Posts Tagged ‘Wales’

The Pendragon Legend

August 21, 2013

I love reading a first novel. Sure, it might not be quite as refined as an author’s later work, but there’s something so thrilling about its pizzazz, the energy of a stream of creativity unleashed for the first time. (I feel a Top Five First Novels might be coming on…)

The Pendragon LegendThe Pendragon Legend is Antal Szerb’s first novel. He wrote it in 1934 but it was translated into English – wonderfully, although, knowing no Hungarian, who am I to say? – by Len Rix for the brilliant Pushkin Press just seven years ago.

Why is it that saying I’ve just read something Hungarian sounds so high-brow? In fact, on the face of it, The Pendragon Legend is easy peasy, gripping and very funny too. It felt like Tintin for grown-ups, full of scrapes and adventures, improbable kidnappings and ghoulish apparitions.

Dr János Bátky is a young Hungarian studying in London. At a soiree, he meets an Earl and it transpires that they are both interested in the same – pretty esoteric – Rosicrucian histories. The Earl invites him to stay in his Welsh castle, where there is a formidably good library:

I was filled with the tenderness I always feel – and which nothing can match – when I encounter so many books together. At moments like these I long to wallow, to bathe in them, to savour their wonderful, dusty, old-book odours, to inhale them through my very pores.

Booklovers will, of course, know exactly what he means.

Things get a little fishy as soon as Bátky receives the invitation. He gets a threatening phonecall, picks up a questionable hanger-on, and is asked to delivery a mysterious ring. Everything gets yet weirder at the castle, when the cartridges are removed from his revolver, and there is a great deal of unnerving activity at night.

Bátky struggles to reconcile his rational, scholarly mind with the bizarre other-worldly events that are taking place. He reflects:

The single most eerie thing about our planet is that there are no such things as ghosts. For this, as for everything else, there must be a rational explanation, but it has always escaped me. What, for example, is one supposed to do, at midnight, when a giant mediaeval figure that is not a ghost is standing before your bedroom door?

In this instance there is a perfectly logical explanation. As Osborne, the Earl’s nephew, reassures Bátky the next morning:

An ancient ruling requires the Earl of Gwynedd to maintain thirty night-watchmen, complete with halberds, wherever he resides. Even their garments are prescribed. There’s nothing unusual in that. Britain is full of these old mediaeval statutes. Anyway, thirty men with halberds are a great deal more practical than the knights in armour Lord Whatsisname has to keep permanently at the ready.

Later on, Bátky struggles again to describe strange night happenings:

There are some things that are only true at night. There was no way I could have discussed them. I would have been ashamed to. One is ashamed of the incomprehensible, the irrational, as though it were a form of mental illness.

And again, later, he says:

There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken. It just isn’t possible to explain … We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning. One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.

Throughout the novel there is this dichotomy between the everyday world – the love affairs, friendships and adventures – and the mysterious nocturnal happenings, which no one can quite get a handle on. It was a dichotomy I noticed in Susan Hill’s The Small Hand too – that ghost story became all the more affective for its psychoanalytical ramifications.

Antal SzerbHere, it’s not clear what this other world is. There are hints of Freud, such as when Bátky is wandering through the endless dark corridors of the castle ruins and remarks that he has often dreamed of the same thing. In some respects, it is the world of tradition – evident in the old English rulings that demand servants wearing strange costumes. Perhaps, also, this other world is myth. Like Frankenstein, The Pendragon Legend is a retelling of the Prometheus myth – of what happens when man tries to reach beyond his mortal power.

That this was written in 1934, the year that Hitler became Führer, and that Szerb was murdered in a forced labour camp in 1945, gives this myth a chilling resonance. Behind all the exciting adventure, Szerb gives a prescient glimpse of the pure evil that would spread through Europe: ‘beyond words … utterly horrible’. How could there be a rational explanation for the horrors that were beginning to unfold?

This is the sinister and terrible edge to The Pendragon Legend. And yet, the balance is perfect. The horror gleams threateningly but is masked by a romp of an adventure, and acute, funny observations about the British that only a European could make. It has left me itching to read more from this wonderful Hungarian novelist, whose formidable talent was so tragically cut short.

Antal Szerb collection

The Dark is Rising

May 14, 2013

The Dark is RisingI began re-reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising quintet at Christmas. I was staying at my Mum’s and one night I found I was unable to sleep, having snoozed through most of the afternoon. Looking through the bookshelves of my childhood, filled with Beatrix Potter, Swallows and Amazons, the multi-coloured Children’s Britannica, and other nostalgic delights, I alighted on this slim collection of novels with way-out fantasy covers. I remember being so terrified by the cover of The Dark is Rising (the second in the series) that I couldn’t sleep with it turned upwards by my bed, and always had to leave it face down, preferably safely hidden underneath another book.

Over Sea Under StoneThat night I re-read, cover-to-cover, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is the first in the series. It is about the three Drew children who go on holiday to Cornwall. They stay in an old house, where they discover an old map and they soon find themselves on a quest for King Arthur’s grail. Funny how in children’s literature, when you go on holiday you tend to find yourself on a very exciting quest, whereas in adult literature, you go on holiday and either fall in love or discover something about yourself. Even now I’m a grown-up, I’d rather my holidays followed the first plot line.

This family adventure story that’s set in a Cornwall steeped in Arthurian legend is great fun, but it doesn’t begin to prepare you for the books that are to come.

The Dark is Rising, which I read a couple of weeks later when feeling poorly, is a terrifying coming-of-age story. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve, the night before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday:

It was then, without warning, that the fear came.

The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger … there was only a dreadful darkness in his mind, a sense of looking into a great black pit.

It’s a brilliant description of terror, which we soon learn is an expression of the Dark. Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of The Old Ones, a force for the Light. He is about to embark on his first quest for the Light, helped on his way by Merriman Lyon, who we met in the first book.

This gives a new resonance to children’s common fear of the dark. Throughout the books, the Dark’s presence is often felt psychologically – a dark fug of fear not a million miles from J.K. Rowling’s Dementors – rather than physically. The Grey KingThis idea is explored again in the character Caradog Prichard in the fourth book of the series, The Grey King. Caradog is clearly not a good person, but Will suddenly understands the awful full implication of this:

Will was filled with an overpowering compassion: an awareness of what must inevitably overtake Caradog Prichard if he were not checked, now, for always, in this passion before it was too late. Stop he longed to call to him: stop, before the Grey King sees you and puts out his hand in friendship, and you, unwitting, take it and are destroyed…

Man’s ambition and weakness can be taken advantage of by the Dark for its own terrible ends.

In The Dark is Rising, Cooper is very good at depicting the challenges and contradictions of Will’s double life. One minute he’s the youngest child in a big family, sparring with his older brothers, saving up pocket money for Christmas presents, feeding the rabbits. The next he’s on a terrifying magical quest, trying to save the world from the forces of the Dark.

Of course Will’s situation is greatly exaggerated, but I remember a similar feeling from childhood of having a whole complicated imaginary world which was completely separate from adult reality. Whether it was from reading books, or playing games, or organising midnight feasts, there was always something going on which felt top secret, that the grown-ups wouldn’t understand and that had to be concealed from them at boring moments like supper or home-time. Cooper brilliantly captures this feeling of a child’s life being an intersection of different worlds.

GreenwitchThe Drew children re-appear, alongside Will Stanton, in the third book, Greenwitch, which is a kind of feminine Wicker Man. Then there’s The Grey King – every bit as terrifying as The Dark is Rising, when Will stays with some cousins in Wales, where he meets the mysterious albino boy Bran. Finally, there’s Silver on the Tree, which brings all the characters together in the ultimate test of good versus evil.

There is much to enjoy in this quest-filled quintet, but above all, I love the way the series is so firmly rooted in the British landscape, inspired by British stories and traditions. The Grey King, for instance, centres on Welsh tropes. At the heart of the story is the Brenin Llwyd, traditionally a Celtic King who lives in the Snowdonian mountain Cader Idris. Cooper casts him as a force for the Dark. Will has to find a golden harp – a Welsh object if ever there was one – and there is even an important sheepdog.

Silver on the TreeIn Silver on the Tree, the tree of the title is in the Chilterns. This is the scene when they find it:

Then the last of the mist blew away, and in the dim light beneath the lowering sky they saw a line of trees before them, a wood of beech trees capping a round chalk hill – and, gradually appearing on the slope in front of the wood, a single huge tree … It was an oak tree, more vast and ancient than any tree they had ever seen.

I’m not sure there could be a more English landscape!

These books are about oak trees and other trees and the folklore of English wildflowers and Welsh mountains. They are about Celtic myth and Arthurian legend, and about the Old Ways – ancient paths through the landscape that have magical powers of protection (Robert Macfarlane should take note).

Cooper often transports her characters from the present day to an ancient time, while keeping the place the same. It is a wonderful way of capturing the layers of history encapsulated in the landscape, or as Macfarlane would put it, the land’s ‘storiations’.

Susan Cooper wrote Over Sea, Under Stone when she was working at The Sunday Times in London. The rest of the quintet came later, however, once she’d moved to America. Cooper was very homesick and in an interview on her website she says:

I was so homesick that when I went home to Wales to visit my parents a few months after moving, my husband later said he was afraid I wouldn’t come back … My homesickness never went away. It bubbled up into The Dark Is Rising, a fantasy about the Light and the Dark that is at the same time intensely English, every inch of it set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.

Perhaps this vivid conjuring of British landscape in the books helped to ease her homesickness. It certainly transports the reader to the various settings, making me long to go to Cornwall, Wales and Buckinghamshire.

I loved re-reading these books from my childhood and found they had definitely stood the test of time. I find children’s books are best read when feeling a little overtired or poorly – there is something about the imaginative quests and the elemental background of good versus evil which really takes hold of my mind when it’s already feeling somewhat unhinged from reality. I think next time I read The Dark is Rising sequence will be when I go on a staycation to Wales, Cornwall or Buckinghamshire. They would definitely bring a new resonance to the landscape and who knows, perhaps the holiday would take a more adventurous turn.

And for those of you who are either terrified by the old Michael Heslop covers or unimpressed by the current Penguin ones, you might be tempted by these completely beautiful editions with illustrations by Laura Carlin, recently published by The Folio Society.

Folio Society editions of The Dark is Rising