DM Cornish

Around the age of fifteen or sixteen, when a boy has read sufficient science fiction or fantasy to aspire to create his own literary cosmos, he begins a monster story.

Why boys choose a variation on the name ‘Jabberwock’ for the monster and why the creature’s nature should be ambiguous rather than out-and-out evil is a question I’ve never resolved.*

An archetype is obviously involved. However, this does not explain why, of the seven basic plots identified by Christopher Booker, the choice consistently falls on ‘overcoming the monster.’ Nor why the name remains constant.

When I’m entrusted with these intrepid, original ideas, I nurture any emerging talent by keeping secret how many similar stories I’ve seen. Unsure whether I’m in the presence of Babel or Pentecost – whether I’m reading an unmaking or re-making of language – I admire the not-quite-nonsense words peppering the manuscript which seem inspired by Lewis Carroll’s curious poem, Jabberwocky. Meaning in such stories is always tantalisingly close but forever elusive.

Monster Blood Tattoo appears different and original, as huge a watershed in fantasy as JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings. Yet, it simply takes this darkling vision common to teenage boys and elegantly embodies it in a world expressing its ‘otherness’ even in its language:

Lantern East Winst 1 West Well 24 was the very first lamp on the Wormway, and as such was treated to special honours, writhen with a confusion of curls and finials of skilfully wrought iron. It even bore two gretchen-globes at the side of the main lamp-bell. They were small examples of the phosphorescent pearls formed inside the bellies of kraulschwimmen, spat out for brave divers to collect from murky seabeds.

Baroque vies with medieval, numbers give a sense of modernity only to be undermined by a science blending the organic inspiration of art nouveau with the glimmering darkness of film noir. ‘Kraulschwimmen’ gives the sense of something pale and sinuous breast-stroking along the gloomy seafloor, but can we be sure?

And what does ‘writhen’ mean? From the options given in the massive doorstop masquerading as the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, I guess it’s ‘to wreathe’ but perhaps ‘twisted’ is also intended. The effect of the word, in combination with the illustrations, is to evoke that twilight world of romance epitomised by Alfred Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman. Danger, moonlight, love, death, treachery: it’s all here. And don’t forget the monsters.

Rossamünd has a problem – apart from the fact he’s got a girl’s name, he’s an orphan and small for his age. He’s not convinced that all the monsters in Idlewild are evil. Sure nickers might be violently malignant, but umbergogs and eotens seem harmless until provoked. Some, like the legendary Duke of Sparrows, seem actually helpful to humans. Such thoughts must remain secret, however; sedorners – monster-lovers – are shown no mercy.

Rossamünd has always wanted to sail the Vinegar Seas but he’s been selected as a lamplighter. His job as a prentice is to learn to keep the lamps along the highways burning through the night. Arriving late at Winstermill due to a series of perilous adventures in Book 1 (Foundling), he attracts the attention of gruff Lamplighter-Sergeant Grindrod. Unfortunately, he also attracts the attention of Surgeon Grotius Swill when he is ordered to deliver a mysterious package via a secret stairway. Rossamünd finds himself in a position of knowing far too much – and under suspicion by friend and foe alike.

When the sinister Master-of-Clerks finishes the prentices’ training early, Rossamünd is assigned to the most hazardous post of all: the fortress of Wormstool, closest tower to the Ichormeer where the monsters allegedly breed. Ambushed in a theroscade, Rossamünd is confronted by a monster with a terrifying question: ‘What are you, pinklips?’

‘Rose mouth’ or ‘pink lips’ is the meaning of ‘Rossamünd’ and he is stunned the monster knows his name. During the scape-goating inquiry that follows, Grotius Swill suggests Rossamünd is a manikin and his name is an abbreviation for rossamünderling, a monster with a human face.

By the end of Lamplighter, Rossamünd is being brought face-to-face with himself, his name and his destiny.

Some years ago when the furore over The Amber Spyglass winning the Whitbread Prize was current, I was involved in a discussion about its merits. Because it was continually compared with the Narnia series, the question uppermost in my mind was not Is it anti-Christian (to which the answer was self-evident) but Is it a classic? Does it have what it takes to be read with enjoyment in fifty years time? Curiously, although opinions varied from one extreme to the other about the brilliance or otherwise of Pullman’s trilogy, the question Is it a classic? Will you read it again in a decade? lent a different colouring to the discussion. Even the most ardently pro-Pullman reader said no.

So, is Monster Blood Tattoo a classic?

I hesitate because I’m not sure the eldritch words I find so evocative won’t be off-putting to a young reader. At least it’s not so melodramatic that the build-up becomes as anti-climactic as in His Dark Materials, which relies on shock to conceal its massive plot holes and disturbing characterisation. The portrayal of God as drooling and sadistic and the church as irremediably corrupt hides an insidious sub-text: all adults are mad. There is not a single major adult character in the entire trilogy who, by any stretch of the imagination, could be called sane.

The majority of the adult characters in Monster Blood Tattoo are teetering on the brink of madness too. However, when the adults in Lamplighter act irrationally, outside of their own best interests, it’s because the power of love has become greater than the love of power. No such transformation occurs in His Dark Materials: the mellowing of the megalomaniac Asriel and Lyra’s malevolent mother, Mrs. Coulter, is portrayed as love, but it is love devoid of relationship.

Lamplighter ends with the primal question: Who am I? It tackles the enigma of personal meaning via the classic fantasy method. Name and destiny are woven together. Therein lies its power of building story.

Still, is it a classic? Is it Babel? Or Pentecost?
It’s too early to be sure, but nevertheless this is one series I will avidly read again.

* I was alerted to this phenomenon by a colleague in science who asked me to look over a story one of his students had written. When I asked what he meant by his dismissive comment, ‘Don’t feel obliged. It’s a Jabberwock,’ he explained how common this was amongst teenage boys. Once noticed, it’s impossible not to realise how prevalent it is.

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