Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly

Peering at the blurry bookshelves behind me in a photo taken after I came back from Conspiracy 87 (my one and only Worldcon), I was reminded of a book I bought at the time (largely because of its Michael Whelan cover), and never got round to finishing. So, I thought I’d seek it out secondhand and give it another go.

Dragonsbane (1986) was issued in the UK by Tolkien’s publishers Unwin, via their Unicorn fantasy imprint. Unicorn was around from 1982 to 1988, reprinting some of the genre’s classics (Lord Dunsany and James Branch Cabell), and publishing originals from established and new writers, including Louise Cooper, M John Harrison, Colin Greenland and Geoff Ryman. Unusually, it seems to have been strictly fantasy, with no SF or horror, which perhaps says something about fantasy’s popularity in the mid 80s, or at least Unwin’s faith in it.

cover art by Michael Whelan

The novel starts with Gareth of Magloshaldon journeying to the northern Winterlands, to summon Lord John Aversin to the King’s court in the south. John is the only living man to bear the title Dragonsbane, for having killed the Golden Dragon of Wyr, albeit many years ago. Now another dragon is wreaking havoc in the south, and every knight the King has sent to deal with it has been killed. But Gareth, an unworldly young man and a scholar of the heavily-romanticised ballads of dragon-slayings past, is appalled to find this Dragonsbane knee-deep in mud, discussing the care of pigs with a commoner. He’s even more appalled to learn that John didn’t walk boldly up to the dragon and lop off its head, but first stuck it with as many poisoned javelins as he could, to even the odds. But John agrees to come south, not because he relishes facing another dragon, but in the hope he can remind the King of his northern subjects, who need their liege’s help seeing off the increasingly damaging waves of seasonal sea-raiders.

Another thing that appals Gareth is the presence of Jenny Waynest, a witch and the mother of John’s children. These children are cared for by John’s aunt, because, in this world, being a witch, wizard, or sorcerer means living a life dedicated to working with, furthering, and understanding one’s magical power. “To be a mage you must be a mage,” Jenny was told by her old teacher, Caerdinn. “Magic is the only key to magic.” There’s no room for human relations and family. Jenny loves her children, and though she visits them, and John, when she can, she knows she can’t give herself to them fully whilst serving the thing that, like it or not, is most precious to her — her own magical abilities.

art by Walter Velez, from isfdb.org

Gareth’s reaction to her, though, is evidently based on more than social disapproval. And as Jenny accompanies the two men south (she played a key, though unsung, role in the slaying of the dragon, so John’s going to need her), she learns of Zyerne, the King’s beautiful young mistress — a mistress who, like Jenny, is also a witch. But, it turns out, she’s a witch of immense power. She can, it seems, shape-change casually, for her own and others’ amusement, even though shape-changing is something that ought to take a lot out of even the most powerful sorcerer or sorceress. As she heads to the court of the King in the south, Jenny prepares to meet with someone who is all that she isn’t, and seemingly never can be — young, beautiful, and immensely powerful.

And, it turns out, there’s more than just a dragon to deal with in the south. Not only is there Zyerne’s manipulation of the King and his courtiers, but the King’s cousin, after an apparent throne-grab, is now holed up in the besieged city of Halnath; meanwhile, the wealthy gnomes, ousted from their home in the Deep of Ylferdun (where the dragon has made its lair), are subject to racist attacks in a land where the gap between the common folk and their indifferent, wealthy rulers is widening daily. Insert your own modern-day parallels here.

With its early emphasis on the difference between Gareth’s romantic expectations and the messy, muddy reality, Dragonsbane is one of those books that seeks to bring a bit of realism to the genre. (And I’d say fantasy needs constant balancing on both sides, with doses of gritty realism, but also of wondrous magic, and this book has some of the latter, too.) This air of realism, and the fact the book starts with a retired hero from the wintery north being summoned to the decadent court of the king in the south, reminded me somewhat of Game of Thrones.

Also like Game of Thrones, Dragonsbane is about power. Though Jenny manages to stave off jealousy of Zyerne (largely because she realises what a dark-souled creature Zyerne is beneath all her beauty, youth, and magical ability), she finds herself facing a different sort of temptation, when her own magical powers receive an unexpected boost. Suddenly, Jenny must make the decision between becoming what her newly-grown power would make her into, or of deliberately turning her back on her teacher’s maxims, and not dedicating her life only to studying her own magical ability. “All power must be paid for,” is another rule in this world, and if you don’t pay with hard work and dedication, the price will, it seems, be extracted from your soul, and all that makes you human.

I was glad I gave Dragonsbane a second go. I can see, I think, what put the fifteen-year-old me off, back then. Hambly writes some wonderfully poetic descriptions — she’s particularly keen on the effects of light, be it moonlight glinting off a dragon’s scales, or a landscape bathed by a dawning sun — and these perhaps slowed down the action a bit too much for the reader I was at the time. Now, I can appreciate them more.

It was, when it came out, a standalone novel, and though Hambly has since written more books with the same characters, it can still be read on its own, and I’m glad I finally did.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Cover by Thomas Ott

Shirley Jackson’s final novel (published in 1962) begins six years after an infamous poisoning case in rural Vermont. One night, all but three members of the wealthy Blackwood family were killed when they finished their evening meal with a dessert of blackberries sprinkled with sugar — and, it turned out, arsenic. Of the three who survived, twelve-year-old Mary Katherine (“Merricat”) had been sent, that evening, to bed without any supper (we never learn what for, only that she “was always in disgrace… a wicked, disobedient child”); 22-year-old Constance prepared the meal, but was known to never take sugar on her blackberries; and old Uncle Julian was poisoned but survived, though no longer with all his wits intact. Constance was put on trial, but with insufficient evidence that she intended to poison her family (which included her parents, Uncle Julian’s wife, and her ten-year-old brother Thomas), was acquitted. Shortly after that, following an unspecified incident in the local village, she has never since left the Blackwood family home and its grounds.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is narrated by Merricat, who, though now eighteen, seems stuck in her six-years-prior self. She’s still the irresponsible, petulant child she was back then, spending her days in imaginative games, and burying significant items (a box of silver dollars, a cache of blue marbles) about the grounds as magical protections. She has strict taboos — she can’t handle food, she can’t enter Uncle Julian’s room — which make her seem stuck in the initiation stage of adolescence (some traditional societies’ initiations involve taboos, such as not touching the ground, or not speaking, for a time). She, though, is the only member of the family who can leave the house and its grounds, and makes twice-weekly visits to the village to buy food, during which she’s only too aware of the stares and comments of the townsfolk, and the way children chant mocking rhymes as she passes:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

Popular Library cover, by William Teason

It’s obvious the Blackwood family are caught in a stasis. Uncle Julian talks of nothing but the poisoning, about which he’s compiling copious notes to write a history of that night. Constance devotes herself entirely to feeding and caring for the other two, and thinks of nothing beyond her limited domestic bounds. Merricat, an eternal twelve-year-old, is allowed to wander and play, indulging in fantasies of living on the moon. The Blackwood sisters are complimentary opposites, but share an unspoken understanding as though they’re the two halves of a single soul. Constance, for instance, is over-responsible, even blaming herself for Merricat’s misbehaviours — but never telling Merricat off or punishing her. (The last time Merricat was punished was when she was sent to bed without any supper on the night of the poisoning.) Merricat, on the other hand, is wilful and irresponsible in her moods. If she’s angry, she might deliberately shatter a jug or a mirror, and Constance just accepts this as a thing that had to happen and cleans up after her. Constance is utterly domestic, and blanks out every other part of life; Merricat is imaginative, witchy (she has a cat and casts spells), and is mostly lost in daydreams, existing in a world charged with magical forces, a little like the girl in Machen’s “The White People” or Du Maurier’s “The Pool”.

I wrote before about Jackson’s extreme ambivalence about the idea of home — how in her fiction it’s both a longed-for refuge from the world and a potential trap or prison — and in We Have Always Lived in the Castle that extends to other aspects of the home, with both family and food highly charged sources of nurture on the one hand, and suppression and control on the other.

1st edition cover, art by Paul Bacon

Food is particularly important in the novel, both as a symbol of everyday familial love, and of the consequences of love’s withdrawal or repression. Constance cooks for her charges, always providing exactly what they want, and always thinking of the next pie or plate of cookies she might bake; but it was through food — the poisoned sugar — that the rest of the family was killed. On that night, Merricat was sent to her room without food, a withdrawal of familial love (though she knew her sister would come up later with a tray — the two had a close connection even then). The one thing that takes Merricat out of the house and into the village — and so, the one way in which the family still relates to society — is to buy food. But she also has a taboo against eating in front of strangers — she will always buy a coffee at a certain café in the village, but if another customer enters, she leaves without drinking it — and doesn’t allow herself to touch food or prepare it. (And near the end of the novel, after the villagers have spent their violent antipathy towards the Blackwoods, that relationship turns to contrition, which is again expressed through food — the pies and other supplies left on the Blackwood porch.)

The most potent food symbol in the book is in the Blackwood cellar. Generations of Blackwood women have made jars of preserves, and they’re all stored there, in the dark, underground. These preserves, Constance says, have probably turned bad or even poisonous with age, like a battery of stored-up yet unused or suppressed-and-going-sour love, all the untapped potentials of generations of women. Family is, in the novel, freighted with an almost palpable historical weight, its traditions acting both as an anchor of solidity and a repressive burden:

“…as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.”

To me, it feels as though the poisoning that occurred was waiting to happen, an upsurge from all that buried, preserved food-going-poisonous in the cellar, and so much locked-away and unspent, unexpressed familial love.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminds me of other stories of insular-and-gone-strange families, including 1970’s Mumsy, Sonny, Nanny, & Girly (which I mewsed on back in 2010), or the 2009 film Dogtooth, right back to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and so many Gothic tales before that. The one essential element in all these stories is that, at some point, someone comes along to upset the family’s stasis, some outsider or agent of change.

Into this novel comes cousin Charles, whose father (the Blackwood sisters’ non-Julian uncle) has recently died, leaving him nothing. Charles knows the Blackwoods have money, and though we can’t be sure this is his motive for visiting, it’s certainly what our narrator Merricat suspects. Charles ensconces himself in the father’s room, starts wearing the father’s watch and sitting at the head of the dining room table. He clearly finds Uncle Julian’s messy way of eating disgusting (food and control, again), and feels the old man should be made to shut up about the only subject he ever talks about, the poisoning. Charles also thinks Merricat’s wildness needs to be tamed. Perhaps she should be sent away again, as she was after the poisoning (to an orphanage, because Charles’s father refused to take her in). Constance, so domestic and responsible, starts to be taken in by Charles’s arguments, but Merricat, of course, is not.

In both of the Jackson novels I’ve read — this one and The Haunting of Hill House — the ambivalence about home, how it can be both a refuge and a trap, a place to belong and a place to be imprisoned in, is never resolved, only transformed and intensified until it becomes a weird mix of fairy-tale fulfilment and hellish damnation. Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, wants nothing more than a home she can belong to, but when she first sees Hill House she instantly knows it’s a nightmare. Nevertheless, she finds a home there, perhaps because she can find no other home, being the person she is (or feels she is). We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with a family in self-protective retreat, whose home is both a castle-like defence against the world, and the stultifying bounds of a self-imposed prison. By the end, things have changed, but only by becoming more intensely the same. It’s a weirdly deranged ending that somehow makes total and irreversible retreat into a kind of fairy-tale fulfilment. The Blackwood sisters become, in the end, even more removed from reality, a final, fatal step away from Constance’s domestic sensibleness and into Merricat’s moon-mindedness. They become a fairy tale to scare local kids with — and scare them, of course, by saying they’ll eat them. Food again.

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

1975 Picador PB, art by Mark Harrison

In some ways, John Cowper Powys’s massive 1933 novel A Glastonbury Romance bears comparison with David Lindsay’s massive 1932 novel Devil’s Tor. Both are set in rural South West England, where mystical visions seem to presage a worldwide spiritual or religious revival; both spend a lot of time examining, in intense detail, the inner lives of their characters; and both are, as already said, massive (A Glastonbury Romance being more than twice the length of David Lindsay’s 200,000-word “monster”). And this massiveness is part of their point — they want to come across as major statements, their physical heft a corollary to the weight of what they’re trying to say. But Lindsay’s and Powys’s intents are poles apart. Lindsay’s fundamental urge was world-rejection; his need was for a radical re-understanding of the universe’s troubling core mystery. Powys, on the other hand, was all about acceptance of life. To him:

“There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second.”

But Powys isn’t the sunny-minded optimist you’d imagine as Lindsay’s opposite. He doesn’t turn away from (Lindsay’s touchstone) pain. He believed in accepting all of life, from the sublime and mystical to the crude and rude, and not merely with a stoic shrug, but by seizing it with an almost pagan ferocity. As one of the central characters of A Glastonbury Romance, the unconventional preacher, faith-healer, and (for most of the novel) Mayor of Glastonbury, “Bloody Johnny” Geard, says of his (very personal and idiosyncratic) beliefs:

“It matters not at all from what cups, from what goblets, we drink, so long as without being cruel, we drink up Life. The sole meaning, purpose, intention, and secret of Christ, my dears, is not to understand Life, or mould it, or change it, or even to love it, but to drink of its undying essence!”

The novel starts with the reading of a will. Canon Crow has died, and his family, with members ranging from the trampish rogue John Crow to the opportunistic industrialist Philip Crow, gather to learn that none of them has inherited anything. The whole £40,000 has been left to “Bloody Johnny” Geard of Glastonbury. Geard, though, does not see this as a personal bequest. He believes it’s his mission to turn his home town of Glastonbury — resting place of the Holy Grail and the Blood of Christ — into a world-class site of spiritual pilgrimage, “a mystical rival to Rome and Jerusalem”, and sets about doing just that. His first act is to announce a Passion Play, with mixed-in Arthurian elements, and he hires John Crow to organise it and advertise it to the world.

But really, Powys is almost wilfully uninterested in plot. His intent, as stated in a 1953 preface to a later edition, was to examine:

“Nothing more and nothing less than the effect of a particular legend, a special myth, a unique tradition, from the remotest past in human history, upon a particular spot on the surface of this planet together with its crowd of inhabitants of every age and of every type of character.”

Which reminds me of Alan Moore’s intent with From Hell, to take the Jack the Ripper murders and examine them as a “human event” that touches the lives of many different people in many different ways. Powys is doing the same with the myth of the Holy Grail. But even this is to imply A Glastonbury Romance has more focus than it has, and I’d say a better guide to the sort of thing this novel is doing is a quote from the critic George Santayana, who said of Dickens (in a 1921 essay called “Dickens”):

“…what he had was a vast sympathetic participation in the daily life of mankind.”

And that seems more like what Powys is doing. With the excuse of following the events (very loosely, and often only as background or rumours) surrounding the putting-on of Geard’s Passion Play (in the first half of the novel) and, in the second half, the conversion of Glastonbury to a Socialistic commune, and Geard’s use of the healing powers of its “Grail Fountain” to turn the town into a British Lourdes, Powys dips into the inner lives of his many and varied characters, some of whom have nothing to do with the Play or those later events, or who only touch them lightly. Even major-seeming plot events are brushed aside offhand. In one chapter, Geard takes Tittie Petherton, who has been suffering awful pains from cancer, to the Grail Fountain, to cure her and provide his Glastonbury with its first miracle. We leave them there, mid-cure, and hear nothing for several chapters, then all-too-briefly glimpse Tittie Petherton, apparently fully cured, enjoying scones at a tea. It’s never stated that she’s cured, though she’s obviously better, and we don’t get the sort of disbelieving or believing reactions you want to hear. It’s almost as if the actual relation of plot is an embarrassment to Powys, and best brushed under the carpet. (Though it has to be said that in four of the book’s longest chapters — that dealing with the Pageant itself, and the final three which round off the book — Powys resolves his major plot strands with the same sort of dramatic brio as Peake displays in his Gormenghast novels’ major set-pieces.)

Powys is interested, most of all, in inhabiting the lives of his multitude of characters, in sampling their peculiar ways of experiencing the world, of thinking about it, of feeling about it, of relating to it. And he isn’t only interested in human characters. His is “a universe so thrilling and so aching with teeming consciousness” that, in wandering from one character to another, he occasionally brings in a non-human consciousness, including at one point a tree, or the sun (which takes a particular dislike to the Vicar of Glastonbury, though this only results in his feeling the heat a little more than others if he goes outside without a hat), the dead Canon Crow freshly laid in his grave (who has an ethereal though down-to-earth conversation with his wife, who’s buried in another country), and the “First Cause” — the God of Powys’s universe, a being whose nature generates all the good and all the evil in our world. (For Powys, it’s only human beings who can actually “produce good out of evil” as “this they do of their absolute free-will”; the First Cause just pours both good and evil out, constantly.)

In this way, Powys seems to stand in an odd relation to the modernist writers of his time. On the one hand, he employs the stream-of-consciousness technique of dipping into his characters’ minds, to relate both their consequential and their inconsequential thoughts, just as Virginia Woolf does in Mrs Dalloway. (Also her technique of shifting from one character to another as they pass in the street, or glance one another across a field.) On the other hand, he has no interest in the concept of the unreliable narrator, or of giving up any of the authorial authority the likes of Dickens took for granted. Which isn’t to say he comes across as dictatorial. Rather, he’s convincing through the sheer novelty and strangeness of the inner worlds he presents us with. In a way, Powys, as narrator, is like one of the “invisible anthropologists” he sometimes mentions as witnessing the events of his novel — the disembodied inhuman entities he tells us are lingering around his many characters, watching what they do with mild, dispassionate interest. Powys actually gets a mention in Colin Wilson’s monumental study The Occult for his having “deliberately set out to cultivate ‘multi-mindedness’, to pass out of his own identity into that of people or even objects”, and not just in his novels, but in his daily life.

There’s a quote from Wilson on the back of my 1975 paperback edition of the novel, calling it “Possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, and one of the great mystical masterpieces of all time”. Powys’s mysticism, though, isn’t anything like Lindsay’s. With Lindsay, visions give his characters a glimpse of another reality, and when they return to this world it’s with a feeling they’re sinking back into a second-rate or false reality. With Powys, visionary experiences are just one part of the vastness of the one, single reality — a rare part, yes, but still a part of this world, not a glimpse of another. And his characters’ visionary experiences don’t, in the end, turn out to be that important. Three of his main characters, the roguish John Crow, the would-be-saint Sam Dekker, and the would-be-sinner Owen Evans, have visions. Evans, who thinks playing the part of Christ on the Cross in the Pageant will cure him of his obsessive sadistic fantasies, does have a vision of Christ, but the effect of that vision wears off, and what actually saves him, in the end, is the love of his wife. Sam sees the Holy Grail, and feels the need to rush around telling everyone, but where he expects to have to overcome disbelief, he’s instead faced with indifference. John Crow has a vision of Excalibur, but this has even less effect; chapters later he’s disgusted with Geard’s peddling the reality of the Arthurian myths as “lies”. Geard, the most mystically-minded character in the book, is more childlike than saint-like, and in place of Lindsay’s need, in Devil’s Tor, for his characters to give themselves up to serve that book’s demanding, tragic Goddess, Geard sees Christ more as “a Power to be exploited”:

“He [Christ] was the Mayor’s great magician, his super-Merlin… Never once had it crossed the threshold of Mr Geard’s consciousness that it was his duty to live a life of self-sacrifice.”

(I like that fact that, ultimately, the source of Geard’s force of personality is “the man’s complete freedom from self-consciousness”.)

Powys’s mysticism is not about glimpses of other worlds, but more an awed appreciation of this one. Every moment, for him, however quotidian, is imbrued with a sort of mystical light, and he loves to let us into the mind of a minor character and reveal that, in some quiet way, they have the secret of life’s true meaning, and have had it, quite naturally, since they were born:

“When not in acute physical pain, or in the presence of acute physical pain, Nancy Stickles enjoyed every moment of life. She liked to touch life, hear life, smell life, taste life, see life…”

US 1st edition

It’s an odd thing, though, that for a book published in 1933, and ostensibly set in “the present” — and which features an aeroplane, and cars, and I think at one point someone suggests using a telephone, though nobody has a radio, but evidently it is the 1930s — it makes absolutely no mention of the First World War. None of the characters thinks of it, or recalls having served in it, or has lost anyone to it, or been wounded in it. If Powys is a modernistic writer in the techniques he employs, he seems utterly indifferent to the driving force behind such works as The Waste Land or Mrs Dalloway (with its shell-shocked Septimus Smith). Powys doesn’t even present his life-acceptance as an answer to the worldwide trauma of the Great War, and the widespread loss of belief of the 20th century; it’s as though it just doesn’t affect him, so he doesn’t mention it. (Which is doubly odd, because Powys obviously has a real hatred of cruelty. He apparently had a belief that, early in life, his thinking ill of others caused them actual ill, so he practised a sort of generalised benevolence, so as not to magically cause anyone harm.)

It could be that, as I said with Peake’s Gormenghast, the war makes itself felt in the way both that book and this one ends with a flood. In A Glastonbury Romance, the army even turns out to help, but there’s just not the same feeling, as with Peake, of this being a terrible disaster thrust upon all its characters in the same way the war was thrust upon the real world. With Powys, it feels more as though he just needed to find a way to end his massive book, so came up with a flood, as a sort of watery full-stop.

Reading A Glastonbury Romance is like taking a holiday, not just in another place, but in a timeless time. It’s a glimpse into Powys’s own worldview, one obviously nurtured in a rural upbringing, free of the modern world’s onslaught of communication and networking, a world in which one could really develop an eccentric inner life, an individualistic and even mystic way of experiencing one’s own existence and the quiet, slow-paced, characterful worlds of nature, and other people. That, more than anything, is what lingers, having read this book. It’s less about getting from page 1 to page 1,120, than it is about switching to a different mode of existence whilst being nestled between its capacious pages — a subtler, stranger, and perhaps now-lost mode of existence, but certainly one I’m glad to find preserved in Powys’s novel.