Book review., Books, Calmahain, Fairy, Fairy Tale, Fantasy, History, Imperialism, John William Wall, Literary criticism, Morality, Racism, Ringstones and Other Curious Tales, Rose Fyleman, Sarban, Weird Fiction, World War Two, WW2
Sarban’s Ringstones and Other Curious Tales (1951) often appears to be having fun at the expense of tradition and antiquity. “A Christmas Story” goes AWOL from Christmas, out-Scrooging Scrooge with its woeful vision of a drowning mammoth. In “Capra” a Greek god is fended off with small arms fire, whilst “The Khan” attempts to implicate the reader in the spinning of a grossly racist folk story.
Sarban was the pseudonym of the British diplomat John William Wall. The two stories from Ringstones to be set in England, “Calmahain” and “Ringstones” itself, are at one with the “overseas” stories from Sarban’s diplomatic bag in setting complex interpretive challenges, often in a spirit of nothing more profound than mischief. There may be added mischief to the English stories because they concern the doings of faeries.
“Calmahain” appears to pastiche or even encroach upon parodying the synthetic substitute folklore which was ventured within the fiction of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. I have no wish to regiment Sarban with such undistinguished troops; and, in any case, “Calmahain” was written in 1948, between the publication of Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954), and before that of Lewis’ seven Chronicles of Narnia novels (1949-1954). Moreover, Sarban might have bigger fish to fry. In intimating that there may have been more valuable ideals than the British war effort, “Calmahain” anticipates the ambivalence towards patriotic warfare which would characterise Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61).
Sarban invites us to compare Mr and Mrs Maple with the children under their command. The former have gotten off lightly from the Second World War, keeping themselves in the manner to which they have become accustomed in their rural suburbia; whilst the latter have escaped from the Maples’ gruelling domesticity into a rich fantasy world.
Although over a million Canadians served in the military during WW2, the name “Maple” may have connotations with absconding from the war, since the British ruling class would have fled to Canada (which has a maple leaf on its flag) in the event of a successful Nazi invasion. On the other hand, the sight of Maple could hardly fail to please invading Nazis: “Had it not been that his eyes were blue he would have been thought an albino.” Despite being the manager of a “cake” mill (it actually makes animal feed), Maple “was fat, but he was not a jolly man. His tones were querulous, his gestures impatient, and his look was almost always discontented.” He sounds like a Nazified John Bull.
Ruth is Maple and his first wife’s child; Martin his second wife’s nephew. Ruth is fourteen and Martin “a few months younger.” Maple has only accepted the latter instead of “an evacuee child from the slums of Hull.” Despite largely bunking off the war, the second Mrs Maple instils a sort of pointless militarism in her adopted children, who are at one point memorably represented “with all her don’ts still ringing in their ears.” The Maples are keeping the aspidistra flying in wartime. When Mrs Maple wrongly insists that “I know what Mrs Leadbitter thinks,” it seems that during the war effort, the Maples do not even know their own neighbours. Once their gardener is conscripted, the Maples’ large garden runs fallow rather than being partitioned into allotments. There is scant concern with digging for victory.
We are clearly being tempted into reviling the Maples, but the circumstances of this story go some way to negating their truancy from the People’s War. Somebody still had to manufacture animal feed during wartime, and so why should we begrudge Maple his profession? The Maples’ home Oakview might seem perfect for accommodating evacuee children, but its destruction by the Luftwaffe will only render the Maples’ selfishness the good fortune of others.
The notion that “there are fairies at the bottom of our garden” was most famously associated with a poem of the same name which Rose Fyleman had submitted to Punch in 1917. “Calmahain” at first appears to be more interested in gardens than faeries, for the story becomes preoccupied with the respective gardens of the Maples and their neighbours the Leadbitters. In wartime, gardens were often put to practical use; the gardener could now supply extra food and a plot for an air-raid shelter. Yet far from furthering victory on the home front, the Maples’ bean-poles and pea-sticks are evidence of “depredations” which are “repaired by one summer’s growth of young green wood and rank annual herbage.” This garden is overgrown with “thickets of hawthorn and oak and ash saplings” and it now echoes a note of the rural England which was traditionally supposed to inflame patriotism. The Maples become unintentional custodians of an English country garden.
If Ruth and Martin are the Adam and Eve of this particular Eden, it is only because the gardener is wielding his flaming sword elsewhere in wartime. A greater wilderness waits in the Leadbitters’ garden, with its “thorns, young woodland trees, briars, nettles, tall cow-parsley, hemlock and hogweed.” Maple has officiated over “the digging and levelling, the clearing and planting, the turf-laying and lawn-rolling that had gone to give Oakview’s garden both back and front (at least up to the outbreak of the war) so well-established a look.” Leadbitter “was not envious” – his own garden with its “contours” and “natural dispositions of trees” suggested “a lay-out infinitely more pleasing and satisfying than the unimaginative arrangements of Oakview.” Leadbitter dutifully tries his hand at growing vegetables, but he cannot deliver a “cabbage that was worth the cutting.”
Leadbitter gardens with his imagination and “his eye worked considerably harder than Mr Maple’s gardener,” adding an “apple orchard,” a rose garden, and a “private swimming-pool.” Maple’s garden may reflect the pre-war stuffiness of its bourgeois owner, whilst his poorer neighbour’s fantasy garden symbolises the promise of the forthcoming welfare state. Leadbitter’s garden will improve with “time, money and labour, none of which was at present available.”
But “Calmahain” is hardly this prosaic. Compared to the wonders of Calmahain, Leadbitter’s “private swimming pool” may seem to be just as miserable as Maple’s determination to concrete over his garden with lawn. Leadbitter intends to spare his ash and oak trees, leaving them akin to ornaments on a mantelpiece. Rather than making judgements on gardening, however, “Calmahain” testifies to the intense familiarity with gardens and scraps of wasteland which invariably characterises childhood in suburbia. Simultaneously experiencing and inventing his Journey, Martin becomes deeply conscious of everything at the bottom of the garden: “…he was on a Journey and it was important to see and hear as much as possible.” Of course, Maple’s oppressively turfed garden is not designed to fire the imagination, and Martin will grumble that, “There i’n’t much we can do in this garden…” The wilderness, on the other hand, is rich with possibilities. To Martin, “You might meet with anything in a wood.”
“Journeys” may be a game which William Wall had himself played as a child (his biographer Mark Valentine notes that, ““Calmahain is set in the East Riding of Yorkshire in the same general region as his boyhood home: the terrain is very similar.”) One will search in vain for “Journeys” in Iona and Peter Opie’s Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969). The Opies had interviewed thousands of schoolchildren from, amongst other locations, Grimsby, Market Rasen, York, and Scarborough. Martin and Ruth are rather old for children’s games and we may be in the end consulting the wrong authorities. “Journeys” is too imaginative to qualify as a traditional children’s game. The Opies had chided any readers who expected games “to be imaginative, ignoring the evidence that the young do not commonly invent, merely imitate.”
“Journeys” has more in common with modern multiplayer fantasy games, particularly those created or inspired after 1974 by Professor MAR Barker, whose Tékumel mythos had first appeared in his own childhood fantasies. If folklore concerns retelling and reinterpreting, the game of “Journeys” compels Ruth and Martin to originality. Martin is aware that “Ruth had read all the books that he had and could too easily detect his borrowings.” Rather than relating folk accounts of faeries in his native Yorkshire dialect, Martin will chronicle his Journey in the Victorian-medieval style of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, representing the straightforward opposite of how folklore is traditionally supposed to work.
The strictures of traditional storytelling are equally disregarded during the telling of Ruth’s Journey. The Zanjis offer a peculiar amalgamation of the Nazis and rather less Aryan peoples. Zanjis is a little more than an anagram of “Nazis”; they resemble Celtic negroes, with their black/brown skin and red beards; and they live in an island garden city which has no draught animals, recalling the Aztecs’ Tenochtitlan. The story in the marketplace harks back to African-American slave narratives. Ruth’s Journey appears to offer nothing other than pure fantasy, uprooted from established historical facts and liberated from their logic. Yet Calmahain shines as an ideal throughout the resultant chaos, and as one which is not without contemporary resonance for Ruth.
No doubt Ran-Bartesto is a ruined merchant because the idea of free trade opening up societies seems quaint and medieval to Ruth in the light of WW2’s command economies. The enslaved personage from Calmahain speaks to Ruth “because you are a stranger of my own colour,” but this emerging and somewhat dubious narrative of Aryans being subjugated by savages comes with a critical caveat. Calmahain is inherently wondrous and lovely and welcoming. Contrary to the real-life Nazi regime and its histrionic militarism, Calmahain is a world of soft angelic pleasures, and its young people spend their days “in merrymaking, in feasting, singing, dancing and bathing…”
The appeal of such a fantasy during a period of rationing is evident, but the world of these White People (to borrow the title of Arthur Machen’s most influential fairy tale) is morally rather than superficially pure. Its people are “civilised” whites with the moral priorities of “savages.” Whilst the Nazis will bring industrialised bombing to Ruth’s peaceful English village, the people of Calmahain are so peaceable that they will be exploited even in fairyland. Ruth’s confidante promises that, “You cannot know what wonders are wrought in Calmahain, nor would you believe the loveliness I could describe…”
The reader is allowed to see how the details of Martin’s fictional Journey correspond with what he has actually experienced during his scramble around the garden. The next stage should be to guess the reality behind Ruth’s story. We should be in the same shoes as Martin, and yet we are confounded by some subtle disengagement from the implied rules of the game. Indeed, in retrospect it seems that our mistake was to think “Journeys” a game. Martin will be gradually claimed by Calmahain; he will “go native” within its fantasy just as Ranhild had abandoned her own civilisation in “The Khan.” Martin and Ruth sail away to this wonderland, whilst we are left behind. We are, so to speak, reduced to an adult, rather than remaining the children’s co-conspirator.
Side-lined within this story, we are pressed into the company of Leadbitter. Although he readily assists the children, Leadbitter is contaminated with adulthood. His sympathy is potentially just as destructive as Maple’s equivalence of “making things” with “making messes.” Whilst Leadbitter can appreciate the craftsmanship of Martin’s (second) galley, this leads him not to thoughts of fairyland but of what will happen when Martin “comes to make an air-raid shelter…” This is not so much a moral failure as a mind-set which is determined by wartime. Leadbitter and Martin will “race” to complete their own projects: the former is digging an air-raid shelter to protect his family; the latter is free to voyage to fairyland.
Irretrievably grown-up readers may glean some consolation from Leadbitter’s perspective. He attributes the tiny “footmarks” around the children’s galley to “sparrows,” posing a diminutive inverse image of the destructive Nazi bombers which bear his “night terrors.” At the denouement of the story, we find Leadbitter safely “impelled by some such fantastic urgency as acts on the brain in a dream or in inebriation…” The children could, of course, be buried under their house. Their boat could have sunk. The minuscule hammer which Leadbitter happens upon and loses again could be a hallucination produced by his fever of “fatigue” and grief; and one specifically informed by Martin’s surname “Thorgood” (after Thor, the hammer-wielding Norse god).
We will not believe this alibi for a second, or rather, its implications are too leaden and bitter. The question of whether the children are dead or sailing away to fairyland is effectively a false dichotomy. “Calmahain” asserts that the incommensurability between the imaginative and the practical is greater than that between the living and the dead. The children have fled from a world which dictates that one should, like Mrs Maple, absorb stories from detective novels rather than weaving them from the imagination. Explaining Calmahain to Mrs Maple will “turn the towers of Ilium into cardboard.” If the children are presently flourishing in Calmahain, Mrs Maple is extracted from her flimsy bombed home as a “crumpled figure” on a stretcher with a “dry little gasp of words,” rather like a captured ghost.
Leadbitter will be abandoned in his workshop to the rewards of materialism: “the litter of sawdust, fine shavings and little scraps of wood” on the floor. That immortal line from Peter Pan is apposite here: “Every time a child says “I don’t believe in fairies” there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.” As readers, we are innately prone to interpret this story rather than to believe in it. Henceforth, the faeries are already dead and Calmahain will remain as faraway as the next world. “Calmahain” is a children’s story which is lost on adults. The world at the bottom of the garden is more remote than any of the places which Sarban would visit as a diplomat.