“Silver: Return to Treasure Island” by Andrew Motion: A Review, with Thoughts on Sequels, Prequels, and Other Fictional Voyages

25 Oct

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion,Crown Publishers, 2012.


The last few years have seen a number of new books about Long John Silver, the charming and treacherous one-legged pirate created by Robert Louis Stevenson in his adventure masterpiece Treasure Island (1881-1883).  John Drake’s Flint and Silver (2008), which announced itself as a prequel to Treasure Island, recounts how English sailor John Silver had to choose either a life of piracy or death after his Portuguese vessel Ria de Ponteverde was defeated in a battle with the pirate ship Victory under Captain Nathan England.  He chose to live–and thus began his first service on a pirate vessel. Meanwhile, the story of Joseph Flint takes shape elsewhere until that destined time when Flint and Silver shall meet and clash over the treasure. The events that set the stage for Treasure Island are spun out in this opener and two subsequent books by Drake, Pieces of Eight (2009) and Skull and Bones (2010). Also in 2008, Edward Chupak gave us his version of Silver in a book whose subtitle is as colorful as its subject, Silver: My Own Tale as Written by Me with A Goodly Amount of Murder. He envisions Silver’s early life as threaded with crimes, petty and otherwise, from the beginning, and lets Long John Silver narrate his life’s story in his own words.



Jim, Long John Silver, and his Parrot, N. C. Wyeth, 1911

Instead of taking Stevenson’s characters backwards to explain their origins, Andrew Motion’s novel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island sends them forward.  As a full-fledged sequel, it assumes the story line of Treasure Island and then makes a plausible leap to carry it into the next generation.  Whereas Drake’s style and pacing reminded me of a writer like Bernard Cornwell, opening with battle and rarely stopping the action for long, and Chupak’s first-person narration swaggers like a pirate, Motion’s style and tone come much closer to Stevenson’s, in cadence, verbal grace, and reserve. Motion’s narrator is more directly comparable to Stevenson’s, as we shall see.

Skipping to the next generation provides a solid framework for any sequel, because the main characters who have survived the originating story can, if the sequel-writer wishes them to, make dramatic, but brief appearances to validate, ground, and still advance the new story. These venerable characters get to show how they are ending their days and how they are parentingthe next generation.  They may also have unfinished business to take care of before it is too late, which is unquestionably the case here.  When we meet Long John Silver, we are not surprised that he is still obsessed with the treasure. But that meeting does not take place right away.

In Motion’s sequel, as in the original, the story opens at an inn and with Jim Hawkins, but this time the inn is not the Admiral Benbow but the  Hispaniola, and the young man working there—or rather, evading his father’s orders–is Jim Hawkins, Jr., son of the Jim Hawkins, who is now middle-aged and moody, grieving for his wife who died after the birth of her only son; this haunted man brightens only when recounting his youthful adventures to all who frequent his public house  by the Thames. Because his father relives his past so often in the telling, we can be certain young Jim knows the details of the Treasure Island adventure, however reluctantly he carries its legacy.   Young Jim is the restless son of a once very restless father, and Jim, Jr. is considering his options for striking out by himself—escaping his life so far–when the appearance in the fog of a small rivercraft, the Spyglass, and its mysterious female pilot pull him swiftly into the spell of adventure and, more important, into the grasp of Long John Silver. The girl in the boat is none other than Natty Silver, the old pirate’s daughter, who has come to fetch him to meet her father (and also her intriguing mother).   In her boat Natty carries a cage holding a mynah bird named Spot—only the first indication that she is indeed her father’s daughter.

As Natty cautiously begins to reveal the facts of her life, Jim is attracted by nearly everything about her. He feels a natural kinship, since their childhoods were both dominated, if not quite blighted, by “the shadow of our fathers’ adventures.” Contemplating Natty’s beauty and compelling self-possession, and setting her beside his mental picture of Silver, young Jim wonders, “Was my companion an innocent, sprung from ancient corruption? Or was she an expert in the art of dissembling, as her father had also been?” (p. 29). Just as his own father was ambivalent about Long John, so Jim is both drawn to Natty and suspicious of her. At the very least, Natty has her father’s art of persuasion, because soon young Jim finds himself seated in her boat, headed toward her home in Wapping, and on his way to meet the legendary man who had shaped not only Natty’s life so far but also the lives of both boys named ‘Jim Hawkins.’

As in Stevenson’s classic, this story is narrated in the first person by Jim, and the fifth chapter, “I Meet a Ghost,” provides a dramatic climax to this first part; it is full of memorable, lyrical writing. When Jim first sees Silver, it is powerfully discordant with the image he has long held of the smooth villain, nimble even on his wooden leg. Natty’s father is old, emaciated, and blind, ill almost to the point of death but fiercely holding on to reach this moment. When finally apprised of Jim’s presence, it is clear he has been waiting to meet “Mr. Hawkins” with an eagerness that fascinates Jim with its intensity: “I thought that if I were to lay my hand on Mr. Silver, he would quicken into his former self, and my own fingers would become my father’s, clutching at him for help, or to repel him” (p. 48). Aware himself of the shimmering contradiction he represented, Silver says:

“It is me! Long John Silver as was. But neither of these any more. Not for many a day. It is Mr. Silver now—the same man but different. Like music set in a different key, you might say.” (p.52)

 Motion brings a very natural poetic cadence to Silver’s speech, and this special rhythm serves to show how careful the old pirate can still be when choosing the words that will achieve his purposes.

Silver has longed for this moment of reunion across generations, but more than that, he has been waiting for this opportunity—the chance to recover something he’s been missing these long years, the treasure map still in the possession of Jim Hawkins, Sr., in a chest kept locked at the foot of his bed, with the only key held close by a cord around his neck.  Will young Jim betray his father to the extent of stealing this map, or “borrowing” it, as Silver entreats him to do? Silver knows the weaknesses of a young man’s heart–his urge for independence and adventure  and his discomfort in the yoke of his father’s commands; he especially intuits how to persuade this young man, with the path made smoother by the budding friendship between Natty and Jim (aloof interest on her side, romantic longing already on his). Andrew Motion has prepared the way admirably and subtly with his picture of the strain between father and son, showing the faults and wounds that made the older Jim a difficult father.

Why “borrow” the map? To recover the barred silver still cached on Treasure Island, even many years after enough gold had been recovered on that earlier voyage to make prudent men rich and secure for life–not that the older generation had been exactly prudent with their wealth.  This unfinished business from the first novel becomes the engine for the sequel, and it surely would stall right here if Jim did not agree to obtain the treasure map by stealth—so I am not revealing much in this.  But I leave it to the reader to embark on the adventure of the “Return to Treasure Island”—to accompany the voyage out on the Silver Nightingale, and to learn what horrors (not too strong a word) the crew and passengers discover on the lonely island.  I will only say that before they reach Treasure Island the novel has a trancelike quality, as if it were occurring in the dream-time. (Perhaps this poetic rhythm is not surprising, coming from this author who is a former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and current President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.)  After they reach the island, however, the trance is broken: the brutality disclosed to them exceeds even their imaginings of the dangers such an isolated society might present, if left to itself.  In the end, this will lead Jim to reflect on “the persistence of evil, and the thousand ways in which we are likely to be disappointed when we look for a better world” (p. 382). Motion does have a habit of telling the reader what to think about whatever is happening, often by having Jim repeatedly interpret himself, drawing conclusions about his own motives, disavowing some and affirming others.   Sometimes this comes off as natural, while at other times it feels like an authorial intrusion; in most cases, however, these observations are trenchant and therefore largely welcome on their own terms.

In his excellent New York Times piece, “To Be Continued: The art of the sequel,” Motion considered the varieties of sequels and their distinctive place in the shape-shifting web of ideas fostered by online communication, with its diverse channels for self-expression. Interestingly, he locates their function primarily as agents of continuity rather than change. To be sure, a good sequel will do more than imitate its original or simply finish an unsettled thread of a story; it will develop and teach something new about the original characters, plot, or themes, placing them in a different or expanded context. But Motion fastens on sequels as modes of preservation–even conservation–safeguarding what we have already inherited as familiar and true about a narrative and the fictional people who live within its bounds. In this view, a sequel (or prequel) that too drastically alters the foundational plot or tampers too much with its characters may strike readers as a misrepresentation.  The “art” of the sequel must surely, then, consist in finding clever ways of respecting these boundaries while sometimes inventively skirting them. For example, CBS’s new series “Elementary” keeps enough of the canonical features of Sherlock Holmes and Dr.  Watson (even when Watson is named “Joan” and played by Lucy Liu), including their dynamic partnership  and Holmes’s singular methods of detection, to pass muster as a related, though highly unconventional, sequel (or so it seems to me). The BBC’s “Sherlock” maintains continuity with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s plots, but performs rather astounding transformations on them, retaining enough to convince.  By contrast, as a moviegoer, I didn’t feel that Beastly (2011) kept enough of the threads of the original to tie it to the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale.

Motion follows his own rules in his sequel to Treasure Island. The sacred original is respected and readers can comfortably assume it as a limiting framework within which the new story will consistently unfold. The elder Jim Hawkins seems to have changed the most, and yet there is license for him to differ, since he was still a boy when the action of Stevenson’s novel closed. Motion makes a convincing case that Jim had trouble “coming home” after his youthful exploits were over, and some of his efforts at “normal” landlubbing life turned to sorrow. His obsession with telling tales from his youth provides familiarity and ensures continuity into this younger generation. And Silver is still Silver. When Jim sees Natty and the captain of the Nightingale so faithfully carrying out John Silver’s bidding, he muses that “the old man’s force of personality was evidently still extraordinary, although his body had almost ceased to be” (p. 115). As Silver’s body atrophied and weakened (symbolically extending his loss of a leg), his personal force was still radiantly alive and powerful. Thus, while crafting the changes to a character in a sequel (or in a prequel, anticipating changes that will solidify in the foundation narrative), the sequel author must choose among those characteristics which are deemed to be defining and central to the character’s personhood in the fictional universe. Motion has done a splendid job of this, and the new characters he has launched—Jim Hawkins, Jr. and Natty Silver—are attractive and complex enough to support their own sequels to this inaugural voyage.

Related posts:

Related links:

“Elementary” premiere on CBS–a very new Holmes and Watson keep the faith

28 Sep



Although I planned to write next about Andrew Motion’s Silver, his excellent sequel to Treasure Island, I can’t resist commenting on the premiere episode of “Elementary” on CBS last night, with its inspired pairing of Jonny Lee Miller, as recovering addict Sherlock Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, ex-surgeon, now hired by Holmes’s father as a companion to oversee his son’s first months out of rehab.  It is inspired because their chemistry together is strong from the start, both a clash and an attraction of personalities, and not primarily sexual. This clever justification for Watson’s shadowing Holmes’s every move, accompanying him on a case when they have barely met, gives the series a solid premise to build on;  by the end of the first episode, there are already hints that the relationship is growing beyond duty and grudging acceptance to one of mutual interest, usefulness, and even caring.

In his indispensable essay “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Michael Chabon observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Holmes (in the first two novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) was presented as more resolutely strange and nonconformist. He suggests that Holmes was the product of the same Victorian duality that made a Dorian Gray or Jekyll and Hyde. However, as the author turned to writing his detective short stories, some of these darker traits dropped away and a seemingly more conservative (if never quite conventional) Holmes emerged.

“beginning in 1891 with the first great short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle abandoned most of the louche, Wildean touches with which he had initially encumbered the character of Holmes. The outré personal habits, the vampiric hours, the drug use, the willfully outrageous ignorance of ‘useless facts,’ such as the order of the solar system or contemporary politics, gave way to a more conventional and cozy sort of eccentricity.” (from Chabon’s collected essays, Maps and Legends, p. 33)

Readers may argue how much of this side of Holmes truly dropped away—perhaps it merely receded into the background and emerged when the stresses brought about the necessary conditions (especially true of the drug use).  Most writers and adapters of the characters since Conan Doyle have cherished one or more of these eccentricities in their raw state, and “Elementary” is no exception. Its Holmes has quite literally just emerged from drug rehabilitation and he appears to Watson for the first time in an apparently untamed state—shirtless, unshaven, twitchy, restless, and recalcitrant. While he is dismissing the necessity of Joan Watson’s services as “babysitter,” he is also keen to deductively size her up, almost as a compulsive tic rather than a power play. It is a subtle performance and the generous closeups permit ample appreciation of the restraint  and skill of both actors. Naturally, he talks very, very fast. Both updated Sherlocks—this one in New York and the BBC’s Sherlock in today’s London—operate on the premise that speed of expression and mental powers are perfectly correlated (something I would take issue with, in practice). However, it certainly works as a sign to their Watsons and to their audiences at home that one must snap to, pay attention, and try to keep up!

Owing to his recent treatment, this Holmes is in a somewhat vulnerable state, something he shares with Darlene Cypser’s young Sherlock in her Consulting Detective series. Both are in crisis for medical reasons and both are at odds with a disappointed father.  In “Elementary” it rankles Holmes that upon relocating to New York from London, he must accept living in the “worst” of the several apartments his father owns. Fortunately, solving difficult criminal cases proves highly therapeutic (true for Cypser’s Holmes as well). This is very fortunate for the TV viewer too, because a murder comes in his way very quickly and is admirably resolved within the single episode—I hope this pattern continues, whatever development occurs across episodes for the continuing characters.  Aidan Quinn as Captain Gregson of the NYPD is an outstanding touch, though appearing only briefly, and I hope to see his role grow.

A great deal is accomplished in this first episode. Because their relationship begins on a note of distrust, Holmes and Watson must each win some measure of trust and respect from the other, enough for the relationship to persist until the next episode (and then the next). It is fascinating to see how this Watson wins Holmes’s admiration, and this incident leads to the only uncharacteristic move his character makes—claiming to anticipate an outcome that came as quite a surprise to him. I cannot think of an example in the canon where Holmes deliberately claimed he’d deduced something he hadn’t. (Perhaps others can think of an instance I’ve overlooked.) His admission to Watson about this begins paradoxically to kindle in her a greater faith in him, even if it is only the hope that he is actually human.

Michael Chabon, in the same essay I mentioned earlier, takes Conan Doyle to task for not having enough faith in his own character at the outset, perhaps always underestimating his merit and worth as the greatest project of his life. To me, this matter of faith in Holmes is very central. Conan Doyle’s very ambivalence about Holmes may be one answer to the riddle of why Sherlock Holmes was, is, and has remained so compelling. The drama of Holmes needing to win faith and trust from his clients, from skeptical police, even from the occasional perpetrator, is enacted over and over with each new story and novel in the canon, and again with each new pastiche or fresh realization of the character in film or television. Holmes keeps winning readers’ and viewers’  faith, whether his creator could credit their loyal belief in him or not.  Authors from Conan Doyle onward have Holmes demonstrate his powers with such force and clarity, he makes believers out of skeptics of all description.  A show like “Elementary” really only gets one opening chance to inspire faith that this Holmes can be and do what any “real” Holmes should be and do. Watson is our guide, leading us to wonder and then to believe in him.  In the course of this first episode, Dr. Joan Watson learned enough to stay by her Holmes, and I think viewers will keep returning too.


Michael Chabon, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes” in Maps and Legends. Open Road, 2011 [kindle edition]. (Original work published 2008)

Related post:

Coming of Age as a Detective: Sherlock Holmes in “The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I”*

8 Sep

The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University by Darlene A. Cypser, Foolscap & Quill, 2012.


Following her masterful debut novel, The Crack in the Lens (which I reviewed last year), Darlene Cypser is continuing her psychologically rich Sherlockian prequels in a new Consulting Detective Trilogy.  After young Sherlock’s first run-in with Professor Moriarty (in the previous novel), one which left him bereft of his first love, Violet Rushdale, and almost unhinged from his sanity, the first installment of the trilogy finds him still making only a precarious recovery at home but embarking nevertheless on his university studies at Cambridge, where he must cope with further dramatic events that will form his character and fully reveal his life’s purpose.

The budding field of psychiatry as a branch of medicine is beginning to make its appearance in the latter part of the century, and Cypser takes full advantage of the possibilities in the early chapters of the novel.  Sherlock continues to be physically and emotionally at his lowest ebb as the novel begins. He is suffering from flashbacks of Violet’s death and a cycle of obsessive recrimination and anxiety that we would not hesitate to label post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, today. But more than 100 years ago, a sufferer risked commitment in an asylum that had little hope to offer except for palliative physical care, restraint from self-harm, and the rudiments of counseling for the lucky few who encountered a capable doctor.  While Sherlock struggled at home, he began receiving visits from Dr Mackenzie, one such capable doctor summoned from the asylum to consult about Sherlock’s condition. While Moriarty was nemesis to Sherlock in the first book, in this new novel, Dr Mackenzie fills the role of an anti-Moriarty, proving to be not only a trusted physician but a crucial ally and mentor as Sherlock’s attraction to the sciences—and the science of detection—increases.

However, the doctor’s experimental remedy for Sherlock’s “traumatic neurasthenia,” namely, an injected solution of cocaine, will dog him throughout his life, first as blessing, and then as a persistent and secret curse. But here, in the beginning, it served its purpose, suppressing his anxiety and panic attacks, while fueling his intellectual excitement:  “Sherlock’s loquaciousness [on the train with Mycroft for a holiday] varied as the influence of the drug varied, fading out as it did. His true nature lay somewhere between the extremes” (p. 113).

The novel hits its stride as Sherlock barely begins to find his, as a new member of Sidney Sussex College, which is pictured in foreboding darkness on the book’s attractive cover.  And darkness is surely still haunting Sherlock as he begins his studies in mathematics, living out of college in private rooms. His panic attacks can still be triggered by anything that reminds him of Violet’s death (such as an early snowfall) or unduly taxes his nerves. Fortunately, he has a capable and devoted companion in young Jonathan Beckwith, who accompanies his charge to Cambridge as servant, as fencing pupil and partner (when Sherlock is strong enough), but above all as Sherlock’s only friend, besides Dr. Mackenzie, for many months of self-imposed isolation.  (Jonathan is so engaging and colorful a character that Cypser has announced plans for another mystery trilogy from his point of view.)

Ironically, Sherlock’s first close friendship at university, with classmate Victor Trevor, begins quite unpromisingly with a dangerous bite from Trevor’s dog. (We also glimpse the aloof Reginald Musgrave and his coolness to Holmes.)  But the friendship with Victor develops rapidly during Sherlock’s convalescence; he visits daily and introduces Sherlock to pipe-smoking, which incidentally provides a stimulant and practical alternative to cocaine. At this point, Cypser deftly interpolates her own retelling of “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” from the Conan Doyle canon; as it is told retrospectively by Holmes, this account intersects with the chronology of Cypser’s story of Holmes’s university days. While he spends a holiday with Victor Trevor and Trevor’s father, events precipitate his first solution of a mystery, one calling forth the unique observational and deductive skills he has already demonstrated casually to the amazement of his classmates. But the stakes soon rise to life and death, and Holmes begins to see—as he later affirms—“perhaps I’m not your average man.” He is destined to pursue no average calling but to create his own profession, as the world’s first consulting detective.

It is the business of this novel to unfold for us Sherlock’s early exercise of talent in a new mystery at the university (which I won’t reveal), as well as his change of academic  direction, suiting all his studies to those sciences which will inform and develop his detection skills and build his arsenal of knowledge.  Though not aiming to become a police detective, he is fascinated by police detectives’ work and gets into some nasty scrapes trying to observe it first hand, much too closely for their comfort.  With his prodigious memory, he begins to be a serious student of crime and collects accounts of it. Mycroft sends him clippings from the London papers, and with satisfaction, the reader watches the genesis of his alphabetic file of crime reports, which will come in handy so often, tantalize the reader with names and cases Watson hasn’t yet narrated, and fill Mrs. Hudson with consternation when the mass of riffled clippings is strewn everywhere at 221b…

But all that lies in the future. For now, Sherlock is a young man not quite 20 who must deal with authority figures still wielding much power over his life, whether they are university officials or his own implacable father. It is also the business of this novel to show how he will assert his own choice and begin to follow his “line in life”—which will also be his lifeline, drawing him back from his darkest moods.

In a recent New York Times essay,The Art of the Sequel,” author Andrew Motion considered the proliferation of literary sequels and prequels,  even including an  “I, Sherlock Holmes”  on his facetious list of typical sequel titles. Based on his analysis of some of the most effective sequels, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a sequel to Hamlet) or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre), he offered some pointers to would-be fashioners of such works.  Although it is a tremendous advantage that the characters are already familiar, and possibly beloved, a successful sequel or prequel “allows us to think afresh about characters whose fame can otherwise make them feel inaccessible to new interpretations.”  In other words, it should attempt to add something more to what we already know about them, perhaps surprise us by its revelations, even when we believe we already know a character—say, a complex hero such as Holmes—very well indeed.  Moreover, sequel-writing presupposes a certain playfulness, artfully inserting familiar references, while deploying ingenuity to put the character to a new test. No matter how much we revere a character, Motion argues, “something more than imitation is far more honoring.”

Both of Darlene Cypser’s Sherlockian prequels to date fulfill these criteria.  Her pastiches are not imitation but exploration, and she shows the confidence and command of the canon which enable her to inquire more deeply into Holmes’s formative psychology.  Her latest novel has the hallmarks of a true bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—about a sensitive protagonist, often a youngest son, who suffers loss and undergoes a series of difficult trials that lead to mastery of self and ultimately to maturity.  It can encompass education or other training disciplines, artistic development, and apprenticeships (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship being the classic example). At the end, the hero understands himself better, knows how he might move beyond self to contribute to the world, and is both ready and equipped to do it.

Through psychological insight, swift movement of the plot via effective dialogue, and consistent characterization, Cypser has fashioned a bildungsroman for young Sherlock with great skill.  As goddessinsepia writes, with her usual grace and clear perception,

“By the end of Cypser’s second novel, the reader stands in full knowledge and awareness of the man before them, and you wonder how you missed it, so understated was his development. Where previously there was only the merest hint of the man that would become the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes now stands tall, assembled, if not yet fully-formed.”  [See the rest of her insightful review at her blog Better Holmes and Gardens]

My interest and absorption in this story never flagged, a tribute to Cypser’s high level of craft.  I also enjoyed her humor, for example, when a fellow student observed Sherlock’s easy victory over an opponent who had challenged him to a match with unfamiliar fencing sticks, the bemused spectator remarked, “I don’t think the weapon matters. Holmes could probably thrash any of us with a teaspoon.”  This first installment of The Consulting Detective Trilogy works as mystery fiction, but more than that, it emerges as a fully rounded novel of Sherlock Holmes.

*Note: FTC disclosure. I received a complimentary review copy of this novel. The opinions I’ve expressed are, of course, my own.

  • In my next post, I will review Andrew Motion’s own sequel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island.

Related post:

Further links:

“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (2)

25 Jul

Arabian Nights and Days: A Novel by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. by Denys Johnson-Davies, Doubleday,  1995. (Originally published 1979 in Arabic)

Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton University Press, 2011.

“Shéhérezade” (ballet, 1910), choreography by Mikhail Fokine, The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky [DVD], Kultur, 2002.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade/ Russian Easter Overture [CD]. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting. Telarc, 2001.

In my previous post, reviewing Marina Warner’s exciting new work of cultural criticism, Stranger Magic, I promised to discuss  a few examples of retellings that continue to expand Scheherazade’s legacy. The  corpus of such retellings and variations is truly a measureless “sea of stories,” to borrow a bit of the title from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an illustrious example of this genre of storytelling art. One reader of my review of Warner, Ray Wilcockson, cited Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882), a collection of Stevenson’s earliest stories that flowed from his own excitement over reading the Arabian Nights and which adapted its connected structure for his own modern tales. Warner mentions Stevenson, along with many other writers whose work has been prompted and inspired by the Arabian Nights. She recommends Robert Irwin’s excellent survey of such works in his chapter, “Children of the Nights” (in his book, The Arabian Nights: A Companion).

I will write about two books, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and Whatever Gets You Through the Night by Andrei Codrescu.  These two caught my attention because of their focus on Scheherazade herself and their further exploration of the frame story of The Arabian Nights. I will also consider the most famous musical exposition of the character of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korskov’s (1888) symphonic suite, and how the ballet later choreographed to that music diverged from the composer’s conception. 


The Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobelist in literature,  is probably best known for his Cairo Trilogy (in Arabic; published in English with the titles Palace WalkPalace of Desire, and Sugar Street). I was delighted to read his later novel Arabian Nights and Days, which is a sophisticated retelling of the Nights’ frame story and some of its important tales.  Mahfouz refashions the stories to bring new insight into the characters of Shahrzad and Shahriyar (as they are spelled in Denys Johnson-Davies’ spare, yet mellifluous translation); they must truly grapple with the implications of all that gone before the moment when Shahrzad’s storytelling begins. Mahfouz connects each tale to the one that follows with seamless logic and suspense, and he brings greater depth even to such figures as Ma’rouf the Cobbler, Ugr the Barber, and, of course, Aladdin and Sindbad. But for me, the most arresting moment came when he implicitly asked the novelistic question, how would Shahrzad feel when she achieved her “victory” over the Sultan? His examination of this question plumbs new depths latent in one of the most well-known stories in world literature.

Before we see Shahrzad, Mahfouz shows us her father, the sultan’s vizier Dandan.  In the three years that his daughter has been suspending Shahriyar’s death sentence with her entrancing stories, the vizier’s anxiety has not been suspended–quite the opposite. Each morning he would go to the palace, waiting to discover if this dawn would be Shahrzad’s last.  On this day, “the heart of a father quaked within him” because he knew Shahrzad had done the unthinkable–she had ended her tale and her own fate must be decided one way or the other.

Dandan found Shahriyar alone, contemplating the first hints of sunrise:  he says,”It is our wish that Shahrzad remain our wife. …Her stories are white magic…They open up worlds that invite reflection” (p. 2). When the Sultan continues, announcing that Shahrazad gave him a son and brought peace to his “troubled spirits,” the vizier wishes him happiness now and in the hereafter. This innocent blessing triggers a biting response–the Sultan dismisses the notion of happiness and puzzles over existence itself. In this way, we are given the first hint that although death is forestalled, “happily ever after” may not come as easily.

Next the vizier seeks out his daughter. Her response to her reprieve is complex and profound, even though it unfolds in a brief exchange that barely takes up two pages. Shahrzad acknowledges that by “the Lord’s mercy” her life has been spared and the young women of the city–those remaining–are no longer in peril, but at the cost of her happiness: “’I sacrificed myself,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘in order to stem the torrent of blood’” (p. 3).  The vizier protests that the Sultan now loves her and that love works miracles, but Shahrzad answers  that, “Arrogance and love do not come together in one heart” and, most devastating of all, “Whenever he approaches me I breathe the smell of blood” (p. 4).

Mahfouz has seemingly told the end at the beginning, but is it really the end? As his brilliantly refashioned cycle of tales nears its conclusion, Shahriyar becomes prominent again as the auditor of Sindbad’s tales of his voyages, told by Sindbad himself as fables of the wisdom he won along the way. Shahriyar persistently queries him as if his (Shahriyar’s) life depended on the answers. Sindbad finishes and Shahriyar retreats to his lush flower garden, pacing and remembering, his mind in turmoil and his heart gripped by weariness and disgust at his life–at the follies of life itself. He summons Shahrzad for a new dialogue–one not known to the ancient tradition but equally fateful, and full of truths as ancient as humanity. He confesses his need for repentance and reveals that he has known all along of her that “your body approaches while your heart turns away.” In a masterful stroke, Mahfouz’s Shahriyar asserts that he kept Shahrzad close to him as a reproach–“I found in your aversion a continued torment that I deserved” (p. 217). Shahrzad weeps, her heart melting perhaps for the first time in his presence, and he sees at once that this weeping means more than all the pretense of her love up to that point.  He vows to renounce his kingdom and wander in search of wisdom and meaning, leaving his son, with Shahrzad’s counsel, to rule more wisely than he did. Now it is Shahrzad’s turn to see the bitter irony of this sudden decision–“You are spurning me as my heart opens to you. …It is an opposing destiny that is mocking us” (p. 218).

I hope readers of this blog will forgive the “spoilers” I have felt necessary to include. I shall leave one last surprise unspoken–what Shahriyar discovers on his quest for truth. But I wanted to disclose this much to make clear what a tour de force this new resolution of the frame story represents. Mahfouz’s alternative frame story refuses to find Shahriyar’s healing at the point when he rescinds the order of execution. No, that will not be enough to cure a soul that has strayed so far. Shahrzad feels this in her own heart, but she has done all she can do. She carries the wounds of all the sacrificed wives who preceded her, and now she too is in need of healing. Only Shahriyar’s act of atonement1 can change the equation. And with amazing poignance, it is only at the moment when the Sultan decides to leave Shahrzad that their real love story begins. 



NPR contributor and prolific writer Andrei Codrescu offers a retelling, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, that could hardly be more different from Mahfouz’s in tone and aims. Mahfouz is spare and restrained, recounting events and suggesting feelings and motivations with great economy. Codrescu is expansive (his Sheherezad doesn’t appear until page 46!), revelling in digression and comment, in voluminous marginal notes that can sometimes ring the main text in small type.  In his ironic, punning treatment of the stories and in his commentary, he reveals his attitudes toward the gender politics of the stories as well as the whole historical enterprise of translating and transmitting the tales. Twenty-three different epigraphs, arranged together before the main text, quote sources ranging from Wikipedia to rival translators Richard Francis Burton and Husain Haddawy to critic J. Hillis Miller to the Rolling Stone, announcing that this retelling will be openly conscious of all the textual history that has gone before.  A preface of sorts includes these observations on Sheherezade:

“We are bound to tell her story no matter what our postmodern wishes or rebellious inclinations might tell us: simply pronouncing her name invokes her. When she appears, like the Genie in the bottle of literature that she is, we must obey the order of her stories [he doesn’t]; this is the exact opposite of the Genii and Genies who are freed or imprisoned in the bottles of her characters, who must obey their liberators….” (p. 1)

This passage is characteristic of Codrescu and of the experience of reading this book: expect trenchant observations delivered with irreverence, skepticism, and a winking eye. Also expect the story will linger on lurid details of the murders of the Sultan’s previous wives and explicit description of the sexual situations implicit in the story. This text attempts to startle the reader into taking a fresh look at an old narrative tradition. Within that tradition, Codrescu aligns his sympathy more nearly with Burton, whose titillating translation, cloaked in archaic language, fed a certain late-Victorian appetite, especially his own.

Codrescu makes crucial archetypal connections between Scheherazade and figures such as Penelope and Ariadne, as in this brilliant synthesis:

“Sheherezade’s job was to be like Ariadne to make the King believe that she was showing him the way out of the labyrinth of his insecurity and cruelty, while weaving [like Penelope] at the same time a labyrinth from which he could never escape to kill again.” (p. 97)

The net that is woven is an erotic one, but oddly Sheherezade herself is sidelined in favor of her sister, Dinarzad. The storytelling ménage à trois becomes a sexual pas de deux between the two listeners, Sharyar and Dinarzad, whose dalliance fails to reach its climax just as each story’s ending is postponed.

Codrescu offers what he calls the “unpopular” ending, one in which he posits there was no baby, no reconciliation of the Sultan to women, and, therefore, no pardon for his Sheherezade; he prefers to believe that the stories had no end and we can listen in whenever we choose.  In fact we need to listen, trancelike, he argues, because we cannot face our lives without entertainment. Thus, he concludes with an extended meditation on media culture where we are “angry mass-Sharyars” and “terrified when you are silent” (p. 173).  All of this does end up being intriguing and a very modern deconstructive performance, but I confess that I preferred Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days, which explored more deeply the redemptive core of the Nights, while preserving the echoes of the imaginative realms that gave it birth.



I was going to write at length about Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeously melodic symphonic suite of Scheherazade and compare it with Mikhail Fokine’s popular Scheherazade ballet of 1910, set to some of its music, and with a new libretto by Léon Bakst and Fokine. (Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow was apparently quite unhappy with the rearrangement of the score.) Despite its name,  the ballet dramatizes only events occurring before the intervention of Scheherazade, namely, the infidelity of the Sultan’s first wife. Most of the dancing is a sensuous, extended duet between Zobeide2 (the wife) and a “Golden Slave”–in Fokine’s Ballet Russes choreography, this role was a vehicle for the superlative genius of Vaslav Nijinsky.



Unfortunately, Scheherazade’s recurring narration from bed does not lend itself easily to having her dance!   Ahh, but I see the night grows short, this post is already very long, and I must stop for now and send you to meet the musical Scheherazade for yourself in the lyrical space beyond words…


  1.  In this connection, I highly recommend Phil Cousineau’s Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement (Jossey-Bass, 2011), which collects essays from diverse authors on ways to move from words of repentance or forgiveness toward atoning actions which may potentially heal both parties.
  2.  I recommend a performance of Fokine’s ballet in The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (DVD), but be aware that the back-cover text incorrectly identifies the principal female role (danced by Svetlana Zakharova) as Shehérézade instead of Zobeide.

Related post:


“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (1)

10 Jul

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.



If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did.  Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one.  Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources.  Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,”  “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission.  For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.


As Warner says,  the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade.  Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting.  Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer!  Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!




[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]

Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill.  One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis).   As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London,  where it is exhibited.



The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419).  This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself.  Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.

What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world?  Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.”  She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel  García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others.  She writes:

“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)

She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).

As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing.  The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…

Related posts:

In and “Out of Oz”: Dorothy in the “Wicked Years” series

2 Jun

Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire, illus. by Douglas Smith. HarperCollins, 2011.


Dorothy, the beloved character created at the turn of the 20th-century by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, makes pivotal appearances in all four volumes of Gregory Maguire’s inspired refashioning of the Oz world, his “Wicked Years” series.  She does not hold center stage, however, in these books which are a brilliant exercise in empathy for the “Wicked” witch, Elphaba Thropp,  and her descendants.  These books imaginatively alter an already alternate universe, and transform a classic of children’s fantasy literature–also widely appreciated by adults–into a sometimes quite disturbing fantasy fiction for adults. In this alternate history, Dorothy Gale still comes in and out of Oz, on and off the stage, at crucial times and much of the story could never exist without her.


Dorothy’s first visit to Oz comes along rather late in Wicked (2004), which introduced Elphaba’s family, chronicled her childhood, and sent her to college in the Gillikin town of Shiz where she unwillingly shared a room with Galinda (later Glinda) and began to learn about the politics of Oz and where she would stand on them.  For one thing, she championed the cause of the free, sentient, talking Animals (always capitalized, as in Lion). She also came to recognize the tyranny of the Emerald City over the other regions of Oz, which were exploited by its leader the Wizard.  After their college years were over, Elphaba began to act, in secret, as an agent of the resistance to the Wizard. 

Dorothy’s arrival from Kansas in the twister-propelled house killed Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who had become the leader of Munchkinland.  Here the story begins to intersect recognizably with Baum’s tale.  Glinda gave Nessarose’s magical slippers to Dorothy, enraging Elphaba, who retreated again to a castle deep in the western region of Oz, the Vinkus (Winkie country). This place was the family home of Fiyero, Elphaba’s only love and father of her son Liir; Fiyero was killed by the Wizard’s secret police who were after her.  While Dorothy and her motley companions walked the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard, Elphaba learned sorcery from the Grimmerie, a magic text which had attracted the Wizard to Oz in the first place.

Dorothy had apparently accepted the Wizard’s charge to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, but in Maguire’s telling, she had no such intention, but journeyed there to apologize to Elphaba for killing her sister with the falling house. Elphaba had become embittered by many griefs and their meeting was confrontational and disastrous. Elphaba’s skirts were set on fire and Dorothy threw the bucket of water to douse the flames and save her, but this melted and killed her instead.


The next book, Son of a Witch (2005), tells Liir’s story (with flashbacks to fill in gaps) from the death of Elphaba to the birth of his own daughter.  Dorothy’s role is brief. She took him with her back to the Emerald City and Liir developed a crush of sorts on the odd Kansas farmgirl. Perhaps her being so out of place in Oz spoke to his own sense of disconnection with all that had happened to him.


A Lion Among Men  recounts Dorothy’s first visit to Oz from the view point of Sir Brrr, otherwise known as the Cowardly Lion. But it spans more of his life than this one episode, and thereby reveals more of his character, in keeping with the series’ ethos of respecting intelligent Animals.  

In the final volume, Out of Oz, Dorothy returns to Oz, this time in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906! (This reference to the quake in popular culture has already found its way into the wikipedia article on the event.) Auntie Em and Uncle Henry have taken Dorothy on a trip west from Kansas, in hopes that the change of scene will help cure Dorothy of her persistent delusional talk about Oz!  Maguire manipulates the chronology deftly: From 1900 (publication of Baum’s first Oz book) to 1906 is 6 years and Dorothy has aged from 10 at her first visit to 16 for her second. Meanwhile, about 16 years have passed in Oz (leading to jokes  where Dorothy agrees that time passes slowly–very slowly–in Kansas).  Most of the book follows the coming-of-age adventures of Rain, Liir’s daughter and thus Elphaba’s granddaughter.  The best Oz stories have a child at their heart and Maguire’s concluding tale is no different in that respect. The Cowardly Lion is likewise one of Rain’s faithful companions and provides a necessary link between the first and last books and between Baum’s storyworld and Maguire’s. 


Some of the key plot elements (the war of rebellion in Oz) and several of the characters (including Tip, Mombey, Ozma, and Jinjuria) in Out of Oz mirror those in Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). Of Baum’s fourteen Oz novels, this is the only one in which Dorothy doesn’t appear. However, Maguire gives her an important role, especially in the centerpiece murder trial, “The Judgment of Dorothy.”  Revealing how that came out would be a *spoiler* indeed!

Instead of revealing more of Maguire’s well-crafted plot, let me consider instead how he portrays Dorothy in this series and how his attitude toward her differs from Baum’s. Given how she is described by the narrator and how other characters speak of her, she is an ungainly child, “not a dainty thing but a good-size farm girl,” (Wicked, p. 3), and an even more awkward teenager.  Rather than fitting Baum illustrator John R. Neill’s winsome vision…  


she seems much closer to the stocky miss imagined by her first illustrator, W. W. Denslow. 


She is saccharine, “misguidedly cheerful,” given to inappropriate singing, apparently stupid, and clearly a menace! In the prologue to Wicked, Elphaba finds her sympathy patronizing. While naive and guileless, she has a definite presence, especially during her trial:

Aha, thought Brrr, there it is: she has graduated to Miss Dorothy. In her zanily earnest way, she’s commanding the respect of her enemies despite themselves. Brrr would never call it charisma but oh, Dorothy had charm of a sort, for sure. (Out of Oz, p. 294)

Her best qualities came out in her desire to make amends and her insistence on helping Rain. But in the end, for Maguire, Dorothy’s life, despite its adventures and calamities (she was an orphan), was not touched to the same degree by the sorrows and tragedies that characterized the Wicked clan. Her disposition was so incredible to the Ozians that they imagined at one point that she must be an assassin, disguised “as a gullible sweetheart.”  Baum prized Dorothy’s innocent goodness, her wide-eyed, doughty good humor, but in the Wicked universe (our universe?), it became almost an affront to the inhabitants laboring under so much pain. The onslaught of sorrows broke Elphaba’s spirit, left Liir perplexed, and made Rain cry for “the whole pitfall of it, the stress and mercilessness of incident” (p. 421). Even Glinda was imprisoned and suffered during the war.  The gentle satire of Dorothy’s “soapy character” makes it clear that this author would not choose her outlook, but instead felt greater affinity for Elphaba above all, whose tortured spirit never really leaves the saga for long.


“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.


For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.



G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)



Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.


  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

Related posts

Lazarillo de Tormes: A Precursor of Don Quixote

14 Mar


The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (trans. by W. S. Merwin; intro. by Juan Goytisolo). New York: New York Review of Books, 2005.

In the Spanish novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, Lazaro tells the story of his life, or rather unwinds the string of “fortunes and adversities” he experienced in the service of a series of difficult masters. He is the picaro,  and the genre which his story inaugurated is the picaresque.  Authorship is unknown but the book was published in Spain and the Netherlands in 1554. Satirizing certain church figures and their abuses, it was banned and listed by the Inquisition.  Here is one of its early title pages, from Burgos. 


Lazaro’s story runs only 118 pages in poet W. S. Merwin’s adept 1962 translation; in one or two delectable gulps, one can easily digest a work that is rewarding in itself and also one of the major precursors of Don QuixoteLazaro’s parents were often in trouble themselves, so the boy had to leave his mother’s home early and manage as best he could as the servant of a blind beggar.  This man beat him and taught him how to survive in a world that only seemed to offer similar treatment whatever the station of those doling it out. After barely escaping this first master with his life, he serves, in turn, a priest, a squire, a friar, a seller of indulgences (also known as a pardoner), a chaplain, and a constable.  His third master, the squire, is the kindest and also the most important in terms of the story’s legacy for literature. 

The squire is a penniless and starving nobleman and, as his servant, Lazaro covers for his master’s down-at-heels condition and begs door-to-door to obtain food for them both.  In their conversations, we have the germ of Don Quixote and Sancho, the impractical hidalgo and his more sensible companion.

“Lazaro, it’s late, … Let’s get along as best we can, and tomorrow, once the daylight is here, God will be good to us. I’m all by myself so I hadn’t got anything laid in; I’ve been eating out for the last three days. But now we’ll have to make other arrangements.”

“Oh, as for me, sir,” I said, “set your mind at rest. I’m capable of going without food for a night, or even longer if necessary.”

“You’ll live longer and keep your health better,” he answered. “Because as we were saying, there’s nothing in the world like eating little to make you live long.”

“If that’s the way of it,” I said to myself, “I’ll live forever, because I’ve kept that rule religiously, and for that matter I expect I’ll have the bad luck to keep it for the rest of my life.” (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, pp. 62-63)

But whereas Lazaro moves on alone, to suffer more mishaps with new employers, Cervantes makes his pair of Don Quixote and Sancho undergo most adventures as a unit, confronting the villains and tricksters they meet on the road as a team.



Don Quixote is not a picaresque novel, nor is its hero a picaro, any more than it is a straightforward chivalric romance, the other genre that Alonso Quexana addled his brains with and Cervantes used, parodied, and transformed.  Cervantes’ novel expands and defies genre; it is too self-conscious for romance and too subtle in conception for picaresque.  Lazarillo de Tormes is specifically mentioned in chapter XXII of the First Part of Don Quixote, by Gines  de Pasamonte, one of the chain gang of galley slaves that Don Quixote has freed. Gines announces that he is writing The Life of Gines de Pasamonte, and brags that, “It is so good, that it’s too bad for Lazarillo de Tormes and all other books of that genre that have been or will be written” (Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman, p. 169).

If the list of Lazaro’s masters reminds you of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, this is no accident, since Lazarillo de Tormes represents a link between medieval tales and the novels which were soon to follow, beginning with Don Quixote. As Juan Goytisolo points out in his Introduction to Lazarillo, Lazaro learns and changes over the course of his adventures, unlike the protagonists of medieval tales who tended to illustrate fixed traits (e.g., patient Griselda).

Don Quixote is often cited, quite rightly, as an important influence on Mark Twain, but Twain’s greatest work also bears comparison with Lazarillo. Huckleberry Finn tells his story in the first person, as Lazaro does, and Huck is closer to the hungry, penniless boy Lazaro than to the courtly, lovestruck Don.  However, when Huck joins forces with Jim, their partnership both pays tribute to Cervantes’ immortal duo and gives new dimension to the pairing of unfortunate heroes.

The House of Silk (Review): Dr. Watson’s “one last portrait of Mr. Sherlock Holmes…”

14 Nov

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz. New York: Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2011.


The House of Silk is one of those books whose publication becomes an event, one that creates a great deal of anticipation. It is the first Sherlock Holmes novel authorized by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, entrusted with the canon of original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels and, therefore, the caretaker of a legend. Whatever the skills and prior credits of the new novel’s author, Anthony Horowitz–and he does possess those credits as a novelist and screenwriter–the task must have been a formidable burden and opportunity.

I opened this book with some excitement. I consider myself, in some small way, as another champion and caretaker of the Sherlock Holmes legend. His character means a great deal to me and I continue to follow and chronicle his career in the world. New books and films describing further adventures of Holmes keep this greatest of private consulting detectives before the public eye. So many such books appear each year that it is helpful to have a guide to the best of them, so I read with interest when new pastiches are recommended by Better Holmes & Gardens or John H Watson MD (himself!), among others. Yet before it was even written, Horowitz’s novel commanded attention by its special status. Let me say right now: that attention is not wasted. Readers will find a mystery that is carefully constructed and boldly conceived, and, most important, it offers a Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. Watson whom we can recognize as our own beloved figures.

As I go on, rest easy that this review will be very light on *Spoilers*, alluding to just a few of those “strange and interesting features” [FIVE] of the case that might lead an astute reader to deduce plot elements in Holmesian fashion.

The book begins with deceptive calm. At the end of it, I can say that it almost felt like two books: first, a leisurely reintroduction to the world of 221B Baker Street and 1890s London, establishing the reader’s confidence in the author’s command of his characters–their history, their mannerisms–through a careful web of references to the canon; but second, an avowedly “shocking” mystery that suddenly took off at breakneck speed. Perhaps that’s how it would have seemed to Holmes and Watson as well, living inside the novel.

From his entrance, Holmes behaves much as we would expect him to, employing his usual phrases (e.g., “Pray continue.”) in just the right places (when a client or witness is sharing his or her story). He gives several of those casual, but extraordinary performances of his deductive skills which have astonished his clients and Dr. Watson’s readers from the start. Expect to look for Holmes in disguise. Expect him to be in some peril, as he seeks to prevent others from falling prey to great evil. Expect Holmes to ask and Dr. Watson to bring his revolver. Yet there is both newness and nuance in the presentation of familiar tropes. For one thing, Sherlock Holmes shows a new awareness of the implications of using the Baker Street Irregulars, feeling acutely his responsibility for putting them in the path of greater criminality than they might otherwise have encountered even on the backstreets of London.

The case itself may make the novel controversial, because of the picture it paints of those involved and the scope of the crime. All will hinge on discovering the truth behind “The House of Silk.” Yet Horowitz is on solid ground in relying on the fact that what was shocking to Watson–too deplorable to appear among his published chronicles–would still be shocking now. Crime is disturbing and Holmes never flinched when he could combat it. I can only say that the conduct of the case pits him against some truly formidable opponents and reveals some surprising allies.

Yet for me, the most important contribution of this novel is its sensitive portrait of Dr. John Watson. Watson is on his own during much of the story, as he was in The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is true on two levels. First, he is separated from Holmes for much of the investigation. He admits (along with Inspector Lestrade) that Holmes’s virtuosity was at times intimidating and dampened his own powers to reason and act effectively. In this case, Watson has room to do his best, and then some. But more than that, we learn the poignant fact that Watson is writing this story after Holmes’s death, and while he himself is being attended by nurses in his later years. Watson’s superb Preface establishes immediately an extremely intimate voice. He looks back at “the great turning point in my life” when he met a young Sherlock Holmes and reviews their time together. He decides to “take up his pen one final time” not only to present a startling case that has been kept secret, but to show another side of his friend and, vicariously, through the medium of authorship, to prolong the moments he can spend in his extraordinary company. He is doubly sad when the story must conclude, and with it, his renewed companionship on the page.

I too welcome Horowitz’s engaging novel, especially for the gift of time spent in the company of Holmes and Watson, and I highly recommend it.

Further reading:

Let me also recommend to your attention a few other reviews of the novel. These reviews point out  a variety of canonical Holmesian references in their analyses of Horowitz’s story, so one may wish to read the novel first to discover them on one’s own.



Steinbeck’s Malory I: “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”

23 Aug


“Perhaps a passionate love for the English language opened to me from this one book.” ~John Steinbeck, Introduction to The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976)

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur meant this much to Steinbeck, and more. If ever there was a love story of knightly proportions, it was this adventure of his lifelong relationship to the 15th-century Arthurian classic. He first swore fealty to it when he was 9–or, “whan of IX wyntre age,” as he would later pen in his moving dedication to his sister Mary. He confesses (in his Introduction) to some difficulty when he first faced the task of reading: “words–written or printed–were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies.” Then a magical thing happened. His aunt gave him a cut copy of William Caxton’s Morte d’Arthur (first published in 1485) in bold, black print and with the original spellings intact.  The mystery of words such as hyght and cleave, fyaunce and yclept, drew him into a secret world with a secret language, one he shared only with his “squire,” his 6-year-old sister (in the dedication he raises her to full knighthood). He was held by their enchantment–”oddly enough I knew the words from whispering them to myself,” he recalled. These tales convinced him of their solid human reality, and he discovered in their scenes

“all the vices that ever were–and courage and sadness and frustration, but particularly gallantry. I think my sense of right and wrong, my feeling of noblesse oblige, and any thought I may have against the oppressor and for the oppressed, came from this secret book.”

Malory’s panorama of life sustained Steinbeck through childhood and inspired careful research and devoted investigation of its sources in adulthood. Finally, in 1956, Steinbeck, the successful novelist, allowed himself the privilege of turning his whole attention upon his first love and undertaking the great task of fashioning his own version of Malory, somewhere between a translation and a retelling. From his letters, we know that he continued working on it until 1965. It was unfinished at his death in 1968, but his manuscript was published by his wife Elaine in 1976, along with an Appendix of his letters from that period (edited by Chase Horton) which chart his research and writing process in illuminating detail.


The stories included in this book are a tremendous treasure, and we are lucky to have them. I chose to read Steinbeck’s stories first before referring to the letters, in order to form my own impressions, but I did refer to Malory along the way for comparison, to see how he remolded the language and to look for Steinbeck’s alterations and expansions. (Malory, of course, was retelling the Arthurian cycle as he knew it from the “Frensshe” books of Chrétien de Troyes and others.) Although Steinbeck’s first love was Caxton’s printing of Malory’s text, his research and discussions with Arthurian scholars, such as Eugène Vinaver, led him to adopt the Winchester manuscript of Malory as his foundational text for “translation.” He felt it was closer to Malory’s own phrasing and had not gone through the filter of whatever editing or cutting Caxton had chosen to do.  The Winchester manuscript (abridged, with modernized spellings) is available to the general reader in an Oxford World Classics edition.


Since I hope to convey my appreciation of Steinbeck’s telling, I will share a few of these comparisons, and then take up the romance of his writing process by considering what the letters reveal in a second post (see Steinbeck’s Malory II: The Writing of “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights”).

Steinbeck’s Malory tells seven tales: “Merlin,” which recounts Arthur’s birth, and ascension to kingship; “The Knight with Two Swords,” the story of Balin and his twin Balan; “The Wedding of King Arthur,” which also includes an early quest of Sir Gawain; “The Death of Merlin,” from his own folly, and through the craft of the sorceress Nyneve; “Morgan Le Fay”; “Gawain, Ewain, and Marhalt”; and “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.” Steinbeck felt that Malory’s writing grew in sophistication as his work proceeded, and correspondingly, Steinbeck adds more of his own observations and expansions of incidents in the later stories, especially in the tale of Lancelot. However, even in such an early incident as the appearance of Merlin to Sir Ulfius, Steinbeck added to Malory’s report of the incident.

First, Malory [Ref. 2, p. 4]:

[King Uther Pendragon:] ‘I am sick for anger, and for love of fair Igraine, that I may not be whole.’

‘Well, my lord,’ said Sir Ulfius, ‘I shall seek Merlin, and he shall do you remedy, that your heart shall be pleased.’

So Ulfius departed. And by adventure he met Merlin in a beggar’s array, and there Merlin asked Ulfius whom he sought; and he said he had little ado to tell him.

‘Well,’ said Merlin, ‘I know whom thou seekest, for thou seekest Merlin; therfore seek no further, for I am he….’

Now, Steinbeck [Ref. 1, p. 4]:

[King Uther Pendragon:] “I am sick from anger and from love and there are no medicines for those.”

“My lord,” Sir Ulfius said, “I shall go in search of Merlin the Wizard. That wise and clever man can brew a remedy to make your heart glad.” And Sir Ulfius rode out to look for Merlin.

Now Merlin was a wise and subtle man with strange and secret powers of prophecy and those deceptions of the ordinary and the obvious which are called magic. Merlin knew the winding channels of the human mind, and also he was aware that a simple open man is most receptive when he is mystified, and Merlin delighted in mystery. Therefore, as if by chance, the searching knight Sir Ulfius came upon a ragged beggar in his path who asked him who he sought.

The knight was not accustomed to be questioned by such a one, and he did not deign to reply.

Then the ragged man laughed and said, “There’s no need to tell me. I know. You are looking for Merlin, Look no further. I am Merlin.”

“You–? You are a beggar,” said Sir Ulfius.

Merlin chuckled at his joke. “I am also Merlin,” he said.

Steinbeck chose carefully those phrases with which to modernize and clarify the incident, but his biggest change was his narrative aside, commenting on the psychology of Merlin and the knight. (Interestingly, I now see that Sherlock Holmes was a Merlin among detectives, who knew how to mystify his clients upon first meeting with his powers of observation, and thereby gain the most from the initial interview.) As I read Steinbeck’s Malory, whenever I came upon certain psychological insights such as this one, I guessed that they were more like Steinbeck, the novelist, than Malory, the brilliant, but terse storyteller.

Steinbeck sometimes put these psychological enhancements into the mouth of a character, or into a little dialogue not found in Malory. After Arthur’s fight with King Pellinore, Arthur bemoaned his defeat and the loss of his sword and wondered how he could still consider himself a knight. Merlin answered him,

“…there is more to a king than a crown, and far more to a knight than a sword. You were a knight when you grappled Pellinore unarmed.”

“And he defeated me.”

“You were a knight,” said Merlin. “Somewhere in the world there is defeat for everyone. Some are destroyed by defeat, and some made small and mean by victory. Greatness lives in one who triumphs equally over defeat and victory. But you want a sword. Very well, you shall have one….” [Steinbeck, p. 44]

And the story continued with the revelation of Excalibur and its magic scabbard.

When Merlin disclosed to Arthur that his, Merlin’s, death was near, Arthur wondered why Merlin could not use his arts to save himself from an end he could foresee. In Malory, Merlin simply said, “Nay, it cannot be.” But Steinbeck (p. 99) let Merlin explain, “Because I am wise. In the combat between wisdom and feeling, wisdom never wins.” Merlin then connected his own downfall to Arthur’s foretold future, one where he would let feeling lead him on to his fate. In these early stories, Steinbeck felt a special kinship to Merlin, a wise man betrayed by passions, as he looked back over his own life. Later he would find his heart and soul in the story of Lancelot, the exceedingly noble and flawed knight, the best of them all.

Steinbeck began to give himself greater scope in his treatment of “The Noble Tale of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.” At its opening, he chose to reflect longer than Malory did about the paradoxical problem of knights who seek peace but are trained only for war and therefore become restless. Tournaments among the Knights of the Round Table answered this need, but for Sir Lancelot, “a stringless bow,” they were not enough and he set off in quest of knightly adventure, with his nephew Lyonel as squire. In an amusing creation of his own, Steinbeck had Guinevere suggest this idea in conversation with Arthur, who in turn allowed Lancelot to come to the necessary conclusion apparently on his own.

When Lancelot slept beneath an apple tree, and was abducted by four queens–who, including Morgan Le Fay, were also four witches–Steinbeck expanded the story greatly, as each queen elaborately pled her suit to have Lancelot choose her. Likewise, in the adventure where Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay exchanged shields, just a few words between them alter the entire motivation and bring out Lancelot’s newfound compassion for the other knight. In another episode (involving a lady, her hawk, and a trap set by her husband) Steinbeck went beyond the plain facts and straightforward emotions as Malory laid them out, delved into Lancelot’s thoughts, and added his psychological commentary (p. 277):

“As he went along his way he thought in saddened wonder about the man he had killed. Why was his hatred so great against Lancelot, who had done him no harm? He was innocent of those passions of jealousy which cause a small man to destroy what others admire, nor had he so far in his life felt the self-loathing that makes a man revenge himself on a world he blames for his own inadequacies.”

When Sir Lancelot at last returned to the court at Winchester, he resumed his “gold-lettered seat” at the Round Table and had to listen to the litany of his knightly deeds (p. 287). Wearily, he dozed as the stories grew in proportion to his fame, “exalted beyond his recognition,” and he wished to be anywhere else at that moment. He had reached the point where a man “becomes the receptacle of the wishful longings of the world,” and yet he was still alive. He found it most difficult to be a living legend. Steinbeck’s tale ended as Lancelot’s longing for Guinevere first overcame his loyalties with a betrayal, thus making the final quote from Malory both poignant and ironic (p. 293):

“And so at that tyme sir Lancelot had

the grettyste name of ony knyght of the worlde,

and moste he was honoured of hyghe and lowe.”


Sadly, Steinbeck did not finish the story of Arthur nor did he write the Story of the Grail, the Sangreall. I would have dearly loved to see his treatment of this ultimate quest and his characterization of Sir Perceval. Perceval was the Arthurian character I chose for The Fictional 100, a character who has inspired the literature of several languages, as well as the musical language of opera.

Writing this book became a quest for him (see Steinbeck’s Malory II). It was one of the last, heroic acts of the noble Knyght, Jehan Stynebec de Montray. Here is his signature, in his own script, with which he concluded the book’s dedication.




1. Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights: From the Winchester Manuscripts of Thomas Malory and Other Sources  (Ed. by Chase Horton). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Includes an Appendix of his letters about this project from November 1956 to July 1965.

  • A Penguin paperback edition (2008) makes this book, complete with Steinbeck’s letters, readily available again. It includes a new introduction by fantasy novelist Christopher Paolini.

2. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Ed. by Helen Cooper). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. An abridged selection of Malory’s stories, with updated spellings.

3. Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur (Intro. by Elizabeth Bryan). New York: Modern Library, 1994. Complete Caxton text in one volume, with modernized spellings. It also has Caxton’s Book and Chapter headings, which are tremendously useful for finding particular episodes.

Related post:


  • Visit Bibliographing for another Classics Circuit post on The Acts of King Arthur

Other stops on the Steinbeck Classics Circuit today:


Words And Peace

my book reviews and good books to read

Heloise Merlin's Weblog

Virtual people read books, too!

Savidge Reads

The Chronicles of a Book Addict

The Classics Club

A Community of Classics Lovers

Fleur in her World

Notes from a bookish life on the Cornish coast ...

Random Bits of Fascination

Creating Characters with Character

France Book Tours

France Virtual Book Tours: a promotional tool to connect authors with bloggers with a passion for France

Cambridge Library Collection Blog

Heritage Books, selected by scholars and carefully restored for readers worldwide

Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly

Melissa Ridley Elmes

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne

The Shakespeare blog

Some of my best friends are fictional...

Art As Worship

Artists describing how their work is an expression of their spirituality

Katherine's Atelier

creativity & the humanities


Jane Austen's life, times and works explained and discussed

ReginaJeffers's Blog

Every Woman Dreams...

Some of my best friends are fictional...

Judy Clement Wall

Writer. Doodler. Love Warrior.

Faith Hope & Cherrytea

inspiring and inspiriting ...

Suko's Notebook

Some of my best friends are fictional...

Between the Covers

"To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting." --Edmund Burke

Joy's Book Blog

Some of my best friends are fictional...


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,219 other followers