think it must have been Harding’s Luck, though, because I am much attached to Harding’s Luck in that wide-eyed, delighted, unquestioning way one is attached to books read as a child.  I do know it is one of the influences that pushed me towards my life-long obsession with Renaissance England and time travel and even issues of class and poverty and privilege and noblesse oblige and nature and nurture, all these things being very central to both the text and subtext of Harding’s Luck.
I was also, I fear, much influenced by Nesbit’s episodic plotting, slightly arch Edwardian prose, and tendency to fall into dialect and obsolete idiom given the slightest excuse.
Many years later, I still love Harding’s Luck.  Dickie Harding is one of my favorite Nesbit heroes.  He is refreshingly matter-of-fact about his disability and the difficult, hard-scrabble life he lives with the drunken, abusive woman he calls his aunt.  They are what he knows, and he makes the best of them without self-conscious heroism.  Not unnaturally, he’s a good liar, and does so cheerfully until he learns better on his first trip into the past.  While Nesbit sets him up to become saintly, he never becomes a plaster saint, too good to be true or truly likable.  He has a sense of humor and a temper and a romantic streak that make him feel very real, and very suited to the 17th century life he choses in the end.
Which is the life I would have chosen, too, given the way Nesbit writes about it.  The clothes, the people, the society she describes are pure story-book, absent the dirt, disease, poverty, drink, and abuse so feelingly rendered in the “modern day” Edwardian plot.  Yet it is tremendously satisfying that Dickie, who takes refuge from the miseries of his life in romances like Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake, be allowed to live exactly the life he’s longed for, full of honor and love and beauty, where danger is a matter of choice, not happenstance, not to mention magical moles who twist time to give children wonderful adventures.
May I confess that when I picked up Harding’s Luck for this re-read that I’d forgotten all about the mouldiwarps?  I remembered Tinkler and the moon seeds and Dickie and the bed with green curtains fondly, and greeted their appearance with joy, but the Mouldiwarps came as a surprise.  To me, they are peripheral to Dickie’s story, and, as charming as they are, I wish she’d left them out. Perhaps this is just me not liking the book’s prequel, The House of Arden, very much, or its scatterbrained protagonists, who are constantly having to be rescued from the consequences of their shortsightedness by the family talpae ex machina.  It was a pattern that worked well enough in the Psammead books, but I just can’t warm to Edred and Elfrida—in this book, either.
Rereading Harding’s Luck has reminded me that I love Charles Kingsley, too.  Now I shall have to go reread Water Babies.  And possibly Hereward the Wake
Delia Sherman writes historical/folklore/semi-comic fairy stories with a serious twist.  Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in many anthologies.  Her adult novels are 'Through a Brazen Mirror' and 'The Porcelain Dove' (which won the Mythopoeic Award) and, with Ellen Kushner, 'The Fall of Kings'.  She is the author of two novels for younger children, 'Changeling' and 'The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen', featuring impetuous, warm-hearted Neef, the official changeling of New York's Central Park. Her most recent novel is The Freedom Maze (2011). Set in Louisiana in 1960 -- and 1860 -- it is a fantasy novel that uses the device of time-travel to explore themes of slavery, courage, womanhood, and family ties. Though ostensibly aimed at young-adult readers, the historical research underpinning the novel makes it accessible to anyone with an interest in US history. The novel won the 2012 Prometheus Award [1] and the Andre Norton Award.

Harding's Luck can be read online here:   Illustrations by HR Millar.