Sunday, March 14, 2010

The beating of wings, candlelight and a game

When I started my reread of Neverwhere a couple weeks ago. I noticed the quotes Gaiman gives the reader at the beginning of the novel and thought it might be worth thinking about them a bit.

"I have never been to St. John's Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood red cup and the beating of the wings of an eagle."

The first quote is from G.K. Chesterton's
The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Which is a brilliant choice to allude to. Chesterton's novels blend the fantastical and the real in fascinating and disturbing ways, and although he was writing at the turn of the last century, I am always stunned by how modern Chesterton's books feel. The Napoleon of Notting Hill takes place in a future London (1984) that is much like the London of 1904, when it was written, but it is just a bit off. By agreement and lack of interest the England, which seems to have amassed more empire in the intervening years, now choice a king by alphabetical drawing. There are many analogous interests in the story. The people of London seem to have become entrenched in the ordinary, accepting of their class system and social roles. Clerk Auberon Quin is made king, and being of a whimsical (and possibly mad) nature starts requiring the provosts of the various districts of London to dress in obscure and antiquated ways. As king he also makes up some fairly fantastical histories related to London place names.

The relationship to a fantastical London in which the place names are tied to different histories than we might expect is clear. I think there is more. I confess I am a fan of Chesterton but had not read The Napoleon of Notting Hill, I am about half way through now. I have long reading history with especially The Man Who was Thursday but also The Man Who Knew Too Much and even Father Brown. It struck me how often Chesterton uses the word nightmare. Both Chesterton's worlds and Gaiman's worlds take on a nightmare-like quality in the true sense of a dream the feels real but in which normal things are displaced, distorted or somehow menacing. Both also freely mix humor with societal or personal events that are much more terrifying like say anarchists or murder. Both writers unapologetically take you to that place that is familiar and frightening and fantastic without explaining or making things easy for the reader which, I think, is a mark of respect for the reader, not to explain too much.

The second quote is the 14th century Lyke Wake Dirge from north Yorkshire

If ever thou gavest hosen or shoon
Then every night and all
Sit thou down and put them on
And Christ receive thy soul

This aye night, this aye night
Every night and all
Fire and fleet and candlelight
And Christ receive thy soul

If ever though gavest meat or drink
Then every night and all
The fire shall never make thee shrink
And Christ receive thy soul

The portions of the dirge, or funeral hymn, that Gaiman quotes all refer to the acts of charity that one might have done while living which in the last stanza protects one from the fire (presumably the fires of hell). Lyke is a dead body and wake is the watch that would be held for the deceased. Hosen are stockings and Shoon is an archaic plural of shoes. Fleet can be a small stream but I also saw a variation on the dirge that seemed to substitute hearth or home for fleet. Sleet is sometimes substituted for fleet which is an old form a salt that may have to do with early funeral rituals. The refrain with firelight and home contrasts with the judgment meted out to those who were not generous in life. It fits nicely with Richard's act of kindness that starts everything for him.

Another reference Gaiman has mentioned in interviews is a children's game with a map of London. I suspect it might be Scotland Yard. Where a group of detectives chases the criminal Mr. X through London using the bus, the underground and taxis (why Scotland Yard does not get its own vehicles is never explained.) What is splendid about the game is how much time you have to look at the map of London with all its place names. Before I had visited London I had played the board game and spent time staring at the map, not just trying to win but as if it might give me understanding of London when I should finally visit (it didn't). Nightmare, dirge, game, it is somehow right that they should all fit together.