Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Concerning a Narnian fish



After I’d thanked the Hertfordshire gentleman whose thoughtful letter prompted my post of last week – and yes, it was a real letter that came through a real letter box – he has written to me again. And I have to share it with you. This time it concerns a Narnian fish called a pavender, which is mentioned not only in Prince Caspian, but also in The Silver Chair when Jill and Eustace enjoy one of the few good meals of their adventure, a royal feast in the great hall of Cair Paravel.

The banners hung from the roof, and each course came in with trumpeters and kettledrums. There were soups that would make your mouth water to think of, and the lovely fishes called pavenders, and venison and peacock and pies, and ices and jellies and fruit and nuts, and all manner of wines and fruit drinks.

I’d sometimes idly wondered if there really might be a fish called a pavender – after all, there are plenty of strangely named English fishes, such as gudgeon, chub, dace, roach, etc – or whether Lewis had simply invented it. Well, the answer is neither, and it’s far more fun! Here is the Hertfordshire gentleman to explain it all:

"In Prince Caspian, as you may remember, Trumpkin catches and cooks for the Pevensies some delicious little fish called pavenders. This, I believe, is a private scholarly joke of Lewis’s. It is a reference to a poem published originally in Punch, called ‘A False Gallop of Analogies’, by one Warham St Leger. The conceit of the poem springs from a reference to ‘the chavender, or chub’ in Isaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler. So it begins:

There is a fine stuffed chavender,

A chavender, or chub

That decks the rural pavender

The pavender, or pub,

Wherein I eat my gravender,

My gravender, or grub…

And so on, with references to ‘sweet lavender, or lub’ and administering a snavender, or snub, to an intrusive young cavender, or cub; and the ravender, or rub, of having to return to town. If you are interested, you can find the whole poem in full at: http://www.poetrynook.com/poem/false-gallop-analogies."

(In fact I suggest you visit this link without delay and read the poem in full; it will make you happy!) The Hertfordshire gentleman continues:

"I am only aware of the poem through encountering it in the Festival of Britain issue of Punch, which I was given by my father at the time. As well as topical items … it contained an anthology of notable cartoons and other snippets, from issues over the past century. Lewis would no doubt relish the reference to the ‘pavender, or pub’ and have stored it away for future use"

I don’t need to tell you how delighted I am to have learned the origin of this obscure Narnian fish (or dish) and (in the words of the other Lewis, Lewis Carroll) to have un-dish-covered the fish and dish-covered the riddle.


Find my book, "From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self"  at Hive.co.uk, at Amazon.co.uk, and at all good bookshops.



Monday, 19 July 2021

Orphans in Narnia


About a month ago I was asked by the website Female First to write a short piece about families in Narnia, and I came to the conclusion that happy families are not easy to find there. You can read what I wrote here, but to summarise: the Pevensies’ parents are remarkable mainly for their absence; we never even set eyes on them until Lucy sees them waving from a distant “English” spur of Aslan’s holy mountain, by which time they are all of them dead. Eustace Scrubb’s parents send him to boarding school at the ominously named Experiment House, where he is bullied and made miserable. So do Jill’s. All we learn of Polly’s parents is that her mother sends her to bed for coming home late. Digory's father is far away in India, so he and his dying mother are forced to live with kindly but ineffectual Aunt Letty, and dangerously ‘mad’ Uncle Andrew.

So much for the children from our world. What about those born in Narnia itself? Shasta (aka Prince Cor of Archenland) is stolen at birth and raised by an abusive foster-father who tries to sell him into slavery. Aravis escapes from a father who is pressuring her into a detestable marriage. Prince Caspian’s father has been murdered by his usurping uncle, King Miraz, so that when his aunt, Queen Prunaprismia, gives Miraz an heir, Caspian’s own life is in immediate danger. Whether true fathers or surrogates, father-figures in the Narnia books tend either to be absent, or else very much part of the problem.



Orphaned children, or children with absent or neglectful parents are of course a recurrent theme in children’s fiction and in fairytales. Without adults to help them, such children have to solve their own problems: in narrative terms it gives them agency and establishes an immediate bond of sympathy between reader and character. Think of Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow-White, Heidi – or Harry Potter, Lyra and Will, and Seren Rhys in Catherine Fisher's enchanting middle-grade book The Clockwork Crow (which I highly recommend). Orphaned or neglected children frequently appear in adult fiction too, such as Jane Eyre, or Rudyard Kipling's Kim, or Cosette in Les Miserables, and are liberally scattered throughout the works of Dickens (David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, Pip, Oliver Twist, Jo the crossing sweeper and so on).

But there is a poignancy about the Narnian orphans that may ultimately derive from Lewis’s loss of his own mother to cancer when he was nine years old. As was then common practice, she was nursed and even operated upon at home, and in his autobiography Surprised by Joy he describes how her illness affected him and his brother: ‘Our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, when the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations’. He tells of desperately praying God for a miracle to save his mother, and the terror of being taken into her bedroom ‘to see her’ when she had died. 

Then, just a few weeks after this huge loss, his grieving father, probably with no idea what better to do with his small son, sent him to the English boarding school his brother already attended, an establishment which unfortunately was run by a sadistic headmaster who might have come straight out of Dickens. No one can mistake the emotion with which Lewis paints himself and his fellow pupils as ‘pale, quivering, tear-stained, obsequious slaves’. No wonder he never had a good word to say about schools in the Narnia series. He couldn't tell his father, partly because children often don't know how, but also because their relationship had suffered and, as he himself acknowledged, never really recovered, even after he was allowed to leave school to study with a tutor who recognised and encouraged his potential. Perhaps it's significant that (Aslan aside), Prince Caspian's tutor Dr Cornelius is the one Narnian father-figure whom Lewis depicts as entirely laudable.

Surprised By Joy was published in 1955, the same year as The Magician’s Nephew - the book in which he relives, re-writes, re-imagines the events of his mother's death and gives them the miraculously happy ending he’d longed for as a child. It's clear that the painful series of events surrounding his mother's death remained vivid in Lewis’s memory.

For there are many other boys in the Narnia stories whose mothers have died. Shasta is separated from his mother when he is kidnapped as a baby, but she then dies long before he can be reunited with her. And there is no particular narrative reason why this should be so. It just is perhaps Lewis couldn't visualise such a reunion. Caspian’s parents are both already dead when we first meet him as a little boy: his father murdered by Miraz and his mother (perhaps) dying naturally, and earlier. Youthful Prince Rilian of The Silver Chair loses his mother Ramandu’s daughter and Caspian’s Queen when she is stung to death by a poisonous green serpent. This serpent is the Green Witch, who compounds her wickedness by enchanting and imprisoning Rilian: he loses ten years of his life with her and is reunited with his father Caspian only on the old king's deathbed. 


Much of this post has been inspired by a letter I recently received from a gentleman in Hertfordshire who has pointed out something I hadn't noticed, near the end of The Last Battle. It comes after Peter has shut and locked the Stable Door and ‘Narnia is no more’. Lucy is in tears, but Peter chides her: ‘What, Lucy! You’re not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?’ Tirian replies for her: ‘Sirs,
the Ladies do well to weep. See, I do so myself, I have seen my mother’s death. ...It were no virtue, but great discourtesy, if we did not mourn.’

My correspondent goes on to say:

I have seen my mother’s death.’ Narnia began with Digory seeking something to prevent his mother’s death. The tree grown from the Narnian apple that does so provides wood for the wardrobe that is the first way into Narnia. The death of Rilian’s mother is the spring for the story of The Silver Chair, and now Narnia is mourned by Tirian as his dead mother. The cycle is complete. One might say that all his life Lewis was looking for his mother, though I don’t place too much stress on that. But certainly, to me Narnia has the air of a land of lost content.

So it is that Narnia, the beloved land that has nurtured him, is mourned by Tirian as deeply as if she were his dead mother. I find this and its implications very touching.  One of the lovely things since the publication of Spare Oom at the beginning of May has been the conversations it’s provoked, both on and off line. There is always something more to say about Narnia.



You can find my book, "From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia with my nine year-old self"  at Hive.co.uk, at Amazon.co.uk, and from all good bookshops.

All the illustrations in this post are of course by the wondeful Pauline Baynes.


Wednesday, 23 June 2021

The Silver Apples of the Moon, the Golden Apples of the Sun

This was our apple tree last September, so laden with fruit that branches actually cracked and broke off under the weight, as though taking Keats’ lines from Ode to Autumn far too literally –

To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core… 

The lawn was almost ankle deep in windfalls.

What is it about apples? Why are they so evocative? Why was the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – not actually named in the Bible – assumed to be an apple? Why did the Firebird, in Russian folklore, steal golden apples from the garden of the Czar? Why did golden apples of immortality grow in the Garden of the Hesperides, why was the Norse goddess Idun the keeper of golden apples which preserved the youth of the gods? Why was the Apple of Discord – with its inscription To the Fairest – an apple, and why were three golden apples so irresistible to Atalanta that she paused to pick them up and lost her race? (Mind you, that dress she's wearing wouldn't help.) 

The apple as the fruit of immortality, or perhaps equally of death, appears as a symbol in Celtic mythology too. Heralds from the Land of Youth might bear a silver apple branch, with silver blossom and golden fruit whose tinkling music lulled the hearers to sleep – perhaps to everlasting sleep. Arthur, after his final battle, went to the island of Avalon, the island of apples, to be healed of his mortal wound. Then of course there’s the apple given by the wicked Queen to Snow-White, one bite of which sends the little princess into a death-like sleep.    

Apples are tokens of love and promises of eternity. In Yeat’s ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, the lovelorn Aengus seeks forever the beautiful girl from the hazel wood.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands
I find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

But such an eternity is probably also the land beyond death. 

Where do apples even come from, why are they so ubiquitous? Why, even today, are so many varieties available even in supermarkets, usually the home of homogeneity? I went into our local Sainsburys the other day and counted eleven different named varieties of apple all on sale at once: Empire, Royal Gala, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russets, Granny Smiths, Pink Ladies, Jazz, Braeburns and Bramleys. By contrast, there were only four named varieties of pears, and everything else was generic – bananas, strawberries, oranges, etc. 

Apples are related to roses, I’m delighted to tell you.  According to a rather lovely book called ‘Apples: the story of the fruit of temptation’, by Frank Browning (Penguin 1998):

‘In the beginning there were roses.  Small flowers of five white petals opened on low, thorny stems, scattered across the earth in the pastures of the dinosaurs, about eighty million years ago. …These bitter-fruited bushes, among the first flowering plants on earth, emerged as the vast Rosaceae family and from them came most of the fruits human beings eat today: apples, pears, plums, quinces, even peaches, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries.

‘The apple [paleobotanists believe]… was the unlikely child of an extra-conjugal affair between a primitive plum from the rose family and a wayward flower with white and yellow blossoms of the Spirea family, called meadowsweet.’ 

Isn’t that wonderful? Apples as we know them today developed in Europe and Asia. The Pharoahs grew them. The Greeks and Romans grew them. And they keep. You can store apples overwinter, eat them months after you’ve picked them: fresh fruit in hard cold weather when there’s nothing growing outside. So perhaps you would think of them as life-giving, immortal fruit. They smell fragrant. They feel good too: hard-fleshed, smooth, a cool weight in the hand.  

The medieval lyric 'Adam lay y-bounden' provocatively celebrates the Fall of Man when Adam ate the forbidden fruit:

And all was for an appil
An appil that he toke
As clerkes finden
Written in her boke.

It ends on the mischievously subversive thought that if Adam had not eaten the apple, Our Lady would never have become the Heavenly Queen:

Blessed be the time
That appil take was!
Therefore we maun singen:
Deo gratias.

Here is a poem by John Drinkwater (surely the most poetically-named poet ever!) which captures some of those mystical coincidences of apples, eternity, sleep, moonlight, magic and death. 


At the top of the house the apples are laid in rows,
And the skylight lets the moonlight in, and those
Apples are deep-sea apples of green. There goes
A cloud on the moon in the autumn night.

A mouse in the wainscot scratches, and scratches, and then
There is no sound at the top of the house of men
Or mice; and the cloud is blown, and the moon again
Dapples the apples with deep-sea light.

They are lying in rows there, under the gloomy beams
On the sagging floor; they gather the silver streams
Out of the moon, those moonlit apples of dreams
And quiet is the steep stair under.

In the corridors under there is nothing but sleep.
And stiller than ever on orchard boughs they keep
Tryst with the moon, and deep is the silence, deep
On moon-washed apples of wonder.

Picture credits:

Apple tree: Author's garden
Atalanta racing Hippomenes: Willen van Herp, c1650
Silver Apples: Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh
Adam and Eve: Lucas Cranach, 1537
Apple Tree: Arthur Rackham


Friday, 18 June 2021

A Fine Song of Love


The past is another country. and it can take a great deal of research and imaginative effort to recreate its multilayered richness of sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Visiting the  Chiltern Open Air Museum a few years ago I found myself shouting to be heard over the almost unbearable thunder of iron-rimmed cartwheels rolling over cobbles. I’d had no idea carts made so much noise – and that was a single, large, four-wheeled wagon pulled by a single horse. Imagine the din around the warehouses of London Docks in the 1880s! 

Music goes beyond natural sound, though. Music is a cultural construct full of meaning; it reflects, interprets, and to a large extent creates the manners and desires of its own time. It's natural to refer to music as we construct history. Swingtime, jazz, rock and roll, punk, reggae, hip-hop – all tell something about the decades in which they flourish. Impossible to imagine the sixties without the Beatles or the Kinks. The same must be true for the deeper past. I once thrilled to a British Museum reconstruction of a Roman trumpet call, and what about the prehistoric bone flutes that were played in caves like Lascaux? (And why were they played, and for whose attention? The earth spirits?)

My children’s novel Dark Angels (HarperCollins) is set on the Welsh borders in the 1190s, and features a flawed heroic figure, Lord Hugo de La Motte Rouge, Norman warlord and ex-crusader who believes his dead wife may – just may – not be dead after all, even though seven years have passed since he buried her. She may have been spirited away by the elf-folk and taken into the tunnels under the hill. In which case, there might be a chance he could rescue her.

There are a quite a few 12th century legends on this mysterious subject, the idea of lost lovers re-encountered in some fairy land of the dead. Walter Map, a courtier at the court of Henry II, tells the story of a Breton knight who rescued his dead-and-buried wife when, months later, he saw her whirling in a fairy dance. And the 13th century retelling of the Orpheus myth, Sir Orfeo, probably ultimately dates from this time, translated from a Breton lai into Middle English.

So there I was with the idea that my knight Lord Hugo would be a sort of Orpheus figure. Therefore he needed to be musical. Now the Breton lais are lengthy stories in verse; they were performed by minstrels who probably chanted them with a musical prelude and interludes. And of course the 12th and 13th centuries were also the time of the troubadours of southern France, whose songs were primarily songs of fin’ amour – of romantic love in high society.

Garden of Pleasure, Harley 4425, 15th C. 
It’s been suggested that the notion, even the emotion of romantic love was created by the troubadours: a product of the hot-house needs of often very young noblemen and noblewomen living in close proximity in small castles, with nothing much to do spending time together every day, yet with sex strictly off-limits, marriage being a formal affair of property and alliances arranged by their elders. So this new music arose, a music of youth, full of expressions of forbidden desire: subversive, exciting, dangerous and fashionable.

Many troubadours were high-born men and women, whose songs would usually be performed for them by a joglar or jongleur, a professional singer. Still, it seemed to me quite possible that my own Lord Hugo might on occasion be prevailed upon to sing his own songs – especially if he thought that doing so might help win back his wife from the dead land.   

So now I needed to listen to troubadour songs. Here's an anonymous 13th century song performed by Arnaud Lachambre; it's known by its first line: 'Voulez vous que je vous chante?' I made a free translation of it to get myself in the mood for writing songs for Lord Hugo.

Volez vous que je vous chante             Would you like me to sing to you
Un son d’amours avenant?                 A fine song of love?                          
Vilain nel fist mie,                                By no peasant was it made,               
Ainz le fist un chevalier                       But a gentle knight who lay
Sous l’ombre d’un olivier                     With his sweetheart in his arms
Entre les bras s’amie.                          In an olive tree’s shade.

Chemisete avoit de lin                         She wore a linen chemise,
Et blanc peliçon hermin                       A pelisse of white ermine –
Et bliaut de soie                                   Of silk was her dress,
Chauces ot de jaglolai                         Her stockings were of iris leaves
Et solers de flours de mai                    And slippers of mayflowers
Estroitement chauçade                         Her feet to caress.

Ceinturete avoit de feuille                   Her girdle was of leaves
Que verdist quant li tens meuille,       Which grow green when it rains,
D’or est boutonade                             Her buttons of gold so fine,
L’aumosniere estoit d’amour              Her purse was a gift of love
Li pendant furent de flours                  And it hung from flowery chains
Par amours fu donade.                       As it were a lovers’ shrine.

Et chevauchoit une mule                     And she rode on a mule,
D’argent ert la ferruere                       The saddle was of gold,
La sele ert dorade;                              All silver were its shoes;
Sus la croupe par derriers                  To provide her with shade, 
Avoit plante trois rosiers                     On the crupper behind her
Pour faire li ombrage.                         Three rose-bushes grew.

Si s’en va aval la pree                         As she passed through the fields
Chevaliers l’ont encontree                  She met gentle knights
Beau l’on saluade:                              Who demanded courteously:
“Belle, dont estes vous nee?”             “Fair one, where were you born?”
“De France sui la louee,                     “From France am I come.
De plus haut parage.”                         And of high family.”

“Li rossignol est mon pere                 “The nightingale is my father
Qui chant sor la ramee                       Who sings from the branches
El plus haut boscage.                          Of the forest’s highest tree.
La seraine est mon mere                     The mermaid is my mother
Qui chante en la mer sale                   Who sings her sweet notes
Li plus haut rivage.”                           By the banks of the salt sea.”

“Belle, bon fussiez vous nee!              “Fair one, well were you born!          
Bien estes emparentee                         Well fathered, well mothered
Et de haut parage.                               And of high family.
Pleüst á Dieu nostre pere                    Now would God only grant
Que vous ne fussiez donee                   That you might be given
A femme esposade.”                            In marriage to me!”

Could a song be more sensual, the object of desire more dangerous? The lady in this chanson is a headily-erotic blend of wildwood flowers, songs and the fairy world, and that purse which hangs from her girdle on flowery chains ‘like a lover’s shrine’ is certainly a metaphor Freud would have recognised. No wonder the young knights acknowledge her ‘high degree’ and long for her hand in marriage. It’s enough to turn their parents’ hair grey.  

Lady out riding, 16th C, by Gerard Horenbout  
Troubadour songs often use images such as the coming of the green leaves in spring, and the song of the nightingale, to express the pain and delight and longing of love. Here’s Guillem de Peiteus, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine, comparing love to a hawthorn bough:

As for our love, you must know how
Love goes – it’s like the hawthorn bough
That on the living tree stands, shaking
All night beneath the freezing rain
Till next day, when the warm sun, waking,
Spreads through green leaves and boughs again.

(Tr. W. D. Snodgrass.)

In the end I wrote this for Hugo to sing of his love:

When all the spring is bursting and blossoming,
And the hedge is white with blossom like a breaking wave,
That’s when my heart is bursting with love-longing
For the girl who pierced it, for that sweet wound she gave,

And I hear the nightingale singing in the forest –
Singing for love in the forest: “Come to me, I am alone…
Better to suffer love’s pain for a single kiss
Than live for a hundred years with a heart of stone.”

It’s Hugo’s love and pain that drives the plot of Dark Angels and I needed the plangent, beautiful music of the 13th century to get it right.