Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

The Princess and the Goblin

 As a little girl, there were few books I loved better than George MacDonald's classic fantasy, The Princess and the Goblin. I don't know how many times I read and re-read it, but it can't have been fewer than three times, and perhaps as many as eight or nine. MacDonald had the gift in all his fantasies of inventing images so simple and so powerful that they gain an unassailable foothold in the imagination, and the most powerful image of all of them must be that of the little princess who gets lost in the castle where she lives and ends by discovering a wonderful, wise, and mysterious great-great-grandmother living in a distant tower. The fairy ancestress, her splendid and gorgeous apartments, the fact that few but the princess herself know of (or can believe in) her existence, and the princess's adventures under the oversight of this powerful protectress, make the story not just one that every little girl is bound to adore on first reading, but also exactly the kind of fairy-tale GK Chesterton spoke of when he said that fairy-tales give us, not so much dragons, but heroes to fight dragons.

I've already reviewed The Princess and the Goblin on Vintage Novels, quite early on, but I've recently had the chance to re-read it, for the first time in years. In addition to the fairy great-great-grandmother and her small protege, the plot also features Curdie, a miner boy who lives near the princess's castle, and the malicious goblins who infest the mines, battle the miners, and ultimately hatch a fiendish plot to kidnap the princess. It's up to Curdie to foil their plans, but not without the help of both the young and the old princesses.

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this story. In some ways, it was every bit as good as I remembered. The imagery was just as enthralling as every, and I was particularly impressed, this time around, by something you don't often see in Victorian or children's literature: a good balance between innocence and beauty on the one hand, and aggressive, unapologetic courage on the other. Princess Irene has a somewhat revolting habit of talking to flowers, it's true; but she eventually proves to be cool-headed and practical when she's called to undertake a dangerous rescue mission. Curdie, on the other hand, kills monstrous creatures with his mattock and even gets shot by a crossbow on occasion, but he's always kind and gentle to his mother.

On the other hand, in some ways, I was able to spot some flaws I hadn't noticed before. I think the most worrying thing was a subtle but unmistakeable theme having to do with unbelief. Irene sees and believes in her grandmother, but various other key characters do not. When Irene wants to blame them for not believing, her grandmother gently reproves her, with the implication that unbelievers are not to blame for their unbelief. Irene sums up her lesson by saying, "So as Curdie can't help it, I will not be vexed with him, but just wait." Curdie's mother, wiser than he, makes similar comments: "I don't blame you for not being able to believe it." This theme, being one of the strongest in the book, and being so contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture (in Romans 1:20, for example), is worth pointing out.

That was a disappointment, especially when it's wrapped up in what's otherwise a really delightful story. Just something to be conscious of if you've chosen to read it with small children--which I would definitely recommend doing!

Find The Princess and the Goblin at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

The Princess and Curdie

Again, it'd been years and years since I read this book, and again, I found myself surprised by revisiting it in older years.

The sequel to The Princess and the Goblin finds Curdie a little older, but not (alas) wiser. When he carelessly decides to shoot a white pigeon which he should know belongs to the old fairy princess, however, his repentance leads him back to the castle and the tower where the wise old lady entrusts him with a dangerous mission to the town of Gwyntystorm, where the Princess Irene has gone to live with her king-papa. With the help of a band of grotesque beasts, Curdie sets out to discover a plot that threatens both the king's life and his reason.

I never loved this book as much as I loved the first one, although it is a good story in itself. On re-reading it recently, I decided that must be partly because of the plot, which is nowhere near as tightly-woven as The Princess and the Goblin, and tends to wander into satire or didactics. That's a shame, for the themes, if a little laboured, are a good deal more sound than in the first book. I particularly appreciated what MacDonald has to say about sin (that unless you consciously struggle against it, you are bound to succumb to it): "There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection." The whole plot is deeply concerned with these two ways, one of dying, the other of living; Curdie himself is given the gift of discerning who is on which path, and as it's pointed out, while two people may seem to be at the same place in their lives, one may be on the "braid, braid path", while the other may be on the path "so thick beset with thorns and briars".

Interestingly, one of the most powerful expressions of virtue in the novel has to do with hospitality, with a corresponding emphasis on the evils of unkindness to strangers. Other sins featured include petty theft, selfishness, and high treason, but unhospitality seems to get the most attention. That really struck me. I don't know about you, but I've not heard a great deal of teaching on hospitality, and most of it seems to focus on having friends around for Sunday lunch--but George MacDonald is talking about what Scripture talks about, which is caring for strangers and travellers, making sure you open your home to them in love rather than treating them with suspicion and distrust.

In conclusion, I'd highly recommend both these books. Neither are without their flaws, but both are absorbing stories, a rich feast for the imagination also intended to nourish the souls and intellects of the hearers.

Find The Princess and Curdie at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or Librivox.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Announcing WAR GAMES: 2nd Edition!

This week I finally got around to a job I've been unable to touch for months: updating my book War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian Life.

I have a soft spot for this book of mine. Second to writing fiction, my favourite thing is writing about fiction. I want to help everyone get the most out of the books they read. War Games was my chance to rave on about some of the greatest works of Christian fiction I've ever read, with the aim of leaving readers far better equipped to evaluate and benefit from the fiction they read. If what my readers say is to be believed, War Games was a success.

'A fantastic introduction to fiction for Christians. ...Recommended particularly if you're asking the question "Should I read fiction?"' - Joshua, Goodreads reviewer (and longtime friend)

'Folks, this is epic... If you struggle with picking out hidden themes like I do, War Games will explain and clarify a lot of the novels you've been enjoying." - Schuyler, My Lady Bibliophile


Family and church reformation as a cure for social ills. Christian boldness in the face of totalitarianism and modernism. Sacrificial love in the City of God. Sure, you’ve heard of these classic books already. You might even have seen the movies. But have you caught the vision?

Fiction with a solid Christian worldview drills us in right action and reaction in a host of different circumstances. It runs war games for the Christian life, showing how wisdom might apply in hypothetical scenarios. It prepares us for battle.

Journey through eighteen classic works of fiction from Beowulf and Njal’s Saga to Mansfield Park and The Lord of the Rings, discovering the exceptional wisdom hidden inside the world’s best-loved stories.

So what's new in the 2nd Edition?

I'm so glad you asked!
  • Fewer typos. Yes, this book had a few, but with the help of some extra pairs of eyes, I've eliminated most of them.
  • Shiny new interior design. Since publishing the 1st edition, I've taught myself to format both ebooks and paperbacks using professional methods. I've also done some reading in the fine art of typography. This is particularly visible in the paperback edition, which will look the same on the outside, but much smoother and prettier on the inside.
  • Suggested essay topics! These questions at the end of each chapter, ranging from simple to fiendish, can be used as essay topics, journalling inspiration, or study group conversation starters. Or they can be ignored completely. Use them as you will!

Great! Where can we get the book?

You can buy the updated Kindle edition just the same, at Amazon, for $2.99.
The 2nd edition paperback is live right now at Createspace for $10.99. It'll take a few weeks to become available through other channels, such as Amazon and The Book Depository.

In the meanwhile, if you already have a copy of the Kindle or paperback 1st edition, and would like a copy of the suggested essay topics, please email me and I'll be very happy to send you a copy of the essay topics.

Happy reading!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott

How many years has it been since the last time I read a Sir Walter Scott book? I don't remember. Nor do I remember just what whim it was that decided me to download and read a book I'd long avoided, on account of knowing its tragic ending: The Bride of Lammermoor. Maybe it was a sudden desire to read something truly gothic and melodramatic.

And I wasn't disappointed.

Edgar, the young, handsome, and brooding Master of Ravenswood, has nothing left of the old family estates except the derelict castle of Wolf's Crag and an old comic-relief manservant named Caleb. All the family wealth, including the fine estate of Ravenswood itself, is now in the hands of Sir William Ashton, an astute but henpecked lawyer, and his formidable battle-axe of a wife, Lady Ashton. The Master of Ravenswood, determined to avenge his father's slow death of despair under an avalanche of lawsuits, heads off to Ravenswood to confront Sir William - and, to his surprise, winds up rescuing the lawyer's gentle daughter Lucy from certain death!

As old family retainers prophesy doom and the political machinations of 18th-century Scotland threaten to overturn the Ashton family fortunes as easily as they previously overturned the Ravenswood fortunes, Edgar and Lucy discover that there are some things love can't overcome.

I have a few things to say about this book specifically, and then a few things to say about Scott generally.

For one thing, The Bride of Lammermoor is very much a Romeo and Juliet story. Only instead of Montagues and Capulets in some neverland version of Italy, you have Whigs (Ashtons) and Tories (Ravenswoods) in a very realistically battered and bleeding eighteenth-century Scotland. Oh yes, there are enough cape-swishes and mustache twirls and dramatic faints and goodness knows what else in this story to make it thoroughly fun and cheesy in that Scott-esque way we all love; but nevertheless it's firmly anchored in a specific time and place in a way that Shakespeare's play never was. Edgar and Lucy's love is from the outset a kind of microcosm of Scotland herself at this time: while yearning for wholeness, they are dragged apart by the inflexible demands of politics, bitter grudges, and family honour. Edgar's people are old blood, old money; Jacobites, friendly to bishops, hostile to Covenanters. Lucy's people are nouveau riche; people who won their estates not through martial valor but skilled lawyering; Presbyterians, riding high on the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution which sealed the triumph of Protestantism in the British Isles...

...Or did it?

A Historical Parenthesis

The history here is pretty complex, when it comes to picking sides. One of the reasons for this complexity is the union of the crowns of Scotland and England with the ascension to the English throne in 1606 of James IV of Scotland, better known to history as James I of the United Kingdom. The Stuarts were thoroughly bad news; it was they who provoked a whole series of uprisings by their absolutist doctrines of kingship, including the English Civil War under Charles I, the Covenanter Wars under Charles II, and the Monmouth Rebellion under James II. Scots Presbyterians, in each case, were there on the front lines challenging the hubris of their kings and the persecution of their people. However, it was eventually proven again and again that these same Scots preferred having one of their people on the throne of England. They steadfastly resisted the beheading of Charles I, and they were instrumental in restoring Charles II. Later attempts to oust the main Stuart line, such as the Monmouth Rebellion, focused on replacing that line with ...another candidate from the same house who would be more congenial to Protestantism.

Meanwhile, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the eviction of James II in favour of the Dutch William of Orange and his wife, James's Protestant daughter Mary, was hardly the triumph of the forces of good and right. It was marked by the infamous Massacre of Glencoe, and ushered in a whole new era of humiliation for the Scottish people, during which their national distinctives--tartan, the bagpipes, et cetera--were outlawed in an attempt to make them forget their feudal allegiance to the House of Stuart. These attempts were a forerunner to the nationalistic wars of the 1800s--a forerunner to the campaigns of Napoleon, Lincoln, Garibaldi, and other unionists. It was a forerunner to other things too: with the Glorious Revolution came the first centralised national bank to England, as well as mercantilism as an economic policy.

This was a new kind of tyranny; a tyranny based not on the state of the soul but cold matters of economics and politics. The Glorious Revolution was not so much the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism as it was the triumph of the Enlightenment over both. Somehow, in the aftermath, the exiled House of Stuart became a romantic image of freedom--champions of justice, as they never had been in practice, and probably would not have been had they succeeded in winning back either of their lost kingdoms.

A Slice of Scottish History

Nothing of which you'll learn reading The Bride of Lammermoor, though it might help to understand the shifting factions and old grudges that tear apart the lovers at the centre of the story; to say nothing of Scott's own attitude, so dismissive of the noble Covenanters who, in his eyes, were the direct forefathers of the persecutions of the 1700s--which he remembered as clearly as this generation remembers World War II. Instead of Capulets and Montagues duelling over some never-explained quarrel, Lammermoor gives us Whigs and Tories duelling over the course of history. It's new blood and new money versus old blood and old money. It's about divided loyalties, reaching all the way up to rival monarchs--Anne versus the King-Over-The-Water--and all the way down through rival suitors for the hand of Lucy Ashton to the little village people near Wolf's Crag who go by turns asserting their independence from their old Master, Ravenswood, and half in awe of him. It's about a whole new Scotland emerging with pangs from the old Scotland.

And it's this snapshot of Scotland as it was in Queen Anne's time that Scott is most interested in capturing. Caleb, the comic relief, and his antics in the village trying to keep up Ravenswood appearances, are given so much screen time--taking us away from the high-flown drama of the central plot--precisely because Scott is primarily concerned with giving us an even-handed slice of life across all the social strata of this time and this place. Shakespeare didn't bother with any of this in Romeo and Juliet; instead, he just focused on fleshing out his plot. Scott doesn't even bother with this; he tells you the whole plot in the Prologue, then tells it again in his novel, so briefly, and in such an anecdotal style ("and then all of them died. The End") that it seems anticlimactic. GK Chesterton said of Scott that he was "a chaotic and unequal writer", and The Bride of Lammermoor shows him merrily charging ahead on misfiring cylinders. With a little more attention to plotting and characterisation, The Bride of Lammermoor might have been more than just good opera source material; it might have been a really great novel.

As is, it's just really fun.
Great Scott

But then, Scott wrote really great novels, too; Rob Roy, for instance, and many others I read years ago, some of them again and again and again. Rediscovering an author you haven't read for years is rather like discovering a whole new author--except the old familiar ones bring with them the special delight that comes when you put your hand into the pocket of your winter coat and find some lost cash! Reading The Bride of Lammermoor brought it all so vividly back to me. Scott's plots, I remember now, always struck me as including moments of electrifying excitement interspersed between long passages where nothing seemed to happen at all. And yet, so electrifying were those moments--Helen MacGregor throwing spies into the loch, Ulrica singing on the towers of the burning castle, Sir Kenneth standing stock-still before the axe's blade--and so necessary to the effect of those brief moments of glory were those long boring bits, that all of it was thoroughly worthwhile, even to the philistine I was at thirteen. Reading him again reminded me how much of what's in my imagination I owe to this master author.

Of course, Scott would fail--dismally fail--any modern-day writing course. He has been out of literary favour for about a hundred and forty years, and shows no signs of making a comeback. And you have only to dip your nose into him to see why. He doesn't open his novels with a snappy first sentence. In fact, you're in luck if anything particularly interesting happens in the first two chapters. Once starting you on the plot, he has no interest in getting you from A to Z in a hurry. He meanders. He drops into wayside inns and insists that you sit down to listen to conversations between supporting characters, usually about politics, and sometimes about religion, and often about food. He takes you on the scenic route, and you better not be in a hurry.

And then, from time to time, he hauls up his socks and gives you the very highest of drama in the very finest of outdated but oh-so-stirring magenta prose. GK Chesterton has a wonderful essay on Sir Walter Scott, and he says it all so much better than I ever could:
There is one quality which is supreme and continuous in Scott which is little appreciated at present. One of the values we have really lost in recent fiction is the value of eloquence.  ...[E]very man of Scott can speak like a king.

...

Scott's bombast... will always be stirring to anyone who approaches it, as he should approach all literature, as a little child. We could easily excuse the contemporary critic for not admiring melodramas and adventure stories, and Punch and Judy, if he would admit that it was a slight deficiency in his artistic sensibilities. Beyond all question, it marks a lack of literary instinct to be unable to simplify one's mind at the first signal of the advance of romance. 'You do me wrong,' said Brian de Bois-Guilbert to Rebecca. 'Many a law, many a commandment have I broken, but my word, never.' 'Die,' cries Balfour of Burley to the villain in 'Old Mortality.' 'Die, hoping nothing, believing nothing--' 'And fearing nothing,' replies the other. This is the old and honourable fine art of bragging, as it was practised by the great worthies of antiquity. The man who cannot appreciate it goes along with the man who cannot appreciate beef or claret or a game with children or a brass band.
Ah, bombast! Ah, eloquence! Ah, the old and honourable fine art of bragging! I would have my own characters do it if I thought I could manage it. In fact, I think I will read copious amounts of Scott, until I can.

Find The Bride of Lammermoor on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg.

And don't miss GK Chesterton's essay on Scott, either--it's terrific!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

In Which I Return From Middle Earth

Hello, dear readers!

So, I feel I owe you an explanation. For the last couple of months I haven't been posting much, and that's because for the last couple of months I've been travelling around the beautiful country of New Zealand "on assignment"--helping out some friends. I do this fairly regularly, and I've been to New Zealand a few times over the last years, but this was the first time I've really seen a lot of the country.

Now I've seen most of it, from Auckland to Invercargill. It was great fun, and well worth visiting! But there's one place I think my readers will be most interested to hear about...and so, before I return you to your regularly-scheduled book reviews, I am going to break all habit, and post a whole bunch of pictures.

Guess where I got to visit?

HOBBITON!
More under the cut...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer and I have a long history, but in this case, it's not because I discovered and devoured her books as a teenager. Quite the contrary, in fact. While most of my friends read her all through their teen years and have since grown out of her, realising that she is the literary equivalent of chocolate and thereby not a brilliant dietary staple, I came from quite a different angle. My mother and I were both reading Jane Austen in my mid-teens when she began reminiscing about the Georgette Heyer books she read in her own youth. "Not a patch on Jane Austen," she said. "I liked them because of the romance, but they weren't half so realistic."

That was why for years I regarded Georgette Heyer as a trashy romance novelist, until at last another friend prevailed on me to borrow one of her Heyer novels (Regency Buck, I think). I confess I was a little disappointed on two counts. First, the romance was by no means as trashy as I had had a sneaking hope it would be! But second, I felt that the novel was an attempt at a Jane Austen imitation, and a pale and shabby one at that.

By some means, however, I eventually dipped my nose into another Georgette Heyer novel, and then another, and since then she has become, with (the admittedly superior) Mary Stewart, one of my go-to guilty-pleasure reads--someone I read not above two or three times a year, but revel in when I do. I've come to appreciate her for herself, as a splendid writer of wit and comedy (a friend once confessed that the only reason she knows how to write as well as she does, is because she was a voracious consumer of Heyer as a girl), and I've also heard a glowing recommendation of her book A Civil Contract. But it wasn't till recently that I had the chance of reading one of her acknowledged classics, The Grand Sophy.

Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, diplomat to war-torn Europe, flits through London on his way to Brazil, pausing only long enough to arrange for his daughter to stay with his sister Lady Ombersley and her family. When the vivacious and harebrained Sophy arrives, she finds the Ombersley home in no end of trouble--cousin Cecilia is determined to refuse an offer of marriage from the eligible Lord Charlbury and marry a feckless poet instead, cousin Hubert looms in the background brooding over a secret woe, and to cap it off, not only has cousin Charles engaged himself to a lady even more prim and dictatorial than himself, but having got control of the family finances, he is running the home with a rod of iron to the despair of his parents and siblings.

The Ombersley home is, in fact, beset with troubles. And if there's one thing Sophy likes better than anything else, it's straightening out other people's troubles...

...though if you ask cousin Charles, you might be pardoned for thinking that no trouble could ever compare with Sophy herself!

OK, I'll deal with the good first. This was a charming book, a book so charming and harebrained, much like its heroine, that I would have to be a real curmudgeon to pick apart its faults. Sophy, a volatile mixture of Pollyanna, Emma Woodhouse, and Bobbie Wickham, whizzes through the book with effortless poise and sweetness, disrupting everyone's lives and somehow making beautiful harmony out of the wreckage. This is pure farce, and not meant to be taken seriously; and yet...and yet...

And yet, this book made me dashed uncomfortable.

Take PG Wodehouse's Bobbie Wickham, the closest thing the canon of English literature has to Heyer's Sophy. Bobbie is a similarly vivacious and adorable female with a similar talent for attempting to fix things through hilariously ridiculous schemes. But, and here is the important part, Bobbie does not always succeed. In fact, her schemes, more often or not, go wrong. Additionally, she is invariably depicted from the perspective of the luckless fellows who get swept up into them and bear the brunt of the suffering. They admire her. They like her. They cannot deny her charm. But they find her too hot to handle. When Bobbie heaves into sight across the horizon, they pack their bags and head to Ultima Thule.

Is it fun to read Georgette Heyer's take on a cross between Bobbie Wickham and Emma Woodhouse? You bet. Is it even more charming that this character's schemes inevitably go gloriously right? For sure. Am I particularly impressed by the way Heyer handles this character? Nope. It would have been nice if once, just once, Sophy had messed up. I didn't believe her in the slightest. For heaven's sake, at one point she shoots an acquaintance for the flimsiest of reasons, and after a moment's gruffness, he comes around to her way of seeing things and agrees that no, she's a complete hoot...

I didn't believe a word of her. That was a shame, because the hero is actually a thoroughly realistic and flawed character. But Sophy was so crackers I couldn't see how she would win his love, and I further didn't believe that he had demonstrated an ability to deal with her, as does the young man who marries Bobbie Wickham in Wodehouse.

As a result, I can only recommend this book to readers who know the difference between outrageous make-believe, and actual reality. Life doesn't work this way. The charming Sophy Stanton-Lacy to the contrary, well-intentioned women who meddle in affairs beyond their authority are a plague on the earth. If you are after a delightful romantic farce, read Jeeves in the Offing or something instead.

Or, if you've already read Jeeves in the Offing, then I suppose you can go ahead and find The Grand Sophy on Amazon or the Book Depository.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Mabinogion

Recently, in compiling a Tour Guide to Arthurian Literature for Hanna at Book Geeks Anonymous, I found myself wishing to revisit all the books I was writing about--especially the Welsh Mabinogion. Here's what I wrote: 
The Welsh have always had a special claim on the Arthur legends, being the descendants of the Celtic peoples of whom he is said to be the champion. And he features prominently in their national cycle of legends, The Mabinogion. Compiled somewhere between the late 1300s and the early 1400s, the Mabinogion is a collection of stories ranging from the dreamlike Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed to the more chivalric-romance-style Peredur, Son of Efrawg. Again, in a good translation, the Mabinogion is highly accessible. In addition, reading this book feels very like getting in touch with the very earliest Arthurian traditions, possibly still with some shreds of paganism clinging to them.
So, I forgot about all the other books I had waiting to be read for the first time, and I went back and read this old favourite, in the Everyman translation by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones.

The first four stories are the Mabinogi properly so-called. The scholarly introduction by Jones maior and Jones minor informs us that the literary form known as mabinogi was probably a series of tales revolving around the conception, youthful exploits, captivity, and death of a heroic central figure. In the Four Branches of the Mabinogion, however, the central figure--most likely the hero Pryderi--has been largely pushed to the side so that the stories can focus on related characters.

Rhiannon, by Alan Lee
In Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, the First Branch, we are given the tale of a prince who changes place with the King of Annwn (an otherworld in Welsh myth), and later, by a series of exploits, wins the uncanny beauty Rhiannon to be his wife. When their son is born, he is stolen away by magic and Rhiannon is accused of murdering him. In Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, the marriage between a British princess and the King of Ireland results in a war in which the Irish are aided by the magic cauldron which brings the dead back to life. In Manawydan, Son of Llyr--my favourite of the Four Branches--the heroes Manawydan and Pryderi, together with their wives, are astonished one day when all the people vanish from their lands. When Pryderi and his mother Rhiannon also disappear, Manawydan must employ all his wit and cunning to discover the enemy and bring back the vanished people. Finally, in Math, Son of Mathonwy, we have a tale of multigenerational sordidity culminating in the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes surviving both his birth-mother's malice and his wife's assassination attempts.

What is most unforgettable about this cycle of stories is the surreal fairy-tale-like imagery: the silver basin suspended by an endless chain running into the sky in Manawydan, the ride of Rhiannon in Pwyll. Characters such as Bendigeidfran in Branwen, as well as Rhiannon herself, were originally pagan Welsh deities, but in The Mabinogion they have, after the coming of Christianity, descended to a mortal level--more or less:
Messengers went to Branwen. "Lady," said they, "what thinkest thou that is?" "Though lady I am not," said she, "I know what that is: the men of the Island of the Mighty on their way over, having heard of my woes and my humiliation." "What is the forest that was seen upon the sea?" they asked. "The masts of ships and their yards," said she. "Alas," said they, "what was the mountain that could be seen alongside the ships?" "Bendigeidfran, my brother, that was," she said, "coming by wading. There was never a ship in which he might be contained." "What was the lofty ridge, and the lake on each side of the ridge?" "He," said she, "looking towards this island; he is angered. The two lakes on each side of the ridge are his two eyes, one on each side of his nose."
After the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, we have the "Four Independent Native Tales"--including The Dream of Macsen Wledig, telling how the Emperor of Rome travelled to Britain to find the bride he dreamed of; Lludd and Llefelys, telling how two brothers rid Britain of a series of plagues. The next story, Culhwch and Olwen, is the first of the tales that actually speaks of King Arthur. It is a fascinating cultural relic, possibly one of the earliest surviving tales of Arthur. The French chivalric tradition has not yet transformed the legend of Arthur into a series of chivalric romances. Instead, we find Arthur, his wife Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) and his trusted warriors Cei (Kay), Bedwyr (Bedevere), and Gwalchmai (Gawain) in a more tribal setting, with war-bands rather than knights. Culhwch, a nephew of Arthur's, travels to his court to ask the king's aid in winning Olwen, the daughter of Yspaddaden Chief Giant. Yspaddaden, who will according to prophecy die at his daughter's marriage, sets Culhwch a long list of impossible tasks to fulfill, which Arthur and his warriors help him accomplish. Finally, in The Dream of Rhonabwy, a man long after the days of Arthur has a vision of the legendary king in a combined game of gwyddbwyll and oneupmanship with his nephew Owein (Ywain).

These stories, especially Culhwch and Olwen, give as a fascinating glimpse of just how the Arthur legends began as just one element of a well-known body of legends. Culhwch in fact comes with a dazzlingly huge supporting cast; were there stories and origins for all these oddly-named people that have since been lost?

The final segment of The Mabinogion are the "Three Romances". In The Lady of the Fountain, the knight Owein sets out on the adventure which he hears will come if he goes to a certain place and throws a bowlful of water on a stone slab. Peredur, Son of Efrawg is an early version of the tale of Sir Perceval, in which elements of the Grail legend appear in a disjointed form, and which culminates with Peredur conquering a castle of warrior-witches. Finally, Gereint, the Son of Erbin, tells the tale of the courtship and early marital difficulties endured by the knight Gereint and his long-suffering bride Enid.

Composed at a later date, showing some influence from the French chivalric tradition, these three romances are notable in that the French author Chretien de Troyes dealt with the same three stories in his own Arthurian romances. The Mabinogion's Lady of the Fountain, Peredur Son of Efrawg, and Gereint Son of Erbin correspond to de Troyes's Ywain, the Knight of the Lion, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, and Erec and Enid. The fascinating thing? No one knows anymore whether the Mabinogion drew on de Troyes, or whether de Troyes drew on The Mabinogion, or if the stories came about independently.

In any case The Mabinogion is good reading. Even in the later stories, which show more of a French influence, the tales retain a strong ethnic Welsh flavour which I've always found particularly charming. If you are looking for an accessible introduction to some medieval Arthurian literature, or if you've read some of the standard Arthurian works and would like to investigate further, I would happily recommend The Mabinogion.

Find The Mabinogion on Amazon, The Book Depository, Librivox or Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti

In a way, it's a shame that Christina Rossetti's most well-known poem is the early work Goblin Market, which is far from representative of her long body of work. Metaphysical and devotional poems like Up-hill, Cried Out With Tears, or In Progress are far more representative of her work. However, Goblin Market remains a perennial favourite, and not without justice. A narrative poem framing temptation, sin, sacrifice, and redemption in a lushly evocative fairy-tale, Goblin Market is a delight to read; its rhythm and extraordinary imagery cling in the mind.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
"Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy.
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries,
Melons and raspberries..."
Sisters Lizzie and Laura, down at the brook to fetch water, hear the goblins cry in the evening.
"We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?"
When Laura succumbs to temptation and gorges herself on sweet goblin fruit, she loses her taste for anything else and begins to fade away, unable anymore to hear the goblins calling. Until Lizzie, desperate to save her sister's life, finally dares to go to the goblins in order to bring back fruit for Laura.

The chief delight of this poem is the language. Rossetti wields a lush and gorgeous vocabulary that comes alive with reading aloud. The irregularities in the rhythm and rhyme structure prevent the short lines from degenerating into sing-song doggrel, and despite its somewhat heavy subject matter, the poem remains, like its youthful authoress, fresh and charming.

Critics have, of course, argued for years about what Goblin Market, with its forbidden fruit and its sensuous vocabulary, really means. If anything, I favour the fallen-woman interpretation. Both Christina's brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as well as their friend and fellow Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, chose to paint pictures on this topic. In Hunt's The Awakening of Conscience, a young woman with clasped hands turns away from her lover to stare out of a window toward the viewer at a moment perhaps of resistance, perhaps of remorse or repentance. In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's unfinished picture Found!, a young farmer going to market discovers his old sweetheart working the city streets, and seizes her wrists as she collapses dramatically. Christina Rossetti herself began volunteer work with "fallen women" at Highgate Penitentiary on or shortly after the date of the completion of Goblin Market. However, according to William Michael Rossetti, Christina's brother, "I have more than once heard Christina say that she did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale - it is not a moral apologue consistently carried out in detail."

Ironically, it was DGR's own Cockney mistress who posed for this picture.
Certainly, Goblin Market demonstrates a highly moral sensibility. Laura succumbs to temptation, suffers the consequences, nearly dies, but is brought back to life through her sister's love and courage in a moment with a more than superficial parallel with Scripture--"Eat me, drink me, love me." Rossetti is steeped enough in biblical imagery and cadences that she cannot help bleeding it all out onto the page, and because all sin works in the same way (opening lines of Anna Karenina to the contrary), her story, rich as it is in meaning, would work equally well as a parable for any temptation. As it says in James 1:15, "Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death." 

Apart from all this, Goblin Market is a wonderful entry in the English fairy-tale genre, a tradition that stretches back to Middle English lays like Sir Orfeo or Tam Lin, and all the way forward to more modern works like Stardust or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It was first published in 1862 as part of a collection of Rossetti's poems, and Goblin Market and Other Poems remains one of my favourite Rossetti collections. If you like poetry and English fairy tales, be sure to dip into Goblin Market.

Find Goblin Market and Other Poems on Amazon, the Book Depository, Librivox, or Project Gutenberg.

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