I’m a bit behind the pack in reading Simon Morden’s novel Down Station (2015). I’m not sure I’m going to stay on board for its sequel, The White City, published in 2016, but there are a lot of very good things about this London fantasy novel.
1: It isn’t about London. It starts there, in the Underground, with cleaners and maintenance workers, but then there is a Voyage of the Dawn Treader moment in which a portal into another world opens out of nowhere. It’s an escape from utter terror rather than a cosy living-room, and the protagonists fall into a strange sea.
2: It’s super-realist and beguilingly fantastical at the same time. The protagonists only have their underwear, boots and bright orange Underground maintenance overalls, but the land they’ve arrived in – called Down, though the portal called Down Station – is where buildings grow, magic can be learned, shape-shifting happens, and there are no stars, only an impossibly ginormous moon. I love the juxtaposition of the two modes, and Morden writes convincingly.
3: The explanations for the way Down works are almost science-based, and don’t rely on an evil mage, or a magic orb of power, or a long-lost hidden prince, or a curse. There are no prophecies or quests or faeries, thank goodness. This is ecofantasy working at a very high standard for internal logic.
4: One of the two lead protagonists is Dalip, an engineering student, an attractively earnest hero. The other, Mary, is stonkingly good, though with a limited range of expletives. She’s a stroppy teenager, without much interest in her femininity, which is so refreshing. These two of the small number of characters power the plot and hold all our attention. For these two alone I’d read the sequel.
5: Their antagonists are splendidly original, and true to the plot, which is about making a fresh start to life directly connected to one’s true nature. The darkness in some people’s souls breeds monsters, and there are some spectacularly good ones here.
On the other hand, there are some irritating aspects:
6: The mundanity of the party’s progress, heading through the strange magic-filled land, finding out how it works and how to survive, battling monsters and collecting useful weapons and prizes, is a bit too D&D for me. Role-playing games are about the journey, whereas a novel is about the story that the plot unfolds, beginning, middle and end, and there is a worrying smell of dungeon-master’s plotting about this novel.
7: If Dalip the good boy is worrying about the state of his underwear without any chance for a wash, how are the female characters managing with their periods? Or is the impossibly huge moon stopping the flow? Have they all coincided into amenorrhoea? Teenage girls cannot avoid the undisguisable monthly blood flow unless they’re too thin, which we’ve not been told Mary is. If the other characters’ concerns include a complete lack of baths, hairwashes, laundry, even toilet paper, dealing with periods needs to be part of that. Admit that you know where babies come from, and deal with it. Think through the problems, do the research, or ask a friend.
8: Why did Morden put some characters in the plot, and then forget about them? Mary, Dalip and Stanislav get whole chapters of lines and action, and undergo huge character arcs. Mama is forgotten until mother figure or fat woman jokes are needed, or some pathos about her babies needing her. Luiza and Elena are far too often described as ‘the two Romanian women’, and Elena doesn’t even have a line to say. Grace appears during the escape as an afterthought, then disappears completely. This is astonishingly unbalanced, and unsatisfactory to read. Perhaps Morden was saving Grace and Elena for a big showdown reveal in book 2, but it looks more like he simply forgot them, and had to patch in a few ‘Where’s Grace?’ and ‘We’ll have to go and find her’ lines to cover up when he was reading the proofs.
So I’m almost convinced, but I don’t think I’m convinced enough.
Simon Morden, Down Station (2015 Gollancz), ISBN 978-1-473-21146-9, £8.99
Reading for this last podcast script catch-up from Really Like this Book, I could not concentrate on anything else until I had reached the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I thought I had read it before, but I must have skim-read it so fast to reach the end before the next family member in the queue took it off me, that I simply didn’t read it properly. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Hogwarts, and – spoiler coming – George dying, but everything else had gone.
The Deathly Hallows is the strongest of the seven Harry Potter novels, which really impressed me. Maintaining and improving the standard is so rarely the case in a long series that’s taken years to build. This novel is a spectacular multi-episode ending for the series, and ties up loose ends in beautiful, logical bows. Rowling shows her stupendous management of writing the strong emotions of inarticulate teenagers, and gives the reader respite breaks between the moments of danger, terror, chasing, and stunning spells, but the tension doesn’t let up.
Lee Jordan’s samizdat radio broadcasts on Potterwatch do more than just give us, and Harry, a laugh. They remind us of secret communications between resistance groups, from the Second World War Yugoslav partisans and the Résistance onwards, which indicates what the opposition is like. They give exposition – passing on information to the reader – in a new way, varying the narrative. They are updates on characters and events, which we sorely need, since the plot won’t allow Harry, Hermione and Ron any other way of communicating with the wizarding world. Potterwatch reinforces the resistance to Voldemort by raising spirits, strengthening resolve and sparking new ways of working together. And it makes Harry feel that he isn’t alone, that there are people on his side, even if they don’t know where he is. It’s a tonic, a real boost for everyone’s morale, including the reader, since things have gone very dark and gloomy at this point in the story.
The plot is extraordinarily complex – what I struggled with over Horcruxes in the Half-Blood Prince is nothing to the density of story and implication that we wade through in The Deathly Hallows. There is the main plot, and several secret subplots underneath that, plus complications caused by communications from beyond the grave – thank you, Pensieve, and the magical portraits. Themes begin to re-emerge from the deeps, all joining up in the climactic ending episodes. Reading this novel is to mutter ‘oh, so THAT’s what it was about’ on repeat.
We have a new father figure for Harry: Snape, of all people. So much has been said about James Potter’s friends, and his ghost, and his influence on Harry, that we have forgotten that Lily Potter had friends who would want to help Harry too. Snape stopped being her friend a long time ago, so I am not sure I accept the likelihood of – a really big spoiler – Snape having loved her so much all his life that he will undergo all kinds of torture and take so many risks to keep Harry safe for her sake. Yet, it makes sense in the plot, it makes sense for character motivation, and it is supported with enough extra things in Snape’s personality to make it pass. He’s a brilliant Occlumens, so no-one will ever know what he’s really up to.
There are new adult advisors, because Bill and Fleur’s house is the new place of refuge. Bill Weasley is such a hero, anything he does or says must be reliable, whereas the slight air of foolishness that Mr Weasley was first created with makes his heroism seem almost a surprise, rather like Neville cutting off Nagini’s head with Godric Gryffindor’s sword. Whoops, spoiler. Harry’s furious rejection of Lupin, sending him back to his family in disgrace, is very unexpected, but it also makes perfect sense for the characters and for the plot. At first, despite Lupin’s elaborate proof of who he was when he arrived at Grimmauld Place, his announcement that he was abandoning the pregnant Tonks to stay with Harry seemed almost to be a suggestion that here was a Death-Eater in disguise, it seemed so out of character. But this was Lupin’s last chance to be an adventurer, to bring the remaining member of James Potter’s old gang together with Harry’s gang. Being the last member of the gang means that no-one really understands. Hermione sees through Lupin’s sad yearnings, of course, while Harry is simply furious that another baby might lose its parent. This is a recurring theme in the series that we might not have noticed, but so many children in the novels without one or both parents – Tom Riddle, Dumbledore, Snape, Harry, obviously, Neville, Seamus (or is it Dean?), Luna, and (spoiler) Teddy Lupin – make a superbly logical connection with what happens to the Malfoy family at the end of the saga.
Our heroes’ infiltration of the Ministry of Magic is a muddle, almost a farce, with all the doubled identities and bluffing of experienced wizards through Confundus jinxes and the Polyjuice potion. But because we’re being shown the work of the Ministry in the wake of our heroes’ rampage of desperation, we also see, properly, that the Ministry’s persecution of half-bloods and its encouragement of anti-Muggle attitudes is horribly serious, and horribly, cleverly, reminiscent of totalitarian rule that starts its repressions small. Getting a few victims out of the Ministry is a great thing to have done, but the fact that the victims also need to leave the country to be safe, just as Hermione has sent her parents to Australia under heavy enchantment, is an abrupt reminder that wizarding has gone very bad indeed in Britain. I’ve read a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels in which Britain is isolated because of a plague, or because of nuclear holocaust, or a supernatural affliction of the mind, all functioning as a commentary about the arms race. This is the first time I’ve read magic being used as a commentary on Nazi persecution, Stalinist terror and even the medieval English persecution of the Jews in the thirteenth century. It is quite clear that where half-bloods are being persecuted now, Muggles will be next. As a weak form of comforting amusement in this grim scenario, I do like the idea very much that each new British Prime minister receives a visit at the start of his, or her, term of office from the Minister for Magic, and is suitably terrified and appalled. It’s a clever way of joining up the thinking in these novels, that the bad things that happen can happen in a different form without magic in our own world. In the words of Mad-Dog Moody, constant vigilance.
When Harry, Ron and Hermione go to ground, they Disapparate daily with the Weasley tent to a different location, trying to think of ways to identify and find the Horcruxes. It’s a terrible task, because there is no leadership any more, and these children are struggling to throw off their fear, worries and confusion. Having to take turns wearing the Slytherin locket from the underground lake is not helpful. It gets to Ron worst of all, so he abandons Hermione and Harry in a fury of miserable unself-confidence, and Hermione cries for a week. One of the small supportive subplots in this novel is seeing Hermione and Ron gradually stop needling each other, but it takes so LONG: they are very unforgiving to each other, and Ron is the most obtuse teenage boy I’ve ever encountered. The cold weather doesn’t help at all, since being miserable becomes worse if you’re cold and tired, and without anyone competent to cook for them, they’re not eating properly either. Ron finding a way to come back is the turning point, when things start to go well again, even if ‘things going well’ begins with getting caught by the Dark forces. Clues start popping out all over the place at the Malfoys’ mansion, and the period of information-gathering and planning at Bill and Fleur’s house is a very necessary rest, on pillows and for the emotions. The raid on Gringotts is a terrific set-piece adventure, though rather rushed. Escaping on a dragon is hardly a small thing to do, but somehow its wild excitement gets lost in all the other extraordinary things in this novel. With the return to Hogsmeade, and the Battle of Hogwarts, the novel surges ahead on a roll that just doesn’t stop. Everything has been leading towards these climactic moments and it all works perfectly.
I have one quibble. During the Battle of Hogwarts I was reminded too strongly of another scene of battle chaos in which centaurs, giants and wand-magic were flashing in a melée of magical creatures and the forces of Christlike sacrificial good (wearing red lion livery) battling a dark leader. C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe has almost the same scene, though rather less populated with witches and wizards. I thought that although Rowling kept control of this epic scene, she let her language turn medieval for one uncharacteristic moment, as if she couldn’t stop herself writing an epic fantasy battle without sounding like Lewis, and Tolkien, in a passage of sweeping chivalric hyperbole. But that’s the only time I noticed her losing her otherwise impeccable control of her writing. This is a marvellous novel.
For my earlier blogs on the other six Harry Potter novels, search in the box at top right.
(Forgetfully and foolishly I seem to have written up this pod twice: here in Sept 2015, and here in January 2015. There are slight differences, but they’re mostly the same. Sorry about that.)
Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up is O, and today’s author is the little-known cartoon strip writer, Peter O’Donnell. He is most famous for his creation of the glorious Modesty Blaise: action heroine, secret agent, assassin, and all-round perfect thriller feminist.
Modesty Blaise first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1963, and was a permanent presence in British newspapers until 2001, largely unaltered in style. She was drawn by a series of different artists, but O’Donnell wrote all the stories. In 1965 his first Modesty Blaise book appeared. Modesty Blaise came about because when O’Donnell was a soldier during the Second World War, he had noticed a girl in a displaced persons camp. The memory of how this refugee looked, how she held herself, and her confidence, and what her story might have been, stayed with him, emerging 20 years later as a character for an action story. A rather decorative film was made shortly after the first book appeared, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, but its script veered wildly away from the original concept.
In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired at the age of around her early thirties), who has made the money she wanted through non-vice crimes, but now she is bored. Her sidekick (not her lover) Willie Garvin, is also bored, which is why he loses his touch, and gets caught by a gang in Latin America. MI5 want Modesty to help them with a sticky problem of their own, so they offer her Willie as a favour, and she rescues him from captivity. She accepts the tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to pay, in sorting out a little problem for them. And so the relationship develops: Modesty and Willie become the go-to team for the really dangerous jobs that British Intelligence can’t handle alone. And they win, every time. Casual deaths with no repercussions are standard. The police rarely interfere, and when they do they do what Modesty wants. There are a lot of set-piece impossible escapes from impossible situations, and many, many single combats, lovingly described.
You’ll be thinking that Modesty is pretty much like a female James Bond, except that she’s independent. This independence is crucial for her character: she will not be tied, and she operates following her own judgement rather than following orders. She’s also an armed and unarmed combat expert, a jeweller, a diver and goodness knows what else. She has a compass in her head that never fails, she has yoga meditation skills that enable her to ignore pain and exhaustion etc, etc. She is effectively a superhero without supernatural powers: she just has an impossible number of phenomenal powers and skills that normal people would be glad to have only one of. It’s a very attractive combination. Did I also mention that she’s drop-dead gorgeous? It should go without saying. Modesty would be a good match for Emma Peel of The Avengers. Remember Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and as Mrs Smith from Mr and Mrs Smith? Modesty preceded her by about 40 years, and she’s better at the job because she does it all without computers or cell phones.
All this would be wasted material were it not for Peter O’Donnell’s writing. He is not quite as good as Ian Fleming for insouciant style, or as good as Geoffrey Household in cranking up the tension, but he comes very close. O’Donnell borrows heavily from Fleming and James Bond in his attention to detail: we hear a lot about the style and colour of clothes, even the kinds of fabrics, and of course we hear a lot about the make of drink, the way of cooking the meat, the colour of the car. On weaponry Fleming is outclassed by O’Donnell, I think, because both Modesty and Willie Garvin are expert in every kind of combat invented by humans, and probably some that O’Donnell invented himself. We hear a lot about throwing knives and a special kind of throwing and bashing weapon that lurks in the back of Modesty’s hairdo. O’Donnell is really good on ingenious places for hiding weapons: time and again Modesty strips off her clothes so she can extract the components of a bomb, or a radio transmitter, or a bow and arrows, from her underwear or her skirt. They’re kept in the seams and under false linings. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then. This kind of verbal titillation works because the image of a semi-naked Modesty (her name also draws attention to her state of undress) is powerfully countered by her technical skill and impressive foresight in choosing her outfit for the day by how many ways it can kill.
Modesty is not just a brilliant fighter, marksman, fencer, what have you: she’s also a strategic genius. She computes situations in her brain and produces a solution for every sticky situation. Only a little of this is explained, and this is where O’Donnell outclasses Household. Modesty and Willie have a very long back history, and so whenever she or he is about to attack an enemy, they can throw words at each other to suggest using a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again. The reader is saying ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, gobbling up the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to get Willie out of being chained to a radiator by one hand while holding a bomb at full arm’s length in the other, knowing that when Modesty bursts into the room to rescue him she will be mown down by a machine gun. Naturally he gets out of the chain by breaking it one-handed, as you do, and then she drops through the window from the floor above, having shot the machine gunner faster than he can draw, and disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.
Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out to safety before they’re killed for fun. She induces the evil mastermind’s enforcer, an Austrian fencing champion, to take her on in a duel, and kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. The leering bad person comes over to fondle her bloody body in her apparent exhaustion, during which time she picks his pocket of the secret notebook. Willie forges an entry in this to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so the pilot will come over to their side, and get the rest of the captives away to Tangier, leaving Modesty and Willie to build an emergency sand-yacht to get across the desert to a Foreign Legion fort where Willie has the final showdown with the evil mastermind, after performing emergency surgery on Modesty’s shoulder wound, which is now impendingly gangrenous. That caper is particularly complicated, but it is deeply, deeply satisfying. O’Donnell’s plotting is superb.
There is a certain forcedness in O’Donnell’s dialogue, and in his namedropping of brand names and new products. He spells Crimplene with a capital C, because when he was writing, this word was new, he was using an up-to-the-minute social reference. Now, of course, this dates the books quite strongly, but this is part of their attraction: they’re a repository for social history. We can see which words were new to the language in the 1960s by the difference that common usage has made in them now. Initial capitals are a common sign of this, for brand names and for things that are now generic names. We also see different, earlier spellings: git, for instance, which is a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means stupid, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, a mack. These novels are linguistic archaeology because they were written to be indelibly up to the minute.
I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as much as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in one or more of the Arabic forms, and use it to speak to each other over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War universe. The Arabic nations were not yet political powers that the west took much notice of. Arabic is also used as a language of civilised values: several times Modesty discusses Arabic poetry as a coded cover for her real intent: I don’t think you’d get that kind of respect in thrillers these days.
O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty and her sexuality, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill may have been just about to be made available to British women, but they also wore stockings, hats and gloves every day, and were usually expected to stop working once they married. However, O’Donnell gives Modesty some remarkable freedoms. She is a woman, but she is also the best secret agent around. She’s sexualised, in that she has sex with whichever man she wants, but also when she wants and on her terms. This makes her a truly liberated woman, in that she controls her own sex life, but also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached.
She has a very loyal and strictly non-sexual relationship with Willie Garvin: he’s played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp in the film, but is always drawn as a craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. The self-control and steadiness of purpose they must, we infer, be exercising to not leap into bed with each other are simply aspects of their attractiveness. Modesty requires respect for her authority, and is treated throughout as the most powerful and skilful operator in the book. She is never a victim, but is often presented a sexual object, and O’Donnell frequently describes her as wearing her nakedness as if she wore clothes, which helps the imaginations of her readers nicely. One of her techniques for gaining a few seconds while confronting a room of guards or other male antagonists is to walk in, stripped to the waist. This moment of leering amazement of course allows to her to shoot them all, while they gawp. It’s a good use of that character’s power, but it’s also a predictable use of sexuality by a male writer.
O’Donnell had some predictable opinions about women and sexuality in general. In the first book, Modesty is the focus of attention because she is the only active woman in a cast of men. There are two other women in that story, a dancer called Nicole who asked too many questions on Willie’s behalf and got killed, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close cousin of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle from That Hideous Strength, as it happens, since O’Donnell emphasises the sexual pleasure in her motivation for killing. There is an obvious correlation between sexual orientation and morality, since the ugly, lumpish, killer women working with the evil masterminds all appear to have ‘wrong’, that is, non-heterosexual proclivities, whereas the other women who are killers in the action thriller genre, Modesty herself, and even Emma Peel, are definitely into men, and thus have the ‘right’ proclivities. Fleming’s Pussy Galore swopped sides in both senses. O’Donnell’s active interest in sexualising his women characters betrays a datedness about sexual stereotypes too.
After all this, you may wish to start reading Modesty Blaise for yourself. There are some really excellent websites and blogs out there with all the bibliographical information you need. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200, but if you’re lucky a local library might have it. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books. Souvenir Press have reissued many of the books in new (and not very good) covers, and as ebooks. The covers of the slightly older resissues by Titan Books have much more punch and glamour.
Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts recap is L, and I’ve gone straight to Clive Staples Lewis. Along with much of the western world, as a child I was deeply into his Narnia stories. As I got older I found them less satisfying, because too many questions kept being thrown at me by the plots, the characters, and transparency of Lewis’s intentions. I don’t like being preached at, and his preachings were rather obvious. Then I found that he’d also written three science fiction novels, so I was straight into them. The first in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, is very H G Wells, but that was fine, I liked it. The second one, Perelandra, was much more mystical, philosophical, with less action, and an awful lot of talking: I didn’t like that so much. The third one, That Hideous Strength, was totally unlike the others, and strangely like a grown-up and far more complex version of the best of the Narnia books. And I loved it, and still do.
Decades later, I can now see that That Hideous Strength has quite a lot that I might not like. It is grossly patriarchal, very Christian, and uses a homosexual character in an annoyingly stereotyped way. On the plus side, it is very very angry about wanton vivisection. It mixes its literary influences shamelessly. It is also a terrific ‘university’ novel, an accurate portrait of academic obfuscation and petty interdepartmental plotting. Lewis worked in university departments all his life, and we can tell that he doesn’t like moral cowardice, intellectual dishonesty or unthinking modernisation for the sake of change. In That Hideous Strength he equates the advanced sociology of the NICE (more on that in a moment) with Nazi eugenics, which seems a bit steep until we remember that this novel was published in 1945, and that the existence of the extermination camps were first revealed to the world from 1944.
There is a lot of anger in this book, aimed mainly at those who deny their true selves, and who act selfishly. The plot begins with scenes in the house of a young married couple, Jane and Mark Studdock. He is a lecturer in sociology at Bracton College (not a real place), and wants to get on. He is ingratiating, only too keen to be taken up by the ‘right’ people. He begins to be drawn into the progressive movement called NICE which will ultimately destroy the college for its own ends. Jane, who would prefer to be a college lecturer as well, is stuck at home playing housewife and trying to work on her PhD thesis. She has begun to have disturbing dreams, where she is effectively seeing the future, or the present, while she sleeps, and she goes for help to a doctor she’s been recommended to visit, near Bracton. There she meets Ransom, the man who, in the earlier novels of the trilogy, has travelled to Mars and Venus and has met the guardian spirits of the planets, and who is effectively God’s emissary for earth.
The religious element in That Hideous Strength is hard for non-believers to accept, because it requires an appreciation of a voluntary or involuntary religious surrender of will to a higher power. If you’ve experienced this, you probably have a better insight as to how Lewis handles this aspect of the novel. The rest of us can just accept it as part of the story. A further, Gothic or medievalised element in this novel is that, because of her dreams, Jane is now able to find out where Merlin (yes, that Merlin), has been sleeping all these centuries. She must lead her new friends to him before the NICE reach him first. Lewis writes a particularly good imagining of what such a man of magic and power from the Dark Ages might be like if he awoke in our effete and mechanised times: he is mistaken for a tramp, but he behaves like a warlord and a savage.
Mark, meanwhile, is frustrated and miserable by not having anything meaningful to do. He finds that a friend has been murdered after trying to leave the NICE, and by this terrifying threat he is persuaded, rather too easily, to write dishonest newspaper articles about a riot in the town that has yet to happen. He is blackmailed into staying at the NICE headquarters, where his bills are increasing weekly. In effect, he is a prisoner in an enchanted castle, while Jane is out leading a heroic quest. Mark is surrounded by very peculiar members of the NICE who all seem to be obsessed with a head. This is some kind of symbol, until he sees the head, which is indeed a human head, of an executed murderer, now reanimated and speaking, and giving orders.
At this point in the novel I am always reminded of the Lindsay Anderson film from the 1960s, O Lucky Man, which starred Malcolm MacDowall, because it too featured a horrible prison-house that practiced vivisection on animated heads, and had a similarly druggy, dream-like atmosphere. But Lewis’s novel is seriously Christian: Mark is only able to release himself from the spell of academic intimidation and fear because he refuses to stamp on a crucifix. He may be a sociologist with no proper education (Lewis clearly did not think sociology was a proper subject), but he has respect for a religious symbol of suffering. And so he escapes, trying to find his way to Jane. She is safe in Ransom’s house, being visited by planetary influences.
This is the part of the novel I always liked best, where Lewis draws on his training as a medieval scholar, and uses the poetry of Spenser to evoke fantastical mystical happenings. When the spirit of Mercury descends upon earth, the magic of tongues and wit comes with it, and the people in the house find themselves indulging gloriously in eloquence and sparkling wordplay. When Venus approaches, the married couples are whispering together, the women waiting for their husbands are thinking fond thoughts, and even the animals are pairing off and going out into the garden. When Mars arrives, the kitchen is filled with bravery and courage, and the people are resolute in their commitment to the cause. And so it goes on. Merlin receives his orders from God, via the planetary spirits (this really is a confusion of spirituality), and the NICE are about to receive their doom, in a particularly bloody and violent way.
In between these episodes at the NICE and in Ransom’s manor, which are respectively the locations of evil and good, the town of Bracton is being infiltrated by thugs. There is an outbreak of petty crime, inexplicable fights in the streets, windows are broken, a woman is screaming, and before the town knows it a riot has broken out, being fought by people they don’t recognise. Jane is caught up in this and is taken prisoner by the NICE chief of police, a masculine woman called Fairy Hardcastle, who is a crude portrait of sadistic lesbianism. She tortures Jane for information about the manor, and Jane only escapes because the riot gets out of hand. This episode, and Fairy Hardcastle’s later anticipation of an evening’s entertainment in the cells with a new and fluffy female recruit to her forces, is chilling in its automatic assumption that ‘unnatural’ women are automatically bad.
All the women in this novel are to marry and breed, and their rightful place is with their husband. This part of the story has always been the hardest for me to understand, because I am a child of the sixties and was a feminist from my teenage years. I simply cannot comprehend how Lewis could assign authority and intellectual activity to one sex and child-rearing domesticity to another. I just have to assume that, since he attended an all-boys’ school, and lived in all-male colleges for all his adult years, even if he had an alleged long-term affair with the mother of a friend, Lewis knew nothing about women when he wrote this novel. He writes some female characters with respect, but always with the assumption of male authority over women as a God-given norm. Fairy Hardcastle is part of this belief, and it dates the novel badly.
However, despite that, That Hideous Strength is still a great novel. It is written with imagination and wit, with impressive scholarship worn lightly, and in the voice of an Oxford don who can talk to anyone at their own level. Lewis’s anger at the wrong things in life is a challenge as well as endearing. He feels passionately about so many things in this novel. Reading the story is as invigorating as being in a gust of wind, even if we don’t agree with everything he says.
Today’s letter is J in the Why I Really Like This Book podcast recap, and today’s author is Tove Jansson, the Finnish-Swedish artist and writer who died in 2001. She is most famous in Britain (I don’t know about other countries) for her children’s books and cartoon strips about the Moomins, which started to appear in translation from the Finnish in the 1950s. The Moomins are creatures of the woods and forests who have adventures and eat pancakes. They look a little similar to the immortal French cartoon character Barbapapa, but they have huge noses, keep their shapes, and they live in the woods. It doesn’t sound like much, but the charm of the stories lies in their stripped-down dialogue, their spiky practicality and the perfect economy of how the tales are told. Jansson also wrote novels and stories for adults, and, a few years ago, two of these, The Summer Book and A Winter Book, were published in English. If you haven’t read any Scandinavian literature, or are not familiar with the darkness often found in the northern European cast of mind, these books may be a shock. They are delightful yet prickly in unexpected places. The Summer Book is about ageing, and exercising the right to be stroppy when you want to be. The Moomin books are about the joy of independent living where everyone does exactly what they want, but that you also have to take responsibility for that ‘exactly’.
I distinctly remember reading the Moomin books in primary school. I can picture my desk and the feeling of desperately trying to finish Moominland in Midwinter before the bell rang because I might not be allowed to take it home. I saved my pocket money and bought my own copies: Moominsummer Madness cost me 20p. Comet in Moominland meant I didn’t buy white chocolate mice that week, as it cost 25p. But these are not infantile children’s books: these are children’s books with the moral depth of those other, more famous ‘children’s’ books of the period by Tolkien and C S Lewis. Jansson – the illustrator and author – tackles the same questions of order and security as they did, in miniature. All three writers were working during the period of the Second World War and afterwards. All three had a strong interest in using the mythological culture of northern Europe in their fiction, but Jansson drew from the small gods and lesser spirits of her native Finland, whereas the two British men worked from the louder and loftier Norse and Icelandic Sagas. Some of the Moomin stories were made into animated films because you would never get a Hollywood actor to play Moomintroll.
Every Moomin book begins with a quest or a mystery. Jansson’s variant of the young hero figure who goes out to solve the mystery is Moomintroll, a creature with a white furry body, short arms, legs and a tail, and an enormous nose. He is thoughtful, brave, practical, often anxious, and very patient. He lives in Moominvalley with Moominmamma and Moominpappa, in a tall pointed house with a veranda that withstands natural catastrophes calmly. Different creatures come and go, into and out of the family, and Moominmamma cooks pancakes and makes beds for them all. She is profoundly domestic, devoted to her children and quite confident that everything they do will come out right. She is faithfulness personified. Moominpappa is a retired adventurer, and a poet: his early life is told in another book, The Exploits of Moominpappa, in which he sails to the island of the mysterious Hattifatteners to see their Midsummer dance in an atmosphere of burnt rubber and electrical crackles. There is a pointy-nosed creature called Sniff, in whom all teachers and parents will see the eternal small child: adventurous, greedy and completely self-centred. In Comet in Moominland we meet the Snork and his sister, the Snork maiden, who are close relatives of the Moomins, but change colour when affected by their emotions. Moomintroll and the Snork maiden are romantically attached. There are the miserable Hemulens, who all wear long dresses, male and female alike. There are unhappy and obstreperous Fillyjonks, who order people about and insist on being in charge. The teenage Mymble’s daughter and her wicked little sister, Little My, live with the Moomins. Little My is a miniature terror: she lives in a coffee cup, is nasty to everyone when she feels like it, and cuts up the wool in Moominmamma’s work basket.
There are no epic heroes in Jansson, but there is a wanderer, Snufkin, who is as enigmatic and magnetically attractive as Tolkien’s Aragorn, in the sense that we want to know so much more about him than we are told. There is no religious basis in Jansson’s stories, as there so clearly is in Lewis’s Narnia stories, but in times of danger the characters might invoke a rapid request to the Protector-of-all-Small-Beasts. As in Tolkien, there is a demon in the land of the Moomins, the Groke, but it is not huge and full of flame like the Balrog, but secret and miserable, and freezes the ground it sits upon. In Moominland Midwinter, the darkest and saddest of all these books, the Groke moves into Moominvalley, and Moomintroll, who has woken up accidentally from his usual winter hibernation, has to deal with the strange alternative life of the valley on his own. You’ll probably have begun to see that the Moomin stories and characters can be read as allegories of human life.
The characters all have freedom from responsibility, but also have a deep need for order and security. In Comet in Moominland, the family have to rush to Sniff’s cave by the beach to shelter from the comet that is about to crash into the earth, but Moominmamma insists on packing the entire kitchen, and bringing the seashells from around her rosebeds as well. Her unhurried conversation of list-making instructions, as Moominpappa frantically packs the wheelbarrow with provisions for the cave, is so close to the dialogue of Mrs Beaver in C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (published a few years later), when the children and the Beavers have to get away from the White Witch’s forces and all she talks about is not leaving her sewing machine behind, that it seems pretty clear that both Jansson and Lewis were using the short-sightedness of female domesticity to heighten the fictional stress. The Second World War wasn’t far away from the writing of both books: both family parties are evacuating from terrible danger or a terrible disaster. However, there is more to it: if Moominmamma and Mrs Beaver hadn’t insisted on packing so much food, and bedding, nobody would have been comfortable in their refuges. Practical details also matter.
There are dramas and episodes of daring adventure in all the Moomin novels. Comet in Moominland is probably the most spectacular, because as the comet approaches the earth, the streams and rivers dry up, and so does the sea. The travellers make stilts to walk across the sea bottom to get home from the observatory, and encounter an octopus in a sunken ship. Sniff’s greed for shiny things nearly gets him eaten by a giant lizard in a cleft of garnets. The Snork maiden is attacked by an Angostura bush and Moomintroll saves her in something rather like the tussle with Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings. But the need for order is continually struggling to emerge from these fantastical journeys, and is satirised gleefully. The Snork cannot do anything without having a committee meeting first, at which he always elects himself president and secretary. The two grumpy old men Hemulen are obsessive collectors, one of butterflies and the other of stamps, and are incapable of understanding the danger of the comet until it affects what they want to collect.
In Moominsummer Madness the need for order is nearly vanquished. The valley is hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami, and the Moomins and their friends are marooned in boats and on roofs. A deserted theatre floats by, and they jump aboard, to discover the release that make-believe and dressing-up bring. On dry land, Snukfin rebels against order by pulling up all the Strictly Forbidden signs in a park, and is rewarded by the arrival of 24 small children. Snufkin’s life so far has been a celebration of having no responsibility and no possessions, and now he has to feed and keep dry this classful of children. He moves into the Fillyjonk’s house, because she, Moomintroll and the Snork maiden have been put into prison for burning the pulled-up signs in her Midsummer bonfire. But the prison guard’s niece, a very shy little female Hemulen who crochets, lets them go and even does their punishment for them. She does like to feel that she’s doing something right.