Archives for category: Film

This week I’m recommending a Fantasy novel about pirates. Who doesn’t love pirates? Except real life ones, of course. `On Stranger Tides’ by Tim Powers came out in 1988 and has been reprinted many times since. You can get it in paperback or as an ebook. `Hang on,’ I hear you saying, `isn’t `On Stranger Tides’ the fourth `Pirates of the Caribbean’ film? Well, yes and no. Disney did buy the rights to Tim Powers’ novel but they only used a few elements of its plot in the finished film. It must have been a bizarre experience for Powers to see the irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow inserted into his original story but if someone offered me a lot of money and Johnny Depp I probably wouldn’t resist very hard either. Be that as it may, please try to forget the film while I summarize the plot of the novel.

It is 1718 and former puppeteer John Chandagnac is sailing to the West Indies to confront the uncle who has stolen his inheritance. During the voyage, John’s fellow passengers are a one-handed retired professor, Benjamin Hurwood, his daughter Beth, and a sinister doctor, Leo Friend. Just as John is getting to know and like Beth, a terrible act of treachery allows magically-protected pirates to take over the ship. John bravely attacks the private captain, Phil Davies and is given a choice between immediate death and joining the pirate crew. John agrees to become a pirate in the hope that he and Beth will find a way to escape. He is renamed Jack Shandy.

Shandy serves as a cook to the pirates and learns to respect Captain Davies. When he does get a chance to escape, he throws it away to save his pirate comrades. Meanwhile, Beth has been taken to Florida by her father and Dr Friend. Professor Hurwood is obsessed with the idea of bringing back his dead wife and he has made a grim bargain with the notorious pirate, Blackbeard. Promoted to quartermaster, Shandy is one of the men chosen to accompany Blackbeard, the Hurwoods and Dr Friend into the swamps to search for the fabled Fountain of Youth discovered centuries before by a Spanish explorer.

On their dangerous journey the group face vindictive vegetation, angry spirits and ghostly visions (but not killer mermaids). The fountain is said to be `a hole in the wall between life and death’. Blackbeard, Friend and the increasingly crazed Professor Hurwood all have their own dark reasons for wanting to reach it. Once blood is shed in this mysterious place, a terrifying chain of events is set in motion. Beth is doomed to suffer a dreadful fate on Christmas Day. Can Shandy use a new kind of magic to save her, and does he have the strength to be Blackbeard’s nemesis?

Pirates and magic are a winning combination, as the huge success of the `Pirates of the Caribbean’ films shows. `On Stranger Tides’ has everything you might hope for in a pirate adventure – a dashing hero, a damsel in distress, memorable villains, exotic settings, sea-battles, shipwrecks, murders, plundering, kidnapping, evil plans and sloshings of rum – plus  a magician who is trying to become God, awe-inspiring bocors (sorcerers who control the indigenous spirits) ghosts, zombies, protective amulets and mummified two-headed dogs. The book opens with a chilling prologue in which spirits of the dead are summoned by a blood sacrifice. Our hero, Shandy, is plunged into danger by a pirate attack only a few pages into Chapter One and his life is changed for ever. After that the action, and the horror, rarely let up.

Personally, I could wish that our heroine, Beth, wasn’t given such a passive role. She is drugged or starved into submission and carried around like a sack of potatoes by the men who want to use her in magical rituals or for their own lusts. Shandy decides to marry Beth because she is `the only woman in whom I can see both a body and a face’ but she doesn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. To be fair, Beth does finally assert herself and use her female magic at a crucial moment. She and Shandy have one of the most dramatic wedding scenes in all fiction, which is typical of Powers’ clever plotting. This is a very well constructed story. Plot elements which you think have fizzled out, such as Shandy being cheated out of his inheritance or the legend of the original discoverer of the Fountain of Youth, suddenly surprise by flaring into life again.

Powers has used a wide range of historical settings in his Fantasy novels and they are always carefully researched and vividly described. If you want to escape from cold and foggy winter days, enter this dazzling world of blue seas, white, palm-fringed beaches, jungles full of jewel-like parrots and steamy mangrove-swamps. I’m no expert but Powers really seems to know how traditional sailing ships worked. He certainly convinced me that he knew his shrouds from his studdingsails. He also makes interesting and unusually sympathetic use of traditional vodon beliefs. One of my favourite characters in `On Stranger Tides’ is Woefully Fat, a deaf bocor from Virginia, who fears that Blackbeard is misusing vodon to put together a `whole nation, it seems like, of badmen’. Woefully Fat calls a death for Blackbeard from out of the Old World and is rewarded with a magnificent death-scene of his own.

Another feature of Powers’ work is his use of historical characters, such as the poets Shelley, Byron and Keats in `The Stress of Her Regard’ or the Rossetti family in `Hide Me Among the Graves’. In this novel he features a number of pirates who actually existed, most notably Edward Teach/Thatch aka Blackbeard. The real Blackbeard doesn’t seem to have been a particularly brutal pirate but he cultivated a fearsome reputation by dressing all in black, wearing a long plaited beard and tying lit-fuses into his hair during battles. You might think it was impossible to make this man more terrifying than he was in real life but Powers manages it. When Blackbeard makes his long-awaited entrance with ghosts clinging to him like leeches, he looks to Shandy `like some three-horned demon newly climbed up from Hell’. This Blackbeard drinks flaming rum mixed with gunpowder, is consecrated to the dreaded Lord of the Cemeteries, Baron Samedi, and is served by zombies. Powers ingeniously provides magical explanations for some puzzling aspects of the real Blackbeard’s story such as that fiery hairdo, the sudden sinking of his base, Port Royal, and the reckless behaviour which led to him being caught and killed in North Carolina.

Powers’ Blackbeard is shrewd enough to know that the great age of bucaneering is nearly over as more and more pirates accept the `King’s Pardon’ and turn respectable. `On Stranger Tides’ shows wild magic and anarchic lifestyles giving way to cold iron, reason and order. The most touching relationship in the book is the one between Shandy and his mentor, the Navy officer turned pirate, Phil Davies. Disgusted by the corrupt and brutal authority figures he encounters, Shandy believes that he could fit in among the pirates – `there was a part of him that responded to the nearly innocent savagery of it all, the freedom, the abdication of all guilts…’ Davies warns Shandy not to think of his fellow pirates as heroes but he does and so do we. Reading or watching a pirate adventure is like taking a holiday from everyday morality. Everyone needs a holiday now and then but next week we’ll be back on the straight and narrow…



Most of us have seen J.M. Barrie’s famous  play `Peter Pan’,  or one of the many films based on it, but did you know that Barrie developed the play into a novel called `Peter and Wendy’? I recently read this novel for the very first time and found it much more interesting than I was expecting. So, `Peter and Wendy’ is this week’s recommendation. It was first published in Britain in 1911 and has been reprinted many times. You can often find old copies on ABE though I’d suggest avoiding editions which have Mabel Lucie Attwell’s excruciatingly twee illustrations. Alternatively, you can download the text of `Peter and Wendy’  for free. Try to make sure that you are getting the full novel, since there is also a shorter version aimed at younger children which is usually called `Peter Pan and Wendy’. Barrie gave all the royalties for `Peter Pan’ to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in London. If you enjoy this book, perhaps you might consider sending a donation to this remarkable hospital.

Everyone knows the basic story of Peter Pan. Around 1900, three children – Wendy, John and Michael – are living in London with their parents, Mr and Mrs Darling, and their Newfoundland dog, Nana. `There never was a simpler happier family until the coming of Peter Pan.’ Wendy has dreamed about a strange boy called Peter Pan, just as her mother did when she was a child. When Peter flies into the children’s nursery one night, Nana scares him off and Peter’s shadow is caught as she closes the window. Peter returns a week later with his companion, the tiny fairy Tinker Bell (Tink). Nana tries to warn Mr and Mrs Darling that something is wrong but they take no notice and go out for the evening. Peter retrieves his shadow but can’t work out how to re-attach it. When Wendy wakes up she sews it back for him and is fascinated to hear about the magical island known as the Neverland (or Never-Neverland) where Peter lives with the Lost Boys. He soon persuades Wendy and her brothers to come and have adventures in the Neverland. After teaching them to fly (`You just think lovely wonderful thoughts’), Peter leads the children on the long journey to the Neverland (`Second star to the right, and then straight on till morning’). Mr and Mrs Darling come back to find the nursery empty.

Due to the jealousy of Tink, Wendy only just survives the trip to the Neverland. Once she meets Peter’s six Lost Boys, they are captivated by her story-telling skills. The boys build Wendy a little house (hence the name Wendy-House for children’s playhouses) and she is happy to play at being a loving Mother to the lonely boys while Peter acts the role of strict Father. Life on the island is exciting but full of dangers. There are unreliable fairies, unfriendly mermaids, fierce Red Indians ruled by the intrepid Princess Tiger-Lily and a crew of dastardly pirates led by the infamous Captain James Hook. It was Peter who cut off Hook’s arm in a sword-fight and flung it to a passing crocodile, which is now keen to eat the rest of the pirate captain. Hook plans to capture and kill Peter Pan, Tink plots against Wendy, and Wendy, John and Michael are slowly forgetting who they really are. Meanwhile, back in London, Mr Darling blames himself for the children’s disappearance and Mrs Darling keeps the nursery window always open…

`Peter and Wendy’ has a haunting opening sentence -`All children, except one, grow up.’ Like Kenneth Grahame’s `Dream Days’ (see my post of August 2013 ) or William Golding’s `Lord of the Flies’, this book is more about children than for them. It includes events which happen before and after the action of the play `Peter Pan’ and the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters are described in some detail. Barrie becomes a character in his own right in his role as narrator and commentator. His style isn’t a bit pompous and I found myself laughing aloud at some of the jokes. At times the narration seems playfully post-modern – as when Barrie pretends to consider which of several adventures to relate (such as the `sanguinary affair’ of the redskins at Slightly Gulch or the story of `that cake the pirates cooked so that the boys might eat it and perish’)  before  settling on the `Mermaid Lagoon’ episode which appears in the play. He also makes it very plain that these are story-book `redskins’ and pirates, not realistic ones. They are equivalent to the stereotypes which  children now encounter in Fantasy war-games.

`Peter Pan’ is famous for its seething subtext, which has provoked all manner of psychological interpretations. `Peter and Wendy’ shows that Barrie was not as unconscious of this subtext as many people suppose, since it contains a scene in which Captain Hook argues with his own `ego’. With his death-dealing iron-hook for a hand and his `curdling’ smile, Hook is one of Fantasy’s most memorable villains, especially as he is followed around by a gigantic crocodile who has swallowed a ticking clock. Wendy finds Hook `enthralling’ and he is played to perfection by tall, dark and handsome Jason Isaacs in the 2003 film of `Peter Pan’. The pirate leader is full of evil schemes and even manages to flummox the redskins by not following the proper literary conventions during a battle scene. Yet he lacks self-confidence and is prone to fits of depression. Like Britain’s current Prime Minister, Captain Hook was educated at Eton and his failure to fit in there has left him permanently traumatised. It becomes obvious in`Peter and Wendy’ that Barrie had more than a little sympathy for his arch-villain.

Barrie’s hero, Peter Pan, seems to be a character who took on a life of his own. He first appeared in several chapters of a novel by Barrie called `The Little White Bird’ (1902) as a boy who has run away from his parents to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens. After the success of the play about Peter (1904 ) these chapters were reprinted in book form as `Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’.  If you visit the real Kensington Gardens in London, you can see a bronze statue of Peter Pan with animals and fairies. Peter’s motivation for running away from home is `always to be a little boy and to have fun’. In the play, Peter sparkles with wit, energy and charm and is endearingly conceited (`Oh, the cleverness of me!’). He’s an exciting, if unpredictable, friend to have. In the novel, Barrie makes it clearer how much Peter is giving up in return for perpetual fun. He is running away from all adult responsibilities and emotions. Peter is a leader who may change sides in the middle of a battle because the fighting is all he cares about. He bullies the Lost Boys, who are missing their families, and doesn’t allow them `to know anything he did not know’. He fails to understand how the passionate Tinker Bell feels about him and is incapable of having a lasting relationship with anybody. In one chilling passage, when Peter believes that Wendy has been killed he thinks of `hopping off in a comic sort of way till he was out of sight of her, and then never going near the spot anymore.’ In another, Barrie hints that if  Peter ever did grow up he might become another Hook.

`Peter Pan’ is a play about `The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’. `Peter and Wendy’ is a novel about a girl who does choose to grow up. Much of the book explores the female view of the story and wise and loving Mrs Darling is the dominant figure in the opening chapters. Modern readers may cringe at the old-fashioned gender divisions in the children’s games – the boys get to fight redskins and kill pirates while Wendy is stuck with the housework – but Wendy does have a pet wolf and is shown to be every bit as brave as the boys. Peter can live in the Neverland because he remains `innocent and heartless’. Wendy is all heart. At first she’s just playing at being a mother. She enforces `nursery rules’ even when they are absurd in the circumstances (the pirates sneak up on the boys while they are taking their after-lunch nap). Then Wendy develops a real sense of responsibility for her new family of Lost Boys. Once that happens, she can’t stay in the Neverland. She loves Peter but she is forced to lead a rebellion against him and return to the pains and pleasures of real life. The last chapters of the novel deal with the adult Wendy’s poignant encounters with ageless Peter and describe how each new generation finds its way to their own personal Neverlands. Reading `Peter and Wendy’ may make you wonder if our current, internet-based, generation is permanently lost in the Neverland. Until next time…


When J.R.R.Tolkien wrote, `There are many heroes but very few good dragons’ he was referring to the dragon who appears in the Anglo-Saxon poem known as `Beowulf’, which is this week’s recommendation. We’re lucky to have this epic about one hero’s fights with three monsters, since it only survived into modern times in a single, badly burned, manuscript. `Beowulf’ is set in Dark Age Denmark and Sweden but it was composed in England around 1200 years ago. I’ll suggest some translations in prose or verse at the end of this post, so don’t let the strange language or the great age put you off.  `Beowulf’  may not be an easy read but this poem has inspired many modern writers of Fantasy and there is plenty in it for Horror-buffs and lovers of Heroic Fantasy to enjoy.

The original poem doesn’t have a straightforward linear narrative but here is the main storyline – After ruling in Denmark for many years the aged King Hrothgar builds a splendid banqueting hall which he names Heorot. All the feasting and music-making in this hall arouses the envy and anger of Grendel, a semi-human creature who lives in a nearby lake. Under cover of darkness, Grendel comes to Heorot and slaughters and eats many of Hrothgar’s warriors. He returns night after night and no weapon is able to stop him. News of the curse on Heorot spreads throughout Scandinavia.

After twelve terrible years a group of Geats from Sweden visit Hrothgar’s court. They are led by Beowulf, the strongest man alive, who vows to kill Grendel or die trying. A Dane called Unferth is sceptical of Beowulf’s claims to be an experienced monster-slayer but King Hrothgar allows the Geats to spend the night in Heorot. When Grendel comes, he and Beowulf wrestle. Grendel flees after Beowulf rips his arm off. Everyone assumes that the monster will soon be dead but their joy is short-lived. The next night Grendel’s equally monstrous mother attacks Heorot and carries off Hrothgar’s favourite adviser. Borrowing a famous sword from the treacherous Unferth, Beowulf tracks the monsters to their underwater lair. He endures a terrible battle with the water-witch but it is not the most dangerous fight of his life.  Many years later, when Beowulf is King of the Geats, a runaway slave is foolish enough to steal a cup from a dragon’s hoard. The fiery dragon wakes and Beowulf finds that he must face it alone…

You can tell from this summary  that `Beowulf’ features early examples of story-elements that have become standard in Horror fiction, such as the outsider who becomes a serial killer, the creatures who can’t be kept out by locks and bars or killed by ordinary methods, and the group of people who dare to spend a night in a haunted house. Nobody in the poem actually says, `There’s a monster around somewhere so let’s split up…’ but most of the Geats are daft enough to fall asleep in Heorot. What happens next is as gruesome as anything in contemporary Horror films. Grendel tears open the door with his talons, seizes one of the sleepers, rips him apart, drinks the blood and then devours the body `even the hands and the feet.’ Most film adaptations of `Beowulf’ add unnecessary complications to the plot and fail to replicate the tension and doom-ridden atmosphere of the original (`Outlander’, which is only loosely based on `Beowulf’,  is probably the best of the bunch). The scene in the poem in which Beowulf finds the severed head of Hrothgar’s friend beside a lake boiling with blood and swarming with reptiles is one of the creepiest in all Fantasy.

Grendel is particularly scary because he doesn’t belong to any of the standard types of mythical beast. We’re only told that this `unhappy being’ was forced to live in a fog-shrouded marsh because he is descended from Cain, the first murderer. Thereafter, the reader must put together a picture of Grendel from his victims’ horrified glimpses. The `Beowulf’  poet (we don’t know his name) seems to get under the skin of his villain and shows the pain Grendel feels at being excluded from the joys of human life. Besides, you have to feel sorry for an adult monster who is still living with his mother (There is a powerful novel, `Grendel’ by John Gardner, which retells the `Beowulf’ story entirely from the monster’s point of view).  The sudden appearance of Grendel’s mother is a brilliant `second monster’ twist and her anguish at the fate of her son is treated as very real. This `enormous water-hag’ proves a formidable opponent for Beowulf. Contrary to the daft 2007 film, she doesn’t go in for seducing heroes and looks nothing like Angelina Jolie. Beowulf seems to win a stunning victory over the monsters but we are told right at the start of the poem that Heorot is still doomed. Throughout `Beowulf’ the characters tell stories about contests, quarrels and wars that have taken place in the past or which may happen in the future. These `digressions’ all emphasize human pride, greed and treachery. A savage family feud is destined to destroy Hrothgar’s hall. Ultimately, the people in the poem are more destructive than the monsters.

Anglo-Saxon poetry is all about courage in the face of inevitable defeat. At the peak of Beowulf’s success, Hrothgar warns him that even the greatest of heroes grow old and that one day Beowulf’s great strength will fail him.  It does. The gloomy and cautious Beowulf who struggles to save his people from a rampaging dragon is very different from the boastful and confident young warrior we meet at the start of the poem. The actual dragon-fight is brilliantly done. If you’ve read `The Hobbit’ or seen the films, you’ll notice several borrowings from Beowulf, but it’s typical of Tolkien’s inventive use of his source material, that he chose to centre his story on the lowly `burglar’ who steals from the dragon, rather than on the aristocratic dragon-fighters.

I hope I’ve given you enough reasons to read `Beowulf’, or at least skim through it to find the best bits. If you fancy  a verse translation, why not go for the one by Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of recent times? You can get this as an ordinary paperback but there is also an illustrated edition with splendid photographs of Dark Age treasures and an essay on `Visualizing Beowulf’. It’s easy to find cheap paperback copies of the excellent prose translation of `Beowulf’ by David Wright, which has a helpful introduction and notes. Just out in hardback is `Beowulf  A Translation and Commentary’ by J.R.R.Tolkien. This volume (edited by Christopher Tolkien) contains the prose translation of `Beowulf’ which Tolkien produced as a young man and highly specialized notes put together from his lectures on Anglo-Saxon poetry. As a charming bonus there is a previously unpublished `Tolkien poem – `Beowulf and the Monsters’ – and `Sellic Spell’ – a story he wrote to `reconstruct the Anglo-Saxon tale that lies behind the folk-tale element in Beowulf‘. If you want to learn more about this extraordinary poem , I suggest that you look at Tolkien’s famous essay `Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ which includes a defence of Fantasy literature in general. Until next week…


This week I’m recommending the ultimate in Urban Fantasy – Mark Helprin’s `Winter’s Tale’, which was first published in 1983. Out this year are paperback and ebook editions under the title of `A New York Winter’s Tale’, to coincide with the release of a film adaptation by Akiva Goldsman. This is a sweet, romantic, and visually beautiful film, but with a two-hour running time it could never hope to do justice to Helprin’s very long and complex novel . If  you’ve just seen the film and, baffled by fleeting references to fallen angels, wondered if bits of the story are missing, the answer is a resounding yes. Whether or not you enjoyed `A New York Winter’s Tale’, it is well worth giving the original novel a try.

In the late 19th century, in a city very like New York, a baby boy is found floating in a miniature boat called City of Justice by the primitive Baymen who live in the marshes. They call him Peter Lake and care for him until he is twelve years old before sending him to Manhatten to find his own path. Peter ends up in an orphanage where a strange clergyman called Reverend Mootfowl encourages Peter’s love for all types of machinery. Peter and his friend Cecil are delighted to be chosen to work on a new machine for a bridge-building project until the dreadful day when they think they have accidentally killed Mootfowl. Peter and Cecil run away and are forced to join the Short Tails gang led by the terrifying Pearly Soames. Peter grows up to be an accomplished burglar and is content enough until one of Pearly’s criminal schemes involves wiping out the Baymen. Peter foils this plan but is soon on the run from Pearly and the brutal Short Tails. He only escapes because he finds a marvellous white horse who can sometimes fly.

Peter’s life changes again when he meets the beautiful Beverly Penn, a young woman who is dying of consumption. She is the daughter of wealthy newspaper owner and philanthropist, Isaac Penn. Peter follows her to the Penn’s country house on the Lake of the Coheeries, a place that doesn’t quite seem to be on any map. Beverly is somehow able to protect Peter from Pearly’s malicious power, but their happiness is not destined to last. Peter is a broken man but he cannot die until he has helped to bring about a miracle. As the year 2000 approaches, Peter’s destiny is linked to a new generation of the Penn family  and to Virginia, a young journalist and mother from the Lake of the Coheeries and her husband, Hardesty, who is driven to search for `a perfectly just city’. The trouble is, Peter Lake doesn’t remember who he is or know what he is meant to do.  Meanwhile the city of New York has become a battleground between the forces of order and chaos and a miraculous bridge of light is being built which could mean the end of everything….

Some reviewers of the film `A New York Winter’s Tale’ complained that the plot was too strange and complicated for them to follow. Goodness knows how they would have coped with the original novel and its huge cast of eccentric characters. I’m assuming that the discerning readers of my Blog enjoy strangeness and are well used to dealing with multi-layered, time-bending plots. However, if you normally like fast-paced fiction, you will have to slow down and learn to enjoy the side-shows as much as the main story. The 799 pages of `Winter’s Tale’ contain far more than I could pack into a conventional plot summary. Athansor, the creature of legend who can appear as a white horse, gallops into the story at key moments. Pearly and the grotesque Short Tails are a perpetual part of the criminal underworld, always waiting for the chance to rob, kill and burn. Yet Jackson Mead, the mysterious bridge-builder served by Cecil and Mootfowl, may be even more dangerous to the city. Peter and Beverly’s doomed but glorious romance is just the first of several memorable love stories in the book, including one in which two people fall in love talking through a wall before they’ve seen each other. Peter’s actions are vital to the over-arching storyline but he is absent for much of the book, while the focus shifts to characters such as quirky writer, Virginia and her `dumplingesque’ mother, Mrs Gamely, and Hardesty Marratta a young man who has to choose between inheriting a vast fortune or a single gold salver inscribed with the intriguing words: For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.

Helprin has re-imagined his fictional city with extraordinary intensity. His singing prose makes the suspension bridges and skyscrapers of New York as beautiful and magical as the castles and forests of conventional Fantasy and the derelict docks, claustrophobic silt- chambers and garbage-strewn alleys as sinister as anything in Mordor.  If I hadn’t been there, I  would think that Helprin had made up the zodiac-painted dome of  Grand Central Station. It certainly makes the perfect hiding place for the elusive Peter Lake. Much of the novel is about the continuous struggle for the soul of this version of New York, a struggle that is sometimes represented by the contrast between the city’s two leading newspapers – `The Sun’ run by the Penn family (British readers will have to forget about our own `Sun’ newpaper which is very far from being `a beacon of light’) and `The Ghost’ owned by dim rival press-baron Craig Binkey. Near the end of the book an election is fought between the corrupt `Ermine Mayor’ and `retrogressive’ idealist, Praeger de Pinto, one of whose policies is to condemn `electronic slavery’ and `reassert the primacy and sacredness of the printed page’. Some of the arguments in this section of the novel concern the best way to live the `American dream’ but the book has other themes which are more universal. It even tackles the big question of whether human suffering has a purpose.

Jackson Mead wants to put a stop to the chaos of human life and impose divine justice and endless peace on the city but even his helpers can see that it is the on-going war between good and evil which stimulates `the wonderful small triumphs of the soul’. Pearly Soames, a villain with a curious passion for pure colour, argues that love is finite and that what you give away, you lose. Peter Lake comes to believe that love lasts for ever as it is passed from soul to soul and that nothing is ever lost in the giving. In `Winter’s Tale’, miracles aren’t seen as divine interventions in human affairs, but as acts of cosmic justice eventually brought about through the sacrifices of individuals. Some readers may feel that there are a few too many earnest discussions in this deeply serious novel, but you will find plenty of thrilling action scenes as well. At the climax of the story, New York suffers an exceptionally cold winter and then faces destruction in storms of fire. Sadly, the film-makers don’t seem to have had the budget for these apocalyptic scenes, but nobody describes dramatic weather better than Helprin. His clouds alone are worth the price of the novel.

`Winter’s Tale’ isn’t for everyone. Some people find it incomprehensible or overblown and pretentious, but for other readers this is the book they keep coming back to, the book that gives them hope in dark times or makes sense of their lives. It might be worth finding out whether `Winter’s Tale’ could be your `desert island book’. Until two weeks time.


I’ve recently seen `The Selfish Giant’, a British film about excluded children by Clio Barnard. Set in a junkyard, this grim but moving film is very loosely based on a short story by the brilliant Anglo-Irish author, Oscar Wilde. He may now be most famous for the tragic end to his dazzling career but Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (to give him his splendid full name) remains a very entertaining writer. This week I’m recommending his distinctive fairy tales. Wilde published two short collections of these `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ , which came out in 1888, and `A House of Pomegranates’ which followed in 1891. Inexpensive editions of `The Happy Prince’, with pretty illustrations by Charles Robinson, are quite easy to find. `A House of Pomegranates’ is much more scarce and some editions cost thousands of pounds, but don’t worry, you can download all the stories for free via Project Gutenberg or get them in a cheap ebook or POD paperback called `The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde’. Alternatively, go for `The Complete Short Stories of Oscar Wilde’ published by Oxford World Classics, which has the bonus of including his charming ghost-story `The Canterville Ghost’.

Wilde’s fairy tales are sometimes referred to as his `children’s stories’ but that only applies to the first of the two collections, and even then the cynical humour of some of the these pieces is more likely to appeal to adults than children. `The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ contains five stories. The best known are `The Happy Prince’ and `The Selfish Giant’ which both deal with that quality which is sometimes translated as Charity and sometimes as Love. In `The Happy Prince’, a ghost trapped in a golden statue weeps for `all the ugliness and all the misery’ he can now see in the city he once ruled. `The Selfish Giant’ is a about a giant who only finds happiness when he shares his beautiful garden with children and it is the most overtly Christian of all Wilde’s stories. `The Devoted Friend’, which is told by a Linnet to a selfish Water-Rat, is almost a negative version of `The Selfish Giant’. It describes a rich miller who cruelly exploits a poor friend and fails to mend his means ways. The Water-Rat is outraged to learn that this story has a moral which he is expected to apply to his own life. `Well, really,’ he says, “I think you should have told me that before you began. If you had done so, I certainly would not have listened to you.” `The Remarkable Rocket’ features a firework who has the unshakable delusion that the whole world revolves around him, while `The Nightingale and the Rose’ tells of a bird who chooses to make a terrible sacrifice to help a young lover.

`A House of Pomegranates’ , which Wilde dedicated to his long-suffering wife, Constance, consists of four longer tales written in a lush and poetic style. In an impressive piece of name-dropping each individual story has a dedication to a particular royal or aristocratic lady. I’d like to know what the Ranee of Sarawak made of the story of `The Young King’, in which a ruler on the eve of his coronation learns about the true cost of the royal treasures he adores. `The Birthday of the Infanta’ is like a Velasquez picture come to life and centres on an ugly court dwarf who falls in love with a princess. It is one of the saddest stories ever written. `The Fisherman and his Soul’ is about a young fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and is willing to give up everything to be with her, while `The Star Child’ is the story of a beautiful boy who cruelly rejects his true mother but eventually redeems himself.

Wilde’s melancholy tales have a lot in common with the haunting fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’).  Both authors turn animals, plants and even objects into memorable speaking characters and both rarely give their stories conventional happy endings. In `The Star Child’ for example, the hopeful mood is shattered in the last sentence. Wilde is  less influenced by traditional folk-tales than Andersen and his prose is more polished. As you would expect from the author of comic masterpieces such as `The Importance of Being Earnest’, there is a lot of sharp humour in Wilde’s fairy tales, which saves them from being too sentimental for modern readers. Then there are his gorgeous evocative descriptions, whether he is writing about palaces or forests (see `The Birthday of the Infanta). In `The Happy Prince’, Wilde satirizes the selfish and heartless behaviour of the ruling classes in short snatches of dialogue, which contrast with the long lyrical speeches of the little swallow who is the Prince’s companion as he describes his winter-home in Egypt – `In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles look lazily about  them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them…’ The Prince believes that the marvels of Egypt are as nothing compared to the mystery of human suffering and sends the swallow out into the cruel city where he sees `the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets’. `The Happy Prince’ is a story I loved as a child and I still can’t read it without crying – I know because I was in tears last night when I re-read it before writing this post.

One of the most appealing things about Wilde is that he had the mind of a cynic and the heart of romantic. He was a famous admirer of beauty in art but his social conscience made him deeply uneasy about the exploitation of the workers who created beautiful objects for the rich. These contradictions in his nature come out clearly in his fairy tales. Most of the tales are about beauty or love but Wilde knew from bitter experience that beauty and goodness don’t always go together and that people with loving hearts don’t always find happiness in this world. You don’t have to know anything about Wilde’s life to appreciate his writing, but if you do it gives the stories an extra layer of meaning. It becomes hard not to see `The Fisherman and his Soul’ as a plea for tolerance of `forbidden love’. Within the story, the forbidden love is between the Christian and human fisherman and what his priest calls one of `the vile and pagan things God suffers to wander through His world’. The fisherman gives up his soul to be with his mermaid. Then, in a reversal of normal roles, it is the soul who tries to tempt the fisherman from the path of true love with offers of worldly riches and power. If, like Wilde’s Water-Rat, you can’t stand a story with a moral, ignore this aspect and just enjoy the exotic cities which the soul visits during its wanderings, with their gates of red bronze carved with sea-dragons, bazaars strung with paper lanterns that flutter like butterflies and gardens of tulip-trees where peacocks spread their tails to the sun. Wilde’s is an imaginative world worth lingering in. Until next week…


Nearly everyone I know has seen and enjoyed the film version of `The Princess Bride’ , written by William Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner. Far fewer people seem to have read Goldman’s original novel,  which came out around fifteen years before the film. So this week I am recommending the novel, which is available in paperback or as an ebook. Its full title is `The Princess Bride : S.Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure. The “Good Parts” Version, Abridged by Wiiliam Goldman’, which drops a heavy hint that this is a story about storytelling. Goldman knew that what works in a novel wouldn’t necessarily work in a film, so reading the novel and watching the film of `The Princess Bride’ are very different experiences. In the film, the story is being read to a sick little boy by his grandfather. In the novel, the framing device is more complicated, so I’ll divide my usual synopsis into two parts.

The outer story – A middle-aged author called Willy Goldman looks back on the people who influenced him to become a writer. He claims that his `whole life really began with my father reading me the Morgenstern when I was ten’. Goldman explains that his father came to America from the land of Florin and so wanted his son to know and love the Florinese writer Morgenstern’s great novel `The Princess Bride’. Many years later, Goldman searches for an English-language copy to give to his own ten year-old son. He’s devastated when the boy finds the story too dull to read past the first chapter. Though his wife and son give him no encouragement, Goldman works hard to produce a version of `The Princess Bride’ without any of the original author’s boring digressions. Will this book change other people’s lives, as it changed Goldman’s?

The inner story – Buttercup lives on a farm in Florin, where she enjoys riding her horse and ordering the Farm Boy around. At the age of seventeen, she suddenly realizes that she is in love with Westley, her `beautiful and perfect’ Farm Boy. He is set on going to America to make his fortune but Buttercup promises to wait for him. When news comes that Westley’s ship has been attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who leaves no survivors, Buttercup vows that she will never love again. By this time, Buttercup has become the most beautiful woman in the world. She is picked out  by Count Rugen as a suitable bride for his master, Prince Humperdinck of Florin. Humperdinck is mainly interested in fighting wars and in hunting and slaughtering animals in his `Zoo of Death’. He gives Buttercup the choice of marrying him, and eventually becoming a queen, or dying `in terrible pain in the very near future’. She reluctantly agrees to the marriage and spends several years being trained to become Humperdinck’s `Princess Bride’.

Not long before the wedding day, Buttercup is kidnapped by an odd trio: a Sicilian hunchback, a Spanish swordsman and a Turkish giant. The hunchback, Vizzini, has been paid to kill the `princess’ on the border between Florin and the rival realm of Guilder, but the other two aren’t happy with this plan. The trio find they are being followed by a mysterious man in a black mask. The Spaniard Inigo, has trained himself to be a great swordsman as he searches for the six-fingered man who murdered his father, but he is unable to defeat `the man in black’. Buttercup is rescued from her kidnappers but soon finds herself in even greater danger. Before true love can prevail, there will be terrible treachery and strange alliances, gruesome torture and ferocious fights, death and revenge, passion and miracles. In short, all `the good parts’ of any story.

So, what do you get from the novel, that you don’t get from the film? As you might expect, the characters in the novel have greater depth. The reader will discover the full range of Buttercup’s emotions and the full stories of creepy Count Rugen, cruel Prince Humperdinck, revenge-obsessed Inigo, and rhyme-loving giant, Fezzik. Surprisingly, there are even more action scenes than there are in the film, including a ripping sequence in which Inigo and Fezzik fight their way through the monsters in the `Zoo of Death’ to rescue `the man in black’.  The novel is both more complex and more artificial than the film, since it gives you two fictions for the price of one. The apparently factual account of Goldman’s childhood and his relationships with his family is as much a Fantasy as the story of Buttercup and Westley. Goldman the narrator writes, `Life imitating art, art imitating life; I really get those two confused,’ but he’s the one exploiting the confusion. The land of Florin represents the muddled European heritage of so many immigrants and is a reminder that European fairy tales still influence American story-telling, especially in Hollywood. `The Princess Bride’ has a very American take on such tales, since all the traditional authority figures in the story are shown to be villains or fools. A prince marrying a poor girl is a common motif in European folklore but the motives of Goldman’s prince are very sinister indeed.

As Goldman describes the cuts he made in the fictional original book, he has great fun at the expense of  the solemn guardians of literary classics and  the sort of writers who put off young readers by slowing down a story with boring explanations and turgid descriptions. For example, Goldman informs his readers that they have been spared fifty-six and a half pages about a princess packing and unpacking clothes and hats, even though Florinese scholars deem this section to be `the most deliciously satiric chapter in the entire book’. The fact that Goldman keeps interrupting the story with his own digressions on topics such as the apparent anachronisms in the text, Mrs Morgenstern’s views about her husband’s book, and whether a particular scene is too Jewish, only adds to the joke. This framing device, which continually reminds the reader that they are dealing with layers of fiction, could make it hard to believe in the plot or care about the characters, but Goldman is such a captivating storyteller that he can tell a joke and then plunge you straight back into a world of tension, excitement and high emotion. You know that you are being manipulated by the author, but you don’t care because you so want to find out what happens next. Goldman, the narrator, may claim that he doesn’t believe in true love any more, but Westley and Buttercup’s romance remains `the most pure, the most passionate’ in all Fantasy.

`The Princess Bride’ is a very funny book but it is also a fairy tale that warns you not to believe in fairy tales. There may be plenty of invincible heroes and perfect couples in fairy tales and Hollywood movies but they are extremely rare in real life. `The Princess Bride’ has a theme in common with the bleak Japanese novel I recommended last week (The Goddess Chronicle), a theme that Goldman has the narrator sum up in one sentence – `The wrong people die, some of them, and the reason is this; life is not fair’. Some good people will suffer in the story and some bad people will go unpunished.  Knowing this and choosing true love for its own sake, and not for some mythical `happy ever after’, is what counts. `The Princess Bride’ is a book which has three endings. There is Morgenstern’s original ending, which would be too bleak for most tastes, there is Goldman’s father’s preferred ending (which is the one used in the film), and there is the ending tentatively suggested by Golding himself. If you want to know what that is, you will just have to read the novel. Until next week…


This week, back to the classics.  One of my all time favourite Fantasy films is `Jason and the Argonauts’ which came out in 1963. Ray Harryhausen’s famous stopmotion animation sequences – such as the fighting skeletons or the bronze giant – thrilled me as a child and they’re still pretty impressive. If you’ve never seen `Jason and the Argonauts’ get hold of a copy at once. Out this week is the film of Rick Riordan’s `Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters’ which also draws on the myth of Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece. Ever wondered about the original story? Step forward Apollonius of Rhodes, who wrote the most detailed account we have. Apollonius lived in the 3rd century BCE.  He was Director of the great Library of Alexandria, by far the best library in the Ancient World, so Apollonius was a man who knew all there was to know about Greek myth. However, his first version of the Jason story apparently got such bad reviews that he completely revised it. Scholars are sniffy about the second version too, but I think that there is a lot in it for modern readers to enjoy.

Bear with me while I try to recommend a prose translation of this epic poem. It’s complicated because this is a work known under several different names, such as `The Argonautica’ (sometimes spelled Argonautika) or `The Voyage of Argo’.  A very old-fashioned translation by R.C.Seaton is available as a cheap ebook under the title `The Voyage of the Argo: The Argonautica’. This has some nice illustrations but no notes. The reliable Penguin Classics translation by E.V.Rieu is called `The Voyage of Argo’ and has lots of maps and a really useful  Who’s Who of Greek myth. I think the most attractive translation is a recent one by Richard Hunter.  Called `Jason and the Golden Fleece’ it is part of the Oxford World’s Classics series and you can get it in paperback or as an ebook. There are helpful notes but no glossary.

So – the prologue.  A Greek prince and princess are threatened by their wicked stepmother. A god sends a golden flying ram to carry the children far away. The princess falls off and is drowned but Prince Phrixus is brought across the Black Sea to the distant land of Colchis. After the ram is sacrificed, Phrixus gives its Golden Fleece to Aeetes, the fearsome King of Colchis. Aeetes hides the magical fleece inside a sacred grove and sets a terrible serpent to guard it. Many years later, a young man named Jason arrives in the Greek kingdom of Iolcus, having lost a sandal along the way. An oracle has warned Pelias, the usurper King of Iolcus, that he will meet a horrible fate because of a man with one bare foot. In order to escape this fate, Pelias sends Jason on what he believes will be an impossible quest to win the fabled Golden Fleece. Pelias has offended, Hera, the Queen of the Gods, so she and the goddess of Wisdom, Athena, help Jason to build a wonderful ship called the Argo. Heroes from all over Greece, including Herakles (Hercules) and Orpheus, flock to join the Argo’s crew for this great adventure. As they sail into unknown waters they meet many perils and the death-toll mounts. When the Argonauts finally reach Colchis, King Aeetes sets Jason a series of terrifying challenges. Jason’s only hope of survival is to win the help of Aeetes’ daughter, the sorceress Medea…

I’m not going to pretend that all of Apollonius is an easy read. Like other Classical writers, he slots in lists of heroes, complete with details about the doings of their ancestors or descendants. This is the ancient equivalent of product placement. The long list of Argonauts at the start of `Jason and the Golden Fleece’ ensured that wherever a reader lived in the Greek world, one of their local heroes was involved in the story. You might want to skip straight to the bit where Jason is trying to say goodbye to his distraught mother. Once the voyage is underway there are plenty of vividly described action scenes as the Argonauts encounter massive waves, six-armed monsters, a brutal boxer, a monstrous wild boar, hideous stinking Harpies and the famous Clashing Rocks. There is also a surprising amount of humour. When Jason and the other Argonauts are distracted from their mission by the seductive women of Lemnos, Herakles has to remind them that `Fleeces do not come to people of their own accord’. In a charming episode, the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) is sarcastic to Hera and Athena who want her to use her influence over her son, Eros (Cupid). She points out that, being a typical teenage boy, Eros always does the opposite of what his mother says.  He is so naughty that Aphrodite has `half a mind to break his bow and wicked arrows’.  Eros has to be bribed with a new toy to carry out the godesses’ wishes and make Princess Medea fall in love with Jason, so that she will help him to win the Golden Fleece.

Jason is portrayed as a handsome hunk with minimal leadership skills but Apollonius seems to have real empathy with Medea. Indeed, his epic is so full of strong and clever women, it’s almost like a feminist reading of the myth. In the early chapters, we meet the women of Lemnos who have murdered all the men on the island and are getting on fine without them. The women only decide to sleep with the Argonauts in order to have children to support them in their old age. The Argonauts themselves fight well but they also bicker and sulk and manage to mislay the mighty Herakles, while Jason’s response to a crisis is often to sit down and cry. Throughout the story, Jason relies on female help, whether it is from interfering goddesses, passing nymphs, wise queens, or the sorceresses, Circe and Medea. By the time Apollonius wrote his epic, Medea was established as the great villainess of Greek myth – a jealous murderess familiar with all kinds of dark arts. Yet Apollonius chose to imagine what Medea might have been like as an innocent young girl and he fully enters into her thoughts and feelings.  In his version, Medea is a sweet, golden-haired princess who is compelled to betray her family and country because of her sudden, overpowering love for Jason. The agonies and embarrassments of first love are delightfully described, which makes it all the more shocking when Jason and Medea collude in a particularly cruel murder in order to escape from Colchis. Medea is full of remorse but after such an act there can ultimately be no happy ending for this golden couple.

Apollonius ends his epic on the high point of Jason’s happy return to Greece. His first readers would have known that Jason and Medea will go on to be responsible for more horrible deaths. I suspect that Apollonius stopped where he did, because he was mainly interested in the period during which Medea and Jason make the choices that will shape the rest of thier lives. This epic constantly asks questions about how much of a person’s life, and death, is predestined. Some of the characters in the story try to avoid their fate – as King Pelias unsucessfully does. Others, such as the Argonaut Idmon who foretells his own death, bravely make the best of the time they have left. The blind prophet Phineus has been cursed by the gods for revealing too much of their `sacred purposes’ for peoples’ lives, but he also tells stories which suggest that a bad fate can sometimes be changed by good actions.  Whether we see our fate as being dictated by gods or genes, the limit to our freedom of choice is still the big issue. So, why not give old Apollonius a try? He might surprise you. Until next week….