‘Philip Reeve in a Tolkien setting’.
Philip Larkin was broadly correct about parents, but if you’re lucky they hand you down some good things along with all that misery-deepening-like-a-coastal-shelf stuff. Mine passed on to me a love of landscapes, and a love of books.
From almost as far back as I can recall, the two things were connected. As a child I lived in a very ordinary 1960s terraced house in Brighton, but whenever the school holidays rolled around my parents would decant my sister and I into their VW camper van and head off to Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, or some similarly exotic destination for a couple of weeks. One of the first such trips, when I was six or seven, took us to Coniston Water in the Lake District. You could camp in those days right on the shores of the lake, and while we were there I remember my father reading us Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons – a story set on that very lake, or at least on an imaginary one based closely upon it (there are elements of Derwentwater in the book, too). Peeking out of the tent-flap each morning, I could see the same waters the Swallows had set sail on, or look up to the heights of the Old Man of Coniston, the mountain which they call Kanchenjunga in the book. One day, piling into our little inflatable dinghy, we motored down the lake to Peel Island, which is the original of Wildcat Island. As I recall, we had it more or less to ourselves – we certainly found room to moor in the rocky natural harbour where the Swallows made landfall, and ate tinned sausages wrapped in slices of Mother’s Pride, cooked over a fire on the lookout place up above. I even remember, on the far shore of the lake, seeing a run-down old houseboat which must have been Captain Flint’s moored against a rotting jetty … . Or do I? I may be remembering an image from the film which came out a few years later. It was all a long time ago.
The discovery that Swallows and Amazons was a story whose setting you could walk or sail through was a strange and memorable one. It was pretty neat, I thought, that you could take the best bits of two different lakes and make a new and frankly better lake of your own. Perhaps it made me connect stories with holidays, because the books I remember loving best as a child were always those which took me away from streets and schools and traffic and everyday life to places quite unlike the one I lived in – though often very like the mountains and moors I’d visited with my parents. I wasn’t interested in nature, exactly – I found the idea of bird spotting or identifying animal tracks superficially attractive, but far too much like hard work to ever actually do. What grabbed my imagination was a certain type of landscape, one with crags and woods and fast-flowing rivers. I found it in the fantasies of Alan Garner, C.S. Lewis, and Lloyd Alexander, and in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels. Even Asterix, hunting wild boar and hapless Romans through the forests of Armorica, had a flavour of it.
Best of all, of course, was Tolkien. I remember being fairly bored by The Hobbit when I first encountered it – perhaps I was too young – but when I moved on to The Lord of the Rings I really sat up and started to take an interest. Tolkien had taken the British landscape and transformed it: it was bigger and grander, Elves wandered its forests and Orcs lurked in its caverns, but it was still recognisable. In a way, Tolkien was doing exactly what Arthur Ransome (and Arthur Ransome’s young characters) had done with the Lake District – borrowing the bits he liked best from the real landscape, rearranging them, expanding on them, giving them new names, and turning them into a world where the stories he wanted to tell would seem to grow naturally out of the rivers, woods, and hills. Middle-earth is not just Britain, of course – it has been overlaid with imagery from Tolkien’s time on the battlefields of the Western Front, from the Alps, and from the Iceland of the sagas. But as a young reader, with few illustrations and no movies to influence me, I based my mental images of Middle-earth on Wales, Cornwall, Devon and the Lake District, and I don’t think I got them very far wrong. At heart, it is a very British world. Its forests are filled with oak and willow, beech and hornbeam, and the echoes of Celtic myth and Victorian poetry. The Shire, where the book begins and ends and where I think much of its power resides, is a vision of L’Angleterre Profonde, a rose-tinted dream of a pastoral England which was already fading when Tolkien wrote of it, and which has now been almost entirely lost.
That sense of loss rings all through The Lord of the Rings. Even the defeat of Sauron is not a final victory. ‘Together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat’ says Galadriel. The old ways are passing; the Elves are departing Middle-earth, leaving it to diminish into the mundane world we know today. That feeling of living in a spoiled and diminished world was one that I understood well as a child. I had a keen sense of history, and I was aware that a lot of places which I knew as housing estates and busy roads had been fields in my grandparents’ youth, before the hungry suburbs of Brighton ate them up.
If I wanted to look back further into time I had Rosemary Sutcliff’s books Warrior Scarlet and Knight’s Fee, both set on the nearby South Downs. On day trips to Ditchling Beacon or Devil’s Dyke I could imagine myself standing on the very paths her heroes had trodden hundreds or thousands of years before me. In a lovely touch, the hero of Knight’s Fee, who lives in Norman times, finds an ancient stone knife on the high chalk which anyone who has read Warrior Scarlet will know belonged to that book’s Bronze Age hero, Drem: people pass, Sutcliff seemed to be saying, but the stones, and the land, endures. Like Tolkien’s characters, I was living in a world where countless other people had lived and died and been forgotten, leaving only ruins on hilltops, old paths in the grass. I rather wished I had been one of them – my reading had convinced me (erroneously, I suspect) that things had been better in The Olden Days.
One downside of bathing in all this stuff was that, as a child, I had almost no imaginative connection to the actual landscape which surrounded me for 48 weeks of each year. The streets and shops and blocks of flats I lived among seemed dull stuff, best ignored. None of the stories I was interested in was set anywhere like that. Or, if one was, it was only as a framing device, to be endured for a chapter or two before the protagonists found their way by magical means into some more interesting world. (The only contemporary urban story I particularly remember enjoying was Harriet Graham’s A Fox under my Jacket, whose young hero is transplanted from the country to London and hates it until he discovers the consolation of Hampstead Heath and its foxes.) Dreaming of Middle-earth and Camelot, I completely failed to understand that my hometown’s weird mix of decaying Georgian grandeur, shabby seaside tat and blighted council estates was also rather magical in its own way.
Only as a teenager, when I ventured through the door which divided the children’s library from the adult section in search of yellow-jacketed Gollancz science fiction anthologies, did I start to realise that technology and the built environment could be just as inspiring to a storyteller as magic and the open countryside. When viewed through a sci-fi lens, the run-down sink estates around my secondary school began to look intriguingly post-apocalyptic. (The bleak stretch of nearby seafront with its abstract concrete sea defences and derelict swimming pool was virtually a J.G. Ballard theme park). From then on my reading increasingly took me into towns and cities, perhaps because that’s where the more grown-up stories happened, but perhaps also because I rarely found an adult author who wrote about the countryside with the unselfconscious love that the authors of my favourite children’s books had.
So my imagination became divided; I never lost my fondness for Tolkien and Sutcliff, and wild landscapes remained powerfully evocative, but the city exerted a powerful pull of its own. It became a problem when I tried to write my own stories, because I was torn between the moors, mountains and marshes of Tolkienesque adventure and the urban and industrial settings which also appealed to me. Trying to combine those things, I eventually found my way into the imaginary landscape of my first novel, Mortal Engines.
Graham, Harriet (illus. James Hunt) (1971) A Fox under my Jacket. London: Heinemann.
Ransome, Arthur (1930) Swallows and Amazons. London: Jonathan Cape.
Reeve, Philip (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006) Mortal Engines Quartet.
–– (2015, 2016, 2018) Railhead series. Oxford University Press.
–– (2007) Here Lies Arthur. London: Scholastic Corporation.
–– (illus. Sarah McIntyre) (2020) Kevin and the Biscuit Bandit. Oxford University Press.
Sutcliff, Rosemary (illus. Charles Keeping) (1958) Warrior Scarlet. Oxford University Press.
–– (illus. Charles Keeping) (1960) Knight’s Fee. Oxford University Press.
Tolkien, J.R.R. (illus. the author) (1937) The Hobbit. London: George Allen & Unwin.
–– (illus. Alan Lee) (1954, 1954, 1955) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. London: Allen & Unwin.
Philip Reeve was born in Brighton in 1966, and now lives on Dartmoor with his wife and son. He is the author of numerous books, including the Mortal Engines and Railhead series and the Carnegie Medal winning Here Lies Arthur. He has collaborated with the author and illustrator Sarah McIntyre on numerous books for younger readers, the latest of which, Kevin and the Biscuit Bandit, has just been published in the UK by Oxford University Press.