Stardust in the North Devon Downs
‘In the sleepy English countryside…’ begins the blurb on the back cover. Sleepy English countryside is something that abounds in the lanes, fields and villages on the high land between the Taw and Torridge valleys. In the early morning May sunshine I set off into this maze of drover’s roads and bridleways to read Stardust, to search for unguarded breaks in the walled banks, and to follow young Tristran Thorn on his foray into the realm of Faerie.
I stopped by a stream in a coppiced wood at the bottom of a steep hill. The road was little more than a dirt track here, pitted and potholed with a stripe of grass running down the middle. Buttercups and red campion decorated the central stripe. The air was cool under under the trees, and damp from the stream. Blackbirds sang, pigeons hooted. I could hear the industrious sounds of someone chopping wood with an axe over the hill somewhere. The sunlight that dappled through the green canopy was hung with willowdown, floating down the lane on a breeze too light for me to feel.
As I sat reading, one of the first things I noticed about Stardust is Neil Gaiman’s confidence and skill with language. I don’t usually like to quote long passages, but these few scene-setting sentences are a real treat:
Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and the spring in her step, and Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, although she was very much in love.
Mr Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.
Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at that time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully. (3-4)
‘Looking wistfully’ is how I find myself looking at the much-derided sleepy English countryside after reading Stardust for a few hours. The book is too well grounded in the mundane and banal (the much-overlooked aspects to adventures in Faerie) to allow it to become merely nostalgic. Even once he crosses over the Wall and enters Faerie, Tristran worries about how to go to the toilet outside, he gets so hungry he can’t think straight, and Yvain’s broken leg finds no magical cure. But, Tristran is in Faerie now, so alongside learning to digging a hole to bury his doings in, he learns never to reveal his true name or destination, how to travel by candlelight, and how to fish for lightning bolts. He is met by extraordinary chance encounters and lucky escapes, and seems to be able to find a lot more to eat in hedgerows than is strictly realistic (all I’ve passed is some jack-of-the-hedge and wild garlic). The effect of this blending of the banal and the fantastical is that Gaiman’s Faerie is a far more three-dimensional place than you’d expect from a fantasy story. It becomes more than just a back-drop, and somehow feels half-familiar. Before leaving the village of Wall,
there were times when the wind blew from beyond the wall, bringing with it the smell of mint and thyme and redcurrants, and at those times there were strange colours seen in the flames in the fireplaces of the village…At those times, Tristran Thorn’s daydreams were strange, guilty fantasies, muddled and odd, of journeys through forests to rescue Princesses from palaces, dreams of knights and trolls and mermaids. And when these moods came upon him, he would slip out of the house, and lie upon the grass, and stare up at the stars. (32)
The man with the axe switched to a chainsaw, far less conducive to the imagination. The birds didn’t seem to mind, and the willowdown was in a world of its own, but I decided to move on.
About a mile up the road I had to hop over a half-rotten wooden gate into a small meadow full of beehives to wait for a herd of flighty cows to pass, flanked by men on quadbikes like secret service around a motorcade. The bees ignored me entirely, and their hives smelled of warm wax in the sunlight. After the cows had passed, I walked on until I reached a crossroads. Here there was another meadow, and I sat in the shade of a hedgebank taller than me to breakfast on a hardboiled egg and the handful of jack-of-the-hedge I’d picked along the way.
I read about how Tristran and the star found the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown, in a meadow much, I imagined, like the one I was reading in.
The lion sprang and the unicorn plunged, and the glade was filled with gold and grey and red, for the lion was on the unicorn’s back, claws gashing deeply into its flanks, mouth at its neck, and the unicorn was wailing and bucking and throwing itself onto its back in an effort to dislodge the great cat, flailing uselessly with its hooves and its horn in an effort to reach its tormentor. (90)
There was no crown to fight over in my meadow, other than buttercups and dandelion clocks. The only animals I could see were butterflies, hoverflies, and the sudden flash of an electric blue damselfly. But there was something so… enchanting about Stardust that I could hardly help but imagine the quests and battles that these insects face, and see something noble in their actions. Often, fantasy writing leaves me dissatisfied with the unenchanted world I live in, it numbs my mind’s capacity for imagination by doing all the fantasising for me. In Stardust, the boundary between our world and Faerie, although it is there, is permeable, and I keep thinking I can catch the scent of peppermint and redcurrants on the wind.
I spent the rest of the day wandering from place to place looking for good places to read. I had a good supply of water and a pile of peanut butter sandwiches, so I didn’t need to stop reading until I finished the book. By then I was so utterly lost that I had to walk for another hour or so just to find a landmark I could pinpoint on my map, and by the time I got home I was, as they say in this genre, footsore and weary. I felt as though I had had a glimpse of another world.
I was reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman, published in 1999 by Headline, though I do recommend you seek out the version illustrated by Charles Vess.