Sunday, August 19, 2012

What is my Daemon?

Scholastic, £16.99
   I recently picked up the audiobook version of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials', and while I'm really enjoying revisiting the sprawling story of armoured bears, witches, plucky pre-teens, and other-world physics, what I'm finding myself thinking about most is the idea of each person having a 'daemon' - an animal companion which is an external manifestation of your soul and character, an inseparable part of yourself.
   A quick 'what's my daemon' Google search will reveal lots of online quizzes (basically personality tests of varying quality) designed to give you an answer to this question. Among the various results I got today were: otter, cat, hare, and owl.
   Unfortunately, in direct contradiction of my strictly scientific ideas of the non-anthropomorphisation of animal behaviours, these pronouncements tend to evoke certain very definitely human traits. Where do these ideas of animal characteristics arise? Probably some are due to simple animal behaviour, some certainly have folkloric origins, and some (of mine, anyway) are absolutely traceable to childrens' literature. 
old edition
   The image I have of the otter as a playful, active, and mischievous animal takes me back to Brian Jacques' wonderful 'Redwall' series of novels. Now, some of you will shiver with disgust at the thought of whole books full of talking, anthropomorphised mice, badgers, squirrels, hedgehogs, rats, weasels, and otters, but these are delightful stories of adventure, bravery, nobility, and the beauty of country life. The animals are quite stereotyped - all the badgers are brave and noble warrior kings and queens; the hedgehogs are friendly bumpkins speaking in West Country dialect; the otters are playful river gymnasts; the rats, weasels, stoats, and snakes are always baddies; the mice are the everyman - humble, vain, brave, shy, inquisitive, creative, clever, and helpful. Which type of otter would be nice to have as a companion? I like the sound of the African clawless otter, which is described as being exceptionally playful, enjoying mock fighting, mud-sliding, and noisy, yapping chases.
   My feelings about cats are well-known to my family at least - I am most definitely a cat rather than a dog person. While I've read novels with cats as the main characters ('Thomasina', by Paul Gallico; 'The Incredible Journey', by Sheila Burnford), I don't have any anthropomorphic view of them as I might of other animals. I think the reason is that we always had cats as pets while I was growing up, so my main impressions of them are from direct experience. I think a cat would probably be quite a good match as a daemon for me - somewhat solitary and cautious, but also whimsical (ever seen a snobby grown cat suddenly abandon everything to chase a spot of light around the room?). I'd like a lovely ginger tomcat as a daemon, please. 
Lion Hudson Plc, £10.99
   In many mythologies, hares are symbols of femininity and fertility, with the meat of the hare being prescribed for male sterility by Pliny the Elder. In Elizabeth Goudge's 'The Little White Horse', Serena the Hare (rescued from a trap and adopted by the main character Maria Merryweather) is an elegant, noble, intelligent, and graceful creature. 'Hares are clever and brave and loving, and they have fairy blood in them. It's a grand thing to have a hare for a friend.'
   And an owl. I've been keen on owls for a long time now, ever since I first read the amazing Alan Garner novel 'The Owl Service' many years ago. If you haven't read it, I would highly recommend that you do. A heady mix of mythology and mystery, its extraordinary atmosphere is one that you'll remember forever. The owl is a sinister presence in the story - feathers mysteriously appearing, sounds in the night, prints of claws in the dust, sabotage, and madness. And yet it has caused a fascination in me for these birds, which are simultaneously associated mythologically with  death and wisdom. If I was to have an owl for a daemon, I would definitely want a beautiful Barn Owl. This species is now unfortunately quite rare in Ireland, although I did once see one in the woods where I used to live, like a ghost swooping through the trees.
   What would it be like to have a constant companion, a talking animal which (who?) shared your deepest character traits. I remember dreaming once, years ago, of wandering through a city alone, with a leopard by my side. But that was purely an animal, a protector. A daemon would be a walking, flying, hopping mirror of yourself, a conscience sitting on your arm, an advisor whispering in your ear, a comfort in the dark.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Oh, the Words!

   How exciting it is to be reading a great book and to come across a word that's either completely new to you, or just one that is never really used widely. I love the casual display of intellect and inventiveness.
Pan Macmillan, £7.99
   'Kraken' was my introduction to the world of China MiĆ©ville. I only picked it up because I misread the blurb and thought it would be a straightforward thriller, so it was a nice surprise as a Fantasy reader to start coming across references to 'knacks' - the term used in this instance for supernatural talents. Fun! Though all of his books contain elements of this fun, this is arguably MiĆ©ville's most light-hearted work to date, apparently a treat he gave himself (he's a bit of a cephalopod geek) after the hard graft of more serious books. The language is casual, urban, full of slang, and just plain weird, in a wonderful way. 

   'He had mentioned the phenomenon to people, and though some had reacted with alarm, many told some anecdote about horripilation or twitches when they were under pressure, and Billy remained fairly sanguine.'

   '"Say Rubenesque or zaftig at your peril," Leon had said.'

   '"Shall we say a black cloud in water already black? There's a koan for you, Billy."'

  'What do you call that? Billy thought.That reconstitutive intelligence, berserker meme-splicing, seeing in nothings first patterns, then correspondence, then causality and dissident sense.'

   '"The Archi-bloody-teuthis, Billy Harrow, yes. The giant squid. That thing in the jar. That. That got took. And is been and gone. Are you really surprised someone might worship it?"'

   'Billy had another dream at last, that night. He had been feeling vaguely guilty at the lack of oneiric insights. But at last he had a dream worthy to be so called, rather than the vague sensations of cosseting dark, cool, glimmerings, heaviness, stasis and chemical stench that otherwise filled his nighttime head.'

   'All the way over them all, the cloud moved fast. It took shape. Church-sized clots of it evanesced, leaving - it was not a mistake - a lumpy anthropoid outline in night matter, a man shape crude as a mandrake root, a great cruciform figure over the city.'

   And finally, the best curse word I've ever seen: 'Fucksnot'. What more is there to say?   

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Girl who read a Gorgeous Fairytale in a Bed of her own Making

Constable & Robinson, £6.99
   Well, I have a confession to make. In a contradiction of the title of this post, the bed probably wasn't really made properly when I was lying in it reading this treat, but it didn't affect the experience at all, thankfully!
   This is the stunning 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making' by Catherynne M. Valente. The UK edition is published by Corsair (9781780338330), and they've done an amazing job of it. It's a beautiful book in large paperback format with great shaded drawings at the start of each chapter. 
   I had discovered the buzz about this book online quite a few months ago, and was about to order it from the US when I saw that it was being released for the UK market in June. Even knowing that fact, I was so tempted to buy it when I saw it in bookshops in Florida on my holidays in May just because the US edition is so gorgeous as well.  
   Well, I was very patient and waited until the book arrived in the bookshop where I work before nabbing a copy. Reading it, I was constantly struck by the smooth, really flowing style. It seemed to me that the author had (although this was obviously not the case) written the book, drafts and edits and tweaks and all, entirely in her head before committing it to paper. 
   This is the story of a girl called September who is whisked away (without even a wave goodbye, as children so often are a bit heartless, apparently!) by the Green Wind from her parents' home in Omaha to Fairyland. She is quickly informed of some of the laws of Fairyland - no iron of any kind; the practice of alchemy forbidden to all except young ladies born on Tuesdays; air locomotion permitted only by leopard or licensed Ragwort stalk; all traffic travels widdershins; all changelings must wear identifying footwear. 
   In the course of her fabulous adventures, September travels with a wyverary (a dragon whose father was a library) called A-Through-L, loses her shadow, rescues a blue djinn boy called Saturday, and encounters her Death. A friendly golem scrubs clean her courage (and her elbows), telling her: 'When you are born, your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things into your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. So most people go around with grimy machinery, when all it would take is a bit of spit and polish to make them paladins once more, bold knights and true.'
   I have to really highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good story, from eight to eighty. It's fresh and new, bright and sweet.