The Cloud Forest by Joan North

Children’s Book Club HB, 1965

Published in 1965, The Cloud Forest wasn’t North’s first book — that was the now impossible-to-find-anywhere Emperor of the Moon, from nine years before — but it’s the start of her short run of three gently mystical fantasies for pre-teens (the others being The Whirling Shapes and The Light Maze). The “Cloud Forest” of the title is a purely white otherworld one of the two protagonists, twelve year old Andrew Badger, slips into on occasion, and which he comes to learn exists inside the white gemstone of the Annerlie Ring, which he’s guided to find one night. Andrew is an orphan, currently living with his Aunt Badger, the matron of a girl’s school. She’s a somewhat Dickensian guardian, who discourages the boy from making friends with any of the pupils of the school he lives in, thwarts his attempts to have a night-light to stave off nightmares, and generally does her best to show him as little care as she can (“Most illness is pure self-indulgence. If you want to be well, you are well,” she says, in response to his being bed-bound with flu).

Andrew does find a friend, though, in the unconventional Ronnie Peters, an only child who “had always been so heavily wrapped up and protected from the cruel world (which she longed passionately to get at)” that she’s developed a no-nonsense approach to simply doing whatever she wants. As the book opens, she’s decided to bury a treasure map somewhere in the school grounds (even though she doesn’t have any actual treasure — the map itself will become the treasure to another map she’s then going to draw up), and so is present when Andrew finds the Annerlie Ring.

The current members of the Annerlie family live nearby at Annerlie Hall: Raymond Annerlie, virtually comatose since the death of his brother, brother’s wife and baby when their car went into a river, and Sir Rachet Annerlie, a neuro-psychologist who runs the expensive Annerlie Clinic. Researching their history, Ronnie finds mention of the mystical ring, which gives “creative authority to the imagination, if the imagining be sufficiently disinterested and freed from all attachment to results,” and “in its presence even the counterfeit may become real.” (When the normally timid Andrew pretends to be brave, for instance, he finds he actually is brave.) Even so, the ring’s power is “but the Symbol and Shadow of a greater truth.”

It turns out that Sir Rachet Annerlie desperately wants the ring. He’s interested in “the creating of True Power and the Knowledge of How to Use it”, and believes that, with the ring, “I can go to the heart of reality.” To this end, he hosts a series of self-improvement classes of a kind with vague but supposedly empowering beliefs. Andrew is dragged along to one by his aunt, and:

“He was urged to take an Active, Positive Attitude to Life, not to shrink from Having Opinions and expressing them as forcibly as he could, to beware of idleness and an empty mind; not to indulge in doubts and self-questionings and, above all, to realise the great power of DESIRE.”

Their outward message is: “You can all have what you want, if you want it deeply enough, and if you will it with all your heart.” But in fact the classes are simply a way of recruiting people whose will is weak enough that they can be hypnotised into providing a power source for Sir Rachet’s rather more Black Magical practices, focused on the recovery and ownership of the Annerlie Ring.

Illustration by Carol Everest

Aside from the fun adventure and light comedy, the thing I find most interesting about North’s books is her religious attitude. As in the other book of hers I reviewed (The Light Maze), she presents us with a mystical realm where various truths are made plain — here, that we have a True Self that may be lost to the domination of others, and that although imagination may have a magical power, it requires a certain disinterestedness in worldly gains to use it — meanwhile satirising a group of supposedly mystical-minded people who in fact have a power-centred or gains-oriented approach to the supernatural. The fact that Ronnie and Andrew’s main adult helper in The Cloud Forest is the Reverend Arbuthnot says something, perhaps, about where North’s own beliefs lie, but hers is not an entirely traditional Christianity: Arbuthnot, who accepts the children’s stories about the powers of the Annerlie Ring, admits it might be best not to inform the Bishop about such things. His own attitude to Sir Rachet’s classes implies that his — like North’s, I assume — is a somewhat Buddhistic or Eastern-tinged version of Christianity, that nevertheless manages to sound all the more English for it:

“All this constant wishing and desiring—this refusal to let the mind be at rest! It’s in the stillness and quietness that the true creative things happen.”

Illustration by Carol Everest

Mind you, as I’ve said before in this blog, fantasies are often about power, and in so many of them the answer is not learning to use power but deciding to renounce it (as with, most notably, that rather more famous Ring of Power, from Tolkien).

North’s adventures inevitably feel a bit light in contrast with the sort of teen-aimed YA fiction I like, which came only five or so years later, in the works of Alan Garner, John Gordon, William Rayner, Penelope Lively, and others, but the Jungian/Buddhist/lightly Christian form of mysticism that informs her fantasies feels very much both of its time (a 1960s moving towards New Age beliefs), and a matter of conviction on the author’s part.


The Summer Birds, Emma in Winter and Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

When I read two Penelope Farmer books a few years back (the odd-but-ultimately-impressive A Castle of Bone and the more-adult-than-YA folk fantasy Year King), another that caught my eye was her second, The Summer Birds (1962), about a group of children being given the gift of flight, a theme that’s always grabbed me as it was there in my earliest non-nightmare dreams (and which has remained, thankfully, to see me through a few zombie dreams in later years). It’s taken since then for an affordable copy to pop up on AbeBooks, but once I’d got it, I realised it was only the first in a semi-linked trilogy of books about the Makepeace sisters Charlotte and Emma. So I got copies of Emma in Winter (1966) and Charlotte Sometimes (1969), and started reading.

1987 Dell PB. Art by Chuck Pyle. (This edition has a slightly Americanised text.)

The Summer Birds began life as a short story, though one that proved too long for Farmer’s first book, the collection The China People (1960). It starts with Charlotte (12 years old) and Emma (10 years old), who live in the large but dour Aviary Hall on the South Downs with their distracted and somewhat grumpy grandfather Elijah. One day on the way to school they meet a never-named boy who says he can teach them — their whole class, in fact — to fly. It initially seems a bit day-dreamish, as Charlotte is led out of a school lesson, unnoticed, and spends the day learning to swoop through the air. (There’s a technique to it, somewhat like swimming, and later one of the children finds that wearing flippers helps.) The next day it’s Emma’s turn, and after that the other kids in the class, one by one. Although dreams of flying seem to me to belong to the earliest days of childhood — and of course to the likes of Peter Pan — here it seems to conjure a stage of withdrawal from the muddy, knee-scrapingly grounded play of kids to a slightly more airy-headed state just prior to adolescence:

“There was a feeling of suppressed excitement in the school, mounting each day as another learned. The children became silent and stood in groups or alone, looking at each other sideways with wondering eyes. Could this really happen to others—was it really true? Less and less they played at football and skipping rope in the yard; more and more they put their heads in the sky and watched for birds. Those who did not know, who had not learned, grew worried and lonelier as each day their numbers evaporated like water in the sun. The rest did not fly together yet. It was as if they were waiting for something: waiting in half-shyness for someone else to move. They were self-conscious, like people with songs to sing yet frightened of showing their voice.”

The children go on to spend the entire summer holiday (when it’s not raining) getting together away from parents and other adults so they can fly, and although Farmer brings in a little bit of tension — one of the boys decides to challenge the boy’s leadership and asks never-answered questions about who he is and where he’s come from — the book has more the air of an idyll, an ideal childhood summer that will never be repeated.

1966 Harcourt, Brace & World HB. Cover art by James J Spanfeller

Emma in Winter begins just over two years later, with the younger Makepeace girl finding herself alone for the first time when her sister goes to boarding school. A particularly severe winter descends, like the metaphor for isolation and emotional coldness that it is, and Emma starts to dream of the days when she could fly. In these dreams, she sees one of her classmates, Bobby Fumpkins, struggling to get off the ground in his own attempts to fly. She mocks him, and feels herself somehow being egged on by an unseen presence behind her, a presence that seems to be just a pair of eyes.

(Bobby Fumpkins’ ridiculous surname — sorry, all you Fumpkinses out there — is just one of many from the first book. Charlotte and Emma Makepeace have sensible names, but all the rest of the kids at school are called things like Jammy Hat, Maggot Hobbin, Ginger Apple, Totty Feather, Bandy Scragg, and Scooter Dimple.)

Dell PB

Emma, alone as she’s never been before, at first retreats into a temperamental spikiness befitting the severe winter that’s taken grip of the land, but the dreams of flying she shares with Bobby come to provide a much-needed escape from her isolation (making this book a bit like the connection-through-shared-dreams plot of Marianne Dreams). Unlike The Summer Birds, but just as in A Castle of Bone, the fantasy starts to develop in ways that veer away from the steadily meaningful path it seemed at first to be following. The (perhaps supernaturally) prolonged freeze that works as a perfect metaphor for the emotional chill of loneliness swerves into dreams of moving back through time, as Emma and Bobby’s night-flights take them to the age of the dinosaurs (briefly), then further back to the days before there was any form of life at all. Suddenly, they find themselves poised on the edge of an almost cosmic-horror abyss. As Bobby says, if they carry on:

“There might not be any world, just space, nothing but space… and whatever would happen to us then…”

Perhaps this is meant as a vision of the ultimate loneliness, a world of no people at all — of no world at all — but what of that dark presence, the eyes that Emma felt behind her as she was driven to mock Bobby? That doesn’t quite resolve as clearly, and I finished Emma in Winter feeling it had perhaps missed the simplicity of The Summer Birds by letting its fantastical element stray a little too far for so short a book.

1976 Puffin PB. Art by Janina Ede.

Charlotte Sometimes starts on the elder Makepeace sister’s first day at boarding school (so, a season before Emma in Winter). Going to sleep in a particularly old-fashioned bed, Charlotte wakes to find she’s not Charlotte, but Clare, a girl at the same school but in 1918. For a while, she finds herself in the past and the present on alternating days, but then, when Clare and her younger sister Emily (the same age and personality as Charlotte’s younger sister Emma) are moved to nearby Flintlock Hall and she’s no longer sleeping in the same bed, Charlotte finds herself trapped as Clare in the past. And, while the boarding schools of 1918 and 1963 (as a note on the Wikipedia page for the book successfully argues as the date of its present) aren’t really that different, the world of Flintlock Hall is very much that of the First World War, as it’s a house in mourning for its son, Arthur, who died in the fighting.

(Though Charlotte finds Flintlock Hall very much like her own home of Aviary Hall, which implies you don’t need actual time travel to find yourself oppressed by the weight of the past — a theme that pops up throughout 1960s/1970s British YA.)

Here, the theme is one I felt to be the main driver of the two Farmer books I reviewed previously: personal identity, particularly in situations where its edges become fuzzy or encroached upon. Finding herself living as Clare in the past, Charlotte isn’t sure how much it’s incumbent on her to act as this other girl, to the detriment of her ability to be herself:

“Clare had always been a kind of skin about her, Charlotte thought, containing what she did and said and was; but the skin had thickened imperceptibly the longer she stayed in the past… [and now] it began to thicken more rapidly than ever, pressing that part of her which still thought of itself as Charlotte tighter and smaller, until it lay deep down in her, like a small stone inside a large plum.”

Vintage 2013 PB. Cover by Peter Bailey.

Of the three, Charlotte Sometimes is the better book, going deeper than the simple idyll of The Summer Birds, but staying clear of the confusion of ideas and images in Emma in Winter. Unlike Emma in Winter, Charlotte Sometimes makes no mention of the events in The Summer Birds, which has enabled it to stand on its own as a book, rather than as the third in a sequence. It has, in fact, become Farmer’s most popular work.

As with the previous two Makepeace books, the main character in Charlotte Sometimes is mostly quite passive, but perhaps that’s part of the territory, with so much of childhood/adolescence being about phases you have to live through, rather than things you can do anything about. All three Makepeace books are about the dreamy stages of pre- or early-adolescence, but Charlotte Sometimes is much more about its main character’s sensitivity to the world and people around her, finding her place in a world with a troubled history, among other people with their many forms of unhappiness, and with a growing sense of responsibility. The world it’s set in (an early 1960s boarding school) is now even more remote from us than the period Charlotte travels back to (1918) is from her present, but the book’s still in print, and has taken its place, deservedly I’d say, as a classic of children’s/YA literature.


Elric: The Stealer of Souls and Stormbringer by Michael Moorcock

Art by Jack Gaughan

I’d been meaning to re-read some Elric for a little while, but a sort of readerly paralysis set in whenever I contemplated actually doing it. Not only were there the standard long-running-series-with-a-messy-publication-history questions of where to start and what order to read the stories in (I went for publication order, as I like to see how the writer develops, rather than the character), but there was the equally important question of where I could pause for breath, because I didn’t want to be reading back-to-back Elric for however long it took me to get through the saga. I don’t think my sanity could stand it.

In the end, I found I could divide the stories up, roughly, into three phases. First, there was the initial run in Science Fantasy magazine, from “The Dreaming City” in June 1961 to “Dead Lord’s Passing” in April 1964. That made for nine stories, collected in The Stealer of Souls (1963) and Stormbringer (1965), that took Elric from his definitive first adventure, where he leads a bunch of sea-reavers in the sacking of his home city of Imrryr, to his (chronologically) last adventure, with the destruction of himself and his entire world. Phase two was made up of the later 60s and 70s stories and novels that went back and filled in gaps in the saga, from the ones anthologised in US sword & sorcery paperbacks such as The Fantastic Swordsmen (1967), and the Flashing Swords (1973) series, through to Elric at the End of Time (1981). Then, in what is increasingly looking like an arbitrary division based around the ones I read early on versus the ones I still haven’t, phase three consists of what I still think of as the “new Elric novels”, beginning with The Fortress of the Pearl (1989), and on till whenever Moorcock finally, definitely, stops writing new Elric stories.

Amra, May 1961, cover by Roy Krenkel

The series began when Ted Carnell asked the then-early-twenties Moorcock to write something in the vein of Conan for his UK Science Fantasy magazine. Moorcock was already interested in what he’d suggested calling “Epic fantasy” (a name he put forward in the Conan fanzine Amra, in May 1961) — to which Fritz Leiber countered with the winning formula, “sword-and-sorcery”.

Elric was conceived as a sort of antithesis to Conan. (In his introduction to the 2008 Del Rey collection, Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Moorcock said of these stories that they were “probably the first ‘interventions’ into the fantasy canon”, i.e., the first conscious attempts to deliberately play against genre conventions.) Where Conan was strong, Elric was weak. Where Conan lopped the heads off sorcerers, Elric was a sorcerer. Most of all, where Conan was a noble savage, and the embodiment of Robert E Howard’s beliefs in the vitality of the barbarian over the decadence of civilisation, Elric was a savage noble, decadent to the core. In my Mewsings on Conan, I put forward the idea that heroes like Howard’s are created to solve a problem: how to thrive in the worlds their creators made for them (and to answer the problems of the era the creator was living in). I thought of Conan as a sort of barbaric hit-back at Freud’s idea that, to live in modern times, people had to repress their savage id-born impulses and live in a state of constant, socialised repression. Conan (and Howard) had different ideas. The question, then, is what sort of a hero is Elric? What sort of a problem was he designed to solve, if any?

Art by Michael Whelan

The first thing to say, though, is that it’s not really a case of Conan being strong, Elric being weak. Elric is physically weak, yes, but he has sorcery — and he has Stormbringer. Stormbringer is the essence of what makes Elric who he is. In his early writing on the character, Moorcock several times says that Stormbringer is a symbol of the physical and mental crutches we rely on, but that seems an inadequate explanation for something so rich in dark meaning. At times, Stormbringer seems like a drug metaphor (Elric’s dependence on it), at others a metaphor for the atom bomb (at one point it’s called “one of the mightiest weapons”). But basically, what it comes down to is pure, naked power. (As I keep saying on this blog, fantasy so often comes down to the theme of power.) Without Stormbringer, Elric is weak, but we’re all weak, really, so in this Elric is just a slightly exaggerated everyman. With Stormbringer, Elric becomes a crazed demon, suddenly able to give in freely to feelings of pitiless vengeance, inhuman cruelty, and the utter selfishness of not just profiting from others’ deaths, but feeding off their souls. Whatever his ideals when he’s not wielding the runeblade, Elric is a monster when he takes it up — to the point of, all too often, becoming so battle-drunk he only stops when he finds he’s skewered one of his allies, if not his closest friend or the woman he loves. Is this a picture of all human beings when they get too much power?

Between-times, Elric is a troubled soul, “a doom-driven adventurer who bore a crooning runeblade that he loathed.” As he confesses to Shaarilla of the Dancing Mist, one of many hapless characters who come asking for his help:

“I should admit that I scream in my sleep sometimes and am often tortured by incommunicable self-loathing.”

Elric, a Melnibonéan, is heir to “ten thousand years of a cruel, brilliant and malicious culture”, and though Moorcock tells us that Melnibonéans aren’t strictly human, Elric is still an everyman. Melniboné’s history of slavery, cruelty, and exotic perversity is just a fantasy exaggeration of our own. (We just didn’t have the dragons, sorcery, and demon-gods to take it that far, but if we had…)

Elric’s melancholic, bitter brooding could be taken, then, as only a slight exaggeration of what (to the young Moorcock, anyway) is the human condition:

“To him, life was chaotic, chance-dominated, unpredictable. It was a trick, an illusion of the mind, to be able to see a pattern to it.”

“I am the eternal skeptic—never sure that my actions are my own, never certain that an ultimate entity is not guiding me.”

“Look at me, Zarozinia—it is Elric, poor white chosen plaything of the Gods of Time—Elric of Melniboné who causes his own gradual and terrible destruction.”

(Despite Moorcock being quite vocal in his dislike of both Tolkien and Lovecraft, I was constantly reminded, throughout this re-read, of both. Pointy-eared, ultra-refined and ancient-cultured Elric, in being the last representative of a fading people, is just like Tolkien’s elves who are departing Middle Earth now their time is over. And something about Elric’s finicky, occasionally self-righteous, occasionally self-humbling, gloomy character is a little like Lovecraft’s — aside from Elric’s love of women, of course.)

Elric as he first appeared on the cover of Science Fantasy, June 1961. Art by Brian Lewis. (From Andrew Darlington’s blog.)

The Elric stories (in this first phase, anyway), are pretty formulaic. Someone comes to Elric asking for help. He warns them not to get involved with him. They insist, and Elric finds something in it for himself, anyway. Then, the adventure underway, the air of creeping doom begins. Usually, at some point, Elric finds himself without his sword, reduced to a helpless weakling. Then he gets his sword back and the rebound launches him into ultra-violence mode, where he shears through metal, flesh, bone and brains, quite often invoking Arioch or some other demon-lord of Chaos for even greater depths of mayhem. Then, when the dust settles, the irony sets in. Whatever it was that was wanted turns out to be worthless, and the price paid for it in human lives too heavy for such a mocking return. Elric bemoans his condition, and the story ends.

Another thing to say about the stories is they have almost no narrative logic. They certainly have very little suspense or dramatic tension. Even when Elric is swordless and helpless in his enemy’s hands, those enemies can always be relied on to fail to deal with him properly — in one case (“The Stealer of Souls”) just letting him go after making him promise not to kill them. When Moorcock introduces a major series character — Moonglum, say, or Zarozinia — Elric just bumps into them, helps them out of a small scrape, then they join him for the rest of the series. There’s no attempt to merge their introduction into the main thrust of the story they’re in, or give them the sort of motive they’d really need to join forces with such a locus of doom. As the series progresses, Moorcock seems to get impatient with the need to move his characters around the world he’s created for them, and brings on magical horses who can just gallop anywhere — over sea, land, chaos, anything. (And, as I said about J K Rowling when opening my Harry Potter re-read, there’s no sense that Moorcock has worked out his “rules” for magic. The only rule for magic in the Elric stories is: the bigger, the weirder, the darker, the nastier, the stranger, the better.) Once the battle with chaos is really underway, Elric’s world increasingly turns into this roiling mass of chaotic stuff spewing out weird enemies for Elric to fight — which, in a sense, is what his world was all along.

James Cawthorn’s cover to the first HB of Stormbringer

What the stories do have, though, is an incredible capacity to deliver startling images, characters, creatures, entities, scenes, even entire worlds. The lack of narrative logic just doesn’t matter, because there’s always another weird, darkly poetic, or doom-ishly symbolic scene to witness. I was surprised to find out, first of all, how many characters, scenes, monsters and demons I remembered vividly (Meerclar of the Cats, Count Smiorgan Baldhead) who, on this re-read, proved to be there only briefly, or, in the case of what I thought were series characters, only for one story (as with Theleb K’aarna and Queen Yishana, though she has a brief return appearance).

Moorcock has this incredibly archetypal imagination — something underlined by how his characters prove to be, in the long run, avatars of archetypal forms such as the Eternal Champion, or the City of Tanelorn, which (if I remember rightly) has some sort of presence in every one of Moorcock’s multiversal worlds.

And this may be part of what made the Elric stories so successful. They make no sense, but they’re full of weird wonders. They’re so psychedelic, and arrived just in time for the countercultural 60s to kick off.

Art by Jack Gaughan

So what is the hero, Elric, doing, what problem is he solving? I don’t think, in the end, he’s like Conan in that sense. Elric doesn’t solve any problems, not by offering a viable counter-idea, anyway. He’s there to represent a state of mind, to bemoan his existential condition, to question the gods — to question if there are gods — to question fate — to question if there is a fate — and then to unleash insane levels of chaotic violence to wipe everything clean, as some ultimate expression of dissatisfaction with the whole setup. Only, with no sense that this is the end, merely a pause before it all starts again.

In a 1963 article, Moorcock called the Elric stories “sword-and-philosophy” tales, rather than sword-and-sorcery, but is this true? Yes, Moorcock presents us with what seems like an advance on the traditional good-versus-evil idea, with his eternal conflict between Law and Chaos — though he adds other forces, like the Balance, Fate, and Nature, too, which seem to be able to override Law and Chaos, or at least meet them with equal power. But in a sense the terms used don’t matter. What there is is conflict, raging above our human heads, and of its true nature, we cannot know:

“Who can know why the Cosmic Balance exists, why Fate exists and the Lords of the Higher Worlds? Why there must always be a champion to fight such battles? There seems to be an infinity of space and time and possibilities. There may be an infinite number of beings, one above the other, who see the final purpose, though, in infinity, there can be no final purpose. Perhaps all is cyclic and this same event will occur again and again until the universe is run down and fades away as the world we knew has faded. Meaning, Elric? Do not seek that, for madness lies in such a course.”

Moorcock, happy as Elric… NOT! (Image from The Stormbringer Fandom Page.)

Is Elric, then, a sort of Sisyphus, wiping out the whole confusing, doom-laden, mocking malarky — ending the conflict through the overriding power of his Black Blade — only to find it coming back, time and time again? Moorcock says he’d been reading the French existentialists around the time of writing the Elric stories, and to Camus’s idea that we must imagine Sisyphus to be happy, Moorcock might be saying, “Yeah, but just wait till you put a demonic runeblade in his hands, you’ll find out how happy he is.”

Elric, I think, isn’t (like Conan) the embodiment of a solution to the world’s problems. He’s more a protest against them. He’s an existential Everyman, and his lack of a viable worldview, his eternal search for ever-elusive peace (in Tanelorn, in the arms of Zarozinia, or in a sardonic acceptance of his doomed-laden fate) in a roiling world of turmoil, conflict, and uncertainty, is part of the picture. His only “solution” is to lash out at it all and silence the turmoil (only ever temporarily) with one screeching slash of a soul-sucking demon sword:

“The gods experiment, the Cosmic Balance guides the destiny of the Earth, men struggle and credit the gods with knowing why they struggle—but do the gods know?”

No, Elric, they don’t. But keep on slashing, all the same.