Walter de la Mare bears one of the loveliest names in English literature, but we don’t hear much about his books these days. That’s one reason the University of Cambridge is hosting an international conference Thursday and Friday called “Reading Walter de la Mare, 1873-1956.” It is boldly and accurately subtitled “A voice which has no fellow.”
Once upon a happier time, de la Mare’s most ambitious work of fiction, “Memoirs of a Midget” (1921), earned acclaim as one of the finest novels of the 20th century — which, incidentally, it is (see my 2004 Washington Post essay on the book) — while admirers of his exceptional animal fantasy “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” (1910) tended to agree with Richard Adams, who, when asked about its possible influence on “Watership Down,” declared: “To try to copy ‘The Three Mulla-Mulgars’ would be like trying to copy ‘King Lear.’ ”
Nothing if not versatile, de la Mare was also an equally gifted poet and anthologist. “Behold, This Dreamer!,” for instance, assembles passages about “Reverie, Night, Sleep, Dream, Love-Dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Subjects.” In fact, de la Mare’s work repeatedly conjures an otherworldly mysteriousness. Consider his most famous poem, “The Listeners”:
“ ‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,/Knocking on the moonlit door.”
No one answers, though phantom listeners “stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,/ That goes down to the empty hall.” After pounding harder without response, the Traveller eventually gives up, saying, “Tell them I came, and no one answered,/ That I kept my word.” He then rides away, and silence quickly returns. The listeners would seem to be ghosts — unless the Traveller is himself a fearsome revenant, come back from the dead to fulfill some ancient promise.
Along with “The Listeners” and the wonderful children’s verse of “Peacock Pie” (1913), de la Mare is probably best known for his eerie stories, the most frequently reprinted being “Seaton’s Aunt,” about a psychic vampire. Written around 1909, it was followed by a full-length novel of spiritual possession, “The Return” (1910), in which the protagonist discovers that his face has been reshaped into that of a dead 18th-century pirate. The consequences are initially unsettling, then hallucinatory and finally transformative.
Oddly enough, de la Mare alternated work on “The Return,” which is psychologically intense and claustrophobic, with work on the zestful and visionary “Three Mulla-Mulgars” (also called “The Three Royal Monkeys”). Thumb, Thimble and Nod are the sons of Seelem, the far-wandering brother of Assasimmon, the Mulgar, or monkey, prince of the Valleys of Tishnar. After their father’s disappearance, the three brothers trek across jungles and wastelands and over mountains in search of those celestial valleys. Allegorically, theirs becomes a journey into the nature of things, much simpler in character but similar to George MacDonald’s phantasmagoric “Lilith” and David Lindsay’s mind-boggling “A Voyage to Arcturus.”
As in so many fairy tales, the third and youngest brother soon emerges as the main character, in part because good-hearted Nod has “magic in him.” He has also been left the Wonderstone by his dying mother. “If in your long journey,” she explains, “you are in danger of the Third Sleep” — the Mulgar name for death — “or lost, or in great fear, spit with your spittle on the stone, and rub softly three times with your left thumb. . . Tishnar will hear you; help will come.”
Note that the Mulgars can talk, walk upright and regularly wear coats to keep warm, but they aren’t human beings in fur (as are Badger and Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s contemporary “The Wind in the Willows”). Thumb, Thimble and Nod eat fruits and nuts, fear Oomgars (men) and generally interact only with other jungle simians. During their adventures, they are captured by cannibalistic monkeys (the terrifying Minimuls), trick a Cyclops-like gorilla out of his boat and, ultimately, join forces with mountain Mulgars, who are as comfortable on narrow ledges as they are valiant in fighting eagles: “And with sticks and staves and flaring torches they turned on the fierce birds that came sweeping and swirling out of the dark upon them on bristling feathers, with ravening beaks and talons.” Still, Nod makes friends with a shipwrecked sailor (who teaches him rudimentary English) and falls in love, sort of, with a sorrowful and lonely water-maiden.
Throughout, de la Mare keeps his prose musical — “Calm and still the mist lay, and softer than wool” — while intensifying his story’s otherness by occasionally using words from the monkey-language, most of them echoing their English equivalents. A zevvera is a zebra, a bobberie a boat. Similarly, the panther-like Immanala, sometimes called the Queen of Shadows, closely resembles the sinister tiger Shere Khan from Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book,” while a troupe of the hardy mountain monkeys might almost be mistaken for the 13 dwarves of “The Hobbit.” Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien, though, de la Mare eschews massive bloodshed, let alone an epic confrontation between good and evil. Still, Nod’s connection to the Wonderstone grows as intimate as Bilbo and Frodo’s with the Ring. Not only does it open doors into another realm of being, it can also feed and succor — at least until Nod falls asleep and the amulet drops from his small brown fingers:
“It fell to the bottom of his sheep-skin pocket, and then, like a dream, vanished, gone, were fountain, feast, and music. And deep in snow, encircled by poison-thorns, slumbered the nineteen travelers in their rags and solitude, come out of magic, though they knew it not.”
While such prose now sounds old-fashioned or even too delicately textured for the age of Twitter, truly adventurous readers will always seek out “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” and de la Mare’s other books. They stand high among the most original and idiosyncratic works of 20th-century literature.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Walter de la Mare