Mythic Elements

Stephen Bann

  • Queen of Stones by Emma Tennant
    Cape, 160 pp, £6.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 224 02601 1
  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by William Kotzwinkle, based on a screenplay by Melissa Mathison
    Arthur Barker, 246 pp, £6.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 213 16848 0
  • Tales of Afghanistan by Amina Shah
    Octagon Press, 128 pp, £6.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 900860 94 4
  • The Masque of St Eadmundsburg by Humphrey Morrison
    Blond and Briggs, 228 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 85634 127 4
  • A Villa in France by J.I.M. Stewart
    Gollancz, 206 pp, £6.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 575 03103 4
  • Collected Stories: Vol. III by Sean O’Faolain
    Constable, 422 pp, £9.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 09 463920 5
  • Work Suspended and Other Stories by Evelyn Waugh
    Penguin, 318 pp, £2.75, November 1982, ISBN 0 14 006518 0

In order to envisage the curious achievement of Emma Tennant’s Queen of Stones, you must first imagine that Virginia Woolf has rewritten Lord of the Flies. Interior monologues and painfully acute perceptions of a seaside landscape combine to colour in what is essentially a tale of a group of girls wrecked on a desert island. The fact that the desert island is just off the coast of Dorset, and has been isolated by an exceptionally heavy fog, is quite immaterial. It is the isolation from the adult world that counts – and of course the fateful pattern of relationships that emerges from that isolation. But having imagined Mrs Woolf at this recuperative task, you must then take into account the likelihood that she has been nosing through the Hogarth Press edition of the works of Freud. Intercalated with the story of rivalries and affiliations among the hapless castaways is a series of reports by ‘Dr Ross, Freudian Psychoanalyst, aged 76’. Despite his great age, Dr Ross has a shrewd diagnosis to make about Bess Plantain, the adolescent girl who initiates the collective violence.

Emma Tennant’s novel thus proceeds through a kind of lurching counterpoint. One moment we are under the blanket of fog, observing the fact that twins stick together and mysterious foreign girls have an odd effect on the homogeneity of the group. The next moment, we are back in the consulting-room. Dr Ross is painstakingly reviewing the symptoms of Bess’s earlier life, and moving towards an interpretation which seems unashamedly parasitic on Freud’s case-history of Dora. The psychoanalytic commentary is not the only adult vantage-point in this dialogue between event and interpretation. Bess Plantain comes from a wealthy background, and can therefore be offered the luxury of a Freudian psychoanalysis. But Melanie Ayres, a companion on the sponsored walk which led to the fog-bound isolation, is not so fortunately placed. The commentary on her deprived and eventful life is provided by ‘Social Worker Ms S.B. Potts’ (no age given).

It is not all that difficult to grasp Emma Tennant’s strategy at this point. Lord of the Flies is a novel about boys. Queen of Stones is a novel about girls. Lord of the Flies is a story which makes use of the exotic props of the desert island location, and accepts the inheritance of Defoe and Stevenson. Queen of Stones keeps closer to home, making the psychological as well as the socio-economic backgrounds of the children impinge upon the exceptional series of actions which takes place on the Dorset coast. It would be possible to proceed from here to the suggestion that Lord of the Flies is a mythologising book, which deliberately exploits the sacred and mysterious aspects of collective violence, while Queen of Stones is a demythologising book, which places the instruments for analysing the violence in the reader’s hands. That is certainly the implication of the ‘Short Bibliography’ at the close of the novel, which adds Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren and Zweig’s Mary, Queen of Scots to the psychoanalytic resources of Freud, Ferenczi and Winnicott. If Queen of Stones is not quite convincing enough to persuade us to accept it on its own terms, that is not for want of clarity and definition. At least we are provoked to think carefully about the different varieties of mythmaking, and their relationship both to the stories we tell and the lives we lead.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is also a novel about what Newsweek calls ‘growing up wise’. But as any American child will tell you, it is not really a novel at all – more in the line of a ‘novelisation’ (Newsweek again) of the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s colossally successful film. Michelangelo’s renowned image of God making finger contact with Adam (known to viewers of London Weekend Television through the surrogate emblem of Melvyn Bragg conducting the live electricity of the Arts) has been hijacked for the dust-cover of this generic hybrid. Let us pause before the engaging image of the outstretched fingers of the human child glowing softly in response to the scaly protuberances of the extra-terrestrial being. Put yourself in William Kotzwinkle’s shoes. How do you actually go about making a novel from the screenplay of a colossally successful film? Who on earth (or in intra-terrestrial space) is your public? Is it the people who, by some quite unexplainable oversight, have happened not to see the film, but feel themselves to be becoming part of a threatened minority? Is it the people who have seen the film but cannot afford to queue from half-way round the block to see it again? Is it (an insidious thought, and one that might have sapped the writer’s morale) the cynical parents who hope to stave off their children’s urge to see the film by this paltry gesture, and thereby save themselves the trouble of queuing from half-way round the block?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in