Tristan and Iseult, by Rosemary Sutcliff


Wiki characterises this as ‘a children’s novel’, which feels odd to me. It’s somewhat simplistic and it’s a novella, but it’s not really terribly child-friendly? Like, I wouldn’t call The Stranger a kid’s book because the prose is stripped back. This Tristan and Iseult isn’t so obviously child-inappropriate as that, but neither can I see the youth clamouring for it. I suppose it feels possibly YA or New Adult in that the protagonists are youngish for much of the action? It’s not precisely clear how old they are by the story’s end/their deaths (Arthuriana spoilers). But sometimes we say a thing is ‘for children’ when what we mean is simply that it’s not long or deeply complex (which is, obviously, a bit crap as a generic description).
This was a light, pleasant read, but it’s a bit overshadowed by the skill and beauty of TH White’s psychological approach and prose. It does behove writers and critics to ask themselves what a contribution aims to do differently, to expand on, to rethink in a subfield that includes Once and Future King, because you’re never not going to have that signal reworking in mind. White does cut the Tristan arc to keep Lancelot and Guinevere’s story-line neat (as-is, Malory crams in two confusing, conflicting major Iseults, and Sutcliff follows suit), to make it work as a piece of psychological realism/a moral question. Thus Sutcliff is giving something to modern Arthuriana reworking here by even attempting this tale. Yet I sort of wish she’d thrown herself into the project more? I’ve not yet read anything else by her, I just felt a sense of limitation here. Nothing in this reworking really took me.
That may be related to how uninterested this novel is in charm as an affect. You don’t get a sense of it from the characters or their doomed love, from the world or moments in the text, or in the relationship it’s trying to stage with its readers. This, along with the story’s unalleviated central concerns–doomed, unhappy love and sad, crunching betrayals that ruin male-male relationships and lives, also makes it hard to think of this as a children’s book. Tristan and Iseult is a blue-gray sort of story, cold and sparsely populated, shot through and sometimes illuminated by the strange copper-blood-purple red of Iseult’s often-referenced hair. It picks up a little on the feeling of some patches of Malory, and slightly anticipates Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. There’s some magic here, but of a constrained variety. The dwarf’s star-gazing could be a kind of Hild-like careful processing. There’s a dragon, but it might be any really threatening mundane animal–its effects are near-identical to those of a series of human conflicts over Iseult of the White Hands/territory.
There were quite good elements. That hair, and a time Tristan feels deeply disgusted with Iseult and himself for living a lie and betraying King Marc, and Marc himself, who does honestly love them both. But that itself was frustrating, because (and a friend joked this impulse was very MZB, and fair cop) you did just want them to work out some amenable arrangement, het or queer, nephew/uncle or no, and halt the slow, pointless death-waltz of the oncoming plot. 
I often get irked when people even joke that complicated relationships should be resolved, melted down, into the crucible of a threesome, because it seems a stupid way to think about relationship issues and plots, intent on liquidating productive or necessary tensions via artificial means. A threesome could and should have all the tensions of its constituent relationships. But there are some tensions that call for resolutions between characters on grounds of greater and more life-altering intimacy than heteronormative plot structures are prepared to allow. There are also ‘marriage plot’ problems that strike you as more of the moment of their writing than trans-temporal, describing the period they depict and speaking to the present reader. With more embedded social and psychological writing, Sutcliffe might have sold me on the painful irresolubility of the characters’ situation by walking me through it. As is, I’m just ‘why not both?’ing. Or rather, the problem is that Iseult doesn’t love Marc–that’s the central imbalance here. But then I know very little about their relationship, from her perspective. I don’t know the dimensions of their marriage, and what possibilities it affords. 
I like and respect that Iseult of Cornwall née Ireland’s an intelligent but difficult woman, who makes Iseult of the White Hands roll her eyes with good reason at the concussion (‘I loved him mooooost’ ‘well idk about that bitch, but he loved YOU more, so sure, be First Wife’). Sutcliff’s decision to eschew the ‘doomed to love one another by fate/an accident with a magical cup’ impetus feels like a good one, but it cuts down on another wonder-element of the text and really, how different was her treatment for having made this change? She wants an irresistible, quick-setting, not deeply motivated pull between these characters (who have reason to be drawn to one another, she just doesn’t end up illustrating this process all that much) and she gets it, cup or no. Sometimes the Olde Timey Celtic dialogue feels odd and lumpy, which is all the odder because there’s little dialogue in the book. I don’t know how self-consistent this dialogue feels, and I wonder what sources she’s drawing from here. The first half works better for me than the second, which meanders a bit. This is somewhat consistent with the source material, but then she’s shaping this telling, so I do hold her a bit accountable.
A solid, middle of the road sort of book, but I’m not sure there’s a reader who’ll LOVE it. At least it doesn’t feel as awful, forced and unnecessary as all the on-trend ‘my publisher made me do it’ fairy tale retellings glutting the market.

Steven Universe Review


You may well have heard about Steven Universe (and if you’re aware of the show, you might also be interested in some criticism about it—fingers crossed!). In certain circles (people active on Tumblr and other major media fandom platforms, USians with young children, etc.), this American Cartoon Network show, technically on the cusp of its third season, has been talked up ad nauseum. But outside of the aforementioned circles, the program is far less Universally known (that’s a truly awful pun, and I’m not particularly sorry). Whether or not you’re saturated with Steven, it still merits discussion by virtue of being simultaneously one of the best children’s programs and one of the best science fiction programs of its generation.

Full review here.

Disjointed thoughts on Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”



* This is all about the initial book. I have seen the 1997 and 2011 live action films, but not read the sequels or seen “Arrietty.”

* I am about to go read Subramanian on this, I just wanted to collate these notes I took while reading first. I’m only thinking about Borrowers in that context at all because Aishwarya Subramanian told me to.

* The cover of the edition I read, pictured above, is ideal. It takes the viewer a while to figure out that they aren’t looking down on human-sized people from an attic. It looks like an invasion. This is the perfect introduction to a book that consistently asks questions about property, appropriation and work (along class and colonial lines), which frequently plays with its power relationships rather than straightforwardly assigning colonizer/colonized positions to its two ‘races’. Though ultimately, the power the humans have to hurt the Borrowers and the lack of commensurate power on the Borrowers’ part does solidify those dynamics to a degree.

* “Mrs. May lived in two rooms in Kate’s parents’ house in London; she was, I think, some kind of relation.” There’s an arrogance to the authorial voice’s not knowing the relationship of obligation here–‘some kind of relation’. The human world has its own layers of dependence: child and adult, servant and invalid, monied and nonworking vs unmonied and working. These complicate the Borrowers’ position in interesting ways.

* Why does the book emphasize India, and that the frame-narrator has since died young?

* “Mrs. May was old, her joints were stiff, and she was-not strict exactly, but she had that inner certainty which does instead. Kate was never “wild” with Mrs. May, nor untidy, nor self-willed; and Mrs. May taught her many things besides crochet: how to wind wool into an egg-shaped ball; how to run-and-fell and plan a darn; how to tidy a drawer and to lay, like a blessing, above the contents, a sheet of rustling tissue against the dust.” ok how gorgeous is this language though?

* “Oh dear,” exclaimed Mrs. May lightly, “don’t say they’re in this house too!” “That what are?” asked Kate.
“The Borrowers,” said Mrs. May, and in the half light she seemed to smile. again, nice

* “Even Uncle Hendreary’s and Eggletina’s. Everything they had was borrowed; they had nothing of their own at all. Nothing. In spite of this, my brother said, they were touchy and conceited, and thought they owned the world.” So, is this a valid description? It’s so LOADED, a lot to unpick here. Names, for one.

* “They thought human beings were just invented to do the dirty work-great slaves put there for them to use. At least, that’s what they told each other. But my brother said that, underneath, he thought they were frightened. It was because they were frightened, he thought, that they had grown so small. Each generation had become smaller and smaller, and more and more hidden. In the olden days, it seems, and in some parts of England, our ancestors talked quite openly about the ‘little people.'” Again, who’s the colonizer? Does this indicate that these essentially-Fae creatures lived off the land before human encroachment, and that they learned and adapted to human economic patterns and became dependent on them? This would be another layer of appropriation. Or perhaps they came with these humans to the area, perhaps they exist as ‘parasitic’ organisms.

* I am being reminded a lot of that paper I wrote on inhumanity and enchantment, and how DEPENDENT the fae are on humanity, how parasitic at every level.

* It’s interesting that the borrowers are ALLOWED to be something other than ideal, pastoral, endlessly-nice.

* meat safe
noun: meat safe; plural noun: meat safes
1 a cupboard or cover of wire gauze or a similar material, used for storing meat.

(new term for me)

* “hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl” participation in the structure of empire–see also the cigar boxes? I wonder if the Borrowers feel themselves British.

* The frame narratives are fascinating, but at times the question of how people know things just dissolves. Are the frames necessary? Not from a writerly perspective, but from a critical one they’re tricky and potentially rich.

* “It shocked her to be right. Parents were right, not children. Children could say anything, Arrietty knew, and enjoy saying it— knowing always they were safe and wrong.”

* “Arrietty, half dozing, gazed up at her painted ceiling. “FLOR DE HAVANA,” proclaimed the banners proudly. “Garantizados… Superiores… Non Plus Ultra… Esquisitos…” and the lovely gauzy ladies blew their trumpets, silently, triumphantly, on soundless notes of glee…”

* “Arrietty felt warm tears behind her eyelids and a sudden swelling pride: so this, at last, was The Clock! Their clock… after which her family was named! For two hundred years it had stood here, deep-voiced and patient, guarding their threshold, and measuring their time.” Nice writing, but alos–possession, ownership, identity stuff here.

* “and she saw, in a glory of sunlight—like a dreamed- of gateway to fairyland—the open front door. Beyond she saw grass and, against the clear, bright sky, a waving frond of green.” The enchantment of the mundane.

* “Arrietty saw him scurry across the sunlit floor. Swiftly he ran—as a mouse runs or a blown dry leaf—and suddenly she saw him as “small.”” I’m reminded of the reframing in this poem:

Shailja Patel’s “Dreaming in Gujarati” (full poem here

my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
rosewater fountains
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi
suave and melodic
earthy Punjabi
salty rich as saag paneer
coastal Kiswahili
laced with Arabic,
he speaks Gujarati
solid ancestral pride.
Five languages
five different worlds
yet English
before white men

* “the awful space above and around her!” the colonial subject in a world build for the colonizer

* “But we are Borrowers,” she explained, “like you’re a—a human bean or whatever it’s called. We’re part of the house. You might as well say that the fire grate steals the coal from the coal scuttle.” part of the environment

*” His face became even redder. “Of course not,” he said angrily; “I’m not a fairy!” “Well, nor am I,” said Arrietty, “nor is anybody. I don’t believe in them.”
He looked at her strangely. “You don’t believe in them?”
”No,” said Arrietty; “do you?”
”Of course not!”” The way the borrowers resist being made into the supernatural other.

* “‘Oh,” said the boy again. He seemed to find it a safe sound, as lawyers do. “Are there many people like you?”
“No,” said Arrietty. “None. We’re all different.”” o snap. Again, a refusal of being–a representative of the Other, rather than herself, and part of an array of people.

* “That’s why my father says it’s a good thing they’re dying out… just a few, my father says, that’s all we need” Humans as problematic: too big, too needing, too capable of violence by virtue of their bodily power. Also, this country house, this upper class way of life, IS dying out here. There aren’t enough people and material goods and activity during which stuff can go missed easily, anymore, to sustain all these Dorrower families.

* “Human beans are for Borrowers—like bread’s for butter!” interesting inversion of dependency’s power-relations.

* ‘”Listen!” he said. And he told her about railway stations and football matches and racecourses and royal processions and Albert Hall concerts. He told her about India and China and North America and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales. “Not hundreds,” he said, “but thousands and millions and billions and trillions of great, big, enormous people. Now do you believe me?”
Arrietty stared up at him with frightened eyes: it gave her a crick in the neck. “I don’t know,” she whispered.
“As for you,” he went on, leaning closer again, “I don’t believe that there are any more Borrowers anywhere in the world. I believe you’re the last three,” he said.
Arrietty dropped her face into the primrose. “We’re not. There’s Aunt Lupy and Uncle Hendreary and all the cousins.”
“I bet they’re dead,” said the boy. “And what’s more,” he went on, “no one will ever believe I’ve seen you. And you’ll be the very last because you’re the youngest. One day,” he told her, smiling triumphantly, “you’ll be the only Borrower left in the world!”
He sat still, waiting, but she did not look up. “Now you’re crying,” he remarked after a moment.’

The imperial content of the recitation there at the beginning, but also, where but in children’s books do you get such poignant moments and rich explorations of cruelty? It’s like, this and better BDSM fic, but even that often fails to really invoke the power and vulnerability and nastiness and intense emotional response children’s books can get at.

And again, here we have the inversions of ‘who’s going extinct?’ A troubled, open question.

* “She stared at him for a moment as though she did not recognize him; how round his face was, how kind, how familiar!” Arrietty looking at her father (one of the two people of her kind she has ever met) after an encounter with the human boy.

* “The line which read: “… it would be so charming if—” If what? Arrietty always wondered” GREAT

* “Another world above,” she thought, “world on world…” and shivered slightly.” the terrifying idea of being one layer in an infinite series of worlds–of being relatively defined, relatively important, relatively real.

* “name-tape” What is this?

EDIT: @legionseagle : “Name tape” is tape on which one’s name is either woven or (in inferior versions) written in indelible ink. The tape is then sewn into school uniform items to identify them when people take them off for games & of course essential at boarding school. It was a rite of passage going to secondary school having to choose your font & colour from Cashs for your nametapes. I went for red & blackletter as opposed to blue & cursive which was more usual & got a dire “You’ll regret it” from Mum. I think she thought it was Showing Off. Anyway, if you want to tie it into themes, it’s about asserting identity in a very regimented area.

* This bit about spring taking Arrietty, followed by ‘have to see that boy’–there are a couple weirdly erotically charged moments in the book. Not FULL ON, but strange undercurrents that are def def there–it’s hard to imagine this story with flipped genders.

* “She did not want to lose these, she realized suddenly, lying there straight and still in bed, but to have all the other things as well, adventure and safety mixed—that’s what she wanted. And that (the restless hangings and whisperings told her) is just what you couldn’t do.” There’s a lot of angles to look at this through, but gender’s one.

* Are adaptations interested in the FEAR of this? How curtailed their lives are by the presence and threat of the humans? That’s so–racial and colonial.

* Pod rolled over and sat up. They both stared at the ceiling: the whole surface was on a steep slant and one side of it had come right away from the wall—this was what had caused the draught—and down into the room, to within an inch of the foot of the bed, protruded a curious object: a huge bar of gray steel with a flattened, shining edge.” He could have killed them!

* The act of telling their story–because this is all, presumably, the little boy’s POV–seems really presumptuous, in an important way.

* “She was made to realize once and for all that this earth on which they lived turning about in space did not revolve, as she had believed, for the sake of little people. “Nor for big people either,” she reminded the boy when she saw his secret smile.” Good that this doesn’t collapse into just prestiging the humans.

* “I’m not a thief,” cried the boy, his lips trembling, “I’m a borrower.” What does this sort of appropriative identity claim do and mean? It’s more than just about his action in this moment.

* Borrowers turn to MAKING, once in the wild. How different is that from their house-life, were we always see the mother at work, though? Is there some comment here about the relative goodness and authenticity of their lives in the house vs the woods?

* “But Borrowers are Borrowers; not killers. I think,” said Mrs. May, “that if a stoat, say, killed a partridge they would borrow a leg!”
“And if a fox killed a rabbit they’d use the fur?” on the one hand this is a statement of their nonviolence–on the other, it’s a statement about their willingness to benefit from others’ violence. Where does this situate them in an imperial context?

Links, June 24

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
Wimsey novels timeline
Gaudy Night – Dorothy L Sayers
The mind, the heart, sex, class, feminism, true love, intrigue, not your everyday ho hum detective story: Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night
(Re)placing John Donne in the History of Sexuality
Stella Rimington on Dorothy L Sayers
Paul Kincaid on Murder Must Advertise
The Great Nutrax Row (The Mother of All Office Kerfuffles) by AJ Hall
Campanology Forum
Shell Shock, Emotional Resilience and the Cultural Memory of the First World War: A Literary Perspective

Detective Fiction Scholarship: why do we ignore the experts?
Reading Wednesday: Agatha Christie
Odd book sections in bookshops: can you beat ‘cosy crime’?
May Day Special: A Hearse on May-Day by Gladys Mitchell
Her Name Was Trouble With a Capital L
Book Review: Sex, Crime and Literature in Victorian England by Ian Ward
Queens of Crime
Rediscovering the Great Gladys
Here Comes a Chopper review – an amateur sleuth to rival Miss Marple

“Because now, added to the interest of the murder itself, we can delight in the picture of society that the novels afford, in the way that a photograph of a long-gone street scene can fascinate and charm.

We have not just a country mansion dinner party with unexpected guests, and the aforementioned headless corpse, but a portrait of Britain emerging from war, with memories of the blackout and of horrific death still fresh; interestingly, there is nothing much about rationing, but the details of one meal are faithfully and approvingly recorded. As for the identity of the murderer, and the nature of the clues that lead to his or her discovery, I’m afraid I long ago gave up trying to work out whodunnit in this kind of yarn. I just let it all wash over me, soak up the atmosphere, and revel in the character of the detective (which is the main point of these stories, when you come down to it). I am delighted to have made Mrs Bradley’s acquaintance.”

Puss in Boots, Diana Wynne Jones


I like this innovative presentation of a short story. One pound for this nice little thing. It’s a good idea, I wonder if it paid? I don’t know the original story that well, so can’t comment on Jones’ adaptive choices. If DWJ is good at illustrating the whole of a personality, she’s also good at a different form of characterization that derives from reactions to situations and events. Macro vs micro? Pacy, round incident and dialogue–a great ‘fleshing out’, and very simple too.

I also like the way this retells a fairy tale without–an obnoxious, sophomoric, ungenerative 90s comics need to scream ‘fuck you dad!!’ and grimdark the thing? Sooo maaaany fairy tale retellings try and ‘punk’ the text without really *getting* the darkness already embedded in the text. Not that this “Puss in Boots” is particularly redolent of tension between the canny and the un–but Jones embodies the story in a way that’s fuller and more satisfying than it might have been if she’d chosen to buck the text without some real reason to do it, some objective such fighting works in the service of. Fighting for fighting’s sake isn’t terribly interesting or generative, and often seems to reify rather than destabilize structures. Like what Ethan Robinson says about the fail condition of subversion being reification.

The Fanghorn illustrations are fine, but don’t particularly do much for me. Weird because they seem very touted on the back cover and the title page, like that’s a thing I should have come for.

Wild Robert, Diana Wynne Jones


Wild Robert is quick and sweet. DWJ draws characters so quickly and so well–I kind of hate her. She has this sense for mannerism and personal history and attitude that feels almost like what good fanfic writers can do, but without a source text, and even for secondary characters, and instantly. That’s sort of Dickensian as well.

As usual the ending is like, ‘what’. You read DWJ and come away angry. Where is the rest of this book. I mean I can GUESS what happens and maybe DWJ feels that’s as good as writing the ending. I was thinking today about how there’s something tragic about too neat and definitive an ending–the way it forecloses the possibility of story, the sort of tragic structure of ends, the way things must now go one way you can have no imaginative part in, that allows for no branchings-off. Gili Bar-Hillel* said something about the logic of DWJ’s endings at the Seven Stories conference, about their tactical refusal of neatness (I was EXHAUSTED so I don’t perfectly remember her argument), and now I sort of agree with her more than I did at the time, even while I still think–DWJ’s endings could be edited to something ‘satisfying’ and maybe should have been? They’re like little wounds at the ends of the texts. And sometimes DWJ tries TOO hard and ends up with this sort of over-determined, superfluous ending that somehow still has these problems–like a cliff hanging over the sea, where the base has been eaten out by waves.

There’s an interesting portion of Wild Robert where some rowdy teens are transmuted into pastoral nymphs and fauns and set to run riot in the woods. Both the heroine, Heather, and I were discomforted by this–I’m a bit worried about er, sexuality and consent, and I don’t think the book means to allay my fears there. It’s for younger readers, sure–but also I don’t think the book necessarily shies from the possibility that this will go badly, that these teens will do things in these forms that their waking selves will half-remember with fear or regret. Robert–might not understand the modern ethical reading of what he’s done. I guess what the book crystalizes there is the uneasy relationship that always exists between magic and consent.

I think the ending of the book sort of postulates a romantic future for Heather and Robert. Heather’s come to understand him and learned how to curb him. Robert’s immediately likable and charming. He needs her. He possibly likes her as herself–he certainly wants to trust and love someone. But I don’t necessarily know quite enough about Heather–I know her reactions to things, but not much about her in an overall sense. I don’t know what Robert has to offer her, and Jones conflates Heather’s maternal, older-sisterly care taking with romantic love, which seems a bit… fuckboi man child? Which Robert is, but he’s also lovely.

Anyway this was a good book and it took me an hourish and I will struggle to focus and NOT binge-read all the DWJ I haven’t had access to while I’m house sitting what is essentially the library of my dreams. …but not that hard.

* [The house I’m sitting at the moment has Hebrew versions of some DWJ books, shelved not together, but with the books I assume they’re translations of. I think Bar-Hillel must have given them to the owner, because I think she translated them and I know the two women know each other. There’s a small, strange pleasure in putting together how something could have happened, that maybe I’m especially live to right now because I’m in the middle of writing a mystery story. Actually, though, I hate clues and am a bad reader of mysteries. I only care who and why and never how. It’s often pretty obvious whodunit because–that’s the shape of the story/the dramatic necessity. Or: it’s not obvious and it’s boring, because there’s no feeling of necessity, and I’m just there for the characters, world, and detective gaze. This doesn’t mean I’m good at clues–the opposite. I find them difficult to focus on and follow. I don’t take much pleasure in ‘solving’ a mystery, and when I do it, I’ve solved the plot rather than followed the clues.]

Links, June 11


Oh, Snap(e)
18 Times Severus Snape Had The Perfect Reaction To All Of Life’s Problems
Report: J.K. Rowling writes letter in voice of Dumbledore to girl who lost entire family
Daily Mail pays ‘substantial damages’ and apologises to JK Rowling
This Couple’s Incredible Harry Potter-Themed Wedding Puts All Other Weddings To Shame
Muggles Are Waiting 5 Hours for a Harry Potter Ride to Nowhere
Ayn Rand’s Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Collectivism
Harry Potter grown up revealed as JK Rowling writes short story about Hogwarts school reunion
9¾ Things We Learnt At Universal Studios Florida’s Diagon Alley
Magic effect: how Harry Potter has influenced the political values of the Millennial generation: not good at presenting its statistical analysis for a lay audience–was left with HUGE questions about his controls, his thinking about the era’s politics generally, correlating factors like class/education/literacy generally, etc.–also HUGELY flawed assumptions about fiction’s role as a means for processing/helping make reasoned ethical decisions? And weird intro straw man. Also–batshit over-simplistic thinking about the mechanics of the process of reading.
Harry Potter Becomes A Communist
If Hermione Were The Main Character In “Harry Potter”
If Harry Potter was a comic in Japan
28 Snapchats From Harry Potter