…in a Ship of Her Own Making is a book that might be of interest to anyone who enjoyed my recent post about Children’s Fantasy. What I’m particularly impressed about is the fact that the author, Catherynne M Valente, originally self-published the novel. Click here to find out more!
While today you can go into any good bookshop (or perhaps more likely go online) to find plenty of children’s books of all kinds to choose from, this was not always the case. In fact, there was a time in the not too distant past when it was not easy at all for younger readers to find fiction written specifically for them – until about 150 years ago, children’s books were thought of only as lesson books, full of instructions about good behaviour. Only relatively recently have authors written books to be interesting, amusing and exciting for younger readers, instead of merely to teach them something. The development of the sub-genre of children’s fantasy is an even more recent phenomenon. From its misty beginnings in the fairy tales and fables of the nineteenth century to its first real expression in the form of classics like The Borrowers and The Chronicles of Narnia, children’s fantasy has progressed in leaps and bounds to become, today, an extremely lucrative literary form in its own right. It was perhaps the runaway success of series such as His Dark Materials and Harry Potter which first highlighted just how popular and successful fantasy for children (as opposed to its more grown-up counterpart as exemplified by Tolkien and others) could be. This was no mere flash in the pan, however, and books like the Twilight and Hunger Games series have continued to dominate the bestseller lists, as well as the box office, well into the 21st century.
If I mentioned a bespectacled boy wizard with an undead nemesis, two best friends and a flying familiar you might think I was talking about Harry Potter but what I'm actually referring to is The Unwritten, a clever, post-modern graphic novel series by Mike Carey. The comics follow Tom Taylor, who was the inspiration for a series of hugely successful children's fantasy novels in the vein of Harry Potter, written by his father Wilson Taylor, who disappeared mysteriously just after writing the story's conclusion.
When readers of The Two Towers first encounter the Riders of Rohan there immediately seems to be something vaguely familiar about them. Their names, mode of speech and manner of dress all recall those ancient inhabitants of the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxons. Although this is a culture that, even more than that of the Celts, has been in so many ways lost to history, Tolkien, as an Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, as well as a gifted storyteller, was perhaps better qualified than almost anyone to bring them to life in fiction. Interestingly, however, Tolkien seemed at great pains to distance himself from the notion that he was doing any such thing. In a footnote to Appendix F (II) of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien insisted that the fact that he had ‘translated’ all Rider-names into Old English did not mean that Riders and Anglo-Saxons were any more than generally similar. But this process of ‘translation’ – beginning with the Riders’ own name for their land, ‘The Mark’ – runs very deep. Among historians the central kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England is invariably known as ‘Mercia’. This is however a Latinization of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Mearc’. It takes no great leap of logic to link this Anglo-Saxon word with the Rohirrim term ‘Mark’, as translated by Tolkien. As for the white horse that is the emblem of the Mark, this is present in the form of the White Horse of Uffington, cut into the chalk a short stroll from the great Stone Age barrow of Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, one of the counties which, along with Worcestershire, Warwickshire and others made up Mercia. All the names given to the Riders, their horses and weapons are pure Anglo-Saxon. The names of their kings, Théoden, Thengel, Fengel, Folcwine, etc., are all simply Anglo-Saxon words or epithets for ‘king’, except, significantly, the first: Eorl, the name of the ancestor of the royal line, just means ‘earl’, or in very Old English, ‘warrior’. It dates back to a time before kings were invented.
A reviewer once said that Robin Hobb’s novels are ‘like diamonds in a sea of zircons’ and it is easy to see why. I’ve said previously that Robin Hobb appears to be one of the few fantasy authors writing today who really seems to understand the importance of language and Mythic Resonance in her novels. Hobb’s stories are not simply made up of breathless action scenes linked up by perfunctory passages which serve simply to get her protagonists from A to B. Instead (thankfully) they contain rich, fluid prose which recalls the work of Peake, Tolkien, Le Guin and other masters of the genre rather than many of their considerably less talented modern counterparts. It is therefore perhaps not surprising to hear that Hobb’s creative spark was lit by an early reading of The Lord of the Rings in the dark cold of an Alaskan winter way back in 1965. As a child who grew up in a log house in a rural setting in Fairbanks in the sixties, most of the fantasy books that Hobb had come across before then were explicitly for children and/or did not take themselves particularly seriously. While she had discovered, and loved, the works of Leiber, Heinlein, Bradbury and others, in her own words Tolkien claimed Hobb as no other writer ever had before. The aspects of The Lord of the Rings which Hobb most enjoyed – a fully realised setting, characters that rang as true as chimes, a plot that sprawled in odd directions and universal human themes of courage, compassion, loyalty, honour and friendship – she took care to import into her own writing. And it shows.
The Romany (often referred to as the Gypsies or Rom) are an old and unusual people whose history remains hidden in the mists of the past. Stories passed down through time from parent to child weave the tapestry of the Rom’s heritage. Many people today think Gypsies are rather romantic folk because of their wandering life and fabled fortune-telling powers. Like all great works of art, however, the stories are often embellished. While some of the work may be true in fact, much is only true in essence. Of course, some sections of the work have been made up whole cloth just for the hell of it – after all the Romany, of all people, understand the importance of play. The Rom know not all stories and legends are true, but which are fact and which fancy is not of great importance to them. Even today, the Romany transmit their history orally, with outsiders responsible for most written treatises on these people. George Borrow, who lived from 1803 to 1881, spent a good many years among them, speaking their language and writing two books, Lavengro and The Romany Rye, which tell of some of his adventures as a wanderer and friend of the Gypsies. Since the Romany feel that it is both proper and wise to bend and even break the truth when dealing with the gaje (their term for those whom they deem to be ‘outsiders’), such texts are certainly suspect to a far greater degree than what the Rom tell one another. It is said elsewhere that the Gypsies known secrets that would make other folk’s hair stand on end and their blood run cold.