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Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 3 – 16 December

“The greatest luxury I know,” Eleanor Roosevelt said once, “is sitting up reading in bed.” I couldn’t agree more, though I’d add that it’s even more luxurious to sit there snugly, warm as toast, while outside the blizzard rages. With that in mind, and because this blog is being written ahead of time as we head south for an extended Christmas break, I’d like to change the format this week and share with you ten of my favourite books set in the bleak midwinter. Every year I take down one or more from the shelves, and I’m transported back to a Christmas some 40-odd years ago, when I was nobbut a bairn: when the fields were white, the skies were dark and heavy with snow, rooks nested in the bare branches and I was safe indoors, a log fire blazing in the inglenook; and I read on oblivious while the wind rattled the doors, darkness fell and fractals of ice frosted over the windows, and somewhere in the distance a wolf began to howl…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight*. A classic medieval poem that’s very readable in a modern translation. It’s Christmas at King Arthur’s court, and the decadent knights in white satin sit around carousing instead of knightly knighting. Suddenly a green giant (why do I immediately think of sweetcorn?) rides into the hall and challenges any one of the knights to cut off his head with his great axe, on condition they will take a return blow at his castle in a year and a day. Only one dares accept, and he finds he’s let himself in for more than he bargained for. An inspiration for Tolkien and Alan Garner and one of the wellsprings of English fantasy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The original and best Christmas story. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of the Muppets, so wonderful is their version, but when the book contains such lines as this you know it will endure: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. ”

Frosty Morning

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Not altogether a Christmas book, but included for Mole getting out of his depth in the Wild Wood in the snow, and the chapter where Mole comes upon his abandoned burrow at Christmas, is overcome with homesickness and remorse, and Ratty gives him the best gifts of all, friendship and understanding.

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson. The world of the Moomins is utterly original, full of warmth and love but, like the best children’s books, strange and not altogether safe. The Moomins usually hibernate, but one winter Moomintroll unexpectedly wakes up. He finds himself in a frozen, otherworldly landscape, and meets creatures he had no idea coexisted with his kind. Haunting, funny and unsettling by turns.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The archetypal midwinter children’s fantasy book. “It will be a bad night,” said Mr Dawson. “The Walker is abroad, and this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” Wow. It’s a classic for a reason.

Fairy Dust and Fenceposts

The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon. A neglected children’s fantasy. It’s Christmas in Norfolk, and some teens on a school trip find an ancient buckle. But they’re pursued into their everyday lives by a terrifying black hound and its blank-faced master, and the sinister Leathermen, and under the snow the Giant is waking up… (Seriously, British young adult fiction in the 1970s was weird.)

The Sword in the Stone by TH White. I can’t read the rest of the series, it’s just too sad altogether, but the first book in White’s Arthurian sequence is simply wonderful. He makes few concessions to a younger readership, and the adventures of the young Wart as he learns how to be a good king from birds and beastly beasts are a delight. (White’s good-hearted but irascible Merlin was surely second cousin to Gandalf, too.) Not really a Christmas book, but it spans a year and you learn what it was like to live through a medieval winter, with a boar hunt that shows the author had read his Sir Gawain.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. Not strictly speaking a winter book either, as it covers all the seasons, but it reaches its climax in winter so I’m claiming it. A young Canadian vicar is diagnosed with a terminal illness. His bishop sends him to a remote First Nations village so he can learn enough of life to be ready to die. A beautiful and wise book, and the end, when it comes, is right (sorry, I seem to have something in my eye). If God ever felt like destroying the world again because humanity wasn’t worth the trouble—and let’s face it, He’d have a point—this is the book I would offer as Exhibit A in the case for the defence.

Dunes at Reiss

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner. Four short stories, each one a different moment in the history the author’s family living on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, culminating in the building of a sledge in which all the skills of the generations combine and the author is just the latest in a line of craftsmen stretching back down the generations. Garner is a masterful writer of dark fantasy but for me this is his masterpiece. If I was Minister of Education I’d stop schools teaching Lord of the Flies tomorrow and replace it with this, a much more rewarding experience.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. The Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas has disappeared, so Death decides to fill in for him, to keep the tradition alive. Very funny, of course (the scene where Death turns up in a department store and starts actually giving the children whatever they ask for is worth the admission price alone), but, as ever with Pratchett, learned too and with important things to say about traditions and their pagan origins.

Oh, and speaking of Eleanor Roosevelt, here’s my favourite quote of hers: “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall…”

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links, which help support the site.

11 comments to Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 3 – 16 December

  • e

    I thought I was the only one who couldn’t stand the second and third (and fourth?) parts of Once and Future King! I read it when I was very young, several decades ago, and listening to the audiobook recently I still knew all the horrifying bits that were about to come along. But the first book is lovely.

    • Gordon

      Lord, yes, it’s quite a shock to switch from the charm of The Sword in the Stone to – SPOILERS! – the ugly and messy slaughter of a unicorn. I don’t think I ever recovered from that. Though I do have a soft spot for the aching sadness of the unfinished Book of Merlin, which would have had Arthur going back to the gentle wisdom of animals. Ah, well. It doesn’t change the fact that The Sword in the Stone is a brilliant reimagining of Arthur’s childhood; though as a lad I always wanted more of Archimedes, Merlin’s wise old owl!

  • Sharon Gunason Pottinger

    I love hearing your description of favourite books. I can never conjure them at will, but oh yes, to Dickens and Wind in the Willows and Once and Future King and Gawain and the Green Knight.I remember it best as a deliciously illustrated children’s book called Gawain and the Loathly Lady.

  • Deb

    Cooper, Janssen, anon, Garner, White, Pratchett, all of that; but whaur’s yer titles hen? I’d like to chase up some of the others. re First Nation stories, I recommend Tonto & the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie.

  • Judit M./Finland

    Hello Gordon and thanks for the Gansey blog! Merry Christmas and happy knitting in the new year.

  • =Tamar

    Hogfather all the way, and don’t forget the film!

  • Jane Callaghan

    We put holly above every gap in the walls on Christmas Eve. This isn’t an ancient family tradition – it’s terror induced by The Dark Is Rising and the lines you quoted.

  • Lynne Brock

    Merry Christmas and safe travels Gordon and Margaret. Thank you for sharing your skill, knowledge, wit, photos and times with us for so many years. Best wishes for a healthy, happy, and productive New Year.

  • Gordon

    Hello everyone, and thank you for the good wishes expressed here, on Facebook and offline – it’s very much appreciated. Happy Christmas!

    • Claire

      I’m rereading the dark is rising this year (I remember commenting last year when you mentioned it too) – have you read John Gordon’s The Grasshopper? Very seasonal (set in the weeks before Christmas) and quite odd but I think you’d enjoy the finely tuned prose, interesting characters and gripping story line. We have a few in your list in common so I might need to try the ones I haven’t read…
      Merry Christmas!

      • Gordon

        Hi Claire, no that’s one I haven’t come across. He’s an excellent stylist, and deserves to be better known. I wish I’d discovered him when I was in my teens in the 1970s! Anyway, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to an online retailer to see if I can get a copy I go…

        Merry Christmas to you too!

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