Friday, September 30, 2005

English language and literature

Two items have caught my eye in the past 48 hours... The first was in the Writer's Almanac on Wednesday which announced:

Today is a big day in the history of the English language. On this day, in 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. Having defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings and on Christmas day he was crowned the King in Westminster Abbey.

At the time the British were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans, of course, spoke French, and over time the languages blended. To the Saxon word "house" came the Norman word "mansion." To the Saxon word "cow" came the Norman word "beef" and so on.

So the English language now contains more than a million words, one of the most diverse languages on earth. Cyril Connelly wrote, "The
English language is like a broad river... being polluted by a string of refuse-barges tipping out their muck." But Walt Whitman said, "The English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is both the free and compacted composition of all."

As a philologist, Tolkien abhorred the Norman French take-over of the English language that came about because William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings. His Shire is resolutely English, as are his Hobbits, and his plan for his fiction was to create a mythology for England that was English.

But for all that, he was not very fond of English literature any more than he was of the French take-over of English. He reportedly disliked Shakespeare at school, and he was not over fond of Milton either (preferring Old English literature to the more "modern" literature), so I console myself that although I am guilty of a "deep crime", according to the Poet Laureate, I am in good company. Andrew Motion has suggested that is 'a "deep crime" never to have read key Shakespeare works, Paradise Lost or Great Expectations.' Still, I have read many of Shakespeare's plays, and many of Dickens' novels, and even some old English texts (admittedly translated into modern English), so I hope my crime will be forgiven.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia

As you will recall me mentioning, I sent off my piece for The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment just two days ago. Yesterday I looked at the list of unassigned entries and noted that there were two I could do: on Trench Fever (250 words) and on Oxford (9000 words). So I emailed and volunteered to do them both. I was convinced that I'd be offered Trench Fever, but that Oxford would have been snapped up at the last minute... Oh was I wrong ! After a tense wait (because I do have another writing project lined up that I was going to start next week) I got an email about 2 hours ago, offering me Oxford - if I was still willing ! And so thinking (mostly) of the prestige (but, yes, also of the money) I said yes ! So that's my writing schedule filled for the next 12 months as the project I had intended to start next week has a deadline of mid-October 2006 - and I've been given until Feb. 1, 2006 to do the 9000 words on Oxford...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Phantom Tollbooth - Norton Juster

I seem to be going through a phase of re-reading books/authors I read as a child that I haven't revisited in 25+ years... Last night I started reading Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and finished it on the bus home tonight - I first read it aged 9 or so and I'd forgotten just how much fun it is !! The blurb on the back of the book reads:

One genuine Turnpike Tollbooth. If not perfectly satisfied, your wasted time will be refunded.

Milo is bored. But all that changes when he receives a mysterious Tollbooth through the post. Having nothing better to do, Milo points his little car towards the strange land beyond the Tollbooth. And before he knows what he's doing, he's entered the Kingdom of Wisdom, where everything is unexpected...

(I love that offer to refund the user's wasted time !)

He visits the City of Dictionopolis (definitely my favourite place), the City of Digitopolis, presided over by the powerful Mathemagician, the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound, amongst other strange and magical places. He meets the Humbug and Tock the faithful watchdog, and before he really knows what he's doing, he volunteers to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason from their prison in the Castle in the Air. To get there he must face the horrible Demons of Ignorance who guard the princesses: there's the Gelatinous Giant, and the Threadbare Excuse, the Gross Exaggeration, and the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, amongst many others.

In the process of his travels, Milo meets many strange people and learns many new things, the most important of which is the value of knowledge of all kinds. But he learns this without Juster being preachy in any way... I was pleased as punch to discover that one of my workmates loves this book too - she saw me reading it in my lunchbreak and got very excited when she spotted it (something that doesn't normally happen !). I've added it to my Amazon UK wishlist (which has grown enormously in the past couple of weeks !).

I was delighted to find that there is a Postscript from Norton Juster in the Collins Modern Classics edition of the book which I borrowed, in which he explains how the book came to be written. And when I looked up the book at Amazon just now, I found that I had forgotten that Juster had also written a book called The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathemetics, which was made into an Oscar winning short film, which I remember seeing at some point long ago.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Elidor - Alan Garner

I have avoided reading anything written by Alan Garner ever since I read The Owl Service as a child - it scared me silly. However, various references to his work have encouraged me to try again, and I resolved to read whatever the library would yield up - but only in daylight hours !

So far I've only managed to borrow Elidor, which I found somewhat unsatisfying. It is very short, and I felt cheated by the ending which seemed unresolved. I also felt it was a book in which little happens, at least compared to my recollection of The Owl Service. Elidor features four children, 3 brothers and a sister, of whom only Roland is clearly realised, whilst Helen seems little more than a cypher and almost literally a cup bearer. The book opens with the four children visiting the city of Manchester (England) on the day before they move house. At Roland's instigation they go in search of Thursday Street and once there, they are lured, one after the other, into an abandoned church by a mysterious fiddle-player. Roland in the last of the four children to enter, and he finds himself transported to the dying land of Elidor. Once he is there he manages, after a while, to locate his siblings and he enables them to recover the other three Treasures of Elidor, Malebron (the fiddle-player) having already given Roland the spear with a head like flame. Each child recovers a different Treasure: David finds a jewelled sword with a blade like ice, Nicholas recovers a golden stone and Helen finds a cauldron of light. The children are asked by Malebron to guard the Treasures so that the light of Elidor will not die.

The day after they visit Elidor, the children and their parents move house, where they find that guarding the Treasures brings its own trouble as they affect anything electrical (causing an electric razor to spring into action, and the washing to work, whilst the TV and radio lose their signal). The children bury the Treasures deep in their father's flower bed, but they still generate a field of something like static electricity which birds fly around to avoid. None of the children except Roland wants to think much about either Elidor or the Treasures; Roland was the strongest of the four of them when they were in Elidor and he seems to have a special link to it. However, although a year passes more or less peacefully, there are men in Elidor searching for the Treasures, and then a unicorn named Findhorn breaks through into this world. Shortly after that Roland accidentally gives two of the men in Elidor a way to break through into this world also, and they hunt Findhorn. They corner him, in spite of the efforts of Roland and the others, and attack him. As he is dying he sings and in doing so, opens a way through to Elidor and the children return the Treasures.

This book seems to require a sequel, but so far as I know, there isn't one, and the ending left me feeling that the story had not been resolved in a satisfying way. However, Elidor was not scary and I may yet read it again.

Sidenote for those who expressed an interest: I have finished (and today emailed) my piece on the Vale of White Horse for The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia that will be published by Routledge next year. Next week I will start work on researching an article on wizards for an American Casebook. If anyone has a copy of The Fall of the Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, which they'd be willing to lend to me, I'd be really grateful - I can't get hold of a library copy over here. I would be willing to refund the cost of mailing it to England.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl

It's years since I last read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but having seen both the Gene Wilder version of the film, and more recently the Johnny Depp version, I thought I'd re-read it again. I particularly wanted to see how much of the book had been retained for Tim Burton's film, since he was quite adamant that his version was a new adaptation of the book, not a re-make of the earlier film. I was pleased to see that quite a lot of the book was in the film, including quite a bit of Roald Dahl's original dialogue (I'd forgotten that Dahl's Wonka berates Mike Teavee for mumbling, just as Johnny Depp's Wonka did), and of course, the original Oompa-Loompa song lyrics, for which Dahl is credited in Burton's film. I was also pleased to see that it had stood the test of time, although the Oompa-Loompa's make me squirm these days, as they never did when I was a child...

The edition I borrowed from the library features Quentin Blake's inimitable illustrations and I note that are offering a 40th Anniversary edition (published last year) of the book, which again features Quentin Blake's illustrations. And for the audiobook fans, there's an audiobook that's narrated by Roald Dahl himself ! Although I don't usually listen to audiobooks, I may see if the library has this one, just out of curiosity to hear Dahl himself narrate the tale.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

I was looking for Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and some Alan Garner books* in the children's library yesterday when I spotted Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord and I remembered that at least two people had mentioned it to me when I was talking about reading Inkheart a couple of weeks ago, so I picked it up. And I confess I found it far more digestible and hard to put down than I did Inkheart. Two orphaned boys are hiding out in Venice, having run away from their aunt who wants to send 12 year old Prosper away to a boarding school, and to take custody of 5 year old Boniface (Bo to everyone). At the start of the tale the two boys have travelled from their grandfather's home in Hamburg to Venice, the magical city about which they heard so much from their mother who died 3 months previously. When they arrived in Venice they were befriended by a gang of 4 children: Riccio, who is a pickpocket; Mosca, who loves boats; Hornet, who loves books and whose real name is Caterina; and Scipio, who is the eponymous Thief Lord. Unfortunately for Prosper and Bo, their Aunt Esther has tracked them down to Venice and she employs a tortoise-loving detective named Victor Getz to locate them. Fortunately Victor is too sympathetic towards the boys to be a villain, and he gets entangled in the adventures of the gang, and ends up helping Bo and Prosper instead of handing them over to Esther and her horrible husband.

This is a great book - another one for my wish list - and I recommend it far more strongly that I did Inkheart.

* I eventually found a copy of 'Charlie' with illustrations by the excellent Quentin Blake (whose work I always recognise instantly, even at a distance !), and Alan Garner's Elidor, but everything else of Garner's seems to be out on loan from the Central Library (or else hadn't been registered with the OPAC as being back since they were having trouble with the OPAC both Friday and Saturday). I'll have to try again on Tuesday when I'm taking books (and Sense and Sensibility) back to the library.

* * * * * *
There's a spoilerish review of The Thief Lord over on the Scholar's Blog Spoiler Zone.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Because of Winn-Dixie - Kate DiCamillo

I picked up Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn-Dixie from the library yesterday afternoon on the way home from work and began reading it at 4 pm as I rode home on the bus. By the time I finished eating dinner at 6.30 pm I'd also finished reading the book - it's under 200 pages in the UK edition and that's relatively large type on relatively small pages. So that's part of the reason I finished it so soon. But the other part is that it's actually quite difficult to put down ! I don't read much fiction that isn't fantasy; there's so much fantasy fiction out there for one thing, and since I also write about the genre, there's a certain obligation for me to be as widely read as possible in the genre, if I'm going to write about it intelligently and originally. Still, I'd heard a lot about this book on Child_Lit, particularly with it being made into a film earlier this year.

The book opens thus:
"My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer, my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog."

- and immediately I was wondering how Opal (as everyone calls her) managed to go home with a dog rather than the groceries for which she was sent out... Opal is 10 when the book opens, and feeling lonely in a new town to which she and her father have moved as the preacher. However she makes several friends amongst the town's residents and gets a part time job, all because of Winn-Dixie, as she names the stray dog she discovers wreaking havoc in the local Winn-Dixie grocery store.

This is a brilliant story and ideal for children who are moving to a new area because it shows that although making friends isn't always easy, it is possible and sometimes one can make new friends in unexpected ways. I think I actually liked this book better than the other Kate DiCamillo book I've read: The Tale of Despereaux. I've added Because of Winn-Dixie to my wishlist and the next time I've got some Amazon credit to spend, I'll buy it.

On a side note, look out for the new Emma Thompson film, Nanny McPhee which opens in the UK on October 21. Thompson has adapted the Nurse Matilda books by Christianna Brand into a film starring herself (unrecognisably) as the eponymous Nanny, Colin Firth and Thomas Sangster (who both starred in Love Actually), Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton and Angela Lansbury. If the trailer I saw is anything to go by, this is going to be very funny and a real family film.

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Modern Fairy Tale

I'm currently reading (for pleasure) The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales edited by Alison Lurie. Included amongst the Fairy Tales is Ursula Le Guin's 'The Wife's Tale' and I have to say that I thought it was brilliant. I'm not going to go into too much detail because that would spoil it and then there would be no point in reading it, and I want to encourage everyone to read it. You'll also find it included in Le Guin's short story collection The Compass Rose. The story has a real twist in the tale and I didn't foresee the end at all, although there's a hint in the tale...

The other thing I wanted to comment on about the Oxford Book, is Maxfield Parrish's painting that has been on the cover of the hardback. It is called 'The Reluctant Dragon' and was painted for Kenneth Grahame's story of the same title (which is included in this collection). Am I the only person who thinks this dragon looks female ? I confess I've not read the Grahame story yet, so I've no idea if it is a female dragon, but I have to say that this is the first time I've seen such a female-looking dragon !

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Rant - and a Rave

I don't usually rant here - I save my Blog for my raves, as I think they're more productive, but I got so annoyed yesterday evening with a news story that I just have to comment. The reason for my rant is yesterday's news story that there has been a major rise in school truancy and the level is now at its highest since records began. My response was that it is hardly surprising given that in England (a) children are tested on anything and everything from the age of 5 (with SATs) to the age of 18 (with the much maligned A Levels). In between they're tested twice more with SATs, and then at 16 with GCSEs and with AS-levels at 17; and (b) the Literacy hour is killing off the interest of even the most ardent readers. If I was a child I doubt I'd be terribly inclined to stay in school either these days (and as a child I was ardent about learning - something that remains true to this day). I don't know what the Government thinks it is achieving, besides turning off a generation of school children from learning, yet it claims to believe in life-long learning - presumably this is necessary to make up for the lack of education acquired by children who were turned off learning when they were school age and are then finding a lack of knowledge to be a handicap as adults ?

Rant over. I will share a rave now, just to make up for ranting, and point you at the marvellous Turning Pages exhibitions online at the British Library's website. I haven't been able to check out the latest addition - the original Alice in Wonderland - as my work PC doesn't have Shockwave installed, which you will need for the animations (although there are non-Shockwave versions of the Golden Haggadah, the Lindsifarne Gospels and Blackwell's Herbal), but I know that the Lindisfarne Gospels version is stunning ! If you get the chance (you'll need a good half hour at the minimum to view any one of the 14 online books), do take a look at the exhibitions. The Turning Pages project is an excellent example of the use of modern technology to bring rare books to the view of the general public, without the need to trek to London to see the originals.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Happy Birthday to Bilbo and 'The Hobbit'

On September 21, 1937 a children's tale appeared. It has what is now one of the most famous opening lines in literature (possibly even more famous than Austen's opening to Pride and Prejudice 1 !) 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.'

Tolkien wrote that line one day when wearily marking School Certificate examination papers, a necessary way of raising funds for someone with a growing family and lacking "a good fortune". One of the candidates had mercifully left a page of their examination booklet blank, and Tolkien scribbled down the line. As he said later, he "did not [...] know why" (Letters, p. 215) and he did nothing about it for several years, until he drew Thror's Map2 and the map unlocked his imagination, until Bilbo stepped forth. The story was not meant to be related to Tolkien's mythology (which he began creating 20 years before The Hobbit was published and which he was still working on at the time of his death, although The Lord of the Rings had been published by then.), but as he reports in a letter to Stanley Unwin, what began "as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm's fairy-tale dwarves, [...] got drawn into the edge of it - so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge." (Letters, p. 26)

Tolkien later regretted the style of The Hobbit, with its silly Elves and rather condescending tone to children (see Letters, pp. 159, 191, 215, 218, 297-8, 310, 346), but in spite of these faults (as Tolkien saw them), it has remained a much-read and much-loved book. The fact that it is still in print, nearly 70 years after its first publication, is a clear hint of its continuing appeal. I confess I devoured it as a child, at a time when I had just been introduced to Lewis' tales of Narnia, Mary Norton's tales of The Borrowers, and Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, and fantasy was a wondrous place to wander. I have not read it as often as LotR, and when I re-read it last year for the first time in nine years, I was rather startled to discover just how silly the Elves of Rivendell were during Bilbo's first visit ! But, for all that, I enjoyed re-reading it and I know that I will return to it again, albeit less often than LotR. So I will join Bilbo in raising a glass to celebrate his birthday (though it is not until tomorrow) and the book which brought his adventures to life.

1 For those who don't know or have forgotten, Austen's line is: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.'
2 Warning: this map will take a while to load on a slow internet connection.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Here Be Monsters! - Alan Snow

When I was idly browsing in Waterstones at the weekend, I was given a free sample booklet of Alan Snow's Here Be Monsters !, the first volume of 'The Ratbridge Chronicles'. It's an illustrated book and I would guess it's aimed at age 7 years upwards. I have to say I was quite tickled with it. Here's the blurb from the back of the book:

Arthur has fallen foul of the appalling Snatcher and is trapped alone in the town, with no way home. Meanwhile Snatcher and his men are working tirelessly in secret on a fiendish and dastardly plan to take over Ratbridge - and the world. With the help of Willbury Nibble QC, some friendly boxtrolls and cabbage-heads, Marjorie the frustrated inventor, and the rats and pirates from the Ratbridge Nautical Laundry, can Arthur thwart Snatcher's evil plans - and find his way home ?

There's a sample chapter online at the Oxford University Press website (it's in a PDF, so you'll need Acrobat Reader to use this link), and there is a website for the book, which Alan Snow has illustrated himself. It has lots of features, so I can see it being a hit with children in particular. I am going to have to get the library to get this one for me, just so I can find out whether Arthur survives the Snatcher's evil plot.

Alan Snow is an English artist, who has worked with books, animation (for Aardman, the creators of Wallace and Grommit), film and computers. He has written and illustrated over 160 books for children, including How Dogs Really Work, The Truth About Cats, and How Santa Really Works. He has also worked on a very diverse range of other projects, including work on the design of a children's science museum in Japan and the design of a project robot currently on sale worldwide.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion - Hammond & Scull

News of the publication of Wayne G Hammond and Christina Scull's The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion arrives from HarperCollins, who say:

A unique companion to The Lord of the Rings which relates the textual history of the Nation's Favourite Read; with a previously unpublished 'Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings', written by Tolkien himself. In The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion internationally acclaimed scholars Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull examine Tolkien's masterpiece chapter by chapter, offering expert insights into its evolution, structure, and meaning. They discuss in close detail important literary and historical influences on the development of The Lord of the Rings, connections between that work and other writings by Tolkien, errors and inconsistencies, significant changes to the text during its fifty years of publication, archaic and unusual words used by Tolkien, and words and passages in his invented languages of Middle-earth. Thousands of notes, keyed to standard editions of The Lord of the Rings but universally accessible, reveal the richness and complexity of one of the most popular works of fiction in our time. In addition to their own expertise and that of other scholars and critics, Hammond and Scull frequently draw upon comments by Tolkien himself, made in letters to family, friends, and enthusiasts, in draft texts of The Lord of the Rings, and in works written in later years which amplify or illuminate characters and events in the story. Extensive reference is made also to writings by Tolkien not previously or widely published, including elaborate time-schemes, an unfinished manuscript index to The Lord of the Rings, and most notably, the important 'Nomenclature or guide to names in The Lord of the Rings' prepared for the use of translators, long out of print and now newly transcribed and printed in its entirety. With these resources at hand, even the most seasoned reader of The Lord of the Rings will come to a greater enjoyment and appreciation of Tolkien's magnificent achievement.

This sounds like a brilliant book and a very handy one to have around if you get into as many LotR conversations as I do, or even if you just read it regularly (as I also do). It's out on October 17, 2005 and is available in both paperback and hardback editions.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Fantasy for Grown-ups

Susan over at Chicken Spaghetti brought this to my attention: Amanda Craig talking to fantasy author Robin Hobb in yesterday's Times. Craig observes: It is a paradox that, while children's fantasy writing has soared in public esteem, fantasy for adults remains in a ghetto. With our leading imprint of fantasy, Voyager, celebrating its tenth anniversary this month and the genre dominating British and US fiction lists, the time has come to ask whether it should be put away with childish things.

To which Robin Hobb replies "I'd say literary fiction is a sub-genre of fantasy, trying to mimic real life at its most depressing and oppressive. I'm mystified as to why people think fantasy is only for children."

Hobb's is a view I've been expressing in private for a while. I've noticed that even those reviewers who like Harry Potter are often quite sneering about fantasy for grown-ups; it rarely gets reviewed in the broadsheet press, and when it does, the reviewers are not often positive about it. Of course, the sneering reached its height when The Lord of the Rings kept winning the readers' polls. The Tolkien Society was accused of organising a voting campaign to propel the book to the top of the Waterstone's poll. Terry Pratchett is quite scathing on this particular topic in Karen Haber's Meditations on Middle-earth (a volume in which Robin Hobb's own paean of praise to Tolkien also appears); his own essay is called 'Cult Classic'.

I've read little in the way of non-fantasy fiction over the past few years because too often what I have read has been negative, if not outright depressing, whereas fantasy is often optomistic and inclusive. Many fantasy authors now create reluctant heroes, rather than the traditional heroes with the bulging biceps and shiny swords, and these heroes are often more likeable and more credible as people than the traditional heroes who somehow seem to be too good to be true.

Craig compares the plotting of Robin Hobb's trio of trilogies to King Lear and talks of Machiavellian scheming on the part of the relations of the young hero, FitzChivalry Farseer, and says the books are "as addictive as morphine". Whilst I wouldn't go quite that far (I found them less addictive than Juliet E McKenna's 'Tales of Einarinn' and 'Aldabreshin Compass' series), they are certainly compelling, and I found myself getting quite caught up in them. Politics plays a key part in the two trilogies that feature Fitz (as he's usually known), and there's nothing escapist about someone being beaten to death, not once but twice. (In case you're wondering, magic is used to bring him back, although, strictly speaking he doesn't quite die the second time.) Like Tolkien (in 'On Fairy Stories'), I object to fantasy being labelled 'escapist' as if escaping from something that is depressing, painful, crippling, or wholly negative, is a crime. Fantasy should be celebrated for its liberating qualities, which is a far more positive way of looking at it than claiming it is escapist.

The trio of trilogies from Robin Hobb consists of:

The Farseer Trilogy: Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin and Assassin's Quest.

The Liveships Trilogy: The Liveship Traders, The Mad Ship and Ship of Destiny.

The Tawny Man Trilogy: Fool's Errand, The Golden Fool and Fool's Fate.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Western Shore - Juliet E McKenna

My copy of the penultimate book in the 'Aldabreshin Compass' series finally arrived this week, and as soon as I had finished the Echorium Sequence, I grabbed Western Shore and started to read. I finished it at 5 pm today - having spent the entire afternoon reading it, no longer able to resist reading it until I was done. As usual McKenna's writing possesses a magic of its own, and I was gripped from page one. It was with a feeling of returning to friends that I discovered Kheda sitting with his wife, Itrac, who was about to give birth. For once it was the opening chapter of one of McKenna's books that had me in tears, rather than a closing one. However, I overcame my emotions and carried on... It was with delight that I saw Velindre arrive back in the Chazen domain bringing news to Kheda. When I first met Velindre in The Warrior's Bond, I confess to find her so abrasive I disliked her almost instantly, and I only slowly warmed to her during the course of that book. I've grown to like her over the course of re-reading both the 'Tales of Einarinn' series and the 'Aldabreshin Compass' series as it's become ever clearer that Velindre is very much a square peg in a round hole, and it's not surprising that she prefers life away from the fabled wizards' isle of Hadrumal.

I was also delighted to see Naldeth return. The last I saw of him, he was suffering badly from a very painful run-in with pirates during The Assassin's Edge (I won't say more, in case I spoil it for you), so it was good to see him recovered, to a certain extent, and joining Velindre, Kheda and Risala on their journey south into uncharted (for Aldabreshins) waters. Naldeth is certainly a more likeable mage than Dev, and far more conscientious; after his experiences with the pirates, he's even less interested in having power over others, than many a mage. He and Velindre work well together, and their final battle at the end of the book was intense. Mind you, I was completely surprised by the decision Naldeth made at the end of the book; although it was totally in keeping with his character, it was unexpected and I can see he's going to need all his courage and strength of mind to carry it out.

I have only two complaints about this book - the first is the cliff-hanger ending - in the first two books of the series, Kheda makes it back home to his domain before the book ends, but in this one he and the others are still trapped on the western shore of the island out in the Southern ocean. I shall be mentally chewing my fingernails until I get my hands on the final book of this series. The second complaint is that McKenna introduces us to one of the "savages" who live on the aforementioned island, and although we share her hopes and fears, she's never named. Since we get to share so much of her headspace, I felt we should have got to know her name as well. Still, these are both very minor niggles, and all in all, I totally enjoyed this book and look forward to re-reading it again in a month or two.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Echorium Sequence - Katherine Roberts

This trilogy for children comprises of Song Quest, Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal. The series tells of a Dark Lord, whose name is Frazhin, but he styles himself Khizpriest, Starmaker, and Lord of the Forest at various times in the trilogy. He is out to destroy the Singers who live on the Isle of Echoes, 30 days sailing from the mainland. The Singers use five special wordless Songs of Power (which they hum or sing) to affect people's mood and behaviour:

Challa is the Dream Song and is used for healing. It sends people to sleep and helps the forget their troubles.
Kashe is the Laughter Song and is used to wake people up and cure depression.
Shi is the Pain Song and it is used to confront people's pain and heal through tears.
Aushan is the Fear Song and it is used to give life to inner fears. It generally makes people scream.
Yehn is the Death Song and it closes doors in the head (ie. makes them forget things). In extreme cases it is used to remove someone's soul, leaving them alive but with no will or memories of their own.

Frazhin uses the khiz-spear to control the people of the Karch, a mountainous region on the mainland. He wants to destroy all Singers and change history so that they will never have existed. He tries to control the Karchholders by feeding their Karchlord poisoned Merlee (merpeople) eggs. He also tries to control the Horselords of the Purple Plains, and he corrupts many of the Half Creatures (Merlee who are part human, part fish; Naga who are part human, part water-snake; Quetzal who are part human, part bird and brilliant mimics; and Centaurs who are part human, part horse). At various times throughout the trilogy, fully trained Singers (who besides knowing the Songs of Power, also have the skills of truth listening - the ability to tell when someone is lying by listening carefully and reading their body language - and farlistening - listening for vibrations over a greater distance than is normally possible for the human ear) and several child novices, who are about to become Singers themselves (so are in their final year of training), become involved in the battles to prevent Frazhin from achieving his goals. Rialle befriends the Merlee, Renn befriends a Centaur, and Caell befriends a Quetzal (although all three of them can understand all Half Creatures and converse with them in their own wild speech).

In each book of the trilogy a Singer goes to the mainland with one of the novices and one or more other young people to try to prevent Frazhin from achieving his aims. In each case they are victorious but they do not kill Frazhin or overcome him finally (eg. by giving him Yehn), although he is wounded. 20 years pass between the events of Song Quest and Crystal Mask, and 11 years pass between the events of Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal, so the three novices grow up, and need a novice to assist them in talking to the Half Creatures in the later books, since most adult Singers lose the ability to hear wild speech as they age.

The trilogy is interesting, although slightly repetitive because of the recurrent threat from Frazhin, but the changing cast of younger characters, not to mention the fact that those younger characters recur as adult characters, keeps the reader's interest and prevents the books from being boring. The fact that different races of Half Creatures are introduced in each book also adds interest to the stories.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Silmarillion - J R R Tolkien

It was on September 15, 1977 that some of the long labour of Tolkien's son Christopher saw fruit as The Silmarillion was published. For those who have never read it (and I hadn't until just last summer), a word of warning: The Silmarillion is not a straightforward narrative, and it certainly isn't a 'There-and-Back-Again' tale. Instead, it is a collection of tales or groups of tales, as follows:

The Ainulindalë tells of the creation of Eä, Tolkien's universe.
The Valaquenta is a brief description of the Valar and Maiar, the supernatural beings of Tolkien's universe (Gandalf and Sauraman are Maiar).
The Quenta Silmarillion is the history of the events before and during the First Age, and forms the largest section of the collection.
The Akallabêth is the history of the Second Age.
Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age is a fictional historical essay that deals with the preamble to the events described in The Lord of the Rings, and the events of LotR themselves, but told in the style of The Silmarillion.

I first tried reading The Silmarillion at the age of 15, having fallen totally under Tolkien's spell with my reading of LotR, but no one had warned me that it was nothing like LotR, and I wasn't prepared for the change in style or the lack of an ordinary narrative. By the time I came to read it just over 20 years later, I knew that the narrative was akin to the Pentateuch since The Silmarillion is Tolkien's introduction to Arda, the world of which Middle-earth is but a small part.

Tolkien began writing some of the material that appears in The Silmarillion as early as the 1920s, but it was not until after his death that it saw print. He had submitted a more extensive version of the material to his publishers, Allen & Unwin after the success of The Hobbit, but A&U's reader felt it was "too Celtic" and obscure, so Tolkien turned instead, to writing LotR, although the latter text suffered hiatus after hiatus because Tolkien preferred to work on the Simarillion material. In the end, though, he died with the work unfinished and his son Christopher, under pressure from A&U and his father's readers, produced The Silmarillion, although he later admitted that he had more time and less pressure, he would probably have produced something rather different. More of the material that was not included in the published version, was later included in the volumes of material, The History of Middle-earth, which Christopher also collated and published.

Whilst The Silmarillion is not an easy text for many people, it is worth making an effort to read, if for no other reason than that it gives in full things that are only partially explained or mentioned in passing in The Lord of the Rings, such as the Tale of Beren and Luthien, which Aragorn recites to the hobbits en route from Bree to Rivendell. I know I won't read this text every year, as I do LotR, but I will definitely read it again, and I'm told it is worth re-reading.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Wayland Smith

Since I'm literally in the middle of reading Katherine Roberts' Echorium Sequence, and I want to Blog the whole trilogy at once, I'll talk instead about the legend of Wayland Smith. As regular readers will know, I'm currently working on a piece on the Vale of White Horse at Uffington for the forthcoming Routledge The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Near the White Horse is a chambered long barrow from the Neolithic period that is known as Wayland's Smithy and I've been sufficiently intrigued lately, by the various books that I've read that have referred to Norse and Celtic mythology, as well as the local history of the White Horse Vale to find out more about Wayland. Wayland was the Saxon God of Smiths and metalwork and it has always been said that he lives at Wayland's Smithy, although no one has ever seen him. However, according to legend, if you leave your horse tethered near the barrow, put a groat (or a silver sixpence) on the uppermost stone and then go for a walk by the time you come back you'll find the horse is newly shod.

The story of Wayland Smith is told in various places, but online you can find out more, relating specifically to Wayland and his Berkshire Smithy, at David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History. The story of Wayland the Smith was first recorded in a 13th century Norse poem, the Volundarkitha, which tells of the exploits of 'Volundr' (the Norse form of Wayland). There are variations of the story in Thidrek’s Saga, but clearly the legend is much older than this, since aspects of it are mentioned in Beowulf and Deor’s Lament, both Old English poems which date from three centuries earlier. Even older than these poems, however, are the scenes from the tale which appear on the "Franks Casket", which is a beautiful box that was carved from whalebone in Northumbria in the 8th century.

I confess to be utterly fascinated by the legends and history surrounding the White Horse Vale, so don't be surprised if I come back to it again once my piece for the Tolkien Encyclopedia is done.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Roald Dahl

It's Roald Dahl's birthday today. He was born in Llandaff, South Wales in 1916 to Norwegian parents, Harald and Sofie Magdalene Dahl and named after the explorer Roald Amundsen, who was a great national hero in Norway at the time. When Roald was just three years old, his seven year old sister, Astrid, died from appendicitis. Then a few short weeks later, his father Harald died of pneumonia at the age of 57. However, his mother was determined to keep the family in Britain rather than return to Norway to live with her relatives, because her husband had wished to have their children educated in English schools.

Roald attended several private schools and from the age of 13 he was educated at Repton School in Derbyshire, where he became the captain of the school Fives team and developed an interest in photography. During his time at Repton, the Cadbury chocolate company, occasionally sent boxes of new chocolates to the school to be tested by the pupils. Dahl took his duty seriously and of one of the sample bars, he wrote, "Too subtle for the common palate." Later in life he said that the experience of testing Cadbury's got him thinking about chocolate as something that was manufactured in a factory, which led to him spending a lot of time imagining what a chocolate factory might be like. The outcome of those speculations was his second children's book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl's mother expected him to attend university after leaving school, but instead he found a job with the Shell Petroleum Company in July 1934. He worked for them for five years before joining the Royal Air Force in November 1939.

Dahl save active service throughout the Second World War, enduring a bad plane crash that temporarily blinded him after he fractured his skull; he also smashed his nose in the crash. He saw service in Syria and then worked for military intelligence, ending the war as a Wing Commander. He began writing when in 1942 he was transferred to Washington as Assistant Air Attache. His first published work, in the August 1, 1942 issue of the Saturday Evening Post was 'Shot Down Over Libya', describing the bad plane crash. Originally Dahl's title for the work was 'A Piece of Cake' but this was changed to sound more dramatic, in spite of the fact the crash had nothing to do with enemy action.

He was married to American actress Patricia Neal from 1953 to 1983, having five children, including the author Tessa Dahl. Olivia Twenty Dahl, died of measles encephalitis at the age of 7 and Theo, his only son, was involved in a childhood accident that resulted in him developing hydrocephalus; as a result of this, Dahl became involved in the development of what became known as the 'Wade-Dahl-Till' (WDT) valve, a device designed to alleviate the condition. Tessa's daughter, and Dahl's granddaughter, Sophie was the inspiration for the "helpmate" character in The BFG. Sophie Dahl is now an author herself.

Roald Dahl died in November 1990, at his home in Great Missenden, at the age of 74, and is buried in the cemetery at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul there. In his honour, the 'Roald Dahl Children's Gallery' was opened at Bucks County Museum in nearby Aylesbury, and in June 2005 the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in Great Missenden to celebrate his life and books, and to advance his work in literacy.

Monday, September 12, 2005

A Feast of New Books

My boss surprised me this morning when she asked if I would be interested in having a copy of the new Waterstones magazine, Books Quarterly, and naturally I said "yes"; I'm very glad that I did otherwise I would not have known for some time about some of the following books which will be coming out in the UK during the next quarter.

The first two are children's fantasy. Jonathan Stroud's final book in the Bartemaeus trilogy, Ptolemy's Gate is out in October. In it the world of magic is under threat and Nathaniel is working hard to contain dissent whilst Kitty has been researching djinn and looking for Bartemaeus. She embarks on a terrifying journey into the "Other Place" where djinn go when they're not enslaved by humans - and from which no human has ever returned. It sounds as if it's going to be as gripping as The Amulet of Samarkand and Golem's Eye.

I've not yet read any of Anthony Horowitz's books, but Raven's Gate looks interesting. It's Horowitz's first fantasy novel, although, the Waterstones Magazine reviewer calls it a "tense, enigmatic thriller", so maybe it's not strictly fantasy ! Either way, I shall badger the library for it, if they don't have a copy in the Central Lending Library already (it has been published already).

The third book to catch my eye, I've actually already seen - I looked at a copy in Blackwells last week. It's a luxurious edition of John Milton's Paradise Lost with an introduction by Philip Pullman that has been produced by OUP. Anyone who knows Pullman's work, knows of Milton's influence on his award-winning "His Dark Materials" trilogy, which takes its title from a line in the poem. I started reading his introduction to the poem and his enthusiasm for Milton's language and skill as a storyteller is so infectious that I'm actually going to make a third attempt to read the poem ! This time though, I'm going to get an audiobook version to play as I read, in the hopes that I'll manage to make it all the way through it. I confess to feeling some guilt about the fact that I've yet to manage to read this poem, despite being an English graduate and a lover of poetry.

The final fiction title to catch my eye was Terry Pratchett's new novel, Thud, which is another Vimes novel - and how I love those ! This one is out in October, as usual, but there's a twist: Vimes' son, Sam Junior, loves his bedtime book, 'Where's My Cow ?', and Pratchett has actually created this book as well ! I'm not sure whether this is metafictional or metatextual (the latter I think), but either way, it's certainly a very clever marketing ploy: Terry is already a success as a writer for adults and for children - perhaps he can catch children even younger with books for babies ?

Finally, two non-fiction books caught my eye. First there's Bettany Hughes' book Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, which is out in October, and aims to explain why men would go to war over Helen (and it's not merely for her looks, apparently !) Spartan women were very much a part of the turbulent and violent times through which they lived, and since their menfolk were often away fighting, the women were given a lot of power in running the day-to-day affairs of the home. So Helen wasn't merely a beautiful princess, she was also a powerful (and wealthy) woman.

The final book to catch my eye looks like a coffee-table book - it certainly has a coffee-table book pricetag (so thank goodness for the public library !): The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England's Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson is out in October. Apparently it's a lavishly illustrated (which explains the price) and very exhaustive compendium of the folklore and legends of England, gathered from a number of sources, including the Folklore Society. It gives the origins and dates of the various legends and myths, and assesses their basis in fact, if there is one. It certainly sounds like a must-read for a fantasy fiction fan !

Two final things to mention, before I stick my nose in my current book: The BBC news site reports that "more than 20 nations have signed an agreement aimed at saving the world's great apes from extinction. The Kinshasa Declaration acknowledges that the root cause of poaching and deforestation is poverty, and pledges to support local communities. Numbers of gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and orangutan have fallen sharply, and experts warn that some wild populations could disappear within a generation." Anyone who knows Terry Pratchett's work, knows that his Unseen University librarian is an orangutan and that Terry supports (financially as well as morally) the work of the Orangutan Foundation, rightly so, since the great apes are our nearest relatives. So this is good news and will hopefully lead to a halt in the decline of these magnificent mammals.

And finally: England won the Ashes !! After a fantastically nail-biting and tensely fought Test series, that has had me glued to the radio/internet (and, when I was at home two weeks ago, the TV), England drew their final Test match today and took the series 2-1. Yes, I'm full of national pride for our side: it's been 18 years since we last won the Ashes, but I'm also quite happy to admit that I admire the way the Aussies didn't let us off easily ! We lost one Test, drew two, and won two - which goes to show that the teams were fairly evenly matched (the typical English summer weather did play a part, but it didn't favour us alone). For an outstanding display of team spirit and genuine sportsmanship from both sides, look no further than this year's Ashes series.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Shadow Saga - Orson Scott Card

I don't often read SF - the technological wizardry annoys me - which is a bit ironic for someone who's been hooked on computers for more than 20 years, but there you go. I like technology well enough, but I don't want to read about it very often. One exception I've made to this "rule" (and it's not a hard-and-fast rule by any means), is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and its "parallel sequels" 'The Shadow Saga'. I'd better explain that before I continue. In Ender's Game, humanity is at war with some aliens called the Buggers (they look like insects, or bugs, hence Buggers), who are trying to wipe out humanity. A young boy genius called Ender Wiggin is recruited to Battle School, the place where genius children are trained to become future soldiers in that war. It is the hope of the Battle School administrators that Ender will become the next great military commander. Also at the school there is a young boy called Bean, who is Ender's second-in-command. Card's 'Shadow Saga' "parallel sequels" follows Bean's story. In Ender's Shadow, Card tells the story of the events of Ender's Game but from Bean's point of view, instead of Ender's. Card then continues Bean's story from the point at which both Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow finished, after the war against the Buggers has been won. So, in Shadow of the Hegemon, Bean returns to Earth and finds himself dealing with Ender's older brother, Peter, who is also a genius, but wasn't suitable for Battle Schoool, so he remained on Earth whilst Ender was away saving humanity. Peter has been busy setting himself up to be the next Hegemon (world leader), which although it sounds very arrogant (and Peter IS very arrogant) isn't going to be a disaster. Bean and Peter are forced to deal with Achilles, a boy whom Bean knows from his days as a starveling in Rotterdam before he went to Battle School. Achilles was the villain of Ender's Shadow and he remains as villianous in this book. He's already killed several times, but he prefers to manipulate others into doing his killing - and he's not above sending countries to war on his prompting, even though he has no political role. The world's leaders, though, are in awe of the Battle School graduates, who are known military geniuses, so Achilles is able to manipulate the government of more than one country into doing as he requires, in his attempts to become Hegemon instead of Peter. With this aim in mind, he kidnaps the children who were all in Ender's "Jeesh", his group who fought the final battle against the Buggers. Bean is the only one of the group (aside from Ender himself who's no longer planet-side) to remain free, and he sets about freeing the others.

After Bean achieves this goal, he finds himself (in Shadow Puppets persuaded to marry Petra (another of Ender's Jeesh, and the only girl in it), although he is reluctant to do so (but not because he doesn't love her). Owing to the fact that he was born from a genetically engineered embryo, Bean is hyper-intelligent but also suffers from giantism - which means he will be probably be dead by the time he's 20. Since there's also a likelihood that he will pass on his genetic flaw to his children, Bean is very reluctant to marry and procreate. However, Petra is very tenacious (she wouldn't have survived as the only girl in Ender's Jeesh otherwise), and she persuades Bean to do as she wants. Their sperm and eggs are then harvested so that Petra can have IVF treatment and bear Bean's children even after he is dead. Unfortunately, Bean and Petra's embryos aren't safe - Achilles tracks down the pair and steals the embryos - Petra has had one embryo implanted, but the remaining eight are stolen, and Bean is forced to take direct action to recapture them. In the final book of this quartet (although this is not the final book in the Ender universe, I gather), Shadow of the Giant, Bean and Petra are trying to track down their missing children, which have by now been implanted into surrogate mothers. Bean is also working with Hegemon Peter Wiggin still, as the latter attempts to create world peace (a formidable task, if ever there was one !), via the creation of a combined group of nations called the Free People of Earth. As they're trying to achieve this, China, India and the Muslim League countries (each led by a Battle School alumnus) are poised to go to war with one another. Other countries across the Earth are also using the talents of Ender's Jeesh as military leaders/strategists, but because they're all so good, ex-Colonel Graff and Mazer Rackham, two of the teachers from Battle School, are trying to persuade the boys to accept the challenges inherent in going out to settle new colony worlds, because their presence on Earth means that peace can never be achieved as long as their talents are available to their home countries' military forces. Bean is also offered the chance of taking a trip into space, but in his case it is so he can survive longer in the hopes that research team on Earth can find a cure for his condition, and for those of his children who have inherited his condition.

The one thing that annoyed me about this book is that one of Bean and Petra's embryos has been implanted in a woman called Randi who believes the child is actually Achilles' child - this opens the book, and she is mentioned again near the end of the book after the baby has been born, but there's no resolution to Randi's story; the book ends with this final baby still missing - and Randi still believing that the child's father is Achilles, whom she more or less worships. Perhaps the "Shadows in Flight" book (which I gather is to be a book that ties the Ender Saga and the Shadow Saga together) will resolve this hanging thread ?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Notes for Tolkien fans

I haven't quite finished reading my book of today, so I'll save blogging it for tomorrow and instead mention a couple of Tolkien-related things. First of all, I mentioned last week that the Proceedings of the Tolkien Society Seminar 2004 are now available. You can purchase Tolkien, Influenced and Influencing: Proceedings of the Seventeenth Tolkien Society Seminar from, but it will cost you an extra £2 to do so, therefore, if you're not in a hurry for them, hang on and the Tolkien Society will be selling the booklet via its own website. The contents of the booklet are as follows:

Alison Milbank: 'Tolkien and the Gift'

Maggie Fernandes: 'The Theory of names in The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien'

Michele Fry: 'The Influence of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings on Women Fantasy Authors'

Colin Duriez: 'Some light on Tolkien and C S Lewis: a mutual influence'

Paul Kerry: 'The Idea of Influence, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Catholicism": A Historian's Perspective'

Nataliya Oryshchuk: 'Some Aspects of Tolkien's reception in post-Soviet Culture'

Jessica Yates: 'Fantasy films before and after Peter Jackson'

My paper covered aspects of Tolkien's influence on three women authors: Robin Hobb (the portrayal of magical addiction), Robin McKinley (the literary descendants of Eowyn the Shieldmaiden) and J K Rowling (the use of dreams as a narrative device).

The other Tolkien-related item I wanted to share, is the online course which is going to be run at Cardiff University: The Foundations of Middle-earth: Myth, Language and Ideology in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Literature. This will examine Tolkien’s awareness of northern European mythologies, and languages, as well as other aspects of his scholarly background, such as anthropology and archaeology, and how he used them creatively in writing his fantasy literature, ie. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Topics will include:
'A Mythology for England':Tolkien's 'mythological project' will be examined within the framework of the nineteenth-century revival of northern European mythologies, as well as the search of national identity in pre-World War I England, the later being often associated with England’s Anglo Saxon past.
'Northern European Myths and Legends: the Celtic and Literary Tradition': The lecture will mainly concentrate on two of Tolkien’s sources which he vigorously refuted or declared to have despised: the Celtic material, including the Arthurian legend, and the Shakespearean tradition.
'Tolkien's Invented Languages: 'A Secret Vice': This lecture will focus on Tolkien’s language creation. Exploring the relationships of language invention and myth-making and going through the actual process through which Tolkien made the Middle-earth languages.

The reading suggestions for the course are: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien: a Biography (London: Allen and Unwin, 1977), Tolkien The Medievalist edited by Jane Chance (Routledge, 2003), and Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (London: HarperCollins, 2001) and The Road to Middle-Earth (London: Allen and Unwin, 1982)

Thanks to my almost obsessive Tolkien reading last summer, I've read all but the Jane Chance volume (although I did read one of the chapters from it). I would love to be able to participate on this course, not least because my reading of Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, and Katherine Langrish's Troll Fell and Troll Mill have reignited the interest I felt two years ago in the influences on Tolkien's work, which led me to reading various Scandinavian sagas (not to mention the Finnish Kalevala, which I also read last year). If anyone signs up for the course, I'd love to hear about it.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Sea of Trolls - Nancy Farmer

The Sea of Trolls is excellent; it makes Katherine Langrish's Troll Fell and Troll Mill look like Norse myth-lite. I love the fact that Nancy Farmer has included both an appendix, explaining the myths that are mentioned in the book (eg. Bards & Skalds, Ivar the Boneless, etc.) and a list of sources so the interested reader can follow up the book by reading Norse Tales, or reading about the Norse Myths and Gods, or the Vikings.

I liked young Jack the Saxon apprentice-bard, and Olaf One-Brow who, in spite of his reputation as a Viking Berserker, isn't all bad (Jack believes that there's a Good Olaf and a Bad Olaf, a nice Jungian conception). Thorgil is an interesting character, a shield maiden with a Berserker's blood, who's desperate to die so she can go to Valhalla and who hates Jack - but he saves her life anyway.

I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Reading must be a Virtue because Books Change the World

Two newspaper stories in two different newspapers, but with similar themes have caught my eye today. First, Nicholas Blincoe asks in The Daily Telegraph

Do you think reading makes you a better person? I read an enormous amount, but not everyone I know is persuaded of my superior qualities. Even some of those closest to me think that I am an opinionated loudmouth. Yet it is generally held in the study of literature that a reader is more virtuous than a non-reader. All those people who took engineering or economics at university and wonder why the literature students were so annoying: it is because they had joined a cult that constantly reinforced the idea that they were the best, the cream of the campus.

and he closes with But if readers are the best people in the world, what about writers? Salman Rushdie has said: "When you write, you write out of your best self." Which serves to complete a virtuous circle, I guess.

Then in a similar vein, Ian Burrell in The Independent reports that Melvin Bragg is claiming It is not army generals nor scientists nor inventors that direct the course of human history, but the books they write. And to prove it, Lord Bragg has announced a list of the Twelve Books That Changed the World, a four-part special that will be screened next April on 'The South Bank Show'. The full details are available via the link above, but the 12 books are as follows:

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859
Marie Stopes, Married Love, 1918
William Wilberforce, Speech to the House of Commons, 1789
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792
Magna Carta, 1215
The King James Bible, 1611
Michael Faraday, Experimental Research in Electricity, 1855
The First Rule Book of the Football Association, 1863
Patent Specification for Arkwright's Spinning Machine, 1769
William Shakespeare, First Folio, 1623
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776
Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica, 1687

I confess I rather feel that Bragg has stretched the definition of "Book" rather thin to include a speech to the House of Commons (not that I doubt the importance of that speech !), a Patent specification and Magna Carta ! Why not include John Milton's Paradise Lost, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, H G Wells' The War of the Worlds, Samuel Johnson' Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary, or J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings ? I can just imagine this list getting the purists up in arms ! (But perhaps that's why they've been chosen... ?)

Since I finished DWJ's Power of Three, I've started reading (and failed to complete) Raymond Feist's Faerie Tale - too great a tendency towards Horror, and Gwyneth Jones' Bold as Love - too many modern pop-culture references that are lost on me AND a young protagonist who ends up falling pregnant by her father at the age of 12 (OK, she didn't know he was her father, but even so), has the baby and then it conveniently dies shortly thereafter of pneumonia ! I'm not a prude, I know girls (and boys) have under-age sex and end up pregnant, but I was so annoyed at the way Jones casually killed the baby off, that I couldn't go on with it. I'm now reading Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls which seems far more interesting - and I see that Farmer is bringing out a sequel in October in the UK, which according to Amazon, is called Sea of Trolls 2 (the note of doubt is because that seems like a rather unoriginal title !) Anyway more on the first book once I've finished reading it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Diana Wynne Jones - Reprise

After I reluctantly laid aside Fire and Hemlock on Monday evening, I decided to read DWJ's The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land before involving myself in another of her fictional worlds. I'm afraid that I abandoned it at D, however, as the tone of it was getting on my nerves - although that may just have been the "thunder headache" I had last night, so I've not taken it back to the library yet as I want to try to finish it. In the meantime, though, I've raced through Diana Wynne Jones' Power of Three which proved to be as gripping as Fire and Hemlock !

This is an excellent book that looks in detail at the way groups of different people can make assumptions about others. Both the Dorig, who live in halls under lakes, and the Lymen, who live in mounds under the earth, believe the people of the other race are not to be trusted. And neither group are very fond of the Giants (who are actually human beings, but appear to be Giants, because both the Dorig and the Lymen are so small by comparison). The three groups find their homes are threatened by a plan to turn the hill-surrounded Moor on or under which they all live, into a reservoir. They eventually manage to lay aside their age-old differences and hatred for each other to come up with a plan to save all their homes. What's very interesting is that the coming together of the three groups of people is instigated in the first place by children from each of the three groups. Gair, Ceri and Ayna are the children of the chief of the Lyman clan in Garholt, they join forces with Halla and Hafny, the children of the Dorig King, and with Gerald and Brenda whose parents have homes on the Moor, and together they persuade the adults of each group to work together rather than fighting, although there is the small matter of a cursed gold torque to be dealt with along the way. This book is definitely a must-read, and I think children (and adults) who have enjoyed Harry Potter or His Dark Materials, would also enjoy Power of Three.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Propaganda in the Arts

I'm just listening to one of the soundtrack CDs from Gladiator and I was reminded of the scene in the film (funny that I remember this although I've not watched the film in ages) where a street theatre is being performed in which Joaquin Phoenix's character, Commodus, bests Russell Crowe's 'Gladiator', Maximus. The play is pure propaganda which is meant to diffuse the enthusiasm of the general populace for Maximus... This then reminded me of the play which Terry Pratchett's Fool gets Vitoller and his Players from Ankh-Morpork to write and act a play on behalf of his new master, the less-than-popular Duke Felmet in Wyrd Sisters. The play is meant to portray Felmet in a positive light and put over the "real" story of how Felmet's cousin, Verence, (whose throne Felmet has usurped) came to die.

The use of propaganda in plays (or indeed in poetry - during the early stages of the First World War several "senior" poets, such as Thomas Hardy, were invited by the Government of the day to write poetry for use as propaganda in spurring on the British efforts) or other branches of the Arts is not uncommon: Shakespeare's Richard III, for instance, was written to show that Henry was forced to kill Richard III because he was an evil king, with a hunched back and a tendency to kill off the rightful heirs to the throne. It may be true, as Hamlet said that art holds a mirror up to life, but it's also true that occasionally it's a distorting mirror that's being employed by someone in power to present the "facts" of a situation in a way that supports their actions and protects their reputation.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fire and Hemlock - Diana Wynne Jones

I'd forgotten in the interval since I last read Fire and Hemlock, just how gripping this book is and how it buzzed around in my head for days after I read it. I really must buy myself a copy for the next time I want to read it. Polly is just ten years old when she meets Thomas Lynn (Tam Lin), having accidentally gate-crashed a "funeral". She and Tom become fast friends, and have some odd adventures together at intervals over a 5 year period and then she suddenly forgets about him. It's not until 4 years later, when she is idly reading a book before going back to Oxford for the start of her second year, that she suddenly realises she has holes in her memory, but it takes her some time to recall what caused the holes. Once she has realised, she decides to track down Tom again, and eventually (with a little help from her Granny and the ballads Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin) she manages to find Tom... This book is an interesting re-working of both ballads (in a combination) and I'm really looking forward to discussing it with others on the Child_Lit list in 10 days time.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Inkheart - Cornelia Funke

I finished Inkheart just after lunch today. It's an interesting book, and the pace certainly accelerates over the last few chapters, but some of the early ones seemed rather stodgy. I don't know if this is just the effect of it being an English translation since I can't read German, and therefore I can't check just how stodgy - or not - the original was in German. It's got some pointed warnings about the perils of getting too involved in a story: in this case Mo, the father of the book's heroine Meggie, possesses the power to bring the characters of a book out of the book and into the real world, which sounds delightful, but turns out to have terrible consequences.

I liked the chapter quotations from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Pete Pan, etc., although they didn't seem to have much relationship to the actual chapters' contents, except in the case where Tolkien's works were quoted, oh and one from (I think) The Borribles. However, I didn't think much of the villains - they were rather two-dimensional, and even the main character did not seem very 3-D, but Meggie's mother's aunt (!), Elinor, the book-obsessed spinster was great fun. Elinor cares only for her books, and does not much like people, and especially she does not like people to touch her books, except Mo, who is a bookbinder (or Book Doctor as Meggie prefers to call him). This trait of Elinor's reminded me irresistably of Terry Pratchett's Librarian, who dislikes people wearing out the words in his books ! For someone who is so disinterested in people, Elinor nevertheless manages to get very involved in the "adventures" that are forced on Mo, Meggie and (by default) Elinor herself.

I think this is a YA book for real bookworms - if the reader has never lost themselves in a book to the extent where they've been utterly oblivious to what's going on around them, then this book will be wasted on them. On the other hand if, like me, the reader is quite capable of being so immersed in a book, then they'll enjoy it a good deal.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Diana Wynne Jones

I made my usual raid on the library today - and of course, having taken back one pile of books, I went and borrowed another 4 to add to the ever-changing Tower of books... I just can't seem to break myself of the habit (not that I really want to, of course). Anyway I came back with a couple of Diana Wynne Jones books to go with the still-to-be-re-read Fire and Hemlock (which I'm going to read that one just as soon as I've finished Inkheart). Anyway the first DWJ I picked up was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland which is a dictionary of every fantasy novel cliche ever created. I've read and heard a lot about this book, so I thought I'd see what everyone has been talking about. I also picked up DWJ's Power of Three, which looked interesting. Here's the synopsis:

Gair spent his time gazing out onto the Moor and brooding. Ayna could answer questions about the future, Ceri could find things which were lost. Gair seems to have no Gift and knew he was a disappointment to his jovial, heroic father - who is Chief. Perhaps his feelings of not fitting in was what made him so curious about these other different sorts of beings who lived on the Moor - the Giants and the Dorig. Certainly it was because he believed he was ordinary that he did his best to become wise, and to learn as much as he could abou the three great Powers of Sun, Moon and Earth. And when the crisis came, Gair found the knowledge he had gained was to help save not only his own life but those of all his people.

Of course, I'll be Blogging both books (along with Fire and Hemlock) once I've read them. Whilst I was in the children's section of the library, I also picked up Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls, about which I've read a lot on the Child_Lit discussion list. Since I've been reading about trolls anyway lately, I thought it might be an interesting read. Here's the synopsis:

Jack is an apprentice bard and just beginning to learn the secrets of his mysterious master, when he and his little sister are captured by Viking chief, Olaf One-Brow, and taken to the court of Ivar the Boneless. Ivar is married to a half-troll named Frith, an evil and unpredictable queen with a strange power over her husband's court. Jack is sent on to the kingdom of the trolls, where he has to find the magical well and undo the charm he has cast on Frith. He is accompanied by Thorgill, a shield maiden, aged 12, who wants to be a berserker when she grows up. Together, they are set for a magical and exciting adventure.

It seems appropriate to be reading books with Norse settings, since the literature of Scandinavia had such a huge influence on Tolkien, whose work has in turn influenced fantasy in Europe and the Americas.

The final book I picked up today is the first in what appears to be a trilogy (but may be a longer sequence of books - I only found three in total when I looked at Amazon). Anyway, the first book is Katherine Roberts' Song Quest and this is the synopsis:

From the Isle of Echoes the forces of good and evil are held in harmony by those who hear and sing. When a mainlander's ship is wreaked and the Merlee half creatures are heard crying across the waves the lives of three novice Singers are changed forever. Rialle, the heroine, who hears the cry of the Merlee, is sent to calm them with Challa, her voice as sweet as sunlight. Frenn, her friend and protector, follows as a stowaway while Kherron, the rebel, allows his desire for freedom to take him into danger and a headlong clash with the enemy and their mysterious powers. All are caught up in a dangerous and sinister web, battling against the powers of darkness that threaten to destroy their world.

The sequels are The Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal. I shall have to check the Oxfordshire Library OPAC and see whether the other two are in the system, assuming I like the first one enough to read the other two.

So my Tower of Books is again 10 books high, and I've still got the Mercedes Lackey trilogy to read. At least no one will ever hear me complain that I've got nothing to read !

Friday, September 02, 2005

Troll Mill - Katherine Langrish

I managed to continue my habit of reading a book a day by reading Katherine Langrish's Troll Mill yesterday. It's a good sequel to Troll Fell which I Blogged after I read it. Three years have passed since the events recorded in Troll Fell and this book concentrates less on the eponymous Trolls and more on Selkies, or Seal Folk. I confess that I hadn't really come across any references to these legendary/mythological (there's some disagreement as to which they are) creatures, so I looked them up, as is my wont. Selkies are creatures from Scottish and Irish mythology which can transform themselves from seals into humans. Selkie is simply the Orcadian word for seal, but stories exist that say that Selkies can become human by shedding their seal skins, and can then revert to their seal form by putting the skins back on. As a general rule Selkie stories are romantic tragedies: a human and a selkie fall in love, but after a while the selkie becomes restless, and chooses to return to the sea. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them gone. But sometimes the human hides the selkie's skin, thereby preventing them from returning to their seal form.

It is this version of the romantic tragedy of the Selkies that Langrish deploys: Peer Ulfsson's friend Bjorn found a Selkie woman seven years earlier and he "captured" her (it's not as simple as that, but I'm not going to give away the whole story !) Now "Kersten", as Bjorn named her, having had a baby, has decided to return to the sea and her original mate. At the beginning of the story, Peer is returning from a fishing trip with Bjorn and he meets Kersten rushing down to the sea carrying her baby. She asks Peer if his friend Hilde's mother (Gudrun) is still breast feeding her own baby and then without waiting for an answer, thrusts Ran into Peer's arms and races towards the shore. Kersten throws herself into the sea and Peer takes the baby home. Much of the remainder of the book is giving over to discussing whether Kersten really was a Selkie and if she was, whether Bjorn had held her against her will. At the same time, Peer is infatuated with Hilde and longs to do something to win her interest as she prefers Bjorn's brother Arne to Peer. He comes up with a plan, to restore Troll Mill, which has lain decaying since his Uncles were turned into trolls and to become the Miller. Unfortunately the mill is already being used by others, as Peer discovers, and his ownership is disputed... I'm not going to spoil the entire novel for you, by telling you who wins the ownership contest or how, so I will just say that I enjoyed this sequel, and I recommend it. Like Troll Fell, Troll Mill is rich in atmosphere and the characters are well-drawn and believable.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The beginning of September is particularly important to me as it marks the anniversaries of the deaths of two men whose work I hold in great esteem and which has influenced not only my reading but the entire course of my life, particularly in the past 7 years. On September 1967, the First World War poet and memoirist, Siegfried Sassoon, died just a week short of his 81st birthday. This poem was written by Sassoon just after the end of the First World War, but I feel it is an apt commemoration Sassoon's life and work:

Falling Asleep

Voices moving about in the quiet house:
Thud of feet and a muffled shutting of doors:
Everyone yawning. Only the clocks are alert.

Out in the night there’s autumn-smelling gloom
Crowded with whispering trees; across the park
A hollow cry of hounds like lonely bells:
And I know that the clouds are moving across the moon;
The low, red, rising moon. Now herons call
And wrangle by their pool; and hooting owls
Sail from the wood above pale stooks of oats.

Waiting for sleep, I drift from thoughts like these;
And where to-day was dream-like, build my dreams.
Music ... there was a bright white room below,
And someone singing a song about a soldier,
One hour, two hours ago: and soon the song
Will be ‘last night’: but now the beauty swings
Across my brain, ghost of remembered chords
Which still can make such radiance in my dream
That I can watch the marching of my soldiers,
And count their faces; faces; sunlit faces.

Falling asleep ... the herons, and the hounds....
September in the darkness; and the world
I’ve known; all fading past me into peace.

And September 2 is the anniversary of the death of J. R. R. Tolkien, just 6 years after Sassoon died. His creation of Middle-earth and writing of The Lord of the Rings has continued to influence fantasy fiction in the 50 years since its publication.

Both men endured the horrors of the First World War and their work was influenced by their experiences of that war - and both have influenced me. I discovered the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon in 1992 when I heard his poem, 'The Grandeur of Ghosts' on a radio show and it spoke to me in a very visceral way. I began to study Sassoon's poetry and his life, intending (in a rather naive way) to write a biography of him. Unknown to me several others were already working on the same lines, and by the time I began my combined English and History degree in September 1998 in preparation for writing said biography, the first of them had been published. Having given up my career as I computer programmer to do the degree, I was not about to abandon my plans so I went ahead, and I wrote about First World War topics at every opportunity that came along for me to choose my own subject of study.

I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was in my early teens, and I've re-read it many, many times in the past 20+ years and although for a while I read little fantasy except LotR, I maintained an interest in the genre. During the time I was revising for my end of first year exams in 1999 I came across the first Harry Potter book and, indirectly, Tolkien redirected my life. I reached the final semester of my degree and I had one last English paper to write on a subject of my own choosing. I went to see my tutor and told her that I wanted to do a paper on one or more of the women poets of the First World War, and she suggested that just this once I might write about something different. I eventually agreed that I would write a paper on Harry Potter, little suspecting that it would get published in The New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship, and that I would go on to spend the next (ie. the last) four years writing more papers: on Harry Potter, on Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, on Juliet E McKenna's 'Tales of Einarinn' series, and that I would be in the position of having two papers appear in published proceedings in the space of only a few weeks: my paper on Tolkien's influence on women writers of fantasy fiction which I presented at the Tolkien Society Seminar 2004 is finally available, as well as the Nimbus-2003 proceedings. So I owe both these men quite a lot with regard to my current career; which just goes to show one should never underestimate the power of literature to change lives.