December 24, 2011

Those Blue Remembered Hills...



I initially planned to end Winter Week with a post about ghost stories, Christmas and why they go together so beautifully - and they do (for the record I would have recommended The Woman in Black, The Dead of Winter and A Christmas Carol).  Yet, as I sat down to write, I realised that the books that I return to each year aren't scary stories, they're tales for children.  I've picked the three that I love the most to share with you today but there are many, many more out there (The Box of Delights to name but one) - make your own Christmas and sit down with one, you won't regret it.



The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis was one of the first books that I read by myself. I suspect that it may have been read to me prior to that, but it's reading it alone that I remember. A sense of utter magic seeps from the pages, building at every step. From the Pevensie's timid arrival at a strange old house to the discovery of an old wardrobe to the softness of fir coat and prickle of pine every move seems imbued with mysterious wonder, long before they all tumble into Narnia. And what a place Narnia is. Covered in snow and burdened by an oppressive Winter in more ways that one, yet still a place of warmth and humour. Yet The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is also deeply sinister. The White Witch terrified my younger self and some of the final scenes involving Aslan, bound and dying are upsetting even now. C.S. Lewis understood, however, children's capacity for darkness and their ability to determine sometimes complex moral issues.

Saying that, on re-reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as an adult I found myself too aware of the religious undertones. They are hardly subtle and my adult self felt preached at, insulted and slightly betrayed yet on putting all this aside I still managed to become swept away by Lewis's world and his often gorgeous writing. The scene in which Edmund is offered Turkish delight and hot chocolate still makes my mouth water and the final moments of four now adult monarchs riding towards their childhoods once more grabs the adult me by the heart and fills me with both sadness and envy. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is certainly a book that I will be reading to my small daughter sooner rather than later and remains one of my favourite winter reads.

Another lovely, lovely book is The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston. It's opening scenes see a small boy being rowed across flood water by lantern light to his new home - the mysterious house, Green Noah. On arriving he is greeted by a Great-Grandmother who seems to be waiting for something to happen and a portrait of three children. As the story progresses it fills with wonder, magic and touches of darkness. The writing is outstandingly good and extremely atmospheric. I know that there are more books set around Green Knowe but I have never read them choosing, instead, to reserve such a wonderful setting for a story that I absolutely adore. I'm loathe to write more about it for fear of ruining even the slightest aspect and instead urge you to read this small but perfectly formed tale yourselves.

While The Children of Green Knowe holds a special place in my heart, it not my absolute favourite. That title belongs not to a book per se, but to a story: The Snow Queen. Of all the fairy tales in all their many lands, this is my absolute favourite. For those who are not familiar it follows the plight of Kay and Gerda. Kay, a small boy with a bitter heart is spirited away by temptation and a strange, cold woman. Gerda, true of heart and strong of will sets of on a strange and epic journey to find her friend and restore him to himself. Thus begins a tale of bravery, determination and true friendship. The original tale is by Hans Christian Andersen but it has been told many times (my favourite version being that illustrated by Errol le Cain and his image of Gerda on her reindeer was used as the Winter Week banner above).


The story certainly has some strange aspects and again some religious symbolism (although far less overt than that seen in Narnia). On her journey Gerda contends with ravens, sleeping princes, witches and robbers and finally a reindeer guide. Throughout, characters are moved by her desire to find her friend and find him she does, frozen and trying to spell out the word Eternity in shards of ice. It has some fantastic imagery, evoking both physical and mental chill. The message that the story carries is one of love and strength, suggesting that true goodness and depth of feeling will always triumph over cool cruelty. It's a truly beautiful story.

What all of these stories have in common is that they were written for children but don't let that put you off. They are beautifully crafted and hauntingly written in a way that we perhaps don't see that often any more - each is very much of it's time and all are imbued with history in their own way. While short, they are charming in thier brevity, each a gorgeous jewel box of a story and I strongly suggest that you find yourselves copies of each, a cosy armchair and a warm fire - I can think of no better way to spend a Winter's evening.

The beautiful photographs in this post were all rather serendipitous.  And old friend, Dorian, was wondering through a Swiss village taking winter pics and captured both the lamp post and the rose while Lee, over at Trackworks, snapped the fragile bird prints. It takes my breath away how much these images represent the stories I've used them to illustrate and I thank both Lee and Dorian for letting me piggyback on their talent.

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