Tag Archives | Robert Louis Stevenson

The Cottage of Lost Play

Work­ing on my mag­i­cal real­ism mid­dle-grade nov­el, I real­ized I couldn’t visu­al­ize where my sto­ry is locat­ed. I could describe imme­di­ate build­ings, but the land­scape was blank. If I couldn’t see it, nei­ther could a read­er. As often hap­pens when writ­ing a nov­el, the uni­verse sends what you need. It sent me George R. Stewart’s 1944 book, Names on the Land, which begins:

Once, from the east­ern ocean to west­ern ocean, the land stretched away with­out names. Name­less head­lands split the surf; name­less lakes reflect­ed name­less moun­tains… Men came at last, tribe fol­low­ing tribe, speak­ing dif­fer­ent lan­guages and think­ing dif­fer­ent thoughts. Accord­ing to their ways of speech and thought they gave names, and in their gen­er­a­tions laid their bones by the streams and hills they had named.

 Names! My worn Vir­ginia atlas usu­al­ly serves for inspi­ra­tion, but this project demands orig­i­nal topog­ra­phy and names. I re-read The Hob­bit, a trea­sure trove of place names, pair­ing it with John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. Tolkien’s expe­ri­ences in World War I influ­enced his cre­ation of Middle-earth.

Tolkien was fresh from Oxford when he entered the ser­vice in 1915. He’d already begun invent­ing lan­guages and scrib­bling poet­ry about a fairy land, Kor­tiri­on. Ill-pre­pared like many young sol­diers who naive­ly believed they’d sketch church­es in Nor­mandy, Tolkien was hurled into the Bat­tle of the Somme where mus­tard gas, tanks, and flame throw­ers were no match for high-flown ideals. As a mea­sure of how obliv­i­ous peo­ple at home were about fight­ing con­di­tions, illus­trat­ed posters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Nod” were shipped to France to “bright­en” the trenches.

The Land of Nod
“The Land of Nod (a reminder of home),” by Charles Sims RA, 1917,
illus­trat­ing Robert Louis Steven­son’s poem

Two of Tolkien’s best friends were killed. He him­self con­tract­ed trench fever and was hos­pi­tal­ized for weeks. Yet the hor­rors he wit­nessed did not deter him from writ­ing fan­ta­sy. While recu­per­at­ing, he wrote “The Fall of Gon­do­lin,” about an imag­i­nary city he envi­sioned in a much larg­er nar­ra­tive. He also wrote a short­er piece titled, “The Cot­tage of Lost Play.”

There I put down Garth’s book, intrigued by the image con­jured in my head. I pic­tured a cot­tage in the woods, thatched, of course, with smooth riv­er stones lead­ing to the front door around which hol­ly­hocks bloomed and wis­te­ria drooped. The door was part­ly ajar. From inside came faint voic­es and laugh­ter. My imag­i­na­tion turned the phrase “Lost Play” over and over like an old coin. Did it mean the irre­triev­able state of child­hood? Rather than read Tolkien’s ver­sion, I was tempt­ed to write my own. Not because I’m a writer, but because I’m human.

Science of StorytellingSto­ry is what the brain does,” Robert Storrs says in his book The Sci­ence of Sto­ry­telling: Why Sto­ries Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Bet­ter. “Sto­ry emerges from human minds as nat­u­ral­ly as breath emerges from human lips.” We expe­ri­ence our lives in “sto­ry mode,” cre­at­ing lit­tle sto­ries as we go about our day.

Edu­ca­tors know we learn to read by “see­ing” images in our head. Storr explains to the rest of us that the brain process­es writ­ten infor­ma­tion by build­ing mod­els, the more spe­cif­ic the lan­guage, the more pre­cise our mod­els. Some­times a name alone can trig­ger an image. When Bil­bo and the dwarves reach the Mirk­wood, my mind shows a pleas­ant for­est. Then Gan­dalf warns them not to leave the path. Now the word becomes Murk­wood, a dark and fore­bod­ing woods.

Our brains auto­mat­i­cal­ly make mod­els when we read. Names height­en that ten­den­cy. As a boy, Will Storr and a friend pored over the maps in The Hob­bit, lin­ger­ing over the names: “Des­o­la­tion of Smaug,” “West lies Mirk­wood the Great — there are spi­ders.” They spent an entire sum­mer mak­ing games from pho­to­copies of the maps. The places felt “as real to us as the sweet shop in Sil­verdale Road,” he remem­bers. (I’m entranced by the lumi­nous name of his child­hood street!)

Place names, even with­out descrip­tions or expla­na­tions, instant­ly con­struct whole mod­els. Storr quotes dia­log from the movie Blade Run­ner: I’ve seen things you peo­ple wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoul­der of Ori­on. I watched C‑beams glit­ter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. “Those C‑beams!” Storr adds. “That gate! Their won­der lies in the fact they’re mere­ly suggested.”

Philol­o­gist Tolkien knew exact­ly what he was doing. Gon­do­lin, with its hard “g” and weighty, falling syl­la­bles, brings to mind a once-pow­er­ful city gone to ruin. Places tagged dur­ing the Great War still car­ry solemn mem­o­ries. The Somme. No Man’s Land.

George Stew­art advised to let the shape of the land itself indi­cate what it could be called. Fol­low­ing Tolkien’s deep foot­prints, I’ll try to add mean­ing and evoke won­der to the blank spaces in my sto­ry with just-right names. If I think of any­thing near­ly as bril­liant as The Cot­tage of Lost Play, I’ll send up a flare.


Cynthia Grady

Cynthia Grady Self on the Shelf

Cyn­thia Grady’s selec­tions for Self on the Shelf

In the begin­ning, before I found myself with­in the pages of a book iden­ti­fy­ing with this char­ac­ter or that one, I lis­tened to my grand­moth­er read aloud from My Book House while sur­round­ed by my eight sib­lings. The giant, mul­ti-vol­ume anthol­o­gy con­tains poet­ry from Moth­er Goose to Shake­speare, selec­tions from the Song of Solomon to Christi­na Ros­set­ti to Robert Louis Steven­son, folk and fairy tales from around the world, Aesop’s fables, as well as some not-as-old pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished sto­ries like The Tale of Peter Rab­bit by Beat­rix Pot­ter. In every­thing my grand­moth­er read, what moved me beyond all else was rhythm, the musi­cal­i­ty of lan­guage, and how word-music shaped and inten­si­fied meaning.

One sen­tence from The Tale of Peter Rab­bit, a sto­ry that gave me end­less night­mares, rings clear in my audi­to­ry imag­i­na­tion still, even though it has been decades since I’ve read it:

            But round the end of a cucum­ber frame, whom should he meet but Mr. McGregor!

The near dactylic meter of the line sets my feet tap­ping.  It’s a rolling rhythm, an invi­ta­tion to dance. But the con­tent, the words them­selves, had my pulse rac­ing in sheer ter­ror. How can Peter pos­si­bly escape this sur­pris­ing encounter with the giant, rake-wield­ing mur­der­er — the very man who killed his father? The very man Peter’s moth­er had warned him against — when the word-music describ­ing Peter’s predica­ment is so lovely?

I was inside the lan­guage and lan­guage was inside me.

In a life­time of read­ing, few sen­tences have impressed me more than that one: lyric swing cou­pled with poten­tial death. The story’s ten­sion is con­tained with­in lan­guage itself.

I was not an avid read­er as a child like so many writ­ers, though my old­er sib­lings were. I had them as role mod­els to come back to but, as a child, I was busy play­ing. Or babysit­ting. Or doing my var­i­ous week­ly chores. So when it came time to write and present book reports in school, I made them up. I hadn’t read a thing. My teach­ers had nev­er heard of the books I wrote about and, always, my answer to their ques­tion was, “Oh, it’s a book my grand­moth­er gave me.” I was a liar (a.k.a. sto­ry­teller) from a very ear­ly age.

Lis­ten­ing to Beat­rix Pot­ter began my love affair with musi­cal­i­ty through ani­mal fan­ta­sy, and A.A. Milne con­tin­ued it. (Milne, anoth­er mas­ter of lyri­cal lan­guage). I read and reread the four books in their card­board case dozens, if not hun­dreds, of times. No one char­ac­ter stood out for me, but being part of a fam­i­ly of eleven, plus numer­ous pets, I loved the sheer num­ber of char­ac­ters abid­ing in the Hun­dred-Acre-Wood and its sur­round­ing Forest.

In addi­tion to char­ac­ter-filled ani­mal fan­tasies, I loved fairy tales and, there, I began iden­ti­fy­ing with the wretched, the hum­ble, the poor. In ele­men­tary school, my friends and I com­plained at how utter­ly over­bur­dened we were by our house­hold chores. One day, when we (final­ly!) had a chance to play togeth­er, we start­ed a Cin­derel­la Club. My friend Shan­nan was appoint­ed life-time pres­i­dent, as she had to dust mop her kitchen floor every morn­ing before we walked to school. I had nev­er heard of dust mop­ping. I was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly fas­ci­nat­ed and appalled.

Wild SwansAnoth­er fairy tale I found myself in was Hans Chris­t­ian Andersen’s The Wild Swans (Gold­en Press, 1966). It was not from the col­lec­tion of tales that we had in the book­case; I had my very own copy. And it had a holo­gram on the card­board cov­er, some­thing I’d nev­er seen before. When I tilt­ed it under the light, the pic­ture changed before my eyes. And the illus­tra­tions inside were not line draw­ings or paint­ings in mod­est col­ors, they were full-col­or, vibrant three-dimen­sion­al scenes. The­atre enact­ed on the page. Enthralled, I began read­ing more.

The sto­ry of the wild swans is the sto­ry of a girl, a princess, who saves her eleven broth­ers from the evil queen who had turned them into swans, by knit­ting sweaters from sting­ing net­tles. I had five broth­ers, and thought that I, too, could save them all — though from what I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know how to knit, but I did know how to sew, and since I’d already iden­ti­fied with the hard-work­ing Cin­derel­la, sure­ly I could make a coat or some oth­er arti­cle of cloth­ing to save every­one I loved.

Per­haps, because I was so steeped in folk­lore, I went through a rather long spell read­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion— but not ordi­nary his­tor­i­cal fic­tion — it had to be time-slip fan­ta­sy: The Chil­dren of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, Tom’s Mid­night Gar­den by Philip­pa Pearce, and lat­er, dur­ing my near 20-year stint as a librar­i­an, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Nif­f­eneg­ger. I nev­er enjoyed his­to­ry or social stud­ies as a sub­ject in school, but I devoured his­tor­i­cal fan­ta­sy and want­ed to be the time trav­el­ers, wher­ev­er they went.

And final­ly, return­ing to musi­cal lan­guage, I have on my shelf an auto­graphed copy of Hon­ey, I Love by Eloise Green­field and Devo­tion by Mary Oliv­er, among sev­er­al oth­ers by Ms. Oliv­er. In my ear­ly twen­ties, I was stu­dent-teach­ing in a fourth-grade class and the poem, “Hon­ey, I Love,” appeared in the read­ing text­book that the school used. My heart stopped when I read it. I imme­di­ate­ly went to the library to see if Ms. Green­field, whom I would meet years lat­er, had writ­ten any whole books of poet­ry. The cadence of Greenfield’s poems had the same pat­terns as my grandmother’s speech. You could sway to the rhythm, the same way you can sway to the sounds of Beat­rix Pot­ter and A. A. Milne. I found my home in poet­ry, and begin every day read­ing poems, always begin­ning and end­ing with one by Mary Oliv­er, a poet whose work I’ve long admired for its lyri­cism, its mys­tery, and its sheer beauty.

written by Candace Fleming 
illustrated by Eric Rohmann 
Atheneum, 2015

Bookstorm™: Bulldozer’s Big Day

It’s Bulldozer’s big day — his birth­day! But around the con­struc­tion site, it seems like every­one is too busy to remem­ber. Bull­doz­er wheels around ask­ing his truck friends if they know what day it is, but they each only say it’s a work day. They go on scoop­ing, sift­ing, stir­ring, fill­ing, and lift­ing, and lit­tle Bull­doz­er grows more and more glum.… more