SEPTEMBER 19, 2020
IN THE LATE 1990s and early 2000s, millennials in the United States were tweens and teens, and the Harry Potter phenomenon hit hard. There was nothing so comforting in the face of overseas wars and 9/11 as a bit of Blairite neoliberalism from abroad: the British school novel wrapped up with a bow, minus the unhappy homosexuals. Thanks to a combination of J. K. Rowling’s transphobia and homophobia, broadcast on Twitter, as well as the series’s own questionable choices (such as a race of enslaved serving elves), enthusiasm for the franchise is waning, not least among the highbrow literary-critical set, who arguably never really rated the series anyway — at least until forced to by concessions to both the market and a grating, unavoidable pervasiveness. In the wake of the Wizarding World’s decline, however, a new fantasy release from Britain promises to raise important questions about the political exoskeleton of the fantasy genre, its historical connotations as import, and where American expectations for it lie.
The elevation of British fantasy to literary heights that speculative fiction otherwise rarely sees was already a well-established trend by the time Potter fandom exploded. During the middle years of the 20th century, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien formalized a tradition for high fantasy to serve as an expression of quintessential Englishness, especially for American readers. This flavor of Englishness was intellectually and politically conservative: it idealized agrarianism, implicit racial bias, classicism, and anti-feminism. Nonetheless, it started an enduring trend: England would supply the coffee tables of the American chattering classes with new flavors of fantasy that stoked the imagination but never really made anyone truly uncomfortable. It’s all in all a very normative, very white, very bourgeois wardrobe to make a world in — yet it’s also one that provides a powerful scaffolding of compelling literary prose that can be reworked by its inheritors. As far as ossuaries go, midcentury British import fantasy is rich in grave goods.
The recent controversy about the moral values implicit in the world of Harry Potter raises again the question of what fantasy, and particularly fantasy that comes to America with the imprimatur of a British literary press, can or should do politically — what ends it can serve without being obvious or annoyingly pat. Leftist-informed ideas of other possible worlds carry an unfair reputation for providing boring diktat, after all. Ursula K. Le Guin’s oeuvre alone disproves this, but Le Guin is part of a more (and now quite prominent) radical American speculative tradition that isn’t rooted in children of idle means, public schools, or gentle shires owned by the default aristocracy.
Despite Philip Pullman’s significant contribution to the contrary, British import fantasy can still evoke, for the American leftist imaginary, the lingering sting of C. S. Lewis offering the child of liberal vegetarians as a laughingstock in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This, in turn, has sometimes made the American left wary of such imported speculative worlds and their preconditions. Unless, of course, such fictions are overtly — and sometimes with a regrettable, thudding obviousness — positioned as contrary to that tradition from the outset. Varying degrees of this tic pervade China Miéville’s work and the New Wave precursors to modern British weird and speculative fiction.
A new British fantasy novel, Mordew by Alex Pheby, promises to reignite the transatlantic leftist fantasy imaginary, departing from midcentury predecessors in tone and political aim, but not in magisterial literary work and inventive quality. More Gormenghast than Lord of the Rings, and indeed with a Peakean second sense for crumbling architectonic and fleshly horrors alike, Mordew is a book with a map in the front that doesn’t reinscribe the hierarchies innate to the Lewis-Tolkien legacy in import fantasy and its perceived “Englishness.” In an opening that feels eerily prescient, young Nathan Treeves faces pressure as his father dies of a lung disease that primarily affects the working class. On the outskirts of a glittering urban core to which he has little access, Nathan’s father coughs up lungworms in vividly material Dickensian poverty, “a writhing black mass of them, hundreds, glistening in there.”
Nathan has two choices: he can “black his eyes” and engage in sex work like his mother, selling himself on the streets of the city (Susan, we recall, was booted from Narnia for the sin of merely wearing nylons and lipstick), or he can do something he’s been forbidden to: “Sparking.” Mordew isn’t just any city. God is dead (indeed, Mort Dieu, as the virtuosic appendix of terms reminds us), and the storage conditions of the body, buried under the streets and houses, leave something to be desired. Who killed God and why, as well as who currently is a god and why, are the core questions to the secret of the novel and its system of magical theosophy, which is as Leibnizian and complex as any real magic deserves to be. For practical reasons, the body of God changes things in the city because it seeps into the ground, causing a phenomenon Pheby dubs the “Living Mud.” The mud grows things — “flukes” — that usually die quickly but sometimes live and grow into children made out of objects.
The Living Mud’s capacity to make people casts many of Pheby’s characters as apt metaphors for themselves. Gam Halliday, the ringleader of a band of lovable urchins, for example, was culled from the mud “like a bird’s nest […] made from twigs and leavings, stuck together against the wind with spit.” His fence and general middleman, the unctuous Padge, is “shaped […] from a block of butter gone rancid, and stuffed him into black velvet […] topped him off with ringlets shaved from hair sellers.” The Living Mud also kicks out such delightful flukes as a “limb baby,” a ring of wriggling arms that Nathan somehow generates through “Sparking” during a moment of utmost need and sells to the tanner for gloves.
The descriptions of leather and meat in the book are stomach-turning, not to mention the portrayal of corpses and sewers. Mordew, despite or perhaps because of its characters’ determination to exist in the face of grimness, serves up an imaginative and fun read — just don’t eat much at first. If Tolkien’s long slog to Mordor and Lewis’s lion crucifixion whet the appetite for meaningful fantasy misery from Britain, Mordew succeeds in giving such suffering context and meaning (especially in places where Harry Potter often felt pat). If Tolkien’s worldbuilding was Morris-esque arts and crafts, and Potter the equivalent of the IKEA flat-pack, Mordew is Bauhaus-like, where form follows function but not at the expense of beauty or style. The urban fabric of Mordew as a city is described at great length, from its shimmering, slippery black glass ramp-road leading from the gray and somehow dead decadence of the merchant elite to the brawling, teeming masses of its slums. For Pheby, material culture and urbanisms are facets that serve to reflect the nature of characters’ lives and challenges. The city is itself a character. Mordew, unlike Narnia, does not need a wardrobe to leave the world, but a balustrade or banqueting service to stay in it, to ground it in appallingly real mass.
It’s no surprise that meat and birds provide recurring leitmotifs, since the novel’s magic draws from the history of European theology, including its eucharistic disputes. Here, too, Pheby recalls the theological legacy of his British import forebears. Firebirds, gigantic searing beasts, slam against Mordew’s Sea Wall like malevolent holy ghosts against the body of their dead father. After Nathan seems to escape his bind by gaining the role of protégé to the Master of Mordew, these callbacks to the world of the street continue to anchor the novel. Dashini, the powerful enemy of a man known as The Master, is the closest living candidate to godhood in Mordew — incidentally, she has feathers for hair. The idea that Dashini and her mother — the enemy of Mordew known as the Mistress of Malarkoi — are somehow better or less cruel than The Master because they aren’t misogynists or happen to be women is a cliché the novel thankfully avoids. Evil in Mordew is an equal opportunity. What Nathan doesn’t necessarily come to learn (but the reader certainly does) is that an affinity for power also brings an affinity for indifference to suffering and for the stratification and deprivation of those below. Magic doesn’t make the world better in Mordew — it just makes more apparent what we already knew about its cruelties.
Mordew makes us care about compromised people making compromised choices in a world that is enchanted with magic but rife with quotidian disenchantment at its core. Gam Halliday perhaps articulates the novel’s morality best when discussing the unfortunate death of a merchant at Nathan’s hands during a robbery. For Gam, the merchant is as much a murderer as Nathan because of his relative wealth: “Every slum-boy who’s croaked, whose mum’s come in on him one morning to find him blue in the lips and still of breath — couldn’t he have sprung for the food that saved ’em?”
This makes sense for a while, until an act of perfidy that shifts the entire novel. About halfway through, Mordew’s register and tone changes, just as Nathan’s power escalates. This makes sense — the literary style adapts to the metaphysical conditions of its protagonist, but inevitably some readers and critics will find it too jarring. The tonal shift gestures toward the literary work Mordew performs as a different response to the legacy of Modernism than the realist novel. Pheby, who has directly engaged with this tradition in his previous novel Lucia, makes Mordew a maximalist triumph of paratext; there are indices, dramatis personae, and term lists. The reader is free to ignore them, but they allow Mordew to be read on several levels: as a compelling yarn of a story, but also as a book with physical parts that impact each other, suggesting that the form of the novel itself is structurally entangled with what Pheby ultimately wants to say about magic and power.
Mordew is published by the small, independent Galley Beggar Press, which has explicit links to the Modernist publishing tradition. The press positions itself as a kind of contemporary Bloomsbury Set equivalent for the East Anglian city of Norwich and consciously uses small Modernist presses as models for publishing as aesthetic activism. Pheby sets the planned trilogy in Paris, extending a nod to that city as a kernel of Modernist thought. Yes, Mordew seems to say, you could write a straightforward novel with lots of pensive dialogue and normal people, a nouveau Jamesian or Woolfian meditation on the nature of the urban poor, and leave it at that — but why would you, when you could also astound, delight, and warp the very fabric of the text as part of fantasy-making? Mordew reminds us of Walter Benjamin’s dictum, applicable to the arcades and streets of his own Parisian imagination, that “[t]here is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” While Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling contended in vaguely orchestrated gestures toward our own reality and conditions of living, Pheby makes the connection raw, palpable, and occasionally even incriminating.
In this sense, Pheby throws the limb-baby glove from the Living Mud back at his midcentury and later British predecessors. He challenges British import literary fantasy as a category — particularly in the United States — that often excludes leftist speculative fiction and tends toward a small “c” conservatism. This is a manifold challenge, however. It also asks certain American readers of fantasy (those who devour mass-market Tor paperbacks, for example) to take up and seriously consider a profoundly “literary” book — one that may as likely be recognized in the London Review of Books or the New York Times Book Review as it will in online fandoms and the Hugo Awards. Mordew — a prestige title, particularly one that participates in a veneer of British seriousness that Americans still apply to import fantasy — is the kind of book that will get broad attention for this sort of political work, as much as its mastery of craft may rankle. It should rankle, as we question who makes writing possible worlds happen — and how. This doesn’t take away from the novel’s skill or importance, nor from its potent evocations of inequality, bodily harm, and power. Mordew, then, is for both the serious critic with an investment in the fantasy novel as a form and the disenchanted children of Potterdom’s long legacy in the United States; it ultimately demands to be read carefully and differently by each — from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.