Lloyd Alexander

How Social Media Has Helped my Research (or, the kindness of strangers!)

This is a title I never thought I’d write! But, having finished another book (submitted exactly a year ago today!) I’m in that reflective mood again, thinking back to some important moments and turning points.

Researching and writing a monograph is like going on a journey without a detailed itinerary. You sort of know where you want to go but you don’t quite know what is the best way there, or what places you absolutely must stop and visit on the way (so that your final destination becomes worth reaching). My first monograph was based on my PhD thesis – so it was, really, an act of re-writing. But my latest book, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, was a different story: I thought about it as a book, right from the beginning, and did a lot of the research (and thinking!) for it during maternity leave.

Not much writing at all happened during that time (baby in the house!), but a lot of close reading of primary sources (lots of children’s fantasy novels – quite apposite while getting used to life with a little one!) and a lot of thinking and note-taking (mostly on my phone while feeding, nap-time, etc.) Then, came the digging further into the Irish and Welsh sources my fantasy authors used (a lovely opportunity to go back to my MA in Early Celtic Studies reading and catch up with the scholarship since then). Also, a thorough read of interviews, lectures, reflective essays and blogs given/written by my selected authors (how lovely to be working with contemporary authors!), and – in many cases – a conversation with the authors, either face-to-face, or by email. In the case of the late Pat O’Shea, her partner Geoff Windle was so generous with his time in answering my emails and giving me an insight into her bookshelves and research. Also, my research on Lloyd Alexander was enriched by consulting his manuscripts at the Free Library of Philadelphia, though I never set foot there… but that is letting the cat out of the bag!!!

So during that research journey, there were times were I needed help: a quick chat with an archaeologist friend about Seahenge in Norfolk (which was part of the inspiration for Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge); a question to Welsh speaking friends and colleagues about an obscure (or imaginary?) Welsh word Alan Garner describes in The Owl Service; a telephone conversation with a former tutor about Roman helmets (for the chapter on Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence). All of these friends and colleagues are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

But there were also times when I (nearly) hit a dead end, and that’s when Facebook and Twitter came to the rescue! I was able to directly contact Jenny Nimmo because of Twitter. A series of messages there led to exchanging email addresses and a great conversation on The Snow Spider trilogy. Twitter was also the only way I managed to get hold of Marged Haycock (the editor of The Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin) and get a quick clarification on the title of the Welsh “Preideu Annwfyn” (The Spoils of Annwn).

As for Facebook, that’s where I moaned about not having a “portkey” for immediate transportation to Philadelphia, to see Lloyd Alexander’s manuscripts. I had been trying for a while to get in touch with the curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia, but my emails were bouncing back. Immediately, fellow Tolkien scholar John David Cofield (whom I had never met, but with whom I had “talked” on Facebook about Tolkien before) responded to my post to say that he knew someone working in the Free Library of Philadelphia. He put me in touch with the lovely Helen Azard who printed off my email and physically handed it to the curator! At the same time, Katherine Sas responded to let me know that she lived reasonably close to Philadelphia and that she’d be willing to go to the library for me if needed. So when a bit later I realised that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip to Philadelphia, but that they were happy to admit a research assistant on my behalf to photograph what I needed from the manuscripts, Kat took on that role immediately! The chapter on Lloyd Alexander would have been so much poorer without the manuscript research, and if it wasn’t for David, Helen and Kat I wouldn’t have seen the material at all! And all of this because of a moaning post on Facebook!

The second big Facebook success was related to my research on Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. I really needed to get hold of an obscure little book which shed more light on Garner’s involvement with the TV adaptation of his novel: Filming the Owl Service: A Children’s Diary. This is ostensibly the diary that Garner’s son and two daughters kept during the filming of the series (1969-70) which was then published in 1970 with contributions from Alan Garner himself, and Peter Plummer, the director. This little book has been out of print for years. Every now and then it does appear on second-hand bookshops online, usually for an extortionate price, and at that point there was just one copy on Amazon marketplace for an astronomical amount. At the same time, the few libraries that held the book had it marked as “reference only” and wouldn’t consider sending it to me as an inter-library loan.

In desperation, I went on the Alan Garner Facebook group and posted the cover of the book with this message: “Hello all, I was wondering whether anyone in this group has this book?” When a few members said they did, I explained further:

 

And, guess what? Katherine Langrish (THE Katherine Langrish, fantasist in her own right and author of the award-winning Troll Trilogy among many other novels!) responded straight away and within two days I had the book in my hands!!! And, I got to “meet” Katherine, even if only electronically!

Last but not least, I often used Facebook and Twitter just to keep awake during the many late nights I spent working on the book (well after midnight most of the time!) or motivated during the equally numerous occasions of having to work on weekends. Here’s only a selection of such posts:

And, triumphantly, the last one, posted at 05:20AM, exactly a year ago today!

 

The book is out! (plus “extended” table of contents!)

This week, the e-book version of my new monograph, Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy, was released. This is my first experience of the braver new world of simultaneous e-book and hardback publication. The hardback won’t be out there for another couple of weeks, but the book is now, for all intents and purposes, published. Hooray!

I’ve blogged before about the cover of the new book (with which I am very pleased indeed), and I have also shared some of my research on Lloyd Alexander (here and here) and Henry Neff (here and here). You can download the front matter of the book via this link, and get access to particular chapters (or indeed purchase the entire e-book) here.
This book is part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series, and when a monograph is part of a series it has an additional layer of “house style” to adhere to. This means that my Table of Contents is a little less detailed than I originally intended. I tend to work better with chapter titles which are then subdivided into smaller sections with their own subtitles. In my first monograph on Tolkien, all chapter titles and subtitles appeared in the Table of Contents, but with this one I had to stick to the rules and include chapter titles only.

For those of you, though, who may want to know a bit more about the contents of each chapter and would like to see the subtitles for each chapter section, I am offering below an “extended” table of contents with page numbers – I hope it will prove useful to readers.

Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology

by Dimitra Fimi

(Extended) Table of Contents

Note on Spelling and Dating (p. vii)
Acknowledgments (p. ix)
Contents (p. xi)

List of Figures (p. xiii)

Chapter 1: Introduction: ‘Celticity’, fantasy, and the child readership (p. 1)
Fantasy: tropes, categories, structure (p. 2)
Myth, Legend, Folktale and their relation to Fantasy: Reception and Adaptation (p. 4)
The Celts, Celticity and ‘Celtic’ myth (p. 7)
Children’s literature, Celticity and Ideology (p. 15)

Unravelling Celticity: The Structure of this Study (p. 16)

Part I: Irish Myth

Chapter 2: Otherworldly Ireland: Pat O’Shea’s The Hounds of the Mórrígan and Kate Thompson’s The New Policeman (p. 27)
Revisiting the ancient Irish deities (p. 28)
Irish Landscape and Images of Celticity in Tír-na-nÓg (p. 36)
From Pagan ‘Gods’ to Irish Folklore (p. 45)
Celtic Past and Christian Present – Redux (p. 53)

Conclusions (p. 59)

Chapter 3: Celticity and the Irish Diaspora: Re-writing Finn mac Cumaill and Cúchulainn for American youngsters (p. 71)
Mary Tannen’s The Wizard Children of Finn (p. 72)
Mary Tannen’s The Lost Legend of Finn (p. 81)
Henry Neff’s The Tapestry Series (p. 85)
The hero’s journeys of Max McDaniels and Cúchulain (p. 86)
Irish Gods and Goddesses: Weaving a new Tapestry of Myth (p. 93)
Irishness, Celticity and the Material Culture of The Tapestry (p. 100)

Conclusions (p. 104)

Part II: Welsh Myth

Chapter 4: Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain: Building Fantasy upon Forgery (p. 115)
Prydain and Wales (p. 116)
Fantasy Templates: From ‘Welshify’ The Lord of the Rings to ‘Filling the Gaps’ of Welsh Tradition (p. 122)
Prydain and the Counterfeit Tradition (p. 132)
Feisty girls, Oracular Pigs, Evil Enchantresses and Triple Goddesses (p. 138)

Conclusions (p. 147)

Chapter 5: Welsh Heritage for Teenagers: Alan Garner, Jenny Nimmo, Catherine Fisher (p. 157)
Alan Garner: The Owl Service (p. 159)
Jenny Nimmo: The Magician Trilogy (p. 177)
Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge (p. 195)

Conclusions (p. 207)

Chapter 6: Susan Cooper and the Arthur of the Welsh (p. 219)
The ‘Dark Ages’ and a Celto-Roman Arthur (p. 220)
The Arthur of Welsh legend and folklore (p. 231)
Wales and Celticity: ‘Oldest Hills’, Celtic stereotypes, and Gravesian Interpretations (240)

Conclusions (p. 249)

Chapter 7: Conclusion: Celticity and ‘Celtic’ Heritage (p. 263)
(Re)defining the ‘Celts’, ‘Celtic’ history and ‘Celtic’ mythology (p. 264)
The ‘Celtic’ past as national/cultural heritage (p. 267)

The ‘Celtic’ Character (p. 271)

Bibliography (p. 277)

Solving a little puzzle in Lloyd Alexander’s Welsh research

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about one of the main authors I have included in my forthcoming monograph (Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy): Lloyd Alexander. Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy world of Prydain is modelled upon a particular vision of medieval Wales and its legends, mainly as represented in Lady Charlotte Guest’s 19th-century translation of the Mabinogion, as well as her extensive notes. In a number of published talks and essays, Alexander reflected at length on his inspirations and research for The Chronicles of Prydain, and emphasized (and provided details about) the enormous range of material he consulted and the intensity of his fascination with Welsh mythological texts.

One example of Lloyd Alexander’s self-reflection appears in his article “The Flat-Heeled Muse”, published in The Horn Book Magazine in April 1965, only a year after the first volume of the Chronicles, The Book of Three, was published (and a few months before the second volume, The Black Cauldron, appeared). The extract below shows not only the obsessive nature of Alexander’s “Welsh research” but also his eventual realization that research is only the starting point and that, after a while, the creative mind needs to put the research aside and start shaping his/her own narrative – or, in the case of fantasy literature, his/her own imaginary world (with its own, consistent mythology, cultures, etc.):

My first intention was to base a fantasy on some of the tales in the Mabinogion, and I started research accordingly. However, I soon found myself delving deeper and deeper into the legends’ origins and significance: searching for what exactly I didn’t know — to the despair even of the librarians, who must be among the most patient people on earth. A historical-realistic approach did not work. Unlike the Irish and Norse, the Welsh mythology has been irreparably tampered with, like so many pictures, old and new, cut apart and pasted every which way.

Sifting the material, hoping to find whatever I was groping for, I accumulated box after box of file cards covered with notes, names, relationships, and I learned them cold. With great pains I began constructing a kind of family tree or genealogical chart of mythical heroes. (Eventually I found one in a book, already done for me. Not the first book, but the fifteenth!) Nothing suited my purposes.

At that point, the Muse in Charge of Fantasy, seductive in extremely filmy garments, sidled into my work room. “Not making much headway, are you? How would it be,” she murmured huskily, “if you invented your own mythology? Isn’t that what you really want to do?”

She vanished. I was not to see her again in her aspect as temptress, but only as taskmistress. For she was right.

Abandoning all I had collected, I began once more, planning what eventually became The Book of Three. My previous labor had not been entirely in vain; it had given me roots, suggestions, possibilities.

Indeed, the Mabinogion provides some of the main structures of Prydain, but Alexander creatively reshaped and reconfigured his Welsh source-material to create an original world, memorable characters and exciting plotlines.

What got me excited, though, was the second paragraph of this extract, especially the phrases I have highlighted in red. To take them one-by-one:

I accumulated box after box of file cards covered with notes, names, relationships…

Lloyd Alexander’s manuscripts are held in the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the “file cards” he is mentioning here are now part of the Lloyd Alexander papers in the Children’s Literature Research Collection of the library. The catalogue describes them as: “Alphabetized set of index cards with names for characters, places and objects. Also includes brief planning notes.” I was lucky to see some of these cards for my research. Some of them are very detailed indeed, others are very brief, but they all represent Alexander’s genuine effort to master the tangled web of characters and their roles and relationships in the tales of the Welsh Mabinogion.

I began constructing a kind of family tree or genealogical chart of mythical heroes…

Now this reference was even more intriguing, because as soon as I read this I knew I had seen this family tree somewhere! Or, rather, it happened the other way round. While pottering around with the few items from the Lloyd Alexander papers that the Free Library of Philadelphia have digitized and included on their website as images, I found one entitled: “Prydain nobility family tree” (see here for the image and description, and here for the image in higher resolution). However much this may look like a family tree of the “noble” families of Prydain, because of its inclusion of key figures such as Gwydion, Math and Pryderi, it isn’t: it is, actually, exactly Alexander’s attempt to create a “genealogical chart” of the “mythical heroes” in the Mabinogion described in the article above. A number of Mabinogion heroes and heroines (e.g. Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, Elphin, Tegid, etc.), whose names did not make it to Alexander’s Prydain mythology, appear in this tree in their correct position of kinship.

I found one [i.e. a family tree of mythical heroes] in a book, already done for me…

This last piece of information drove me crazy for a few weeks. I was determined to find out which of the books that Lloyd Alexander had read included such a family tree or genealogical chart of Mabinogion characters. I knew it wasn’t in one of the books Alexander had mentioned by name (of which there are very few – see my previous blog post on Lloyd Alexander) so discovering this book would add one more source of information on ‘Celtic’ myth that Alexander had consulted and which may have shaped his understanding of the Welsh material. I eventually found it (hooray!) among some of the usual suspects of early scholarship on Welsh and Irish medieval literature: T.W. Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race (London: G.G. Harrap & Co, 1911; the book is out of copyright and available to browse in its entirety here).

mythslegendsofc00roll_0001

Rolleston’s book is typical of its period in that it begins with a history of the ‘Celts’, then moves on to an exposition of their religion, and then retells the Irish and Welsh mythological material with a fair amount of ‘intervention’ in order to construct a coherent, linear narrative from cosmology, to deities, all the way to heroes and their legends. To achieve this end, Rolleston mixes indiscriminately early texts (which are, conceivably, closer to pre-Christian, pagan beliefs) with very late ones (e.g. dates as late as the 16th and 17th centuries). He also regularizes stories in order to make them fit with each other and with classical models of mythological compendia. In the spirit of this pursuit for order and consistency, he includes three “genealogical tables” for the Welsh material: “Gods of the House of Dōn”, “Gods of the House of Llyr” and “Arthur and his Kin” (pp. 350-2) – clearly the ones Lloyd Alexander refers to.

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In addition, Rolleston’s book includes 64 illustrations and photographs of particular locations and scenes from Irish and Welsh legends and tales. One of them seems to have been influential for the scene in The Book of Three in which the Horned King‘s men burn humans alive in wicker baskets:

Before Gwydion could speak again, the Horned King, bearing a torch, rode to the wicker baskets
and thrust the fire into them. Flames seized the osier cages; billows of foul smoke rose skyward. The
warriors clashed their shields and shouted together with one voice. From the baskets rose the agonized screams of men. Taran gasped and turned away.

The illustration of “Human Sacrifices in Gaul” in Rolleston’s book provides a fitting visual companion for Alexander’s description and links the medieval Welsh legends with the ancient ‘Celts’ of the 1st century BC (though my book problematizes such linear understandings of ‘Celticity’).

mythslegendsofc00roll_0107

So here is my little puzzle solved – at least to my satisfaction! For more on Alexander’s engagement with Rolleston, you’ll have to wait for my book, due out early next year!

 

Links

Lloyd Alexander’s article “The Flat-Heeled Muse” has been made available by the Horn Book Magazine here.

The entire catalogue of Lloyd Alexander’s papers at the Children’s Literature Research Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia can be found here.

Rolleston’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race is out of copyright and available to read/browse here.

 

 

References

Alexander, Lloyd. “The Flat-Heeled Muse.” Horn Book Magazine 41 (1965), 141-146.

Guest, Lady Charlotte, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1877.

Rolleston, T. W. Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race. London: G.G. Harrap & Co, 1911.