Weeknotes: Bodies and texts

Reading this week seems to have followed self-referential texts. There is a sense that this has been done all before and so cleverly all before but these books seem to have the balance.

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Nemo: Roses of Berlin was a racy alternative history set in a 1930s Berlin. As Nemo races through the city, she comes across characters taken from German cinema, such as Maria or Dr Mabeuse. It is less frenetic than the Century books and coming together with an enjoyment that seemed to lack towards the last Century book.

I’ve also been Carey and Gross’s Underwritten: Apocalypse which is coming together really quite neatly with some simple but potent truths about stories and their power. It has moved from pastiching series such as Harry Potter or Narnia into something deeper.

The second book was Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions (Corsair, £8.99).

A final comic series that is intriguing me is Si Spencer’s latest, Bodies published by Vertigo. A time travel murder mystery, Spencer digs into London in a similar way to Iain Sinclair.

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The consolations of literature – The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

The Revolutions, Felix Gilman‘s latest book, reflects the Nineteenth Century novel with a position of respect and love. Like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork century novels or G Dahlquist’s Dream Eaters books, this is a world that immerses itself in its antecedents but is not slavishly bound to them.

In the great storm, Arthur loses his journalistic job whilst at the library. Finding a post as an accountant, he enters the employee of Mr Atwood and becomes embroiled in a strange work. Instructions come in that make little sense, as do the calculations. Meanwhile, he meets Josephine and becomes engaged.

Josephine becomes involved with a group interested in the Occult. During one of the rituals, she is psychically transported to Mars, whilst her body remains earthbound. Arthur takes care of her as Atwood’s Engine is rebuilt.

Gilman revels in the cultural and literary tensions between magic and science that exist in the nineteenth century. Authors such as Bram Stoker explore the boundaries of the belief in magic against the rationality of science in their novels and W B Yeats indulged in the mystical in private. As the century progressed, there was a stronger belief in power of science and its role for improving society, though in a way perhaps in a a way that Fritz Lang might satirise in Metropolis. The lost potential of the Babbage engine powered the Difference Engine and to an extent drives this novel, though perhaps with echoes of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. The calculations echo algorithms with Atwood’s Engine being part of the great work of the century.

Against this rationality and move away from religious belief came a belief in the supernatural in terms of ghosts and the powers of the mind. The rise in mentalism and ghosts suggests wider fear of the unknown, the idea that death is not the end. The Revolutions plays this to good effect through the transporting of Josephine between the spheres. The novel’s structure suggests a more Mediaeval view of the heavens as a gateway to and from the divine. As the journey goes through the degrees, they become a little more like the Inferno or the spheres from which one might approach the divine, suggesting that this mindset was still strong in the nineteenth century, driving obsessions

Alongside Atwood’s Engine, other social notables becomes involved in a magical war, part of which manifested itself as the Great Storm. Gilman leaves it as a subtle social comment on the failings of the leadership which writers such as Kipling would begin to indulge in in books such as Puck of Pook’s Hill. This extends into the wry humour concerning the conspiracy theories such as the Tibetan masters and Atwood’s needing to be backed by them rather than leading naturally.

Josephine adapts to the new society, learning about their ways. Adapting to Martian culture, she works out how to communicate with them, in strong contrast to Andrew and Atwood. There is a wry humour to Gilman’s portrayal of the men and their colonial approach. Gilman begins approaching the question of the alien and who this might be in an anthropological sense. Blish’s A Case for Conscience explores this, as does Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, with equal critical view but the fact that this question needs to be queried again shows that it is still unresolved, that colonial attitudes still remain to be challenged.

In one sense this review appears to be arguing the nothing changes, that culture has not entirely moved on in many senses. The Revolutions is an exciting read that understands the literary culture that it comes from and builds upon it. As well as containing deep ideas, it rattles along with pace. Gilman’s critical love pulls together many ideas and explores them. It comes across as a love song to an earlier set of fantastic texts, in the same fashion as James Stoddart’s False House and High House books. One gets a sense of a writer having a fair amount of critical fun. He never loses his sense of wonder and enjoyment in reading and writing.

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Graham Joyce 1954-2014

So sad to hear of the death of Graham Joyce this week.

I cannot imagine what his family are going through. Each death is utterly individual for those around them.

I count myself lucky to have met him a few times and been engaged in in a shared group. I even took one of his writing classes. I was not his best student by a long margin.

One of his dictums was to “make every word count”. He did that.

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Houses within houses: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist tells us what it is and yet becomes something that is odd.

Having married Johannes Brandt, Petronella Oortman enters a dark, cold house. Breakfasts of bread and herring await her. As does his sister, Marin. Marin maintains a cold hold over the house. Bound by a strong Protestant religiosity, she insists on the partitioning of their lives and church attendance. Coming from an impoverished, old wealth family, Petronella has had to be married off to stave off bankruptcy. She makes friends with the servants, Cornelia and Otto, who ground her in the new city.

Lost in a maze of secrets, she is presented with a doll’s house that mirrors her new one. In spite of the guild system, she finds a miniaturist to furnish it with items. After the first consignment of furniture, she starts receiving dolls and items that reflect her own life.

Sugar from Surinam: sweet and precious. Its sweetness masks the jealousy and insecurity of the Meermans’. Unable to sell it themselves, they have asked Johannes to bring it to market for them. Having sat in Brandt’s warehouse, the cones are beginning to spoil.

As well as the feud between the families, the Brandt’s secrets spill over. The scabs begin to break. Jack Fox, a chancer and runner, accuses Johannes of raping and stabbing him, leading to Johannes’ arrest. Meanwhile, Marin’s pregnancy is discovered and the baby delivered.

As the events unfold, Petronella continues to see the dolls arrive, magically reflecting the state of the house. All she sees is glimpses is a shock of blonde hair in the distance. Even the Meermans are affected. A story within a story, the chase becomes a novel within a novel. There are tantalising glimpses of her, how she affects the worlds around her, yet we never see her. Like an author, her dolls perhaps write the book. Burton creates an interplay between character and author that is unresolved, perhaps to its advantage.

Ratcheting up  the atmosphere with its tight timing that acts as chapters interspersed with the voices and perspectives, The Miniaturist is a rough gem of a novel. It has its faults but sets up a beguiling world that emerges from the doll’s house. Moving the location of repression, showing the first views are not always correct, the book becomes its own mirror in the vein of classic Gothic novels. We must wonder who the monster is and what it is afraid of?

Jessie Burton is interviewed on Radio 4’s Open Book on July 27th.

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Fantastic strangers in the city – The Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker‘s debut novel, is a story of two strangers who find themselves with new lives against their wishes. It does tread the ground of old stories in a new land but does update it.

Otto Rotfeld asks for a perfect wife to be built, a Golem. Smuggled aboard a ship to the United States, the Golem is brought to life just as Rotfeld dies and has to find a way of making her own life. Taken in by a kindly Rabbi, she begins working in a bakery, hiding her true nature, and mimicking those around her. Taking the name Chava, she builds her own life in the community.

Meanwhile, Arbeely is given a lamp to repair and polishes it, allowing the Djinni to escape, though still bound by iron in human form. Learning a new trade, the Djinni calls himself Ahmad and makes a life in the small community, occasionally venturing into the larger city of New York. His metal work becomes known for its intricacy.

There is a story of hiding in plain site, of mimicking the world around them to continue their lives. The magical beings stay in their community and draw from them. Although there are some individuals who recognise them for what they really are, they are mostly seen as members of the community.

Wecker appears to be having a dialogue on two levels: how do immigrants become accepted into a community and how does the mythology translate? Unlike Neil Gaiman in American Gods where the tales live somewhat precipitous lives that owe their power to those who still remember them, let alone believe in them, Wecker’s fantastical beings join in the bazaar of stories. Any cycle of renewal has been broken. Her argument differs though in that Gaiman’s old gods fundamentally remain the same, waiting for their cycle to begin again but Wecker’s appear to change to the new circumstances. They learn to enjoy the uncertainty of their new lives and to accept that changes has happened. The Djinni fights this most all until he returns to his old life, realising what is lost and what might be gained.

There is a sense that Chava finds her own life on the voyage, apart from the literal magical awakening; that she is most able to define herself in spite of herself. Perhaps she never fully shakes off the idea of having a master but one wonders if she is stronger than the Djinni. Less flighty and volatile, she is grounded in the harsher realities of living the life that is there than the one to be dreamed about. Having fewer illusions of the world, she makes her own space and gains respect for that.

Wecker avoids the easy fairy tale ending: we see the slice of coming to the States but no further. There is an immigration strand to the novel that I do not fully understand but equally she looks at the notion of how the fantastic might thrive in a foreign land. It dies not change but becomes immersed or reflective of slightly altered customs. These are not cowed not bold and brash entities but rather ones that get on with it. Engaging and passionate, Wecker has an eye for the strange that is this side of romantic. There are issues that she does not engage with but what she does bring to the discussion is way of moving forward. She breaks those with illusions that the old world was any better than this with aplomb, reminding the reader that it is the same world where ever we are. It is what we and the stories make of it that really counts.

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Thoughts on Coffin Hill: Forest of the Night

I enthused about the first issue of Coffin Hill shortly after reading it and loved it. Now that the first arc of Coffin Hill has finished and that issue 7 is a brief breather whilst preparing the reader for the next arc.

I do wonder if I was a little harsh about the the trappings of the story: its East, old family history and the emo / punk  nuances. They still exist but Kitteredge has delivered a story that is more than about coming home and finding oneself in terms of school and partners, in the same way that Beautiful Creatures [DVD] (certainly the film) or the Fallen series by Lauren Kate, amongst others.

Different audiences for sure but Kitteredge comes out on her own with Eve finding herself as her own agent rather than as a need to find a partner. Coming back means that she has to deal with her own actions and its effects on her friends and family.

Of course coming back to a small town brings pressures, especially social ones. Long term inhabitants know each other’s business. Eve’s arrival stirs up older memories but she also reflects on the decline of the town’s world, as if there is a wider malaise going on. Rather than the idea of the numinous affecting only the wood, its tendrils seep into the wider life.

Kitteredge seems to be asking the question of “what are the Coffin family running from?”: is it history/mythology or themselves? Eve still has to resolve her own problems but questions are being raised about her own family mythology. This story, the Coffin Witch, overshadows them and those around them in the way that stories do and seems to be a staple. The central pillar of the story began as a Lovecraft style affair of the nameless horror in the wood but is changing and I don’t see how it is going to change.

Coffin Hill Issue 7

Issue 7, “The Sole Unquiet Thing“, gives us part of Eve’s mother’s story and takes the arc in a different way. The issue has two narrators and is unreliable. However it does challenge the presently accepted matrilineal notion of the witch story. It also sets up questions about the witch’s nature and the “harvest” that is being mentioned.

As a stand-alone in the way, it gives the reader some further information from the family and the world of the forest. The reader is challenged to question the ghosts and the father.

It comes across as a caesura, a breather.

I’m not a fan of the art in this story as it is not the usual artist. It is a little flatter than the Miranda work but captures the nature of memory in its slightly muted palette.

I’m sure that the pairing will come back in the next issue. This series is still showing promise and becoming a solid Weird tale and one that is trying to do slightly different things with the existing material. So far, Kitteredge seems to be looking at the notion of family and personal histories, how we react to them and touches on notions of space and time.

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Feeling exhilarated and annihilated by Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach

This is perhaps more note than review as the Southern Reach trilogy is to be published within a year and I would like to muse on it more fully then. At this moment, I can only guess what Jeff Vandermeer has written next.
Annihilation is the first volume of this trilogy but feels like it can be read as a single volume. There are hooks for later volumes but the short novel is so rich it is satisfying in its own way.

Like the City of Saints and Madmen[1]  which might read a fantasy or a symbolist tome, this book strikes me as a meditation on the notion of the weird.

Names are left at the border of both land and the book. Vandermeer strips each character of their name and just leaves us with their roles: biologist, anthropologist; linguist. As readers we are forced to ignore any humanity, any personality is stripped and denied us as it becomes them.

The way that the landscape changes and disorients (very Lucius Shepard-like) the characters and the readers. The territory is uncharted and one of the roles is to begin to chart and make some sense of it. So far, all who have ventured in have come out as a version of a zombie.

The central tower becomes mutable between various states of the fantastic genre. From the dark tower to which they come, it transmutes into a tentacle, becoming alive and grasping. Its change moves the physical artefact from the fantastic, and physical, building into something that comes out of the film Alien, itself a hybrid of science fiction, horror and the Gothic. Thinking of both as Gothic links both film and this book back to the one of the fantastic’s roots: the Gothic.

The heart of the Gothic lies with the traditions which were echoes of each other; the main difference being the emphasis between horror and terror. The changes in effect can be slight but that change of tone makes them being different before diverging and being developed into very different genres.

I do wonder if these novels might be part of a meta-narrative to bring the genre back to its roots and make it more aware of itself as part of a wider traditions. The genres need to be unknowable and uncharted again.

Unanswered questions remain and I am sure will be explored in intriguing ways by the end of the trilogy. Authority and Acceptance complete the trilogy this year. Even the titles suggest that the reader is in for surprises with the future volumes.


[1] Earlier article on City of Saints and Madmen

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BSFA 2014 awards

The British Science Fiction Awards for 2014 were announced last night.

Best Non-Fiction: Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer.

Best Art: cover of Tony Ballantyne’s Dream London by Joey Hi-Fi.

Best Short Fiction: Spin by Nina Allan

Best Novel: ties between Gareth L. Powell for Ack Ack Macaque and Ann Leckie for Ancillary Justice.

I’m still reading the Leckie novel and it is turning out to be a slightly different novel than I’d imagined it might be.

Maureen Kincaid Speller over at Paperknife comments that she cannot remember a previous tie.

Congratulations to the winners and those short listed.

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Lucius Shepard

Every time I try to write Lucius, my fingers turn it into lucious. It seems apt for his writing which, when on form, was lucious and strange. I was shocked to hear of his death as I’ve been reading The Dragon Griaule (Gollancz, 2013).

Paul Kincaid in his post Lucius Shepard and Matthew Cheney’s Lucius Shepard: Art Out of Fantasy and Pain cover him better than I would here.

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Re-weirding the world: Lord Dunsany as a Weird author

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is claimed as one of ‘seminal fantasies of the century’ (Dunsany, Lord, by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Clute, John & Grant, John (eds) (Orbit, London, 1999 revised) p 303) by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasyii. Published in 1924, it is one a series of fantastic novels which are now seen as seminal to modern fantasy, if perhaps some novels have become somewhat more famous, such as JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1936), which comes towards the end of this period. These novels focus on the landscape of Britain in the aftermath of the First World War and find ways of trying to find a renewal in the land. As such, there is an interest in the folkloric as well as the natural landscape and how it affects story. Some of Dunsany’s work draws on folk  as well as literary traditions, and it is these which underpin The King of Elfland’s Daughter which ‘mashes up’, or recombines, the fairy tale tradition with modern traditions as well as the ideas of the folk and literary fairy tale. Despite the literary fairy tale’s genesis as an adult form, it was predominantly a children’s form or used in more outré works such as Rossetti’s The Goblin Market (1862), a cautionary tale of addiction. It stands in opposition to, yet aware of and using, two strands of post-war and 1920s English fiction: ‘Georgian’ poetry and Modernism.

Dunsany’s use of the fairy tale is a decidedly ‘low’, popular, tradition in opposition to TS Eliot’s focus on ‘high’ culture and tradition. Where Eliot’s focus on tradition comes from a literary set of points,  Dunsany draws in part on the fairy tale and fantastic traditions to view the world in a fantastic light, as one that has the potential to be marvellous and mysterious. Dunsany reconstructs the fairy world and its use of time, rethinking some of its traditions in a perhaps ambivalent fashion. As such Dunsany criticises the unchanging world as false and even echoes the First World War in the descriptions of the land and the fear of weaponry.

Simultaneously, Dunsany uses modern traditions with his echoes of ‘Georgian’ poetry through the way that the borders of fairy retreat from modern iron and unbelief. The Georgian poets celebrated the natural world and pursuits such as fox hunting, rendered notably into poetry by John Masefield in Reynard the Fox. Dunsany uses the fairy world to focus the minds of the elders of the town back onto real world via the fantastic, praising the beauty and wonder in the countryside.

The most obvious modern novel that has been influenced by this Dunsany novel is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which Darrell Schweitzer has explored in an article with Hope Mirrlees’ Lud in the Mist, though perhaps not in great depth. This article will make mention of some of the parallels with these later books which develop the theme of rejuvenation of both worlds and the changing to explore its lasting influence. There are some parallels with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange (2004) in its use of the landscape as a repository of the fantastic. The King of Elfland’s Daughter is simultaneously ancient and modern, drawing on the changing position of the Georgian poets, an informal school who were active between 1912 and 1922.

In its use, and re-figuring of, mainstream and genre traditions, Dunsany might well be called a Weird text. The New Weird movement, as spearheaded by Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville, drew in part from the fantastic writers of the 1920s and 30s (mainly HP Lovecraft or Clarke Ashton Smith, now considered horror writers) who mixed genres in their own writing. One of the tenets of New Weird is the continued challenging and re-figuring of a genre to its own purpose, mixing genres together, styled recombinant genres by the critic Gary K. Wolfe. In stark contrast to New Weird, this earlier Weird tradition is innately conservative, a preservative peek at the world rather that exploring radical positions as China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer do. In his essay, “Malebolge; Or the Ordnance of Genre” (“Malebolge; Or the Ordnance of Genre”, Gary K. Wolfe, in Conjunctions 39: New Wave Fabulists (Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, 2002), pp 405-419), Wolfe argues that the New Weird was the latest iteration of the rethinking of the fantastic genres, a periodic obsession in fantastic writing. Whilst thinking about the range of writers who de-constructed the fantastic genres, collected as New Wave Fabulism for that edition of Conjunctions, he argues that they express a trend in “recombinant genre fiction: stories which effectively decompose and reconstitute genre materials and techniques from an eclectic variety of literary traditions, even including the traditions of domestic realism” (Conjunctions, p 415). Though Wolfe is discussing the rethinking of genres from the 1970s onwards, driven by writers of the fantastic who are aware of its history and ways of reviving it, these comments are applicable to Dunsany and the writers of 1920s fantastic.

Whilst a larger examination of this is outside the scope of this essay,  Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter echoes this move in combining genres and rethinking them, though perhaps unintentionally. There is little sense of a dominant model of the fantastic, such as post-Tolkien epic fantasy, as an exploration of the possibilities of stories which happen to be considered fantastic mixed with other narratives. A key element to Dunsany’s novel is the use of the fairy tale and the drawing in of Georgian poetry. There is a difference in audience from the Victorian tradition is the intended audience. Dunsany’s work was not written for children as the fairy tale tradition had become but it recognises its vitality and its links to the pastoral, this returning to an earlier vision of the fairy tale. It also reminds the reader, if not entirely rethinking this, that the tradition had come from a response to the urbanisation of society but Dunsany is equally aware of the post-war rural world which he echoes in the book.

He is by no means the only writer of the period who combines both the fantastic and the rural like David Garnett or John Masefield, or even the fantastic with the modern like Hope Mirrlees. Unlike JRR Tolkien, these authors do not offer a theory of the fantastic but combine necessary elements together to express their own interest in the rural world. One of the prevailing trends in the fantastic following the first World War in the 1920s and 1930s was a tendency to return the land. Rather than see this as an escape from the new modernities and uncertainties of the world, it strikes me as a return to Georgian poetry and its interest in the land as well as a tendency towards the modern, if not quite modernism.

The Georgian poets (1912 to 1922) were active during and after the First World War and included John Masefield, who would later write the Kay Harker books, Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, and Rupert Brooke. Focusing on an upper class ideal of the land and its pursuits, the poetry tends towards the brutal aspects including fox hunting, and a realism to the text in contrast to Victorian sensibilities. With its strong language, vivid imagery and the observation, the Georgian poets “settled for quiet meditation upon treasured places and or unglamorous animals and plants” (The Modern Movement, The Oxford English Literary History Vol 10: 1910-1940, Baldick, c (ed) (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004), p91). John Masefield’s Reynard the Fox (1920) describes a fox hunting up to and including the death of the fox which is described in some detail. It is also a modern poem in its form and language so sits somewhat uneasily in the contemporary poetry but tends towards the new view of the natural world. Rather than seeing the land as something to be cherished, it is seen as a vital place, a living world. Its ordinariness becomes extraordinary. Whilst seemingly tangential to the fantastic, the school influenced David Garnett’s first novel published under his own name, Lady into Fox, and filtered into subsequent responses.

In an early chapter of Patches of Sunlight, a volume of autobiography, Lord Dunsany is ruminating on his rural house, Dunstall, and comments that “the value of [rural settings] for the follower of the arts cannot be overestimated, especially in a time like this when so much of the world is being urbanized”(Patches into Sunlight, Lord Dunsany (William Heinemann, London, 1938), p 14). Despite The King of Elfland’s Daughter being written whilst staying in London, all of his “visions of [the novel] were rural”  (While the Sirens Slept, Lord Dunsany (Jarrold, London, 1944), p60). Dunsany places the rural at the centre of his art as a refusal of the increasingly urban world. Like David Garnett, Dunsany was a keen practitioner of country pursuits, including hunting.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a conservative novel in its wish to return to an idyllic world, whilst the real one changes around him. Dunsany creates a pastoral world which builds on itself, though always in equipoise: the sense of balance that exists between states but, it could be inferred, on that is inherently unstable. In an essay about the remaking of genres, such as the New Weird debate, in the Conjunctions journal, John Clute suggests various terms which he believes are of use to the modern debate (“Beyond the Pale”, John Clute in in Conjunctions 39: New Wave Fabulists (Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, 2002), pp 420-433). Yet I would suggest that these are equally useful in discussing the fantastic in the 1920s and 30s as the genres did not exist in such tightly bound compartments at the time; they were in continual flux and being remade.

The countryside of The King of Elfland’s Daughter moves between a wasteland and the rural idyll. When Alveric crosses the border into Elfland, the world becomes more intense and vibrant than the one that he leaves. It is one more in tune with its own pastoralness and more set in time and this affects the land close to its borders. When he begins his quest to find Lirazel who has returned home with seasons in “a glory of colour” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 63), Alveric goes to the leather worker who made his scabbard and lives near the boundary. The “toadstools leaning over one way”(The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 66), when the boundary was were it had been,  suggesting that fairy can be found by reading the landscape and understanding its own language. As he carries on “the Earth began to grow bare and shingly and dull”(The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 67).  As Lirazel had been blown away by the north west wind with the leaves and Alveric’s quest takes him into fields which are now barren, fairy becomes inextricably linked with the seasons. Simultaneously, both worlds are inextricably linked  with each other.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter develops the fairy tale tradition, reinvigorated in the late Victorian children’s writing, which considered increasing industrialisation as well. The fairy tale operated at two levels for the Victorians. At one level, it was a reminder of the lost country side in the increasing industrialisation, a way of remembering traditions which may have been lost in the transition. This impulse drove collectors such as Andrew Laing to collate his various books of tales. This gave pulse to the way that the landscape was being thought of by post-war writers, such as Dunsany or John Masefield.

Equally it was a way for the children’s authors in particular to direct their reader’s attention. Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald used the form most effectively with their books to meditate and champion the ideals of Christian Socialism. Even with the explorations of socialism in the works of Oscar Wilde, the fairy tale had faded from its prominence, becoming subsumed into the wider world of the fantastic. It had become twee in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, although there is a darker edge to it that adults might recognise and its rural magic was dispelled by AA Milne in the last lines of the final Winnie the Pooh book which  places the adventures into a timeless stasis or dream state.

If we assume that Jose Monleon’s assumptions of the fantastic as the darker side of the Enlightenment coming to an end with the aftermath of the First World War and trying to find a different history to follow. His contention that the monstrous was made human and therefore there was nothing to reflect against is challenged by the fantastic and the Weird writers of the 1920s and 30s. This has perhaps been reflected by John Clute in his perspective of the period’s writing as running away from the Modern. The pastoral fantastic writers of the periods, reflecting Eliot, find a peculiarly English folk history to follow.

Dunsany in contrast goes back to the fairy tale as a way of discussing the revival of the land, the revival in the Clutean thinned land. Clute posits that there are four ‘seasons’ to the fantastic (‘Fantastika in the World Storm’, John Clute in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction volume 37 Issue 102, Spring 2008, pp6-14) and it would appear that the worlds of the 1920s fantastic writers are already thinned. It is just that the inhabitants do not inherently recognise this to be the case. Lord Dunsany rather begins to bring the two strands together, using the Georgian mode of poetry to explore the notions of a lost land and trying to find a way of exploring the rural idyll that he fantasised about.

In a sense, the created idyll does retreat from modernity. The land is a strange rural past time that is pseudo-Mediaeval. It may be an echo of William Morris’s works but it does echo the Medievalism of writers such as Rudyard Kipling. The feudal political system is conservative and Dunsany uses it it to try and get closer to the perceptions of fairy. Alveric’s journey into fairy, a brighter rural idyll to the real world, almost a pre-Raphaelite version in its brightness, shows how the ideal world shudders from modernity and is also imperfect in its perfection. When Alveric crosses the border and goes into the forest, the trees move away from his sword. The echo of William Morris’s wood between the worlds is a perfection which cannot bear the martial nature of the tool.

Interestingly Dunsany, and to an extent Hope Mirrlees, ignore the Christian underpinnings which were occasionally attached to Victorian fairy tale. In fact, Dunsany almost goes out of his way to remove himself from the theological aspect when Alveric persuades the priest to marry him to Lirazel. The priest comments that he “cannot wed Christom man … with one of the stubborn who dwell beyond salvation”(The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 29). His equating the real world with Christianity and the imaginative one with paganism sets up an intriguing challenge. Instead of directing the reader towards the ideal of fairy as Heaven, it is feared. In the final conflagration, when the fairy King speaks the final rune of power, it is the priest’s house which stands alone in the flood, as the “sound of the bell beat back the rune and the twilight for a little distance around” (Ibid, p 240). Even here, he is not completely alone in his isolation but it becomes an emblem of the wider, wilful ignoring of the world rendered strange by the fantastic imagination. He remains thinned, though comforted and supported by a small community, in contrast to the sealed off, wider flooded world. Dunsany almost revels in the inversion of Noah’s flood with the minister being cut off with his community from the larger flood of the imagination, perhaps even a precursor of the flood in Clive Barker’s Abarat sequence (2001 – ) which needs be navigated to restore the world. It also echoes the earlier short story, ‘The Kith of the Elf-Folk’, in which one of the eldritch creatures who live in the swamp becomes human in the hope of getting a soul. Her experiences amongst the poor in the city lead her to abandon the experience and to return to the wildness of the Marsh. The creature is accepted into the rural community as one of the Marsh but also as an equal. There is no questioning of the alienness of the creature, nor is there any questioning of Lirazel’s fairy nature. It is accepted as part of living in the environs. In the same way as Alveric cannot quite comprehend the strangeness of fairy, they cannot understand the greyness of the mundane world.

So what is the world that Lord Dunsany is praising in his world, if not one of Christianity? Dunsany, as noted above, was a firm believer in the power of the land and country pursuits. Like David Garnett or John Masefield, he tries to revive the pursuits of the land rather than the traditions, in essence a maintenance of the status quo with the focus on the pursuits of the rich than the poor. As such he echoes the ongoing argument up until Tolkien’s The Hobbit which laments the changing land and reflects on Tolkien’s own lost past with rural West Midlands or Masefield’s own Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). These authors are driven by an attempt to express a reality about their pursuits, such as the described death in Masefield’s Reynard the Fox, they are trying to present an England which is alive to the fantastic rather than one retreating from it. Although they disregard, in one sense, Modernism in their apparent retreat into the mythical past of England, they do echo part of something that Eliot succeeds in doing in The Wasteland, though in a less literary and more practical vein. For him, the land itself is alive with fantastic possibilities but it requires following and work to see it.

In so doing a train of conversation was started which is periodically revived about the countryside. In contrast to Masefield, Dunsany sees the magical in the landscape than the landscape giving echoes to traditions, such as folk tales or the Arthurian cycle. Dunsany, and Hope Mirrlees try to link the two worlds together through recombining genres. Although there is no evidence that she had read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Mirrlees’s novel, Lud in the Mist (1926), takes this in a slightly different vein (Darrell Schweitzer does maintain that Mirrlees had read the book in his essay, “On the shoulders of giants” (The Neil Gaiman Reader, Darrell Schweitzer (ed)(Wildside Press, , 2007), p 118) in the Neil Gaiman reader but does not provide evidence.). In the novel, the town of Dorimare nestles against fairy but the contact and trade between the two are strictly forbidden. Despite this, the fairy fruit is readily available to be eaten. It does have a side effect in that those who taste it “admitted that the fruit produced an agony of the mind, they maintained that one who had experienced this agony life would cease to be life without it”(Lud in the Mist, Hope Mirrlees (Gollancz, London 2000), p17) ? As with Erl, Dormare’s relationship with fairy is somewhat tenuous until one of their number, Nathan Chanticleer, goes across the border and rebalances the worlds. Rather than being a site of wonder and hope, the imaginative world is made into one of terror that is best expressed in Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market (1862). In the poem, Lizzie accepts the goblin fruit and craves for more, eventually fading away. The fantastic is a location of terror as it resides outside of the ‘normal’ world but approaching and engaging with it encourages the world to become less afraid, more vibrant and able to move forwards rather than remain static.

Through their developing the fairy tale structures, both Mirrlees and Dunsany revive a more folk version of the fairy tale and bring it into the Modern world. In Dunsany’s short story, ‘The City on Mallington Moor’, the protagonist decides not to go to the London social season but goes to Mallington Moor. Talking to the shepherd, he hears him tell of a magical city out on the moor, saying that “I am probably the only person that has ever seen the city on Mallington Moor” (‘The City on Mallington Moor’, in Time and the Gods , Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 2000), p 427). The narrator falls asleep on the moor in the city, which disappears over night. The shepherd does not appreciate the city as he is out on the moor regularly but the visitor, it might be inferred, does not get into the country normally except as part of a party. His reward for getting out into the world is to see the miracle but it cannot remain in the mundane world and he awakes in the heather of the moor. It might be a precursor to the argument in The King of Elfland’s Daughter and the nature of the magical in the mundane world, just beyond the fields that we know.

Just before he travels across the border, Alveric takes his father’s sword to Ziroonderel, the witch. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the witch on a blasted heath. She refashions the sword which Dunsany describes as being supernatural and natural: that it was “once beyond our Earth, and was now here amongst our mundane stories” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 7). He muses on the difference between the worlds and the two cultures of science and poetry. It is the seeds of the argument of the novel where he tries to bring the worlds together, in the same way that Hope Mirrlees does. It is also a precursor to the falling star in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1999), whose fall causes Tristan to cross the wall from Wall and renew the Alveric and Nathan’s journey to bring some balance to the worlds. Whilst discussing the nature of Wall and the part of England that it resides in, he mentions that “[h]ad you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them they would have smiled at you disdainfully, ; except , perhaps for Mr Dickens, … and he would have looked at you wistfully” (Stardust, Neil Gaiman, (Titan, London, 1998), p 8). The disdain for the imaginative world by scientists is echoed from Dunsany’s novel with Charles Dickens being the one person who accepts it through the supernatural echoes in his own work.

Ziroonderel is the only person who can reforge the sword since she knows the traditional songs and knows how they affect the sword. As she sings, the blade cools and absorbs them so becomes part of both worlds. Her magic appears to emanate from the land and its forgotten songs in the same way as the magic in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is derived from the fictional John Uskglass. In so doing, the books get into the nature of Englishness which Dunsany explores in passing. His concern is slightly more in tune with the nature of rural England but he does approach this in two ways.

In the preface to the novel, Dunsany writes “there is no more to be shown then the place of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty and twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999)). Using such a bold statement, Dunsany sets up the dual worlds which are known about but ignored. The imaginative world is just around the corner, something that is tangible for those people who might want to find it. It operates in a similar way to Wall’s gap in the wall in Stardust. Whilst the world is separate though, it might be seen as part of the real world. It can be seen and visited. Its balance might also be an echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the two worlds apprehend and inform each other at a deeper level than expected. In the Elf king’s anger, he roles back Elfland’s borders and immediately the mundane world around Erl becomes grey and barren. In contrast to Victorian or Edwardian fairy tales, the two works are not separate and distinct. This underlines the move away from the analogy of fairy as paradise.

One might see this as a comment on the condition of England. Only Alveric and a gathered troupe of societal outsiders begin the quest to find them again, searching across the land. Instead of waiting for the restoration of the land, the party sets out to restore it in stark contrast to the leaders of his own town who seem to ignore the world around them. Alveric’s self-imposed quest allows him to approach Ziroonderel’s understanding of the land and its magic. In an echo of Kipling’s children’s books, Lord Dunsany is exploring the notion that Britain was not being lead properly. In contrast, the world cannot deal with the full restoration of magic and is removed from the world and into the realm of story.

One of the standards of fairy that Dunsany challenges is the way that time works. Traditionally time is very slow or none existent, running at a different pace to the real world. When Lirazel comes across the world, she is horrified in that her looks will be subjected to time. Alveric accepts that “Time must have his way” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 37), ignoring Lirazel’s horror. The sealed of sense of fairy, the lack of interaction with the mundane world, is despaired of by Dunsany and he implies that it is affected by its lack of contact. There is a sense that this change in time has affected the mundane world of Erl. As Neil Gaiman notes in his introduction to the novel, there is only one date mentioned in the novel. Its near removal from time gives the novel a loose relationship with the present and the flexibility to engage with the supernatural. The change in the sense of time, that removal from the current world, is reused in Stardust where the novel is set in the period when Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is being serialised but other than that, there is no time mentioned. In a very subtle sense, these books cannot exist in a completely mundane world as they are already breaking any senses of being within a recognisable time. This removal of time echoes the idea of the “once upon a time” opening to fairy tales and the sense that the story exists outside of time, but is still accessible through fiction.

There idea of refusal is one which makes the world “storyable”, as John Clute argues that the fantastic does with the mundane world. Rather than seeing the world as something which has potential but it requires a shift sideways to bring this to the fore. In a sense Lord Dunsany does indeed stage a retreat from the increasingly urban world in which he follows the Victorian fairy tale tradition. His use of the fairy tale recombined with Georgian poetry meant that the fantastic was allowed to rediscover the rural landscape. Rather than exploring the Orient for miracles, he turns inwards and sees the magic within the landscape.

In a sense the fantasies echo Eliot’s idea of tradition and how this becomes a conversation. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot opined that the poetry was better when the poet understood the tradition implicitly and was able to bring these to the poem. It is not simply a matter of echoing the influence but then remaking it and remaking the tradition within its perceived shape: “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”, accessed online at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tradition_and_the_Individual_Talent, 4 September 2011). Ultimately he opines that no artist ever creates a truly original piece of art and that it is a part of an ongoing conversation. This conversation is a recurrent theme in science fiction and fantasy criticism and perhaps comes to into its latest public appearance with the New Weird moment. This moment echoes the changing nature of fantasy in the 1920s since, to echo Monleon, the monsters had been made real post war. What Dunsany taps into is the potential from his own conservatism and makes the world a strange place.

In The Wasteland, the poetic tradition is put into the Wasteland and rejuvenates the world. Using the high literary tradition, or canon, Eliot finds a way of reviving the world and suggesting how it could be made new and vital again. Using a lower, demotic tradition, that of the fairy tale, Dunsany is able to use the same strategy to get explore how the world could be remade in the post war malaise. Combining the fairy tale with a mode of poetry which had only just fallen out of favour, Dunsany perhaps creates the last embers of the Georgian fire but also creates the possibilities for other authors to explore the same territory as he did.

Hope Mirrlees continued combining the Modernism and popular fiction together in Lud in the Mist. As Michael Swanwick demonstrates, Mirrlees was involved with the Hogarth group and had published a Modernist poem before writing her seminal fantasy work. Through their efforts, perhaps unwitting, they recombined the Modern with the traditional and found a way of writing novels that do not easily sit in one tradition or another.

What both books do tap into is the potential for the world to become “storyable”. In both the Dunsany and the Mirrlees novels, the world becomes magical and the Last Rune removes Erl from time and history. Yet, as with the antecedent Stardust and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the reuniting the two worlds is not the ultimate act or even purpose of the novels. Instead they are really about the way in which the mundane world is magical and can be apprehended as such. This runs through David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, where the protagonist, once he has recovered from the shock of seeing his wife transmute, goes into the countryside and enjoys the rituals and landscape, seeing it afresh from a different perspective though not one without tragedy. Lord Dunsany does the same through Alveric’s quest for the borders after the king has moved them back. Perhaps drawing from the notion of the worlds borders being so close together, it is Alveric’s slightly moonstruck quest that sees him chasing the borders with the perception that he is mad.

Dunsany draws on and perhaps updates the fairy tale in its echoing and use of the fairy tale. It sits uneasily between updating and echoing the genre before resting in the conservative view. He revives the deeper issue of the genre when he rethinks and returns to the roots with his rethinking of the declining rural world that he loves. Although he invokes the notions of it having its own traditions in Ziroonderel’s singing to reforge the sword, his vision of the language of the land is one in its changing seasons and the way that these affect the country, an issue reflected in the work of David Garnett or Neil Gaiman, by combining the genre with Georgian poetic concerns. His drowning of Erl and its removal from the world though suggests that Dunsany knows the world has changed and cannot be returned. It is captured in the novel, perhaps emphasising the two worlds that are also being combined: the literary and real. In his own mind, it appears that he knows the rural world is ultimately gone but can still survive in books.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter combines genres to argue its case about the potential for the world to be magical and its perils. Its recombining of the fantastic and the domestic traditions renews the fantastic and finds a potential history to follow, though from a privileged view. Its success as a novel depends on this recombination and reviving the folk and literary traditions. It sits in a cusp, returning to its own certainties of pleasure and fulfilment before moving onwards to accept that the world must move on. It is a novel that accepts itself as a work of fantasy without being worried whether it conforms to a set of rules about fantasy, like the later more conscious re-workings of fantasy such as New Wave or New Weird though equally using the unease of change and loss of a countryside as a way of reviving a strand of tradition and creating a new one which celebrates itself as joining strands and creating something new and strange, whilst also being a novel. Echoing the changing literary landscape, in the  case of Modernism, Lord Dunsany’s conservative novel quietly faces the Weird and accepts it, even willing it on.


Baldick, Chris (ed), The Oxford English Literary History (Vol 10): The Modern Movement Oxford University Press:Oxford:2004

Garnett, David Lady into Fox Chatto and Windus:London: 1960

Dunsany, Lord  Patches into Sunlight  William Heinemann: London: 1938

Dunsany, Lord While the Sirens Slept Jarrolds: London: 1944

Dunsany, Lord The King of Elfland’s Daughter London: Gollancz: 2001

Dunsany, Lord Time and the Gods London:Gollancz:2000

Mendlesohn, Farah Rhetorics of Fantasy  Weslyan University Press:Middletown: 2008

Mirlees, Hope Lud in the Mist London:Gollancz:2000

Monleon, Jose  A Specter is Haunting Europe  Princeton University Press: Princeton: 1990

Schweitzer, Darryl (ed) The Neil Gaiman Reader  Wildside Press: 2007

Straub, Peter (ed)  Conjunctions 29: New Wave Fabulists Bard College Press: Anadale on Hudson: 2002

Swanwick, Michael Hope in the Mist Temporary Culture:Upper Montclair, New Jersey :2009

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