In this post, I’m putting together some winter reading recommendations. A lot of these are either children’s books, or about children’s books – which I suspect isn’t coincidental.
The obvious thing to read for St. Lucy’s day is John Donne’s ‘Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day’, which is here. The poem was written while England still used the Old Calendar (the calendar some Orthodox Christians still use, in which Christmas day is January 7th), and so St Lucy’s Day, the 13th of December, is also the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, which is now relocated to December 21st. This slippage of time captures something else about this season, which is the role that nostalgia for the past and anticipation for the future play.
In Christian theology – and particularly medieval theology – the liturgical calendar is all about observing a moving programme of repetitions that are both cylic, and teleological, focussed on an end and a goal. Advent is like this: both a progression towards Christmas, and a repeating cycle year on year. In medieval liturgy, Advent foreshadows Lent, as a time of fasting and penitence, but it is also a time of excitement, building up to the celebrations of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So, the stories I’ve picked catch some of this sense of nostalgia and anticipation, of ‘once’ and ‘in the future,’ that characterises medieval Advent.
The other day I picked up Helen MacDonald’s non-fiction book H is for Hawk, which is partly an account of her struggle to come to terms with her dad’s death, partly a description of what it’s like to train a Goshawk while working as a twenty-first century lecturer living in Cambridge, and partly a reading of T. H. White’s medieval-influenced book The Goshawk. I’m enjoying this book, which is full of lovely, spare descriptions of fen landscapes as seen through the eyes of a hawk, which (as MacDonald observes elsewhere), sees not three colours but four, including ultraviolet light:
“Stuart pulls off the road onto a farm track to the west of the city. The evening is warm, but there’s a torn-paper whiteness behind the sun that speaks of frost to come. I unhood the hawk. Her pale eyes stare out across the hillside of stubble and chalky till, at slopes cut with hedgerows crisped at their edge into shot-silk taffeta. She sees skeletal teasels and fencewires. Larks calling overhead. A discarded twelve-gauge shotgun cartridge by my feet. Red.”
It’s beautiful writing.
There’s one point where MacDonald comments on White’s re-writing of Malory’s Morte Darthur (The Sword in the Stone), noting that while Malory described Merlin’s fate of imprisonment in a cave under a hill, it was White, not Malory, who gave Merlin the tragic foreknowledge of that fate. It’s not so, or at least not to my reading of the Morte. Malory has Merlin explain to Arthur (who has yet to marry Guinevere but has already set in motion the tragic events that will result in his own battle with his son Mordred):
“‘it is gods wyll youre body to be punysshed for your fowle dedes. But I may wel be sory,’ said Merlyn, ‘for I shalle dye a shameful deth to be put in the erthe quyck and ye shall dye a worshipful deth.”
This is all we really hear of Arthur’s death, since – famously – the narrative leaves uncertain whether the Arthur of the last chapters is fatally wounded or whether he will come again, “rex quondam, rexque futurus”: sometime king, and king to be. Merlin’s fate, on the other hand, comes surprisingly early in Malory’s narrative, given how large the character looms in other stories of Arthur. Tricked by his lover Nimue, Merlin is trapped in a cave in the roots of a hawthorn bush, buried alive.
The cadences of Malory’s prose are constantly indebted to the Vulgate Bible (which echoes behind the King James version we are more likely to know today) and to the liturgy; when he describes how it is rumoured that Arthur is not dead but “he will come again,” I think we are supposed to catch the echo of the liturgy of Christ (another king who is dead-but-not-dead), who “will come again, to judge the quick and the dead”.
Merlin’s foreknowledge is – like the image of Arthur sleeping in Avalon, his beginning and ending summed up in that uncertain pairing of ‘sometime’ and in time ‘to come’ – tragic because nothing, neither foreknowledge nor the knowledge of the cyclic nature of time, can lessen the human experience of finality.
Susan Cooper, author of the phenomenally brilliant children’s book series The Dark is Rising, plays with this same idea of time folded over and cyclic, of Arthur’s return and Merlin’s entrapment. Her second book focuses on Will, a boy growing up in a large country family in the 1970s, who gradually discovers the presence of shadowy forces of good and evil from centuries past are hovering on the edges of his own reality. In this narrative, Merlin features as a present-day character as well as a legend from the past, whose once-time servant Haukin is driven to betray him through terror, and whom Will meets as a half-mad beggar stumbling through snowy woods. This is an echo of the medieval poet Langland’s character of Haukyn, a labourer in a torn and tattered coat who is excluded from the central character’s light-filled visions of the Christ-knight who will come to save the world. Cooper’s world is filled with anticipation and nostalgia – from Will’s anticipation of the snow he hopes will fall on his birthday (the shortest day, the 21st of December), to the nostalgic image of carol singing in which Will sees the present world fall away and imagines the carols of an earlier Christmas gathering.
Another wintery read is Alan Garner’s eerie and atmospheric description of the journey he took to write his novel Thursbitch. His journey crosses the Pennine landscape and involves a wintery encounter with a half-buried eighteenth-century memorial stone on a lonely hillside. This stone leads him to a local legend of a man found dead on a snowy hillside with the print of a woman’s shoe in the snow beside him, and on from that to what he believes to be the real location for the fictional Green Chapel of the fourteenth-century Christmas poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This mapping of the worlds of long-ago fiction onto real geography is beautifully spooky, as if we could see the ghosts of the past if we were only able to be in the right place.
A Christmas story that makes use of this sense of time and place is The Children of Green Knowe, in which a lonely motherless boy, Tolly, goes to stay with his great-grandmother in a twelfth-century house for Christmas, where he slips through time to meet a family of children from the reign of Charles II. In the 1980s a TV series was made of it, set in the real house at Hemingford Grey, which is of course of the kind of quality you’d expect for 1986, but which makes you wish they’d remake it.
Lucy M. Boston, like Cooper, makes beautifully evocative use of weather, and where Cooper brings to life the smell of the air before a snow fall and the restless flurrying of rooks in the treetops, Boston describes a Christmas of heavy flooding in the fens, with water cutting off the house from everything around it, with thunder and lightning that gives way to deep snow and the singing of the carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.
The story isn’t purely Christmassy though, or at least not purely celebratory. Listening to a carol sung in the next room and four hundred years ago, Tolly’s grandmother gives a perfect response to why Christmas carols can be sad:
‘It is lovely, only it is such a long time ago. I don’t know why that should be sad, but sometimes it seems so.’
More Recommendations for Advent
Not all of these are time-travel stories, and they are not all set at Christmas (though A Traveller in Time culminates with a brilliantly plangent Christmas scene). But they all seem to me to fit the bill for nostalgia, anticipation, and a sense of time passing.
Please add yours in the comments.
The best ever version of the Christmas story itself, by the way, is Jan Pienkowski’s silhouette illustrations to an abridged synthesis from the King James Bible (abridged syntheses of the Bible are very medieval).
The pictures are mine. As with everything else on this blog, please don’t use without permission. Thanks!