Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Imagined Afterlives: Death in Classic Fantasy

One from the archives (October 2016)

What – if anything – happens after death? A fantasy world, no matter how beautifully constructed, lacks something if there’s no thought given to what happens when characters die, or at least to what beliefs they hold about what may happen. We live not so much in the physical universe as in our mental construction of it. People have always speculated about what, if anything, happens after death, so not unnaturally it is a recurrent theme in many of the fantasies I love best – The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia stories, Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and the Old Kingdom novels of Garth Nix. 

To begin with Tolkien: though mortal, Hobbits don’t seem to have a theory of the afterlife. Innocent, rural, physical, they thoroughly enjoy this life’s pleasures and die with a sense of fulfilment: a long life well lived. Can Bilbo outlive the Old Took? He will if he can. We are told nothing of Hobbit funerals except at the very end of The Return of the King where the hobbits who fell at the Battle of Bywater are laid together ‘in a grave on the hillside, where later a great stone was set up with a garden around it.’ Their names live on in memory, but there’s no hint of any hobbit heaven, just practical disposal of the mortal remains – and an equally practical interest in inheritance.

Dwarves are mortal too. From the evidence of Balin’s tomb in Moria they build, as you’d expect, good solid stone monuments to commorate their dead. Again there’s little evidence of a dwarfish belief in an afterlife, but a mystical streak is apparent in Gimli’s hints about their creator-ancestor Durin, a hero-king asleep under the stone, who will one day awake – and who, according to Appendix A, is occasionally reincarnated in a child of his line.  Then there are the Ents. Though some, like Treebeard, are immensely ancient, Ents are probably not immortal. Since they have lost the Entwives there can be no more Entlings and their race will dwindle. Some Ents become more and more like trees, and even the oldest tree eventually dies, though perhaps a truly tree-ish Ent will hardly notice. The Elves are immortal unless killed in battle, or unless like Lùthien and Arwen they choose mortality – but the trees of Lothlorien are in eternal autumn, their springtime long passed, and more and more of the Fair Folk are heading for the Grey Havens.  

The point about Mortal Men in Middle-earth is that they are mortal. The Riders of Rohan view death as a feasting-hall of the brave, like the Norse Valhalla; their poetry is full of Anglo-Saxon melancholy, laden as Legolas says, ‘with the sadness of Mortal Men’: 

‘Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?  Where is the helm and the hauberk and the bright hair flowing? Where is the hand on the harpstring and the red fire glowing?’

In accordance with the Norse heroic code, Théoden on the Field of Pelennor dies contented, knowing he leaves behind him a good name: ‘I go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent.’ Sad though it is, his death makes sense as part of a fitting and seamless succession which is emphasised by the stretcher-bearers’ response to Prince Imrahil:

‘What burden do you bear, Men of Rohan?’ he cried. 

‘Théoden King,’ they answered. ‘He is dead. But Éomer King now rides in the battle: he with the white crest in the wind.’ 


When the Men of Gondor die, or at least their kings and stewards, they are laid to rest in tombs of stone in Rath Dínen, the Silent Street under Mount Mindolluin. It seems from Denethor’s words that they think of death as a long, solitary sleep rather than ancestral companionship in an eternal feasting hall – but this may not always have been so:

‘No tomb for Denethor and Faramir!  No tomb!  No long slow sleep of death embalmed.  We will burn like heathen kings before ever a ship sailed hither from the West…’

One way or another, Mortal Men must accept death. Clinging on to this world may lead to the worst possible thing that can happen: they may become wraiths like the Barrow-wights on the Barrow-Downs, or like the Ringwraiths. 

Finally, for the Ring-bearers Frodo and Bilbo (and possibly later for Sam) there’s the unusual opportunity to go bodily into the West on an Elven ship. Unlike the film, in which Gandalf comforts Pippin with a description of Eressëa, or possibly Valinor, the book makes clear that this is a special privilege. As Frodo’s ship passes into the West, 

… it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

But to Sam the evening deepened into darkness as he stood at the Haven, and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West. 

A vein of nostalgic sadness runs through the heart of The Lord of the Rings. Except for Men, all of the different races are doomed either to fade or pass from Middle-earth. And in the process of his journey, Frodo leaves behind not only the comfortable rural beauty of the Shire, but the very person he was. Suffering, and his immense struggle with the Ring change him into someone different – nobler, wiser maybe, but maimed, changed, sadder. We can only hope that the West will heal him. We will never know. 

The Narnia books contain little of this nostalgia. C.S. Lewis is very clear about life after death: it’s Aslan’s country, and several of his characters actually go there in life – Jill and Eustace start out for Narnia from Aslan’s holy Eastern mountain, for example, and the heroic Reepicheep sails there in his coracle. 

Remarkably, through the first six books of the Chronicles this certainty does not negate the sorrow of mortality. Death, when it occurs, is given emotional weight. Aslan’s death in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is genuinely moving, partly because of the depth of grief of Lucy and Susan, and so is Caspian’s death in The Silver Chair, witnessed from a distance by Jill and Eustace. The very old King lifts his hand to bless his long-lost son, then falls back –

The Prince, kneeling by the the King’s bed, laid down his head upon it, and wept. There were whisperings and goings to and fro. Then Jill noticed that all who wore hats, bonnets, helmets or hoods were taking them off – Eustace included. Then she heard a rustling and flapping noise up above the castle; when she looked up she saw that the great banner with the golden Lion on it was being brought down to half-mast. And after that, slowly, mercilessly, with wailing strings and disconsolate blowings of horns, the music began again: this time, a tune to break your heart. 

Aslan blows all these things away ‘like wreaths of smoke’ and the children find themselves once more in Aslan’s country ‘among mighty trees and beside a fair, fresh stream’. But the funeral music continues:

And there, on the golden gravel of the bed of the stream lay King Caspian, dead, with the water flowing over him like liquid glass. His long beard swayed in it like water weed. And all three stood and wept.

Their tears are shed, it seems to me, as much for age and feebleness and the sorrows of life, as they are for the fact of death. The deliberate parallel is with the New Testament story of Jesus weeping over Lazarus’s tomb: even though he knows he is about to bring Lazarus back to life. So too here. Caspian’s death is about to be reversed by a drop of Aslan’s blood. For me, this works. It’s not a facile trick. To obtain the blood, Eustace must drive a thorn ‘a foot long and as sharp as a rapier’ into the great pad of Aslan’s paw: we feel the cost and the pain. But at the end of The Last Battle, where Narnia itself is replaced by what we are meant to believe is a  greater and better Kingdom, Lewis’s attempt is an artistic failure. The Christian agenda takes over; he tries to do too much: heaven isn’t Aslan’s holy mountain any more, it’s Narnia and Archenland and Calormen and England combined. It’s messy. I far prefer that numinous glimpse of mountains behind the rising sun at the eastern rim of the world, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Heaven, a place of reward for a good life or of union with a good God, is not quite the same thing as the ‘land of the dead’ – that twilight place where ever since classical times the shades of the departed have swarmed in voiceless, strengthess hordes, unable to speak unless given a drink of sacrificial blood. (The notion that a blood sacrifice gives life to the dead must be one of the most ancient of beliefs.) Visiting Persephone’s kingdom beyond the Stream of Ocean, Odysseus attempts to embrace his mother’s shade, but she flutters out of his arms like a shadow and ‘sorrow sharpened at the heart within me’. This is what happens to everyone, his mother tells him, for once

‘the sinews no longer hold the flesh and the bones together,
and once the spirit has left the white bones, all the rest
of the body is made subject to the fire’s strong fury,
but the soul flitters out like a dream and flies away.’
The Odyssey, XI, 219-223, tr. Richmond Lattimore

Famous too is the rebuke of the dead hero Achilles when Odysseus tries to console him by telling him of the fame he has won among the living. 

‘O shining Odysseus, never try to console me for dying.
I would rather follow the plough as thrall to another
man, one with no land allotted to him and not much to live on
than be a king of all the perished dead.’ 
                        The Odyssey, XI, 488-491, tr. Richmond Lattimore

Odysseus in the Underworld, Johannes Stradanus

This type of afterlife, a shadow-life devoid of human meaning, is found in Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. In A Wizard of Earthsea the young wizard Ged splits open the fabric of his world in arrogant anger to summon the spirit of the beautiful Elfarran, a thousand years dead. Through the gap he has made scrambles a ‘clot of black shadow’ which leaps at him and rips his face. It hunts him from one side of the Archipelago to the other, and not until Ged learns to confront his own darkness can he undo his deed. 

The Earthsea books are deeply concerned with the interdependence of light and darkness, life and death, and in the early titles the land of the dead is conceived as a necessary counterweight to the world of the living. It’s a place of dust, darkness and silence, divided from life by a low wall of stones ‘no higher than a man’s knee’. The dead are passive, passionless:

No marks of illness were on them. They were whole, and healed. They were healed of pain, and of life. They were not loathsome as Arren had feared they would be, not frightening… Quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope. 

Instead of fear, then, great pity rose up in Arren, and if fear underlay it, it was not for himself, but for us all. For he saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it, nor even look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the street.
The Farthest Shore

Terrible as this is, it possesses a poignancy reminiscent of the Odyssey. In the three early Earthsea books you can’t have life without death:

Only in dark the light, only in dying life:
bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.

The message of The Farthest Shore is that death is a natural and necessary end. The mage Cob is so terrified of dying that he tries to put an end to it, ‘to find what you cowards could never find – the way back from death.’ In doing so he threatens the balance of Earthsea and himself becomes an eyeless, nameless sorceror who belongs to neither life nor death.  Mere continued existence, it turns out, is a curse. ‘You cannot see the light of day, you cannot see the dark,’ Ged tells him. ‘You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self.’

In the two later books, Tehanu and The Other Wind, Le Guin revisits Earthsea and remakes some of what she has done. Dragons and their relationship with humankind become important, and the very nature of the land of death is re-examined. In The Other Wind Alder, a young sorceror whose wife has died, is tormented by dreams in which she and others of the dead come to the wall of stones and beg to be set free. He tells Ged, 

I thought if I called her by her true name maybe I could free her, bring her across the wall, and I said, ‘Come with me, Mevre!’  But she said, ‘That’s not my name, Hara, that’s not my name any more.’ And she let go my hands, though I tried to hold her. She cried, ‘Set me free, Hara!’  But she was going down into the dark.

These dead are neither passive nor passionless, and they recognise and commune with the living man Alder. Instead of maintaining the mystical equilibrium of Earthsea, the land of the dead is now seen to be upsetting it. Humankind and dragons were once one race which divided the world between them. Humans chose to own and make things; dragons chose freedom to fly ‘on the other wind’ in a timeless realm beyond the west. However, ‘the ancient mages craved everlasting life’ and used ‘true names to keep men from dying’. And – so the dragon Irian cries – 

‘by the spells and wizardries of those oath-breakers, you stole half our realm from us, walled it away from life and light, so that you could live there forever.  Thieves, traitors!’

It now seems the land of death is a dreadful compromise, an everlasting trap. It divorces those in it from the universe, which is the only life. The solution is to pull down the wall of stones and let the dead go free. Some rise up ‘flickering into dragons’ on the wind, but most come ‘walking with unhurried certainty’ to step across the ruined wall and vanish, ‘a wisp of dust, a breath that shone an instant in the ever-brightening light.’ And where have they  gone?  As Alder said, ‘It is not life they yearn for. It is death. To be one with the earth again. To rejoin it.’ 

It’s lovely, but I don’t think it quite works. It seems too complicated, too different from the earlier books. It takes a lot to undo the quietly terrible beauty of the dead land in A Wizard of Earthsea, its inhabitants ‘healed of life’. The dying child whom Ged fails to heal in A Wizard of Earthsea runs ‘fast and far away from him down a dark slope, the side of some vast hill’ – and that eagerness feels right. In these early books, the dead are shadows with no internal life. They feel no pain because they are already gone. It seems to me a mistake to reinvent this metaphor, and the events of The Other Wind make nonsense of the rebuke Ged delivers to Cob in The Farthest Shore

The impulse to harrow hell and bring out the souls is felt also by Philip Pullman in The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the trilogy His Dark Materials.  Like Lewis, Pullman has an agenda (Darwinian and anti-religious) and like Le Guin he turns to what one might call the Wordsworthian ‘back to nature’ view of death – the dissolution of personality and the blending of the body and its atoms with the physical universe. 

No motion has she now, no force,
She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
‘A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal’, William Wordsworth

The problem is to convince the reader that this is an acceptable personal outcome. Does that sound frivolous? My own belief, if you want it, is that Wordsworth and Pullman and Darwin are right. I don’t think there’s a life after death. I don’t find that scary, but neither does it give me joy. Only life can do that. In fiction, paradoxically, it seems the best way to make the no-afterlife option appear positive is to contrast it with an afterlife, but an unpleasant one – thus making the point via a sort of authorial sleight-of-hand. (‘You can have an afterlife, but you won’t enjoy it.’)

Aeneas and the Sibyl in Hades

Pullman’s land of the dead is a considerably less attractive proposition even than Le Guin’s. It is modelled on the Hades of Virgil’s Aeneid, rather than on Homer’s Odyssey. In the Aeneid, after sacrificing to Night, Earth, Proserpina and Hades, Aeneas ventures underground guided by the Sibyl. He passes gates guarded by monsters and crosses the river Styx with the ferryman Charon, who at first refuses to carry a living man over:

‘… This
is a realm of shadows, sleep and drowsy night.
The law forbids me to carry living bodies across
in my Stygian boat…’
The Aeneid, tr. Robert Fagles

In The Amber Spyglass, there are perhaps rather too many stages to death. Lyra and her friends begin their exodus from life via a farmhouse kitchen of the recently slain, following their shocked ghosts into a grey and ever-darkening landscape, ‘thousands of men and women and children … drifting over the plain’, drawn onwards and down to shantytown suburbs of death on the shores of a mist-bound lake. In my opinion the refugee metaphor gets away from Pullman and over-complicates the narrative. Living officials – I’m not sure why they’re alive – demand to see papers, and direct the travellers to ‘holding areas’ past ‘pools of sewage’. Taking shelter in a shanty, Lyra learns that each ghost must wait until his or her personified ‘death’ gives them leave to cross over the lake, so Lyra must call up her own death before she can continue.  She does, but there is a further complexity. Returning to the classical norm, the ferryman refuses to carry Lyra across the lake unless she leaves behind her beloved daemon, spirit-self and other half, Pan:

‘It’s not a rule you can break. It’s a law like this one…’ [The ferryman] leaned over the side and cupped a handful of water, and then tilted his hand so it ran out again. ‘The law that makes the water run back into the lake, it’s a law like that.’ 
The Amber Spyglass   

After this anguished parting Lyra, Will and the dragonfly-borne Gallivespians cross the river to land at a wharf and rampart. They pass through a great gate guarded by screaming harpies and find beyond it a vast and dismal plain crowded with listless, voiceless ghosts who, as ever, require blood.

They crammed forward, light and lifeless, to warm themselves at the flowing blood and the strong-beating hearts of the two travellers…

Once they can communicate, Lyra asks to be led to her friend Roger (for whose death she feels responsible), but when she finds him ‘he passe[s] like cold smoke through her arms’.  Determining to release all the dead from this Hades, Lyra consults the alethiometer and explains to the ghosts what will happen to them:

‘… it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did. … But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. … You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.’ 

‘It’s true, perfectly true’. Here Pullman himself speaks through Lyra, pleading and passionate, promising no lies, no deceit. The science-based truth of this account of death is indisputable. The body does indeed return to the earth that gave it. The difficulty is that these ghosts’ bodies must – most of them – already have disintegrated, yet here their spirits inhabit an afterlife in which personality and personal memories survive as some form of post-mortem energy. Accepting Lyra’s offer, one of the ghosts says, 

‘… the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing...’

But is this true?  Compared with Le Guin’s dark, neutral world under the unchanging stars, Pullman’s land of the dead is a place of punishment. As Roger’s ghost tells Lyra:

Them bird-things… You know what they do? They wait till you’re resting – you can’t never sleep properly, you just sort of doze – and they come up quiet beside you and they whisper all the bad things you ever did when you was alive … They know how to make you feel horrible … But you can’t get away from them. 

The harpies have been set by the Authority ‘to see the worst in everyone’ and to feed on them. Lyra and her companions come up with a solution. From now on, instead of lies, each person who dies must nourish the harpies with a truthful account of all the things they’ve seen and heard, touched and learned. Experience of life, in other words, trumps death. I like this, a lot: and Roger’s final release into the physical universe, with a laugh of surprise and a ‘vivid little burst of happiness’ is moving.  Nevertheless the effect of this joyful annihilation very much depends on Pullman’s depiction of the afterlife as distinctly the worse option.

Garth Nix, in his series of ‘Old Kingdom’ novels beginning with Sabriel, has so far as I can tell no particular religious or scientific points to make, and his fantasy has a corresponding air of freshness and freedom – even playfulness – all of its own. Life and Death are of paramount interest, since the Old Kingdom is a magical land under continuous threat of necromancy. It is divided by a Wall (perhaps suggested by Le Guin’s, though this is not a Life/Death boundary) from the non-magical southern land of Ancelstierre.  I don’t know what happens to Ancelstierrans when they die, but those who die in the Old Kingdom cross an unseen border into the state of Death itself, a coldly flowing river without banks which sweeps them away through a series of nine Gates.  In the stretches of river between these Gates – the Precincts – it’s possible for some Dead to cling on or even retrace their steps:

It had been human once, or human-like at least, in the years it had lived under the sun. That humanity had been lost in the centuries the thing spent in the chill waters of Death, ferociously holding its own against the current, demonstrating an incredible will to live again. ... Its chance finally came when a mighty spirit erupted from beyond the Seventh Gate, smashing through each of the Upper Gates in turn, till it went ravening into Life. Hundreds of the Dead had followed and this particular spirit… had managed to squirm triumphantly into Life. 

The Lesser Dead, such as this one, need to take over human or animal bodies for their use. The Greater Dead who come from beyond the Fifth Gate are sufficiently powerful to exist in Life without a physical body. (A further danger are Free Magic Creatures, perilous elemental beings outside the ordered power of the Charter, but these are not the Dead.)

The returning Dead are uniformly malevolent, and it’s the job of the Abhorson – Sabriel herself – to return them to Death and send them down the River and past the Ninth Gate.  This she does by means of a set of seven enspelled bells, infused with beneficent Charter Magic created – or perhaps discovered or formalised? – long ago by the immortal Seven Bright Shiners, each one of which is represented by a named bell. 

The idea of a River of Death is hardly a new one; it goes back to ferryman Charon rowing souls across the Styx, and further still to the boatman Ur-shanabi in the Epic of Gilgamesh – but what Garth Nix has done with it is different: instead of a boundary which must be crossed, his River of Death is a dynamic process – a progression, a vivid natural force which grasps the dying soul and sweeps it away. As such there is a ‘rightness’ about consenting to its power and a corresponding ‘wrongness’ when the dead struggle literally to swim against the stream. More than that, as a metaphor for death a river is nothing like the static, dusty dead lands which so trouble Ursula K Le Guin and Philip Pullman. A river is about motion, exhilaration and strength. A river has a direction and a purpose.

Not until the third book in the series, Abhorson, do we really learn the geography of Death as Nix takes the reader all the way down the River through every Gate with Lirael, the Abhorson-in-Waiting, along with her inseparable companion the Disreputable Dog.  Each Gate has its own character, each Precinct its own perils, not only sneaking souls and monstrous foes but the River itself:

The Second Gate was an enormous hole, into which the river sank like sinkwater down a drain, creating a whirlpool of terrible strength. 

While beyond it in the Third Precinct –

The river there was only ankle deep, and little warmer. The light was better too. Brighter and less fuzzy, though still a pallid grey. Even the current wasn’t much more than a trickle around the ankles. All in all, it was a much more attractive place than the First or Second Precincts. Somewhere ill-trained or foolish necromancers might be tempted to tarry or rest. 

If they did, it wouldn’t be for long – because the Third Precinct had waves…

Lirael and the Dog battle through mists, waterfalls, metamorphic waters, a ‘waterclimb’, floating flames – and finally the Ninth Gate, where the River finally does what rivers always do. It flows out into something greater than itself, ‘a great flat stretch of sparkling water’ – along with the souls it carries. Overhead is an immense sky ‘so thick with stars that they overlapped and merged to form one unimaginably vast and luminous cloud.’

Lirael felt the stars call to her and a yearning rose in her heart to answer. She sheathed bell and sword and stretched her arms out, up to the brilliant sky. She felt herself lifted up, and her feet came out of the river with a soft ripple and a sigh from the waters. 

Dead rose too, she saw. Dead of all shapes and sizes, all rising up to the sea of stars.

This at last is the ‘final death from which there could be no return.’

For me, this is inexpressibly moving. There’s no judgement. Whatever has happened before, whatever the dead may have done during Life and after it, from this perspective looks insignificant. The journey through Death may be full of terrors; a spirit may go kicking and screaming all the way down the River, struggling to turn around and go back to Life. But once beyond the Ninth Gate the sight of the stars is revelatory and transformative. Letting go of Life at last, the dead fall serenely upwards into a tranquil universe.

All the classic fantasies I’ve looked at in this essay engage with the fact of death and what happens after, and all attempt answers. Tolkien and Lewis were both Christians, but their answers are very different. Tolkien’s Mortal Men have no assurance of an afterlife, for the immortality of Middle-earth is in the Undying Lands, and passage there is in the gift of the Elves.  Gondor’s dead pass to an eternal sleep; the Rohirrim feast with their ancestors. For Narnians, there’s the happy certainty of Aslan’s country, a place which Lewis wishes to assure us is not less but more real than life: the Platonic solid of which the mortal Narnia is but a shadow.  In Ursula K Le Guin’s early Earthsea books, the land of the dead is the darkness which is the other half of light: you can’t have one without the other. She rethought that in the last book, turning the duality into a unity from which the spirits of the dead evanesce into light. No more darkness.  For Philip Pullman, passionately concerned to do away with what he considers to be the lies of heaven and hell, Lyra’s journey through the land of the dead becomes a sort of allegorical exposition in which the afterlife is shown to be a cruel and hollow sham and the truth of dissolution is the best happiness. And in Garth Nix’s metaphor of the river – with all its adventures, snags, gates, rapids and waterfalls – death is a natural force, to resist which is to become unnatural. In the end, the river will always win and sweep us on into vastness. 

My final thought: we cannot think about death without making pictures. 

Picture credits:

Digory and the Tree of Life, from 'The Magician's Nephew', Pauline Baynes
Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Alan Lee

Night Falls on Narnia, from 'The Last Battle', Pauline Baynes

Odysseus in the Underworld, by Johannes Stradanus, 1523-1605

Aeneas and the Sybil in Hades, Anon, Wikimedia Commons

Charon, by Gustave Dore

Crossing the Styx, by Gustave Dore

Thursday, 25 October 2018

"Where the Monsters Lurk"- a guest post by Garth Nix

While on tour a couple of years ago to promote his Old Kingdom novel "Goldenhand", Garth Nix generously took time out to write Steel Thistles a wonderful piece about where his monsters come from. I'd asked him the question because I'm entranced by the array of terrifying, yet weirdly beautiful 'Free Magic Creatures' in the Old Kingdom novels - from the Stilken in Lirael, awakening woman-shaped from its glass coffin, but with long clawed arms like a praying mantis, to the eponymous, blood-drinking Creature in the Cage which Nick Sayre battles with a string of daisies. Garth's a master of monsters and alien creatures - only Larry Niven, in my opinion, comes even close - so Halloween seems a good time to repost this piece from the archives. 

Or should that be the vaults? 

Where the Monsters Lurk - by Garth Nix

I have an affinity with creatures, at least on the page. I like to make up horrible monsters and include them in my stories. Things that walk on spiked feet, striking sparks from stone; monsters made from gravemould and blood; misshapen spirits reemerging from Death; malignant spirits from some terrible ancient time, unwittingly awoken.

Where do these creatures come from? Until I was asked this question, I must confess I’ve never really thought about it. At various points in stories I need monsters, and they always seem to be in my head, waiting to be written down. Or at least the seed will be there, and as I begin to write about them, they grow and become fully-fledged. Fortunately, they are not there until I need them: my mind is not constantly teeming with a zoo-full of terrifying monsters clamouring to be let out.

But even though they do seem to be there when I need to write them, I realize on examination that it’s not as straightforward as that. My subconscious is probably aware of the fact I will need a monster long before my conscious writing brain catches up on it, and the reason one will be there is almost certainly due to the fact that over my entire lifetime I have been equipping myself to be a maker of monsters. Mentally, that is, for literary purposes only. I have refrained from building a secret laboratory in my back garden to recombine insect and human DNA for example, and actually make my own. Honest.

I began, of course, with other people’s monsters. In picture books when I was very young, I particularly liked dragons and bears, and I guess at that age (and to some degree still) preferred it when the creatures turned out to have much nicer and kinder than their fangs and spikes suggested. But not soon after, as I moved on to chapter books and full-sized novels, I wanted stories with monsters who were inimical. Creatures to be defeated, or tamed, or banished. I wanted that growing sense of dread as their presence was hinted at, the thrill of their first appearance, and then the rush of excitement as they were dealt with by the protagonist or their allies.

Many of my first encounters with such monsters came from children’s books about myth and legends, typically from the Greek and Norse myths. I have Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia and the magazine Look and Learn to thank for meeting the Minotaur, and Pegasus, the Midgard Serpent, Frost Giants, Medusa and many more.

While I loved these myths and legends, they were often told in a way that made them feel like history. I am fascinated by history and I read a great deal of it, but when I was a child this storytelling technique was often a distancing one. So the creatures of myth and legend were not less alive, but they felt more distant to me than more modern fiction where I could feel that I was with the main character experiencing it all, or in fact, I was the main character, going up against these monsters. Or running away from them, which as I grew older appeared more and more sensible and realistic. 

These very identifiable stories of monster experience possibly began for me with The Hobbit, which was first read to me by my parents around the age of six or seven and I started reading it myself to get ahead. I not only identified with Bilbo, but also with the Dwarves and Gandalf. Reading it, I was with them, and I was them, and we were all out on that winding road having adventures, which necessarily including meeting monsters. 

The Hobbit also has very distinctive monsters, never just stage pieces rolled out to get an “ooh” from the crowd before they trundle around a bit and disappear. From very early on, we have the Trolls who combine humour with dread (which is quite difficult to do); the goblins who I think embody the fear of hostile crowds (the individuals are not so scary, but en masse it is quite different), a fear greatly magnified by darkness; Gollum, who is both creature and major character; the spiders of Mirkwood, which for an Australian arachnophobe were particularly daunting, again made somewhat easier to cope with by humour; and of course, Smaug, who like Gollum is both a monster and a major character.

Many other books taught me how to make monsters and what to do with them. I’m writing this while somewhat jetlagged after flying from Sydney to Boston, so this is by no means an exhaustive list and I’m bound to forget some important examples, but here are just some of the authors whose creatures impressed me deeply at a young age, and in so doing, inadvertently helped me prepare to make up and use monsters in my own fiction.

Alan Garner for the Brollachan in The Moon of Gomrath, and generally for his creatures that feel very deeply connected to myth and legend.

Tolkien, beyond The Hobbit, for the Nazgul and Shelob, the Balrog, the classic creature of fantasy (so often imitated), the many varieties of Orc, for Sauron himself and more.

Ursula Le Guin, for many things, but for the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea and sequels, as important monster characters, and for the sense of their enormous age and deep connection to the earliest history of Earthsea.

Andre Norton, who across numerous books made monsters that I loved in my childhood reading, but most particularly whatever it was that the archaeological machine in her sci-fi novel Catseye almost brought back from the past, its time shadow, as it were, enough to drive people insane . . . the hint of a monster and the effects of its presence as effective or perhaps even more effective than any description.

There are many more, of course, too many to list or for my jetlagged mind to immediately produce. These books, and others, provided me with something of an apprenticeship in monster-making, and of course began to equip my mind with the tools for storytelling in general. 

But in addition to my reading, something else helped me along in my monster-making endeavours. When I was twelve years old, I saw in a games shop a small white box that contained three booklets named Men & Magic; Monsters & Treasure; and The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. In other words, Dungeons and Dragons.

I already liked games, and had recently started playing miniature wargames, but these three booklets were a revelation to me, because they were about playing games that were fantasy stories, basically about being in a story. Within a day of reading the rulebooks I recruited five friends from school and we started playing. Perhaps because I’d bought the rules, I was the dungeonmaster, though I suspect it was more to do with my natural authorial tendencies that were already in evidence back then. I wanted to direct the story as much as be part of it.

Dungeons & Dragons, as required for game purposes, gave monsters characteristics. I could look up a creature in Monsters and Treasure and see its armour class, and hit dice, and its attacks values and so on. There was also a brief description, sometimes including special characteristics that were not easily handled by the games’ basic mechanics. In those early days, these characteristics and game mechanics were far simpler than they later became, but in some ways I think that was useful because it gave more leeway to me as a dungeonmaster to use the creatures in my own way and I am glad that even at twelve, I fully took on that the three booklets were a skeleton structure to make something of one’s own, not a restrictive or exhaustive set of rules.

This was made explicit by D&D authors Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, but even so, some players and dungeonmasters treated the rules as set in stone.

To me, and most other players, the open nature of D&D and later role-playing games provided enormous scope to develop our own adventures, and one of the main parts of this was, of course, developing new monsters beyond those in the original rulebooks and later supplements (of which there would be a veritable plethora, continuing to this day).

I first started by adapting monsters that weren’t in the rule books, taking monsters and creatures out of my favourite books and working out their characteristics in D&D terms. What I didn’t realize back then, though, was that one of the primary reasons these monsters would work in a role-playing game adventure wasn’t because I’d got their game attributes right, it was because they were already so well-defined and real from the stories I’d got them from (which the players had invariably read as well), so the mere mention of some distinguishing part of their appearance or behavior would lead to the players knowing what they were up against, with the consequent emotional impact derived from the shared experience of the story.

I guess what I’m saying here is that you can work out all the mechanistic details of a creature and its description and so on, as if defining it for a game or an encyclopedia or some data file, but this does not make it come alive and does not make it feel real to either roleplayers or readers. What does do this is story, and the monster’s place in it. In fact, as in Catseye I mentioned above (and in many horror stories), it is quite possible that never actually describing or detailing a monster might make it all the more effective. A reader needs to be provided with just enough information (which might be overt description, it might be character’s reactions to the creature, it might be dialogue, it might be mere allusion) to enable them to imagine the creature themselves, and whatever the reader thinks up themselves will be invariably more terrifying and effective than a huge amount of text from the author.

So, my apprenticeship in monster-making began with reading and continues to this day with reading; later to be enhanced by the once-a-week D&D sessions I ran for a good part of my teenage years; and then continued with writing, as I began to want not just to read stories, and co-create them in an RPG environment, but also to make stories that were my own.

Many fantasy writers begin with their worlds, working them out in a great deal of detail, and often this will include the creation and development of creatures. Sometimes they will be entirely original, sometimes they will be drawn from myth or legend, and sometimes they will be orcs from Tolkien. (Orcs are a very invasive species, it seems, given their ability to infest so many different fantasy books. Sometimes they are called something different, though we all know “that which we call an orc by any other name would smell as foul.”)

Developing the world first is a very effective technique, one adopted by many great writers, but it’s not one that I follow. I tend to discover my fantasy world as I go along, I only work out what I need for the story as I need it, and this also applies to creatures.

So from my very earliest stories, I would be writing away and then all of a sudden I would need a monster, and as I said at the very beginning of this piece, I would usually find one waiting in my head. Or at least the beginnings of one, often just a sense of what kind of feeling I want to evoke with that creature, or perhaps some minor point of physical description. And there I will pause for a while, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few days, while the necessary minimum I need to know about that monster rises to my conscious and can be used in the story. I say the necessary minimum because as I’ve mentioned above, I don’t want to give too much to the reader, I want to supply the catalyst for their imagination to finish creating the monster for themselves.

And now, because I am writing this while on tour for Goldenhand, I’m afraid I must away. Perhaps appropriately to New York Comic Con, where I will see depictions of many monsters, but not I trust, encounter any real monsters lurking within. Which leads to a closely related topic: about how humans are the real monsters . . .

Garth Nix, October 2016

Monday, 8 October 2018

Alan Garner at Jodrell Bank

A post from the archives: Alan Garner's lecture, "Powsells and Thrums", February 2015

The Lovell Telescope, Jodrell Bank

The lecture ‘Powsells and Thrums’, delivered by Alan Garner at Jodrell Bank on Wednesday night, was the first of a series designed to consider the nature of creativity and its importance to what Garner maintains is an arts/science spectrum – not two cultures, as CP Snow suggested, but a continuity. Powsells and thrums, he explained, are old words for the oddments of thread and scraps of cloth left over from weaving and kept for personal use: metaphors for the scraps of story and oddments of meaning which can be woven and pieced together to create something new.  Which is exactly what he did in his lecture.

I’m not going to try and deliver a comprehensive report of the evening.  Alan Garner spoke with wit, humour and quiet eloquence for a full hour, and I hope and trust the lecture will eventually appear in print. With many omissions, these are merely some of my impressions and memories of it – powsells and thrums, snippets and fragments which you can turn about and reshape for yourselves. 

He began with a story from the introduction to Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. Thomas tells the story of a shepherd who, asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: ‘I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t!’ Thomas adds, ‘These poems are written for the love of man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damned fool if they weren’t.’

Mow Cop

How does a story come into being?  In 1956, ‘rummaging in a dustbin’, Garner saved a fragment of newspaper containing the story of two lovers who quarrelled. The boy threw a tape at the girl and stormed off. A week later he killed himself. Then she listened to the tape: it was an apology but also a threat: if she hadn't cared enough to listen to it within a week, he would conclude she didn’t love him… Nine years later, Garner heard a local story – dislocated from history – of Spanish slaves being marched north to build ‘a wall’, who ran away and found refuge on Mow Cop. Could this be a folk memory of the vanished Spanish Legion, the Ninth Hispana? Then there was the chilling history of the Civil War massacre at Barthomley Church, and finally in 1966 some graffiti at Alderley Edge station: two lovers' names and beneath them, written in silver lipstick: ‘Not really now, not any more.'  Powsells and thrums: ‘Why should those words bring together all the other items? They come looking for us, or that’s the feeling.’  And so: ‘Red Shift’.

It’s not mysterious, Garner insisted. Creativity, he said, requires intelligence, which is linear and deals with the here and now – but also intuition, which is not under conscious control. Creativity is not polite: ‘It comes barging in and leaves the intellect to clean up the mess.’ Creativity, he said, is risk, and ‘without risk we can only stay as we are.’ What he proposed to give us would therefore be a collection of oddments, powsells and thrums: ‘stories rather than lecture, but woven to an end.’

‘Art interprets the inexplicable.’ The age of the universe is thirteen and a half thousand million years. How do we understand such numbers?  The intellect cannot help. We must turn to stories, such as this: Far, far away there is a diamond mountain, two miles high, two miles wide and two miles deep. Every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the top of it, with two little strokes: whet, whet! and flies away.  When by this process the entire mountain has been worn away to the size of a grain of sand – then, the first second of eternity will be at an end.

In 1957 Alan sat in his ancient farmhouse, Toad Hall, looking across the fields at Jodrell Bank’s recently completed Lovell Telescope and turning a ‘black pebble’ in his hand – a 500,000 year-old stone axe. ‘The telescope was moving – alert. It was watching a quasar… I needed to know the telescope.’  He went to see Bernard Lovell, taking with him another axe, three and a half thousand years old, beautifully polished and shaped with a hole bored through it for the haft. (Where did he find these axes? I should love to know.) With the words ‘I have something to show you,’ he dropped the axe on Lovell’s desk. ‘This is the telescope.’

Sir Bernard gave him a pass, understanding what he meant.  

The axe is the forerunner of the telescope.

On their own, science and art hold piecemeal truths. The Garner lectures are designed to ‘repudiate the schism’ between CP Snow’s two cultures. They are part, said Garner, of what he and his wife have called ‘Operation Melting Snow.’ And, he said, ‘Sir Bernard was ahead of me. Risk taker, cosmologist, churchgoer, parish organist,’ Lovell was so distressed when the telescope was used for military purposes that he considered becoming a priest – but was dissuaded by a bishop who told him he’d be more use where he was because ‘creativity is prayer.’  And prayer, Garner said, is ‘a dialogue with the numinous. And we must give it form.’  

It is impossible to look at the Lovell telescope as it in its turn looks into the deep past, and not feel a shudder of the numinous.

Science and art, the warp and the weft: both are needed to weave the fabric of human understanding.

Garner suggested we all instinctively know what is meant by a good place: a place of refuge from which we can look out in safety. His home, Toad Hall, is a ‘good place’, which is perhaps why the spot has been continuously occupied for 10,000 years. Lucky are those who have roots in such places. But also there are ‘bad places’: the valley of Glen Coe for instance, a certain church, a house in Cambridge which he enters only with reluctance.  ‘And I defy you to be at ease in a multi-storey carpark.’

‘A businessman from an ancient culture said of California, “Even the light is a Hockney painting.” The land is our life force. Artists magnify the land.’ Wordsworth and Hardy interpreted and magnified the landscapes of the Lake District and Wessex with their intensity of vision. ‘Art makes people feel.’

Human beings need both refuge and prospect. We may have become human on the Pleistocene savannahs, standing up on two legs to find food and to spot danger. We recreate our places of refuge and prospect even in suburban homes and lawns. From our places of refuge we interpret the world with stories: from them we look outward, questioning, questing, looking towards ‘a different sort of pebble, waiting to be chipped.’  

Art complements science, and science, art. ‘Zealots of all kinds block progress.’  

Vishnu sat on a mountain top weeping. Hanuman came by. ‘What are you crying for, and what are those little ants of people down there, rushing about?’ ‘I have dropped the jewel of wisdom, and it has shattered. Everyone down there has grabbed a splinter, and each of them thinks they have the whole.’

And so at last the evening comes to an end. ‘I sit in the house in the wood, and watch the telescope and tell the stories...’ Alan Garner takes a breath. ‘I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t!’

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Night She Dreamed of Being a Dental Assistant

I won't even go into what else has been happening in the past week, but two notable things occurred in the world of science. Firstly a Cern physicist, Alessandro Strumia – who really looks young enough to know better – was suspended for making the deliberately provocative claim that "physics was invented and built by men”, that "men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people" and that there is "a difference even in children before any social influence" can take place. The lofty heights of physics, he implies, are not for women.  

Secondly, in one of those serendipitous coincidences, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a woman for the first time in 55 years. Canadian physicist Donna Strickland is only the third woman winner of the award, along with Marie Curie, who won in 1903 and of whom presumably even Professor Strumia may have heard – and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, a theoretical physicist who was awarded the prize in 1963 for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.

Let me show you something.

I’ve been saving this horror up for some time. It’s an educational ‘Wonder Book’ for children, published in the USA in 1959 with the laudable intention of reducing the childhood terror of going to the dentist. It’s full of cosy, colourful pictures and there is a total lack of any drama. As a nine-year old kid who once leaped out of a car to avoid a visit to the dentist, hid from my parents in bushes in a park and subsequently caught the bus home on my own, I can appreciate this aim… but let us follow Kathy and Clifford on their adventure.

On page one, Clifford – who looks about six – loses a front tooth. ‘Everyone, including Clifford, laughed.’ This is only a baby tooth, but it prompts Daddy to tell Clifford he should put the tooth under his pillow, ‘and maybe there will be a present there in the morning’. (There will be a shiny new dime, though no mention of anything frivolous like tooth fairies). And Mommy remembers, ‘It’s time we saw Dr Moyers to have Clifford’s teeth checked. It would be a good idea to have Kathy’s teeth checked too.’ Notice how Kathy is an afterthought and everyone is looking at Clifford. Everyone looks at Clifford on the cover illustration too. And below, Kathy looks on as Clifford discovers his dime...

A week later, the children and Mommy arrive at the dentist’s. “Who is this pretty little girl?’ asks dental assistant Miss Turner. “This is my daughter Kathy,” says Mommy. “She is three years old and Dr Moyers is going to examine her teeth too.” Even though Kathy is for once the subject, in the picture Clifford is still the focus of attention. His hand is out, and since he is speaking to Miss Turner, it appears very much as though she is looking at him while Kathy stares up, dumb.

Miss Turner wears no glasses to greet the children, but she has to put them on for work, no matter whether close-up or distant – because wearing glasses makes a woman look serious. Here she is in one of only three pictures in the book in which Kathy is the focus. Even then it's not entirely clear whether she's looking at Kathy, or her notes. 

Clifford is the first to go in. He sees ‘a bright sparkling room with all kinds of wonderful machines.’ American hero Dr Moyers smiles and shakes hands with Clifford in a man-to-man fashion. ‘Sit down in the chair,’ he says, ‘and I’ll give you a ride.’ Clifford climbs into the chair with a giggle, ‘pretending that he was about to blast off in a space ship.’ 

In the next few pages, Dr Moyers carefully explains to Clifford everything he is doing. He finds a small cavity.  Then he asks Miss Turner to take an X-ray or six, finds a second cavity and decides to remove two more baby teeth to allow Clifford’s adult teeth to grow straight. He gives Clifford advice on dental hygiene. Miss Turner mixes the dental cement. In the left-hand picture, below, the 'space' references are clear. The X-ray pictures look like an antenna while Clifford is the astronaut in his chair.

Pretty soon Clifford has two more teeth in his chubby little hand. He looks thrilled. Two more shiny dimes!

Now it’s Kathy’s turn. Although she’s only three, Dr Moyers still takes X-rays of her teeth, but they are perfect (at three years old you’d hope so), so all he needs to do is polish them. 

Kathy doesn’t fantasise about space ships or notice shiny machinery, but she does wish she had a ‘toothbrush with a motor’ at home. Dr Moyers provides more good advice on daily dental hygiene (‘Brush your teeth in the morning, then right after meals and before you go to sleep’) and the children trot off, happy to have been given new toothbrushes and medals ‘for being good patients.’ Notice how the artist makes Clifford look straight at the reader with a cheerful gappy grin. Kathy admires her good conduct badge with sweet expression and lowered eyes.

Though this book does a good job of carefully explaining dental procedures to children, it is very much of its time. The thing that really gets me, though - and the reason I feel this book is pernicious - comes on the last page where we see the children snuggled up in bed after their adventurous day,  Clifford in the foreground, of course. “That night,” the story continues:

That night, Kathy dreamed she was a dental assistant. She helped with the X-rays and developed the pictures. She mixed cement and silver for the fillings. She got the instruments ready for the Doctor.

"She got the instruments ready for the Doctor." This is a book in which the little boy is older, the little girl younger. The boy sees exciting shiny machinery and imagines himself a spaceman. The little girl imagines herself a dental assistant. The boy has to be brave, have teeth drilled and extracted, is rewarded with dimes. The little girl follows in her brother’s footsteps and nothing particular interesting happens to her. The insidious, subliminal message would have sunk into the perceptions of children of both sexes, manipulating, and in the case of girls limiting, their expectations.

The book is nearly sixty years old. I feel sure the people who put it together felt fine about suggesting ‘dental assistant’ instead of ‘dentist’ as a possible career for a girl, even though women had been getting medical degrees in the States for 110 years already, ever since Elizabeth Blackwell's in 1849. They didn't see that. It wasn't relevant. Even on the cover, the male Doctor is in the foreground, his attractive female assistant remains in the background, smiling and supportive. This was the kind of myopic cultural fog in which most women over the age of fifty grew up and its effects are quite clearly still with us. The events of this week along with many another - just yesterday I heard a Conservative Party donor, Lord Ashcroft, speak unthinkingly of  'the voter and his family' - show how far we still have to travel. For it's certain that Lord Ashcroft is not alone in thinking of a voter as a man. A man and his vote, a man and his family.