There’s rue for you: and here’s some for me

I am re-reading The Herb of Grace parenthetically, one chapter a day. 🌿

It’s such a healing, lovely book, and I want to extend my friendship with it, and revisit Damerosehay and the Herb of Grace in the beginning autumn. I find that very appropriate. And it’s so pleasant and calming to read it so very slowly and evenly.

I have already read the first two chapters. Chapter One reminded me of how much I do love Sally. I love every paragraph of her description. With some parts, the overly specific ones, I identify more than I ever thought I could identify with a character in a book. The others, I simply enjoy. She is such a thoroughly enjoyable woman. And the children asking whether she’s over age for bananas is so sweet.

And I love her first meeting with David, and the way she felt. It reminds me of the first time Mary and Michael meet, in The Rosemary Tree. Elizabeth Goudge’s characters, especially in her contemporary books, are so thoroughly human, and so are their romances. There is a special quality, almost a sort of magic, but at the same time such a painful realism, that makes them so very superior. In these two scenes, it’s the sudden realisation, and the quiet acceptance. Unexpected and unsentimental, not until wanted, but valiantly taken and valued. This, and the very dedicated and laborious love, and the combination of both, are everything.

And David’s feelings! The way he hated that he couldn’t talk openly, just while Sally wondered about his mask. The way he adored Sally’s unaffectedness from the war, while she was feeling ashamed of it. The way they were both right, and thought themselves wrong.

And Chapter Two! Oh, Nadine. The reader suffers because of you and with you—and grows and rejoices, because of you and with you. The violets. I love these details. Whether one reads it as part of a trilogy or as a stand-alone, the way things are coming together reads differently depending on whether one already knows some of the characters, or doesn’t, but it reads equally well. That magic of recognition and wonder, I dare even call it a sort of suspense, the small moments of “oh, this!” are always so lovely. But Jill’s letter is such a small, sad moment…

And I love the bit about Nadine and the Little Village, and that she loved being at Damerosehay because it always changed her a little, and not in spite of it. And I love to see her and Hilary interacting. To see two characters in an ensemble story who usually don’t have much to do with each other, who are from “different ends” of the story, so to speak, appear in the same scenes is always a great joy to me.

On Jill

I have to say something about Jill.

I think there’s two very precise reasons for her unpopularity.

The first is, how real and relatable she is. She behaves very natural, very much like a child in her situation would, and she feels very, very real. I’ve seen many posts by people who don’t like her who actually admit they relate to her, and I am sure there are far, far more who wouldn’t realise it. Not all the things Jill says or does are good, but all of them are absolutely plausible things for her to do, given her situation and background and age.

Jill’s nine years old in The Silver Chair. She went to the same school as Eustace and appears to have been raised by parents with a similar mindset as the Scrubbs, though while Eustace was pampered, Jill was encouraged to be more tough and active. She was raised without any religion or definitive moral compass (no, I do not mean that being brought up secularly meant being raised without morals; I am only talking about the context of Jill’s life)—her premise was, in short, pretty much the same as Eustace’s. And definitely different to the Pevensies’.

Which brings me to the second reason (these two blend in each other). Jill didn’t behaved perfectly, and she better—but she never behaved bad enough to undergo a significant change/redemption, nor did she behave well enough to be liked for just who she is.

When all Pevensies went to Narnia they already were, in a way, rooted there. Lucy had met Tumnus, Edmund had been enchanted by the witch, and Tumnus had been caught. The Pevensies met the Beavers, and they learnt of Aslan. They all were raised with a strong sense of duty, and Lucy was naturally faithful and open. Edmund behaved badly lately, and was then enchanted, but he received the same upbringing as his siblings. Peter and Susan were significantly older and more mature than any of the other children who went to Narnia.

Eustace was also only nine years old, and he behaved horridly, but he had his cousins, at least, and he grew immensely through his experiences in Narnia, while being led by others, and finally meeting Aslan.

But Jill? Jill had and knew nothing. A nine year old girl, bullied in a boarding school. Coming, most likely, from a similar background as Eustace, but still behaving much friendlier and nicer than him. (Actually, really friendly. Jill was a nice girl. People like to claim she wasn’t but that’s not true.) A boy she vaguely knew to be rather nasty all of a sudden told her of a magical world. They suddenly went there. She showed off, he fell down. She met a lion and couldn’t know who He was, yet after a while trusted him. She had to.

And later on? She trusted those who were nice to her, she was arrogant, she forgot things she ought to remember. She did all the little bad things that all the other children did, but they were not so dramatically bad and then redeemed as they were with Eustace and Edmund, nor were they simply accepted as every person’s right to not be perfect all the time, as with the other three Pevensies.

(I am not going to bring up Caspian, Shasta/Cor, and Aravis—children who were brought up in Narnia have an entire different set of things to their advantage or disadvantage.)

Jill is kind and courageous and plucky, but she has to navigate through Narnia with very little help—because Eustace can’t really help her, and all the Narnians who do (or don’t) are complete strangers to her, and she has to decide whether to trust them or not, and whether to agree with them or not, and she often decides wrong.

Lucy has a natural gut feeling about that, which isn’t unrealistic, because some children really have that. But I am sure that Lucy knew just as well who to trust back in England. Jill never really learned how and who to trust, and knew that people could be horribly cruel. But she was also a very small child with the natural desire and ability to trust. So, yes, she trusted the wrong people for the very shallow reasons that a child with no proper guidance has for trusting people. She also disagreed with people she deservedly trusted (like Puddleglum) for the natural shallow reasons that most children just can’t bear negativity or restraint too long.

She had no spiritual love for Narnia, not at first (though it developed greatly later on) and simply had to make her way through a strange landscape, without being granted the sense of magic and hope and special-ness that the Pevensies and even Eustace, had he accepted it from the beginning, were granted.

Jill was also whiny and, though never unfriendly or rude, odd-mannered and impatient. She was always supposed to be tough, and she was physically tough, but she was also emotionally sensitive, and very lonely. She had no friends, and she had a lot of fear, and absolutely no sense of home or safety. She cried several times in the book, which is an absolutely normal thing, even when one isn’t a child, even when one isn’t in a terribly dangerous situation, even when one isn’t constantly worried about one’s own decisions. And even though Lewis went so far as to excuse her for it, which shouldn’t even be necessary, there’s many posts on the internet saying how annoying she is for crying.

And her behaviour is typical for someone who is naturally friendly, but never learned proper manners, and who has a limited self-control; combined with that very certain air of someone who is used to being picked out to be the disliked one, not bullied for a certain thing but chosen because she was, in some way, particularly suitable for being a victim. Both the original “reason” as well as the… results of such don’t leave a person so quickly. They stuck with Jill and it shows.

But there’s another thing to Jill. A constant inner struggle. Not short moments of temptation, no a shocking experience to better her. From the very moment she steps into Narnia, until the moment she leaves, she thinks about what she does wrong, what she does right, with a great deal of denial thrown in—a denial she is often conscious of, and often not. A way from good but flawed, to, well good but flawed, though better, and more aware, and very willing to learn. A gradual, seemingly insignificant development, which began very early, and never really ended, and of which she was aware, and with which she didn’t really know what to do, and which she didn’t always want—until she understood, at least a bit.

And I think all this makes it so difficult to like her for many people. She’s incredibly human without being an obvious heroine, or even an anti-heroine, she is constantly developing, with interruptions and regressions, but with no clear redemption arc of any sort, never stops making mistakes, never stops learning from them; she behaves like a normal child would do in a difficult situation, and she has to face very specific difficulties under very specific conditions which, in that way, never happened to any of the other children.

And yet—she learned to love Narnia and Aslan so much. She spent years in England just to prepare herself for another visit to Narnia. She learnt nothing of (religious) faith in England, yet proceeded to believe in Aslan as much as she could, she kept a loyalty to Narnia and made friends with the other Friends of Narnia for years after her visit there, even though her connections to Narnia were the loosest of all the children, and she had to wait for her return much longer than any of them (not counting Digory and Polly, of course!). She never gained as much of the insight as the Pevensies and Eustace, and Digory and Polly, had, never really had a relationship to it that resembled theirs, but stuck to Narnia with all her strength.

And people hate her.

Literary Soundtrack: Linnets & Valerians

One of the most enchanting little books one could possibly imagine!

Linnets & Valerians—also published as The Runaways—by Elizabeth Goudge is a perfect read for early summer; a children’s book for all ages, made of beautiful prose, everyday magic, and strawberry jam. I couldn’t recommend it more, and I couldn’t resist making a little playlist for it. It’s such a sweet, and such a beautiful novel, full of forests and flowers and animals and birds and bees and music and adventure. 🌿

The Lark Ascending

I Believe in Springtime

English Folk Song Suite

The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun

Narnian Lullaby

Jupiter Hymn

Morning has Broken

All Things Bright and Beautiful

The Trees They Grow So High

The Ash Grove

The entire Playlist on YouTube

Nylons and Lipsticks and Invitations

The Problem of Susan is frequently talked about and usually boiled down to the same wrong arguments its built on, which have, by sensible and insightful readers, been disproven again and again, only for it all to be rolled up again.

I think of it myself, periodically, and often write a few words on the subject, sometimes respond to comments that bother me in particular. It still baffles me to find how many people still believe in the misconceptions, at best, and sheer lies, at worst, that have been made up on the subject.

Of course, the problem has to be tackled at the root. So many people argue about why Susan had been “kicked out” of Narnia, overlooking a simple fact that makes all these discussions completely superfluous: Susan has never been kicked out of Narnia. She has not been denied her way to the Real Narnia, she has not been sent anywhere else. Susan simply did not die. At least, not when her siblings did. Because she had dropped her faith in Narnia.

Of course this is usually equated with a general lack of religious faith, with which I cannot agree, and which is considered either a sign of her downfall or liberation. But it is altogether unclear in what religious context the Pevensies saw Narnia and Aslan—at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, at the very least, Lucy and Edmund had no definite idea of Aslan’s true identity. Unlike Eustace and Jill the Pevensies were raised Christian, not in any specially devout manner, it seems, just like normal British children of their time, and it’s difficult to say in what way they related their very tangible experiences in Narnia to more abstract religious teaching. It is not even unlikely that Susan, as the sensible, grown-up one of them, was a regular, though not particularly spiritual, church goer, while the other three might have considered, at first, nothing in our world as fulfilling as Narnia. This is just one possibility, and it could easily be entirely different, but the popular idea that Susan had all of a sudden become an atheist while her siblings were Good Little Christians is not in the least plausible, especially how one of Susan’s defining characteristics as she grew out of Narnia, was her desire to completely conform to society. Near The Last Battle, of course, the other Pevensies and Friends of Narniaknew who He was, but Susan had since then lost touch, and might even have considered the suggestion of their “old games” true nature to be blasphemous.

And then, of course, the old talk of Femininity and Sexuality. Both of these bother me dreadfully, in different ways each.

The Femininity, because it’s such an important argument used in the entirely wrong place. It’s odd how nowadays women are regularly shames for being feminine or liking feminine things, how in fiction, especially children’s’ fiction, all good examples for girls to look up to are supposed to reject all things associated with femininity—that is an extremely important problem to discuss, but in the case of Susan, it’s entirely out of place. This mindset usually employed by modern pseudo-feminists, and sadly way to common, but The Chronicles of Narnia were written in the 1950s and traditional femininity was encouraged. These books stand out today just as they did sixty years ago in the way girls of very different sorts are treated as absolute equals to each other and to the boys. That aside, Susan was shown to be very feminine and interested in beautiful things that are commonly associated with femininity in her years as a Queen of Narnia—the difference was just that she had not denied and forgotten what she knew to be true, nor had she valued these things above it.

And Sexuality—exclusively brought up by people who have misfortune of lacking all reading comprehension and common sense. The idea that nylons and lipsticks and invitations were a metaphor for sexuality is the most absurd idea imaginable. There is not the least indication, either from the books, nor from the historical context regarding the connotations of these things. They are wordly things, modern things, grown-up things, but by no means of a sexual nature. The specific use of these things are another reason why C. S. Lewis is so frequently accused of being sexist, but in the end, it was merely a rather simple collection of things that were popular at the time—were it Peter who had lost his faith in Narnia, then it might have been football and cars and wristwatches. And there was never an issue with these things to begin with—they were a symbol for the new life Susan had began, a grown-up life in the most shallow and immature way, in which there was no more room for Narnia and Aslan.

But what should be a much greater point of discussion is Susan’s deliberate rejection of Narnia. She might have considered it an old game—but what had made her do so? Was it her way of protecting herself from grief and worry, a way to cope, or was it out of sheer disinterest? Was it much less a personal thought of Susan, and an example for the way people so often teach themselves not to believe in what they know is real and true, a symbol of Lewis’ own overcome atheism?

But taking out all literary analysis and focusing only on Susan’s inner life and the unusual workings of Narnia, I have my own theory on the matter. It is so noticeable that Susan entirely forgot about the reality of Narnia, even though she had been there when she was far too old to forget about it. If she had been ten years younger, then she might have mixed up her vague memories with imagination and play. But Susan’s rejection of the experiences of her teenage years border on an actual amnesia, which indicates a deeper reason. The aforementioned grief and sorrow aside, I think there is a rather magical reason to it.

The Pevensies had forgotten about their life in England sometime during the fifteen years in which they ruled Narnia. They remembered Narnia upon their return, perhaps, because it seemed so much nearer to them, much more real and important, so they didn’t forget—whereas Susan, after some time, began to feel about Narnia the way they all had felt about England. It mattered less, and its magic, an effect perhaps drawn from the Wood between the Worlds, made her forget as though it was only imagined.

Of true importance is only this: Susan had, by the end of The Last Battle, still a long way ahead of her, and many sorrows and difficulties to face. But it was also an open way, and I am sure it led to the Real Narnia, in the end, despite all the curves and crossroads and dead ends it contained.

These Old Shades, from page to screen

There should be a film adaptation of These Old Shades, and frankly, I should be in charge of it. It’s a pity in itself that there is no Georgette Heyer movie to speak of, with all her Regency novels being a bonanza of material for beautiful films and mini series in the vein of our well-beloved Jane Austen adaptations. But These Old Shades, that’s a different matter altogether. It’s not gentle colours and dry wit, combined with romance and a dash of adventure, it’s far too 18th century, far too lavish and rich, too powdered and patched.

No, with new adaptations of beloved classics, made in different styles, being all the rage right now, we should be making a screen adaptation (whether an extra-length movie for the theatres or a mini-series made by one of our favourite public television broadcaster is of less importance) in a new playful interpretation of the characteristic style of classic period dramas.

The reader might not yet know what I mean, but I do. The problem with this book is that two possible things in a film adaptation could happen: 1., that the makers take the book too seriously and try to present all of it in a completely true manner (or, worse, try to fix what seems wrong!) and 2., that the makers look down on the source material as a silly vintage romance novel and make just a travesty of it, or try to make it modern.

But These Old Shades is a good book, and it’s a book to adapt into film respectfully, but it also sometimes a silly book, with some of its silliness being full intention, and some of it maybe just a sign of age, and both needs to be considered. A loving, respectful self-irony is what it needs, playing all what is meant seriously in a truly serious manner, but not forgetting the wonderful humour, and gently poking at all that is silly about it, showing the nonsensical class snobbery that is, already, called out in the book, and the strange whatnots of the time.

Many reviewers seem to think that the book stands for all that it shows, but that is not entirely true—a certain hypocrisy is exampled, and the protagonists are not always meant to be agreed with (or always agree with each other!), but the strange logics of innate desires…of farming, for example…make a good base for in-jokes that carry and light up parts of the film, and show a certain humorous view of what can be read in the novel, without deprecating it.

But some things need to be played straight. The page boy with the Titian hair, for example. No matter how obvious it might be to all the audience, there shall be no hints beyond what can already be read in the book, or, as we see him, even fewer. Play it straight, no matter how ridiculous it may appear. Play it straight, and reveal it in full glory. And the same goes for certain physical similarities…

And be careful of what you do with the main characters’ relationship. Show what is written, truthfully and with full understanding of context and situation, not wrong readings of others.

What brings me to another—show Avon and Léonie, and all the others, in their full light. Don’t try to make them any better or worse than they are, instead show how flawed and lovable they are, and how they, especially Avon, grow.

I want to see a Léonie who’s all energy and misbehaviour, loneliness and distraught, a strange and elegant boy at one time, and a rogue, yet sweet girl at another. Her eagerness to fight and use weapons, to bite and kick, and fence and shoot, should be shown in exactly the true, wild, chaotic way it is, and not polished to make her a Strong Female Character, devoid of all personality and originality. Her equal delight in her attire as a boy and her new-learned girlhood should be equally shown, and she should not be made into either a tomboy, who hates all feminine things she should wear or do, or into a girl who’s changing entirely through suddenly putting on a dress, leaving all what was behind her, because both would be a simplification of her character and sadly stereotypical. Léonie likes what she likes and does what she wants, whatever that may be.

But above all: show her maturity. And her sadness. Two things that are often told of and sometimes shown in the book, and which are important to her character, even more when we see her moving and talking than in a book which tells a great deal through narration, and through the eyes of Avon:

“A certain cynicism, born of the life she has led; a streak of strange wisdom; the wistfulness behind the gaiety; sometimes fear; and nearly always the memory of loneliness that hurts the soul.”

Léonie, though often called that, is not a child—or maybe she is, but then she is a small child, a true infant, as much as an ancient, and that has to be shown. Making her all cheerful and wild would be unjust, and I dare say, to make better use of modern times in a film adaptation of an old book, than to include pointless nude scenes or lessons in misunderstood feminism, show some of her past, of the cruelty she experienced, and the things she has seen, and not just the results, but the reasons of her having to be a boy for seven years. All this could only be allured to in the book, and while I don’t want anything overtly dark or explicit in a film, I think it would be good to take a tiny glimpse behind the surface.

As for Avon—show his growth. His desire to live up to Léonie’s expectations, or to what he thinks them to be. Let him grow tired of his old image, but don’t overdo it—show that there has always been kindness in him, and that he would never cease to be a dangerous men. Show also his reluctance towards his and Léonie’s relationship, and his fear not to be good enough.

But again with Avon, the matter of dress is important. It would be such a pity if he were to look in a way that would be appealing—and “manly”—today. He is powdered, he is patched, he has a fan, he’s wearing shades of lavender and pink, and ensembles in pure gold, and he is always holding his snuff box tight. He is also frightening and dangerous, nearly sinister, and he thinks himself to be a worse person that he is, or at least, than he becomes. And he is the leading man in a romance. These three must work together, despite the general reluctance of the film industry to make it work.

Which brings me to another thing—the 18th century costumes, and sets, and general aesthetics, must work in accordance to the ideals of the time, not to ours, or what we now deem pretty of that time. But a few decided anachronisms, of the type often found in old period dramas, might just work for the fun of it. I don’t really know right now how to describe what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing I would find just right.

All in all, it has to be grand—bright, rich colours, big costumes, lavish sets, gorgeous scenery, full music, plenty of historically appropriate, but extravagant whatnots, all the strange ideas and ideals of that time, have to be shown in full grandeur. No minimalism, very little realism, no reluctance and no shyness; it has to be bold! And the style, the overall vibe, should be more of something made in the mid of the last century, but with a certain whimsy unique to itself, and an intricacy often found nowadays, all while staying faithful to the book.

Small and silent scenes should be equal to loud and large ones, Léonie and Avon’s sweet moments of Pygmalion given as much importance as Léonie and Rupert saving each other and riding away.

The side characters and their relationships should be explored wholly, but of most importance shall be the relationship of the Duke, and of his Soul. In fact, making Léonie his Soul should be a continuous thread throughout the entire film (or series). Not too much, of course—not to the degree that it gets annoying in narration, and especially not so as though Avon thought of Léonie of a sort of device to become a better person, or any such thing. Only gentle subversion of a common literary theme—a character who has not sold his soul, but, through buying what can not be bought, and what became his, and yet not his property, found his way back to his own soul.

It would be a pity if their love story became one of a cheerful girl fixing a bad man. Léonie is sometimes worse than Avon, at times he is even concerned about her own outbursts, though she may have better, if one can call it that, reason to be so. They both grow through each other and save and protect each other, or at least mean to do so, and at times it even seems that the tables have turned and it is he, who has to make sure that she is not growing too dangerous—which she must not, any more, having him.

For personal reasons, the scene of the drive back from Versailles needs to be included, unshortened, maybe even prolonged. And Léonie’s letter has to be the most heartbreaking thing, naturally.

And as for something I have already mentioned vaguely, and now have to say more to: It is of importance that Léonie is made Avon’s ward so that he can work his scheme against Saint-Vire and so that she can be respectably and legally with him. He thinks that she would only look at him as a “grandparent”, whereas she thinks that he would never want her as for matters of class. He refused her to be his mistress, and both thought the other should not marry them for their respective better. These aspects are too often overlooked by people who want to make everything bad. Naturally, their relationship grows from master and (overjoyed) servant to platonic, even familial affection, to romantic love. This growth is important and more of an example of friends who become lovers, than of anything else.

Now I have to say one last thing: The loveliest ending would be a voice over, maybe of the Duke, or of Léonie, perhaps of Hugh, or even of Saint-Vire, or several together… no! I got it, of the Curé! of the quote from, or even the entire, Epilogue to Eighteenth Century Vignettes by Austin Dobson, from the beginning of the book. It embodies just what I want for the film—a warm and loving, yet critical and gently ironic view of the magnificence, extravagance, splendour, bigotry, concealment, arrogance, and humanity of a not quite so distant century, and of the people in this lovely, silly story, who represent it all so wonderfully.

‘WHAT is it then,’—some Reader asks,—
‘What is it that attaches
Your fancy so to fans and masks,—
To periwigs and patches?

‘Is Human Life to-day so poor,—
So bloodless,—you disdain it,
To ‘galvanize’ the Past once more?’
—Permit me. I’ll explain it.

This Age I grant (and grant with pride),
Is varied, rich, eventful;
But, if you touch its weaker side,
Deplorably resentful:

Belaud it, and it takes your praise
With air of calm conviction;
Condemn it, and at once you raise
A storm of contradiction.

Whereas with these old Shades of mine,
Their ways and dress delight me;
And should I trip by word or line,
They cannot well indict me.

Not that I think to err. I seek
To steer ‘twixt blame and blindness;
I strive (as some one said in Greek)
To speak the truth with kindness:

But—should I fail to render clear
Their title, rank, or station—
I still may sleep secure, nor fear
A suit for defamation.

Literary Soundtrack: The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is a wonderful book, although it is not quite as well-known as it should be. It is the second, eponymous, volume in a remarkably beautiful middle-grade series, influenced by nature, season and local mythology.

This little playlist shall capture the atmosphere of this book, the snow and the wind, and the long dark nights of Christmastime. The protagonist, an eleven year old boy named Will Stanton, comes from a musical family, is an Anglican choir boy—a charmingly unusual trait for the hero of a fantasy novel!—and traditional Caroling and Wassailing, as well as the use of music as a means of magic, make an important theme.

The melodies of Greensleeves and Good King Wenceslas in particular are highlighted and involved in the story.

Here blows, despite, or maybe because of, my excitement for the beginning of Spring, the last, cold Winter wind.

John Rutter’s Suite Antique: Prelude

Fantasia on Greensleeves

In The Bleak Midwinter (Holst)

Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind

The Sheep Beneath The Snow, The Cutty Wren, St. Stephen’s Day

Good King Wenceslas

What Child is This (Variation of Greensleeves)

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Please To See The King (The Wren)

In The Bleak Midwinter (Darke)

The entire playlist on YouTube

Of Knights and Beadsmen

Reviews in the traditional sense will most likely remain a rarity on this blog—recommendations and personal thoughts regarding books that I am fond of or feel concerned about will appear more frequently. This post is probably somewhere between all those things—a little debut on this site, about a book that means a lot to me and that not many people know:

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge (1956)

HIS golden locks Time hath to silver turn’d;
  O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing!
His youth ‘gainst time and age hath ever spurn’d,
  But spurn’d in vain; youth waneth by increasing:
Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen;
Duty, faith, love, are roots, and ever green.

His helmet now shall make a hive for bees;
  And, lovers’ sonnets turn’d to holy psalms,
A man-at-arms must now serve on his knees,
  And feed on prayers, which are Age his alms:
But though from court to cottage he depart,
His Saint is sure of his unspotted heart.

And when he saddest sits in homely cell,
  He’ll teach his swains this carol for a song,—
‘Blest be the hearts that wish my sovereign well,
  Curst be the souls that think her any wrong.’
Goddess, allow this aged man his right
To be your beadsman now that was your knight.

— George Peele, A Farewell to Arms or The Old Knight

It is this poem that stars the book, and moves like a thread through the entire book. Knights and beadsmen, and poetry, are as ever-present as trees and rosemary. The last two lines—Goddess, allow this aged man his right // To be your beadsman now that was your knight.—are the very ground that the Manor house and village of Belmaray are built on.

First of all, I’d like to mention, that while this book is many things that I adore, it’s also many things that reviewers often tend to dislike: it values people over plot, it can be slow and quiet and very descriptive, there’s not much physical action or suspense in the traditional sense, it’s full of literary references, and imbued by Elizabeth Goudge’s very particular sort of spirituality, that’s often found to be too deeply based on nature by Christians, and too Christian by everyone else, but that’s just right for me, personally. And it doesn’t fit in a defined genre either.

It is, essentially, about people who are, over the course of the book, growing much happier than before. That is, I think, the most simple way to describe it, and the most truthful, too. I’ve seen descriptions and reviews that said it was about a particular character, but there is no true central character. It is told from many perspectives, without anyone taking the lead. It has been classified as a romance, but it is only so much a romance, as that romantic love is one of many aspects of it. It is very much a story about love—about human love, whether romantic or platonic or familial, about God’s love, of course, about the love people have for nature and animals, and for their home, and for themselves.

But what’s truly the core of the story is that a really small event can have the greatest effects on many people’s lives, and that it’s often the seemingly small things that truly matter. It’s that people can be sad without anything obviously being wrong about their lives, because they don’t understand each other, or themselves, and sometimes because they cannot really bring up the courage and decide to be happer than before. It’s about the great change a kind word can make, about the immense effect of pure determination to be good to others and to onself, the power of attitude. The gentle and monumental butterfly effect of human kindness.

And I love what a conscious thing kindness is in this book, and goodness and niceness is. I love how being friendly and nice is not portayed as a sort of natural talent or gift, but a deliberate skill that is worth exercising—and never too late to learn. And I like the distinction she makes—because in this book (and others of her’s) there’s two sorts of, let’s call it performative goodness—one that is false and dishonest, almost sinister, and one that is actually a sign of a longing to be and act good, and a way to achieve it. Being kind to people, even if you don’t exactly feel like it, is not akin to fake friendliness, it is as good and true as anything. Actual dishonest friendliness is not having an unfriendy word and then saying something nice—it’s saying something nice to a person’s face and then betraying them in some way. Being nasty does not necessarily make a person more authentic, it’s not a sign of one’s honesty. But on the other hand—even the kindest person is mean or unfriendly or nasty at times, and that’s alright too.

The reasons for unhappiness are often small—or they appear small—but all the more realistic, heartfelt, genuine. These characters are very much people, and their worries at times silly and yet having a frightful effect on their lives, often through years of growing inside their minds. On the other hand, deeper issues are very much a matter, mental illness and trauma never being glossed over, or ridiculed. It’s written and set in the 50s, so the horrors of the war have not yet grown distant, not to mention other difficulties of this, and the previous decades.

I’ve said it is a character driven book, and must add that I love these characters. I love that they are people, each and every one of them so delightfully human. And I love the way Elizabeth Goudge wrote children. Children, in adult novels, are so often reduced to props or plot devices, and her children are people, as characters in all ways equal to her adult characters. The oldest point of view characters in this book are in their eighties, the youngest is five years old, with others of all age groups in between them, and all of them are written with equal care and dedication. The characters’ ages do however, greatly affect the way they are written, and how they think and what they do, in good and bad—although Goudge fortunately refrained from assigning a particular age group a particular view or way of life.

It is also of note that all characters are beautifully flawed, and steadily grow over the course of the book, though not with leaving every flaw or fault behind. One character, sadly, chooses not to grow, and though there is no villain in this book (just as there is no hero) this particular character is an unconventional choice for the only truly negative character, although a very good and convincing one.

There is, it seems, a book for almost everything. That is, of course, a good thing. But it often seems to me, that although all sorts of great ideas and experiences, all big and visible and obvious things can be found in literature rather easily, it’s the quiet and small things that are truly hard to find, and even harder to look for. I certainly did not look for the things I found in this book, but I found them and I am glad I did. I often found that some emotions, some little human interactions, fragments of something that lies halway between feeling and thought, are in a way omitted from the majority of literature and other sorts of stories, that the larger things—even the unusual and controversial things—are not. I often wondered whether these things were so normal that nobody thought them worth mentioning, or so strange that nobody else felt them or, if they felt them, dared to write them down. It was a sort of relief to read, all of a sudden, of such little, yet significant things that were so familiar to me, and so unusual to read on a page. It went further even—at times I found myself reading what I had felt myself, but never knew how to put into words. I’ve had this sort of experience with other books—and it’s one of the most beautiful things that can happen while reading a book—but throughout this one in particular, and it was at times rather confusing, even unsettling for a moment, but in the end always comforting.

“A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.”

— C. S. Lewis

It’s that sort of book for me.

The Rosemary Tree is a Spring book. The air of the cold, sweet Spring, the sunlight and the morning dew, and smell of all things green and growing are what carries the story. The birdsong, most of all. It is a book about change, change for the better, even though not always in the originally desired way. Goudge’s gorgeous descriptions of nature and the changes it goes through in the Spring months work perfectly well with the developments in the characters lives. Birds, and trees, and flowers—everywhere, so vivid and colourful that the book could nearly burst, yet so gentle and elegant that, in the end, it won’t. Her prose is gorgeous, but never purple, though maybe a slight shade of lavender. That’s because her writing can be sweet, but never in a sticky, draining way. It’s fresh, full of cold morning air and the smell of herbs.

And of course, there’s one thing you can always rely on with Ms Goudge—there are always dogs.