In Defence of Motherhood

In stark contrast to the glowing review by Marina Fontaine, another review of Beyond the Mist appeared at the Publisher’s weekly website last week. The review contains a large number of spoilers and is a mixture of muted praise and sharp criticisms. Some of those criticisms claim that there are structural flaws in the storytelling and weak characterization. Perhaps those are justified, perhaps not, I am too close to the text to be able to be unbiased in that regard – I leave it to those who have read the book to decide if the reviewer is being fair. Other complaints seem to flow from political disagreements with the themes and concepts in the work. One issue in particular I would like to respond to without giving away too many spoilers. Continue reading

The Princess and the Goblin, Princess and Curdie

(Orignially posted at the Castalia House Blog)

Part 1 Part 2

Princess-and-curdie

The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel The Princess and Curdie are quite different from the previous two books I’ve reviewed, in that they have strong characters and relatively well-crafted, engaging plots. They still have their weaknesses, and writers like Lewis, Chesterton and Tolkein far surpassed MacDonald in these aspects of writing, but these two books are a marked improvement. In some ways, they pair up like “The Golden Key” and Phantastes, in that the first book has children as the protagonists and a more child-friendly plot, and the second has adults (or near-adults) as the protagonists and many more mature themes and greater drama. The difference, of course is that in this case rather than merely exhibiting various parallels, the second is a genuine sequel to the first, and the protagonists are the same, only having grown up. Continue reading

Phantastes by George MacDonald

(Originally posted at the Castalia House Blog)

Phantastes

Everything I said last week about “The Golden Key” applies in spades to Phantastes. Though there is a tenuous common narrative thread through the book and continuity is kept, this book overall reads more like a stream of consciousness sketch show, but where the object of each sketch is not comedy, but to inspire awe. I’ll start with a little compare and contrast between the two.

Like in “The Golden Key”, in Phantastes the viewpoint character is a human that travels into fairyland from the human world, is warned about dangers and has many weird and wonderful experiences.

In “The Golden Key”, the protagonists are children who lived just beyond the borders of fairyland in full view of it, constantly aware of its existence, and they enter fairyland simply by walking out of the door (or climbing out of the window and walking there.

In Phantastes, the protagonist Anodos is an adult from the normal human world (a man from Scotland having just turned 21) totally unaware of the existence of fairyland. A little while after meeting a tiny magical creature that appears form his late father’s old secretary desk, he finds a path into fairyland through the designs of his bedroom furnishings turning into the things those designs represent: his washbasin turns into a spring that feeds a clear stream across his bedroom floor, his carpet which he himself designed to look like a field of daisies turns into an actual one, the carved ivy designs on his dressing table become real ivy etc. It seems not unreasonable to me that this inspired some of C.S. Lewis’ gateways into Narnia, such as the painting in the Dawn Treader coming to life.

In “The Golden Key”, the children carefully obey the instructions and heed the warnings they are given, and so the reader never really fears for their safety.

In Phantastes, Anodos basically ignores every warning given to him (about travelling in the forest at night, about an evil seductive beauty, about opening a certain door), a couple of times making me want to reach into the book and slap him. Ignoring these warnings gets him into serious trouble and facing some genuinely scary enemies (a vindictive ash tree that stalks him through the night, a hollow shape changer, an ogre etc.) The self-inflicted problem that sticks with him the longest is his evil shadow that plagues him with cynical eyes so that the magical things in fairyland appear mundane and worthless.

Anodos meets all sorts of creatures and people: beautiful women of one sort or another including a living marble statue that he falls in love with and rescues from its entombing alabaster through the power of song, a maternal figure, a young girl with a mystical globe, Sir Percival of Arthurian legend, a pair of princes who teach him how to fashion armour and together they take on three giants, there are also miniature fey creatures, walking trees, and brutal cultists.

He ventures through all sorts of places: through field and forest, river and sea, cottage and boat, a long and narrowing misty tunnel, a prison tower, a watch tower and a fairy palace with all manner of wondrous rooms and furnishings. In all of these places he meets fantastical creatures, makes fascinating discoveries or faces genuine dangers.

One of the fun things about this work is all the ways you can see it inspired other writers. Here are a few examples:

This little passage about the cynical shadow shows how it inspired the dwarves who proudly disbelieved in the wonders of Aslan’s Country in the Last Battle.

But the most dreadful thing of all was, that I now began to feel something like satisfaction in the presence of the shadow. I began to be rather vain of my attendant, saying to myself, “In a land like this, with so many illusions everywhere, I need his aid to disenchant the things around me. He does away with all appearances, and shows me things in their true colour and form. And I am not one to be fooled with the vanities of the common crowd. I will not see beauty where there is none. I will dare to behold things as they are. And if I live in a waste instead of a paradise, I will live knowing where I live.”

And this description of a forest I think inspired the wood between the worlds in the Magician’s Nephew:

But even here I was struck with the utter stillness. No bird sang. No insect hummed. Not a living creature crossed my way. Yet somehow the whole environment seemed only asleep, and to wear even in sleep an air of expectation. The trees seemed all to have an expression of conscious mystery, as if they said to themselves, “we could, an’ if we would.”

Scattered throughout the book are little asides, beautiful thoughts and insights, for example:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality?—not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn to the glass.

This is the sort of thing that G.K. Chesterton would later become famous for, blending his own stunning insights into his tales even more expertly; perhaps it is no stretch to imagine that he got the idea from reading MacDonald?

There are many more, and I’m sure those who are more widely read than I will see even more connections than I did.

C.S. Lewis once said that a certain quality of the story, a wondrous purity, a ‘bright shadow’ that the whole of Anodos’ adventure was infused with, he later recognised to be holiness. Not just the connotation of purity and goodness, but also the word’s original meaning of something being set apart for a higher purpose, otherworldly and different, yet reflected in the world around us.

As I have noted, the story is meandering, with a plot that is really a series of loosely connected short tales and scenes that perhaps both reflects the chaotic, enchanting, otherworldy and glorious nature of fairyland as well as MacDonald’s admitted shortcomings as a writer. The character growth of Anodos on my first reading also seems a little haphazard, while the supporting cast also lack character depth. The ending also felt a little sudden, though maybe it wouldn’t on a second reading.

Other writers took inspiration from his astounding worlds and combined it with compelling characters and well-crafted plots to produce some of the greatest literature of the early twentieth century. It is as if MacDonald mined a seam containing brilliant undiscovered jewels and presented them to the world, then others came afterwards to expertly cut and set those gems into exquisite jewellery. In the process those later artists became more beloved and popular than the one on whose shoulders they stood.

Even if it turns out that his particular style is not to your liking, MacDonald’s contribution to the world of literature is one that we should all be grateful for, and the above metaphor will become even more apt as we look next week at The Princess and The Goblin together with its sequel The Princess and Curdie.

 

Book Review – Plural of Helen of Troy by John C. Wright

How many stories have you read or films have you watched that incorporate time travel as part of the plot? Quite a few, I expect. And how many of those actually deal with the morality of time travel itself, instead of purely using it as a mechanism to generate a fish out of water scenario? Not so many. What would society look like if technologies existed to manipulate time however you saw fit?

Plural of Helen of Troy is one of a collection of short stories that deal with these very questions, entitled City Beyond Time, Tales of the Fall of Metachronopolis.

Murder in Metachronopols and Plural of Helen of Troy bookend this collection of short stories and are both set in the city outside of time itself, in which the Time Wardens rule with impunity and seemingly limitless power, able to retroactively go back in time and manipulate every event to reach the outcome they desire, transporting people and technology from every time period in history to their magnificent timeless city to act as their servants and playthings. Both stories are centred around a hard-boiled film-noir style detective who used to work for the Time Wardens as a problem solver (i.e. hitman). In Murder in Metachronopolis, he is attempting to solve his own murder in the future, in Plural of Helen of Troy, he is trying to save the most beautiful woman in history, one of many versions of Helen of Troy, from being attacked by someone who is close to the Time Wardens and aided by one of their deadliest robotic henchmen.

Both stories are told out of chronological sequence, which suits a story about time manipulation and is done so well that it is not confusing, instead each jump forward and backward in time either throws new light on or raises the stakes of what is happening in the main story thread. There is a lot of great humour, for example:

I ran up the nearer ramp toward the girl and sprinted toward my death.

I’d had a pretty good life, I guess. I had no complaints.

Strike that. My life stank like an incontinent skunk pie sandwich with no mustard, if one of the slices was the crusty heel no one likes to eat, and I had loads of complaints.

And the action sequences are intense and tactically brilliant, including how the deadlock is broken between two weapon systems that can perfectly predict and counteract each other.

Of the two stories, I’d say that Murder in Metachronopolis has more depth and emotional impact, while Plural of Helen of Troy is more fun. Both are masterfully crafted, insightful and rewarding to read, and I cannot recommend them enough. I could say much the same for every story in the collection without reservation. If I had to pick between the above two stories, I’d go for Murder in Metachronopolis, but it was first published earlier than the rest, hence ineligible for the Hugo this year.

If you haven’t yet sampled this great collection from a master of the art, you are missing out.