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Myth & Sacrifice

The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

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The Oaken Throne | Chapter 14 & Epilogue

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

From the steaming earth – to the terror of all – the god of the rats, the Lord of the Raith Sidhe, slowly emerged.

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Well, he’s been very patient with us, and now it’s finally time for the Lord Hobb, Father of Wrath and Mightiest of the Raith Sidhe, to take centre stage. I can suggest no more apt soundtrack to accompany that cataclysmic event than Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. To me, it is the definitive ‘Lord Hobb, Arise Now From The Pit’ piece, and I feel that the original, rather than Rimsky-Korsakov’s later version, captures the moment in all its true devilish glory.

I have to say that for all she doesn’t survive it, Morwenna really is on top form during this finale. Last chapter we had her own rather theatrical reveal as High Priestess of Mabb (is it just me or did anybody else laugh when she dramatically whipped off her tiara?) and right up until she is crisped to a cinder by Hobb’s fiery breath, she really villains her heart out. It’s incredibly fun to read, and a fitting final performance for a truly diabolical Handmaiden of Darkness.

Like with Morgawrus, I had actually forgotten that Hobb does a fair bit of talking, IN UPPERCASE, NO LESS, during his brief time on the surface. What I found very interesting about his exchange with Ysabelle is that it mirrors Audrey’s confrontation with Jupiter in The Final Reckoning.

Our heroine is tiny, our arch-villain is enormous, and yet her small voice, possibly combined with the glow of Starwifeship, intimidates him. Both baddies gloat, and both call their nemeses ‘witch’ before being vanquished in a storm of sparks. Neither the Unbeest nor the Lord of the Pit actually die, but in Jupiter’s case there was no question of his returning to the living plane, whereas Hobb can only be contained as long as his prison remains whole. As we will discover when we read The Deptford Mice Almanack next year, that detail, like the acorn itself, will turn out to be more than it seems.

During the last chapters of The Final Reckoning I may have mentioned wailing and gnashing of teeth, but that was nothing, nothing, compared to the garment-rending, hair-tearing, chorus-of-professional-mourners-employing anguish which resulted from this epilogue. To this day, The Oaken Throne gets ‘I am still traumatised by Vesper’s death’ more than it gets any other response, and frankly I think we are all justified, for never was a story of more woe, than this of Ysabelle and her Vespertilio.

Matt’s Thoughts: I think Aufwader has said almost everything I could possibly say about this chapter. The only thing I would add is that the other Jupiter / Lord Hobb similarity is the little moment where Ysabelle calls Hobb the ‘father of lies’, which is another old King James Version description of Satan that Mr Jarvis cleverly throws in for those who are watching.

Also, I would add that I was one of those readers who got a little bit of satisfaction when I read about Fenny looking for a meadow and Griselda heading off for the Deep Ford and knowing where all that will lead.

And, of course, the Shakespearean tragedy of the epilogue is so true. It’s the fact that the Vesper’s death was unnecessary and avoidable that makes it all so bad. Like, couldn’t Ysabelle have thought about it a little faster, couldn’t Othello have had a chat with Desdemona, couldn’t the Montagues and Capulets have done some conflict resolution work a bit earlier in the piece? And the answer always, is a resounding and fatalistic NO. (In Hobb capitals.)

Anyway, there we have it: The Oaken Throne. I feel like using the word ‘pastiche’ about this one, because are so many nods to other familiar stories: WWII air raids, Tolkienesque quests, the Bard himself. But at the same time, it has all the unique darkness and drive of the other Jarvis novels as well.

And what’s especially amazing is that while all this medieval squirrel and bat action was taking place, there was another final Whitby book brewing as well, which we’ll jump into next month! See you then.

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The Oaken Throne | Chapter 13

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Wait!’ Vesper yelled until he was hoarse from shouting. ‘This is wrong – listen to me!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  This is such a desperate chapter, and made all the worse by the fact that every well-intentioned effort our heroes make seems to have gone terribly wrong by the end of it. I suppose their first mistake was to separate, but I understand why Ysabelle chose to follow Morwenna.

Consider that Ysabelle is completely alone with her injured beloved in the perilous woodland – she has no way of contacting her army or anyone who could help, she is very young still and has endured great suffering already on her quest, and she is still being chased by the Hobbers. Plus, she has not laid eyes on one of her own kind since that grisly night at the Ring of Banbha. Of course Morwenna would seem a welcome sight. In Ysabelle’s defence, she is in a quandary about leaving Vesper to accompany this stranger into the heart of bat territory, but at this point, she has no choice.

While that unpleasantness unfolds, we also have Vesper’s botched attempt to persuade his kin that the Raith Sidhe are the true enemy. This part is quite painful to read; we know of the long and painful journey of internal growth which Vesper has undergone, but the Knights of the Moon do not. To them, he is nothing more than an irritating weaning, never mind the respect they have for his father.

The moment where the bat and squirrel forces collide for what appears to be their last and most dreadful confrontation is moving both in how grand and mythological it feels, and how completely despairing it truly is. There really is no hope left, the forces of bat and squirrel will slaughter each other in mindless bloodshed which our heroes are powerless to curtail, and all that’s left is for the Three Thrones to arise again.

Matt’s Thoughts: This chapter reminded me quite a bit of the finale of The Hobbit. We’ve got two armies about to start fighting with each, when really they should band together and take out the real bad guys.

However, I will confess that I always found the whole Battle of the Five Armies a bit tacked on in that other story. Once they kill the dragon, it’s all downhill from there for me. (Don’t get me started on the films, where they decided to take my least favourite part of the book and turn it into one stand-alone movie.)

Whereas, this finale feels like the logical outworking of where the story has been going. Right from the start, we’ve been rooting for Ysabelle and Vesper to be the ones to break down the barriers between squirrels and bats, and given that we know (which most of the soldiers in the two armies do not) that the real danger is all those dreadful worshippers of the Raith Sidhe, it’s got a real nail-biting edge to it when the battle starts. Vesper can’t stop them, Ysabelle is about to get killed by a giant toad, the acorn is gone.

Yet again, we’re at the end of Chapter 13 and we have no idea how this is all going to be tied up. I love a good Jarvis Chapter 13. (Only second to loving a good Jarvis Chapter 14.)

Which reminds me to ask: Mr Jarvis, if you’re reading this, was there anything particularly special about the number 14 back in the 80s and 90s?

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 12

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The high priest tittered. ‘Well,’ he taunted, ‘the little runt always did want me to carve him.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect that this was the chapter in which ol’ Wendy won a few hearts. I admit that even I had a hard time suppressing the gleeful cackles when I first heard that particular reveal on tape, and were I not already spoken for, perhaps the high priest of Hobb might’ve been a passable second choice. He’s certainly well-dressed, I suppose, and maybe one could learn to tolerate his sense of humour.

I am spoken for, however, in matters of both cult and heart, and so I’m pleased to be toasting the happiness of those of you for whom Wendel is top of the list. I am only sorry that you weren’t able to bask in the truth of his identity for more than a few pages. Believe me, I know how that feels, and in the same breath as I offer my congratulations, I must also offer my condolences. Good night, thou wiggly noodle of perfidy and deceit. May flights of demons sing thee to the Pit.

For our less bloodthirsty readers, this chapter has a lot in the way of heartache going on with the loss of Tysle, and Giraldus’ bitter display of woe. In the Deptford Mice Trilogy, both Matt and I commented on how the reactions of the mice to grief and trauma resonated as very human, and the same can be said of Giraldus’ anger and sorrow here.

Ever since we met them in Chapter 6, the leprous mole and his tiny shrew guide were a constant, so much a duo that they were more or less considered a single unit. What I found particularly sad was how Giraldus was moved to reject his faith in the Green, and even to destroy the relics which he had collected on pilgrimage. At least in the end he goes out with his faith renewed, and we can only hope that he found the healing he was searching for in the Green hereafter.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Maybe it just caught me on a particularly good train ride home, but I feel like this is possibly one of the strongest chapters Mr Jarvis has written so far. It packed an emotional punch I simply didn’t see coming.

The rage and grief of Giraldus is simply jaw-dropping in its intensity, whether it comes out of a place of gratitude for the role the shrew played in his life – or perhaps something closer again? Whatever the subtext, my heart broke reading it. I can’t believe I forgot this chapter! I know Robin has said on his website that these were the characters that he loved most of all, and I can believe it.

They are a perfect representation of his imperfect heroes – they don’t fit the mold of characters we’d expect to see much heroic stuff from – and yet is there anything more heroic than Giraldus burrowing through a wall, despite the agony of his leprous claws being ripped away?

There’s also just a sharp spike in the violence of the chapter, which I find quite effective. We have to very quickly hate Wendel and the sheer viciousness of his actions in this chapter certainly did it for me.

Anyway, enough writing – there are carrion birds and Hobbers attacking and Lord Hobb himself digging up from the Underworld! On to the next chapter!

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 11

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Verily ‘tis I; the purblind one, the dew-hopper, the furze cat, the stag of the stubble, he with the leathery horns, the legs of the four winds – the moon-sent angel.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  There’s a lot to absorb in this chapter, but I think many of us might’ve remembered the last page or so better than the rest of it. Come on, admit it, we all sighed a soppy sigh when Ysabelle and Vesper finally smooched. They’ve had such development and growth – both as individuals and together – over the course of the story, that by the time they decide they’re in star-crossed, house-plagued love with each other it seems like the most natural of progressions. (‘At long last!’ exclaims every reader ever.)

With that out of the way, we can wind back a little and consider the Ancient. If the chapters leading up to the meeting with him were a riff on the most over-used motifs of talking animal fantasy, the scene with the moon-sent angel is a deeply elegant and quite moving Robin Jarvis original. It has basis in myth, and most certainly involves sacrifice on the part of all those who are brought in audience. We also get swathes of Deptford universe lore, and more is brought to light regarding the bats and their beliefs. The illustration for this chapter is also very striking; something about the great hare’s staring, silver eyes draws and holds the attention until we, too, feel like puny creatures brought be.

His meeting with the Ancient could almost be pinpointed as Vesper’s coming-of-age moment. Ysabelle does not have such cause to be spiritually moved as the Ancient is not sacred to her people, and Fenny has a different and less immediate destiny. For Vesper, however, meeting the Ancient is his version of Ysabelle’s heart-to-heart with the Green in Chapter 7, and he is quite within his rights to be weeping into his wings. We do not yet know how he will go about his alarmingly grand task of uniting the forces of the Lady and the Green, but we only have a few chapters left, and we’re all along for the ride.

Matt’s Thoughts: Ah, that theme I was talking about in the last chapter is developed even more as the Ancient sees that Vesper has truly learned to see past lies. ‘Both sides canst thou see and the truth is but a glimmer away.’ Such a magnificent chapter, because it shows Vesper and Ysabelle as now being equally brave and ready to do great things.

Which does, of course, means that they’re perfect for each other, right? But no scene of romance is going to last too long in a Jarvis book before being interrupted by something not quite right. In this case, an increasingly sinister guy with puppets. Really, aside from Geppetto, would you trust a puppeteer? Eurgh … (And not the end of creepy puppets in the Jarvis world, but we’ll get to that in due time.)

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 10

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Captain!’. the hedgehog declared. ‘See what trespassers we have captured!’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Ah, Fenny! I daresay there may have been a bit of applause and maybe a few groans of trepidation from our long-time readers when that mousey captain came on the scene. There he is, folks, the one and only.

With Fenny’s introduction, we have another juxtaposition between the legends of the Mice trilogy, and the salt-and-porridge medieval reality. The Fennywolders of The Crystal Prison would have us believe that Fenlyn Purfote was a saintly, peace-loving figure, and despite the proof in that book that he did eventually hang up his sword, one gets the impression that the tales and songs have perhaps done their work rather too well over the years.

Regardless, he certainly cuts a dashing, and, dare I say, familiar figure for those of you who know your talking animal fantasy. Captain Fenny is Martin the Warrior with a little of the gold leaf flaking off, but I probably speak for a few of us when I say that Fenny seems a gratifyingly solid character next to the ephemeral guardian of Redwall Abbey. For myself, I’m obliged to detest the cultist-butchering captain on principle, but I find that I just can’t​. Despite the bad first impression of this chapter, he has the glory of ages shining out of his ears, and I can understand how woodlanders of all kinds might rally to the sound of his name.

Matt’s Thoughts: FENNY! I had forgotten that the Fennywolde namesake makes an appearance in this book, which just makes the story even more awesome. (And I’m also keen to get back to the Deptford Mouselets now.) I love the idea of a bunch of brave but diminutive anti-Hobbers, determined to make a desperate stand against the forces of evil.

But the bit that I found most impressive in this chapter, especially reading it now in my late 30s, is the bat conversation that Vesper overhears.

It reminded me of a movie and book that I loved as a teenager. The movie was Gettysburg, and it was based on a novel from the 70s called The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. The book was a work of historical fiction that described the Battle of Gettysburg (the major battle in the American Civil War that took place in the 1860s). I didn’t know a lot about the Civil War at the time, and it’s obviously still a hugely contentious issue in America, but Shaara took a different approach than many other authors.

Rather than dig too deeply into the cause, he simply but effectively portrayed the different commanders, with scenes on both sides of the conflict, so that by the end of the book, you understood the characters and the dreadful toll that so much bloodshed was taking on them. While it could be argued that Shaara could have been more particular about the causes of the war, I found it opened my eyes to a fact about life: there aren’t always simple black and white causes when it comes to war. And for the rest of my life, it has been important to me to avoid quick narratives of right and wrong, and actually try to understand other people – particularly in conflicts.

So this scene with Vesper in the tree is a really important lesson, not just for Vesper, but for all of us. As he hears the bats sharing the same old narrative about ‘evil squirrels’ that he has grown up with – that he himself believed until recently – he realises that this simplistic version of events is driving dreadful bloodshed and evil. In understanding that the truth is more complex than he knew, it draws him away from violence. It’s another subtle strand to the story that I’m appreciating more this time around.

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 9

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Join us in the deep,’ their icy voices rang. ‘Walk no more under the sun. Come rot, let your flesh dissolve and take on other guises.’

Aufwader’s Thoughts: The first section of this chapter is a series of small, disparate scenes sewn together, but in the tapestry of the story they are extremely important.

With a familiar friend returned, there is a renewal of hope for our pilgrims. The feud between Wendel and Giraldus is set up rather well in a few short lines, and I have to say that I am on the mole’s side this time. The group have just been in fear for their lives yet again, and there’s no joke nor magic trick in the world that can make light of the imminent arising of the  Lord Hobb from the unlit regions of the Pit.

Here we also have Ysabelle and Vesper inadvertently tearing holes in the stories and sermons they were fed as children. They’re still a ways from reconciliation yet, but progress is certainly being made. I know this book more or less cover-to-cover, but it’s still rewarding to see the growth in these characters and watch them start to realise that, hey, maybe the dread foe isn’t so dread after all.

And finally, the wraiths of the mere. I think we all remember those wheezy horrors! They’re definitely high on the list of infamous Robiny beasties, and for good reason. All that ‘moulder with us’ is probably worse than the gorecrow’s song last chapter, and the icy, choking end which Vesper almost meets is at least as bad as having one’s eyes and innards devoured by irate corvids. Brr!

Matt’s Thoughts: I love grey ambiguous characters in a YA book. While there is something comfortable when you’re very young about really obvious bad guys (the ones who are ugly, or sinister, etc) – and Mr Jarvis has created plenty of those – the ones that mess you up a bit are the ones who you can’t read properly.

Apart from Ysabelle and Vesper, who we trust (they’re the innocent ones who anchor us as everything unfolds around them), everyone else puts me on edge a bit. Wendel, Giraldus, Tysle: are any of them what they seem? The fact that we’re not sure is enough to keep the tension up … until some decomposing fish skeletons climb out of the pond and try to kill everyone and then we’re more worried about our heroes’ survival!

Actually, I am curious about those fellows – they feel very much like they started life as a model. Would that be the case, Mr Jarvis?

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 8

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

The holy well had become a hideous place – for the Children of the Raith Sidhe had come and left their infernal marks there. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  I love the wonderfully eerie set that Ysabelle and her entourage find themselves in. This I could definitely picture in grainy 90s animation, with a bit of purply mist for good measure. If I may bring up The Black Cauldron once again, this track in particular is quite apt, I think, for the terrible scene where our heroes are pursued by the Children of the Raith Sidhe.

In the lead up to that, though, we have Pountfrey and Mahtild, a pair of rather excellent and somewhat hilarious riffs on the classic friendly medieval mouse. I don’t know if any of it was intentional, but if I’m honest, a lot about the walk through the woods in this chapter reads like a gentle send-up of medieval talking animal fantasy in general.

First of all there’s the trademark supernatural ice, reminiscent of the Chamber of Winter in The Dark Portal, along with a few heads on sticks for that grisly Robin Jarvis touch. In the hands of a gentler author, I daresay a chill breeze might blow through the wood, but nothing more untoward than that, and certainly no evil black rime or gory, charred remains.

Then there’s the mouse couple, eking out a wretched existence, hiding from cultists every night, eager to share neither information nor their warm hearth. Rosy-cheeked and welcoming they most definitely are not, and neither is that rabbit, though at least he has good intentions.

All playful ribbing aside, this is the first time the gorecrows come into the spotlight, and how marvellously malevolent they are! What terrors! Their nasty little ditty about eyeballs and ruby blood is going to haunt me, that’s for sure.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: The word ‘unfilmable’ was running through my head as I read this chapter. There is just so much grim stuff going on – Hobbers in the forest, the Jarvis version of The Birds and some particularly grim decapitations. Not to mention obscene scrawlings and defilings of sacred wells which are probably best left to the imagination.

Also, I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the whole forest section of these last few chapters has an immersiveness that feels even worse than the sewers in the Deptford Mice trilogy. Maybe Robin’s powers of description had grown, or the forest is less of a confined space than the old sewers, but this place gets nastier every chapter.

Frodo and Co took several hundred pages to get to the really grim parts of Middle Earth. In The Oaken Throne, we got there in just a couple of hundred pages …

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 7

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘When thou bringest the silver to the Starglass, all things are possible, child.’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Apparently, Giraldus and Tysle were the first characters to appear to Mr Jarvis and demand that The Oaken Throne be written. The leprous mole and his shrew companion started it all, and I can think of no better beginning to what would become one of the greatest legends of the Deptford Histories.

These two also bring with them the concept of the good old medieval pilgrimage. Like the Black Plague back in The Alchymist’s Cat, pilgrimage was something I knew about as a child, but not in any great detail. Giraldus and Tysle not only introduce it as an idea, but address it in a three-dimensional way, which I just think is fantastic.

First, we have this pair of creatures, both afflicted in some way and seeking the healing power of the divine for their ills. Then, we have the idea that these two are not only two individuals who just happened to be going the same way, but that they have bonded in such a manner that we could no longer picture one without the other, and that their pilgrimage has cemented this bond. We have their fear that their quest is fruitless when they hear of the despoiling of their destination, combined with their unshakable faith. Finally, we have Tysle’s heartbreaking willingness to deceive Giraldus about the state of the Orchard of Duir, determined that the old mole’s suffering to get that far would not be in vain.

All of this, in some form or another, is what real pilgrims experienced – the idea that the journey and the faith of the journeyers is more important than the destinations rings very true, even today. Medieval pilgrims must have banded together on the road, been disappointed by holy sites that did not live up their expectations, and had their faith grow the greater for the hardships they endured. In their bumbly way, Giraldus and Tysle embody traditional pilgrimage, and Ysabelle and Vesper could stand to learn from their stalwart example.

Matt’s Thoughts: Aufwader has pretty much said everything I was feeling as well – it brings the idea of pilgrimage to life in a way that old history books often can’t. (I particularly loved the nice touch of the ‘caterpillar penance’.)

But what was interesting was that, just as the characters were settling down in the trees to sleep, I was thinking to myself, ‘This could be a long, miserable stretch of book here’ – all of a sudden, we have that amazing vision of the Green. And so it begs the fascinating question: is the holy site still just as alive and thriving as ever, but it only looks as if it’s old and decayed? Is it to do with a combination of the Green’s desire to reveal and the faith of his followers?

Either way, it’s a great section, and immediately has throwbacks to the summer pool in The Crystal Prison (without requiring you to have read that particular book). And also sets up that someone in Ysabelle’s party is a traitor … which is much more effective than you think, because all of the characters here are so ambiguous. Apart from Ysabelle and Vesper, who we sort of understand, everyone else is seen through their eyes. So do we really know who any of these characters are or what their real motivations are?

It makes you wonder whether Mr Jarvis just ran into one too many shifty people in his life and decided to populate his books with characters who look like one thing but may well be another … it certainly puts me on edge!

The Oaken Throne | Chapter 6

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

‘Beware the sound of bells, oh Moonrider!’ 

Aufwader’s Thoughts:  Cast into the wild dark wood with only each other, Vesper and Ysabelle do not exactly make the best protagonist duo, but that’s what makes the early scenes of this chapter so fun to read. They may have just witnessed terrifying blood sacrifice, but they are still only a pair of sheltered young creatures in way over their ear-tufts. Among the verbal sparring that goes on, my favourite quips have to be Ysabelle referring to Vesper as a ‘peasant’, and Vesper insisting that all squirrels worship trees. But all of it is great, especially when they go sliding down into that ditch.

Back in the frazzled ruins of the Hobber shindig, we have a classic ‘secondary villain reports to lead villain regarding a botch job’ scene. I know it’s supposed to be grim and imposing (and I would love to see that carven rat face on screen) but ever since I first read this book I’ve been calling the toad network ‘Hobb phone’, which kind of kills the atmosphere a little. You’re welcome.

In any case, having his ear chewed by Morwenna (not, I surmise, for the first time) only motivates the high priest to wreak a terrible vengeance upon our heroine and hero, which leads to the scene with the brook. This introduces a very interesting story aspect that we haven’t come across before – in Chapter 1 it is stated that the Green ‘still walks’ in some parts of the land, and here we see that in practice.

In this medieval age, the Spirit of Life evidently holds more sway than he did in the built-up, grimy world of the Deptford Mice Trilogy. What other powers does he possess in this forest-swathed and verdant age? Let us hope they are strong enough to protect the noble Lady and her batling guide in the chapters ahead.

Matt’s Thoughts: I do love the idea of a ‘Hobb phone’. I’m thinking that Aufwader and I should ditch the emails and Trello boards that we use to coordinate this blog and just install a toad each.

Anyway, enough joking. Curses have been laid and our young heroes are in danger unless they can stay in the magic stream.

One thing that has got me curious, especially thinking about the Green and the Lady of the Moon. You might remember, back when we were going through The Alchymist’s Cat, that I was speculating on who the goddess was that was referred to as being worshipped outside the church at Blackfriars. I’m now assuming that this was the Moon (which would also tie in with all the bats who were sitting up in the steeple, watching all the goings-on with the young cats and foreseeing what was going to happen).

Finally, I like the little moment of Vesper and his decision about whether to kill Ysabelle or not. Up till now, the bats have been fairly unsympathetic compared with the squirrels, but here we start to see a humanity in the characters. You get a first glimpse that there could be some sort of peace and respect between the two races …

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