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

From Alderley to Arkudah

When William Mayne’s Vendale appears in Earthfasts it is largely a recognisable place, a Dales market town, but with features from the Lakes, the high Pennines: it is a composite of a number of places. Emmerdale is maybe one valley away one way; Wharfedale is another. De Fombelle‘s Scottish Highlands in Vango, the wonderfully named Everland, is similarly more-or-less fictional. In both these works the authors move the reader from one imagined place to another skilfully.  Skillfully, in that the atmosphere of a place is beautifully captured – but maybe at the expense of accuracy.

But does that matter, except to a pedant like me? I am not sure that de Fombelle is really interested in the clerical dress of the Church of Scotland, for example, but I am sure he wants the reader to be with Ethel in her horseback chase after the lost sheep and the horror with which she finds her neighbours are hunting a human, not a deer. The rush of the story needs setting and landscapes, and I hold it up by quibbling. Vango is set in real as well as half-real places: so much so I feel it is in a parallel universe. What is worth speculating on, I think, is how de Fombelle makes the choices between accuracy and setting.  The author creates a powerful fantasy that is atmospheric enough to makes us believe in a hidden monastery in the Aeolian Islands as much as a life of marginalised young people in the Paris rooftops. Fantasy, adventure, real and imagined landscapes all are presented together in a jumble. His own travels enrich de Fombelle’s writing.

Garner, rooted in his land and its past, however, offers a different challenge: fantasy in a “real” (I’ll come back to this) landscape. In doing so, he offers up for appreciation a topography of Staffordshire and Cheshire and Derbyshire –  his corner of the world – that I am trying to explore in textual and actual exploration. Solvitur ambulando: de Fombelle has his Zeppelin; Garner has his walking boots.  Visits are vital, Garner seems to say, reading is important. Get out the map, prepare your research tools. This is underlined in Rob Macfarlane’s essay The Gifts of Reading which, like so much of his writing makes me want to put my boots on, take my kettle and a sleeping bag and walk off. His description of the “famously ornate style” of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “hopschloss” across a doomed Europe struck me as a good connection with Garner:

Almost everything in his prose leads to something else (path to path, culture to culture, word to word)and this abundance of connection is itself a kind of offering up, or giving away. You feel, as a reader, passionately- perhaps even at times oppressively – hosted: Read this! Look here! Listen to that! Walk this way!

This is where the “reality” persists: we walk a geographically recognisable path through the adventures of Colin and Susan in Weirdstone and Gomrath; we have that path snatched away from us in Boneland. We are challenged to walk this way, and that, and that again (to use Garner’s own story, to go this way and that as lead by the Wizard, by Seven Firs and Goldenstone) to accept the Man in Boneland as the metaphor for the story of the area, as the first teller of the Garner Ur-Myth, in the Garner landscape. A deeper read, time spent reading the topography and archaeology (Read this! Look here!) of this small, magic area, and I am still challenged to accept the Garner philosophy of story and landscape. Ludchurch is an ancient cultic site before Gawain learns his lesson: Alderley is a place to encounter the uncanny before its landscaping for the visitors from Manchester.

So how “real” is all of this? What do I mean by “real”?

I mean, at one level, that I have been there. It is as de Fombelle’s Paris: I can see the bones of the authors’ settings. I do not need the streets to be named exactly, but more or less, this is Paris, this is Cat’s Tor…  At another level, something is impelling me to look at Ludchurch and Alderley and Thursbitch in a different way. His meticulous scholarship tells me there are interpreters’ paths to follow, with James Dakeyne and Frederick Hackwood and Robert Plot, and geologists and archaeologists: this is at once a verifiable landscape and its own stage set on which Garner has placed not only his characters – Colin, Sal, Jack, the Man – but a maze of metaphor for us to pass with them.  If it was easy for Macfarlane to forget, in the midst of his time in China that

literature might be there to thrill, perplex or amaze,

Alan Garner’s landscapes are there to tell us that “dreaming in Ludcruck,” telling the myth of a place, is at once to be playing with history and geography – and astronomy and archaeology- and yet is nevertheless a “true story.” He goes way beyond de Fombelle in playing with visitabke settings, and it is enough for now to ask why.  The sonorous beginning to Garner’s 2010 lecture gives the best clue as to his intent:

the uniquely human quality: our ability to derive a sense of belonging through oral tradition, to create relationships with place through story.

and maybe that is as far as I can get tonight.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The kettle for his tea boiled over

I haven’t been able to source the story in which Oscar Wilde is reported as having once said that ” the Bible begins with a man and woman naked in a garden and ends with startling revelations,” but it serves as a warning for those that wish to précis any complex work. “Two blokes fight over a woman and then bond. One of them dies and the one left questions everything” (Gilgamesh). “Arrogant posh boy is shamed in magical-realism bed-hopping drama” (Gawain). “Home from university, privileged guy embarks on a killing spree.” (Hamlet). They don’t work. So I am wary of a précis of William Mayne’s Earthfasts; this is Young Adult fiction before the genre; fantasy fiction with (as I read it) subtexts galore. Mayne is not alone in this landscape-and-legend venture, and some of the complexities arise, maybe, from the innovative aspects of the book; some of them arise (and this will be my main theme) as the legacy of his tarnished reputation. That euphemism is insufficient, but will do for now.

Earthfasts begins with the intense but unequal friendship of two teenage boys in a small Pennine town. David leads, with his “grave way…of deliberating and then pronouncing.” (page 24 in the Puffin 1976 edition I have in front of me). His father is the local doctor, and even his swearing “sounded respectable and necessary.” (25). Keith has deeper roots in the valley (it is Keith who defines the eponymous Earthfasts (75), whose father knows the local policeman (91), whose mother (165) is related to Farmer Watson) and in the story itself. He is marginalised a little in the intellectual journey of secondary education (67, 109), but remains the sensitive heart of the friendship. The class distinction between the two boys is present but not overdone. As the story develops Keith becomes the protagonist- sort of: David’s absence and return hang over the final section. Their age is hinted at but not made explicit: the concepts they play with, the homework they do, their independence, suggest to me they are perhaps 17, but I’m willing to rethink this. The narrative concerns the discovery of an eighteenth-century drummer boy, Nellie Jack John Cherry, the invasion of the modern world by other phenomena (a boggart, moving standing stones, giants, a herd of swine) culminating in a confusing, menacing encounter with King Arthur. There is some landscape writing of a very high order (63, 73), there are moments of horror ( 143ff: for me the creepiest writing in the story) and ingenious plot devices such as the inextinguishable candle (e.g. 170ff): flashes of inspired writing.

William Mayne was a prolific children’s writer, able to command a wide readership. His reputation plummeted with his conviction for sex with under-age girls, to the point where critics have asked whether his books should be read at all.  Part of the argument – and not the part I’m concerned with here – moves into the territory around people like Eric Gill, whose artwork is still admired, even to being a focus of religious devotion, despite his systematic abuse of girls. This is, for many people, a complex argument: how can sublime religious art be suppressed, or how can we continue to admire the output of a monster? I want to look at this in a slightly different way: Mayne’s book, Earthfasts, is not of this order anyway: the structure is weak at times, the ending feels rushed, and the ways in which the small town reconciles itself with a year of paranormal experiences are imperfectly set out.

“Earthfasts begins with two teenage boys’ close friendship and ends up with one of them in a bath with another boy.” I read Earthfasts as a curious mixture of fantasy novel and closed gay text. First published in 1966, this is understandable: the youth with whom David finally bonds (“Tha’s reet mucky,” says middle-class David in Nellie Jack John’s own argot, as they bath together, 186) is first unearthed as David and Keith explore a buried, insistent drumming; the candle the drummer leaves is hypnotic and compulsive (see below); there are persistent references to touch and physicality (“He was trembling all over and so was Keith. They stood clinging to each other…”, 14, with other passages passim, e.g. 17, 22, 34, 98, 117). It is a far cry, of course, from Patrick Ness’ More Than This, where one of the pivots for the story is a selfie of the protagonist in bed with his boyfriend but it seems to me that, once seen, it is inescapable. I’m not sure if it needs saying, but I am happy with all of this, so far, text or subtext.

Once seen. I have the haziest of memories of my first reading, but I think it was flushed with nostalgia, and that I read it in Enfield when we’d moved from Burnley. I didn’t read the relationship between the Earthfast boys as any more than a friendship when I was first reading it (I’m not sure “homosocial” was a word in the sixties, and I wouldn’t have met it or understood it anyway at twelve or thirteen), despite identifying with David and Keith in more than the common ground of the Pennines. I remember being disappointed by the TV series when I watched (and abandoned) it in the 90s. However, the possible other reading struck me on this next, much later reading, which I did because of the work we’re doing on Garner. This could be because I was too close to it, or because I didn’t understand the idea of subtext, or – and this is my disquiet- because it is knowing something about the sexuality of the author alerts me to reading his stories differently. Lady Muck, for example, is about temptation not resisted, and recurring in Earthfasts is compulsion and destruction. Look, for example, at how Keith, after David’s disappearance, is drawn to the same hypnotic experience with the candle in the tin:

The candle called him twice a day after that, at odd times. He grew used to it. The first three or four times he started up and went to whether the tin was, but the call died as he did so. Then he knew the feeling as it came, and let it wash over him. He had to, in fact, because once he was in the bus, and another time in church and the third time in assembly…By standing still he could outlast it, but the usual way of overcoming was no good. Whilst the urge was on him he could not think of anything else… (146-7).

So my question is: am I now reading a book written for younger readers not only with adult eyes but with an informed perspective that encourages me to read intentions where there are none? The irrational world that breaks into the village with the disruption the pigs introduce is dangerous and destructive carnival (96), but is it any more than that? Keith’s long-past kissing of a girl at primary school (65) is a poignant image but in the context of sharing the “erect and undimmed” candle with David, is it a sign of more desired, or missed? Are all of these subtexts for (another anachronistic term) gay adolescence, or for the darker themes of a different illicit sexuality?  Is the reader-critic entitled to ignore these as too extreme, in much the same way as this blog title suggests that not every incident teems with hidden, sexual meaning?

How much is a text, escaping from the writer, simply a text? Does its harking-back to the author (Auden, Wilde, Shakespeare, the Gawain-poet) and their context really inform our understanding?  Am I in danger of it distorting rather than informing my critical reading?
Reading Earthfasts with a jaundiced eye, I am unsure. I worry I could simply be a new Mr Meyerburg from Cold Comfort Farm.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Green Thoughts: time and space in Thursbitch and Boneland

It is interesting to speculate on the role of a complex author such as Alan Garner and whether he can be counted a “green writer” – or whether that kind of nomenclature is at all useful. He is not writing the polemic of George Monbiot, whose  lyrical, engaged prose in work like his Feral has an explicit moral tone. In critiquing (p215) a Wildlife Trust’s management plan, for example, Monbiot writes

“…invasive and undesirable species are native trees such as rowan, sallow, birch and hawthorn, returning to their natural habitat… [A]t great expense, it sustains the ambiance of a nuclear winter.”

Powerful advocacy. We might, however, contrast Garner’s use of trees at the moving death of the eighteenth-century protagonist in the final scene at the end of Thursbitch:

“If I’m to rest tonight in this flowery valley, tell them to put me in my own fold, so as I’m close to you. Then, tell them, put at me head a pipe of hornbeam, for sweetness, a pipe of holly, for sadness; a pipe of oak, for wildness. Then when the wind blows it must play.”

They are writing for different purposes, of course. Monbiot, to state the baldest argument, has a concern for place and the future, while Garner’s project is place and the past. Jack Turner seeks a resting place and finds it at the intersection of myth, legend and a mystical experience of the powers that shape his cultic space. The end of Boneland offers a similar set of images, of story at the heart of land and belonging. The modern protagonist Colin walks free of his nightmares (to some extent) and the Paleolisthic Man rests, his story passed on. Garner is even bold enough to cite the rhythmic refrain from the local story of the sleeping knights as the past and present protagonists become one, walking

…by Seven Firs and Goldenstone and Stormy Point to Saddlebole

where he (who? Colin, the Man?) see “a new story, a Dream.” Where – or more precisely when – are we in these last, beautiful rags of prose in the book? Whenever we are, we are [at] the heart of the human story, with sacred cutting of stone and Jodrell Bank. There is no simple catechism of how we might be kind to the earth, but we are at the heart of how and where we belong. This is where Garner’s “greenness” resides, where his inspiration rises like a spring on a hillside.

Lyotard (I am not an expert) suggests that the Oikeion, the “belonging to the dwelling place,” is “a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds, souls or psychic apparatuses” (in the brief but incredibly dense section “Ecology as Discourse of the Secluded” in The Green Studies Reader, ed Laurence Coupe, p135). While I can see that Lyotard is going in a very different direction in looking at the oikeion as a motivating relationship in literature, it strikes me that this brief quotation might be a way of looking at Garner as an ecological writer. That it not to say that we should choose a title like “Green Writer” and shoehorn someone we admire into a role we choose for them, but that it points to exactly the deeper relationship with the world, the deep ecology that we see in Thursbitch and Boneland. Time is a crucial part of this.

When Sal, the modern-day protagonist in Thursbitch, surveys the ruined farm at Thursbitch, she says plainly “The stones belong but the house doesn’t. What’s here is much older.” The house is a ruin, much as Sal is, and affects her so deeply that even in the challenges of her deteriorating condition, it remains powerfully in her memory. In the same way the Man, the pre-Sapiens hominin, tells the first story of his “dream in Ludcruck” in Boneland and thus passes to modern humans, to the early Cheshire people, his story,and gifts for the future  his song

To dance in Ludcruck to cut the rock and to keep the sun from death.

Story (song, dream) help us pass out of a linear view of place into something else, something that loosely is called Heritage (however that term is used and abused by the tourist industry these days).

Garner is concerned with belonging in time and space, and the non-linear peculiarities of his stories only serve to point out how difficult it is to come to terms with. Place is powerful not only because of our use (or abuse) of it, but because of our intimate relationship with it, inextricably linked to our experience of time. Nails grow at the same rate as tectonic plates shift. Sal sees Jack Turner and he sees her. Is she Sal at the end, or Jack’s wife Nan? Characters and objects move through spaces and time in a very fluid way: myths represent themselves in the Owl Service, historical episodes and artefacts merge and confuse in Red Shift, in the earlier works Weirdstone and Gomrath, Garner plays with story and legend and language in ways that even the powerful adult third episode in the trilogy, Boneland, only half resolve. He is acutely aware of how inhabiting a landscape places the writer – maybe the reader – in a place but not necessarily in time. As he ends his meditation on the alder copse in Arboreal, “the dead men in the ground had worked the same land.”



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

Born Among Knives and Scissors

I have begun this post three times and deleted each one. All I want to do is make some sense in a confusing time, and while solvitur ambulando is a great motto, maybe I can write it out, instead.

Over and over I come back to Auden and his line “Nothing now can come to any good.” It seems a good place to start in a dark time, politically, socially: there seems more hate, more deceit, more cruelty around than I can wade through. So then I read Larkin: “to sit with bricks around you/While the winds of heaven ball…” I read Merton, too, who gave me the title of this post, and come back again to his raw and angry Captives:

It is the bulls’ day. The citizens

Build themselves each hour another god

and fry a fatter idol out of mud…

and I could so easily think that the news, and the voices of Twitter’s educational bullies, and single-issue political big mouths were everything. It is too easy: this is my Enough is Enough. Too easy to be swept up into it all, the sniping, the half truths, the pain, the awful, awful killings. It would be easy, too,  to see religiosity, where piety deliberately separates from other concerns, as the refuge. Captives does not end in alienation, however, but in a sort of nostalgia:

May language perish from  my tongue

If I do not remember thee, O Sion , city of vision,

Whose heights have windows finer than the firmament…

I come back to the medieval adage  Sit pax in cella, fores autem plurima bella, let there be peace in your cell, even if outside there are many wars.

But, my God, even that is hard.

My recent reading of the great story of the Tombs of Atuan, and the ways, powerfully depicted by Ursula Le Guin, show how religion can dissemble and cloak structures of power and violence: the confusing Labyrinth under the crumbling temple, where devouring, negative archetypes dominate.  Le Guin seems to me to be at her most Jungian, and this passage from Man and his Symbols brings me back to my own disquiet about how things feel this week:

The dark side of the Self is the most dangerous thing of all…It can cause people to “spin” megalomaniac or other delusory fantasies that can catch them up and “possess” them. A person in this state thinks with mounting excitement that he has grasped the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality. A reliable symptom of this condition is the loss of one’s sense of humour and of human contacts.

Not a bad description of the lone attacker or the tight-knit group of killers – or of the wicked demagoguery of supposed allies. Not a bad warning, too, of how despair separates us, disunites us, weakens us. The loss of humanity in isolation.  I need my cell for peace – but I also need friends, and human, physical contact, and smiles and people to smile at. And I thank God I have them.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Stranger Visitors

Five years ago we lost Maurice Sendak, or at least we lost his continuing ability to create. It was an amazing, richly endowed talent. In this post from BrainPickings, for instance, we are presented with his anarchic, triumphant pair, Jack and Guy – it was the eagle-eyed Mat who first pointed out the illustration of Trump Tower in it to me – whose carnival through the chaos of modern times has lots to tell us about how to live well. For me, it is his pictures of the outside breaking in – the Goblins and the menacing sunflowers in Outside Over There – that always make me wonder about the complexities of breaking-in from outside in stories. What is so bad about things breaking in?

Two texts, then, quickly, about monsters calling. The first is this:

The Strange Visitor I knew from my son’s telling of it, but here is the text from a general sharing site:

Once upon a time there was a house in the middle of a deep, dark forest, and in the middle of a deep, dark night, the only sound you could here was the creak of a rocking chair, and the clacking of knitting needles.

A woman sat in a rocking chair, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting.

She was lonely.

“How I wish I had some company!”

And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big feet, which sat down by the fire.

The woman sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of skinny skinny legs, which sat down on the feet.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great round knees, which sat down on the skinny skinny legs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of thin thin thighs, which sat down on the great round knees.And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of huge huge hips, which sat down on the thin thin thighs.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a teeny tiny waist, which sat down on the huge huge hips.

The old woman kept on knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of big broad shoulders, which sat down on the teeny tiny waist.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of teeny tiny arms, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in came a pair of great big hands, which sat down on the teeny tiny arms.  Still, she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, and in came a pair of scrawny scrawny neck, which sat down on the big broad shoulders.  And as she sat there, knitting and rocking, rocking and knitting, in rolled a huge huge head, which sat down on the scrawny scrawny neck.

And the mysterious visitor sat there, and looked at the woman.

And the woman looked at her visitor, and then she said, “And how did you get such great big feet?”

Much tramping, much tramping

“And how did you get such skinny skinny legs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such great round knees?”

Much praying, much praying.

“And how did you get such thin thin thighs?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hips?”

Much sitting, much sitting.

“And how did you get such a teeny tiny waist?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such broad broad shoulders?”

Much sweeping, much sweeping.

“And how did you get such small small arms?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such huge huge hands?”

Much grabbing, much grabbing

“And how did you get such a small small neck?”

Too much water, not enough meat.

“And how did you get such a huge huge head?”

Much thinking, much thinking.

“And what have you come for?”

For you !

and the Tailypo, which occurs on a number of sites, but of these sites, this is perhaps the richest – certainly one I would treat with care, despite its name, if working with children.  I think this telling from the Galdones’ book, is the closest to my own version, because I got it from them! Both stories are real shockers, designed to scare: the uncanny interrupts the solitary life.

As Sarah Maitland vividly puts it in her essay in Arboreal, the demigod Pan is “seldom found in the bright courts of Olympus…”  – but she still places him “deep in the ancient wood [where] he will still drive even the innocent -hearted to irrational, senseless, panicked fear.”  But the question is, for me, what is the significance of the outside-coming-in motif from Tailypo and The Strange Visitor? It is again the Green Knight and Long Lankin: the challenge, the threat, Beware the Moss, Beware the Moor.  The breaking-in brings redemption for Gawain, but wholesale death in the folk tales I’m citing and in Long Lankin. What happens when we go out is our conscious exploration of the anything-may-happen world, but what does that imply for our own world? How comfortable do we want it to be? How comfortable can we keep it? These are the fundamentals of the current political debates in UK and US, the appeal of a controlled past of known certainties (if such a thing every really existed), of comfort and “meetable” challenge. The riddle – not exactly a new one –  is something like “How do we want our world? How should we live in it?” When we “attempt to unriddle the world” as Susan Cooper suggests, we often think in terms of quest, of going out, something I have written about here, but the quest in Gawain begins at home, the quest in A Monster Calls is about the breaking-in to the life-half-lived of chaos, with truth in its wake.  Is our dream of a comfortable life irrevocably gone? Or only to be bought at the price of strong and stable and (unacceptably conformist) control? What is the risk of letting in the dark and the dead? Learn or be destroyed?

So I’m ending on a different tack, another BrainPickings post, where we are greeted by other views from the genius Sendak. “Dipping into yourself” to find the wonder for children is important, as Sendak points out in his interview with Studs Terkel (linked in BrainPickings), being “foolish and silly…but you tell the truth in some way.” Even in 1970 he describes us as “ringed round by liars.” These monsters impinge to challenge or destroy perhaps: truth, “seeing what we shall see, hearing what we shall hear,” – even dressed in fantasy – is our way to conquer. And since this has turned into a sermon, let’s finish with the hymn that taught the 7-year-old me about how fantasy and life meet: When a Knight Won His Spurs. 



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Medieval MSS

If ever there was a book that tempted me to regret the professional path I took away from manuscripts and monastic history, it was this one: Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts . Today, a blog post is both a delight and a cause of just a small twinge of jealousy: Lisa Fagin Davis on the New Bedford Book of Hours. Not only does she go to town on this lovely MS with erudition and enthusiasm, she writes with a lightness of touch that, even if I weren’t a lapsed medievalist, I would find enviable.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Susan Cooper

Here, to start us off, is Susan Cooper at Pembroke College last week.

I really can’t better it – how could I? – and it was so well put together it would be hard to take any one thing and say “this (and not that) was the best bit.” Maybe just watching her in action here in the JRR Tolkien lecture is enough.

I almost wish I could take time, however, to write on some of her more gnomic  statements:

When I began, children’s literature wasn’t literature.

…the human race invented myth because they needed it.

In a world off fleeting image and fake news, people need more than ever the truth that lies at the heart of fantasy..

But perhaps her best line – which also gave us her title – was simply this shock that good fantasy writing can give:

The catch of the breath, the lifting of the heart.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | Leave a comment

Visual Methodology of Politics?


Or of education? Two pictures which, posted side by side, say a lot about the ways politicians manage – or don’t manage – their image when they are with children. One shows David Cameron seemingly failing to engage with a child; the other shows Jeremy Corbyn engaged with a well-known and lively text. I am presenting them here as examples to be discussed: what demonstrates engagement? How do they exemplify the educational process?


Note, for example, that the politicians are both sitting down; look at their facial expressions. Look at the ways in which Corbyn is able to use eye contact – dare I say it “like a real teacher” whereas side by side gives Cameron no real way of engagement.


Sitting back gives Corbyn the advantage of looking at ease; Cameron leaning forward may be an attempt to look engaged, but the girl undermines this, and the Cameron pose is made to look pleading.

The two poses might be seen as typical of the successful and unsuccessful new teacher: demonstrating how to read for pleasure, for example, or lost in the attempt to interest a child in an activity. Irrespective of who the adults are, they are trying to show involvement in education.

What message do they give about what education is?

As I post and edit this, Theresa May is on the TV talking to apprentices in a toothpaste factory. To end, therefore, I want to think about this deeply unflattering picture (at the bottom of this post)  of The Prime Minister. Theresa May is pulling a face that may look disgusted – but this needs to sound a note of caution. She is, I think, immersed in the activity. Emotional engagement may mean joining in all sorts of conversations with children, and the picture itself gives no clue as to what she is talking about. Is she feigning fear? Is she caught as she looks surprised? It’s not the best of pictures, but actually might be evidence of her really trying to connect with the children.

As the next few weeks roll on, we need to use sone criticality when images of politicians are used to promote some message about children’s services or education: we need to remember the decisions made by the politicians, their agents, the photographers and editors. What message is intended? Is it successful or not- and why?




Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment