Book review: Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

I had not been aware of the English fantasy writer Robert Holdstock until he died and I read his obituary. I thought from what that said, his work sounded just my sort of thing, but I didn’t get round to reading it for some time until I happened to be killing time near a large library while waiting for my car to be ready. He had also been featured shortly before in Ashsilverlock’s blog. I’m glad I took the opportunity.

 

“Mythago Wood” is the first book in a series. It is very different from the sort of fantasy you find in Tolkien or Peake, where you are immediately in a strange but compelling world and you either accept it or you don’t. This starts with our world, the English county of Herefordshire and a time just after the end of the Second World War. The narrator is a young man returning from war wounds to the house where his remote and strange father had died not long before, and which is now occupied by his elder brother, also returned from the war.

 

The house is lonely and on the edge of a mysterious wood. Anyone trying to walk into it finds himself blocked, diverted and coming out again. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, but the central idea is that in this wood, archetypes or mythical figures we’ve long forgotten can take on flesh and mind and a real existence. These are called mythagos. If a present-day human spends enough time in and penetrates deep enough into the wood, creatures are created in the image of his own unknown dreams. Once created, they seem to have short lives but are entirely corporeal, needing to eat and capable of killing.

 

But is this just the reality of the outer parts of the wood?

 

Because of the realistic start, it took me a while to feel taken up by the story, in contrast to Tolkien or Peake. It’s well-written but I’m not quite drawn in as completely as by some other first-class fantasy. It is very, very well done, though. The touches of myth are credible in their own traditions and Holdstock is very good at taking some real event and turning it into mythic expression. There are a few points about the this-word elements which aren’t quite credible: for example, a character, a serving air force officer, gets a spear in his shoulder from a mythago and is “patched up” at his base. But didn’t his comrades, in late nineteen-forties ordered England, insist on knowing what had happened and call the police?

 

The image of the wood invading the house is very powerful, as is the stream that goes into the wood and grows inside it to a river, but is a stream again when it exits.

 

I’m fascinated to find things in this book I didn’t know about but which correspond closely to what I’ve written. For example, my long poem “Six Strands” contains a section “Forest” which sounds in part very like Holdstock’s wood.

 

The next volume is “Lavondyss”. Like the narrator, I will go there…

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Captain

 

When I was young, the captain said,

I climbed the twisted cherry tree

And clutching branches, I was free

Until the tree was dry and dead.

 

When I was older and was strong

Three broken bridges under stars

Were blocked by giants thick with scars

And it was mine to right the wrong.

 

When I was old, the captain said,

I sat beside the whispering waves

And heard their talk of opened graves

And wandered back to sleep in bed.

 

Now I have seen the tree in flower

And crossed the bridges that were banned

And felt a breath, and felt a hand

It is the place, it is the hour.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book Review: The General – Charles De Gaulle: Jonathan Fenby

A bit different from the literary reviews and poetic musings, but after all I have a History degree and am politically active. I was just about beginning to be politically aware when General De Gaulle came to power in an ambiguous situation in 1958 (was he saving the democratic Republic or on the way to becoming a dictator, and having come to power on the back of a revolt by opponents of France leaving Algeria, what actually was his Algerian policy?) He resigned as President around the time my student days ended. He was a huge figure for all that period, often strange to Anglo-Saxons and often giving offence to them.

I’d better not make this a discussion of De Gaulle’s record and character, if only because he was a complex man who had an enormous effect on history from 1940 when he refused to accept France’s defeat at the hands of the Nazis to 1969 when he finally went into retirement. I will say though, that there is something about military men in politics that fascinates me. I don’t mean your common Latin American caudillo coming to power by a coup (such men are often militarily incompetent anyway), but people who have taken on the lonely responsibilities of military command while remaining caring humans, and then have made a mark in democratic, or at least representative and not authoritarian, politics. I include Cromwell in that along with Wellington, De Gaulle and (despite his presiding over huge corruption) U.S. Grant.

Jonathan Fenby is an author and journalist who is an expert on China, but knows France well (not just because of his French wife). He does an excellent job on De Gaulle and seems at home both in the details of military campaigns and in high and low politics. He rightly stresses De Gaulle’s enormous contribution to reforming the French political system, while not glossing over his vanities such as making himself the supposed saviour of French-speakers in Canada and Belgium.

I perhaps learnt most from his description of the Second World War years – how divided the British authorities were on this awkward, headstrong but inspiring Frenchman who was already claiming that he “incarnated” France, and how much reason De Gaulle had to mistrust the Americans (my very favourable view of Roosevelt took a bit of a knock when I learnt he was proposing that liberated France, which had joined war against Fascism nearly two years before the USA, should be run by American military governors or that part of Northern France should be split off to join a new state based on French-speaking Belgium).

This is a thoughtful and very readable book (if you’re even slightly interested in politics or history) and achieves an excellent balance between narrative and analysis. Just one question: the blurb quotes several enthusiastic reviews, but none by French people. Were there any, and if not, I wonder why!

Dark Lady

The term “dark lady” is famous because of a mysterious reference in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. No one knows for sure who the dark lady was, but she clearly meant a lot to Shakespeare. The terms “dark” and even “black” were used very widely in England in the 16th and 17th centuries (the future Charles II, on the run from Cromwell’s men, was described in a sort of wanted poster as a “tall black man” (he had the hair and skin of his French mother).

 

“Dark” of course, much more than “black”, conveys a sense of mystery and ominous threat or frightening secrets. So why is this poem called “Dark Lady”? Good question.

 

DARK LADY

 

VEIL

 

If I came to you in a dark veil, would you think you knew me?

If I came as a dark in light, would you deny me?

Or as a hint of a tune, employ me?

What do you remember of me among the rustling branches?

What are you reaching to in the owl-rich night

Or where the ice is cracking with your blind advances, calling?

I am the voice you forgot after the dream

You have been following, I was unseen

I will throw off the veil when you are falling

And when we leap among the stars, you shall have sight.

 

FOREST

 

When I became a forest in my dream

The impatient squirrels, the flame-feathered birds,

Slow motion green-glossed struggle of the trees

Rose from the soil that was humanity.

 

When I became a forest in my dream

I felt the touch of winter on the leaves

The pain of cold and hunger in many bones

The dying of a generation

Dragonfly glory preparing to take wing.

 

SAND

 

When I became a forest in my dreams

One day the trees were washed away by wind

The fertile soil rose in screaming clouds

And all around was sand

But to that broken land

Came once again the rebirth of the sea.

 

TEMPLE

 

What image might I put on the temple wall

That people might overlook the fall of nations

And feeling the death of beasts they could not see

Look up to a mountain or a dark lady?

Some delicate shimmering beauty risen from the dark,

Eternal dragonfly that only falls

To rise and be.

 

DARK LADY

 

If I came to you now with shimmering wings

If I came to you with the song of birds

High in the green kaleidoscope of the canopy

Would you then know the figure forming in the dark

And touch what somehow never was there to see?

 

 

Maybe the figure of the Dark Lady stands for something frightening that turns out not to be evil. The image of finding light in dark (not a light in the dark) occurs elsewhere in my poems.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book Review: Boris Akunin, Pelagia and the Red Rooster

I’ve reviewed a couple of Akunin’s Erast Fandorin detective/thriller stories here before, but this is my first encounter with his other detective hero, an Orthodox nun, Sister Pelagia. The period is the same, obviously one Akunin has researched and feels at home in, the last thirty years or so of Tsarist Russia. I can imagine that present-day Russian readers feel a fascination for this period.

Fandorin is an official whose duties lead to him investigating or trying to prevent crimes, or, later, an ex-official who has retained detective interests. That a nun is a detective demands a greater leap of imagination, more actually than for England’s and G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, whose pastoral duties brought him into contact with crime. One thing I noted was that for a nun, Pelagia didn’t seem very religious, in contrast to Father Brown.

The story moves between the Russian Empire and Palestine. There is a fascinating picture of pilgrims, Jewish settlers and others travelling from Russia to Palestine. I would think the picture of Palestine in that period is quite accurate, but I’m not well-qualified to say. The story begins with a double murder and revolves around attempts to kill a mysterious prophet – but Pelagia herself becomes an assassin’s target. Some of the dramatic physical action in the Fandorin stories is far-fetched, a bit like reading a transcript of a James Bond film rather than the more restrained and credible original novel. To a degree that’s true here too.

The mystery is well-maintained. Whoever wants the prophet and Pelagia dead is clearly rich and powerful – but who is it and what is the motive?

A considerable sadistic element becomes evident. Innocent and likeable characters get brutally murdered one after the other. This creates shock, but I wonder about the need for shock after shock after shock. Two characters have their eyes poked out in separate incidents. We are introduced to a nobleman who collects, amongst other things, female body parts. He’s meant to be a monster, but again I have some doubts, at least about the degree of the horror.

The ending reveals a lot more about the prophet, which I find to be sensitively and credibly done, but introduces some dubious magicality which doesn’t, for me, sit very well with the rest of the story.

Well, what do I say? Well-written; fascinating much of the time; but unlike the Fandorin books, I don’t recommend it.

Lost Island

Time for another poem. I’ll leave it to you all to decide what it’s about!

LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Aldeburgh Poetry Festival

On Saturday I attended my first poetry festival – well, only one day out of three: Aldeburgh is near enough to home for me to drive up and back on the same day and far enough that I don’t fancy three such trips in succession. Many people, including some from quite near, stay in a hotel or B&B for two nights, but my policy this first time was suck it and see.

The website told me all sorts of things but not where the event was being held, except to give the vague impression it was in the small town of Aldeburgh. This was wrong, but it was there in previous years! There is a little bit of cosy insiderism about the event and I think the knowledge of the venue was intended to spread by osmosis.

The venue, Snape Maltings, is fantastic – converted old barns and industrial buildings at the upper end of a Suffolk estuary, with the river and reedbeds right by the buildings.It’s mostly used for music events and is a kind of memorial to the composer Benjamin Britten. Another, slighter, problem: I like classical music but am not a great fan of Britten, whose posthumous presence was a little overpowering. The conversion is imaginative, leaving interesting features like old wooden hatches as well as marvellous weathered brickwork.

Mixing with other poets and poetry-lovers is warming and reinforcing, though given the concentration there of serious poetry nuts, the programme might have included more discussion. Some excellent poets performed: I was impressed enough by Julie Copus’ vivid, caring language and David Wheatley’s anarchic humour to buy their books on display. Just from a few conversations with others attending, I found one person had come from Leeds and another from Manchester – a long way within England, especially for a location not easily reached by public transport.

The peculiarity of the incomplete information on the website was a warning that the organisation was rather patchy, especially in respect of the little things like doors you weren’t supposed to go through being so marked, but there were no major disasters. Most of the presumably volunteer helpers were very friendly and helpful but a couple of upper-middle-class older ladies were fussy and officious. Apparently the event’s funders have required it to reach out to a wider audience, and for this to succeed, such things matter.

The audience covered a wider range of ages and I think women slightly outnumbered men. I saw two Black faces and one Far Eastern, but two of those three were poets performing there.

While the poets performing were mostly exciting, I found people introducing them by reading rather pseud enthusiastic descriptions from a prepared text a bit of a turn-off. Some of these were reproduced in the programme. These were the descriptions of the featured “young poets”:

A: Intelligent and attractively idiosyncratic

B: Seriously playful and inventive

C: Appealingly intimate and assured

D: Eloquent and unflinchingly affirmative.

Now my first thought was that none of these descriptions would help me decide how much I wanted to hear this person’s work. The second one was that these could be four descriptions from wine bottles or wine writers’ reviews. I can quite easily imagine some wine writer for the “Telegraph” or “The Guardian” describing a wine as “eloquent and unflinchingly affirmative”. Maybe I’d be a bit worried to see my white wine was supposed to be “intelligent” (what would it be thinking as I drank it?) and just possibly the term “inventive” might worry me if it applied to the wine rather than the grower or bottler.

Nonetheless, a fun day.

An Imperious Poem

No, I don’t usually self-promote quite so blatantly. I’m punning as usual – or not quite punning, because the word “imperious” comes from the words for empire and emperor. An imperious voice is the kind of voice you’d expect an authoritative emperor to have.

This is a re-posting of just one poem because it’s a long one – called

EMPIRE

1

The empire’s heavy with scented blooms

A thousand scents, a thousand shapes

Umbellifer and ornate lily

The darkest iris, palest rose

The old Recorder of the Flowers

Each month in leather and brass bound book

Records the new varieties

The rich museums have many rooms.

The empire sings a thousand songs

Each city sang a different tune

Last year, each temple has its own.

The imperial gardens’ vibrant birds

Cannot outsing ten thousand choirs

The Emperor hears each song that flowers

Remembers one his mother sang:

Though blurred with power and wine, he longs.

The book of all the empire’s guards,

The armies, fortresses and fleets,

Defeats the sourest minister

Who’d number them and set their place

The sun on ranks of helmets shines

And blinds the eyes of tired bards.

The queen is in her carven tower

With silver and ebony interwoven

With jumping deer and dolphins’ play

With measured mark of rose and clover

And all the screens that ring her bower

Show everything that grows and dies,

The struggle of a sandy farm,

A somnolent priest’s ingenious lies,

Regiments changing hour by hour.

2

A restless baby cries as though

It never cried before, the cock

That rules a servant’s smallholding

Triumphant marks the dawn’s return.

The bells sound out from tower to tower

Seas in the dawn may seem to burn

To those without the power to know.

The clocks grind slow, sand on the wind

Has clogged them, the astronomer

Has lost the stars in clouds of dust

The birds sing less, the attentive guards

Along the watchtowers of the walls

In sandstorms see the ghosts of men

In dust devils the shaking heads

Of trampling horses of the dead

And nothing when the blur has thinned.

The famished horsemen, lifeless shacks,

The starving women, rag-held bones,

The baglike carcases of goats

The drying up of ancient wells

In the uncounted and unflowered lands

Reported by the empire’s spies

And clients set moving old replies

The walls grow thicker, more patrols

Search for the early warning cracks.

The warning sirens came too late

The mechanisms were at fault.

The gates did not shut as they should

In just one section of the line.

The desperate barbarians swarm

Through corridors rising rivers of blood.

And through the crumbling walls of thought

The tangling of all intricate forms

Of gold and music crushed, a roar

Rises: the unformed world’s in spate.

3

The gardens are all overgrown

The bells are silent; silent cage

Abandoned where the bird once sang

Is crushed with buckle, bugle, crown

And all that rose up high is down.

The children play with sceptre and skull

A rose ascends the temple wall

The smallholding is burnt, and burnt

The servant of the emperor’s will

This wonderful lady’s smile is fixed

Her sparkling brooch is grown dull.

The queen still sits in living tower

The images of deer and dance

Still play on all the watchful screens

Comforting the wondering queen

With aching song and shimmering flower,

But nothing outside the tower survives

That she would dare to recognise

And nothing is seen but dust and death

By all its hundred thousand eyes.

4

The wandering girl has found a thing

Untwisted, goes around her wrist

And polished, sparkles in the light;

The wandering girl begins to dance

And as the tower crumbles down

The wandering girl begins to sing.

This paints a picture of a rich empire full of marvellous art. It’s at peace, it’s governed in an orderly fashion and its inhabitants seem to be quite prosperous. This isn’t a history or sociology book, of course: any rich civilisation has its poor and its power-struggles. So you could say this is not a real empire.

The empire is protected by great walls and many soldiers. Outside the walls are poorer, less fertile lands and barbarian tribes who present a threat to the empire, though if the walls hold the threat is minimal. The empire does not appear to exploit the barbarians, but it does not help or benefit them.

Something changes – apparently the weather, perhaps a failure of rains, so the lands of the empire are clogged with dust. Outside its walls the effect is much worse and people starve. The imperial authorities predict that this will lead to invasion attempts and strengthen the defences. Something in the defences doesn’t work and the empire is overthrown in a bloodbath. All its culture is destroyed.

At the end in the figure of the wandering girl who finds an old bracelet and who dances, we find the beginnings of new culture.

A central figure is the queen. I realise she should be the empress, but maybe they had queens too! She is a mysterious figure, unlike the realistic emperor. She lives in an enchanted (or hight-tech) tower where she sees everything that is happening, but with a bias towards beauty. When the empire collapses and its people die, she does not see that at all and the outdated pleasant images continue, though perhaps she is suspicious. When the wandering girl dances, the tower collapses. I don’t want to interpret this too much, but the collapse of the tower, the old beauty, marks the beginning of the new beauty.

Technically the poem is an experiment. With slight variations, each line is of eight syllables, with a stressed syllable following an unstressed one – a traditional metre good for telling a story. However, although the stanzas (or whatever you call them) are of varying length, the opening and closing lines rhyme in every case.

I’ve played with the sound of some quite long and uncommon words here – umbellifer, ornate, imperial, somnolent – which I think expresses the complex culture of the empire.

Of course the collapse of the empire could be other things – the death of an artist, the fall of a tree, a surge of unconscious urges into an ordered, rational world (suggested by “the unformed world’s in spate”).

As someone politically fairly left, instinctively sympathising with the dispossessed, I guess this is about the most favourable portrait of an empire I’ve done. I do show its fall as a tragedy, but not a tragedy without a hopeful ending, and I think the poem makes the point that the empire is collectively selfish. I think I’ve been influenced by Yeats’ idea of and portrayal of Byzantium.

This is, I think, my second longest poem and my own view is that it shows a long poem can keep up intensity.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012