steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Enduring Love

I took part in a Facebook meme about listing books that I'd loved as a child and continue to love now. I started almost perfunctorily, but warmed to my theme as I continued, to the extent that I thought it worth preserving the sequence here...

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
I fear this list will be rather predictable. Not entirely so: no Diana Wynne Jones or Tove Jansson, for example, both of whom I first encountered in adulthood (though they were around early enough for us to have met, had our paths crossed). I begin, though, with something entirely obvious - the very first 'long' book I ever read by myself.

Green Eggs and Ham
Would you, could you, with a goat?

Today's "book I loved as a child and still love" is Dr Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham - the book which really got me reading at the age of five, after a faltering start with Tip and Mitten at school.

When I say I still love it I don't mean that I regularly curl up for a reread but that thinking about it still sparks joy, in a Marie Kondo kind of way. I have a strong memory of finding it on top of the present pile at the end of my parents' bed one Christmas morning. I was delighted of course, having hankered after it for some time, but there was still something bothering me.

"Surely Father Christmas didn't buy this!" I said accusingly to my mother. "The only person to whom I confided my desire for this book was... YOU!"

Put on the spot like that, she had to admit that she had indeed bought it, and quietly added it to the pile that FC had left earlier in the night.

With that explanation I was satisfied.

The Enchanted Castle
Here's the third of my books-I-loved-as-a-child-and-love-still choices, E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle. In a way it can stand for Nesbit in general, because I was and am a general Nesbit fan, but this is the one I found most... well, enchanting. If you've ever enjoyed the eldritch charms of moonlit gardens or living dinosaur statues (this from the writer of 'Man-Size in Marble'), thrilled in terror to Uglie Wuglies, or wondered just which of Nesbit's books was most influential on Edward Eager's Half Magic, look no further. The opening chapters are a great way of teaching Todorov's theory of the fantastic, too, but that I was not to discover until later life.

Tom's Midnight Garden
Yesterday's books-loved-as-a-child choice featured moonlit gardens, so it seems right to follow it up with a midnight garden, and the favourite children's book of so many children's writers.

By coincidence, I've just been enjoying Pearce's collection, 'What the Neighbours Did,' which (unlike Tom's Midnight Garden) is on Hayao Miyazaki's list of fifty favourite children's books. It's excellent; but for me, and probably for most people, TMG is still her best.

Although this cover long post-dates my first reading, I liked it so much that I bought the original artwork.

The Dark is Rising
My introduction to Susan Cooper's work wasn't very auspicious. My mother (an English teacher at the time) came home with a copy of Over Sea, Under Stone, and, reading the blurb, said a bit disparagingly: "Three children go treasure hunting while on holiday in Cornwall. It all sounds a bit Enid Blyton, doesn't it?" I laughed too.

However, as she started to read the book, her attitude changed. "This author can really write!" I read it afterwards, and was hooked. My mother had particularly appreciated the handling of the action sequences, but I stayed for the Arthurian overtones and the magic. And then, of course, I read the rest of the sequence...

DIR was always my favourite. I can see why some people like The Grey King more: it's more emotionally complex, and less dependent on the plot-token structure of DIR (and of the sequence as a whole). When Nick Lowe coined that term it was partly in reference to the DIR sequence, in fact ("the hapless goodies have to run down no fewer than nine different plot tokens before they can send off to the author for the ending"), but I think it's a prime example of the adage that any device can work in the hands of someone who knows what they're about, or who can infuse it with sufficient belief.

For me, DIR wasn't so much a novel; it was a casting, and when I went to Royal Holloway College later, and found myself within walking distance of Windsor Great Park, I felt as if I'd been parachuted into the novel's landscape - especially during my first winter there, which was exceptionally sharp.

I wrote fan letters to SC around that time, to which she kindly replied, and much later (after I'd had some books of my own published and worked up the nerve to send her one) we reopened the correspondence. We've never stopped. I've hung out with her in both Machynlleth and Massachusetts, as well as a few easier-to-spell places, and these days I'm proud to call her a friend; but that doesn't stop me being a fan as well.

Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends
If I could be sure that I'd read The King Must Die as a child then this spot might have gone to Mary Renault, because that book had the most profound effect on my way of thinking about Greek myth, giving it a decisive turn away from the marble colonnade where it had seemed to belong towards blood, madness and death. All of which were excellent preparation for my later reading - nay, life.

However, although I read Renault young I'm not sure exactly how young, so here instead is a book that's definitely from my childhood: Anne Terry's Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. There's a strong Greek bias in this hefty volume, but Terry found time to tell various other European legends too: here I first learned about Beowulf, Siegfried, Roland and Oliver.

What struck me most vividly, though, were not the adequately retold stories but the Provensens' illustrations. Looking back, they seem very sixties (the book was actually published in 1959), but at the time periodisation was not my forte, and I remember being simultaneously frustrated, puzzled and attracted by them. Their slabs of stained-glass colour, sharp angles and questionable physiology did not accord with my own experience, but perhaps there was a place or time where such things might be, or have been? While not exactly "loving" this book, I did find myself coming back to it: it lent a shape and palette to my imagination of the Mediterranean legendarium for decades to come. So, it earns a place here both in its own right and as a representative of the many books of legends that would follow.

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table
Helen Fulton, riffing on Baudrillard, once described King Arthur as "a copy without an original" - meaning that there was no literary ur-Arthur to which all the rest could be traced back, and against which they could be checked.

In a general sense, she was right; but each individual reader has their ur-Arthur, and mine was Roger Lancelyn Green's King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (1953).

Of course, I've read a lot about Arthur since then: chivalric Arthurs, down-and-dirty Arthurs, post-Roman Arthurs, magical Arthurs, cuckold Arthurs, archaeological Arthurs, faerie Arthurs, Welsh Arthurs, Arthurs English. I've read many of the texts that RLG used himself: Malory, the Gawain poet, Wace, Layamon, Geoffrey, Chretien and the rest. I've read Gildas the Wise to see where Arthur wasn't, and Nennius to see the many places he was. I've visited his table in Winchester and his seat in Edinburgh, his birthplace in Tintagel and his grave in Glastonbury, amongst other way-stops. (The man got around.)

If I had read another book about Arthur before RLG's, perhaps I would be putting that one on this list. But no bonfire will light without a spark, and RLG provided that for me. I'd like to add that his is a pretty straightforward, relatively comprehensive, only slightly stylised, telling, and thus ideal for a first introduction to the Matter of Britain. I feel the truth of that in my bones - but I'm well aware that in saying so I have fallen headlong into Professor Fulton's trap, because all I mean by it is that it's a kind of children's version of Malory, and that Malory's is the One True Arthur, quondam et futuris.

(And why do I instinctively feel that about Malory? Because reading Malory reminded me of Roger Lancelyn Green.)

The Chrysalids
What happens if you discover you have special powers? These days, everybody know that the most likely scenarios are an invitation to join a) the Justice League or b) Hogwarts. How splendid, in either case!

It wasn’t always like this. In the ‘70s, the usual response to such a discovery was fear of being either captured by a travelling circus or experimented on by scientists. (Yes, Escape to Witch Mountain, I’m looking at you.) Those, at any rate, were the standard reasons given for keeping one’s supernatural abilities a secret from the adults, though there were variations, such as that They Can’t Handle the Truth (Old Ones) or They Aren’t Sufficiently Evolved (Tomorrow People). To be different was dangerous.

John Wyndham explored variations on this theme in several books. In Chocky, the specialness is on temporary loan from an alien; in The Midwich Cuckoos it’s hostile, and the adults have good reason to fear (and kill) the telepathic tots. I was disappointed by the former, but enjoyed the latter very much – rooting for the children, of course.

But the one that spoke to me most clearly was The Chrysalids (1955). This moves the scene of telepathic discovery away from Wyndham’s usual Christie-cosy post-war English setting to post-apocalyptic Labrador, where a puritanical society attempts to stamp out genetic mutations through banishment or death. An extra toe is enough to get you sent to the irradiated badlands: what would they do if they found out you were a telepath? Your only advantage is that the mutation isn’t visible – just be sure not to give it away! (The same goes for the other telepaths, whom you know only through your telepathic conversations – none of you must let on!)

I don’t know if Wyndham *meant* this as a kind of LGBT allegory, but it speaks very powerfully as one. The cocktail of paranoia, the urgent need for secrecy, and a flattering assurance of specialness, was pretty intoxicating for me when I read it at about 12, anyway. I’ve no idea whether this book is still popular, or even in print, but I still have my copy.

The Owl Service
Scrrrritch, scrrritch, scrrritch. What is that sound, scratching at the television screen and evidently trying to get out? Don’t worry, it’s just old Huw raking the gravel – and look, here’s some lovely Welsh harp music, to soothe your nerves. Oh, but now it’s been drowned out by the revving of a motorbike! What can it all mean?

When The Owl Service was broadcast on television, with a script by the author, I was not quite seven years old. My memories of it are correspondingly hazy, though I think it creeped out my brother Martin (then 9) a good deal. Mythic violence apart, those were the days when the first episode of a children’s television series could end on an erotically charged night encounter between adolescent step-siblings, and no one thought anything of it… (That encounter is not in the book, by the way – it was precipitated by the demands of the format.)

However little I consciously remembered at the time, I’m sure that a good deal of the imagery sank into the silty depths of my subconscious, where it would be rediscovered, much like the One Ring (to use a simile Garner would probably not savour), by my prepubescent Sméagol self. Of course, anyone who is aware that I went on to write a 300-page book about Garner (along with Susan Cooper, DWJ and Penelope Lively) will not be particularly surprised that I loved his work as a child – but I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that this was and is my favourite. What I think about it is more than sufficiently dilated upon in Four British Fantasists, but at a personal level it also conjures up the summers I spent with my rich-at-the-time Welsh relatives at Llanrhydd Hall near Ruthin, albeit they were slightly less dysfunctional. It was also, of course, a gateway drug to the Mabinogion.

This Keltikraft souvenir completes this short series, and is dedicated as a small birthday gift to Neil Philip, who has done more for Garner studies than anyone else. Il miglior fabbro; or, as they say in Alderley Edge: “Champion fettler, that lad.”
Tags: books
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