The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

1983 cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Without planning to, I’ve been working through some Carnegie Medal winners recently, starting with Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows, then Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting. I’ve written about Penelope Lively’s teen fiction before, but this is her Carnegie Medal winner, from 1973. (And just as both Westall and Mahy were the only writers to have won the Carnegie twice, Lively is the only writer to have won both the Carnegie and the Booker Prize.)

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has been described (by Colin Manlove, in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England) as “the best of Lively’s books in the fantastical vein”. Manlove goes on to say it’s “possibly indebted to Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man” as it “deals with an unnatural survival from the past”, though Lively’s previous YA books also dealt with an “unnatural survival from the past” — and I’ve heard that her adult fiction does too, though in a non-supernatural way — so no influence from Amis is necessary.

In Kempe, James Harrison and his family have just moved into East End Cottage in Ledsham, Oxfordshire, a small town that seems to encapsulate Lively’s picture of the world as a place whose heart belongs to the past, but which is slowly being crowded out by modernity:

“It was a very old place, half way between a village and a small town, and had, somehow, the air of being dwarfed by the present. New housing estates were mushrooming now on two sides of it, but the centre remained as it must always have been…”

1992 cover by Richard Jones

Just before James takes residence in his new attic bedroom, it, too, has been modernised, by builders who found (and broke) a small sealed bottle in the wall by the window. Unwittingly, they’ve released the ghost of Thomas Kempe Esq., who died in 1629. A restless, poltergeist-like spirit, Kempe is itching to get back to his old ways of making himself rather bullyingly useful to the people of Ledsham, offering such services as “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie, Alchemie, Recoverie of Goodes Lost, Physicke”. He decides James is to be his apprentice (and representative), and begins posting notices around the town to let it be known that “I doe once more practise my arte and cunninge in this house.”

But nobody wants “Sorcerie, Astrologie, Geomancie”, etc., nowadays, so Kempe starts attacking what he sees as his modern rivals. He trashes the local GP’s office (“Physicke”), causes havoc in an archaeological dig (“Recoverie of Goodes Lost”), interferes with the TV whenever it shows a weather forecast (that, too, being one of his services), and generally gives the police, the vicar, and an elderly neighbour, Mrs Verity, who Kempe decides is a witch, a hard time.

2006 cover

The trouble is, because Kempe cannot be seen, and because he mentions James’s name as his apprentice in several of his notices — and because most of his activity takes place in the Harrison household, around James — James gets the blame. James was a bit of a troublemaker beforehand, but quickly comes to resent being blamed for (for instance) pulling the chair out from under the vicar the moment before he sits down, or altering a pharmacy prescription for his sister’s cough to something more herbalistic. He certainly resents the suggestion he might have thrown a brick through someone’s window or chalked insults on Mrs Verity’s wall.

But James is caught between two intolerables. He doesn’t want to be Kempe’s apprentice (which would be just encouraging the self-important old so-and-so, and trapping himself into doing all sorts of things he doesn’t want to do, like having to tell the archaeologists to stop their work, or convincing the people of Ledsham Mrs Verity is a witch, and probably having to learn Latin, too), but if he resists, the poltergeist activity kicks off, and his parents simply blame him for all the breakages and nasty tricks. When he says it’s a ghost, they take that to be one more desperate attempt at the “it wasn’t me” defence. His sister, used to being at odds with him, won’t listen. Even his new friend, bespectacled Simon, never wholly believes. As James says:

“Nobody believes in him except me… And I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to.”

1973 HB cover

If The Ghost of Thomas Kempe wasn’t basically humorous, it could easily be awful for James, considering how harassed and isolated he becomes. It’s not like Lively’s previous go at the theme of a sorcerous personage from the past being summoned into the present (The Whispering Knights) where it’s three children who summon a witch, so at least there’s three of them to share the burden — and it’s definitely their fault. Nor is it quite like William Mayne’s It, another book on the same theme, whose protagonist finds herself singled out for the unwanted devotions of a witch’s familiar, because in her case she’s believed when she talks to an adult about it, it’s just that the adult can’t do anything to help. In fact, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe has close ties with both the other Carnegie winners I’ve reviewed recently, as they’re all about children having to deal with troublesome supernatural incursions while being blamed for their ill-effects, with varying degrees of isolation and distress. (Robert Westall’s The Scarecrows is the one whose protagonist is most responsible for the supernatural incursion, but only because he has the most emotional baggage to deal with anyway.)

One theme that pops up in Kempe but doesn’t get fully developed is when James starts to become aware of his own childhood as just one more aspect of the flow of history. He’s startled, for instance, to find old Mrs Verity telling tales of how naughtily she behaved as a girl, and so comes to see her as still partly a child. And the historical Arnold Luckett (a boy of James’s age who dealt with a bout of Kempe disturbances in the previous century, who James reads about), pops up as an old man in a portrait in the local school. In both cases, we see childhood put in its context as a stage of life that leads to adulthood, but also never quite goes away.

1976 cover

Perhaps we’re supposed to see Thomas Kempe’s selfish insistence the world returns to his idea of how it should be as a form of childishness? Certainly, his poltergeist tantrums are. And the inverse of that idea — the idea that being a child is like being a ghost — comes out in James’s realisation that “as far as most grown-ups were concerned, children were invisible”, therefore ghost-like, but also likely to cause poltergeist-like trouble.

Among Lively’s YA books, I still prefer The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, perhaps because of its slightly more serious tone and folk-horror feel of dealing with things pagan, primal and dangerous, but as far as Lively’s “unnatural survival from the past” theme goes, I think The Ghost of Thomas Kempe is more successful than her other two YA books I’ve covered, Astercote and The Whispering Knights (though it doesn’t have as adventurous a conclusion as either).

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe was read by Ronald Pickup on Jackanory in December 1977, and adapted into a US TV movie in 1979, which sets the action in a modern-looking house in the USA, thereby immediately compromising the influence-from-the-past theme. I haven’t watched the whole thing, though (the one version on YouTube has a weirdly warping picture), so it may improve.

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The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

The thing that stuck with me from my first reading of The Hobbit (nearly forty years ago, now), was Mirkwood. A place of darkness, where so little sunlight filters through from above it’s a shock when Bilbo climbs a tree and gets a reminder of what daylight looks like (plus a glimpse of Mirkwood’s weird, black butterflies). It’s as much a psychological gloom as a lack of light, with Bilbo and the dwarves having for the first time to do without Gandalf (who so far has been the one to rescue them from trolls, goblins, wolves, and hunger), and soon finding themselves helplessly lost in an unforgiving and almost alien environment, where even the water is dangerous. Mirkwood has its roots pretty clearly in classic fairy tales, but for me it’s the moment when Tolkien’s particularly Tolkien-ish invention kicks in. As he himself wrote in a letter to Stanley Unwin in 1937, the year the book was first published:

“Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it [i.e., his Silmarillion mythology] — so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge.”

Even before the spiders appear, Mirkwood feels like a ramping up of peril for Bilbo and the dwarves. But it’s not yet the sort of peril — the quality that leant its name to Tolkien’s term for Faërie, “the Perilous Realm” — that you find in The Lord of the Rings, which combines mortal danger with an addictive draw, and whose physical threat is secondary to its moral, psychological, or even spiritual danger. In The Lord of the Rings it’s embodied in the One Ring, but in The Hobbit, you feel it most around treasure, and in particular gold “upon which a dragon has long brooded”.

As I found out when recording The Adventure Film Podcast with my brother, gold pops up with surprising frequency in adventure stories, and almost always with the same result: it lures you on the adventure, but once you’ve acquired it, a whole new set of troubles begin. Adventure-gold has the uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people. (As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Man Who Would Be King.)

Tolkien’s treasures come with an added dimension, though, as we find out when Bilbo & co. discover a cache of valuables acquired by the trolls. Casually lying there in a wayside cave are two legendary swords, Orcrist and Glamdring. Elrond, who identifies them, suggests how they might have ended up in such a lowly hoard:

“…one may guess that your trolls had plundered other plunderers, or come on the remnants of old robberies in some hold of the mountains.”

Treasure, in Tolkien, does not just have monetary value, it comes laden with historical associations, and in a world like Middle Earth, where old songs and stories are constantly being retold — often by long-lived beings who themselves witnessed them, or have family ties to their protagonists — historical weight can be just as compelling as monetary value, and can take on both deeply personal and highly political ramifications.

The basic effect is initially the same. Just as the One Ring makes you paranoid, secretive, and ashamed, so treasure, in The Hobbit, isolates, makes you selfish and suspicious. Gollum is the first example of this we see, a creature debased by “endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering”. Smaug is a dragon, therefore solitary and vengeful by nature, but he dwells in the heart of a place called the Lonely Mountain, just to underline the point. It’s when the “dragon-sickness” takes grip of Thorin we really see this effect at work. Thorin and company think of Smaug’s treasure as having been plundered from them, and so rightfully theirs, but as Bard points out, the dragon added to his horde over the years, so if they’re genuinely interested in restitution, some of it belongs to the descendants of Dale. It’s at this point Thorin starts calling everyone a thief:

“But none of our gold shall thieves take or the violent carry off while we are alive.”

The question of theft — of how treasure is acquired — is a complex one in The Hobbit. Every treasure has a history, of being discovered in its raw state (mined by dwarves or goblins), of being formed into objects of beauty by craftsmen, of being given or bought, of being used in heroic deeds, of being honoured in songs and stories. To whom does it belong? Is not all ownership — of treasure, at least — the result of theft, in Middle Earth? (Except for things freely given, such as Bilbo’s mithril shirt.)

Tolkien, though, finds a shade of difference. Dragons, for instance, are nothing but rapacious thieves:

“Dragons steal gold and jewels, you know, from men and elves and dwarves, wherever they can find them; and they guard their plunder as long as they live (which is practically for ever unless they are killed), and never enjoy a brass ring of it. Indeed they hardly know a good bit of work from a bad, though they usually have a good notion of the current market value; and they can’t make a thing for themselves, not even mend a little loose scale of their armour.”

Cover art by Tove Jansson

Bilbo is several times called a thief, and in some cases (Gollum’s ring, for instance), may be acting as one, but he comes to think of himself as a burglar, and though it’s only a nicety that works in the fairy-tale world of Middle Earth, a burglar, here, is one who acquires treasure through a modicum of craft or skill, and perhaps bravery, and certainly through deeds around which a story might be told. This isn’t to say Bilbo doesn’t feel the “dragon-sickness” at times — as when he first sees the Arkenstone and is “drawn by its enchantment” (and how literally does Tolkien mean that “enchantment”?) — but crucially, he doesn’t give way to it when it comes to losing friendships or causing strife.

After all, Bilbo has no heroic notions about himself. All he wants, once the adventure is underway, is to get back home to his comfortable hobbit-hole, with perhaps a new tale or two to tell, and a nice-looking memento on the mantlepiece to dust off and reminisce about. He has no intention of installing himself as a king somewhere, and knows he has no chance of transporting a fourteenth-load of dragon’s gold all the way back to the Shire on his own, so he can’t see himself as a legendary hero. He knows he’s vulnerable, and still needs to rely on others. And this despite the fact that, once Gandalf leaves the dwarves, Bilbo is the one who takes over the heroic role, by saving the party every time they’re in danger. But whereas Gandalf saved them thanks to his magical power and wide-reaching knowledge, Bilbo does it through “some wits, as well as luck and a magic ring — and all three are very useful possessions”. Bilbo saves the dwarves not through Gandalf-style confrontations, but through using his wits, wits honed by knowing how helpless and unheroic he is, and so in full knowledge that only burglar-style tactics (or “sneaking”, as Gollum might put it) will work.

It’s almost impossible to read The Hobbit without feeling the weight of The Lord of the Rings bearing down on it. But it’s a fun book, and a neat little adventure which really starts to warm up once the dwarves and Bilbo get to Mirkwood, and then again once Smaug is dead and the Battle of the Five Armies draws near. It may be a toe-dip in the worlds of corruption and power that saturate the later trilogy, but I think that was all it was ever meant to be — there and back again, in time for tea.

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci by John Keats

John Keats in 1819, by Charles Brown

What folklorist Katherine Briggs has called “one of the most beautiful fairy poems in the English language”, and William Morris “the germ” from which all the poetry of the Pre-Raphaelites sprung, seems to have been written on 28th April 1819. Keats included it in a packet of letters addressed to his brother George and his brother’s wife Georgina, who had moved to a settlement in America the year before. Keats wrote regular letters to the couple, including among them finished and unfinished verse, and would add to the pile till he could find someone to deliver the lot, rather than sending one at a time. The bundle containing “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” was begun on 14th February, with a complaint that he was finding his latest composition, the never-to-be-completed Hyperion, difficult, and that he must wait for “spring to rouse me up a little” so he could continue. “I know not why Poetry and I have been so distant lately”, he writes in March. The bundle continued to accrue until 3rd May, by which time he’d resumed writing poetry, though not Hyperion. His poems contained in the bundle included a playful tale in which a princess wants to show her latest finery to the fairies and, finding them not at home, instructs her dwarf to open the fairies’ door and let her in anyway; the dwarf refuses, saying he was a handsome prince till he made the mistake of entering the fairy realm unbidden, so she lets herself in, and isn’t heard from again. There was also a mock-Spenserian verse, a sonnet on Dante’s damned lovers Paolo and Francesca, and a “Chorus of Fairies”. Fairies, or faery generally, ran throughout Keats’s poetry, as Freudian critic Maureen Duffy writes:

“With Keats faery isn’t simply a convenient idiom… it is a mode of the imagination so natural to him that he can’t write poetry in any other way.”

Keats took the title “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” from a French poem of one hundred 8-line stanzas written in 1424 by Alain Chartier, and translated into English around 1526 (by Richard Ros, though for a long time it was thought to be by Chaucer). And he had in fact referred to the title already, in his long poem, “The Eve of St. Agnes”, composed earlier the same year. “St. Agnes” is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of Porphyro seeking to win the love of Madeline, who belongs to a rival family house. Madeline has performed the rites and prayers of St Agnes’s Eve, by which a woman is granted a dream of her true love. Porphyro sneaks into her bedchamber, so he can make it seem he is the prayed-for vision. To wake her, he picks up a lute and plays Chartier’s “La Belle Dame”, perhaps hoping its tale of a knight who dies when scorned by a heartless woman will warn Madeline against the cruelty of rejection and the risks of loneliness.

Keats’s own “Belle Dame” owes more to fantastical incarnations of the cruel-hearted woman, including Nimue, who imprisons Merlin in Le Morte Darthur, the fairy queen in folk ballads of Tamlin and Thomas the Rhymer, and, most of all, the story of the Enchantress Phaedria, who lures a knight to an island, woos him to sleep, then abandons him, in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was a volume of The Faerie Queene that set Keats on the path to becoming a poet himself.)

Tom Keats, by Joseph Severn

But there may have been more concrete, biographical origins for Keats’s poem. His life had its share of women he’d lost or longed for (Andrew Motion, in his biography of Keats, says the poet’s relationships with women had a “pattern of possession and abandonment”). This included his mother, who died when he was fourteen, and his latest amour, Fanny Brawne, whom he either couldn’t commit to, or wouldn’t commit to him, sickly and impecunious poet that he was. But the most relevant episode from Keats’s life seems to have been the death of his younger brother Tom the previous December. Looking through Tom’s papers, Keats came across letters purporting to be from a woman, “Amena”, who said she loved Tom, and who Tom at one point seems to have gone to France in search of. But she was, Keats realised, an elaborate joke by Tom’s friend Charles Wells. In those days, it was a common belief that intense emotion could kill you, and Keats was convinced this futile search contributed to his brother’s death.

There are two versions of Keats’s poem. The one in the letter to his brother George is the earlier version, whereas the first published version appeared in Leigh Hunt’s journal The Indicator in May 1820, where it was signed not Keats but “Caviare”. There are only a few differences between the two, one of which is that in the first verses of the early version, the lost and forlorn victim is called a “knight-at-arms”, while in the published version he’s a “wretched wight”. Although the published version sounds more poetic, the earlier version feels more concrete, but perhaps one of the reasons Keats changed that “knight-at-arms” is that the invented “Amena” addressed her supposed lover Tom as her “knight”, too. Perhaps Keats felt this veiled reference to his brother’s death was too raw for him to publish, even under a pseudonym.

In the end, it was the earlier version of the poem that became the accepted version, as it was included in the Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, and that was how it was discovered by the next generation of Keats’s admirers.

Henry Meynell Rheam’s 1901 painting of the same name

In the poem, the last thing this knight-at-arms remembers is balmier days, when he met a lady, “a fairy’s child”, who took him to her elfin grotto, lulled him asleep, and abandoned him, whereon he woke after a vision of “pale kings and princes too,//Pale warriors, death-pale were they all” who had been the fairy’s woman’s previous victims. But is “victims” the right word? What exactly happens in this elfin grotto? In the revised, first published version of the poem, the lady merely gazes at her “wretched wight” and sighs deep, which makes you wonder if, though she regrets what she’s about to do, she’s intent on casting her spell on this young man anyway. But in the earlier version “she wept and sighed full sore”, making it seem as though she’s too taken up with her own sorrow to love this young knight, or is genuinely helpless to prevent what’s about to happen. When he sleeps, and wakes to find himself alone and now in winter, it could be she hasn’t cast a spell on him at all, but he has somehow been infected by her sadness. More than any other difference between the two versions of the poem, the revision of this line feels like Keats trying to make his poem make sense — make the lady into a properly wicked enchantress — whereas the earlier version, in which both knight and lady are sucked into an overpowering and ensorcelling sadness, is the stranger and more evocative idea.

So what is this “fairy child”, this lady who attracts a knight only to woo him to sleep and have him wake, seasons later, on a cold hill side, bereft and alone? Robert Graves, commenting on the poem in The White Goddess, found in Keats’s “Belle Dame” another incarnation of his own dangerous muse:

“…the Belle Dame represented Love, Death by Consumption (the modern leprosy) and Poetry all at once… She was Death, but she granted poetic immortality to the victims whom she had seduced by her love-charms.”

John William Waterhouse’s 1893 painting inspired by the poem

The muse of Romantic poetry was both inviting and dangerously addictive. She was Keats’s “Lamia” (written soon after “Belle Dame”) and Coleridge’s Life-in-Death from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. She could be laudanum, consumption, imagination, passion, the brief fiery brightness of genius, and poetry itself. This seems even more underlined for Keats, whose poetic muse took the form of a fairy lady because he was awakened to his own poetic ambition quite literally by a faerie queen — Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. In the light of this, it’s interesting to read his comment in the bundle of letters sent to George and Georgina where he hoped spring would bring with it a renewed poetic inspiration, as “La Belle Dame” begins with its knight lost and forlorn in winter, when “sedge has withered from the lake,//And no birds sing”. The abandoned knight-at-arms is also, then, a wintered poet, bereft of his muse’s inspiring presence, in need of spring. (And when that spring comes, it’s not a heartening warmth, but a poetically-inspiring sorrow.)

The poem’s power, I think, comes from its being such a distilled version of a tale with so many potential meanings. And this fits perfectly with Keats’s poetical ideal, his determination to stand back from the central image of his poem and let it be what it is without any attempt to interpret it. He called this:

Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…”

Coleridge and Keats — the more sickly and imaginative of the Romantics, though of different generations — met just the once, while Coleridge was out for a walk with another (unnamed) man, rambling endlessly over many subjects as he apparently did. Keats joined in (or at least listened in, as Coleridge doesn’t seem to have needed much by way of responses) then left, but immediately returned. What happened next was reported in a collection of anecdotes about Coleridge, supposedly in his own words, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Keats came back and said:

“Let me carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your hand!” — “There is death in that hand,” I said to —, when Keats was gone; yet this was, I believe, before the consumption showed itself distinctly.”

Keats died in 1821 of tuberculosis, as had, and would, most of his family. (Even his brother George and sister-in-law Georgina, out in America, did not escape.) His reputation really caught fire with the Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian poets of their age, such as Tennyson, Swinburne, and William Morris, and with painters such as John William Waterhouse, Walter Crane and Arthur Hughes.

I think that, as a fantasy poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” is significant for the way it allows its central situation to be whatever the reader wants it to be. In it, fantasy breaks from allegory into pure poetry, and thus gains a new and ageless power to enchant those with a fairy turn of mind.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, according to Punch Magazine (1920)

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