A Year of Important Books: Alice In Wonderland

The actual name of this book is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it was published in 1865. The author was Lewis Carroll, which is the pen name for Charles Lutwidge Dawson. The book was written three years before, after the author and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed in a boat up the river Isis with the three children of Henry Liddell, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church. During this five-mile voyage, which began at Oxford and ended in the village of Godstow, Dawson told the children – Lorina (age 13), Alice (age 10) and Edith (age 8)–a story about a girl named Alice who goes looking for adventures. The girls loved it, and wanted him to write it down for them. He began working on the manuscript the next day, and further elaborated the story in another boat trip the next month. It was at the urging of the author  George MacDonald’s children, who also loved the stories,  that he finally decided on publication. Originally  he did all the illustrations himself, but once he decided to publish the book, he turned to John Tenniel, who was very well-known at the time as being the political cartoonist for Punch magazine. And with that, the perfect marriage of words and illustrations was born.

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A 1863 portrait of Lewis Carroll, by Oscar G. Rejlander, on WikiCommons. He was a mathematician as well as an author, which is unusual! He was also a fairly well known photographer in his early years. And finally, he was quite an inventor, and along with many practical objects invented an early form of the game which eventually became Scrabble! 

I returned to this book with a great deal of anticipation. This, like all the books in my series this year, was a well-loved and much-read book. My  Alice book was one of a matched set of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They were special editions published in 1946, and contained the wonderful Tenniel illustrations beautifully coloured by Fritz Kredel.

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Who could resist picking up and reading a book that looks like this? Not me! 

The story has been well enmeshed into our popular consciousness. It begins with a little girl sitting by the side of a river, getting  bored while her older sister reads a book, is suddenly distracted by a white rabbit running by wearing a waistcoat and muttering, “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Alice runs after the rabbit and crawls into his rabbit hole under a hedge after him and quickly finds herself falling down,, down, down….falling so long that she almost falls asleep, and then she finally  hits the ground and finds herself in Wonderland.

It’s pretty difficult to detail the plot from here on in, as all who have read the book will understand. It’s a jumble of events, none of which really make any sense. “Curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice says. She spends some time shrinking and growing by consuming the appropriately labelled cake (“Eat Me”) and drink (“Drink Me”), all the while trying to get through a small doorway into a garden, which she eventually succeeds at doing. There she encounters the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter and his tea party, and, most memorably the incredibly grumpy Queen of Hearts (“Off with her head!”) and her court, who are all actually a pack of playing cards.  There is a strange croquet game with flamingos as croquet bats and hedgehogs as balls, an encounter with the Mock Turtle and a Gryphon in which they demonstrate the Lobster Quadrille for Alice, and a trial in which the Knave of Hearts is accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts.

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The Lobster Quadrille. I love the muted tints in these illustrations. 

To my regret, some of my favourite characters and scenes that I remember from the Alice books are not in Wonderland, but appear in Through the Looking Glass. In particular I was very much looking forward to the Jabberwocky (‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe, All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”) which I can never read without feeling a little giddy with delight. I might just have to fit that book into my schedule further along the year, just for that poem alone.

Looking at Wonderland now, from an adult’s eye, I’m not sure I would have liked it very much if I had never read it as a child, which surprised me some, as the delight with which I read the Alice books is firmly entrenched in my mind. I pondered this some, and came up with these reasons as to why I think this book featured so large in my childhood imagination:

1). Alice herself – oh, I can see myself in Alice. A little girl, alone, trying to figure out the world. I spent long periods of time by myself as a child, especially in the two years after my sister went to school and I was left behind. Alice is by herself, and she has only herself to rely on to navigate this strange world. And this world, with its maddening refusal to make sense, is so very like the adult world to the eyes of a child. Things happen, and you have to cope. And those things that happen don’t make sense to you, even though all the other characters around you (the adults, in real life) have no difficulty navigating this world. You just have to play along and hope you don’t mess things up too badly.

2) The dream-like quality of it all – at the end of the book all of Alice’s adventures are revealed to be a dream. I had forgotten this! But it makes perfect sense, of course. Carroll captured the dream-world so very perfectly. Alice keeps encountering strange events, starting with the White Rabbit, which don’t seem to faze her at the time. This is so true of our dreams, right? I am a very vivid dreamer, and often remember my dreams, and laugh at the absurdity of it all, from this side of wakefulness. But in the dream world, well, it all somehow fits together, even as at the same time you know it doesn’t make sense at all. This strange suspension of reason is captured so very well in this book. All that growing and shrinking, the odd conversations, the times when Alice tried to recite poems she knows very well and yet they refuse to come out “right”, even the menacing Queen with her cries of “off with her head” and the grumpy Duchess with her pointed chin digging into Alice’s shoulder – these are all details that through Alice’s dream-eyes make sense but don’t make sense, and it is a wonderful depiction of that odd country we can find ourselves in when we drift off to sleep.

3) The illustrations – were there ever book illustrations that fit the words so perfectly than Tenniel’s fit Lewis Carroll’s words and descriptions? They have become iconic for good reason. Tenniel drew Alice normal enough for us to relate to her, but made the other characters just strange enough to perfectly capture the weirdness of the story.

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Self-portrait of Sir John Tenniel (public domain, on WikiCommons)

Interestingly enough, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are the only two books Tenniel illustrated. Carroll approached him to illustrate another project, but Tenniel declined.

It was fun to re-visit Wonderland this month. It was actually a lot weirder than I remember it to be! But I’m glad I went back to make my acquaintance of Alice and the Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Queen.

Next month, I’m diving back into a book that I approach with a great deal of love and happiness: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham.

 

 

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The Carmina Gadelica

One of the delights of writing historical fiction is the fun of trying to get a clear picture in your head of the culture and customs of the time you are writing about as well as the hard facts of what happened and when. Research, in other words. One of the best ways to do this is to read some material written during the time that you are interested in. It really helps you to get a flavour of what the people sounded like and what they thought about the issues of the day.

This is great advice in general to all historical fiction writers, but I quickly learned that the time and place I chose to write about had little of this source material to study. The only surviving literary works from Northumbria in the 7th century comes, in the main, from the monasteries. There is correspondence of a sort between monasteries, but mainly concerned with religious matters of one sort or another. There are works such as Bede’s, and other educational treatises on religious, scientific, or philosophic matters; or others detailing the lives of Kings and Saints, but nothing in the way of material written by ordinary people cataloguing their ordinary lives. The people outside of the monasteries, were, for the most part, illiterate, and so trying to understand the ordinary person’s life in Britain in the 7th century can be somewhat of a challenge.

But the fact that they were illiterate society didn’t mean they lacked knowledge, or even education, of a sort. News was passed orally, along with the traditional stories and poems of the culture. In the Celtic areas of Britain this oral emphasis dovetailed nicely with the Druidic emphasis on the importance of oral knowledge. The people in those areas were used to mesmerizing long pieces of information, whether it be the latest news from Rome or a charm to cure sickness. All these in turn were passed along from one generation to another, and that practice continued even to the nineteenth century.

In the middle of the 1800s, a Scottish exciseman named Alexander Carmichael (a tax man, for lack of a better word), began to realize that many of the oral charms, prayers, songs, and customs of the Scottish Celts were beginning to be lost, and he began to collect them as he travelled throughout Scotland, mainly in the Outer Hebrides, in the course of his work. He eventually published two volumes in 1900, entitled Carmina Gadelica (Songs of the Gaels) but the work was not done and his family and others continued to publish continuing volumes until the last one, which was published in 1971.

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Alexander Carmichael by William Skeoch Cumming – Public Domain, wikicommons

There has been some controversy about the Carmina, accusations that Carmichael edited the original material so thoroughly the historical value was lost. The 19th century society in which he was doing his work had little positive opinion of the Scottish Gaels, seeing them as boorish backwater barbarians, for the most part. It is possible that part of the reason Carmichael wrote the Carmina Gadelica was to counteract this prevailing view. And so, in it you will find statements like this:

During his visit to us, Mr Campbell expressed to my wife and to myself his admiration of these and other men with whom we had come in contact. He said that in no other race had he observed so many noble traits and high qualities as in the unlettered, untravelled, unspoiled Highlander.

Okay, a little over the top, right? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and so I don’t treat Carmichael’s work as entirely historically factual but nor do I dismiss it’s contribution to the understanding of the culture and oral history of the Celts. The entire collection is now online, and scholars are now able to examine in detail Carmichael’s notebooks (written in his native Gaelic). Study continues on this important body of work, and I’m sure more revelations will be forthcoming.

All that aside, however, the Carmina is fascinating reading.  Many of the entries are presented without comment, but my favourite ones are the ones in which Carmichael added a note about who he got the prayer or charm from, or other background information about the entry, such as this one, which is the opening entry in the first volume:

Old people in the Isles sing this or some other short hymn before prayer. Sometimes the hymn and the prayer are intoned in low tremulous unmeasured cadences like the moving and moaning, the soughing and the sighing, of the ever-murmuring sea on their own wild shores. 

They generally retire to a closet, to an outhouse, to the lee of a knoll, or to the shelter of a dell, that they may not be seen nor heard of men. I have known men and women of eighty, ninety, and a hundred years of age continue the practice of their lives in going from one to two miles to the seashore to join their voices with the voicing, of the waves and their praises with the praises of the ceaseless sea. 

Isn’t that lovely? He was a native Gaelic speaker, and you can hear the poetry and rhythm of that language coming through in his comments, written originally in Gaelic, but the translation is provided on the online document.   The prayer (which apparently was a prayer-before-the-prayer!) that follows was this:

I am bending my knee
In the eye of the Father who created me,
In the eye of the Son who purchased me,
In the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me,
     In friendship and affection.
Through Thine own Anointed One, O God,
Bestow upon us fullness in our need,
           Love towards God,
           The affection of God,
           The smile of God,
           The wisdom of God,
           The grace of God,
           The fear of God,
           And the will of God
To do on the world of the Three,
As angels and saints
Do in heaven;
     Each shade and light,
     Each day and night,
     Each time in kindness,
     Give Thou us Thy Spirit.

I don’t know about you, but reading this brings me a lovely, peaceful feeling. It’s the kind of prayer that you have to say slowly, to savour the words and the images it evokes.

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I also love the details which Carmichael gives of the specific person he got the charm or prayer from, as in this case:

This poem was taken down in 1866 from Mary Macrae, Harris. She came from Kintail when young, with Alexander Macrae, whose mother was one of the celebrated ten daughters of Macleod of Rararsay, mentioned by Johnson and Boswell. Mary Macrae was rather under than over middle height, but strongly and symmetrically formed. She often walked with companions, after the work of the day was done, distances of ten and fifteen miles to a dance, and after dancing all night walked back again to the work of the morning fresh and vigorous as if nothing unusual had occurred. She was a faithful servant and an admirable worker, and danced at the leisure and carolled at her work like ‘Forsgag Moire,’ Our Lady’s lark, above her. 

The people of Harris had been greatly given to old lore and to the old ways of their fathers, reciting and singing, dancing and merry-making; but a reaction occurred, and Mary Macrae’s old-world ways were abjured and condemned….But Mary Macrae heeded not, and went on in her own way, singing her songs and ballads, intoning her hymns and incantations, and chanting her own ‘port-a-bail’, mouth music, and dancing to her own shadow when nothing better was available. 

This is the prayer she gave Carmichael:

GOD with me lying down,
God with me rising up,
God with me in each ray of light,
Nor I a ray of joy without Him,
Nor one ray without Him.

Christ with me sleeping,
Christ with me waking,
Christ with me watching,
Every day and night,
Each day and night.

God with me protecting,
The Lord with me directing,
The Spirit with me strengthening,
For ever and for evermore,
Ever and evermore, Amen.
Chief of chiefs, Amen.

These repetitive sentences are classically Celtic in style. Also classically Celtic is the emphasis on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The symbol of “three” was a powerful one in pagan Celtic times; the legend of St. Patrick explaining the Trinity by showing the people a three-leaved clover is possibly closer to the truth than not.

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Included in the Carmina are these lovely Celtic illustrations, done by Alexander Carmichael’s wife, Mary Frances Macbean. They were adapted from medieval insular manuscripts and stone carvings. This entry is entitled “Thanksgiving”, and the first line is “Thanks to thee, O God, that I have risen today, To the rising of this life itself…”

One of the things you realize immediately when reading the Carmina is how encompassing faith was to the Celtic Christians. They spoke a prayer for everything they did – waking, sleeping, kindling the fire in the morning, smooring the fire at night, walking, milking the cows, shearing the sheep, etc. Their minds and hearts were continually God-ward. For example, here is Carmichael’s entry on the Loom Blessing, along with the first part of the prayer itself:

In the Outer Isles women generally do the weaving, while in the Inner Isles and on the mainland it is usually done by men. In Ulst, when the woman stops weaving on Saturday night she carefully ties up her loom and suspends the cross or crucifix above the sleay. This is for the purpose of keeping away the brownie, the banshee, the ‘peallan’, and all evil spirits and malign influences from disarranging the thread and the loom. And all this is done with loving care and in good faith, and in prayer and purity of heart. 

BLESS, O Chief of generous chiefs,
My loom and everything a-near me,
Bless me in my every action,
Make Thou me safe while I live.

From every brownie and fairy woman,
From every evil wish and sorrow,
Help me, O Thou helping Being,
As long as I shall be in the land of the living.

In name of Mary, mild of deeds,
In name of Columba, just and potent,
Consecrate the four posts of my loom,
Till I begin on Monday.

It’s hard for us, with our Enlightenment-soaked worldview, to imagine this world, where it was as natural to pray over every part of one’s day as it was to breathe.

Equally fascinating are the charms, incantations and customs that Carmichael recorded that surely had their roots far in the pagan past. For example, here is the explanation of the  “Augury of Mary” (in Gaelic, Frith Mhoire):

The ‘frith,’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the ‘frithir,’ augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the doorstep and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions. 

There are pagan hints in all of this – the first Monday of the quarter, immediately before sunrise, bare feet and head – all of these details would have had a specific meaning to the pagan Celts, which were combined by the Celtic Christians into their faith to give it the unique flavour that coloured these people’s lives.

It is all fascinating stuff. I’m so glad Carmichael took the time to record these tidbits of history before they were gone forever. It’s a small window into a long-distant past, in which we can get a glimpse of these people who lived so very long ago.

 

 

 

Book Bingo!

I came across this fun idea on my travels through the inter web. Book bingo. People make up Bingo cards featuring various types of books, and the players have to get a Bingo! (straight line across the squares, in case any of you don’t know what that is) by reading the books featured. As I’m always up for a challenge and also, as I love to read, I thought it would be fun to give it a shot. But…what bingo card to use? There are so many out there, I discovered!

But this one caught my eye, as it featured Canadian speculative fiction books. So, hey ho, why not?

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As you see, this came from a blog called Speculating Canada, which features works of speculative fiction written by Canadians. And as I am one of those, I thought it would be great to have a look at what some of my fellow Canadian authors are creating. Also you will note they use the same WordPress blog theme as I do, so they must have good taste, right?

In looking at what books I need to read to get my Bingo, there are several there which interest me. But as it stands right now, I think I’m going to try the middle line. Because I love urban fantasy, and also because this line includes an interview, which perhaps might be cheating a tad but as it won’t take as long to read a interview as a book, I’m all for that.

So…if any of you have any suggestions for the books on that line, let me know! I’ve got a couple ideas, but I’m happy to take others. I need a Canadian Urban Fantasy Novel, An Interview with a Canadian Author, a Canadian SF Short Story Collection, and a Canadian High Fantasy Novel.

Only three books and one interview. Should be do-able, right?

I’ll keep you posted on this as the year goes by. I would love it if anyone else wants to play along….we’ll see who can get Bingo first!


Featured photo by Chitrapa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

2015 In Review

Everyone does their year-end review and goals for the upcoming year blog posts in January. But my January was a tad hectic so I thought I would wait a month and do my review at the beginning of February instead.

It’s been one year since I started this blog, and, for the most part, I have enjoyed it. I’ve especially enjoyed getting to connect with some of you readers. It’s been a real blessing to reach out across the inter-web and shake hands, so to speak.

It has mostly been fun writing something new each week, although, to be honest, there have been times where I have struggled somewhat on what to write about. It’s hard for a fiction writer to write about their books when they haven’t been published yet. I have tried to keep circling back to my own work on a regular basis, however, just to remind people that “someday” I will have a book out there for them to actually read. Hopefully.

But to be honest I think this space flounders a bit, here and there. I have a wide range of topics – maybe too wide? Maybe I should narrow my focus a bit? But to what?

I really enjoyed my series last year, and I think I got some traction with that. I was a bit nervous about stepping away from C.S. Lewis – I think there were a few people reading along who just liked the Lewis stuff, so I might lose some readers with the new series. But maybe gain some, too.

And speaking of losing/gaining, WordPress ever so helpfully sent me a year-end review of all the stats about my blog I could ever want to know. To tell you the truth, it’s not the most encouraging reading. I found out:

  • the most popular post on my blog was January 9, 2015. Which was my first post. So, yup, pretty much downhill from there. Heh.
  • the most-read post was October’s post on Halloween in the Dark Ages
  • the majority of my visitors have come from the U.S. – big shout-out to my neighbours south of the 49th!
  • the most views I’ve had on my site is 41 (home page/archive). The most views I’ve had on one post is 23, for the “What’s It All About, Then?” re-post. These are pretty dismal stats. Especially when I see that many posts only had 1 viewer. Erp.
  • All together I have had 2,199 views on my blog this year. Not sure if that counts my own views or not.
  • a bit shout-out to my top commenter, sdorman2014 who blogs over at thegreenandbluehouse. It is so encouraging to see your comments! To know someone is reading along really makes a difference. I apologize that I don’t get over to your blog very often, I will strive to be more reciprocal this year!
  • the other 4 commenters out of the top 5 are: Lesley Ferguson (thanks, sis!), bookheathen, Brenton Dickieson, and writefitz. Thanks so much to all of you. I would encourage you all to check out their blogs as well!

So…you can see this blog is not exactly the darling of the internet. It’s good to have this snapshot, however, it gives me some food for thought and forces me to try to figure out how to improve.

I think part of the problem I have had this year is that I basically suck at social media. My blog is supposedly linked to my author page on Facebook and to my twitter account, but for some reason, it never is posted on those sites when I put a new post up. So many of my posts this year did not get exposure on my FB or Twitter feed.  I have yet to figure this out but it is going to have to be top priority this year. I can’t expect that people will come to read my words if they don’t get prompts directing them here.

I need to be more intentional about posting on my author page. And Twitter…sigh. It’s all so very time-consuming, and I am constantly trying to figure out what is ultimately the best for me in terms of achieving my ultimate goal of publication of my novel. Spending a certain amount of time writing these posts takes away time that I could be preparing submissions to agents/editors. Or revising Book 2. Or writing and submitting short stories, in hopes that I will finally get published in a SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) market and up my writing cred a bit. Plus, professional pay, yay. But the blog is a good place to connect with readers, and allow agents/editors a chance to see a little of your work, and it has allowed me to connect with other writers too. Connection, connections, that’s what it’s all about, right?

I have made myself a weekly schedule in which I have blocked out a certain amount of time each week to do all these things, plus my part-time job plus my fairly heavy volunteer commitments. The unfortunate part that my writing usually gets to be #3 on my daily lists, even with my schedule. Everything else seems more important. The schedule has helped, but I still find myself struggling to fit as much in as I would like.

Next fall I will be finished the heaviest volunteer commitment, which is good. That will free up quite a bit more time for my writing. I’m looking forward to that.

My goals for 2016 are: 

  • go hard on the agent search. My number one wish on my list would be to get an agent. I hope to be traditionally published, and having an agent is the best way to do that, I think.
  • write at least 2 new short stories with an eye to getting them into a SWFA market.
  • write at least 2 new stories to be published in any semi-pro or other market
  • while I am hoping for a traditional publishing deal, I am realistic to know that my best bet is probably going to be self-publishing. I need to research all the ins and outs of this, and get my ducks in a row if Plan A doesn’t work out. If I don’t see some significant traction on Plan A my focus will turn to Plan B (self-publishing) in the fall.
  • attending a couple writing conferences. I’ve registered for When Words Collide once again, and am thinking I should probably attend Realm Makers this year. And then there is Hutchmoot, which, although not specifically a writers conference, would be just about the most fabulous conference I could possibly imagine attending. Time and finances might intrude, however….we’ll see what I actually end up attending. But conferences are excellent places to learn and give writers awesome opportunities to get face-to-face with agents, editors, and readers, so I hope to get to as many of these as I can.

I’m looking forward to seeing what 2016 has in store. Hopefully, more good news than bad!

Photo by kazeund via unsplash