Yellow Skies and Red Suns

Monday 16th October:

What a day today has been! And while words like “apocalyptic” were bandied about on Twitter, the epic skies made me think not only only of texts like this manuscript of Beatus of Liébana’s commentary on the Apocalypse , with its rich and terrifying visions of the end of all things, but of the icon gold of Jackie Morris’ art work in The Lost Words.  The icon is important here,  the translation of the Divine into the here and now.  I remembered the colours in the Corfu Icon Museum and the gold in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and Monreale Cathedral in Sicily. It is as if I am back with de Hamel and the Remarkable Manuscripts again: so much beauty.  Back to myth and might-have-been.

I have said I won’t review The Lost Words, although I have commented on it, notably in response to Rob McFarlane’s wonderful essay and on the original movement around excising words from the dictionary.  My avoiding a “proper” review is partly because Dara McAnulty’s blog reviews it so much better than I could. I will however comment on this one other aspect of the work: how nature writing and art have an astonishing double edge to them, revealing the instant beauty of the thing or event, and at the same time revealing the “mystery…instressed, stressed,” that is at the heart of the icon, maybe at the heart of this book of spells and the pictures than conjure not only this kingfisher, those otters, but also an almost Platonic ideal. Nature -dare I personify it? – herself.

And maybe this is the revelation, an apocalypse: the eternity in the gold behind Jackie Morris’ kingfisher, the “quick now here now always” of Rob McFarlane’s Wren.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment


I didn’t really need to be so irritable about the fact that, at a recent NASUWT event, someone suggested returning to work after maternity leave might result in teaching younger children and that that could be seen as demotion. The Women Teachers’ Consultation Conference was set to highlight some of the inequalities around women returning to teaching, and didn’t need me mansplaining about all over the place.  But demotion was the word in their Twitter post – although I notice that it now seems to say that “Taking maternity leave is the factor which most detrimentally affects women teachers’ career development.” I hope this is an edit on their part, not an oversight on mine. Whatever it was, demotion flew round the corner of Early Years Twitter I frequent.

So briefly, here’s a few thoughts on demotion.

Coming back from maternity leave to a job with fewer prospects is not on for the woman concerned. Coming back to a job for which you are ill -prepared and into which you are an unwilling conscript is bad for the children. In these senses, coming back to teach a younger age group is very possibly discriminatory, and almost certainly a bad move from an SLT. I recognise what one respondent suggested that the NASUWT were trying, albeit ineffectively, to highlight injustice and poor judgement. However, the word demotion suggests something else: it carries with it the idea that working with a younger age group is an inferior task.

At a time when the notion of child-initiated learning/developmentally appropriate practice is called into doubt, and when the proposed revision of the Early Years Foundation Stage is already seeing territorial demands about what the profession needs, it seems to me, is a cohort of eloquent new teachers prepared to take up the challenge. Not to “fight” in some odd way for this or that (phonics, no phonics, a bigger sandpit, whatever), but to be able to pick up research and engage with it, to find the best practice and follow it, to enrich childhoods and build foundations, to show genuine interest in children beyond the tick sheet, to provide for burgeoning delight in reading and problem solving.  This cannot be done by using the language we already have of Early Years.

  • Down to Reception.
  • The Littlies.
  • The Rugrats Teacher.
  • “So, do you teach them anything?”
  • “How hard can it be?”

All phrases I’ve heard or had reported to me: this is the kind of disempowerment that goes with the word demotion. Cute is merely cute; forget Margaret McMillan and see Early Years as soft and cuddly -and rather expensive, now we come to think of it. Now I know school leaders who would excoriate anyone who suggested that this is how they viewed the Foundation Stage in their school, and defend the practice in their Early Years classes against the pedagogologues whose experience of Early Years is dropping off someone’s kids, or who see the Foundation Stage as an ineffective way of mirroring secondary Maths: bit that word demotion remains in my mind.

It is perhaps up to the older generation who have fought these status wars before (“Time to get away from the happy chaos of sandpit and water tray”) to give some thought to how we we should refer to the Early Years. The sharp end?  It is not demotion to go down to the Early Years; it should be a question of “Are you sure you’re up to it?”

Early Years teaching demands snap decisions about pedagogy, an understanding of children’s needs and a willingness to meet them, to decide how best to help form an understanding of behaviour and to impart this or that piece of knowledge. It’s teaching, for goodness’ sake. Let’s talk of it as such: the glorious, complex, busy world of Nursery and Reception (and KS1, too) that make possible the brilliant work that follows.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

More on lost words

When, a while back, I made a brief mention of the disappearance of some words from the Oxford children’s dictionary I acknowledged the limitations of the lexicographer, who needs to balance all sorts of needs. I also mourned (briefly) the way that “country” words might fade into ignoble disuse. Today, Robert Macfarlane picks up the linguistic gauntlet, reporting and critiquing a paper (which I must read) on the capacity of children to assimilate knowedge about real species, but contrasts this with what appears to be a preference for Pokemon,  which Macfarlane characterises as part of a “lack of natural literacy.” I could, maybe, try and contrast this with the walk I’ve just taken where 7yo granddaughter made up a song about conkers- but as I type, I see “conkers” is not recognised by my predictive text or spellchecker….

His writing is detailed, moving, insightful, and ranges from Barker’s Flower Fairies through Le Guin and Garner. I feel, as I read Rob’s thoughts in the paper, that I have been trotting behind him for a long while, as well as looking at other stuff along the way, and am looking forward to hearing him and Jackie Morris as part of their book tour for Lost Words. His name-checking of authors and critics we both admire – or that a growing community that I am amazed to find I inhabit with him, and Mat, and the great Alison Lurie and others all have read – is enlightening about how a scholarly community  is constituted, made up of links and lines as complex as a set of ecological interrelationships.

Jackie Morris explains the evolution of the new book.  Here is her blog post on the book, itself well worth a read, and she explains how the vision for their new book moved from protest letter through initial conceptions of a “children’s book” through to something rich and strange. I am looking forward to buying my own, and to having it signed in due course…

But this essay in the paper takes me further, and I am immensely grateful. It seems to me that we (whoever that comprises, but I hope it means me, and Mat, and The Landreader project, as well as bigger  names) are no longer marginal children’s lit ecocritics, but part of a bigger movement of eco-literacy. I feel a call, if not to arms, then at least to get my critical compass out, to set out again (and again) on the paths that lead from the crossroads where The Chaperon Rouge meets B’zou, to where Gawain meets the Green Knight – and back again, through the riches of folk tale and legend, through traditional tales and modern inventive fictions, so we can help people appreciate, in Macfarlane’s words, how “nature, naming and dreaming are all tangled together.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Litany

“Who first made you want to be a teacher?”

A not dissimilar set of occurrences to the one I’ve discussed before about memory of books I have read springs immediately to mind. Here, rather than a narrative, is a brief litany of the saints whose practice suggested teaching (in some form or another) might be for me. Not included are those teachers whose dodgy or eccentric behaviour made me think “I could teach – but not like that”), nor yet those teachers who made a bad call and, for example, taught me I was useless at maths – so, sorry, Miss Thorn, Fr Lobo, Mr Lawson, Mr Foley, you gave me lots to think about, but your inclusion would have raised more questions for me.

Mrs Newsome: my kind and gentle Reception class teacher;

Mr Kilner: allowing drama and voice recording and C S Lewis more or less at the drop of a hat;

Mrs Rawlins, my Y6 teacher: for giving us the best end-of-day story times;

Mr Brown: you had no idea what you were getting from a very hands-on school to see me through the last, unhappy months of Primary – but you listened, and you tried and you talked to me and my parents;

Miss Parkinson: for allowing huge swathes of time to let Y7 and 8 be times where we all explored stuff together;

Mr Gunningham: for the Latin, and the patience, and the wit;

Fr Flannery: for the Latin and the Greek and the RE and the humorable impatience at our adolescence;

Mr Barlow: for not fitting the frame of teacher or Jesuit with much compliance but still getting us there with energy and engagement;

Mr (now Fr., and Professor) John Saward: for tutorials in which he displayed a real interest – and did so in meetings that extended well beyond the time allocated;

Fr Brian Findlay: every boy should have such a mentor. I think you can see some of his mannerisms in Ian Hislop and I have to admit a great deal of my fake erudition is put on in mimicking Brian’s real depth;

The great Maggie: her imaginative planning and ideas sustained me in my first job; her PGCE dissertation on ecology and storytelling sits on my office shelf and still gets read; her anecdotes are recycled in many of my lectures;

Leslie Grundy: visionary headteacher who made me want to do nursery and taught me how to do it;

Julie Fisher: who gave me the framework to try to put intelligent pedagogy into action;

and Brookes colleagues who taught or continue to teach me how to do it, day after day. But I’ll stop with just my first leader and mentor at Brookes, Helena Mitchell, so this doesn’t become an Oscars list.

Thank you to all of them, living and dead.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What is Children’s Literature For?

I began to think about this in the context of a canon of children’s literature, which I discussed in April.  I wasn’t going to blog more about this – blogging time needs to go to my pending teaching and the next Wild Spaces, Wild Magic trip in November. However, three ideas have surfaced this week that need a bit of rethinking for me. I referred on Twitter to the last time the “shouldn’t be allowed” argument drifted my way, which I discussed in this blog post.

The most recent – that is, today, is this Guardian article on children’s literature and empathy by Alison Flood.  The research is based on children’s responses to an anthropomorphic Little Raccoon – and I have to be honest and admit that this YouTube representation doesn’t endear me to the text for starters.  Note however, (5 min 09 sec) the explicit message “When you share with others they share with you.” So first of all, let’s just get that out of the way: that’s not a moral message, or the moral of the story; it’s an aspiration.  The moral of the story is “sharing is good.” It is a heavy-handed delivery at best, and do bear in mind the comments made by @zudensachen on Twitter, his best being, I think

I’m critical of the psychology research approach that expects moral stories to ‘work’ as exemplars. Stories are wriggly.

Wriggly. Brilliant. And here is the first flaw in the research: poor quality literature is no better as a guide to children’s ability to infer, critique and wonder than a bowl of nutritious slop is a guide to their ability to discern healthy food.  Bluntly put, there is no wriggle in the cute raccoon.

I do share Dave Aldridge’s general disquiet about the kind of study referred to in the Guardian that explores the tricksy interface between psychology and literature, but that’s my problem. Patricia Ganea’s work is itself interesting  (I am in any case grateful for the nudge away from my knee-jerk reaction to actually looking at her work that I got from the inestimable Hamish Chalmers). Her “Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals” is a fascinating study, useful for my own research because of the landscape issues it throws up , and I need to come back to her “Toddlers’ referential understanding of pictures” which I have just seen.  The problem really comes down to the bigger question about “using” children’s literature. In the article Alison Flood bases her own work on, “Do storybooks with anthropomorphized animal characters promote prosocial behaviors in young children?” – linked here, if it works – Larsen, Lee and Ganea explore issues around children’s understanding of choices and actions through the issues of identity and anthropormphism. It is good to see the Marriott “Red in tooth and claw?” cited; they know their stuff. There is, I think, a big problem with quality: Little Raccoon Learns to Share is, as I’ve suggested, not the best: heavy-handed morality and wordy, and the “humanised” Photoshop version the team produced consequently can’t be much better. The comparability of texts is assured, but only, it seems to me, at the cost of the text being engaging.  That the control book is by Eric Carle is almost worth a methodological reflection in its own.

The Guardian article ends with voices from authors. I am unsure whether the article’s author is missing a tone of irony or whether I am searching, desperately, for something that isn’t there, but the final paragraphs suggest we are all a bit lost:

Picture book author Tracey Corderoy said that in her experience, “where the main characters of a moral tale are animals as opposed to humans, the slight distancing that this affords the young child does a number of important things. It softens the moral message a little, making it slightly more palatable. Some would feel that this waters it down and makes it less effective. But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”

Kes Gray, the author of the bestselling rhyming animal series Oi Frog and Friends, was unperturbed by the researchers’ findings. “Authors and illustrators have no need to panic here, as long as we keep all of the animal protagonists in all of their future stories unreservedly cuddly. Big hair, big eyes and pink twitchy noses should pretty much nail it,” he said.

Here we are into this idea that children’s literature has qualities that are only to be measured by the message, by the use an adult can get.

The second is my finishing (again today, on the bus) Joan Aiken’s personal take on writing. There are things about the child reader’s reading of significance :

…The child may draw conclusions from the actor’s face and general demeanour, but he won’t have any certainty about it And such experience as he has to draw on will be limited…

that I might query, and other pithy comments I want to stick on my wall:

A child reader is very like a wary and agile fish – to keep his attention you have to bait your hook with cunning…

If you can pluck out some small common denominator of experience that will instantly register with the reader, you have made yourself a friend…

Personally, I believe that an overt moral message is to be avoided like the plague… A book is supposed to be for pleasure, isn’t it? Who are you, anyway, to preach morals to the young?

And the third is the arrival of Pam Smy‘s book Thornhill, and the kerfuffle it has caused. This is her blog  and Mat’s thoughtful review (avoiding spoilers as Ella in the story avoids brambles) is here and (of course) well worth a read.  My comments here aren’t going to contain spoilers either, because I haven’t read it to the end; the thoughts here aren’t about what promises to be (and people warn me that it will be) a troubling denouement, but about the language people are using about the book. It comes down, in many cases, to the notion of suitability – and this in turn seems more to be about classroom use and where it is marketed in bookshops. Fight your way, then, first off, past the BBC sign-in system and listen to this posted by @rokewood on Twitter this morning as a timely reminder on the general picture and then consider these statements:

  • Bloody hell!That is one hell of a book. How to teach with it?
  • Certainly wouldn’t use at primary; not for whole class and prob not with an individual child unless I knew very well indeed. Powerful though.
  • Totally unsuitable for under [age range specified].
  • We read stories precisely in order to help them grow emotionally, morally and spiritually.
  • Why teach that life is hopeless?

I’ve selected and anonymised them, and they are presented here with only one (sort of) judgmental comment: that under all of them is the assumption that books are there specifically to help adults do something., and that misjudgment around this can be damaging. It is a schoolified view of literature. “We read stories precisely in order to…”

So much here, it’s hard to know where to start, so I shall go back to my beginning. Is the dilemma about “using” Thornhill about the authority and/or moral purpiose of the teacher? Is children’s literature fundamentally a socialisation process involving text? Is it there so that this book or that can be a vehicle for a curricular aim? Where does the responsibility lie in the chain of author/illustrator>publisher>bookseller>adult supplier of money for books (parent, headteacher)>adult chooser/proposer of this book or what? Whose job is it to approve of the books children access? Why ask children to read, to be engaged with narrative and character in fiction?  What is literature for?

Answers on a postcard.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Hiya Ed

When I started at University, I spent the first, painful term, calling my tutor, Dr Taplin, “Errrm,” because I didn’t know what to call him. I now see from his College bio entry that he was frighteningly old (to use a phrase from Lucy Boston): in his mid-thirties. Maybe as old as some of my younger colleagues, such as Jon or Mat. I was completely in awe.

But that was 1976. Oliver Taplin was a young, successful academic in the only University I knew. Heir to C S Lewis (who also taught Classics at Magdalen) , but very willing to shake us out of the reverential classics of school by getting us to look at Archilochus, or to try for an appropriate modern word for “pedicabo” in Catullus. As I said, I was completely in awe: when Dr Walker said hello to me outside Blackwells Bookshop, I was dumbstruck. When we last met, at a Widening Participation event a couple of years ago, I called him Ralph, and even then wasn’t sure if that was sacrilege.

Language changes, status changes, and with both of those forms of address change. As we get ready for a new academic year, as we read the comments from students of last year – cards after graduation, the Trip Advisor that is NSS – I wonder what this cohort will make of me. It’s (just) possible this is the last group of first years that I will see through to graduation: how will I appear to them? To rub it in, I look for my own staff page, and find a “Page Not Found.” Absit omen.

Which brings me back to my jokey title. How will the emails address me and my colleagues? “Dear Professor”? “Hey, Nick”? And does it really matter? Is respect something that goes hand-in-hand with cautious forms of address? Should formality be demanded? What does it signify? What is gained, what is lost?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Three (sets of) Ravens

Those who know me well enough – and even some people that don’t, becasue I am such a show-off  – know that I have three ravens tattooed on one shoulder. I love them, and listen out for the Cronk Cronk of the one that occasionally heckles me on the allotment. They are there because I used to sing the Thomas Ravenscroft song to my children in the hours of walking them back to sleep when they were babies. This link takes you to the text, and this one to the first version I knew, sung by Alfred Deller. One lot of ravens.

The second is the lino cut Corvus Corax my daughter has made:

By Anne Swarbrick

Full of humour in that beady eye, agile even in print form, it tells me so much about our shared love of the big birds we see at the local Falconry Centre. Corvus Corax: the Common Raven.

The third is another raven from my adolescence (yes I still watched Jackanory when I was in VIth Form) and my children’s childhood, Arabel’s comic and anarchic raven in  stories by Joan Aiken, among them the three I know best,  Arabel’s Raven, The Escaped Black Mamba (I left that out of the precis below) and The Bread Bin. In the first, the respectable taxi-driver Ebenezer (Ben) Jones picks up a distressed raven which his daughter Arabel names Mortimer, much to her mother Martha’s despair. Adventure follows, as the raven becomes entangled in a kidnapping and bank heist. In the second, Mortimer is firmly established in the Jones’ household, although not without protest from the grown-ups. Chris the babysitter is involved this time as Arabel’s parents go out, and the raven gets stuck in a trumpet, and more gangland involvement ensues. In the third story, Arabel gets bronchitis and goes to hospital, and Mortimer goes missing. There is a happy ending, if you’re worried. Other stories also came out in similar vein: the riotous Mortimer, Carnival in black; robbers; clashes with the establishment in the form of police, librarians, huntsmen and research scientists.

And there we have it with Arabel and The Common Raven. Aiken is careful with her class distinctions, drawing heavily, it seems to me, on the conventions of Ealing Comedy to depict her colourful inhabitants of NW London. What amazes me is her ability to write about an ordinary family in N London and hint at accent and (therefore, indirectly underline) class without becoming incoherent or patronising. There is a wobble, perhaps, in the depiction of the Irish Mr Plunkett who does say “Glory Be!” and “Begorrah” and uses “Ye,” but little else. Much of the comedy that does not come from Arabel’s trust for the raven’s really poorly adapted way of living with humans comes from Mrs Jones and her outbursts:

“Oh good gracious me did you ever see anything so outrageously provoking in all your born days?” said Mrs Jones. “I never did, not even when I worked at the Do-it-yourself delicatessen: don’t you go running after that black feathered Monster, Arabel, you stay right here.”

Notice the punctuation. We are meant, I think, to hear this as a stream of outrage; I can imagine Kenneth Williams in full flood (it was actually Bernard Cribbins who read them on Jackanory and I do recall he was fantastic: here is Cribbins in fine form in a later story). Her annoyance makes her instantly believable, and a true foil for Arabel’s innocence. As with the latest film adaption of Paddington, where his migrant refugee status is played up, there is perhaps a hint that Mrs Jones over-emphasising the blackness of the raven – the “black fiend of a bird” – but ambiguous, and in character, not as narrator, and nothing to compare with the more explicit comments of Roald Dahl.  As a final thought, and very revealing of his own processes,  Quentin Blake is here commenting on the process of preparing for the illustrations in Jackanory and the printed books.

Where the social distinctions are drawn in the Raven stories, it is mostly in the clashes with authority. The doctors in Rumbury Central are somewhat exempt (except for nervous rashes), but the fierce ward sister Sr Bridget Hagerty and in a later story the visiting GP are not; the police investigating possible GBH in the Jones’ household are stock figures of po-faced ineptitude; bank managers and solicitors all get some sort of come-uppance. We are in the realm of Capt. Mainwaring   and the Ealing Comedies. The record shop bosses in Arabel’s Raven, for example, who try and dun the Joneses for the damage the raven causes, employ solicitors to try and recoup their loss; they are described as “that pair of sharks” by Mrs Jones and end up being arrested. Dominant Aunt Olwen in Mortimer’s Cross, a descendant of Saki’s humourless older women bullies, is abandoned unceremoniously in favour of the much nicer Auntie Meg in Bangor. The gentle representation of a Welsh dialect is telling:

“Ben never said anything about sending you, lovey,” she said. “Company for me you’ll be, while Gwennie’s in hospital. Nice,  that is.”

Aiken plays with stereotypes skillfully by not over representing them, by hinting through the characters’ use of language. It becomes natural that Mr Jones’ family are Welsh – why would a Jones not be? – and the pomposity of the establishment is lampooned and dismantled – as any comedy from Moliere (and before) suggests they must be. The Raven stories thus represent a first satire for young readers on societal difference, in which the comedy is found in the situations and language of an ordinary family and their interactions with their world, the catalyst for adventure being the Loki-like disrupter, Mortimer the raven. Mortimer is thus the inheritor of the mantle of the divine trickster  (a good Wikipedia entry [sic] here). That the Joneses and Mortimer are a far cry – a far Kaaark – from the Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the other, more solemn, work Joan Aiken did for an older audience is only a testament to her skill.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


With the questing, voyaging Earthsea world rattling round in my head, and the next Wild Spaces, Wild Magic trip in the planning – and the sun from my summer holiday still embedded in my face and shoulders – journeys have been much on my mind. It was natural, then, to look at a new blog review of Francesca Sanna’s wonderfully involved and visually effective The Journey from Simon Smith.

Mat Tobin has been consistent in talking about this book as an example of a complex text, as he says, “it shows how powerful the relationship between words and image can be.” He is quite right, and Simon Smith, acknowledging Mat’s insight, suggests

Sanna plays pictures against words wonderfully. The use of the child as the narrator creates a naivety and innocence to the written narrative that she exploits brilliantly.

Just last month I suggested, drawing on Alan Garner, that the world experienced is given meaning for us through story. The Journey is no simple trip, however: to compare it with, say, John Burningham’s The Shopping Basket (which I use with undergrads to think about the relationship between childhood and ecocriticism without getting into the issues of how much of a catechism ecological literature can be) would be misleading. It does, however, do just what Garner says: moving through the story is moving through the landscape, and gives sense to that environment. Sanna does the same: even though the scale of the figures – especially the menacing ones – is indicative of an internal perception of danger,  and the landscapes of forest and mountain are largely schematic, the intention is to help the reader make sense of the world. As Mat points out, this is partly because of the author’s encounter with real refugee children: this is where th power of the author comes from, I think. In the same way, when thinking of the ways that power transfers to the reader,  I was shocked – but I’m afraid not really surprised- that Simon was abused for his using this with the children he works with. No matter how symbolic this journey is, it represents a real world, just as the lad in Burningham’s book  is going past the “place where the nasty dog lived” and the “men digging up the pavement.” Migrant children need to be kept unreal, otherwise we may have to pay attention to the reality of the loss and difficulty they suffer. Naivety and innocence as Simon suggests are wholly appropriate; they also allow for a direct appeal to the reader. Maybe this is what makes Simon’s use of this book seem threatening.

In this, because of its realist roots, Sanna’s The Journey differs sharply from the well trodden epic-as-journey: as a huge oversimplification, I am edging towards suggesting that traveling to fight Khumbaba, to return to a mythic Ithaca, to found Rome tells us about the journeyer much more than the environment. The ecocritical approach might be to say that the human is at the centre in the epic and in the more intimate books of childhood, the child is part of a much bigger world. It may be that the marrying of text and illustration plays a part in this, too: I need to think this one through a bit more.

That’s grand epic (ineffectively) dismissed, and childhood at least discussed. I am still unsure about Odysseus, and really about the life-and-death questions of Frodo and Gilgamesh. What about Ged, in his little boat, sailing to see dragons and confront death?  And where does Frodo fit in all this, with the detailed history and geography Tolkien created?

…and if I’m thinking about Garner Country, what kind of a journey does Gawain go on? To the interior? To dream in Ludcruck?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dancing above the hollow place


will do to start me off on a brief visit to the spirituality represented in Le Guin’s first three Earthsea stories.

And let me start with three sources, rather than end with references:

  • Paul Reps representation of classic Zen texts in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, linked here
  • Alan Watts’ Tao, the Watercourse Way, linked here
  • And the text itself of the Tao Te Ching, which exists in a number of different versions and translations into English – this one, for example, and this one. 

And by saying, as if  it needed saying, that I am no Zen master or Taoist scholar. I cannot begin to explore the riches of these great traditions. I might be the scholar of spirituality that the early expression of  Christian monasticism dismisses as someone who “has filled his window with books.”

So let’s look at Earthsea.  In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea,  Le Guin describes how Ged, the boy who will be at the centre of all three stories, is recognised by the wizard Ogion, and struggles to make sense of his desire to “learn, to gain power,” when Ogion will not even use magic to stop them getting wet. Silence is key to Ged’s learning, but so also is a simple life. It reminded me of the apprenticeship of a young Buddhist with a mountain hermit, where the apprentice asks about the Buddha-nature and the master responds with instructions about tea, or rice. Ged’s choice of action and scholarship as a Mage in the city/college of Roke colours his life in the next books, to the point where there is a wistfulness about his return to his ageing master in the third book – a wistfulness, and something akin to the tension Herman Hesse explores in Narziss and Goldmund, and The Glass-Bead Game (The desert-and-a-city is also a fundamental tension in the early Christian monastic developments in Egypt, where “going back to the city” is a recurring problem, and word-and-silence a theme throughout the great recounting of the sayings of the desert monastics).

But when we come to the Tombs of Atuan, we are, perhaps, more in the labyrinth of Jungian mapping of the subconscious. The protagonist, Tenar, discovers herself, or she discovers the nature of her role as the Eaten One, the priestess of the claustrophobic  temple above a dark labyrinth,  and then meets the questing Mage, Ged. This is not a master and apprentice relationship as in Book 1, but an uncomfortable negotiation that leads to liberating Tenar to “a vast, clear, wintry sky, a vast barren, golden land of mountains and wide valleys.” As she watches Ged she realises that

Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.

It is the same idea, maybe, as Thomas Merton’s lines

…to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

And the very Le Guin-like pondering of R S Thomas:

               …is man’s

meaning in the keeping of himself

afloat over seventy thousand

fathoms, tacking against winds

coming from no direction

going in no direction?

But here we are the heart of the difficulties of very deep spiritual experiences: that there is both enlightenment and no enlightenment, vision and no vision. The night in Ged’s boat, Lookfar, shows Tenar

a vaster darkness… There was no end to it. There was no roof. It went on out beyond the stars. No earthly Powers moved it. It had been before light, and would be after. It had been before life, and would be after. It went on beyond evil.

Is Le Guin referring to the Tao? The core message of the Heart Sutra? No roof, no obstacle, the destroyer of all suffering the incorruptible truth? Maybe I overstate my case, or maybe I’m just jumping the gun.

In The Farthest Shore, the ageing Mage, Ged, has a number of statements very close to classic Taoism. The Chinese links are reinforced by the changing power relationships around the dragons: none of the terrible creatures in Le Guin’s world are really like Qinglong or the other traditional dragons, but the connection seems important: in Earthsea they are also sources of ancient wisdom and magic. They are as necessary in Earthsea as in the heavens of the Jade Emperor.

The Farthest Shore is already a special text  for me, and I know I will read it again. This is partly because of the episode below, and the ways that master and pupil interact, lose sight of one another, face doubt and pain and come to their understanding of their lives together. I know this is simply a personal matter, but in terms of tonight’s blog post it has some relevance. For me the most meaningful episode is the confrontation and reconciliation that occurs when the youth Arren recognises his despair as he discusses his all-but abandonment of his hero, Ged. The stricken hero effects the reconciliation with a resounding rhetoric:

…This is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

The dance above the emptiness, the Yin and Yang.  The wording  echoes the song that starts the first book, which the boy Arren then sings when the summer ritual falters, and brings us back to the silence of meditation.

There is much, much more, of course: Farthest Shore is a moving, insightful Pilgrim’s Progress around society’s attitude to death, for one thing, but for this blog this will have to do for the lyrical prose about self-discovery. I am sailing too close to the Argus posters of the 70s.

There is, however, one, much more explicit, Taoist link, in Ch 4. The reader begins to understand what might be in store as Ged, the understanding and compassionate leader whose decisions will take Arren  into danger and death (yes, there are shades of Dumbledore and Harry, or rather we might check off another source for Rowling), sees the youth’s future as king. He talks to the youth of kingship and its role in the Earthsea world:

We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence we must not act in ignorance. Having choice we must not act without responsibility. Who am I – though I have the power to do it – to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?

[…] I will continue to do good, and to do evil … But if there were a king over us all again, and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous, or praiseworthy, or noble, to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do, and which you cannot do in any other way.’”

Powerful. Compare these extracts from the Tao Te Ching:

[37] If kings and the nobilities can abide by their true nature and follow the great Tao, All things shall be reformed naturally. If during the process of reform, desires arouse. I shall overcome with the simplicity of original nature. With the simplicity of true nature, there shall be no desire. Without desire, one’s original nature will be at peace.

[46] The greatest crime is to have too much desire. The greatest disaster is not to find contentment. The greatest mistake is to desire for endless possession. Hence, when one is gratified with self-contentment, True contentment can then long endure.

Le Guin puts her hero Ged into questing and travelling narratives, and while the wandering scholar is at home in Buddhism and Taoism, it would be misleading to ignore the Tao Te Ching when it says

[47]…there is no need to leave the house to take journey in order to know the world. There is no need to look outside of the window to see the nature of Tao.

To end the post. If we understand there are religious/philosophical influences here, how might it warn the reader to read carefully? I find the points at which Le Guin seems to lay bare a theological approach based on Buddhism/Taoism (I am very aware they are not the same) almost at the same level as C S Lewis lays bare in Narnia a Western Christian cosmology. If this is the key to Le Guin’s world as Anglican Christianity is to Narnia, then it is more than an oriental wallpaper, and needs to be treated with as much regard.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Creating Relationships with Place through Story

This is Garner’s own line, and I come back again and again to the talk it comes from.

I am not going to debate his method or dispute with him about this. I do wonder, however, about whether there is a mutual relationship here, too.  Place gives rise to story, story creates relationship with place – this is at the heart of the repeated line in Boneland that has become something of a motto for me “I dream in Ludcruck.” It is also at the heart of the saying I have on my office door, “Sing me frumsceaft.” (This is as good an introduction as any to the English text of Bede’s story of Caedmon.) “Sing to me the origin of things” commands the vision – and the illiterate, tone-deaf shepherd does:

He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum

heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend

and it is a divine act of shaping, creation from on high, ex nihilo: the world comes from nothing, the song from nothing, too.

The world experienced, “place” in effect, is given meaning for us through story. However, I think the converse is also true: for me the song does not come from nothing: this valley, that hill, have meaning because of a story about it, and the meaning is given because of the story. We are knots in a web of interconnected stories and places, “haunted,” as Robert Macfarlane says in The Wild Places, by the archetypes, for example,  of forest and upland, and what our forebears have made of them or said about them. Perhaps this is one of the Oxford connections for writers such as Cooper, Garner, Lewis, Tolkein: they are searching not for a one-way relationship but something much more mutual and complex.

I am typing maybe 200m from where, driving back to Oxford in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night,  Harriet Vane starts her descent:

Headington. She was very near now, and in spite of herself a chill qualm cramped her stomach. Headington Hill, up which one had toiled so often, pushing a decrepit bicycle. It seemed less steep now, as one made decorous descent behind four rhythmically pulsating cylinders; but every leaf and stone hailed one with the intrusive familiarity of an old school-fellow. Then the narrow street, with its cramped, untidy shops, like the main street of a village; one or two stretches had been widened and improved, but there was little real change to take refuge in.

Magdalen Bridge. Magdalen Tower. And here, no change at all–only the heartless and indifferent persistence of man’s handiwork. Here one must begin to steel one’s self in earnest. Long Wall Street. St. Cross Road. The iron hand of the past gripping at one’s entrails…

For Sayers, this is the start of a deceptively simple exploration – Gaudy Night is at once a crime thriller, a romance and a gentle satire – of the city where she was born, where she attended University.  Her principal character is coming to terms with the “the whimpering ghost of her dead youth” in a landscape (and an urban and very particular one at that). She is creating a place, both real and imagined, making sense of the place through story – but also recognising how much the story shapes the characters. I don’t think it shapes just the characters in a story, however wonderful and terrifying it is to be out in the marshes with Pip or on the rooftops of Paris with Vango, or with Olive in the Lighthouse  in Emma Carroll’s book, or in the chalk pits with Tom Tit Tot or even (the list goes ever on and on) in the fairytale landscape of the Ahlbergs; it also shapes the reader, helps give sense to their world.  Story arises from place, and invites us to make sense of place: aetiology is not a one-way path, and it is not just for critics and folklorists. As Thomas Lane’s ingratiating dedicatory poem-preface to Robert Plot’s “Natural History of Stafford-shire” begins:

Describe the Land, Israel’s Commander said

And the glad Artists strait the word obey’d

Describing, engaging: this is the heart of Garner’s intensely localised life-long project, it seems to me. In looking at/for Thursbitch, we recognised as we wrote for Folklore Thursday that

the fear of us losing touch with the stories that made us who we are and still design us. What will happen to us when we stop looking back; when we can no longer dreamwalk into a history?


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment