The Fantasy Novels of Verlyn Flieger
Reviewed by Paul Edmund Thomas
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 49:3 (#356) in March 2012.]
Dipping a Pail into the River of Story
Commenting on his writing of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien says such a story “grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read.”¹ When a renowned Tolkien scholar turns her hand to fiction, part of the “leaf-mould” of her mind, the source material of her imagination, is the scholarship to which she has devoted herself for more than three decades. Tolkien, in the same passage, goes on to emphasize that much of the source material for the imagination in “one’s personal compost-heap” consists of thoughts and observations on books that have been read long ago and then forgotten, which is probably true for many if not most writers (Dr. Johnson told Boswell that “the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book,” and Robertson Davies says somewhere in his Cornish Trilogy that books are mostly about other books). Nevertheless, it seems to me that in some cases at least, something new, rather than something old and half-forgotten, comes into a writer’s mind like spring warmth and starts the seed growing out of the older leaf-mould. In Verlyn Flieger’s case, I suggest that what may have germinated the particular seed that, in 1998–2002, grew into her novel Pig Tale was her ground-breaking study of Tolkien, A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie, which was published by Kent State in 1997.
In the first four chapters of A Question of Time, Flieger focuses on several of the twentieth-century literary and cultural influences on Tolkien’s thought, particularly as they found expression in his unfinished time-travel story, The Lost Road. One of these influences was J.W. Dunne, an aeronautical engineer who became interested in dreams, tried to investigate and explain why dreamers have prescient moments, and set forth his method and theory in a 1927 book, An Experiment with Time. Dunne wrote descriptions of his dreams upon waking and then tried to note the occasions on which he lived a moment he had already experienced in a dream. Dunne then theorized that the human soul is “serial” in nature: it has an absolute beginning in linear time but that linear existence is only a subset of other larger aspects of the soul that exist in other dimensions of time, and these other aspects can perceive what happens in linear time. An example can best summarize Dunne’s theory. Observer 1 is in a canoe and paddling downstream in a river. Observer 2, a larger aspect of the soul of Observer 1, is flying above the river in an airplane. Looking down, Observer 2 can see all that Observer 1 sees, plus what lies upstream and what lies downstream around the next bend in the river: Observer 2 can perceive the past, the present, and the future of Observer 1. If Observer 1, in dream, can access the awareness of Observer 2, Observer 1 may dream of moments yet to be lived.
Flieger both adopts and transforms Dunne’s theory in her novel Pig Tale. The protagonist (Observer 1) is a girl who, without conscious awareness, is living her life in accordance with a punishing mythic “pattern.” The pattern is perceived by an older and wiser aspect of the girl, an other-dimensional character named Lally Dai (Observer 2), who, with her mysterious companions Dogger John and the Skimmer, enter the girl’s world from an indiscernible realm called the Crystal Country: “we’re just observers,” the Skimmer reminds Lally, “we can watch, but we can’t move yet” (Pig Tale, 53). The girl’s life both begins and continues in utter misery. Born on a stormy night and immediately abandoned by her desperate mother in the rain-pocked mud of a farrow field, her rescue from death by exposure is the only kind act that the villagers of Little Wicken ever do for her. Raised but never loved by farmer Grime and his wife, the girl is forced to tend and live among the village pigs, and she becomes “Mokie,” the pig girl. While herding the pigs, the resourceful Mokie makes believe she is the mythic Red Sorcha of the Gleaming Teeth, Queen of the Pigs, who rides her Phantom Herd like the wind. Other than a runt pigling named Apple whom Mokie rescues from drowning at the hands of the abusive Grime, Mokie’s only friend is a shy village boy named Janno, who possesses a green marble through which Mokie glimpses a beauty she has never seen before: a glimpse of the Crystal Country. When Mokie starts to become a woman and attracts attention from the village boys, attention which turns violent and which Janno is helpless to prevent, she shows her indomitable spirit, turns her back on the knife-sharp gossiping voices of Little Wicken, so ready to brand her a harlot, and flees to the Wickenwood with Apple. There Mokie meets Lally Dai and her two companions from the Crystal Country, who give her the first kindness she has ever known, and, for a time, Mokie lives, as it were, in two dimensions as she comes of age and flowers into womanhood. As Lally and John come to love Mokie, Lally, frustrated with the cruel inexorability of the “pattern,” expresses a desire to get Mokie “out of it before it’s too late,” but the Skimmer reminds her that the pattern is beyond their control: “Even if we could break the pattern it would re-form, find a new way to fit into the old shape” (Pig Tale, 230). The Skimmer’s words are prophetic, because despite the efforts of John and Lally to shape a different ending, the pattern moves Mokie towards its unavoidable conclusion, which — and I can say this without spoiling the plot — is made no less heart-wrenching by the mythic transcendence that closes Flieger’s novel.
In The Inn at Corbies’ Caww, Flieger continues the story with Janno, who, haunted both by the actions he took and failed to take in his relationship with Mokie, has left Little Wicken and the name Janno behind him forever, and has sought escape from his tormenting memories by constantly traveling and telling stories to anyone who might listen and toss a coin in his upturned hat: “All he wanted was not to be where he had been, not to be who he had been, not to see again what he had done” (Inn, 37 and 142). In a dream we revisit part of the Teller’s post-Janno boyhood, a series of episodes in which he lives hand-to-mouth on a wharf with an intrepid and clever boy named Jackdaw, who is reminiscent of Dickens’ Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, and who affectionately calls the boyish Teller “Duffer” because of his bewildered inexperience. After telling a story in a village marketplace that so hooks the curiosity of a homeless girl that she marks his road and later follows him, the Teller sets off on another journey and meets another wandering man named Trover, whom the Teller recognizes as none other than Jackdaw grown to manhood. Renewing their friendship, the two men take to the road together and happen upon the neglected and dilapidated Inn at Corbies’ Caww: “irregularly roofed, with many windows at odd levels hinting at random additions and suggesting that the rooms inside wandered at their own pleasure,” “built deep into the hillside,” with a shingled roof “mossy with age, the shingles cracked and curling upward at the edges,” and with “gables and cupolas and towers projecting in steep peaks” (107). Like Witchland’s Carcë in The Worm Ouroboros or Miss Havisham’s Satis House in Great Expectations, the Inn has such a ghostly palpable atmosphere that it becomes a character in the story, but unlike those other oppressive edifices, the Inn has hidden powers and passages and reveals them at key moments for the characters. Upon entering, the Teller and Trover meet a woman named Korvie, who inherited the Inn from her father and who says she has returned to restore it to habitability. When Korvie tells her life’s story to the two men, her hinting narration of darker episodes suggests that Korvie is the mother who bore and abandoned the newborn girl in the Farrow Field in Pig Tale, the girl who became Mokie. Trover, Korvie, and the Teller form a companionship that is at first cautious but which improves with time, as each one finds ways to contribute to the restoration of the Inn. Soon, in the very midst of a story of “the two who changed into birds,” a grey goose and a cormorant, the homeless girl arrives, wet and exhausted, but still full of curiosity for the Teller’s stories (134). Her name, they discover, is Linnet, and the four settle down at the Inn, “and the days and nights revolved, and the Teller told his tales” (173).
Once all four are assembled, the “pattern” begins to manifest itself once again. Lally Dai’s crystal companion John foreshadows this in verse at the outset of the novel: “Four threads weaving into one / Four to make the Pattern run.” This time, however, the Pattern has a sinister quality expressed by Caww, a spirit of malevolence that takes the form of a “hoodie-crow who appears like night falling.” Caww rasps “without the Pattern, without . . . me, there is no story,” and with contempt for what he sees as Lally’s soft-hearted caring for the four in the Inn, Caww declares “I will come for them when they are ready for me” (21). Before Caww can work his dark will, Flieger weaves her narrative so that both the reader and the characters come to realize that Lally, Korvie, and Linnet are all aspects of the same person, and, like three Dunnean observers in different dimensions, each is aware of different amounts of time and different parts of their singular shared story. This heightened self-awareness is empowering, but it does not allow the characters to elude the inexorability of the Pattern. Even Lally comes to realize “It’s going to happen all over again, I can feel it,” and her companion the Spinner reminds her “It always happens all over again, Lally, but every time happens different” (231). The Pattern in The Inn at Corbies’ Caww does indeed take a very different form from that of the Pattern in Pig Tale, and reading its rushing climax calls to mind the ending of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Conversing in its aftermath and with the knowledge they have gained from seeing the Pattern work itself out, Linnet and the Teller reexamine the events of Pig Tale. Pressed by Linnet to justify the value of his stories, which he always tells but never finishes, The Teller explains that “a story isn’t like a pail that you pour water in and when the pail is filled that’s ‘all’;” rather “a story is like a river and you can dip your pail full and still there will always be more” (Inn, 255). Yet the Teller does finish one story: he finds himself able, at last, to tell Linnet the story of Mokie, and in so doing finds himself able to reclaim the name Janno. When he finishes, Linnet says “Janno is the Teller,” and “The Teller is Janno,” and she tells him “That is your gift and your burden.” (286).
Such unusual, such well-wrought, such good fantasy novels. Pig Tale is much more than a girl’s coming of age story, much more than a story of the triumph of an individual spirit over forces of conformity in a fearful and small-minded community. The Inn at Corbies’ Caww is much more than a dream vision, much more than a story of a quest for forgiveness and redemption, much more than an essay about the nature of story itself. Flieger has spent much of her life in enthusiastic reading, and these books inevitably call to mind other books and other writers: the reader will find hints and influences of Tolkien, Dickens, Poe, Eddison, Barrie, Du Maurier, and many others. Each novel has emotional power and can certainly stand on its own, but, read sequentially, they amplify and illuminate one another, and, like all good books, they reward multiple readings with enriched interpretive experiences. I hope that Verlyn Flieger will dip her pail into the river of story yet again, and that she will do it soon.
(1) Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 140–1.