an extract from City of Desolation : Chapter 19 – Virgil

(for an audio version of this piece, click here)
There was sand in his mouth and someone was pulling his arm. He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be stuck together. Then whoever was pulling his arm turned him on his back and water that had been in his mouth ran down his throat and made him choke. He put up a hand to wipe his eyes and encountered something scaly and slippery which made him recoil in horror. A voice above him made concerned, soothing noises and when at last he forced his eyes open, Jake saw an old man standing over him holding a long streamer of brown seaweed in one hand.

He struggled to sit up and the man stooped to help him, supporting his shoulders. He looked around: he was on a beach that stretched out of sight in both directions; the sea in front of him showed an oily, sinister calm. The beach was deserted. The high-tide mark was strewn with sea weed, driftwood and flotsam. It was a melancholy place. He looked up at the man, and found him melancholy too. He was old and defeated-looking: his face had once been handsome and still kept traces of nobility and dignity that made his present hopelessness all the more poignant. Seeing Jake sitting up and apparently uninjured, he seemed to decide that his role was ended, and he turned and began to shuffle away.

– Wait! called Jake, spitting out a quantity of sand.

The old man stopped without turning round. Jake struggled to his feet.

– Wait! What is your name? Where is this place?

The old man turned now, and Jake could almost see his brain working: he pictured ancient rusty cogs engaging, grating harshly, long disused.

– My …name? I have one, I’m sure…it will come to me presently. And this place? It is…the place where we find ourselves.

Highly informative, thought Jake. He began to think the old man was a bit wandered in his wits. How did I get here? he thought. For a moment his mind was entirely blank, and then it came back to him: he had been in a boat that had capsized in a storm; he had been sure that was the end of him, yet here he was. But where was here? And why had he come? The thought sent his hand to his pocket, and he was immediately reassured to find the package still there: he drew it out and examined it: the wrappings were intact, and it had suffered remarkably little from immersion in the sea.

He became aware of the old man’s gaze on him and looked up sharply, suddenly suspicious. The old man continued to gaze at the package and at Jake with candid interest, his whole look subtly transformed – as if a spark had kindled in the ashes of a cold hearth.

– You have…a mission? asked the man.
– Yes. I have to give this to someone.

The old man’s face took on an inward look, as if he was striving to retrieve something from far, far back in his memory.

– If you have a mission, then I must help you, he said at last.

Jake looked at him in surprise.

– I have done it before, he said. It was long ago.

He stared out to sea, remembering.

– Maro, he said at length.

– Pardon?
– I was of Maro: Virgil was my name. I was a poet.

They trudged up the beach in the direction of the dunes.

– There was another – with a mission, I mean. He was a poet too.

He sat on the slope of a dune, shaking his head. Jake imagined flakes of rust falling from the machinery of his memory.

– All this was long ago. Much has changed since then.

The old man looked into Jake’s face, as if he might find the answer he was seeking written there. Then he smiled – a slow, uncertain smile, as if he had forgotten how.

– Dante, that was his name. Dante Alighieri. I was his guide.

Jake smiled back at him.

– Would you guide me, too?

The old man shook his head, sighing.

– Alas, I cannot. So much has changed now – it is all different. I would not know the way.

He stood up, and moved to the top of the dune, beckoning Jake to follow.

Jake had not known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Beyond the dune, a dreary prospect of grey, uniform houses stretched in every direction under a brooding sky, filling a broad plain that rose to higher ground in the remote distance, where Jake thought he could make out the walls of what seemed like a fortress or citadel; there was a suggestion of a taller tower in the middle of it, with a red light at the top which flashed intermittently, as if signalling.

– All this used to be fields, said Virgil. The fields of Elysium. We were happy here, in our quiet way. He shook his head dolefully. But that was long ago.

Jake saw that off to the right – the opposite side from the distant fortress – there was a low hill, where among ancient ruins a sort of squalid shanty town had sprung up, composed of makeshift buildings haphazardly assembled from all sorts of materials. The smoke of many fires went up from it, obscuring the land behind, which rose in steep high cliffs. Virgil followed the line of his gaze.

– That’s where most of the ancients are now, he said. Still beyond the pale, of course.

He nodded towards the base of the dune, and Jake saw that there was a high wall topped with a coil of barbed wire between them and the grey houses. Virgil had begun to walk along the top of the dune in the direction of the shanty town. Jake followed.

– I stay mostly on the beach, myself. There’s a rougher crowd have moved in there. (he indicated the shanty dwellings) It used to be all philosophers and poets, but now there’s a lot that used to be further in – in the Old City, I mean – but they seem to have got out, somehow. Order is breaking down everywhere. The authorities don’t seem to bother with the older population now. I’m not sure just how much of that is still inhabited.

Jake looked in the direction of his nod and saw that a change in the wind had blown the smoke away to reveal that what he had taken for a cliff rising behind the shanty town was actually an enormous rampart, the first of a series that mounted like giant steps up and up until they were lost in obscurity. Here and there the masonry was riven with great cracks, and the whole wore an air of ancient decay and neglect.

– If you come down this way, I can take you to the gate-house. That’s as much as I can manage, I’m afraid.

Jake followed him down a path that wound steeply down the grassy slope and presently joined a broader way that ran from the shanty town on the hill towards a large opening in the wall that surrounded the sprawl of houses. As they drew closer, Jake saw that the opening was guarded by a low blockhouse.

– I’ll speak to them first – they can be… awkward, sometimes.

The room they entered was notably bare: the walls were naked concrete blocks, not even whitewashed. A large counter ran the full width of the room: behind it stood two men in buff-coloured work-coats, one very large, the other small and wiry. Though evidently unoccupied, they paid no heed to Jake or Virgil when they entered, and when Virgil rapped on the counter to attract their attention, they went through an elaborate pantomime, looking first at each other, then at every other part of the room (including the high corners, as if someone might be perched up there) before finally deigning to notice the man who stood right in front of them.

– Yes? said the small wiry one.

The other began rooting under the counter, and produced in turn a huge leather-bound ledger, which he opened, an old fashioned inkstand, and a jar with a number of pens. A door behind him opened and a third man appeared, wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons, like a policeman’s. This man paid no heed to anyone but went to the far end of the counter, where Jake saw there was a small washstand, with a mirror. The man took off his tunic and hung it on a peg, then bent low, making the motions that go with removing boots. All the while, he whistled tunelessly through his teeth.

– My young friend here wishes to go further in, said Virgil.
– Does he though? said the small man. What do you think of that?

The second question was addressed to his partner, who made no response, but continued to fiddle with the pens, as if looking for one that suited him. Jake saw that they were the old-fashioned sort, that needed to be dipped in ink.

– Well, if you can just let me have your details, said the wiry one to Virgil.

– But it is not I who wish to go, protested Virgil
– That’s as may be, said the other. I take it you are prepared to vouch for the boy?
– Er – certainly, said Virgil.
– Well, in that case, you’d best give me your details then, hadn’t you? said the other triumphantly, as if he had scored a point.
– Very well, said Virgil wearily. Virgil Maro, Poet.
– Marrow, eh? That’s a kind of vegetable, isn’t it?

Virgil sighed. The large man, having at last chosen a pen, wrote something in the register, very slowly, his tongue protruding from concentration.

– Have you got that, then?
The other pushed the register over to him. The wiry man read it, and shook his head.
– What did you say your name was?
– Virgil Maro.
– That’s not what it says here.

Virgil looked at him in exasperation. Jake saw to his surprise that the third man was now removing his trousers, which he folded neatly and hung beside his tunic.

– What it says here is “Vegetable Marrow”.

He turned the book for them to see: Jake saw that it did indeed say that, written in a large looping script, peppered with blots.

– Now if I was a suspicious man, I might incline to think that a pseudonym – or perhaps I should say a nom de plume, seeing as how you are a poet. You are a poet, I suppose?
– Yes, said Virgil tersely.
– Make a living at it?

Virgil sighed. The man at the washstand was now attiring himself in a brown civilian suit.

– I wouldn’t ask, normally, only my friend here does like to pen a bit of verse in quieter moments – you’d never think it to look at him, I know, said the wiry man with a smile, but some of it – in my humble opinion – is really quite good, and well worthy of a wider audience.

The big man examined his fingernails with a show of modesty. The brown suited man emerged from behind the counter, set a hat on his head, and said

– Well, that’s me off now, lads.

He went out, letting the door slam shut behind him. The wiry man put on a sudden air of briskness.

– But we can’t spend all day chatting about such things, I’m sure. He looked at Jake for the first time. Now then, young sir, what can I do for you?
– I’d like to go further in, said Jake.
– Would you now? Make a note of that, George.

The big man took the register again and wrote in it laboriously, at some length. While he did so, the other came round to their side of the counter, took a brush from a closet, and began to sweep the floor. When he reached Jake and Virgil, he looked at them as if surprised to find them still there.

– Well, if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure the sergeant will attend to you.
– The sergeant? said Jake with a sinking heart.

The wiry man swept round them.

– The gentleman who’s just gone out, he said over his shoulder. He’s the one you want to speak to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re finished here for the day.

When they were outside, Virgil shook his head.

– I’m sorry. You see how it is. Perhaps they will be more amenable tomorrow.
– I doubt it, said Jake.

He watched as the wiry man, whistling cheerfully, closed the gate, securing it with a large padlock.

– Is there no other way in?

But Virgil was already some way down the road that led to the shanty town. Jake hesitated a moment, then went after him. It began to rain.

Paxman and the Angels

‘Samson wis a mighty man

he fought wi the cuddy’s jaws

he fought ten thoosan battles

in his crimson flannel drawers’

In the Bible, Samson is conceived by a woman previously thought barren and becomes a notable hero of Israel, smiting the Philistines before falling from grace through his infatuation with Delilah, which leaves him ‘eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves’ – from where he makes a rousing final comeback which literally brings the house down.

It might seem a long step from Samson to Test cricket, though to be sure, he would be a mighty run-maker, smiting his opponents hip and thigh to all corners of the ground with his patent ass’s jawbone bat (not that Test cricket is all about scoring runs, as we shall see). However, it was not his imagined prowess at the crease that prompted me to make the connection, but rather the angel that announced his nativity.

Samson is not alone in having his birth heralded by an angel: there is Isaac, and John the Baptist, both likewise born to women thought past childbearing age, and of course Jesus himself. One view might be that such angelic annunciations must be a great boon, not only reassuring the prospective mother of her offspring’s future greatness, but also announcing it to the public at large, or at least anyone in the vicinity (and word would surely spread); but modern readers might make them grounds for scepticism.

That is what set me thinking about Test cricket. At the start of the week, an irate listener texted the BBC to deplore the glacial rate at which England captain Alistair Cook and his partner were scoring runs on the penultimate day of the fourth and final Test in India. This complaint earned a swift rebuke from one more knowledgeable -‘You haven’t really grasped Test cricket, have you? Why should England jeopardise all the good work of the past few days – and with it, the series – in pursuit of runs they do not need? This isn’t tedious – it’s enthralling: Test cricket of the very highest order.’

The first man thought he knew what cricket was all about – scoring runs and taking wickets – and seeing neither happen here, concluded it was tedious. The second, watching the same action, was able to relate it to the wider context of the match (where England had a slender lead) and the series (which they led 2-1) and see it for what it was – a situation balanced on a knife-edge, a titanic struggle with one side determined to stay in, and the other trying all they knew to get them out. Runs did not matter; what counted was wickets. If England could keep theirs intact, the game would be drawn and the series won, the first such victory in 27 years.

The first man’s error is an interesting one: I think it has a parallel in the reading of stories, especially nowadays, when we (in the ‘West’ at least) have lost the habit of storytelling and are apt to confuse it with other things, like news reports or historical records (I feel there is another parallel here, in the way that photography has obscured our understanding of painting, but that is a subject for another day). Some people might seize on the angel in the story of Samson (and the others) as grounds for doubting its veracity; others, equally, might assert that the mention of the angel (in a sacred text) is proof that such beings exist. Both, I think, are mistaken, in a similar way to the man complaining about slow scoring in the Test match: they don’t understand what they’re talking about.

Stories are retrospective, in the sense that (regardless of how they are told) they look back over a sequence of events which form a whole of some sort: in other words, they are complete, and have unity. That is what makes them stories, and distinguishes them from life, at least as we experience it, from its midst. The beginning of a story can only be fully understood with reference to its end: why it begins where and as it does. Those of us who make our trade in writing stories know that the beginning is often the last part to receive its final form. (There is a parallel here with music, and the opening bars of a symphony, say – once we are familiar with the piece as a whole, we listen with greater understanding – indeed, our understanding of how each part works to create the whole may deepen with every hearing – and that capacity to give more each time is a good index of great art).

I can imagine how some might find this explanation exasperating.

[enter Jeremy Paxman, looking inquisitorial, a sheaf of papers in his hand.]

‘So, Mr Ward, was there an angel?’

‘There was an angel in the story.’

‘But was there an angel?’

‘In the story? Yes, there was.’

‘Never mind about the story! Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – was there an angel?’

‘Jeremy, that is like saying, ‘never mind the Test series, why aren’t they scoring runs?’

(Paxman looks blank)

‘Let me put it another way, Mr Ward, was there really an angel?’

‘Yes, there really was an angel in the story.’

‘Forget about the story! If I was walking past Samson’s mother’s house some nine months before his birth and looked in at the window, would I have seen an angel, yes or no?’

‘That is a hypothetical question.’

‘So there was no angel then?’

‘Why do you think that matters?’

(spluttering) ‘It matters because if there was no angel, then the story isn’t true!’

‘I don’t follow you.’

(patiently, as to a slow-witted child) ‘The story says there was an angel. Now either there was an angel, or there wasn’t. If there wasn’t, then the story isn’t true.’

‘How do you make that out?’

(splutters)‘Because the story says there was one!’

‘Ah!’ (slow-dawning-of-the-light face) ‘I don’t think you’ve got that quite right, Jeremy. The story doesn’t say ‘there was an angel’.’

‘It doesn’t?’

‘No, the story says there was a man -’

‘A man?’

‘Yes. A man called Samson, who was an extraordinary fellow.’

‘But what about the angel?’

‘Well, that heralded his birth, as befits an extraordinary fellow.’

‘But you said there wasn’t an angel!’

‘No, no. I never said that -’

‘You did! Just now – (checks notes, reads triumphantly) “the story doesn’t say there was an angel.’’’

‘Ah! You’ve misunderstood. The story doesn’t say, ‘there was an angel,’ the story says, ‘there was a man – called Samson, an extraordinary man, so extraordinary that his very conception was heralded by an angel.’

‘So you’re saying there was an angel, then?’

‘Yes. In the story. I thought we’d established that?’

(with a great effort of self control) ‘But what about outside the story?’

‘There is no outside the story. The angel only makes sense within the context of the story, just as Alistair Cook’s innings makes sense only within the Test match and the Test series. Just as a particular sequence of notes has its meaning only within and as part of the symphony of which they are the opening bars.’

(Paxman, shaking his head in disbelief) ‘that’s it – we’re out of time!’

(gathers up his papers and withdraws, muttering)

‘Why can’t he just give a straight answer to a simple question? grrrrr’

[door slams]

SET OUT YOUR STALL (first published in The Author, winter 2012)

The editorial in the autumn issue [of The Author] seemed to me as incoherent and

confused in its argument as the image that concluded it: ‘writers

must dig their heels in, stick to their knitting, and stick to their

guns.’

What, all at once?

The gist of what was said is this: times are changing, but we

shouldn’t; we should stick to what we have always done, because

only the few can hope for success from self-publishing; without

middlemen to arbitrate, we would have to rely on the slenderest

chance that our work would reach its public; we do not yet know

who these arbiters will be, so we must insist (how? to whom?)

that our work is valued, and not give it away or price it low; we

should knit ourselves guns, nerve our heels, etc.

But the faults attributed to the changed situation are the very

ones that bedevil us now, namely that few have a chance of

success, and that for most of us, the prospect of reaching the

public is dependent on fortune more than merit. And sticking to

what we have always done just means resigning to others the

responsibility for investing in our work and profiting from it.

What is overlooked is the real potential for change that now

exists thanks to something mistakenly dismissed as fantasy.

Writers can now reach their readers directly, and many do, via

websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook, often in combination,

and not at their publisher’s behest but on their own account; in

this, they are no different from hundreds of other entrepreneurs

in other lines of business who have found that they can open a

shop online and sell anything from bicycle components to artisan

leatherwork around the world without the need for premises on

the high street. The only difference is that writers (one hopes)

might have an edge in skill and imagination when it comes to

presenting their wares.

This is not the same as self-publishing, but it is the

precondition for it. If I make my shopfront sufficiently attractive

and interesting, and take the trouble to find out how best to direct

my target audience to it, people will come just as surely as they

will to skilled online retailers of other goods. What I then sell

them is up to me: certainly I can give them enough of a flavour of

my wares to let them know what is on offer. With no great

expenditure, I can produce – without recourse to anyone –

ebooks that can be read on any available machine, and I can price

them as I see fit. If I prefer, I can enter into partnership with a

printer and produce my own physical books and sell them the

same way. That will cost me upfront, just as it would to buy in any

other goods that I hope to sell on at a profit.

The assertion that ‘without mediation, the aptly named

“information overload” will overwhelm us all’ is another instance

of presenting as a future threat what already exists as a present

reality. It is the mediators – publishers, agents, reviewers – who

are already overwhelmed and without any certain way of

identifying what is worth reading from the vast tide of

submissions that come their way. Tales of famously successful

works that were rejected numerous times are too well-known to

need repeating, while a visit to any bookshop will show that even

for those works that do reach the shelves, the quality is widely

variable. The system is not in danger of becoming dependent on

serendipity: it already is.

There is a confused notion that the middlemen and arbiters are

performing a service for the public (and writers) by sorting the

gold from the dross: what they are actually doing is trying to

make money by picking winners with inadequate equipment

from an impossibly wide field of runners. It is in their interest to

pick a book that they think the public will buy, and having picked

it, they will make every effort to sell it, with the more powerful

able to command far greater resources than the lesser firms.

But it is the public, as Johnson may have said, who are the

ultimate judges: if they are pleased, it is well; if they are not, there

is little profit in telling them why they should have been. So why

bother to second-guess them? Set out your stall and see what they

think.

What now exists – that did not before – is the means not only

for writers to communicate direct with readers, but for any who

love books to tell the world what delights them. Forget the sideissue

of dismally repetitious and potentially faked Amazon

reviews; go and look at the independent blogs and websites of

literate people who love reading books and like talking about

them. They, not Amazon, agents or high street bookshops, will

be the new arbiters: people will very soon find those whose

judgement they trust.

So, put down your knitting, put away your gun, get on your

toes and take a look at what a lot of independent artists are

already doing online; find out about e-publishing formats and

what you need to produce them; research websites and crowdfunding

(remember publishing by subscription? Same thing)

then invite a group of your fellow writers to form a co-operative,

and go and speak to a local printer or artisan bookmaker; and

make a beeline for any local shops that might sell books – not all

of them will be bookshops, but if they showcase local artists on

the wall, they may be open to putting local writers on the counter.

The Writer’s Task

Trawling through my chaotic file system, I came across this, which I wrote a while back – it has at least the merit of brevity (‘Brevity is the soul of wit – if you can’t be witty, at least be brief’) :

‘A character must do, not what I want him or need him to do (for the sake of the story), but rather what he would do in the circumstances – so, the author seeks to contrive the circumstances from which the story will arise, as it were naturally.’

Hmmm. Might just be something in that.

Accommodating monsters: Books as Doorways

An important property of any doorway is that you can close it, and the same goes for a book. I was prompted to this thought by some interesting observations on Balaclava, the forum of the SAS (no, not the special forces, the Scattered Authors’ Society) regarding the misguided urge some people have (publishers among them) to sanitise children’s literature and make it ‘nice’.

‘Anodyne’ as applied to literature is something I have discussed elsewhere. What I want to do here is examine the misunderstanding that leads some people to think that children’s literature should be soft, cosy, reassuring and only that – with no place in it for anything even remotely frightening or disturbing.

They mean well, of course (though we know where good intentions lead). The loss of innocence is a grievous thing and the desire to preserve it as long as possible (in an increasingly hostile world) is perfectly understandable, but there is an analogy to be made here with disease: the best way to preserve your children against the physical ills of this world is not to keep them from any exposure to germs but rather to fortify their constitution and build up their resistance.

‘Ignorance is bliss,’ they say; ‘what you don’t know can’t harm you’ – but that is dangerous counsel. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that you can only control a small part of what gets into a child’s head; and besides, children being human, there is some there already that is strange and dark. Better to fortify them with good books that allow them to make their own excursions into the Dark Wood – because though the power of books is undeniable, we should not overlook the fact that the reader remains in charge.

Books, as I have said elsewhere, are doorways into other worlds – but it is essential to grasp that, like doorways, they can be shut. If a story is frightening you can escape and shut the door behind you (there is a family legend of my brother, when very young, switching off the wireless (as it was then) just as a reading of The Speckled Band reached its climax). Of course, if the book takes a hold on your imagination, you can remain vividly aware of the world that lies beyond the door and the memory can haunt you, in dreams and waking – I remember the same brother giving me an account of an adventure/horror story called (I think) Lonegan and the Ants, about an army of soldier ants eating everything in their path (including a man and a horse if I recall correctly). This so seized my mind that for a time I feared to pass the door of my sister’s room (vacant, as she was at university) lest a column of ants (originating, of course, from under the bed) should come streaming across the hallway.

Curiously, but importantly, I only ever allowed these imagined ants to stream across the hall into the bathroom; there was no question of their taking a right turn and coming down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my brothers. As long as I leapt or dashed past the door, I could make it to the living-room.  It may have been that I was impressed by the fact that the ants in the story relentlessly pursued a straight line – that was part of their menace – but I also think that I was exercising a measure of control: I could not keep the monsters out completely, but I could work out an accommodation with them.

And that, in short, is what good children’s books – and, perhaps, all stories – teach us to do: they allow us to come to an accommodation with the monsters, acknowledging their presence but giving us ways of dodging them – the first heroic act we learn, perhaps, is the dark dash across the cold linoleum from the lightswitch, culminating in a flying leap onto the bed to evade the clutches of the creatures that we know are underneath it, but are not allowed to transgress the bounds that have been set for them.

Anodyne

Anodyne: it’s an interesting word. Strictly, it means a medicine that allays pain, as its etymology suggests, being from the Greek for ‘painless’, or ‘without pain’. A good thing, then, you would think; so it is interesting to consider how it has come to have a pejorative sense, particularly as applied to literature.

Pain and suffering are at the heart of human existence, an inescapable part of life, a puzzle and a mystery: we do not like to suffer pain ourselves, and still less can we bear the thought of pain inflicted on those we love – so how can ‘anodyne’ be a disparagement when applied to literature (or indeed to any art)?

I think I have stated the reason already: pain and suffering are not only part of life, they are bound up with the central mystery of existence – what is Man that is born to die? Why must people suffer? when Midas (he of the golden touch) asked the satyr Silenus what was the best a man could wish for, he got the chilling reply ‘not to be born at all – and the next best is to die young.’

You cannot leave pain out of books, suffering out of Art, because you cannot take it out of life, and Art (in its broadest sense) is our response to being alive.

It is of particular interest to me, as a writer of ‘fantasy’ literature, to consider how Art – music, painting, poetry, literature – reconciles us to suffering. It is not by providing an escape or turning away; it does not pretend the pain is not there, it puts it in its wider context, which is Life itself: and Life (though we often forget this and fail to see) is amazing, marvellous, wonderful.

The Hobbit as adult literature

No, not that kind of ‘adult’ – please!

I have been trying to pin down the source of my conviction that The Hobbit is, essentially, a book more for adults than children – a conviction that I formed on re-reading it after many years.

I think it is because it is about a grand scheme miscarrying and everything going wrong in a way that is all too familiar to the adult mind, but beyond the experience (I think and hope) of a child.

It is at heart a melancholy tale of failed dreams, unintended consequences and ‘collateral damage’, injustice, stubborn folly and greed. Good people are set against one another. Thorin has the best of intentions: he means to recover his ancestral treasure and slay the dragon that took it, so restoring the fortunes of his people. But it all goes wrong: it is not the dwarves who kill Smaug, but Bard the Bowman, and only after the dragon has devastated the Laketown. Nor does the recovery of the treasure make things better: instead it draws a swarm of parties each determined to have what it regards as its rightful share.

There is some justice in their claims – particularly those of the Lakemen whose town has been destroyed as a direct result of the Dwarves’ actions and who have themselves defeated the enemy the Dwarves roused. But Thorin will not heed them and holes up in his ancestral fastness under the mountain, awaiting the support of his cousin, marching with an army from the north. The men and elves besiege them. War threatens; Bilbo tries to avert it by an act which he knows will be seen as the basest treachery – he takes the most valuable jewel of the Dwarves’ treasure, the Arkenstone of Thrain, and hands it over to the besieging forces. The stand-off is only resolved by the arrival of a common enemy, against whom the warring parties unite in a desperate battle.

It sets out as a fairy tale, but at almost every point it runs counter to the conventions of the genre: slaying the dragon, recovering one’s ancestral treasure and restoring the fortunes of one’s house turn out not to be the unmitigated goods they are supposed to be. A lot of people end up dead and homes and livelihoods are destroyed. It reminds me more than a little of the recent history of Iraq.