The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

Puffin cover to The Dark is Rising, by Michael Heslop

Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is a Christmas fantasy novel. But whereas C S Lewis brought in a rather out-of-place Santa Claus — which makes me feel Lewis wasn’t, at that point, taking his story, or his audience, sufficiently seriously — Cooper brings in stag-antlered Herne and the Wild Hunt. Hers is a far different sort of Christmas.

The Dark is Rising is about the initiation of eleven-year-old Will Stanton into the ranks of the Old Ones, guardians of the Light who’ve been staving off the Dark for thousands of years. Among their number are Wayland the Smith and Merriman Lyon (Merlin), Will’s guide as he learns that he, as a seventh son of a seventh son, is the last-born of the Old Ones, and fated to be the Sign-Seeker: his task, to bring together six signs of power that can be used to quell the latest uprising of the Dark.

Fittingly for a book about initiation, it’s full of rites, ceremonies and pageants, of things that ‘must be’, and of ‘the right thing… done at the right time’. Conflict with the Dark seems highly ritualised, not so much clashes of power as games of trumping one another with various ancient laws and prohibitions. This feel of everything Will does being fated (he ‘plays his part’), or at least in some way laid out in timeless laws and traditions, blunts (for me) the story’s involvability — and also Will’s active part as a character — but Cooper makes up for it by presenting us with a world infused with dark, secret, pagan magic, a world where there is a second level of timeless reality the Old Ones can, at any moment, step into, freezing the mundane action, to play out immensely dangerous and power-charged stand-offs with the Dark. Meanwhile, even the mundane ‘action’ of Will’s family celebrating a rural Christmas is full of the rituals and traditions of an ancient festival, as well as family rituals — rituals, in this book, are what bind families and societies together, what roots them, and what protects them both from the magical Dark and the lesser, yearly dark of the Winter solstice, before it turns towards a new year.

Over Sea Under Stone (cover)

Puffin cover to Over Sea, Under Stone, by Michael Heslop

The Dark is Rising was published in 1973, and follows on from Cooper’s previous novel, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965). Although both feature Merriman Lyon as a character (he’s Great Uncle Merry in the first book), and both are about the quest for an object of power (the Grail in Over Sea, Under Stone), The Dark is Rising has an entirely different feel, so much so that although Cooper says Over Sea, Under Stone is the first in the series, some readers prefer to think of it as a prequel. Over Sea, Under Stone is far less magical, but also far more conventional. Started by Cooper at a friend’s suggestion as an entry to a competition to write a ‘family adventure story’, it’s a Blytonesque children’s holiday adventure of a rather standard sort (the Drew children describe their enemies as ‘perfectly beastly’ — need I say more?). The Dark is Rising, right from the start, feels like Cooper has undergone one of those authorial moments of transformation I so like: suddenly, she’s writing very real-seeming characters (the large, messy Stanton family), in a very real-seeming world (the South West of England, studded with recognisable landmarks). And the magical elements are the sort of revivification of British folklore that made up so much of late 1960s and 1970s fiction for youngsters, in the work of Alan Garner, for instance, or (as late as the 1980s) Richard Carpenter, in Robin of Sherwood.

The cover to the 1976 Puffin books edition (shown at the top of this post) haunted my childhood. I can’t remember reading the book at the time, but I certainly remember being deeply struck by that cover (by Michael Heslop, who now specialises in equestrian and golf painting). There was something about the mix of grainy, wintry black and white, and the weird, pagan face of galloping Herne (‘a masked man with a human face, the head of a stag, the eyes of an owl, the ears of a wolf’), all enclosed in a full-moon circle. The central coloured circle always made me think someone had Herne in a rifle’s sights — which isn’t the case, but it seemed to sum up, to my mind at the time, what was so engaging about the cover: that it mixed ancient pagan wild magic and something obviously modern, bringing a very real and dangerous-seeming wonder into our world. It’s still one of my favourite covers of all time, and seems to sum up that whole wintry-folkish-rural magic I crave from fantasy (Mythago Wood being an excellent example), something that for me encapsulates an era, and an entire imaginative feel I still seek, for instance, in the kids’ TV of the time (The Moon Stallion, The Changes). There’s something of the same feel about the A Year in the Country blog, whose wintry, black & white images of trees recall, for me, the uncanny feel of Heslop’s painting.

Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth

Tolkien and the Great War, by John GarthIn The Wand in the Word, a collection of interviews with fantasy writers published in 2006, one of the questions Leonard S Marcus asks (of those writers who are old enough) is how they were affected by living through the Second World War. “Several, it seemed, had turned to fantasy both as readers and writers,” he says, “not to ‘escape’ reality, but as the truest way of coming to terms with wartime terrors that for them lay almost beyond words.” Lloyd Alexander’s response to the question is: “For the first time in my life, I had come up against real power.” And Diana Wynne Jones’s “…from the time I was five years old until the time I was getting on to twelve, the entirety of the world as far as I was concerned was stark-staring crazy in a most menacing way. It left me with the feeling that the most appalling and peculiar things are liable to happen at any time.” J R R Tolkien, of course, spent a certain amount of effort denying that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory of the Second World War, with Sauron as Hitler and the Ring of Power as the atom bomb, but John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth explores how the First World War — the conflict Tolkien himself served in — shaped “the legendarium” of Tolkien’s writings.

An essential element of Tolkien’s wartime experience was rooted in the close friendship he had with Christopher Wiseman, Rob Gilson and G B Smith. Together, they formed the TCBS — the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (referring to the tea room at Barrow’s Stores where they’d meet) — a fellowship that dated back to their school days. The TCBS seemed to be a sort of furnace for the forging of these four young men’s ideals and goals. “Tolkien,” Garth says, “had told them that they had a ‘world-shaking power’, and… they all believed it.”

After the start of the Great War, but before any of them had seen any action, the four met for what they dubbed “the Council of London”:

“For Tolkien, the weekend was a revelation, and he came to regard it as a turning point in his creative life. It was, he said eighteen months later, the moment when he first became conscious of ‘the hope and ambitions (inchoate and cloudy I know)’ that had driven him ever since, and were to drive him for the rest of his life.”

Which made it all the more difficult when the war killed first Gilson, then Smith. It’s impossible to read about the TCBS without remembering that the first book of The Lord of the Rings is called The Fellowship of the Ring, and how important the fellowship is within the narrative — the most surprising part of which, to me, has always been Aragorn’s decision not to follow Frodo and Sam into Mordor, but to try to save Merry and Pippin from the orcs, something which has much less strategic value, but which nevertheless embodies the core of what the Fellowship is fighting for. Throughout the First World War, the surviving members of the TCBS continued to write to each other, and Tolkien’s early poems did the rounds. It’s often said that writers need a “perfect reader” in mind when they write, and the TCBS seems to have been Tolkien’s. Certainly their encouragement, and sometimes their forthright criticism, were an essential part of his development as a writer.

J R R Tolkien, 1916One criticism that’s often raised against fantasy of the sort Tolkien wrote is that, by telling tales of battles between good and evil, they reduce the moral complexity of the real world to something childish. Susan Cooper, also interviewed in The Wand in the Word, says: “I think the whole Light and Dark thing in The Dark is Rising goes back to my being a child during the war”, but adds that this, at the time, was probably a prejudice that boiled down to “goodies” and “baddies”, and that “after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans, I realised that the good guys could do bad things too”. But the most surprising thing, for me, that John Garth has to say, is the fact that although Tolkien had been playing with his “legendarium” (which Garth describes as “a vast complex of interwoven histories, sagas, and genealogies, of phonologies, grammars, and vocabularies, and of philological and philosophical disquisitions”) before he saw action, not only did his direct involvement in the war focus his creative efforts, but also, because of it, “Tolkien’s mythology becomes, for the first time, what it would remain: a mythology of the conflict between good and evil.” Although:

“The idea that the conflict must be perpetual arose directly from a long-held scepticism about the blandly optimistic prognoses prevailing during the Great War, as Tolkien recalled in an interview nearly half a century later: ‘That, I suppose, was an actual conscious reaction from the War – from the stuff I was brought up on in the “War to end wars” – that kind of stuff, which I didn’t believe in at the time and I believe in less now.'”

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

The Lord of the Rings cover by Pauline Baynes

War, in The Lord of the Rings, is always more complex than the simple good versus evil it is sometimes accused of — particularly as we readers get to see it, that is, through the eyes of the minor players who don’t always grasp the whole power play behind the conflict, but are merely caught between its cogs. Mostly, this complexity is in the potential for once-good people (Saruman, Denethor) to be corrupted either by the enemy, or by hopelessness and despair. Nevertheless, the presence of that background struggle between archetypal good and evil is there, and, according to Garth, it is there because of Tolkien’s experience with the horrors of real war.

Another thing Tolkien has been criticised for, Garth says, is for not adopting the tone of those poets and writers whose reaction to war became the culturally accepted one, which Garth refers to as one of “disenchantment” with heroism and its ideals:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Tolkien wrote in an epic, heroic, and archaic mode that most of his contemporaries thought had been fatally undermined by the realities of the First World War. But in doing so, he not only managed to capture the horrors of war — the terror of being an individual caught in the clash of awful forces, to be snuffed out at any moment, and the relentless onslaught of despair and hopelessness alongside the physical attacks of the enemy — but also the fact that people could fight for worthwhile ideals, and that there was still a place for heroism, even in a world apparently given over to nothing but the “animal horror” (as Tolkien put it) of the trenches.