Monday, January 24, 2011


"Indisputably the most striking defect of this modern American literature is the fact that the production of anything at all resembling literature is scarcely anywhere apparent. Innumerable printing-presses , instead, are turning out a vast quantity of reading-matter, the candidly recognized purpose of which is to kill time, and which--it has been asserted, though perhaps too sweepingly,--ought not to be vended over book-counters, but rather in drug-stores along with the other narcotics.

"It is begging the question to protest that the class of people who a generation ago read nothing now at least read novels, and to regard this as a change for the better. By a similar logic it would be more wholesome to breakfast off laudanum than to omit the meal entirely. The nineteenth century, in fact, has produced in America the curious spectacle of a reading-public with essentially non-literary tastes. Formerly, better books were published, because they were intended for persons who turned to reading through a natural bent of mind; whereas the modern American novel of commerce is addressed to us average people who read, when we read at all, in violation of every innate instinct.

"Such grounds as yet exist for hopefulness on the part of those who cordially care for valid writing are to be found elsewhere than in the crowded market-places of fiction, where genuine intelligence panders on all sides to ignorance and indolence. The phrase may seem to have no very civil ring; but reflection will assure the fair-minded that two indispensable requisites nowadays of a pecuniarily successful novel are, really, that it make no demand upon the reader's imagination, and that it rigorously refrain from assuming its readers to possess any particular information on any subject whatever. The author who writes over the head of the public is the most dangerous enemy of his publisher,--and the most insidious as well, because so many publishers are in private life interested in literary matters, and would readily permit this personal foible to influence the exercise of their vocation were it possible to do so upon the preferable side of bankruptcy.

"But publishers, among innumerable other conditions, must weigh the fact that no novel which does not deal with modern times is ever really popular among the serious-minded. It is difficult to imagine a tale of action developed under the rule of the Caesars or the Merovingians as being treated as more than a literary hors d'oevure. We purchasers of 'vital' novels know nothing about the period, beyond a hazy association of it with the restrictions of the school-room; our sluggish imaginations instinctively rebel against the exertion of forming any notion of such a period; and all the human nature that exists even in serious-minded persons is stirred up to resentment against the book's author for presuming to know more than a potential patron.* The book, in fine, simply irritates the serious-minded person; and she--for it is only women who willingly braves the terrors of the department-stores, where most of our new books are bought nowadays,--quite naturally puts it aside in favor of some keen and daring study of American life that is warranted to grip the reader. So, modernity of scene is everywhere necessitated as an essential qualification for a book's being discussed at the literary evenings of the local woman's club; and modernity of scene, of course, is almost always fatal to the permanent worth of fictitious narrative."

*"Since this was written we average-novel-readers have formed a taste for 'modernization'; and we have taken kindly enough to romantic old legends once they had been burlesqued with the pallidly coy humorousness of a schoolmaster addressing a class of nubile girls. Even so, the principle remains. We yet resolutely rebel against forming a notion of any unfamiliar period; and we accept Camelot or Troy or Eden as the scene of our reading-matter only upon the assumption that the place was inhabited by twentieth century persons leading twentieth century lives."

--James Branch Cabell, 1916, from "Auctorial Induction," The Certain Hour.

One can see how these words can apply, with very little change, to literature today, especially (to my mind) so-called Fantasy Fiction. Mr. Cabell, in the footnote, is of course obliquely referring to his own Poictesme "romances."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cinders: A Memoir And An Appreciation

It seems to me that I have spoken elsewhere in this blog about what a remarkable time for me the school year of 1973-1974 was. I had turned ten the summer before, and under the tutelage of a remarkable young teacher my reading had taken off, seeking out and obtaining for my own (and not simply for homework) chapter books. That year saw Bed-knob and Broomstick added to my small library, and Journey To The Center of The Earth, The Three Musketeers, Around The World In Eighty Days, and One Hundred And One Dalmatians. That year I also read Cinders, by Katharine Gibson, a book the plot of which I never forgot, but whose title and author eluded me for decades. It is the story of the mouse who was Cinderella's coachman, and who does not turn back at midnight, and who must make his way in the world of men.

I looked for it, whenever I went to a used book store. When the internet came along, I searched for it using every combination of terms I could think of. My quest has always been hindered by various red herrings across the path: numerous authors have since written books on same theme. There was Cinderella's Rat, by Susan Meddaugh, and I was A Rat, by Phillip Pullman, and Coachman Rat, by David Henry Wilson. It further complicated things when Disney came out with a sequel to their Cinderella with the same plot element. There the search rested for a while, if uneasily.

Some months ago I discovered the blog Collecting Children's Books, by librarian and author Peter Sieruta. Thinking that someone with such knowledge and resources about children's books as he evinced might surely be of some help, I wrote him an e-mail giving him the details and asking his aid. He posted the request on his blog, and within a week to my joy it was answered, and by none other than Laura Amy Schlitz, author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Within a week and a half of that I had my own copy off of eBay and was once again reading a book I hadn't seen in 37 years or so.
Cinders opens with the eponymous hero alone in the windy darkness before closed castle gates, the last stroke of midnight still vibrating on the air. Close to him is a shattered pumpkin shell and some rats and mice scurrying away; he catches a brief glimpse of a girl in tattered clothes fleeing crying into the dark. He has no idea who he is or what he is. When he wanders into the royal stable the only name he can give for himself is Cinders, which is the single half-memory still in his head.
Cinders is a small, slight, mousy man, with pointy ears and nose and bright, beady little eyes, and he is dressed all in gray. He is smaller even than the loutish stableboys who work for the head groom, and when the groom hires him to work with in the stable there is some bullying and doubts about his abilities. Through industriousness, politeness, and kindness, however, he makes a place for himself, and when he heals Flash, the King's favorite horse, through his instinctive knowledge of animals, Cinders becomes a favorite in his circle.
Cinders is put to the test when Cinderella's prince is in danger of falling into a trap, and a swift messenger is needed to warn him. Taking off on his own on Flash through dangerous enemy territory, the mousy little man is able through speed, stealth, and smallness to save the Prince by delivering his message. As a reward, after Cinderella is re-united with the Prince and they wed, Cinders is made the Royal Coachman, fulfilling his destiny.
"Flash," he said, "at last, I know who I am and where I belong. Flash, right now and here, I am Cinderella's Coachman. I always have been."
Cinders was published in 1939 by Katharine Gibson, who wrote at least four other books for children. Gibson passed away in 1960. The book was reprinted in 1969; it was probably (but not certainly) this edition I read in school. The illustrations are by Vera Bock.
While I was re-reading it at last, I became aware of how deep this little book had sunk into my mind. First of all, it was a sort of proto-evangelion in my experience for The Hobbit; both heroes are as small as children, and originally looked down upon by people who measure worth in inches or fierceness. Cinders is described as being no bigger than a ten-years-old child (and remember I was then exactly ten myself) and that is exactly an age when you can suddenly become very aware of yourself and wonder both about where you came from, your place in the world, and where you are going.
I also found on re-reading that I had somehow subconsciously based a character in the children's book I had written largely on Cinders, in at least appearance. My character Thornbriar (a Field Elf) also wears a high hat with a wide brim, a long coat, and pointed shoes with buckles. He is about four feet high, has pointed ears and a long nose that (to my astonishment) twitches just like Cinders', a detail I swear I never remembered. But there it is.
Cinders is a delightful book, and deserves to be republished, but I wonder if it ever can be, as things stand. I don't know if the kind of children it was written for are being produced in any quantity now; the kids of our age seem to pass so quickly from innocent to ironic I don't know if the idyllic qualities of this book would ever appeal to a large enough audience. But there is always the hope that it could still be passed on from admirers to their children, and that this work, already over seventy years old, might linger a while yet.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Miramon Lluagor

MIRAMON LLUAGOR: In James Branch Cabell's extensive work The Biography of Manuel, Miramon Lluagor is one of the Leshy (in Russian folklore a type of forest spirit, but in the context of the Biography one of the powers, "neither human nor immortal", in the pantheon of Poictesme, Cabell's imaginary French province. He is "lord of the nine kinds of sleep and prince of the seven madnesses. He lives in mythic splendor at the top of the gray mountain called Vraidex, where he contrives all manner of illusions, and, in particular, designs the dreams of men." He has a "rather arbitrary half-brother," Grandfather Death, "a dreadful realist" compared to the ornate artistry of Miramon's dreams, and lord of the tenth kind of sleeping.

In about 1230, Miramon Lluagor inadvertently started the pig herder Manuel on his road to becoming Count of Poictesme when the magician stole away Gisele, the daughter of Count Demetrios D'Arnaye, and took her to his Doubtful Palace to be his wife. There he found that although Gisele was a beautiful and charming girl of just the type that he had always fancied for a wife, she had "a strong will in her white bosom, and a tireless tongue in her glittering head," and that he did not "equally admire all four of these possessions." Since it is the law of the Leshy that they cannot relinquish their prey unless they have been conquered, and since he cannot be vanquished except by the resistless magical sword Flamberge, Miramon visits Manuel incognito, giving him the enchanted blade and the idea to rescue the girl and become a hero.

Manuel journeys to the Doubtful Palace, overcoming the dangerous dream-designs that guard the way with the help of the plain Niafer, Gisele's maid-servant. There he discovers that the mild-mannered, snub-nosed stranger who gave him the sword is Miramon, the dreadful magician. Gisele enters, and she, who has grown to love her husband, decides not to upset the status quo, and finding that Manuel has fallen in love with Niafer, trades him her servant-girl for Flamberge. Miramon, who in contemplating Manuel's choice of a plain, swart, and not very clever girl, realizes that he really has a superior wife, and finds how much he truly has come to love her. He throws the couple a magnificent betrothal pageant of fantasies and illusions, and sends them on their way.

Several years later it is Miramon who, hearing of Manuel's plight, comes to his aid, brokering his deal with the demiurge Horvendile and revealing to Manuel his destiny as Redeemer of Poictesme. The magician revives ten mighty but forgotten deities out of the dust heap of his old designs, and sends them against the Northmen who are ravishing Poictesme, destroying in a single night what Manuel's troops have failed to eliminate with years of fighting. Thereafter Miramon serves Manuel as Seneschal of Gontaron and as a member of the Fellowship of the Silver Stallion, and it was he who defeated the draug Thragnar and put upon him a detection and a hindrance.

When Manuel vanishes out of Poictesme, Miramon returns to the Doubtful Palace upon the back of a tame and elderly dragon, there to live in "the sedate seclusion appropriate to a veteran artist." He is accompanied by Gisele and his son Demetrios who, according to the Norns who weave the inexorable fates of the Leshy, is doomed to kill his father with Flamberge. Miramon is determined to spend what time remains to him by creating more of his dream designs, using colors such as "his white, which was the foam of the ocean made solid, and the black he had wrung from the burned bones of nine emperors...the yellow slime of Scyros, and crimson cinnabaris composed of the mingled blood of mastodons and dragons, and....the poisonous blue sand of Puteoli." Gisele, who is annoyed about leaving court life, is unsatisfied with Miramon's pursuit of art, and not slow in showing it, nor is she happy with Demetrios' and Miramon's fate.

Evasion of this fate seems possible when Miramon's friend Ninzian brings him the Bees of Toupan, which have the power to grant three wishes if one can release them. If Miramon can figure out how to do so, he can simply wish Flamberge away and thus become virtually immortal. Gisele, in dusting her husband's studio, accidentally discovers how to free the Bees, and inadvertent wishes are made that almost destroy the universe. Miramon must use the third wish to restore things to the way they were, and loses his chance for immortality.

In due course Demetrios kills Miramon, a deed of which he occasionally boasts to impress people; whether Miramon put up a fight at the end, or if he accepted it philosophically as was his wont, is unknown. But even that might not have been the absolute end of the magician. Years before when Manuel was in position to destroy him, there was this following exchange:

"I have but to sever the wicked head of this doomed magician from his foul body, and that will be the end of him--"

"No, no," says Miramon, soothingly, "I shall merely be turned into something else, which perhaps we had better not discuss. But it will not inconvenience me in the least, so do you not hold back out of mistaken kindness to me, but instead do you smite..."

So it is possible that somewhere, in some form, Miramon Lluagor is still weaving dreams and designing fantasies to vex the minds of men and disturb their sleep, and pursues the art of which he was a supreme master.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cor' Blimey!

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and now a Joyous Epiphany (or Twelfth Night, or Three Kings' Day) coming up. I haven't posted for a while now: but real life all too often trumps blogging when it comes to time and resources, and with Christmas, post-Christmas, New Year's, the search for a lost dog, a family move, and illness I've had little energy to spare. But I want to put up a little post to break the ice and get the ball rolling again.

First, a little list of the stuff I've gotten recently. In books, I got The Magic Spectacles by James P. Blaylock, a rather rare little volume that came early in Blaylock's career and apparently only published in Great Britain. It is his one avowedly "juvenile" work, and is very reminiscent of his "Balumnia" books like The Elfin Ship and The Disappearing Dwarf. I also got Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, involving a young boy and the Norse Gods; The Bards of Bone Plain, Patricia McKillip's latest bejewelled work; and Against All Things Ending by Stephen R. Donaldson, although reading these Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant books always gives me a headache. I also now have the Frank C. Pape illustrated editions of the James Branch Cabell books Figures of Earth and The Cream of the Jest: I love Pape's work and would like to get all of Cabell's works that he illustrated.

In DVDs, I have Beyond Tomorrow, a 1940 Bangsian fantasy; Jack Frost, a vintage Finno-Russian family fairy tale movie; Stories From My Childhood Vol. IV, featuring Soyuzmultfilm's editions of Beauty and the Beast, The Nutcracker, The Golden Rooster, and The Prince, The Swan and The Czar Saltan; Bedknobs and Broomsticks; Nanny McPhee Returns; How To Train Your Dragon; Family Guy: It's A Trap!; and Blackadder: The Specials Remastered, which includes Blackadder's Christmas Carol, Blackadder the Cavalier Years, Blackadder Back and Forth, and Baldrick's Video Diary, thus completing my Blackadder viewing experience.

I'm feeling a little discombobulated because I don't have a new Tolkien calendar up on the wall yet; the only one available locally is the movie tie-in one, and the official Tolkien calendar this year features the art of Cor Blok. Cor Blok's style is...individual. Tolkien himself liked it, and had several LOTR-inspired paintings of his in his home. But I have always thought when W. H. Auden commented that Tolkien had "hideous" pictures hanging on his walls, he might have meant Blok's. But I might be willing to give them another try in calendar form, and I do like to have the Tolkien-related dates handy. So perhaps a fishing expedition to a bigger city nearby is called for.

And now the hour grows late, and it is time to put a few wisps of straw in my wooden shoe for the Three King's horses, and await the arrival of the friendly broomstick-riding La Befana and her gifts. Regular service should soon be restored. Good night, and have a pleasant tomorrow.