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‘Like, yet unlike.’

‘Like, yet unlike,’ is Merry’s comment in The Lord of the Rings when he first sees Gandalf and Saruman together: Gandalf, returned from the dead, has assumed the white robes formerly worn by Saruman, who has succumbed to despair and been corrupted by evil and is about to be deposed. So we have two people who closely resemble one another yet are profoundly different in character.

Scene: a school classroom. Enter an ancient shuffling pedagogue. He sets on his desk two items. The first depicts a scene from the days of empire, with a khaki-clad officer of the Camel Corps holding a horde of savage Dervishes at bay, armed only with a service revolver.

Teacher (in cracked wheezing voice):The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
‘Play up! play up! and play the game! ‘

Cackling to himself, he unveils his second prop, a glass case in which a stuffed domestic tabby cat – now rather moth-eaten, alas! – has been artfully disguised to give it the appearance of a (rather small) African lion.

Teacher (as before) The lion, the lion
he dwells in the waste –
he has a big head,
and a very small waist –
but his shoulders are stark
and his jaws they are grim:
and a good little child
will not play with him!

Once recovered from his self-induced paroxysm of mirth, almost indistinguishable from an asthma attack, he resumes what is evidently a familiar discourse.

Teacher: We remember, children, that whereas the simile (put that snuff away, Hoyle, and sit up straight) says that one thing is like another, the metaphor says that one thing is another, in this case that the soldier was a lion in the fight. Now in what respects was he a lion? it can scarcely be his appearance, though I grant that his uniform has a tawny hue not dissimilar to the lion’s pelt; certes, he has no shaggy mane (did I say something amusing, Williams? stop smirking, boy, and pay attention) and instead of claws and teeth he has his Webley .45 calibre revolver. Nonetheless, he displays a fearless courage in the face of great odds that is precisely the quality for which the King of Beasts is renowned, so that is why we are justified in calling him a lion. What is that, Hoyle? Why do we not just say he is like a lion? Ha – hum – well, you see, it makes the comparison stronger, you see, more vivid.’

Hoyle does not see, but dutifully notes it down, and refrains from suggesting that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, since he knows that will get him six of the belt in those unenlightened days.


But young Hoyle the snuff-taker has a point. Aristotle, it will be recalled, writing in his Poetics, says that the poet ‘above all, must be a master of metaphor,‘ which he defines as ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things’.  But this definition is as problematic as the teacher’s explanation: why is a comparison between two things whose most striking feature is their dissimilarity made stronger and more vivid by saying that they are actually the same?

The best that people seem able to manage in answer to this is that the literary metaphor has a kind of shock value. To illustrate the point, they generally allude to the conceits of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne, where what strikes us first as outrageous, is – once explained – redeemed by wit and ingenuity:

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.   
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;   
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,   
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.

The best metaphor, it seems, is one where the dissimilarity is more striking than the resemblance.

But mention of the metaphysical poets recalls a different definition of metaphor, one provided by Vita Sackville-West in her book on Andrew Marvell:

‘They saw in it [metaphor] an opportunity for expressing … the unknown … in terms of the known concrete.’

That is in the form that I was wont to quote in my student days, when it made a nice pair with the Aristotle quoted above; but I think now that I did Vita Sackville-West a disservice by truncating it. Here it is in full:

‘The metaphysical poets were intoxicated—if one may apply so excitable a word to writers so severely and deliberately intellectual—by the potentialities of metaphor. They saw in it an opportunity for expressing their intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete, whether those intimations related to philosophic, mystical, or intellectual experience, to religion, or to love. They were ‘struck with these great concurrences of things’; they were persuaded that,
Below the bottom of the great abyss
There where one centre reconciles all things,
The World’s profound heart pants,
and no doubt they believed that if they kept to the task with sufficient determination, they would succeed in catching the world’s profound heart in the net of their words.’

If I had my time again (for indeed that ancient pedagogue described above is me) and wished to illustrate this, I would go about it rather differently.

Let us suppose a scene where a child cowers behind her mother’s skirts while on the other side a large and overbearing man, an official of some sort, remonstrates with the mother demanding she surrender the child to his authority. Though she is small and without any looks or glamour – a very ordinary, even downtrodden sort – the woman stands up boldly to the man and defies him to his face with such ferocity that he retreats. I am witness to this scene and the woman’s defiance sends a thrill of excitement and awe coursing through me. In recounting it to a friend, I say ‘In that moment, I seemed to glimpse her true nature – I felt as if I was in the presence of a tiger, defending her cubs.’

This is a very different account of metaphor. It is no longer a contrived comparison for (dubious) literary effect between two external things that are quite unlike, in which I play no part save as a detached observer; instead, I am engaged, involved: the metaphor happens in me: the identity is not between the external objects, but in the feeling they evoke, which is the same, so that the sight before me (the woman) recalls a very different one (the tiger) which felt exactly the same.

The first point to note is that the contradiction implicit in Aristotle’s account has disappeared. There is no puzzle in trying to work out how a woman can be a tiger, because the unity of the two lies in the feeling they evoke. And as long as my response is typically human and not something unique to me, then others, hearing my account, will feel it too, and being stirred in the same way, will recognise the truth expressed by saying ‘I felt I was in the presence of a tiger.’

Further, the very point that seemed problematic at first – the dissimilarity – is a vital element now. It is the fact that the woman appears as unlike a tiger as it is possible to be that gives the incident its force: this is an epiphany, a showing-forth, one of those ‘great concurrences of things’ that seem like a glimpse of some reality beyond appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’.

Yet that description – ‘some reality beyond appearance’ – is just what pulled me up short, and made me think of the Tolkien quote I have used as a heading. Is not this the very language of Plato, whose world of Forms or Ideas is presented as the Reality that transcends Appearance?

Yet the world as presented by Plato is essentially the same as that of Aristotle, which has become, as it were, our own default setting: it is a world of objective reality that exists independently of us; it is a world where we are detached observers, apprehending Reality intellectually as something that lies beyond the deceptive veil of Appearance. It is the world we opened with, in which metaphor is a contradiction and a puzzle, perhaps little better than a long Greek word for a lie.

Though both accounts – the Platonic-Aristotelian world on one hand, and Vita Sackville-West’s version on the other – seem strikingly similar (both have a Reality that lies beyond Appearance and so is to some extent secret, hidden), there are crucial differences in detail; like Gandalf and Saruman, they are like, yet unlike in the fundamentals that matter.

The Platonic world is apprehended intellectually. What does that mean? Plato presents it in physical terms, as a superior kind of seeing – the intellect, like Superman’s x-ray vision, penetrates the veil of Appearance to see the Reality that lies beyond. But the truth of it is less fanciful. What Plato has really discovered (and Aristotle then realises fully) is the potential of general terms. A Platonic Idea is, in fact, a general term: the platonic idea of ‘Horse’ is the word ‘horse’, of which every actual horse can be seen as an instance or embodiment. Thus, to apprehend the World of Forms is to view the actual world in general terms, effectively through the medium of language.

This can be imagined as being like a glass screen inserted between us and the landscape beyond, on which we write a description of the landscape in general terms, putting ‘trees’ where there is a forest, ‘mountains’ for mountains, and so on. By attending to the screen we have a simplified and more manageable version of the scene beyond, yet one that preserves its main elements in the same relation, much as a sketch captures the essential arrangement of a detailed picture.

But the Sackville-West world is not mediated in this way: we confront it directly, and engage with it emotionally: we are in it and of it. And our apprehension of a different order of reality is the opposite of that presented by Plato; where his is static, a world of unchanging and eternal certainties (which the trained intellect can come to know and contemplate), hers is dynamic, intuitive, uncertain: it is something glimpsed, guessed at, something wonderful and mysterious which we strive constantly (and never wholly successfully) to express, in words, music, dance, art.

The resemblance between the two is no accident. Plato has borrowed the guise of the ancient intuited world (which we can still encounter in its primitive form in shamanic rituals and the like) and used it to clothe his Theory of Forms so that the two are deceptively alike; and when you read Plato’s account as an impressionable youth (as I did) you overlay it with your own intimations of the unknown and the dimly suspected Absolute and it all seems to fit – just as it did for the Christian neoPlatonists (in particular, S. Augustine of Hippo) seeking a philosophical basis for their religion.

I do not say Plato did this deliberately and consciously. On the contrary, since he was operating on the frontier of thought and in the process of discovering a wholly new way of looking at the world, the only tools available to express it were those already in use: thus we have the famous Simile of the Cave, as beguiling an invitation to philosophy as anyone ever penned, and the Myth of Er, which Plato proposes as the foundation myth for his new Republic.

And beyond this there is Plato’s own intuition of a secret, unifying principle beyond immediate appearance, ‘the World’s profound heart’, which we must suppose him to have since it is persistent human trait: is it not likely that when he had his vision of the World of Forms, he himself supposed (just as those who came after him did) that the truth had been revealed to him, and he was able to apprehend steadily what had only been glimpsed before?

It would explain the enchantment that has accompanied Plato’s thought down the ages, which no-one ever attached to that of his pupil Aristotle (‘who is so very nice and dry,’ as one don remarked) even though Aristotelianism is essentially Plato’s Theory of Forms developed and shorn of its mysterious presentation.

So there we have it: a new explanation of metaphor that links it to a particular vision of the world, and an incidental explanation of the glamour that attaches to Plato’s Theory of Forms.

Like, yet unlike.



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The Hobbit as adult literature

No, not that kind of ‘adult’ – please!

I have been trying to pin down the source of my conviction that The Hobbit is, essentially, a book more for adults than children – a conviction that I formed on re-reading it after many years.

I think it is because it is about a grand scheme miscarrying and everything going wrong in a way that is all too familiar to the adult mind, but beyond the experience (I think and hope) of a child.

It is at heart a melancholy tale of failed dreams, unintended consequences and ‘collateral damage’, injustice, stubborn folly and greed. Good people are set against one another. Thorin has the best of intentions: he means to recover his ancestral treasure and slay the dragon that took it, so restoring the fortunes of his people. But it all goes wrong: it is not the dwarves who kill Smaug, but Bard the Bowman, and only after the dragon has devastated the Laketown. Nor does the recovery of the treasure make things better: instead it draws a swarm of parties each determined to have what it regards as its rightful share.

There is some justice in their claims – particularly those of the Lakemen whose town has been destroyed as a direct result of the Dwarves’ actions and who have themselves defeated the enemy the Dwarves roused. But Thorin will not heed them and holes up in his ancestral fastness under the mountain, awaiting the support of his cousin, marching with an army from the north. The men and elves besiege them. War threatens; Bilbo tries to avert it by an act which he knows will be seen as the basest treachery – he takes the most valuable jewel of the Dwarves’ treasure, the Arkenstone of Thrain, and hands it over to the besieging forces. The stand-off is only resolved by the arrival of a common enemy, against whom the warring parties unite in a desperate battle.

It sets out as a fairy tale, but at almost every point it runs counter to the conventions of the genre: slaying the dragon, recovering one’s ancestral treasure and restoring the fortunes of one’s house turn out not to be the unmitigated goods they are supposed to be. A lot of people end up dead and homes and livelihoods are destroyed. It reminds me more than a little of the recent history of Iraq.


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The Cartography of Childhood 2: a recanting

‘Blog in haste, repent at leisure.’ (old proverb, probably attributed to Albert Einstein/Dr Seuss/Abraham Lincoln)

When I said ‘the fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ I felt I had pinned down an idea that I have been moving towards for some time – years, in fact, though it has been in the forefront of my mind again these past two months. (Since reading Alan Garner’s Boneland, as it happens, a subject I shall deal with separately) However, now I come to explain it, I find it is not quite what I meant to say (a familiar feeling, I may add).

The gist of it was going to be this: a child’s world is like a mediaeval map, with a small known portion surrounded by vast spaces filled in from the imagination; hence, for children, the resonance of literature that is similarly structured, involving people they can identify with crossing from the security of their known world into a mysterious Beyond at once exciting and daunting.

The problem arises when we consider the nature of that Beyond – what the writer chooses to put in it, and why that, too, resonates with children. My original thought was this: what the writer generally puts into it is (first and foremost) something marvellous – it is a world of powerful and dangerous beings with remarkable powers, who are generally engaged in some sort of struggle, for a high and noble purpose, against an implacable (and wicked) foe. (Cf. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, and of course Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (though not, I think, The Hobbit, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere – for all its more overtly childish clothing, The Hobbit strikes me as being in many ways an adult book))

Now we come to the crucial point: the reason why such a vision of high and noble strife resonates with children, I was going to say, is because that is their expectation of what grown-up life must be like – something big and important, something grand, in a word. And I wanted that to be a rebuke to all those adults who would pile in at once, saying ‘but adult life isn’t like that! it is mean and petty and squalid and ignoble and dull, for the most part.’

And it was at this point that I realised that what I had said originally was not accurate: I had spoken of the ‘child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ when what I should have said (I think) is that the fantasy element in children’s literature offers them a vision of life – or, indeed, Life.

Here is where I think I was going wrong: the child’s expectation of the grown-up world is a fantasy formed from privation – the standard adult formula for thwarting children’s desires is ‘when you’re grown-up, you can do what you like, but for now you have to do what you’re told’ – so that the world of the grown-up is imagined as one where you don’t have to do what anyone tells you: you can wear your pyjamas all day, eat ice-cream for breakfast and never go to bed. (And I have to say that for many of us, this model remains alive in adulthood – look how we spend our leisure time).

On the other hand, a child’s expectation of Life is something quite different. For a start, the very word ‘expectation’ is wrong, and its wrongness goes to the heart of what we are talking about here. Life is, precisely, what you experience at every moment: living is what you do, what you cannot help doing; it is not a matter of expectation, of waiting for it to happen, it is now. Children, generally speaking – especially young children – are very good at living, just as birds and beasts are: it is a matter of instinct, not reflection; in that respect, they are better at it than most adults. The problems arise when it comes to living in a particular world, by which I mean not the one actual world that we all share but rather the myriad constructs that we have made to inhabit, which often overlap and have labels such as ‘the Western World’ ‘the modern world’ ‘European civilisation’ ‘the British way of life’ ‘middle-class-life’ ‘working-class-life’ ‘Scotland’ and so on. These are the worlds for which one must learn rules, conventions of behaviour, ways of speaking and thinking. (For instance, here in Scotland, with the impending independence referendum, we can expect much ink to be spilled on the subject of ‘what it means to be Scottish.’)

So now I feel the need to change my metaphor: it is not maps and map-making I want, it is the image of the book as a doorway (and its covers as doors, which they much resemble). Books are doors that open into other worlds, parallel universes, if you like. These worlds are imaginary, not just in the sense that they are ‘made up’ as opposed to ‘real’, but in the sense that they are products of the human imagination, which is always (whether it is conscious of it or not) engaging with the same material, namely Life itself.

[I have been careful to avoid saying ‘engaging with the same problem’ or referring to ‘the meaning of life’ because that is to take the viewpoint of the philosopher rather than the artist – though it is interesting to recall what one of the greatest philosophers has said on the matter:

‘The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

(Is this not the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)’

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.521)]

I use the term ‘artist’ in its broadest sense, to include the painter, the musician, the writer, the poet – all who engage in that kind of activity which is neither a means to an end nor even an end in itself, because it cannot be analysed in those terms – it is at once the highest form of human activity (because it is the most characteristically human) and the most pointless (in the best sense, as it is not subordinated to any aim or goal, it is not even its own justification because it does not seek to justify itself).

( Another philosopher, Benedetto Croce, said that ‘art is intuition’ – and if we take intuition to mean, as the Chambers dictionary defines it, ‘the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis’ then I think that is not wide of the mark, though to be sure ‘the truth of things’ is still a phrase to trouble the mind.)

So (draws deep breath, returns to the original path) what the fantasy element of children’s literature offers is not, as I said before, ‘an embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ but rather a vision of Life couched in terms that the child can understand and engage with – it is, on the one hand, saying ‘think of it like this’ and on the other, stripping away the top layer to reveal the working mechanism underneath.

But this is a subject to which I will return.


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The Cartography of Childhood

The first house I remember clearly is the second I lived in, from when I was not yet three till shortly before my seventh birthday. It occupied the upper right-hand quarter of a council house that stood at one end of a pair of keyhole-shaped cul-de-sacs that faced one another across a main street. To the right, this street ran past the local shops and on into town; it led to the school where my brothers went and my father was headmaster (my sister was already away at university) and to the church where we went to mass. To the left it ran on some way till it was blocked by a church that I knew was ‘not ours’.

We never had occasion to go that way and I can still recall the sense of looking into foreign territory that came over me when I pedalled my red tricycle as far as the left-hand corner (the express limit of my going – I fell off there once and skinned my knee; a lady came to my assistance). There was no line to mark it, no border post, but I knew that what lay beyond was another place, beyond the limits of my known world. Anything might happen there.

I imagine many children have felt something similar. Our world when we are small is a very limited space, but intensely experienced. Even the home itself, our centre of operations, is not wholly known – there are places where we are not allowed without permission; doors that are closed against us; places – like the space underneath the bed- that acquire, at certain hours of day, a threatening aspect.

Our childhood world is like that of the mediaeval cartographers: so little of it is actually known, so much peopled from our private imaginings. We are constantly engaged in trying to map our world, sometimes from what we are told, as often from what we have worked out ourselves, often with hilarious results. (If you want to test this, try completing the sentence ‘I used to think that…’ I, for instance, used to think that moustaches were an extension of nostril-hair, a notion my drawings faithfully reflected, till a kindly brother set me right.)

Now, where similar structures exist, so does the potential for metaphor. (By structures I mean parts in a particular relation or arrangement) It should be no surprise to find that a great many children’s stories reflect the image of the child’s world that I have given above, with its small known territory bordering on a strange, unknown world that intrigues and daunts us equally. And the substance of these stories is what happens when that border is crossed, which as children we long and fear to do. (Because although that wider world is unknown to us, we know some who go there – it is the realm of those mysterious and powerful beings, Grown-ups.)

Thus Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood venture into the Big Dark Wood; Mole in the Wind in the Willows abandons Rat’s cosy fireside to investigate the Wild Wood; Bilbo leaves the safe confines of the Shire in search of dragon’s gold; the children in Elidor pass through the ruined church to another world beyond; Colin and Susan find another world under Alderley Edge, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; Will Stanton is initiated into the realm of the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising.

Fantasy literature is often misunderstood, generally by earnest people who have forgotten what it is like to be a child. We need to remind ourselves that the reality of a child’s world is that the greater part of it is unknown and mysterious, a place where anything might happen; and we need to remind ourselves also that a child’s expectations of what life is all about are not as jaded as ours may have become. We need to see that the general qualities of fantasy reflect exactly the child’s expectations of life, of the grown-up world where (as they are repeatedly told) ‘you’ll be able to do what you like’ – both are wonderful, amazing, terrifying, filled with marvels and magic, limitless in their possibilities. The fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world.

(However, on reflection, I do not think this is quite right – for more, see here)

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