It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.
This year, the list is:
For some reason, I cannot read this title without intuitively reading it in Latin hic iacit Arcturus.
I attended a literacy conference this week where Philip Reeve was – for wont of a better phrase – the keynote speaker and I was lent this book as an introduction to his work as – to my total shame – I’ve never read any! I’ve been aware of Mortal Engines and intending to read it – being a definite steampunk fan – but something’s always got in my way!
So… onto hic iacit Arctururs which is obviously based on the King Arthur legend.
Lets look at the cover above. We see a youthful face, armoured, with piercing blue eyes raised to Heaven in a saintly way. No one tells us that this face is Arthur’s but it is the assumption we make. But let’s look at it in more detail. The metaphor Reeve uses to describe Arthur is the bear: petty, violent and brutally violent. This is not the picture that decorates the cover.
So who else could it be? Gwyna the main character and narrator? Is the face sufficiently feminine rather than saintly to be a young woman? Possibly, but she is never a soldier and far more earthy than this character looks.
No, I think the picture is Peredur. A relatively minor character introduced a few chapters in and dismissed to return in the second half and become really very important! And there is a very obvious reason why this would fit with the femininity of the image.
Reeve seems to be creating a world that is closer to historical reality – with it’s hardships, horrors, tedium and petty brutality as well as beauty, stink and death. Listening to him yesterday, he described how he was inspired by John Boorman’s Excalibur and “lifted” (“stole”?) both the opening and closing scenes from it. It was lovely hearing him describe how as a teenager inspired by this film he devoured Arthurian mythology – in a remarkably similar way to the way I did myself.
Reeve sets the story deeply into the Celtic world, translating familiar names like Merlin into the more Welsh – and more authentic sounding – Myrddin; Tintagel become Din Tagel.
Myrddin is for Arthur what Alastair Campbell was for Tony Blair: Reeve shows him spinning and weaving the legends of Arthur from half-formed truths, ancient myths, lost religions and outright lies.
It is an explicitly metafictional book – a book about books – a tale of tales – a story of songs – which explores the powers of the transformative narrative word to bind and inspire, to create belief out of the air. We hear the tales we all know – Uthr transformed into the shape of his enemy to seduce Ygraine; the Lady of the Lake; Excalibur or Caliburn here; the Holy Grail – and we see the sleight-of-hand by which they were created.
And what I find amazing is that, just like Gwyna, we both recognise the lies for what they are and we are seduced by them ourselves.
There is something beautifully Shakespearean here. The gender ambiguities of Gwyna who becomes a boy, Gwyn, to be safe upon the road and the parallel story of Peredur kept safe from the army by being dressed as a girl echoes As You Like It‘s Rosalind.
I recall the series on Channel 4 not many months back called Camelot starring Joseph Fiennes as a not dissimilar Merlin – albeit one with genuine magic. In reflection, it’s such a shame they didn’t just dramatise this book which – despite the lack of raunchiness (breasts were bared nearly moment by moment and maidens defiled each episode!) – was so much more authentic, genuinely moving and just interesting.
On a separate point: Philip Reeve is fabulous! Clad in a three piece suit which my untrained eye wants to claim as gabardine and walking upright he looked like he had strode out of Dartmoor – which I guess he literally had! – where no doubt he was to return to find the footprint of a monstrous hound by his garden gate! He is, however, a truly inspirational speaker and I feel privileged to have heard him speak!
Do a book club, they said!
It’ll be fun, they said!
We’ll call it Addiction to Fiction, they said! Okay, fair enough that’s cool!
It won’t take much time, they said.
Oh. Right. Of course not.
So now, at 3:15 every Thursday a group of book hungry students descends on me. Seriously, it’s fabulous: a group of teenagers asking to read! Fantastic! It is every English teacher’s dream!
So, their choice to kick off was…
Set in a futuristic and post-apocalyptic world, the book is basically divided into three parts:
1) a depiction of extreme poverty and deprivation in District 12; until
2) Katniss is selected or volunteers to be a tribute at the Hunger Games and her training at the Capitol; until
3) the Hunger Games themselves.
In my opinion, the first section was very strong. The poverty in District 12 was very strongly described: the bare canvas mattress in the opening paragraphs; Katniss’ recollections of being at the point of literal starvation until Peeta throws her a loaf of bread; Katniss’ mother’s breakdown after her husband’s death; Prim’s delicacy, vulnerability and need for protection – her name is Primrose and we first see her cocooned in her mother’s embrace – are all beautifully depicted.
In fact the opening three paragraphs have provided a great resource for an annotation exercise at school.
On a side note… this irked: in the film, how are we meant to accept Jennifer Lawrence who is patently healthy, well fed and somewhat chubby of cheek as a character on the verge of starvation?!
The contrast between the earthy and natural privations of District 12 and the gaudy artificiality of the Capitol was also great. The ostentation of the genetic manipulation for vanity amongst the population – save for Cinna with whom we latch onto as the sole source of normalcy – and the casual horror of the Avoxes was very effective at alienating us from the Capitol.
The Games themselves I found slightly disappointing. I liked the ambiguity of it being a performance for the sponsors: at various times, Katniss suppressed expressing how she felt because she didn’t want to seem weak; the romance between her and Peeta was nicely judged and balanced between genuine emotion and cynical performance. There was an echo – for me – of the film Starship Troopers where reality and propaganda were spliced together.
But let’s deal with the violence. My Addiction to Fiction group were disappointed – seriously disappointed – that they didn’t see more violence. There were, really, only three of the 22 deaths portrayed: Glimmer, Rue, and Cato’s and there is no real gore in any of them except Glimmer’s. Stung to death by mutated wasps, her corpse is raided by Katniss to obtain the bow who – also stung and hallucinating – seems to see
Her features eradicated, her limbs three times there normal size. The stinger lumps have begun to explode, spewing putrid green liquid…. the flesh disintegrates in my hands.
Rue’s death was genuinely moving and emotional and far better handled by the book than the film.
Cato’s, however, was just tediously dull: being clad on armour and falling amidst genetically mutated dogs (“muttations” was not my favourite neologism in the book!) he took ages and pages to die.
This really is a first class YA book!
The language is nowhere near the language of Philip Reeve or China Miéville but the concept – derived from channel hopping between Survivor and child soldiers in the news – and characters and pace are cracking!