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Wormholes and tunnels

8 December 2018

The main topics of conversation at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch this month was two literary tropes evident in Alan Garner’s early books and several others — first, the boundary between different worlds, and secondly, underground tunnels.

Cafe 41, Arcadia, where we hold our monthly literary coffee klatsch

Concerning other worlds, there are writers like Tolkien, who set his main stories entirely in another world of his own imagining. Then there are writers like C.S. Lewis, who has his characters travelling between our world and another, whether to other planets, as in his space trilogy, or in a different dimension, as in his Narnia stories. Except that in That Hideous Strength, where, following the example of his fellow-Inkling Charles Williams, he has the other world irrupting into this one. And Alan Garner does that too, in his first two children’s novels, and even in Elidor.

The means of literary transition from one world to another are various. For some it is by means of wormholes, In one book I have just been reading, Black House there are some rather good descriptions of such boundaries or transitions as “slippage”. Quite ordinary things, like a house and the road leading to it, begin to seem alien and oddly out of place. In Lewis’s Narnia stories it is a wardrobe made from wood from another world, or a picture. In his space trilogy it is a road at disk leading to a slightly sinister house, as it is in the case of the eponymous Black House

Black HouseBlack House by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A couple of weeks ago I picked up my copy of The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, which I had read 25 years ago, and reread the first couple of chapters. It’s about a boy, Jack Sawyer, who travels across America in search of a talisman that will heal his mother. Then I saw Black House, by the same two authors, and took it out to see what else they had collaborated on. Only after reading the first 50 pages did I realise that this was a sequel to the first book, in which Jack Sawyer, now grown up, has become a police officer, and then retired to the Wisconsin countryside seeking a quiet life.

But there is a serial killer threatening the nearby town, and the local police want Jack to help them catch the perpetrator. Jack at first refuses, but then finds himself drawn in, as the killings seem to have links to his earlier journey, which involved hopping into and out of another world, which he called “The Territories”. It’s not a conventional murder mystery, since we know who the perpetrator is before the police do, and we also know that he is demonised, or at least influenced by a creature from another world.

I was not sure whether to give it three stars or four. The story held my interest, even though I thought some of the descriptions were too long and drawn out. I usually find confidential asides from the author to the reader annoying, and in this book whole chapters were written like that, especially the earlier ones. It had some good descriptive passages, and some very mediocre ones. One of the better ones was this evocative description of a seedy hotel:

The lobby of the Nelson Hotel always smells of the river — it’s in the pores of the place — but this evening the smell is heavier than usual. It’s a smell that makes us think of bad ideas, blown investments, forged checks, deteriorating health, stolen office supplies, unpaid alimony, empty promises, skin tumors, lost ambition, abandoned sample cases filled with cheap novelties, dead home, dead skin, and fallen arches.

But when such descriptions go on for three or four pages I want to say to the authors, “Stop messing around and just get on with the story.” I think I liked The Talisman better. But in both I found the “other” worlds somehow unconvincing. — “The Territories”, as the main other world is called, does not seem to hang together. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Lewis’s Narnia, it’s a kind of premodern place without electricity but it somehow doesn’t seem believable.

The other trope was underground tunnels, which seem to feature a lot in fantasy stories and in children’s stories generally. Most of Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, for example The Mountain of Adventure,  feature underground tunnels somewhere. C.S. Lewis has them in The Silver Chair. Tolkien has them in abundance, both in The Hobbit and in several places in The Lord of the Rings. But after Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen every other underground tunnel sequence in literature seems tame.

David Levey lent us Boneland, a much later sequel to The Weirdsonte of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, where Professor Colin Whisterfield is grown up, and searching for his sister whom he had lost when he was twelve, a period of his life that he can no longer remember.He said it is very weird, and very different from the first two books.

We talked a bit about how few children’s fantasy/adventure stories had been written in a southern African setting, and how most of those available are set in other countries and are cultureally strange, and require lots of explanations.

Reading to the children.

On the first Sunday in December, after having the Hours and Readers Service in Mamelodi, I read to the children, Kamo (10) and Shabi (7) from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I had first asked Kamo to read from a children’s book of Bible stories, on Jesus and the blind man, which was also the Sunday Gospel. She read it quite competently. So I suggested that she read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to her brother in the mean time, and if she didn’t manage, I would read her the next chapter next time. Val, as she listened to me reading, was struck by how English the story was. I had begun by explaining about the wartime evacuation of children to the countryside. At one point in the story there was a picture of the eponymous wardrobe. “What’s that?” I asked the children. “A cupboard,” said Kamo. “Wardrobe” is a fancy word.

I tried to write a children’s book with a South African setting, Of Wheels and Witches, and David was about to say something about the use of these tropes in that, but we moved quickly on to discussing other books. But, perhaps rather weirdly, in the light of Boneland, my recently-published The Year of the Dragon features some of the same characters as adults.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 December 2018 1:57 am

    So envious of your monthly NeoInklings coffee klatsch! Do you read things you’ve written or discuss all things Inkling related?

    I must get around to “Of Wheels and Witches”. I hope they are nice witches.

    And yes you’re right about the prevalence of underground tunnels and also the Englishness of the Narnia books.

    I recently read V E Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” but there was a lot of cruelty in it which didn’t seem integral to the plot.

    I like worlds in which the Divine is presumed to be immanent (or even transcendent, as long as its there somewhere). There’s always a sense in Tolkien’s writing that the light of Eru Iluvatar is available to all persons of goodwill.

    • 9 December 2018 1:57 am

      It’s. Darn autocorrect.

    • 9 December 2018 5:15 am

      Rather than reading things aloud at gatherings like the original Inklings, we pass things around by email attachments, though these have tended to be more works of literary criticism than actual original literary works. For example Duncan Reyburn passed this around Seeing Things as They Are: G. K. Chesterton and the Drama of Meaning by Duncan Reyburn | Goodreads, and David Levey made a PDF of his thesis on identity in the early works of Alan Paton available. I think the original Inklings might have enjoyed the technical innovations that enable us to do this, or perhaps not. You can always procrastinate about reading a PDF, but in a viva voce reading all you can do is fall asleep.

      Good witches? South African witches are bad. See Witchcraft, African and European | Khanya. If translating the Narnia stories into local languages is difficult, translating Harry Potter would be next to impossible (someone wrote a thesis on that too, but they avoided the elephant in the room). But I’d be interested in your take on it, and we could perhaps have some quite interesting discussions.

      • 9 December 2018 3:55 pm

        I think it’s possible that Wiccans and other Witchcraft revivalists made a mistake picking the concept of witch as our archetype — but it’s a highly resonant archetype, and it’s a bit late now. It’s also a highly complex archetype. I also think it might’ve helped if Europeans had referred to malevolent magic workers in Africa as something other than witches. It’s a term with too much baggage already, and porting it to that context wasn’t very helpful. Again, too late now.

        • 8 March 2019 4:29 am

          Thinking about this a bit more, I don’t think that there is any English word other than “witch” that could translate the Zulu “umthakathi” and the Sotho “moloi”. In Europe it collected a lot of baggage as Europe entered modernity, and something very similar is happening as Africa enters modernity, which makes it more, and not less appropriate.

          • 8 March 2019 4:45 am

            I don’t know the etymology of those words, so I couldn’t say.

            Witch means a shaper or a bender, as far as the etymology can be guessed. Of course it acquired many other connotations in the early modern period, as you say.

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