(This is about influences.)
When I was asked to speak at this conference I wondered if there was anything I had to say at all. I was rather off the whole idea of the Middle Ages, since I had recently finished writing a thing called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland which pokes fun at the large number of adult fantasies set in what the writers fondly believe to be a medieval landscape. That is to say, all towns have the houses leaning out over the pavements so that the occupants can empty chamber pots on those below and contain lots of winding alleys heaped with refuse; in the countryside there is subsistence farming, if that . . .
Farming obviously takes place, since produce appears in the MARKETS and the tour will sometimes take you past cultivated fields. But most fields will have been trampled or burnt by ARMIES, or else parched by magical drought. Dairy farming seems very rare. This probably accounts for the extreme dullness of most meals in Fantasyland (see STEW, FOOD, STEW, SCURVY, STEW, etc.).
Hovels are small squalid dwellings, either in a VILLAGE or occasionally up a MOUNTAIN, and probably most resemble huts. The people who live in hovels are evidently rather lazy and not very good with their hands, since in no cases have any repairs ever been done to these buildings (tumbledown, rotting thatch, etc.) and there is no such thing as a clean Hovel. Indoors, the occupants eke out a wretched existence, which you can see they would, given the draughts, smoke and general lack of house-cleaning. This need not alarm you. The Tour will not require you to enter a Hovel that is inhabited. If you enter one at all, it will be long-deserted and there will be sanitary arrangements out the back.
. . . and merchants tend to be rushing about the place with nameless merchandise in bales. And when the story gets to a castle, you will always find the occupants chewing chicken drumsticks and then throwing the bones to the dogs.
My spleen was aroused about this kind of thing while I was helping a friend compile an encyclopedia of fantasy. We were going through the possible entries alphabetically, and it was at the point when we came to the entry on Nunnery and both chorused ‘Nunneries are for sacking’ that I said ‘You know these books are all so much the same that I could write the guidebook for this country!’ after which I thought Why not? and did so. Here is NUNNERY:
Nunneries. The Rule is that any Nunnery you approach, particularly if you are in dire need of rest, Healing or provisions, will prove to have been recently sacked. You will find the place a smoking ruin littered with corpses. You will be shocked and wonder who could have done this thing. Your natural curiosity will shortly be satisfied, because there is a further Rule that there will be one survivor, either a very young NOVICE or a very old nun, who will give you a graphic account of the raping and burning and the names of the perpetrators. If old she will then die, thus saving you from having to take her along and feed her from your dwindling provisions; if a Novice, she will either die likewise or prove to be not as nunnish as you first thought, in which case you may be glad to have her along.
Monasteries. Thick stone buildings on a steep hill. They are full of passages, cloisters and tiny cells, all with no HEATING, and inhabited by MONKS, mostly elderly and austere, some rather addled intheir wits. At the Monastery’s head will be an Abbot, who is often portly and sly. These establishments have three uses:
1 For Scrolls …
2 For sanctuary and rest …
3 For sacking …
Scrolls are important sources of information about either HISTORY or MAGIC, and are only to be found jealously guarded in a MONASTERY or TEMPLE. You will usually have to steal your copy. Against this inconvenience is the highly useful fact that the Information in the Scroll will be wholly correct. There is, for some reason, no such thing as a lying, mistaken or inaccurate Scroll.
It is all very historical, in that all the characters wear cloaks and go round waving swords, and the only transport is horses. These effusions are mostly written by people in California – which probably accounts for the fact that all the inhabitants of the barbarian North go around in the snow wearing nothing but a fur loincloth – and the writers are quite frank about their attitude to historical knowledge.
History is generally patchy and unreliable. Any real information about past events in either lost or contained in a SCROLL jealously guarded in a MONASTERY or TEMPLE. All that can be ascertained with any certainty is:
1 That there once was an Empire …
2 That there was once a Wizards’ War …
See LEGENDS, as more reliable sources of information.
After all what does any of this matter when the main point of the book – or books: they are nearly always trilogies – is a quest to conquer the Dark Lord and Save the World?
You can see that this left me with a jaundiced view. These writers are inventing the middle ages all right, I thought, but this is very much How Not To Do It. But then I thought, Oh come on! There is a positive side to the matter or I wouldn’t have got so irritated. What I, personally, think of as the Middle Ages has to have been an abiding influence on me – I know that, and it’s not simply because I happen to be married to a medievalist. For instance, in the book I’m currently writing I called two of the characters – quite spontaneously – Kit and Callette. And it was only alter a while that I thought ‘Those names are familiar from somewhere else,’ and realised they were the names of Will’s wife and daughter in Piers Plowman. My two characters happen to be griffins, which rather hid the connection from me at first. But the influence is hard to pin down for one very good reason. I write mainly for children.
Children as a group have almost no sense of history at all. They are by their nature the most forward-looking section of the population. They are intent on growing up. Most of them can’t wait to be adult. For this reason, they are not going to be very interested in books that are not about here and now and what is to come. When I first started writing for children, I made a conscious decision to write mostly about the present day (or a semblance of the present day set in an alternative world) and not to go out of my way to inculcate a sense of history that isn’t there.
Now a lot of children’s writers do write historical novels, and a lot more introduce people out of the past in the manner of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. I don’t find this easy to do. The one time I tried to write a historical novel – about Tenth Century Iceland – I did quite a lot of research for it, until I came hard up against a fact I just couldn’t get my mind round: there were no trees in Iceland at that time. I found I just could not conceive of a landscape wholly without trees. And I couldn’t write that book – or any other with a proper historical setting. Those absent trees caused me to realise that there was always going to be something I couldn’t get my mind round, whatever period I might choose. I do actually quite envy people who don’t have this problem, but as far as I am concerned it is a complete block. Mostly it is that I suspect that my thoughts have been trained to run in certain grooves, according to the Twentieth Century, and the thoughts of people living at different times in the past would have been trained to run in quite other grooves. I wouldn’t be able to get my mind round their minds, if you see what I mean.
I have two other powerful reasons for not writing historically. First, as a child I hated overt didacticism in books. We had a long shelf of books that tried to teach you something under the disguise of a story, and we labelled that shelf Goddy Books. My own children felt just the same. Second, one of my sons at about 12 developed a total passion for Kipling’s Kim, which he read over and over again. I was under the impression that, to him, this book was a historical novel recreating an empire and an India which had disappeared long before he was born. Not a bit of it. When he was 15, he confessed that he had thought Kim was a fantasy set in an alternative world and that Kipling had made all the India stuff up. So much, I thought, for inculcating a sense of history. It’s possible that many children regard historical novels as this kind of fantasy. In which they are not exactly wrong.
All the same, I have a strong sense that everything I do write is quite deeply influenced by what I perceive as the Middle Ages. I am grateful for having been asked to speak here. It has made me dig about and find out just what that influence is. It starts with two things dragged from memory.
First, when I was eight, I started reading Malory in the edition my mother had used as an undergraduate – my parents did not really believe in books specially for children, so the language was a bit of a struggle, and the small print, but I read with enormous enthusiasm. Things like ‘How Sir Launcelot slew three Giants and set a Castle Free’ really turned me on. I had got to the middle of Tristram and Isolt, when my mother told me sternly that I must remember that knights didn’t really wear armour in King Arthur’s day. This totally bewildered me. ‘How did they manage then, when they were fighting?’ I wondered, and pondered deeply. My ponderings led me to locate that sense that everyone acquires, that there is a ‘story-time’ which has nothing to do with history. ‘Story-time’ is when things bizarre or adventurous or enchanted can happen, as in the ‘Once upon a time’ of fairy stories. So of course the knights could wear armour: they were in this ‘story-time’ and it didn’t matter. (I was slightly irritated, as an adult, when I read T. H. White’s Sword in the Stone and found him painstakingly and patronizingly describing this ‘story-time’. It is something everyone knows about. I just happened to know it consciously rather early on).
Second, about four years alter that, my father suddenly took it into his head to give his daughters an educational trip to the National Gallery – he did this sort of thing at arbitrary intervals and usually managed to arrive so late that wherever-it-was was shut for the day. On this occasion, his timing was off and the National Gallery was actually still open, and we went round. One picture caught my fancy. It was of a little bishop in pink robes appearing over and over again in a rocky landscape. He was obviously being in several places at once, the way saints and other supernaturally gifted folk can be. I was fascinated, because it was so clearly a ‘story-time’ picture. My father, looking over my shoulder, explained that the bishop was wearing the wrong clothes. He was dressed as a medieval bishop would be at the time of the painter, whereas in his real lifetime he would be wearing a toga. My father then led me in front of a huge painting of the martyrdom of St Sebastian and delivered a lecture on the meaning of the word ‘anacronism’. I stared at the archer bending down in the foreground of the painting – who, my father stated, should really have been dressed as a Roman legionary – and I stared at the points stretching so tightly across his linen drawers between his hose and whatever held the hose up, and I couldn’t help thinking how uncomfortable this particular medieval fashion must have been – he’d have been better off in a Roman tunic. But it was interesting. It was quite obvious that in the Middle Ages (whenever that far-off misty time was) people conceived of this ‘story-time’ as being contemporary with their own. That made me very wistful at the time because I couldn’t imagine my favourite knight, Sir Gawain, in a suit or tweeds however hard I strained to see it.
This is actually a very important idea. If you are going to write for a non-historical, forward-looking audience, you ideally need the ‘story-time’ to be here and now. I took this idea up with enthusiasm. It is why most of what I write is set in this modern age whenever possible. For instance, writing an early book called Eight Days of Luke, in which the Norse gods appear as modern men and woman and Slepnir – Woden’s horse – as a large white car chauffeured by a Valkyrie, I was quite consciously imitating what I took to be a medieval treatment of ‘story-time’.
Anyway, in due course I went up to Oxford and read English, where a large part of the course concerned itself with what was called Middle English – and it is a very odd thing that there were quite a few women who were there at the same time as me – none of whom I met – who all went on to write successfully for children afterwards. I have never known what quite inspired them all, but with me I know it was suddenly being confronted with the way writers from the Middle Ages handled narratives. They were all so different, that was the amazing thing, and all so good at it.
Foremost, of course, was the highly sophisticated Chaucer. In the Canterbury Tales you could watch Chaucer show his sophistication by adjusting his style and manner according to who was telling what kind of story. He seems to play with narrative in a way that can be perfectly wicked at times (and I know I thought recently, Well, if Chaucer can send up tail-rhyme romance in Sir Thopas, no doubt out of the same sort of irritation I feel at Californian writers of fantasy, then I can do the same in The Tough Guide). But with Chaucer, apart from Sir Thopas, each of his stories is a serious exercise in a certain type of narrative – he sets boundaries and shows what can be done within them (and without realising it at the time, I joyfully picked up on this notion. There are fairly severe boundaries set if you write for children – and I don’t mean tedious things like political correctness, which varies from decade to decade, I mean things like not using language that is too complicated and not using those kind of situations in which two people of opposite sexes are sparring for openings or dominance, because most children find both these things puzzling. And you want to give your readers the benefit of your own knowledge of the world without being overtly didactic, as I said. So you see what you can do inside these limits, and usually also, sadly, within certain limits of political correctness – as Chaucer himself says, making a virtue of necessity. And of course you can do a very great deal. It’s a challenge). Chaucer himself only seems to have scratched the surface of what might be done – he didn’t finish the exercise of the Canterbury Tales. I think among what he did do, I admire most his ability to tell a story which is well known – as in Troilus – or a story in which it is quite clear what is coming – as in The Reeve’s Tale – and still get you to respond as if you had no idea what was coming next. That is something I have tried to do too, and I know the difficulties. But Chaucer is such a deft and elastic writer, so experimental as well as serious, that I at least came away with the feeling that because he so obviously made narrative an exercise of skills, no one was ever quite comfortable telling a straight story again. It wasn’t quite respectable to write a naive narrative like Malory did later – Malory wasn’t respectable and probably didn’t care: he just crashed ahead telling his story in and-and-and chunks, building brick by brick, telling the relevant and irrelevant things in almost exactly the same tone of voice, so that the overall shape was not apparent until he got to the end. But you feel everybody else found they couldn’t do that: they had to make that kind of story at least an allegory, or put in a lot of philosophy. Or something more refined.
Now the beauty of this situation is that it frees up the straight story to be devoted to children. Unfortunately, it also frees it for writers from California to get to work with their quests and Dark Lords – there’s a reverse side to everything. I know I did pounce on this freeing up: I can tell a story because no one else wants to! Oh good.
But then, by complete contrast, I came up against Langland, who is doing something entirely different and wholly serious and not exactly straight narrative at all. Langland haunts me because he is such a strange mixture of deep thinking and jamming down what happens to be in his head and hoping, then thinking, thinking, taking in another swatch of ideas and thinking again. His work reminds me of the tide coming in – you know how one wave comes frilling up and erases a few footprints in the sand, and then goes back, and the next comes in over the top of it and gets a bit further, until the sea is right up where the deep footprints and the ice-cream papers are. Langland seems to me quite as inexorable, and he covers pretty well everything in his way. And at the end of Piers Plowman the tide goes out again. Damn! Still haven’t quite got to the sea wall. Have to go out and look for Piers again. What has always impressed me here is what you can achieve if you get behind your narrative (or as-it-were narrative) and really push – the ideas start to run about over the top of it interlaced like the foam on the top of waves. The first thing Langland taught me is that ideas are just as important as a story – I hadn’t grasped that before then. The next thing was slightly more accidental – that is the way what you are saying and how you are saying it are very closely linked. I don’t know if anyone here has ever tried to write Langland’s kind of alliterative verse. I had a go once or twice. It’s not easy. You find, unless you are violently inventive about it, that the form forces you to go back and repeat the latest half-line at the beginning of the next line, only in different terms. Langland is good enough at it that he doesn’t do this much, but the impulse is there and contributes to the overlapping, wave after wave, tide-coming-in nature of the narrative.
Learning a little from this, I discovered that I always had to let the book I was writing find its own style. Only in that way can you be sure that you are doing the right thing by your subject matter. It’s a strange feeling – as if the book has a life of its own.
Of all the writers I discovered as a student, Langland gets under my skin most – witness the way I called my two griffins Kit and Callette. A long time ago, I wrote a novel that was based on Piers Plowman. Oh dear. Publishers to a man and woman sent it back to me on the grounds that the main character was not present at the most important parts of the action. Quite true. Probably only Langland could get away with something like that. Much later, I wrote another book called Fire and Hemlock, in which I tried not to make that mistake and in which I got behind the narrative and pushed, Langland fashion. Langland lies behind that particular book in a way I find it hard to define, even more than the ballad of Tam Lin or Eliot’s Four Quartets, which are present in the foreground (possibly rather as the Bible and prayerbook were to Langland – or so I hope). I think it is in the movement of the narrative that his influence lies, but I am not sure. It is orchestrated in a tidelike advance and retreat, full of partial repetitions, where some things acquire a new meaning at each advance. Or so I hope.
On the other hand, when I think about learning to orchestrate a narrative, particularly the more ordinary, clipping style of narrative, I realise that I learnt that from the Gawain poet. He has it down absolutely in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He knows when to pass quickly over time, and when to dwell on episodes – that is, he knows when to just tell you things were so and when to make you feel them so in your gut – and he knows what action to dwell on, and what colours, noises, details to highlight (or show in closeup) – when to give direct speech, when indirect – and, even more important, how to balance the mixture out, so that the story is never overweighted in the wrong place. This is all the organizational stuff that Jane Austen had laboriously to teach herself when she rewrote Pride and Prejudice using an almanack. The Gawain poet has got it all. I think I use him as a sort of paradigm narrator all the time. Furthermore, he backs up my discovery in the National Gallery by having his ‘story-time’ in his own present time really. His magical characters live in an up-to-date modern castle, with all the latest architectural features. I think my Chrestomanci books owe quite a lot to this.
I’ll pass over Henrysson. I never got on with him. But there is one other work from within the time I think of as the Middle Ages, which almost did more than teach me – it came as revelation – and that is Sir Orfeo. This is a work that, alas, lies behind quite a lot of the Californian quest stories, and any PreRaphaelitism (which is still alive too and living in California, where ‘writers make romantic stories about elves and mist and dim blowings and things) and it is of course a romantic poem. I never could work out whether the person or persons who wrote it knew what they were doing or not. At any rate, the reason I found it such a revelation was that it was the story of Orpheus and Euridice – which is the kind of story you might call ‘hard myth’ (on an analogy with ‘hard science fiction’, meaning the crystal clear, nitty gritty, no nonsense kind) which has been transmogrified into as it were ‘soft myth’ as a story of fairyland and enchantment. Orpheus goes to Hades. Sir Orpheo has to negotiate with something hazier, possibly with wider powers than a mere god of the dead – something that can grab you at midday if you sleep under a certain kind of tree. Until I read this poem, I hadn’t realised that this sort of translation from one type of story to another was possible. Once I did realise, I did some furious thinking, lasting for about ten years, and came up with the discovery that translating need not apply only to types of story. You can make other kinds of translation as well, all equally useful and all equally telling. The other kinds I began to use straight away and almost habitually. Are there minorities persecuted for physical facts they can’t help? Then translate those minorities into witches who develop at puberty powers they can’t suppress and get burnt for it. Or I wanted to write about children of divorced parents whose mother remarries. Translate the problems these children have into magical or alchemical misadventures. Or a boy struggling into adolescence in the face of an unkind family? Have the boy’s feelings appear in the shape of the Norse gods. But in all these instances you must not cheat. You must have the magical occurrences strongly effective in their own terms – they must leave their mark on the everyday life of the characters in the story – just as Sir Orfeo hangs together consistently in terms of faerie rather than Hades.
Oddly enough, it took me a while to learn to translate an actual story. I suppose I began doing it with Charmed Life, which is really what they call a Gothic Romance reversed – young heroine defenceless in frowning Cornish castle ruled by a flinty-hearted macho lord – only in this case the young heroine is a sort of fifth column for an attack on the castle and most people are defenceless before her. By then I was up and running and did it again with Howl’s Moving Castle – fairy story heroine goes bravely to castle to rescue prince under enchantment except that in this case they rescue one another, quarrelling fiercely while they do. And in Hexwood I had real medievalising fun translating chunks of Arthurian stories into a story about a super computer.
Actually, I find I have abashed myself considerably by comparing the things I do with these masterpieces out of the past. What I am really trying to describe is the things I found in the Middle Ages and what they meant to me. I think the Middle Ages invented me, rather than the other way round. And I’d like to conclude with telling you about the lady in Australia. I was in Sydney giving a talk and the lady came up to me saying she was writing a study of a book of mine called The Magicians of Caprona. I enjoyed writing that particular book. I got the name Caprona from Dante (another borrowing from the Middle Ages) and, like Chaucer and Shakespeare after him, I’d cheerfully borrowed the story of Romeo and Juliet and put it in there. What the lady said to me was, ‘Pardon me, is your intertextuality intentional?’ I said ‘You what?’ And she said, ‘Did you know that you’ve put the story of Romeo and Juliet into your book?’ ‘Oh that,’ I said. ‘Yes of course.’ It seemed extraordinary to me that anyone could think that one could write anything without being heavily indebted to things that had gone before – and not know it. What I want to say is, yes, I do know really where I’m getting it from and it is intentional and very grateful I am too. I must thank the organisers of the conference for making me dig about and find all this out.
Copyright © Diana Wynne Jones