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Travel Light cover

Literary history is littered with the husks of reversed fortunes. Writers once lauded are forgotten, and minor authors are rediscovered to indulgent fanfare. The book that was once up careers downwards, and the mentored becomes the master. When The Lord of the Rings was first published, Allen and Unwin knew that such a strange book by an outsider of Tolkien’s idiosyncratic calibre needed a few literary heavy-hitters to offer positive judgement, paving a way into the libraries of sophisticated readers and the dailies’ books pages. In thus inventing the celebrity blurb, they turned to C.S. Lewis, Richard Hughes, and a fiercely intelligent writer of startling breadth named Naomi Mitchison.

Sixty years on, it is Tolkien who is feted and Mitchison who is forgotten. The woman who helped sell Tolkien’s epic to a sceptical reading public has been relegated to rare footnotes buried in the reverent biographies written about him. A female writer being eclipsed by the similar work of a privileged male writer is barely news, but in Mitchison’s case the story seems to be more one of publishing luck than active suppression—well known and highly respected in her day, Mitchison’s is a tale as much about the vagaries of the publishing industry as it is the evils of the literary patriarchy.

Hurrah, then, for Small Beer’s Peapod Classics imprint, which seeks to republish quirky classics that have for too long been mouldering in the corners of second-hand bookstores. As the second book in this series, they have published Mitchison’s 1952 fairy story, Travel Light. The story of Halla, a princess spirited away from her evil and murderous stepmother and brought up amongst bears and dragons, Travel Light takes place in mythical lands not unlike those of The Hobbit, but also in the very real city of Byzantine Constantinople. And it treats the two no differently—Steinvor, the harried valkyrie, is as real a character as the Emperor, if not more so.

In that solicited thumbs-up for The Lord of the Rings, Mitchison compared Tolkien’s work to both science fiction and Malory’s Arthurian cycle. This is telling: Mitchison likes to mix styles and worlds, and unlike Tolkien was not so much interested in creating a new mythology as revivifying the old. Tolkien rewrites Beowulf to write about Edoras; in Travel Light, the family of Grendel are actually given a cameo. In Mitchison, the unreal mixes with the real—her books assume that the mythological was also actual, and that its characters and races continued to exist well into recorded history, as glosses and marginalia scribbled at the sides of accepted human knowledge. “But dragons there are, yes, and giants!” Halla protests when these staples of her infancy are spoken of in the mythical past tense. “In the same way, perhaps, that there are angels and other good spirits, my child,” comes the reply, “but as seldom seen.” (p.128)

Indeed, Travel Light is all about this clash between what we believe and what is real: consistently, it tells us in its quiet way that reality is simply a matter of perspective—in bearish, for example, there is no way “to think about clouds or the flying of eagles, because the bears did not look up into the sky.” (p.2) When Halla spends time with bears, she becomes a bear; when she is schooled by dragons, she assumes herself to be a dragon. The God of Halla’s world, the All-Father, is known as a Wanderer, a being constantly walking between cultures and people and worlds. He tells Halla, “Travel light, my child, as the Wanderer travels, and his love shall be with you.” (p.47) Time and again, it is flexibility—her ability to speak new languages, or a willingness to understand others—that helps Halla survive in her long journey from Novrogod to Constantinople (known to her as Micklegard) and back again.

Mitchison is a profoundly incisive and able writer. Her prose is restrained but accomplished, and, however important her message, she never hectors (not something, perhaps, we can always say of that Tokien fellow). She is aware of her chosen mode, and the focus of Travel Light is always its story. There are moments of gore and pain and devastating emotion, but Mitchison’s enviable skill is to paint these with an economy and plainness that communicates the depth of horror or joy in a scene without labouring the point or boring the reader more interested in the next episode of action. This is a fairytale first and foremost; its intelligence is ever-present but always understated, and the reader immediately warms to this commendable lack of self-importance. Take this delightful quote from Uggi, Halla’s dragon guardian, when Halla asks him where he got the Princess of the Spice Lands’ scarf:

“The Princess of the Spice Lands was offered to my cousin by the populace. It was a very suitable and acceptable idea on their part. Unfortunately, there was a hero sent to interfere with everybody’s best interests. In the result the princess—and the hero—perished. My poor cousin had a nasty jag over one eye. He gave me the scarf in exchange for a duplicate bracelet I had acquired. Yes, yes.” (p.5)

Travel Light is a gently subversive book. Unlike many works of fiction for children, it steadfastly refuses to insult the intelligence of its reader, instead assuming that he or she can cope with difficult and uncomfortable ideas. Thus, the worldly priesthood comes in for some serious criticism, along with the rest of organised religion (one character’s take on the succession of Saint Peter— “can milk stay good that is left too long in the bowl?” (p.61)), whilst the moral certitude of the average fairytale is entirely jettisoned. This is a book in which the term ‘hero’ is used pejoratively, simply to signify a person who makes their living from killing and murder. The truth changes based on where we are, and the hero is always killing someone with a family and friends. Halla is terrified by them, because they are by and large convinced they are doing right … and in that way almost always do harm. After all, “no princess was ever asked whether she wanted to be rescued and carried off by a dragon-slayer.” (pg. 11)

Nevertheless, belief is not derided in Travel Light. Rather, it is seen as important to our identity and self-worth, but not something that we should hold onto too blindly, for fear of disillusionment or worse. Even time is fluid in this book—Halla is still more or less a child by its end, and yet many more years than that have passed—and so its relativism becomes a practical method for living, rather than an apologist’s get-out clause. In short, Travel Light teaches its young readers respect, understanding, and tolerance, and it does so lightly and without self-righteousness.

This is a gem of a book, with memorable characters, a wonderful narrative thread, and the sort of questioning intelligence that is often woefully missing from children’s literature. Mitchison and her complex, accessible tale demands a modern audience, and will surely find fans in readers of Philip Pullman and any writer who engages as they entertain. If a child asked me for a story, this is now the one I would take from the shelf. But secretly, I’d be reading it to myself.

A new generation of blurb-writers needs to get scribbling.

Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.



Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
20 comments on “Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison”
Wandering hedgehog

I am rather astounded to hear that Naomi Mitchison, who died in 1999 aged 101 (obituary and tribute) and had at least 2 biographies written even before her death (not to mention her own autobiographical memoirs) is 'relegated to rare footnotes' in Tolkien studies. Mitchison had a long, diverse and fascinating life (one of the biographies is entitled The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison) and is far from forgotten as a writer and political figure.
It is of course arguable that the very breadth of her interests means that her impact in any particular sphere is somewhat reduced because she cannot be contained within any single category. However, she is a recognised pioneering figure in both the 'new' historical novel as it emerged in the interwar period, getting away from Farnolian pish-tushery and incorporating the insights of contemporary anthropology and archaeology, and feminist science fiction (Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a classic work in the field and has been reprinted as such).
Travelling Light was, like The Corn King and the Spring Queen, republished by Virago in the 1980s. It has not been mouldering forgotten in secondhand bookstores since 1952.

Dan Hartland

I'd be interested in how many other readers of that review would have heard of Mitchison or realized her significance. I read around for that piece - there were just six written books by her or about her in Birmingham Central Library, and just one book in Birmingham University library (a collection of her short fiction). The mentions I found of her in numerous other works on fantasy - Tolkienesque and otherwise - were indeed cursory and generally uninformative.
It's certainly true that in certain (pretty tight) circles Mitchison is rightly remembered. But as a mainstream figure? Of course she's either only dimly remembered or entirely forgotten. This was my only implication - and it is a state of affairs I hope it at least in part redressed by the reprinting of Travel Light.

To answer your question, Dan, I remember reading Memoirs of a Spacewoman in its Women's Press reprint in, I guess, the mid-90s; and I remember having a sense of her as a writer of distinction on the fringes of sf. I half-remember hearing that she was one of the wise heads at the Arts Council who ensured Interzone's underwriting. She gets an extensive and thoughtful write-up in the Clute/Nicholls Sf Encyclopedia, and a briefer one in the Fantasy Encyclopedia. And I remember also that her life intersected with Auden's quite a bit. Beyond that, I'm not that familiar with the other fields in which she worked, like historical fiction.
I think the broader point raised by Wandering Hedgehog is what you and I were talking about earlier this week - how the processes of canon-formation work. That, perhaps, someone like Mitchison who spread her energy across a number of fields is less remembered (is, perhaps, less easy to remember) than someone who spends their life in one field. Which may not, of course, be the only factor...

Dan Hartland

One book, a couple of genre encyclopedia entries, and a few half-remembered bits of trivia - and I'd venture to suggest, Graham, you're knowledgeof such things is considerably greater than that of the wider reading public. It seems a sad fact, but a fact all the same, that Mitchison does not any longer get her due to the extent her (male, natch) contemporaries do.
I'm not sure that the number of fields Mitchison operated in resulted in her being forgotten (off the top of my head, Swift wrote journalism, polemics, poetry, novels and sermons of all stripes and seems to have done quite well out of it) so much as publishing problems and, yes, the inevitable preferment of a male-written epic with lots of battles in it over quieter and more subtle work by a woman. (It's worth pointing out that my main point in the review was to contrast the role reversal between Tolkien and Mitchison, rather than to make any wider point.)

Well, I've read some of Mitchison's work and have been recommending her to SF readers and writers for many years. Memoirs of a Spacewoman is a well-known classic of feminist SF.
Whether it will ever make a zillion dollars like LOTR has - who can say? (Who would have thought they'd make a movie out of "Solaris"?)
Does having heard of Mitchison automatically make me, too, a mere rememberer of half-forgotten moldy trivia?
Is it so "natural" that you assume the wider reading public to want a particular take on battle and war? Who is your assumed wider reading public? Why conflate literary quality with popular success? What's with the dissing of kid's books? It's not like it was anything other than a marketing decision, to put it in that genre, these days. The book could have been framed completely differently.
And who are you assuming you're talking to here at SH? It's not exactly Asimov's circa 1983 ...
I get it that you like the book and think Mitchison should be more widely known, and I agree with you. But how you frame your argument comes off fairly shallow - as you say, a blurb.

Dan Hartland

Liz, you say Travel Light is an accepted classic of feminist SF as if that in some way confound my simple observation that, once upon a time, Mitchison was more famous than Tolkien and that now she, erm, isn't. I think it might be true to say that feminist SF may not be a genre with the highest number of readers.
I don't equate popularity with literary success. I do equate it with, well, popularity. I understand that it's important authors - particularly female ones - aren't dismissed summarily. But the reaction to my defensible assertion that a woman who once promoted Tolkien is now being reprinted not by Pan Macmillan but by Small Beer Press seems to me somewhat kneejerk, as does your interpretation of comments regarding children's literature. Of course all genres are marketing decisions - that doesn't stop us setting up websites that deal exclusively with SF&F now, does it?
You appear to be wilfully reading implications in my review that simply aren't there. When I note that this is a kid's book with brains, I am not necessarily saying that most kids books don't have brains (although, like a lot of books for adults, some certainly don't). When I say that Mitchison has been replaced by the man to whom she once leant intellectual credence, I am not suggesting she is a trifling writer who has been completely forgotten by everyone in the world ever, and who is this Naomi Mitchison person anyway?
This was, simply, a review of a book I enjoyed, that used the curious inversion of her relationship with Tolkien as a way to get into the matter of Mitchison's work. To read anything more into the piece is, to be perfectly frank, making more of it than it actually is.

Dan, I think the issue is that you're conflating two very different things. The first is your statement that Mitchison was once more famous than JRRT, and now isn't. Fine, indisputable. (How many writers are more famous than JRRT?) The second is your statement that she's now "forgotten". Not indisputable. I mentioned the Clute Encyclopedias because they're my first resort of choice when I run into a genre writer I've not heard of; but I'm sure plenty of other reference sources would have given you similar information. (I assume, for a start, she's now in the DNB.) It's a long while since I've sampled the delights of Birmingham Central Library, but I'm betting they have all three. Even if not, five minutes' Googling would have found you some references suggesting, at the very least, that this was someone who had such a varied career that it wasn't that safe to suggest her life's work was now reduced to "rare footnotes buried in the reverent biographies written about [Tolkien]."

Wandering hedgehog

Mitchison is, indeed, in the (new) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography - she died just before the cut-off date of 2000. Unfortunately as the online version is subscription only I can't link to the entry, which provides a good summary of Mitchison's significance.

Dan Hartland

The point here is surely that Tolkien's fame passed over into the mainstream, whilst in Mitchison's case, if this review had been posted on a non-genre site, this argument would be happening to nowhere near the degree it is here. She may not be forgotten, but the real question is, 'where is she remembered?'
I confess to being amused by the sight of a string of comments essentially taking issue with a single line of an introducion, rather than the main positive body of the review. Here in genre or in feminist criticism, Mitchison may be remembered with bells on - but this importance failed to be transplanted to a wider audience, as Tolkien's did. (From this edition's introduction - "With luck - and the right illustrator - Travel Light could have been one of the last century's most popular children's books. [...] Instead, well-read copies have been passed by readers from hand to hand." You don't have to like Mitchison's status; you do rather have to accept it.)
I agree that this is my fault - perhaps 'forgotten' was too strong a word, used in the interests of effect. But perhaps it wasn't. I suspect it depends on your audience, and that review is aimed at a general (even - gasp! - mainstream) reader, not an in-the-know genre wonk. This may be a mistake when writing for SH, but hey. That's just me.
Finally, a word from Peapod classics: "Peapod classics is a new, handy-sized occassional series from Small Beer Press of [rediscovered classics] that we love so much, books we missed being able to find in our favourite bookshops, that we had to bring them back into print."
Notes of similarly worded complaint should of course be sent to the series editor.

Wandering hedgehog

Just for the record on Mitchison, it might be worth recording that Memoirs of a Spacewoman was republished in a (non-gender specific, non-feminist) SF Masterworks series during the 1970s, so, not just a feminist ghetto-girl.

Dan Hartland

Certainly not. But still, it would seem, in a ghetto of another description (SF Masterworks not being well known for their mainstream appeal). This is not a value judgement - some fine writers are only ever appreciated by a small circle of critics or readers.
It's perfectly possible to believe Mitchison a titan of letters whilst at the same time admitting that her readership has not been as wide as we may have liked. We operate within a very specific culture here - the fact that we know who she is does not necessarily mean, sadly, that everyone has read Memoirs of a Spacewoman.

Su

Not being a big SF reader, I'd never heard of Mitchison until I read this review. I'm intending to read "Travel Light" now though (and I know I'm not the only person in the same position).
I'm intruiged by this discussion, because there does seem to be a presumption that Mitchison's work is widely known about - possibly it is in some circles, but then "some circles" and "widely" are usually mutally exclusive descriptors.
There also seems to be a presumption that to acknowledge that an author is not widely recognised is in some way a criticism of that author; and yet the review tells me quite clearly that Mitichison's work deserves the wider recognition it has recently been denied.
I'm curious to know if I've somehow missed the point of the objections? Perhaps because I'm not a part of the usual target demographic?

Zoe Selengut

if this review had been posted on a non-genre site, this argument would be happening to nowhere near the degree it is here.
Really? I first heard of Naomi Mitchison when I was a teenager looking for more historical novelists along the lines of Mary Renault or Robert Graves; she is less well known than the latter two these days, I realize, but hardly obscure. I am a SF reader, it's true, but that's not why I know who she is.

Dan Hartland

The historical novel is only marginally a more mainstream form of literature than fantasy, though, isn't it? Mitchison has not made that cross into the wider culture (or perhaps she once did and has been forced back), and I'm not sure this point can be disputed. (Let all of us walk into our local Borders today and ask everyone we meet if they've heard of her.)
We can have this discussion from our privileged and well-informed position in a book-laden corner of the literary world until we're all blue in the face (I suspect some of us already are), but the basic fact won't be changed - certain people remember Mitchison with the sort of respect she deserves. The vast majority of people have never heard of her, despite the fact that she once sold to them the one fantasy writer everyone has heard of. That seems odd to me, and worthy of comment.

Wandering hedgehog

The vast majority of people have never heard of her
I fear that this could be said of fairly large numbers of writers, genre and mainstream, outside 'book-laden corner[s] of the literary world'! There are a handful of household names (Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, as well as a few names probably better known by repute than actual reading), and a huge number of The Rest. These would include, I suspect, a significant percentage of the authors who appear in (e.g.) Penguin Classics. There is a huge range running between 'everyone has heard of' and 'obscure/forgotten'. It's not a binary distinction.

Dan Hartland

It's not a binary distinction.
Correct. But now we're talking so vaguely as to invite ridicule (well, OK, I invited it already). The 'do more people know Jerome K. Jerome (Penguin Classics) than Naomi Mitchison (Small Beer Press)' debate isn't like to get us very far. Though it might be worth noticing, since you mentioned the series, that Mitchison isn't published by Penguin Classics, which is in itself surely worthy of some note (however trifling).
There is a conversation to be had somewhere about why some writers' memories are kept alive by only a relatively small circle beyond the realm of the large chain bookstores and Amazon, whilst others of similar or lesser importance can be readily found on those very shelves (even if they are rarely take off them), or inadvertently paraphrased on a semi-regular basis. I suspect, though, that the strong objection to my admittedly simplistic language, precludes that debate from happening here.
Given that it was my genuine interpretation from the immediate evidence that Mitchison had rather fallen from the level of public note she once enjoyed, I'm not sure I can promise to be more careful in the future. But know that I certainly don't disagree with you; it's simply a matter of emphasis.

Jackie M.

I'd never heard of her either. I'm more widely read than the average "mainstream" reader -- even the average "mainstream SF/F" -- but I'm decades behind many (most?) SH readers on the SF/F canon.
All nitpicking aside, that was a lovely review. I'll probably be adding Mitchison's book(s) to my Christmas list.

Dan Hartland

Thanks, Jackie - it's nice to know that somewhere along the way a person or two got turned onto Mitchison and this book. They both deserve a few new readers!

Mattia Valente

Great review, and this is definitely a book I'll be picking up in the near future. And to answer one of the questions in the comments: No, I'd never heard of Mitchinson prior to this review, and I do consider myself fairly widely read (although yes, my back-catalog SF+F reading is somewhat lacking).
Frankly, I'm boggling at some of the arguments here; all the evidence presented points to the fact that Mitchinson is underappreciated and largely forgotten by most readers in this day and age, myself included. The circles where she is remembered can hardly be called 'wide'.
Huff all you want, but a writeup in an Encyclopedia of Fantasy or Science Fiction, no matter how extensive, even a mention in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography detailing her significance as an author mean just about nothing when we're talking broad acclaim and popularity. Small press reprints, Masterworks series reprints, again, don't tell me the author's remained widely read or appreciated. Some of the current SF Masterworks reprints are the only edition many stories are available in, and/or the first reprints in years. It says nothing of the quality of the work, only of its lasting, widespread popularity. It speaks more to the value placed on the work itself by critics, editors and (to a degree) publishers, which was not the argument being made.
I can't help but be mildly amused at this storm-in-a-teacup over a perhaps slightly too strongly worded introductory paragraph of a solid, thought-provoking, even glowing review of a book that (everyone seems to agree) deserves to be read more broadly than it has been. It's a book review, folks, Not a comprehensive biography, not a massively in-depth LitCrit dissection of the work, and it succeeds admirably at what it sets out to do.

tom

Never heard of Naomi Mitchison, and I've read. Alot.
So bye-bye feminists and your ever-special-heroine-that-can-do-no-wrong. The fella gave her a glowing review, obviously enjoyed the book, so stop calling him the product of a patriarchal society and what-not.

 

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