The Nightwood, by Robin Muller (1991)

The Nightwood cover by Robin Muller     Oh dear, oh dear. It’s been ages since I posted a book review. Somehow January and February slipped by without my noticing, and March seems set on following their lead. Oops. And yet it seems like only yesterday that the whole family was gathering for the Christmas festivities: brothers and sister, future in-laws, and my little nephew, who is now – amazingly – a year old.

Up till now, my nephew has treated the board books I have given him merely as colourful chew toys, but watching him during the holidays, I realized with anticipatory pleasure that he will soon be old enough for storybooks. The thought sent me to the two huge bookcases of children’s books in the dining-room, which date back to the now distant time when we would all gather on my parents’ bed after dinner, for story hour. Browsing among the wonderful titles and beautifully-illustrated dust-jackets that lined the shelves, I came across The Nightwood by Robin Muller, which was a favourite of mine for many years. I couldn’t resist: I pulled it off the shelf and, later that night, when I was cosily ensconced in bed near the fire in the TV room, with a dog curled up at my head and another at my feet, I settled down contentedly to re-discover this old favourite.

Based on the Celtic legend of Tamlynne, The Nightwood tells the story of Elaine, the spirited only daughter of the Earl of March. Elaine has all but outgrown nursery stories and is growing increasingly restless at having to sit demurely indoors at her embroidery, day after day. Yet her father continues to treat her as a child. When he refuses to let her attend the up-coming ball he is organising, Elaine furiously decides to run away.

Elaine knows there is dancing at the Elfin Queen’s court. The elves have taken over the wood at the edge of the Earl’s lands and many dark tales are told of youths and girls disappearing amid the trees and never being seen or heard of again. But of course, the possibility of danger only increases the allure of the escapade… It doesn’t take long for Elaine to run headlong into adventure. In the wood, she comes across a solitary rose bush and, just as she is stretching out her hand to pluck one of the roses, there is a tinkling of bells and a young man appears before her, with a string of tiny elfin bells about his waist. He is Tamlynne, favourite knight of the Elfin queen and guardian of the rose bush, whose blossoms have magical properties.

Tamlynne whisks Elaine away to the very heart of the wood, where, in a clearing among the trees, a phantom orchestra plays unearthly music and couples dance by the light of the moon. Together they dance until the first light of dawn disperses the shadows and sends Elaine running back to her father’s castle. Night after night from that time forth, Elaine slips out to join Tamlynne in the woods. At length, however, the Earl catches on to what is happening and locks his daughter up. Elaine knows she must somehow escape and find her way back to Tamlynne before it is too late: for Tamlynne is a mortal, one of those lured away from their homes and their families by the power of the elves, and on All Hallows Eve, his soul will become forfeit to the Elfin Queen. Only mortal love can save him. Elaine must come face to face with the Elfin Queen herself and fight for Tamlynne before he is lost to her forever.

Elaine’s rebelliousness and courage make her an endearing heroine, and I, for one, have always found her fascination with the Nightwood and the elves (hauntingly depicted by Robin Muller) very easy to relate to. Situated beyond the gardens and farmlands of the Earl’s estate, and therefore also beyond the borders of his jurisdiction, the wood is a wild place, both undomesticated and unknown, full of unplumbed secrets most attractive to the adventurous mind. It is uncharted territory and, as such, it represents freedom. But as Elaine quickly discovers, it is also a place of potential danger. The elves lurking within the dark recesses of the wood embody this duality – in a way they are the Celtic equivalent of the role played by Pan in Greek mythology.

The Elfin Queen’s rose encapsulates the dual nature of the wood: its magical properties are called upon to protect Elaine from the power of the elves, guaranteeing her safe passage through the woods; yet at the same time, an adult reader is very much aware of the connotations attached to the rose – or, more specifically, to the plucked rose. It is not insignificant that Elaine’s arrival in the wood should coincide with the plucking of a rose, nor that it should be a man who does the plucking. The rose Tamlynne picks and gives to Elaine can thus be seen as a symbol of lost innocence, not to say lost virginity. In fact, in most versions of the Tamlynne story, the heroine comes home pregnant from her nocturnal wanderings. In this light, her father’s decision to lock her up can be interpreted as shame at her pregnancy, just as the urgency with which she seeks out Tamlynne again can be seen as stemming from a desperate need to legitimise their union. Whether Elaine’s fierce struggle to win Tamlynne’s hand is motivated by love or necessity, however, her journey into, and out of, the wood takes on all the importance of an essential rite of passage.

Nowadays, the character that interests me most is the eponymous hero of the legend, Tamlynne. Tamlynne is a shadowy, mysterious figure – ergo, highly romantic. All that we know about him is that he is one of those who succumbed to the treacherous allure of the elves, and that he has been bound to their queen for seven years. But what exactly does it mean, to be the favourite knight of the Elfin Queen? The term implies that the relationship is of a sexual nature. This makes Tamlynne one of a literary brotherhood of knights-errant – both wandering and erring – who, in entering the forest, have strayed off the beaten track and, discarding the codes of acceptable behaviour and forsaking the duties attendant upon their rank, have allowed themselves to be seduced by a sorceress/femme fatale. Keats’ “palely loitering” knight-at-arms, pining for La Belle Dame Sans Merci; Tannhaüser and Venus (and yes, this is probably the only time you shall ever hear me mention Wagner, so make the most of it!); Prince Rilian and the Lady of the Green Kirtle – like Tamlynne and the Elfin Queen, all of these couples speak of the power of sensual pleasure.

It needed all the strength of Elaine’s love, and her extraordinary will-power, to bring Tamlynne back to the consciousness of the life he had left behind, and to make of him a husband, a father, and a lord. There are times, however, when I cannot help regretting – just a little bit! – that she could not leave him be. There is a sweetness to freedom of which I have not yet grown tired and, given a choice, I do not think I would have forsaken the elves.

© Florence Berlioz 2014

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About Miss Darcy's Library

I love books - buying books, reading books, discussing books, and generally admiring them from all angles (except the e-book). I also love tea, roses, and my dogs, and seldom pass up an opportunity to slip them into the conversation.
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2 Responses to The Nightwood, by Robin Muller (1991)

  1. helen says:

    Hello Florence, I had never heard of this book before reading your review; it looks as if I have missed out! Have you ever read Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones? That’s another retelling of Tam Lin, it’s wonderful. Although you can understand anyone wanting to leave that fairy court. Nightwood sounds more equivocal.

    • Hello Helen! I urge you to discover The Nightwood for yourself, if only for the illustrations. The story is lovely, but the illustrations are what makes it truly special.
      I read several Diana Wynne Jones books a couple of years ago but not the one you mention. I’ll definitely look into it!

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