The Well at Narnia’s End

IMG_2130So. One of the questions supposedly asked of writers is ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ (Although I have to say, in my case no one asks. Either because it’s so obvious, or because they don’t want to catch the same disease which ravaged my imagination.) For popular writers it becomes something of a little business, with readers and academics hacking away at the text and trying to find where the various pieces have come from. It’s rather like the geologists who established the stones of Stonehenge came from South Wales.

For the writings of C S Lewis the mining has gone on for decades and there have been fascinating results: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia came on a rich seam (we are probably going to have a lot of mining images today) when he made a clear identification between each of the planets in the Ptolemaic cosmology and the books of the Narnia series. He also found a very strong link with Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Now, we know that Lewis read a lot (I think someone, somewhere, possibly in A N Wilson’s biography, remarks that Lewis had read everything). I have often wondered about the influence of William Morris on Lewis and Tolkien, given that both went ‘northern’ (possibly Tolkien more than Lewis). Those wonderings cropped up again recently, while I was re-reading Morris’ The Well and the World’s End (a book we know Lewis admired). This time I stumbled on a couple of strata that it seems Lewis had mined (told you) for the Narnia series.

The first was a stone table on which the crone who enthralled (in the ‘making a thrall – slave – of’ sense) the future Lady of Abundance sacrificed the white goat. The sacrifice was not exactly substitutionary, but it did fulfil an undefined need for blood. Who else to we know who was sacrificed on a stone table?

The second was the disguising of Ralph, Ursula, the Sage of Swevenham and their horses against the pursuit of the Lord of Utterbol’s nephew, so the pursuers saw only rocks and skeletons. Now, where in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe are two people disguised as objects? (Clue: one of them is a witch, one a dwarf.)

(I also have a vague recollection of a Tolkien link, but like many night thoughts it was gone with the morning.)

I don’t think either of those are new links: you can bet there will have been plenty of PhDs that discuss them. Neither, for me, do they diminish Lewis’ text. (I am well aware of Tolkien’s rebuke to those studying Beowulf: But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.) Rather, they root it back into something older, show more of its trajectory; perhaps make it appear less the product of the mythological bran-tub than it sometimes does.

The Mill

{So. An apology. I have meant to post this for months. But life has happened. Despite that, I still feel strongly enough to do it now. This is a fable, a folk-story, which anyone can – I hope – enjoy. For any UK readers I only add: RBS.}

The mill sat at the edge of the village by the edge of the Squire’s land. It was an old building which squatted astride the mill stream like a miserable toad. Its wheel turned perpetual under the weight of the water that ran under its arch.

The Miller was a cheerless man, dull-faced and pale from days spent watching the vIllage’s corn being ground to flour. The villagers avoided the Miller and his mill whenever they could: his conversation was as dull as his face and always about his gears and their ratios. The villagers would rather talk of their children, the fields and the woods.

As he grew older the Miller began to go round the village asking the villagers to send all their corn to him for grinding. At first they refused: the Miller took too much as his share for doing a job they could do for nothing with their querns. But the squire was keen for the Miller to succeed; he encouraged the villagers to use the mill, offering them a Christmas pudding if they sent their corn to the mill, but frowning on them if they refused.

But even with more corn coming into the mill the Miller was unhappy. He bought a notebook and began writing numbers in it, which showed how the mill would be the biggest mill in the whole world, if only everyone would send all the corn to him for grinding. He took to prowling the streets of the village (when he should have been watching the mill) to explain his numbers to the villagers. The villagers took to walking through the fields rather than risk meeting the Miller and receiving one of his lectures.

Several years passed. The Miller went from house to house, demanding people send corn to his mill. He began to extend the mill, knocking down the end wall so he could add another wheel to grind more corn.

But there was no more corn.

So the Miller sent his children out to gather grass and wild flowers, which he ground to dust and put into sacks. He piled the sacks high and announced his mill could grind anything in the world. It was then the Miller’s wife went to see the Squire. She told him her husband had gone mad: only last week she had to stop him trying to grind the family cat. She broke down as she described the creature’s howls as its tail was crushed between the millstones. Worse, their house was now open to the wind and the sky, as the Miller had knocked down walls to fit the new wheel.

The Squire went to the mill and found the Miller feeding the fragments of his wall to the millstones. Deeply perturbed, the Squire summoned the villagers. He explained the sad condition of the Miller and announced a solution. They would all buy the mill to keep it running and send the Miller to a quiet place near the sea where he would regain his senses.

The Squire explained that as he did not have enough money to buy the mill he would take up a collection from the villagers. The villagers were dismayed, but, wanting to keep the mill working, paid up from their small stores of silver coin. The Miller went away and the villagers repaired their mill. The mill ground corn again.

After a few years the Miller returned. His face was tanned from his stay by the sea, but his eyes were still dull. The villagers held a little party to welcome him back as they were good friends with his wife and didn’t like to see her unhappy.

The Squire came to the party just as it was ending. He took a glass of wine and stood on a bench to make a speech. This is what he said.

‘Dear, dear friends. It gladdens all our hearts to see our dear Miller returned to us in the best of health. Look how ruddy his face is. He is like a new man.’ (There were cheers.) ‘I know the Miller is grateful for the way you have looked after his Mill and his family while he has been beside the sea.’ (The Miller frowned.) ‘Well, I am glad to announce he is come to his senses and has come back.’ (One or two people gave half-hearted cheers.) ‘So, to mark this, and to help him get back on his feet with milling, we are all giving him back his mill.’

The villagers frowned and talked low among themselves, finally pushing Thomas Buttons to the front. Thomas bowed a couple of times and cleared his throat. ‘Squire, we know you are a wise man, but how can you give the mill back to the Miller when it was us, the people of the village who paid for it?’

The Squire smiled. ‘Ah, Thomas, you know a good deal about raising pigs and cattle, ploughing, sowing and reaping, but do you know much about milling?’

Thomas shuffled. ‘Well, no Squire, I can’t say as I do.’

The Squire’s smile grew even broader. ‘No more you should. But, Thomas, if you don’t understand milling, how can you understand how the mill is paid for?’

Thomas did not back down. ‘But we gave you good silver coin for the mill. And you took it .’

The Squire’s smile nearly split his face in two. ‘And that good silver coin paid for the miller’s holiday and for mending the mill. You didn’t think they had anything to do with buying the mill did you?’

‘Well,’ said Thomas, getting confused. ‘You did say how we were all buying the mill.’

The Squire sighed, stepped off the bench and put his arms around Thomas’ shoulder. ‘Ah, Thomas, Thomas, dear old friend. Don’t trouble yourself with all this bother about the mill. Leave that to the miller and me. All you need to know is that the Miller is ready to take your corn for grinding, and that he will be taking more for his services than he did before. Which is only right, given as how he has got the mill back.’

With that the Squire shook Thomas’ hand and left the party, followed by the Miller and his wife (who dared not look behind her).

And so the Miller went back to milling and his face grew pale again as he spent the days watching the millstones go round and thinking of his ratios. He borrowed money from the Squire and fitted a second wheel. All the while the villagers wondered what exactly had happened to all their good silver coin and what they had thought was their mill.

Oh, my brave boys!

So. Bonfire night and off to the firework display at the Blue Flames (a well-known local display) to celebrate the thwarting of the terrorist plot to blow up parliament. Lots of people, chips and beer. Twenty minutes after time (a well-known feature of the display) the floodlights dim and the first fireworks head up into the sky.

They have a firework canon or something that sends an arc of explosions into the dark. But my favourites are the silver-gold twists that corkscrew boldly from the earth, each one trying to climb higher, trying to escape. And each one fading and failing. Oh, my brave boys! The whole of art and history is there.

Some twenty years ago I wrote a poem about fireworks, after watching from a bedroom window with one of my children. It is not the best poem ever (I suppose that goes for all except one poem), in this case the front end is clunky), but it expresses that same futile beauty I sensed again tonight.

Fireworks

To you, these are bangs, terrifying and loud.

You want the window shut;

a glass shield to let you watch the flames.

I want the window open, to allow the fullness

of sight, sound and smell.

These are more than fireworks.

Brief flares,

Blinking reminders of temporality,

Sweet exclamations of our mortal course.

Green-gold attendants of darkness

Which tell, when read correctly,

That everything will pass away.

Joy flames briefly

Dying down to darkness.

All will pass: spark, fire, stone.

‘Take that thing away’

Campo SantoSo. In the HG Wells short story The Pearl of Love an Indian prince falls in love with a young woman who dies shortly after their wedding. He dedicates his life to building a monument to her. In old age, with the building nearly complete, he studies one of the vistas within the monument and finds it spoiled by her sarcophagus. ‘Take that thing away,’ he commands.

I was reminded of that story this morning in the shower, when I suddenly saw the resolution to the tangled and unworking plot of a story I am writing. I realised that the very beginning scene, which I had tweaked and tidied for ages, and was very much in love with, had to go. ‘Take that thing away,’ I commanded.

Of course, the position isn’t quite the same, as the beginning scene isn’t the core of the book: even though it had been there since the start. We have to learn though, that once we have started, the things that we began with may not make it to the end.

Perhaps it would be better if we treated them in the same way as builders treat the wooden formwork for concrete: it holds the drying concrete in place, but once that has set the formwork is struck and never seen again. Or again, maybe as the metalworker’s wax image which is vaporised as the molten bronze or silver is poured into the mould. In each case, what we start with is not the finished piece, but we need it in order to create it.

Let us all begin to use the harsh but powerful phrase: ‘take that thing away.’

Viking funeral

IMG_0837So. Not everything works out the way you want it to. That’s hardly news. But what do we do when it doesn’t? When the grant application is turned down and the project shudders to a stop?

The temptation is to push on regardless, to take a ‘we’ll show the bastards’ approach. There’s so much time and effort invested in the work that stopping appears inconceiveable.

Except it isn’t.

For the last eighteen months or so I have been working with a handful of other theatre-makers (Tuesday’s Childe) on Hero in a coma, our first full length play. We workshopped and devised, wrote and re-wrote, had a rehearsed reading and took it to scratch nights. Then we applied for funding for two weeks of rehearsals to get it on its feet and towards full production.

We didn’t get the funding and then one of us got a job which clashed with the planned rehearsal period. We were left baffled and gloomy (but still all very pleased about the job).

We had a big, very honest debate about where we stood with the project. We decided that it is not time to press on regardless. It is time to create an event which will reflect and honour the piece and our work so far.

So on Wednesday 14th October we will (big metaphor warning) lay it out in the long boat, and pile its treasures around it. We will set fire to the boat and push it out to sea. As the flames spring skyward we will celebrate and remember. We will allow ourselves to feel sad as the fire dies and the boat sinks is a gush of steam.

Then. Ah, then, we will start work on something else, using all the skills and experience we have gained from this one. And this new work will be glorious.

The final performance of Hero in a coma will be in The Bewick Hall, Newcastle City Library, Wednesday 14th October at 6:30 pm. Free admission, but it would be helpful to book via the library on Eventbrite.

Battle of the n armies (where n is a number greater than five)

IMG_1819(Warning: contains spoilers, but not about The Hobbit.)

So. I have, at long last, watched the final one of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. Now, I am not going to bother listing differences between the film and the book: that is a pointless exercise in misunderstanding, nor am I going to make an interminable list of grievances (actually, I am going to put a short list in the final paragraph, where no one has to read them), but I do want to reflect on the nature of the film.

A little while back, before the film came out, I made some predictions of who would survive and who would be killed, based on the narrative structure of the first two. I reckoned:

  • Bolg would kill Kili, who was defending Tauriel;
  • Bolg would kill Tauriel;
  • Legolas would kill Bolg, in revenge for/defense of Tauriel;
  • Thorin would kill Azog (and of course be killed himself).

I was right on all except the second one. Despite being thrown halfway down a mountain Tauriel survived to grieve her dwarf and (indirectly) send Legolas off to the arms of Aragorn (as it were). Now it’s not that I am some kind of genius who can see the future, simply that I know a little about the genre of the film, even if I don’t like it.

The Hobbit films were truer to the conventions of their genre than The Lord of the Rings. There was too much story there, too much loved stuff to mess with. Jackson and his associates twisted and turned to get their films, but there were some things they couldn’t shift. With The Hobbit, the need to produce three films out of a little book left huge amounts of territory up for grabs. Inevitably, things became (à la Douglas Adams) needlessly Operatic.

The first sign of that was the killing of Smaug. In the bedtime story book, Bard the bowman fires his (note that, his) last black arrow into the unarmoured spot on the dragon’s hide. In the film everything is heightened. Bard cannot fire, he is in prison. He has the wrong arrows, not THE black arrow. He is up a rickety wooden tower (he just is, right?). His son (extra loved-one-peril) brings him the arrow. The ******* dragon is coming at him. His bow is broken. He has to use his son (extra, extra loved-one-peril) as part of his bow. And, of course, once he has fired the arrow, he and his son (extra, extra, extra loved-one-peril) disappear into the flames. Oh Em Gee.

Coupled to that was the death of the Master of Lake Town. Not starving to death with his gold, but flattened/drowned in the death plummet of Smaug. Again, Opera.

The surest sign of Opera was Kili’s death scene. That slow-motion, eye-to-eye perishing was more Wagnerian duet than film. The fat lady may not have sung, but, boy, was she ready.

There are clearly many people who like their films like that. That’s fine. My problem is, that if I want opera I will go and see something by Mozart or Janaček.

So. What do I do now? First, clear my palate. I think I might watch Dodgeball again. There’s a film that knows the Hero’s Journey and works it. <spoiler >The death of coach Patches O’Houlihan is one of my favourite examples of a film’s self-knowledge </spoiler>. Second, follow up the hint that someone, somewhere is doing a cut of the films which only includes scenes with Bilbo in. Third. Write my own. Who has the theatrical rights to The Hobbit?

(The promised grievances, none of which are ‘but in the book’: (1) the orc army bounced up out of the ground, taking everyone by surprise, but the command post was sitting up on a hill, in full view of everyone. How so? (2) Desolation: Jackson’s cities are glorious: Minas Tirth, Dale; but they have been dropped from heaven. Where are the fields, the farms, the livestock? Granted, not so much an issue for Dale, which has been dragonised for a while, but Minas Tirth and Edoras? (3) The incoherence of battles. I understand war is chaos, but tactically, they are a mess. (4) (related to 3) Why do these armies always march with the weapons in the attack position? They would be knackered in less than a mile. Yes, even the dwarves. (5) (related to 3 and 4) Why do these armies always manage to advance in orderly ranks even across the most rugged, rock-strewn terrain? (6) Shapelessness: a constant re-boot of battles as more people/beings arrived. (7) Isolation of the hero action. Why can’t we hear dwarves and orcs still being cut to pieces down below while the heroes jump about on frozen lakes and falling towers?)

What has it got in its pocketses?

So. Still thinking about adaptations and the inner life of a book. Inevitably, I turn to the recent Hobbit films, with a pained look on my face. (I have to admit at this point that I have not seen Ep III Everybody fighting Everybody, but there is enough material in the first two to make my point.) What is the problem with the Hobbit films? They have been given the inner spirit of The Lord of the Rings. That’s all there is to it.

I had this roiling round my head as I was out on the bike this morning, and began to think how I would go about adapting the Hobbit for the stage. (What follows is probably very obvious, but, hey, I worked it out for myself.) The heart of the Hobbit is a told story. It is a fireside tale – in the best sense – masquerading in a book. A good adaptation would have to capture and convey that toldness. Preferably with a cast of seven, maybe eight.

But how do we get thirteen dwarves on stage with only seven actors? Hats I tell you. There are only two dwarf characters, Thorin and Balin (Bombur is not a character, merely a burden). Why clutter up the stage with unnecessary dwarves? No, hats will do nicely. No need for special effects, or grotesque make-up. We want a fire, a storyteller and a group of listeners who become part of the story as they listen.

That, I would go and see (and I wouldn’t mind a chance to write it).

The inner life of a book

TheManWhoWasThursdaySo. For the last two days I have been in a writing workshop run by Northumberland Theatre Company in the labyrinth of Alnwick Playhouse. The first day, with Ann Coburn was about structure, layering, subtext and dialogue, the second, with Stewart Howson was all about adaptation.

The primary point of the morning was the importance of being true to the inner life of the original in the new medium. That is much more important than slavishly following the original structure and order of narrative (I have ranted about this sort of thing previously, but Stewart got the point across much more strongly).

We then did an exercise (of course). We each had to chose a book, identify the inner life and then, using newspaper and string, express that inner life in an installation. We also had to produce a one line pitch, a sentence summary and paragraph summary of the book. The process of taking the inner life from the medium of words to the sculptural-conceptual newpaper was weird, but strangely fulfilling: just what was at the heart of the book, and how could that be expressed in paper and string?

When every one was finished, we went round look at each installation in turn, trying to guess the book from just the newspaper. If we didn’t get that (which was the usual result) we got the one line pitch, then the sentence summary and finally the paragraph. We got a few quite quickly (Henry James, Portrait of a Lady), others were obscure books no one other than the adaptor had read.

Now you can join in the fun. The picture at the top of this post is my installation (ignore the rectangular white lines: those are just markings on the floor). So: can you identify the book?

If not, here’s the pitch:

It’s not paranoia if they are watching you

Got to it yet? If not, then here’s the longer phrase:

When your enemies turn out to be your friends, who is the last enemy?

Still not got it? OK. Here’s the paragraph:

At the end of the nineteenth century the forces of anarchy and law are warring over the body and soul of humanity. On man embarks on a suicidal mission to uncover the heart of disorder, only to find himself anointed as the messenger of chaos. Unable to avoid the task, he struggles to identify his friends and his enemies.

Of course, it’s G K Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.

I don’t really want to say much more about the book – spoilers – but a key theme is about unfolding knowledge, hence the spiral of gradually unfolding pieces of paper.

Now, that was just an exercise, but I continued to think about the book as we did the next section on holding frames or framing devices. By the end of the afternoon I knew exactly how I would adapt the book for the stage. So, if anyone wants an adaptation of The Man who was Thursday for a small touring company, get in touch, I’m ready to write it.

Violins

Violin_bridgeOnce there was a kingdom where music was highly valued. There were concert halls in every town, where orchestras, folk bands, choirs and clog dancers regularly gathered to rehearse, perform and appreciate each other’s performances. (Every type of music was welcomed, except for the ukelele, the playing of which carried the death sentence.)

The monarch revelled in the musicality of all her subjects, but nurtured a particular passion[1] for the violin which was, she claimed, the pinacle of music. When she had ruled for a significant number of years[2] she celebrated with a decree that every one of her beloved subjects would be able to make their own violin, and would be able to join the royal violin ensemble to play annually at the monarch’s birthday celebrations.

The decree went out to every town, as did a series of boxes and packets containing wood, glue, varnish, strings and tools. The kingdom rejoiced. Composers turned to writing violin music. In every town hall a room was set aside as a violin workshop.

For a few weeks the workshops were full of people sawing, planing and sanding. Planks were cut and ruined, glue splodged on, and barely one playable violins was made. Most people gave up. They had too many other things to do: work, shopping, cooking, looking after children, finding a spouse. They would have liked to have made a violin, but they simply didn’t have the time.

But there were a few people who did have time. They had parents who had prospered by thinking mainly of making money, and had never sung in a choir or played in an orchestra (and certainly never joined a folk band). The children of the prosperous had no need to work, so they took over the violin workshops and made violins for themselves. Sometimes, they found a talented violin maker and paid them to make a violin, claiming, quite reasonably, that as their money had released the violin maker’s time it was their money, and thus they who had made the violin.

A year passed and the royal violin ensemble was assembled and rehearsed. It appeared at the celebration of the royal birthday looking very smart in its red coats and gold braid. As the monarch entertained her guests at the birthday dinner the ensemble played one of the new pieces for violin.

The ensemble was adequate. Everybody knew that, but nobody said it.

Every year the ensemble played at the birthday celebration. Monarch replaced monarch, violinists handed on their positions to their children, who had less interest in playing the violin than their parents. Finally, the performance was so bad that the ensemble was excused playing: it was sufficient that they attended with their violins. Very soon, even that burden was removed as each member of the ensemble was given a gold badge, in the shape of the violin, to be worn at the birthday celebration.

In the rest of the kingdom no one played the violin and all the new violin music was eaten by mice or used as pie cases.


  1. Everyone knows the only thing to do with a passion is to nurture it.  ↩
  2. Forty-nine years. Because that is seven times seven.  ↩

Sondheim on Smaug

fruitcakeSo. Still with Stephen Sondheim (at least as a jumping off point). The story of A Little Night Music (p282 of the UK edition of Finishing the Hat) was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. After the success of the musical Sondheim was approached by Bergman who wanted to collaborate on an adaption of The Merry Widow. Sondheim suggested Bergman see A Little Night Music before agreeing.

After Bergman has seen the musical Sondheim asked, with some trepidation, how he had found it (given it was based on Bergman’s own story). Bergman replied:

‘No, no, Mr Sondheim, please. I enjoyed the evening very much. Your piece has nothing to do with my movie, it merely has the same story … after all, we all eat from the same cake.’

Which brings me to discussing a film I haven’t seen yet: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Ep III: The Lord of the Rings – Revenge of the Sith) and the question some of us come back to wrestle with ‘who’s story is it?’

Why does anyone wrestle with that question? Because ‘dwarves and elves don’t fall in love’ and ‘Why did they miss out Tom Bombadil’ and ‘Faramir doesn’t behave like that’ and countless other statements. But are all those questions missing the point? Yes, and (possibly) no.

Yes, because, just as musicals and films are different beasts (and Sondheim will tell you that) so books and the Hollywood sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster (HSFB). Complaining that a book and an HSFB are different is as pointless as watching Verdi’s Macbeth while reading Shakespeare’s text and being upset when you realise Verdi has cut all the good speeches. But, in fact, the reason for the differences would be very similar, because we have gone from a comparatively-subtle, interiorising medium to one where all passions and conflicts are heightened.

The HSFB is not a vehicle for finely observed feelings, nuance or ambivalence. Everything has to be flagged up and clear, and everything, absolutely everything, has to be wagered on the last roll of the dice. Which is why the Master of Lake Town – a greedy, selfish, plotting fellow in the book – becomes the little dictator in order to be a proper antagonist for Bard, who in turn has to have a family history of failure against the dragon. With all that in place, downing the dragon with a very specific, last-of-its-kind, black arrow in a very specific, last-of-its-kind, dwarf windlass becomes an suitably charged act.

The whole Azog business in the first film (burning trees and that) was driven by the need to have an antagonist for Thorin (Bolg-Legolas have the same pairing): that is exactly the same structural requirement which gave us Lurtz at the end of Ep IV (The Lord of the Rings – A new hope). Once we accept the genre we have to accept all that sort of stuff: like putting up with ten-minute death songs in operas.

We’ve seen this sort of transformation before. Watch The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967), then read The Jungle Book (Kipling, 1894). Not as different as they could be (Sher Khan is a tiger in both), but one is ‘inspired by’, not ‘enslaved to’ the other.

That’s the ‘yes’: we are eating from the same cake and it just doesn’t matter that The Hobbit has given rise to Eps I-III.

What about the (possibly) ’no’. What case is there to be made for requiring a closer adherence to the seminal (in the seed-sense) book? I find it difficult to think where such a case might start. Perhaps it might start with the breath of the book, the pneuma or spirit. It is a little adventure. A perilous little adventure, certainly, but one which only becomes important because Someone (naming no names) found That Ring. Is that same breath in the film? Probably not. (Perhaps we could make something which was closer to that breath by making a cut of the three films which never leaves Bilbo. It would be weird, baffling and less bombastic.)

But in the end the book is the book and the films is the films. And we all eat from the same cake.