Katherine Langrish grew up in Yorkshire and has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She graduated in English from London University, and lived in France and the United States before returning to England in 1999. She has a background in storytelling, and is the author of the Troll Trilogy (Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood), a children's fantasy series based in the Viking age, and of Dark Angels (US title: The Shadow Hunt), set on the Welsh Marches in the 12th century. Katherine is a member of the Folklore Society and approaches her fantasies as 'history with the beliefs put back in' – reflecting the world-picture of people of the past who took for granted the existence of trolls, ghosts and spirits. Below she discusses Lord Dunsany's The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders.
Katherine Langrish on The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders by Lord Dunsany
When I was about sixteen, we moved to a small village near Skipton in Yorkshire, to live in a wonderfully rambling house with three staircases, and no electricity. In winter, frost coated the insides of delicate windowpanes scrawled with the diamond-engraved names of previous inhabitants, draughts whistled under the doors, and the only warm room was the kitchen.
In summer, the doors and windows stood open to let in stray bees, and the sounds of sheep bleating, curlews calling. One night a bat flew into my room through the open window and whirled around and around before finding its way out again. Outside in the dark, I could hear the beck flowing quietly down the dale to join the Aire, and owls shrieking in the trees.
I was at that happy age when one is almost independent, yet with few responsibilities. I was writing stories, about which I was blissfully unself-critical. And I could spend nearly all the rest of my spare time reading. One day I borrowed from Skipton Public Library a small, insignificant-looking black book called The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders by Lord Dunsany.
I can't remember now whether this was the first book by Lord Dunsany that I had read. I may have already come across his full length fairytale The King of Elfland's Daughter (to which Neil Gaiman pays graceful tribute in Stardust). At any rate, The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders turned out to be something quite different: difficult to categorize; not your average fantasy at all. I read it, adored it, borrowed and re-borrowed it, and then one day it disappeared. I never saw it in the library again. It had in fact been pinched. And it was only last year that I finally tracked down another copy. (Thank you, abebooks.com!)
It begins in that most Edwardian of settings, a gentleman's club. The eponymous hero, Colonel Polders, objects to the election of a new member, Pundit Sinadryana, 'on the grounds that he was by several thousand miles outside the circle that was intended by the original founders...' The colonel is stiff, conservative, and aggressively disbelieving of the Pundit's claim to possess the power of transmigration, to send a spirit travelling 'to other lives'.
"I should like to see you do it," said the colonel...
"I will show you," said Pundit Sinadryana. And after what the colonel had just said it was difficult for him to decline the invitation; much as he wished to do so, not from any fear of the adventure, but because he did not like Pundit Sinadryana.
"When?" said the colonel.
"Tonight, if you like," said the pundit.
The experiment is tried. The Pundit burns various powders, and chants a spell 'low and musical right into the colonel's face, of which we heard no clear word, nor did we wish to... "Well", said the colonel, "I don't seem to be doing much travelling."'
But, of course, the next moment he falls asleep. And shortly after that he's snoring. And when, moments later, he wakes up: 'he stood up at once and walked out of the room without saying a word.'
It's left to the narrator and his friends, with the aid of many a glass of Malmsey wine and many a cigar, to coax from Colonel Polders the stories of the lives he lived through during the space of those few moments. The poor colonel has been a fish, a fox, a dog, a moth, a pig, an eel, a tiger. He has been a cat, a butterfly, a flea and a goose, a bat, an antelope and a mouse. At the end of each life, the colonel has died in his animal form, only to be reincarnated in the next. In each life he has experienced new sensory revelations, which of course are lost to him now he has returned to his own body. And he recounts his experiences with a mixture of rapture and resentment at 'that damned fellow Sinadryana' that is both lyrical and extremely funny. As a pig, he explains:
"... I couldn't see very well what was going on, because of the high walls of the sty, but fortunately I had a very wet nose."
"A very wet nose?" exclaimed Charlie Meakin.
"Yes," said the colonel. "One cannot smell anything without a good wide area that is always damp... No, it is a very ample life that is led by a pig."
As a fox, he lies in his earth waiting for evening, when he can hunt:
"And it is a curious thing, and you may possibly not believe me, but I waited without impatience. One can hardly imagine waiting two or three hours for one's dinner when one is hungry, without any impatience whatever. But such was the case.
"I lay there just enjoying the sound of the wind going by, and the quality of the air that I breathed, and the rounded shape of the smoothed earth where I was lying, which was so exactly suited to my needs... A fern grew at the edge of the earth, and whenever the wind blew, it waved over across my view of the sky. I watched it doing that while the sky's colour changed slowly; and I felt no impatience with time."
And as a hummingbird hawk-moth, he beats against a window:
"The glory of that light... was calling to me with music as well as beauty. I darted towards it, and there was no barrier, no window I mean: nothing between me and that unearthly light glowing amongst melodies and irresistible calls."
"And it was a candle?" asked Charlie Meakin.
The Strange Journeys of Colonel Polders is a supremely happy book that celebrates the marvellous diversity of life. Dunsany writes as though he knows himself what it's like to be an eel or a moth or a pig. I don't know if a book like this could be published today. It breaks all the structural rules. There's the slightest of plots, apart from one little twist to round things off at the end. The book is really a linked series of short pieces. But in this case, for me, it doesn't matter. It's the journeys that count, along with the semi-comical insights of the poor colonel, forever exiled from the abundant delights he has known.
For years and years I remembered that image of the fox curled in his lair, watching 'the white light at the end of that long earth turn to a glowing blue...'
I read this book at a golden age, and I think it's a golden book.