Naomi Mitchi­son, Peace­able Trans­gres­sor

New England Review - - Table of Contents - Lit­er­ary Lives Rob Hardy

In 1915, OX­FORD PO­ETRY, the an­nual vol­ume of un­der­grad­u­ate po­etry, in­cluded the work of two young writ­ers who would later be­come fa­mous nov­el­ists, and whose paths would cross again more than three decades later. The first was J.R.R. Tolkien, who was com­plet­ing his de­gree at Ex­eter Col­lege and pre­par­ing to en­ter the Bri­tish Army to fight in the First World War. Tolkien contributed a poem called “Goblin Feet,” full of fairies, gnomes, and even lep­rechauns, which he would later find em­bar­rass­ingly twee.

The se­cond poet was Naomi Hal­dane, the eigh­teen-year-old home-schooled daugh­ter of a fel­low at New Col­lege. Hal­dane was also in­ter­ested in bi­ol­ogy. Along with her older brother John, that same year she con­ducted ge­netic ex­per­i­ments that yielded a co-au­thored pa­per on redu­pli­ca­tion in mice—one of the ear­li­est English works on Men­delian ge­net­ics. But she found her­self chaf­ing against the lim­i­ta­tions im­posed upon her as a woman and longed for a sphere in which she could ex­press her­self. In Ox­ford Po­etry, Hal­dane's con­tri­bu­tion was a poem called “Awak­en­ing of the Bac­chae,” steeped in clas­si­cal pa­gan­ism and bristling with the sug­ges­tion of fem­i­nine power. Each of the poem's three stan­zas ends with the line: “We were asleep, but now are awake for ever.”

A year later, Naomi Hal­dane mar­ried Gil­bert Mitchi­son, and as Naomi Mitchi­son she be­came a suc­cess­ful and pro­lific nov­el­ist. She es­tab­lished her rep­u­ta­tion in the 1920s as the au­thor of his­tor­i­cal nov­els but later wrote fairy sto­ries for chil­dren, a se­ries of mem­oirs, and two pi­o­neer­ing works of fem­i­nist science fic­tion. Her 1975 novel, So­lu­tion Three, dealt pre­sciently with the is­sue of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms. Mitchi­son was also an out­spo­ken fem­i­nist and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist. But at the time of her death at the age of 101 in 1999, she had come to be re­garded as a “ne­glected” writer, de­spite an un­ri­valed rep­u­ta­tion as a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist at the height of her fame in the 1920s and '30s.

In fact, her work has con­tin­ued to draw a small but en­thu­si­as­tic fol­low­ing— es­pe­cially Travel Light (1952), her short fan­tasy about the ad­ven­tures of a princess raised by a dragon—and to re­ward re­dis­cov­ery for its fem­i­nist sen­si­bil­i­ties, imag­i­na­tive range, and depth of thought. As writer and scholar Ma­rina Warner says in the in­tro­duc­tion to a re­cently pub­lished col­lec­tion of Mitchi­son's short fic­tion, “Naomi Mitchi­son seems ripe for Blooms­bury-style fan­dom.” In her hey­day, no less a critic than Arnold Ben­nett praised Mitchi­son's work, while the nov­el­ist Winifred Holtby, best known for her novel South Rid­ing (1936), wrote that The Corn King and the Spring Queen was “of the cal­iber of which No­bel prize-win­ners are made.” Sum­ming up Mitchi­son's ca­reer in

the mid-1990s, Ur­sula Leguin called Mitchi­son “one of the great sub­ver­sive thinkers and peace­able trans­gres­sors of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.” Amal El-mohtar, a writer of spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, wrote about her dis­cov­ery of Mitchi­son's work for NPR'S “You Must Read This” se­ries. “I've been gush­ing to ev­ery­one who'll lis­ten about Naomi Mitchi­son,” she said. She wanted Mitchi­son's writ­ing “to be com­mon knowl­edge. To spawn im­i­ta­tors and ad­jec­tives, `Mitchiso­nian' to match `Tolkienesque.'”

In 1949, Mitchi­son wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien ex­press­ing her ad­mi­ra­tion for Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien's me­dieval tale of a farmer who be­comes an ac­ci­den­tal hero. In his re­ply to Mitchi­son's let­ter, Tolkien told her that he would soon have an­other book to give her—an “ex­ces­sively long” se­quel to The Hob­bit. In late 1953 or early 1954, Tolkien's pub­lisher, Allen & Unwin, sent Mitchi­son proofs of the The Lord of the Rings. In ad­di­tion to be­ing a writer her­self, Mitchi­son was also a skilled proof­reader, who helped shape two very dif­fer­ent but highly in­flu­en­tial works for pub­li­ca­tion: Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and James Wat­son's The Dou­ble Helix. Wat­son even ded­i­cated his book to Mitchi­son, the for­mer teenage ge­neti­cist who had be­come his friend and men­tor.

In Septem­ber 1954, Mitchi­son's sym­pa­thetic re­view of The Fel­low­ship of the Ring ap­peared in the New States­man & Na­tion. She called the first vol­ume of the tril­ogy a story “mag­nif­i­cently told,” full of “the most ex­tra­or­di­nary, ter­ri­fy­ing, and beau­ti­ful things.” What Mitchi­son re­al­ized about The Lord of the Rings was that Tolkien's mas­ter­piece was nei­ther mere fan­tasy nor sim­ple al­le­gory: it rep­re­sented the in­ven­tion of an en­tire mythol­ogy. “For surely,” she wrote, “we hu­mans have not come to the end of our myth-spin­ning.”

In her own ca­reer as a writer, Mitchi­son never came to the end of her myth-spin­ning, though she also con­tin­ued to ex­press a deep con­cern for the lit­eral world around her. In book af­ter book, she spun fan­tasies out of her own ex­pe­ri­ence as a woman and as some­one who, though she came from a priv­i­leged back­ground, al­ways iden­ti­fied with the out­sider. Mitchi­son's early nov­els and sto­ries are set in the world of an­cient Greece and Rome, but usu­ally fo­cus on marginal­ized fig­ures, like the de­feated Gaul en­slaved by Cae­sar's le­gions in her first novel, The Con­quered (1923). As she wrote in her note on her sources for her 1924 story col­lec­tion When the Bough Breaks, “Not un­nat­u­rally one al­ways used to take sides with the bar­bar­ians against Rome.” Her great­est sym­pa­thy was re­served for “the fair-haired slaves” from the North, her own “pos­si­ble an­ces­tors,” who found them­selves op­pressed and pow­er­less in an alien land.

This sym­pa­thy had its roots in her own ex­pe­ri­ence as a girl who was de­nied many of the op­por­tu­ni­ties open to her older brother. In an early story, “The Tri­umph of Faith,” a young Greek girl named Phoebe Martha ad­dresses a re­mark­able speech about her sta­tus as a girl to Chet, her fa­ther's Scythian slave:

It's so hard be­ing a girl! Here I am, just the same as a man, re­ally, and no worse than my brother any­way—i've got all the same eyes and hand and ears and ev­ery­thing else that mat­ters! But be­cause of two or three silly lit­tle dif­fer­ences I have to be treated as if I was an an­i­mal, or­dered about, not al­lowed to de­cide any­thing for my­self! I'm shut up, I'm watched, I have to do what men tell

me—noth­ing's my own, money or hus­band or re­li­gion—i have to take what they give me and say thank you! Oh, it is un­fair—haven't I got a soul ev­ery bit as good as theirs?”

When she has ex­hausted her­self with this out­burst, Chet says qui­etly, “Yes, I un­der­stand.”

Both Phoebe Martha and Chet are out­siders and feel a sting­ing sense of the dif­fer­ence be­tween their in­ner po­ten­tial and their ex­ter­nal pow­er­less­ness. In one of the most richly imag­ined scenes in the story, Chet goes into a trance and calls on his Scythian gods to work pow­er­ful magic—but in the next scene, he finds him­self tied to a post, wait­ing to be whipped by his master. The sense of a gap be­tween his imag­i­na­tive power and his real power res­onated with Mitchi­son's own ex­pe­ri­ence of the op­pres­sion of women. As a lit­tle girl, Naomi Mitchi­son was both­ered by her doll's house. “To look at,” she wrote in her mem­oir Small Talk: Mem­o­ries of an Ed­war­dian Child­hood (1973), “the doll's house was a solid white cup­board but with win­dows at the sides.” In­side there were six rooms of equal size, two on each floor: kitchen and din­ing room, draw­ing room and bed­room, nurs­ery and school­room. The prob­lem was that none of the fur­nish­ings were to scale, and all of the rooms were open on one side.

“In those days, as a lit­eral-minded small girl,” Mitchi­son re­called, “I was wor­ried both by the awk­ward­ness of the scale and by the prob­lem of the fourth wall. I could pre­tend that there were other rooms and stairs at the back, but I found it very had to make the open rooms look `real.'”

Mitchi­son came by her lit­eral-mind­ed­ness hon­estly. In ad­di­tion to her con­tri­bu­tion to her brother John's pa­per on ge­net­ics, she ob­served the re­search of her fa­ther, the prom­i­nent phys­i­ol­o­gist John Scott Hal­dane, known for his pi­o­neer­ing sci­en­tific work on res­pi­ra­tion. Most of her fa­ther's ex­per­i­ments were con­ducted in his home lab­o­ra­tory. Her child­hood di­aries were filled with a sci­en­tific spirit, in­clud­ing the Latin names of plants she had iden­ti­fied. But at the same time, she had a vivid imag­i­na­tion that set her apart from the rest of her fam­ily. She feared “what lay be­hind the ap­par­ent si­lence and still­ness of inan­i­mate ob­jects” like mir­rors and grand­fa­ther clocks, and in­vented a small rit­ual to pro­pi­ti­ate the spirit of a par­tic­u­larly fright­en­ing wall tile in the draw­ing room. She suf­fered from night­mares and was ter­ri­fied of ghosts, es­pe­cially those she imag­ined haunt­ing Cloan, her Un­cle Richard's mas­sive coun­try house in Scot­land. Her Aunt Bay told her that a par­tic­u­larly fright­en­ing ghost haunted the tower at Cloan, and as she grew up it still haunted her dreams.

“Years later, when we talked over all this and its dire effect on me,” Mitchi­son wrote in her mem­oir, “[Aunt Bay] said I was the only Hal­dane to have this kind of run­away imag­i­na­tion, some­thing which now she loved and re­spected. But it was a mis­ery then. And in­deed can be still, though without it I would have no wings.”

Mitchi­son grew up with a strong sense of her dif­fer­ence. She was an imag­i­na­tive child among sci­en­tific ra­tio­nal­ists, the proud mem­ber of a Scot­tish fam­ily raised in the mid­dle of Eng­land, a girl brought up in the com­pany of boys. As a child, she was sent to the Dragon School in Ox­ford, where she had ac­cess to the same ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties as her older brother, and where she formed strong friend­ships with the boys. She was, she later re­mem­bered, “for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses a boy un­til the aw­ful thing hap­pened.” The aw­ful thing was the blood that stained her blue serge trousers and marked the end of her at­ten­dance at the Dragon School. Pu­berty sep­a­rated her from the male com­mu­nity to which she had be­longed, and the changes to her own body made her in­creas­ingly self-con­scious.

Menar­che forms an im­por­tant re­cur­ring theme in Mitchi­son's fic­tion. In “The Tri­umph of Faith,” when Phoebe Martha runs away from her fa­ther's house to the house of the man she wants to marry, her fa­ther's stew­ard Ones­imus fol­lows her and tells us: “Ev­ery here and there were red rose petals, shaken loose from Phoebe Martha's flow­ers: they re­minded me of trail­ing a wounded deer . . .” The name of the man Phoebe Martha wants to marry is Me­nar­chus.

In Travel Light, Mitchi­son mythol­o­gizes pu­berty by mak­ing it a stage in the hero­ine's jour­ney. The hero­ine, Halla, fig­u­ra­tively en­ters pu­berty when Uggi, her dragon men­tor, is fa­tally wounded by the King of the Dales, who pur­sues the dy­ing dragon to his cave, “fol­low­ing the blood trail.” Af­ter Uggi's death, Halla is cap­tured by the King, who tells Halla, “I shall teach you the ways of women.” Al­though Halla is res­cued by an­other dragon in the nick of time, she re­al­izes that without Uggi she can never re­turn to her pre­vi­ous life. Halla is a fic­tional stand-in for Mitchi­son her­self, forced by “the aw­ful thing” to leave the Dragon School.

From the on­set of pu­berty, when she could no longer con­sider her­self a boy, Mitchi­son found that she was still able to imagine her­self into a male life. As a teenager, she read Franz Cu­mont's Les Mys­tères de Mithra (1913), a study of the rit­u­als of Ro­man Mithraism, to which only men were ad­mit­ted. “One at­trac­tive as­pect” of this ex­clu­sion of women, she later re­called, “was that I al­ways imag­ined my­self a man.” This imag­i­na­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of oth­er­ness in­forms many of Mitchi­son's nov­els, in­clud­ing her great 1931 novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen. The Corn King and the Spring Queen is a his­tor­i­cal fan­tasy that fol­lows the ad­ven­tures of the Tar­rik and Erif Der, the king and queen of the fic­tional Scythian king­dom of Marob, as they come into con­tact with Greek phi­los­o­phy and cul­ture in third-cen­tury Sparta and Ptole­maic Egypt. The book also re­flects the au­thor's real-life ad­vo­cacy for birth con­trol and sex­ual free­dom, and her in­ter­est in con­tem­po­rary the­o­ries on the evo­lu­tion of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and self­con­scious­ness. It al­ter­nates be­tween the his­tor­i­cal world of an­cient Greece, re­con­structed from Plutarch and Pau­sa­nias and other sources, and the imag­i­nary

world of Marob, cre­ated from Mitchi­son's read­ing of James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, Jane Ellen Har­ri­son, and the Cam­bridge Ri­tu­al­ists. The novel is re­mark­able for its frank treat­ment of top­ics like ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, fe­male sex­u­al­ity, preg­nancy, child­birth, and breast­feed­ing, which did not al­ways pass un­cen­sored at the time—as Mitchi­son's pub­lisher, Jonathan Cape, had dis­cov­ered when it faced an ob­scen­ity trial for pub­lish­ing Rad­clyffe Hall's The Well of Lone­li­ness in 1928.

Is­sues of sex­u­al­ity and moth­er­hood were much on Mitchi­son's mind in the late 1920s. For Mitchi­son, the 1920s and early 1930s were a pe­riod of sex­ual ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, dur­ing which she and her hus­band agreed to an open mar­riage and took other lovers. This com­mit­ment to sex­ual free­dom is ex­pressed in her chap­book-length es­say Com­ments on Birth Con­trol, pub­lished the year be­fore The Corn King and the Spring Queen. In the es­say, Mitchi­son, who had helped found the first birth con­trol cen­ters in Lon­don in the 1920s, calls con­tra­cep­tion a “com­pro­mise”: nec­es­sary for pre­vent­ing un­wanted preg­nan­cies, but fre­quently sti­fling the spon­tane­ity that brings pas­sion to a re­la­tion­ship.

Mitchi­son sees birth con­trol as part of a larger com­pro­mise made by women who want to have both fam­i­lies and ca­reers. She ac­knowl­edges that “the two things are not com­pat­i­ble, ex­cept in rare cases.” No woman, even if she lives “twice as hard as men, fit­ting things in, wast­ing no time on any­thing of less im­por­tance than the true fun­da­men­tals” is able to “make two hours out of one.” As a re­sult, women are forced to com­pro­mise. Mitchi­son won­ders how “in­tel­li­gent and truly fem­i­nist women” could “live as women” with time “to be ten­der and aware of both lovers and chil­dren” and still have the free­dom “to do their own work.”

This ques­tion had a par­tic­u­lar ur­gency as Mitchi­son worked on The Corn King and the Spring Queen. The death of her el­dest child from menin­gi­tis in 1927 had caused a painful rift be­tween Mitchi­son and her brother and sis­terin-law, both of whom blamed her for not de­vot­ing enough time and at­ten­tion to her chil­dren. That deep trauma found its way into the novel. When Erif Der is in­tro­duced to Agiatis, the wife of Kleomenes of Sparta, she finds the Spar­tan queen in the women's quar­ters, spin­ning thread with her fa­vorite hand­maiden, Phi­lylla. Erif Der joins the spin­ning, and when she breaks a thread, she calls on her Scythian magic to join the bro­ken ends to­gether:

And un­der the eyes of the other two the threads groped and wrig­gled like white worms and came to­gether. “There!” she said, and dropped them off her hand. The spin­dle swung from an un­bro­ken line.

Phi­lylla stared, and came nearer and ran her finger down it. Then: “What's that red mark on your hand?”

“Oh,” said Erif, “that's a drop of blood,” and she stooped and wiped it on the un­der side of her dress. “Why?” “I had to make the thread alive so that it would come to­gether; so it had to bleed where it was wounded.” And she be­gan spin­ning prop­erly. “I think you will find this a strong thread now,” she said, “a very strong thread. I am do­ing my best with it.”

“Yes,” said Phi­lylla, “I see. But if it was me I'd like to be able to do it with peo­ple.” With the bleed­ing thread, Mitchi­son cre­ates a strik­ing im­age of bro­ken­ness and heal­ing, and of the strong thread of life that passes through her women. But Erif Der's magic makes Agiatis un­com­fort­able, not only be­cause she is a ra­tio­nal Greek but be­cause she's un­com­fort­able with the idea of such a pow­er­ful woman.

Be­fore Erif Der's ar­rival, Phi­lylla tells Agiatis that she un­der­stands “the sort of way women can be witches.” Agiatis re­sponds, “I think I did when I was your age. One feels full of power, doesn't one? But it never lasts, sweet; not if one lives a full woman's life. One's giv­ing too much all the time.” Like Mitchi­son, Agiatis had re­cently lost her el­dest son, and the au­thor projects onto the Spar­tan queen the pres­sure she felt to de­vote her­self en­tirely to her fam­ily. Mitchi­son un­der­stood the ex­pec­ta­tion to be the kind of wife and mother that Agiatis rep­re­sented, but she also wanted the power and free­dom of Erif Der. She wanted the power to heal, to re­cover her own losses and rec­on­cile the di­vi­sions within her­self.

In Com­ments on Birth Con­trol, Mitchi­son en­vi­sions a time “when women have suf­fi­cient con­trol of their ex­ter­nal en­vi­ron­ment to en­sure that their work will be com­pat­i­ble with hav­ing ba­bies, or when the whole busi­ness of hav­ing ba­bies be­comes a real job in it­self, car­ry­ing with it so­cial re­spect and eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence.” More re­mark­ably, she en­vi­sions a time when women's “psy­chophys­i­cal con­trol be­comes so com­plete that they can at their own will be fer­tile or not fer­tile.” Birth con­trol will be­come a mat­ter of will. A sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion al­ready oc­curs, she tells us, among the Tro­briand Is­lan­ders. Ac­cord­ing to Bro­nis­law Mali­nowski, the women of the Tro­briand Is­lands were able to con­trol their own fer­til­ity without the use of con­tra­cep­tives, and Mitchi­son sug­gests that this is be­cause the Tro­briand Is­lan­ders were “still in a prim­i­tive com­mu­nity of which the per­sons are not sep­a­rated out into in­di­vid­u­als.”

That is to say, they are all more or less in com­mu­nion with one an­other, so that im­pulses and ideas of a kind travel through them as through a sin­gle body. The hap­pi­ness of the per­sons con­sists in be­ing a good work­ing part of the com­mu­nity . . . It is against the good and will of the com­mu­nity that women should have chil­dren be­fore they are adult and set­tled into their place as adult women. And the women re­al­ize this good and this will, not with their minds, but so deeply with their bod­ies that they can­not go against it un­less some out­side force (a mis­sion­ary, for in­stance) comes to pull them away from their com­mu­nity and break the con­ti­nu­ity be­tween them and the rest of the tribe. As a re­sult of this mis­sion­ary dis­rup­tion, the com­mu­nity splin­ters “into more or less con­scious in­di­vid­u­als, out of com­mu­nion and be­cause of this un­happy, liv­ing un­co­or­di­nated lives of their own, un­able to know in­stinc­tively what is for the good of all.”

Here Mitchi­son draws on ethno­graphic and philo­soph­i­cal no­tions of the day to crys­tal­lize her ideas of per­sonal free­dom. These ideas also di­rectly in­formed The Corn King and the Spring Queen. At the time she was writ­ing both the novel and the es­say on birth con­trol, Mitchi­son was deeply influenced by the

the­o­ries of her friend Ger­ald Heard, set forth in his 1929 book The As­cent of Hu­man­ity. Heard traces the evo­lu­tion of con­scious­ness from “com­plete co-con­scious­ness”—the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of prim­i­tive com­mu­ni­ties—to the self-con­scious in­di­vid­u­al­ism of mod­ern so­ci­eties. Heard also contributed an es­say to An Out­line for Boys and Girls and Their Par­ents (1932), a col­lec­tion of es­says on the arts and sciences for school­child­ren edited by Mitchi­son. Heard's ideas in­form many of the es­says in the col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing the es­say on “Writ­ing” by the Mitchi­son chil­dren's young tu­tor, W. H. Au­den. Au­den be­gins his es­say trac­ing the rise of self-con­scious­ness in hu­mans—the feel­ing that “I am I, and you are not I”—and the evo­lu­tion of lan­guage and writ­ing as a means of bridg­ing the widen­ing gap be­tween self-con­scious in­di­vid­u­als. It could be said that ex­plor­ing the gap be­tween “I” and “you,” and be­tween “we” and “they,” is the ma­jor theme of all of Naomi Mitchi­son's writ­ing, es­pe­cially The Corn King and the Spring Queen.

With the rise of self-con­scious­ness, Heard be­lieved, re­li­gion also evolved from a fo­cus on what Jane Ellen Har­ri­son called “the per­ma­nent life of the group” to a fo­cus on in­di­vid­ual sal­va­tion. Har­ri­son's an­thro­po­log­i­cal ap­proach to the study of Greek re­li­gion was cer­tainly a ma­jor in­flu­ence on both Heard and Mitchi­son. In Themis (1912), Har­ri­son wrote that prim­i­tive re­li­gion “re­flects col­lec­tive feel­ing and col­lec­tive think­ing” rather than the in­di­vid­ual's con­cern for his own soul and sal­va­tion. In The As­cent of Hu­man­ity, Heard fol­lows Har­ri­son in trac­ing the evo­lu­tion of the wor­ship of Osiris in Egypt from a fer­til­ity rit­ual that re­flected “tribe-and-soul iden­tity” to a rit­ual con­cerned pri­mar­ily with in­di­vid­ual im­mor­tal­ity. The end re­sult of this process was “naked sal­va­tion­ism without a shred of so­cial obli­ga­tion.”

An em­pha­sis on com­mu­nity and group con­scious­ness was cen­tral to Heard's phi­los­o­phy. He be­lieved that hu­mans could achieve a rev­o­lu­tion in con­scious­ness that would res­tore the group feel­ing lost through the rise of the in­di­vid­ual. In the early 1930s, he and Mitchi­son formed a group called the En­gi­neer's Study Group, whose aim was to de­velop “group-mind­ed­ness or group com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” which Mitchi­son be­lieved was “the next step pos­si­bly be­fore the much big­ger breakthrough to universal con­scious­ness.” Heard even­tu­ally found more fer­tile ground for his cul­ti­va­tion of an ex­panded con­scious­ness in Cal­i­for­nia, where he prac­ticed yoga and med­i­ta­tion and, in the 1950s, ex­per­i­mented with LSD.

Mitchi­son her­self was more of a re­al­ist. It was im­por­tant to her to have a vi­sion of a bet­ter world, but at the same time it was im­por­tant not to lose sight of the world as it is, or to force change in the ser­vice of an ill-fit­ting ide­ol­ogy. Thus, while she lamented the loss of so­cial co­he­sion that came with the evo­lu­tion of self-con­scious in­di­vid­u­al­ism, she re­al­ized that, ex­cept per­haps in fic­tion, there was no go­ing back to a prim­i­tive state of co-con­scious­ness. In Com­ments on Birth Con­trol, she fol­lowed Heard in imag­in­ing “a rev­o­lu­tion of con­scious­ness” in which in­di­vid­u­als would co­a­lesce “into a com­mu­nity of a new kind, be­com­ing again con­scious of one an­other and of their own cen­tral will and good and unity.” But at the same time she rec­og­nized that “this su­per-con­scious com­mu­nity is

per­haps af­ter all mere dream­ing and wish-phan­tasy.” The ac­tual con­di­tions of the world call for re­al­ism and com­pro­mise. “At present,” she wrote, “we must do the best we can as sep­a­rate in­di­vid­u­als, still tor­tured by the es­sen­tially in­di­vid­ual prob­lems of love and hate, greed and fear and jeal­ousy . . . We must take things as they are and make them bet­ter, rather than hope in the vague.”

Heard's ideas nev­er­the­less had an enor­mous in­flu­ence on Mitchi­son, and shaped her over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive in The Corn King and the Spring Queen. Erif Der's jour­ney from Marob in Scythia to Sparta and Egypt takes her through var­i­ous stages in the evo­lu­tion of con­scious­ness, from the pre-in­di­vid­ual com­mu­nity of Marob to the deca­dent in­di­vid­u­al­ism of Ptole­maic Egypt. The fic­tional land of Marob rep­re­sents a tra­di­tional so­ci­ety in which the col­lec­tive good of the peo­ple is bound up in the sea­sonal fer­til­ity rit­u­als per­formed by the king and queen. Tar­rik, the Corn King, is what Jane Ellen Har­ri­son called an Eni­au­tos-dai­mon, a god­like fig­ure em­body­ing the forces that con­trol the sea­sons. As Tar­rik him­self ex­plains, “I am not sep­a­rate from the grain and the cat­tle and the sap creep­ing up the green veins of the plants. What­ever I do goes out like a wave to the rest of my place.” The Corn King and Spring Queen are not in­di­vid­u­als, but func­tionar­ies whose rit­ual ac­tions con­nect the com­mu­nity to the pro­duc­tive cy­cle of the sea­sons. At the op­po­site ex­treme, Ptole­maic Egypt rep­re­sents an ad­vanced stage of self-con­scious in­di­vid­u­al­ism. The Egyp­tian ruler, Ptolemy Philopa­ter, is ar­bi­trary and cor­rupt, and the Egyp­tian re­li­gion is pre­oc­cu­pied with death and in­di­vid­ual im­mor­tal­ity.

In be­tween these two ex­tremes is Sparta, where Kleomenes has brought about a quasi-so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion, re­dis­tribut­ing wealth, in­sti­tut­ing com­mu­nal own­er­ship of prop­erty, and restor­ing tra­di­tional Spar­tan sim­plic­ity and dis­ci­pline. Kleomenes at­tempts to recre­ate through po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary means the sense of com­mu­nity and com­mon pur­pose that ex­isted at an ear­lier stage in the evo­lu­tion of con­scious­ness. In this, how­ever, he meets resistance from the forces of in­di­vid­u­al­ism, pri­vate prop­erty, and na­tion­al­ism. Even­tu­ally Kleomenes over­reaches in his at­tempt to ex­port his rev­o­lu­tion be­yond Sparta and is brought into con­flict with the Achaean League and its pow­er­ful Mace­do­nian al­lies.

One of the im­por­tant com­mon de­nom­i­na­tors in Marob, Sparta, and Egypt is Sphaeros the Stoic, who at var­i­ous times serves as tu­tor to Tar­rik, King Kleomenes of Sparta, and Arsi­noë, the young Ptole­maic princess. The Stoic idea that the world-mind flows through and con­nects ev­ery­thing in the uni­verse is cer­tainly com­pre­hen­si­ble to Tar­rik, who feels that ev­ery­thing in Marob—the sun and the rain, the land and the crops—is con­nected through him as the Corn King. But what ex­cites and dis­turbs him is Stoic epis­te­mol­ogy and the no­tion that through the use of rea­son the Stoic can fil­ter im­pres­sions re­ceived by the mind and judge which are real and which are not. Truth can be per­ceived and as­sented to, and form the ba­sis of moral ac­tion. The en­tire first sec­tion of the novel takes its ti­tle, “Katalep­tike Phan­ta­sia,” from the Stoic doc­trine of the “catalep­tic im­pres­sion,” the per­cep­tion of some­thing real that the mind as­sents to and ac­cepts as truth.

All of this Stoic teach­ing has a “dis­in­te­grat­ing” effect on Tar­rik, who finds

him­self “split into two peo­ple,” a Greek Stoic and a bar­bar­ian god-king. For a while, this state of philo­soph­i­cal fer­ment is ex­cit­ing, but even­tu­ally Tar­rik finds him­self “out of har­mony.” Armed with a ra­tio­nal­ism that re­sists Scythian magic, Sphaeros makes Tar­rik see him­self as an in­di­vid­ual moral agent. Tar­rik be­comes in­creas­ingly self-con­scious, and his con­cern for his in­di­vid­ual sur­vival be­gins to com­pete with his con­cern for the sur­vival of the com­mu­nity. He no longer sees him­self as part of the con­tin­u­ous life of his com­mu­nity, but be­gins to see him­self as a mor­tal in­di­vid­ual whose unique con­scious­ness will die with his body.

“The dread­ful thing had hap­pened to Tar­rik,” Mitchi­son writes. “He had be­come sep­a­rate from the life of the com­mu­nity.” As Mitchi­son her­self did when “the aw­ful thing” hap­pened to her, he be­comes self-con­scious and sep­a­rate. He un­der­goes a painful process of in­tel­lec­tual mat­u­ra­tion that deeply “wounds” him.

Sto­icism, with its in­sis­tence that right and wrong are ab­so­lutes, seems to Tar­rik out of tune with the ac­tual ways of the world. He re­al­izes that the good can be both sit­u­a­tional and cul­tur­ally rel­a­tive—what's good for Greece is not al­ways good for Marob—and that a sense of what is good can change over time. “Once upon a time,” he re­flects, “it had been part of the or­der of na­ture for men to eat the en­e­mies they had killed; there was noth­ing wrong or ab­hor­rent about it.” But things had changed, and ideas of right and wrong had shifted. What Tar­rik in­tu­its is that an ide­ol­ogy, even when its ob­ject is good, can't al­ways be rec­on­ciled with the ac­tual con­di­tions of a time or a place.

Kleomenes of Sparta, on the other hand, is firmly com­mit­ted to his so­cial­ist ide­ol­ogy and ul­ti­mately brought down in his at­tempt to force the world into the shape he imag­ines. In ex­ile in Alexan­dria, as he pre­pares to em­bark on a sui­ci­dal at­tempt to rally sup­port for the Spar­tan cause, Kleomenes re­flects philo­soph­i­cally on his life and won­ders if he has done any per­ma­nent good:

What was there in man that could be changed by lib­erty or hope or friend­ship or a great idea? Where was it in the body? Sphaeros had never shown him. He had taken it for granted that he knew. Could one man alone have this part? He thought prob­a­bly not, that it was only pos­si­ble in a com­mu­nity. Then, could it go on in a com­mu­nity, apart from the in­di­vid­u­als? Again, he thought not . . . He had never con­sid­ered the thing so deeply be­fore. Al­ways he had been in­ter­ested in some im­me­di­ate ob­ject, some fu­ture he was go­ing to make and see him­self. Now that had dropped away. And sud­denly, out of calm thought, he would be seized with bit­ter re­sent­ment that he had thought and acted so vi­o­lently and with such am­bi­tion. If he had been sen­si­ble and far slower, and pla­cated more peo­ple, and com­pro­mised wher­ever it had seemed nec­es­sary, he might have an­other twenty or thirty good years to live.

Mitchi­son's at­ti­tude to­ward Kleomenes is am­biva­lent. By the time she was work­ing on the novel, she had grav­i­tated to­ward so­cial­ism and sym­pa­thized with the king's rev­o­lu­tion­ary goals as an an­cient ana­log for her po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. But his se­cond thoughts in this pas­sage, his re­gret over miss­ing the op­por­tu­nity to com­pro­mise, are more in line with Mitchi­son's prag­ma­tism.

In the end, Kleomenes dies for his ideals, and on Ptolemy's or­ders the Spar­tan

king's body is af­fixed to a pike out­side the walls of Alexan­dria. Mean­while, in­side the city, Erif Der de­scends into a deep trance. Her spirit, what the Egyp­tians call her khu, leaves her body and trans­forms it­self into a giant snake that coils around the pike and pro­tects the corpse of Kleomenes.

From her read­ing of Jane Ellen Har­ri­son's Themis, Mitchi­son knew that snakes were pow­er­ful and of­ten sex­u­ally am­bigu­ous sym­bols in mythol­ogy, rep­re­sent­ing the phal­lic and chthonic, the hero-god and the earth god­dess. It was an en­counter with cop­u­lat­ing snakes that ini­ti­ated the trans­for­ma­tion of Tire­sias into a woman and back again into a man. A snake was also as­so­ci­ated with the god Mithras, who was of­ten de­picted with a snake coiled around his body. The snake is both male and fe­male, death and re­birth.

Erif Der was ex­iled from Marob af­ter she killed her fa­ther dur­ing the an­nual Corn Play. Her role as Spring Queen called for her to mimic draw­ing the bronze sickle across the throat of the ac­tor play­ing the Old Corn—in this case, her fa­ther. But in­stead, she drew the blade across his throat and killed him in re­venge for his part in the death of her first-born child. She steps out­side of her play­act­ing role and makes the imag­i­nary real. A mo­ment be­fore this hap­pens, Mitchi­son de­scribes the whirling rit­ual dance be­tween Erif Der and her fa­ther: “her dress twisted sud­denly like a snake around her.” Her long quest for pu­rifi­ca­tion will fi­nally end when she trans­forms her­self into the twist­ing snake. Near the end of the novel, she leaves her body and takes on the shape of a snake coil­ing it­self around the pole on which Kleomenes's body has been hung. Through a pow­er­ful act of the imag­i­na­tion, Erif Der be­comes the sym­bol of the dead male hero. At the same time, she em­bod­ies the shape-chang­ing, gender-switch­ing power of Mitchi­son's own imag­i­na­tion. Travel Light was my own in­tro­duc­tion to Naomi Mitchi­son. The story be­gins with a wicked step­mother and an aban­doned princess nur­tured, like Ata­lanta in Greek myth, by a she-bear. The princess, Halla, be­comes the ward of a dragon, the pro­tegé of a Valkyrie, and the trav­el­ing com­pan­ion of three pil­grims from Marob seek­ing jus­tice for their op­pressed home­land from the Byzan­tine Em­peror. I found the com­bi­na­tion of fairy­tale, myth, and his­tory ut­terly charm­ing and orig­i­nal. The book's only flaw was that, at 147 pages, it was too short. For­tu­nately, I dis­cov­ered that Mitchi­son had writ­ten an­other novel about the fic­tional land of Marob that weighed in at 719 pages. But The Corn King and the Spring Queen was some­thing dif­fer­ent al­to­gether: an epic shaped by Fraz­e­rian an­thro­pol­ogy, Greek phi­los­o­phy, and Hel­lenis­tic Greek his­tory. The novel is darker, more vi­o­lent, and at the same time earth­ier and more cere­bral than Travel Light.

Travel Light ap­pealed to the child in me who be­came a reader when my fifth grade teacher handed me a copy of The Hob­bit. I rec­og­nized Mitchi­son's story as a fem­i­nist reimag­in­ing of Bilbo's un­ex­pected jour­ney. The Corn King and the

Spring Queen ap­pealed to the adult who had be­come a clas­si­cist. I ap­pre­ci­ated Mitchi­son's schol­ar­ship and her se­ri­ous at­tempt, within the frame­work of a com­pelling ad­ven­ture story, to dra­ma­tize an­cient ideas and sys­tems of be­lief. She shows her char­ac­ters, filled with con­tra­dic­tions and torn by con­flict­ing loy­al­ties, strug­gling to live with in­tegrity. As a teacher of Latin and Greek to un­der­grad­u­ates, I al­ways want my stu­dents to come away with some sense that those long-dead Greeks and Ro­mans lived real lives and wres­tled with real is­sues that have rel­e­vance for the way we live now. I find this qual­ity in Mitchi­son's his­tor­i­cal fic­tion—the com­bi­na­tion of care­ful schol­ar­ship and a feel­ing for real life—re­fresh­ing and com­pelling.

In 1928, the nov­el­ist and critic Arnold Ben­nett com­plained that “truth to hu­man na­ture is the chief lack in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion.” He found the English his­tor­i­cal novel full of the clichés of swash­buck­ling and bodice-rip­ping ro­mance. Naomi Mitchi­son was the one ex­cep­tion he could cite of a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist whose work ap­pealed to “peo­ple who know a book from a bon­bon.” Mitchi­son's his­tor­i­cal nov­els from the 1920s were praised above all for the ap­par­ent ease with which the au­thor recre­ated a past that felt real. Re­view­ing Mitchi­son's first novel in the Satur­day Re­view in 1923, Ger­ald Gould wrote: “She has, as it were by mir­a­cle, got back into the air and mood of the time she writes about: she cre­ates, and re-cre­ates. The splen­dour and the mys­tery come easy to her. She is at home.” Winifred Holtby wrote of The Corn King and the Spring Queen: “one sim­ply knows that this is a real world; that real peo­ple lived in it; that this is how they lived.” Even pro­fes­sional clas­si­cists were im­pressed with Mitchi­son's abil­ity to imagine her­self into the clas­si­cal world. Harry T. Lo­gan, a clas­si­cist at Mcgill Univer­sity, wrote in Clas­si­cal Weekly in 1953: “what im­presses one most about the books is the ap­par­ent near­ness of the writer to the char­ac­ters she writes about. This can only come from a lively imag­i­na­tion and a pa­tient and painstak­ing ef­fort to vi­su­al­ize in thought and feel­ing the minds and hearts of the men and women of Greece and Rome.”

But there were times when her po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism threat­ened to over­whelm her artistry. We Have Been Warned (1939) was Mitchi­son's most di­rectly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel and her first at­tempt to write a novel with a con­tem­po­rary set­ting. Like Mitchi­son, the pro­tag­o­nist is the daugh­ter of a fam­ily of Scot­tish landown­ers and the wife of a La­bor politi­cian who wants to iden­tify with the masses, and who es­pe­cially wants to im­prove the con­di­tion of poor women by giv­ing them ac­cess to con­tra­cep­tion. The novel pro­voked a par­tic­u­larly scathing re­view from Q. D. Leavis, who at­tacked its un­crit­i­cal en­thu­si­asm for Stal­in­ism and its tone-deaf de­pic­tion of the life of the work­ing poor. The imag­i­na­tive re-cre­ation of real life, which so im­pressed the read­ers of her early nov­els, is pre­cisely what Leavis found lack­ing in We Have Been Warned. She writes: “Isn't it odd that a gen­uine con­cern for the eman­ci­pa­tion of the work­ers and an im­mer­sion in work­ing-class so­ci­ety should not have pro­duced at least fresh­ness of per­cep­tion and some re­sponse to the pe­cu­liar qual­ity of the life dealt with . . . ?”

For a writer of deep po­lit­i­cal con­vic­tions and a strong com­mit­ment to

so­cial jus­tice, the urge to use her fic­tion as a plat­form for ac­tivism was of­ten too strong to re­sist, es­pe­cially in the midst of the seis­mic his­tor­i­cal events of the late 1930s. Europe seemed to be faced with a stark choice be­tween Com­mu­nism and Fas­cism, and Mitchi­son un­hesi­tat­ingly chose the for­mer. When she re­turned to his­tor­i­cal fic­tion with 1939's The Blood of the Mar­tyrs, the per­se­cu­tion of the early Chris­tians un­der Nero was an ob­vi­ous al­le­gory for the op­pres­sion of the pro­le­tariat. The re­sult was not to ev­ery reader's taste. The re­viewer for New States­man wrote that Mitchi­son's early Chris­tians un­der Nero were like “a Fabian sum­mer school cap­tured by white slavers.” Through her use of al­le­gory, Mitchi­son at­tempts to shape the his­tor­i­cal novel into a novel of ideas about the present. But to many read­ers of The Blood of the Mar­tyrs, the re­sult seems forced and dated, an idio­syn­cratic prod­uct of the ide­o­log­i­cal strug­gles of the pre-war pe­riod. As Mitchi­son her­self said in her re­view of The Lord of the Rings: “One man's al­le­gory is an­other man's ir­ri­ta­tion.”

Mitchi­son could cer­tainly write with the sin­gle-mind­ed­ness and pas­sion of an ide­o­logue, but her more char­ac­ter­is­tic mode was the ex­plo­ration of con­flict­ing loy­al­ties and com­plex mo­ti­va­tions, com­pro­mises and con­tra­dic­tions. Her friend Doris Less­ing put the case well in a blunt and per­cep­tive let­ter ad­vis­ing Mitchi­son not to rush her African mem­oir, Re­turn to the Fairy Hill, into pub­li­ca­tion:

My ad­vice to you is to put this away for five years, by which time you will un­der­stand what re­ally hap­pened to you, and then write the real truth. Re­ally per­sonal and true, as you re­ally felt it. The deep­est and most per­sonal emo­tions be­come im­per­sonal, and there­fore true and valu­able for other peo­ple, be­cause we are not as un­like each other as we like to think; we are not these unique and re­mark­able in­di­vid­u­als; and we can be quite sure that our deep­est and most pow­er­ful emo­tions are not ours alone, but other peo­ple's, too, for whom we ex­press them . . .

Less­ing was afraid that Mitchi­son would come across as hyp­o­crit­i­cal or naïve if she didn't gain some emo­tional dis­tance and let her in­tense per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence ma­ture into truth. What Mitchi­son did so suc­cess­fully in so much of her work was to mythol­o­gize her own ex­pe­ri­ence, es­pe­cially the ex­pe­ri­ence of child­hood and youth, and give it that ar­che­typal and truth­ful qual­ity that Less­ing sought.

The word that ap­pears again and again in es­says about Naomi Mitchi­son is “con­tra­dic­tions.” “Mitchi­son em­bod­ies a mix­ture of ex­tra­or­di­nary and po­tent con­tra­dic­tions,” Maroula Jan­nou says in an es­say mark­ing Mitchi­son's hun­dredth birth­day in 1997. She was “a mass of con­tra­dic­tions,” her en­try in the Ox­ford Dic­tionary of Na­tional Bi­og­ra­phy says. An aris­to­cratic so­cial­ist, a Scot­tish na­tion­al­ist with an Ox­ford ac­cent, an ad­vo­cate for birth con­trol who bore seven chil­dren, a sci­en­tific re­al­ist who was fas­ci­nated with magic and mythol­ogy—each writer has his or her own list of the con­tra­dic­tions that Mitchi­son em­bod­ied.

Mitchi­son's abid­ing in­ter­est in the ex­pe­ri­ence of oth­er­ness in her fic­tion arises from this mass of per­sonal con­tra­dic­tions, from her own in­tense in­ter­nal­ized sense of dif­fer­ence. She looks in­side her­self and sees the other. She is the ra­tio­nal Greek and the mag­i­cal Scythian, the con­quered Gaul and the Ro­man con­queror.

Her fic­tion ex­plores these dif­fer­ences and at­tempts to rec­on­cile them by bring­ing to light the com­mon hu­man­ity of her char­ac­ters. By show­ing us the an­cient other, she wants to make us see our mod­ern selves. As Arnold Ben­nett put it, Mitchi­son “neatly and hon­estly em­pha­sizes the in­du­bi­ta­ble fact that BC peo­ple were hu­man in a thou­sand small ways as we are.” Cre­at­ing her fic­tional worlds en­abled Mitchi­son to dis­cover what Hegel called “iden­tity in dif­fer­ence”—the “you” in “I,” the “we” in “they,” the “now” in “once upon a time.”

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