Nevermoor – Morality and Values in an Imagined World

Cover image courtesy of Hachette Australia. Design by Beatriz Castro, illustration by Jim Madsen.

‘I know everything about this world’, declares Jessica Townsend in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. Which world is she talking about? The world of Wintersea and the Free State; the world inhabited by Morrigan Crow, chief protagonist in Townsend’s new fantasy series, Nevermoor.

Writers of fantasy fiction create not just characters and plots for their novels, they imagine whole new worlds. Worlds with unique geographies and climates; technologies and customs; and even, on occasion, languages. (Think of J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.)

In addition to these tangible elements, fantasy authors need to envision the moral framework that governs their created world and the values that underpin it. What principles will determine issues of right and wrong, of justice, of the exercise of power? Will their world operate within the boundaries of a belief system? Will myths and stories from the imagined world’s past (or from other, known worlds) influence the present?

The Story So Far…

In Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, Jessica Townsend begins to reveal the world she has created for her debut series. Very briefly, Morrigan Crow, an eleven-year-old, cursed child, is facing imminent death—a fate that awaits all children born on Eventide. Her family is resigned to her demise, perhaps even welcoming the shedding of an awkward burden. But Morrigan is offered an alternative, albeit uncertain, future.

She departs Wintersea under the care of her newly emerged patron, Jupiter North. Jupiter, a member of the Wundrous Society, runs Nevermoor’s Deucalion Hotel in the Free State. But entry into this realm is by invitation only. To remain there, Morrigan must compete with other children for admission to the exclusive Wundrous Society. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, is the nebulous figure of Ezra Squall, who (like Jupiter) vies for the role of Morrigan’s patron.

What clues does Townsend offer her readers to help them understand the moral shape of her imagined world? There are hints in the names of people and places, in the values that are affirmed, and in the exercise of power.

Names: more than meets the eye?

Authors often give clues to the true nature of their created worlds through the names they select for characters and locations. Here are three of Townsend’s choices:

Morrigan Crow: Morrigan is the story’s main character. She shares her forename with an Irish goddess (who often appeared in the form a crow) whose name means ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’. In Irish mythology, Morrigan is associated with power and sovereignty. Townsend seems to be offering her readers an insight into Morrigan Crow’s true nature and prospects.

Marble head from a statue of Jupiter. British Museum.

Jupiter North: Jupiter is Morrigan’s patron. His name suggests two associations: Jupiter, the supreme Roman god, who provides protection and upholds society’s laws, and ‘north’, the direction sometimes used to indicate the moral compass-point that guides us. When Morrigan’s new patron suddenly appears in Wintersea to take her away to Nevermoor, she asks: ‘Where are we going?’ Jupiter North responds: ‘We’re going home, Morrigan Crow.’

Deucalion: Jupiter’s hotel shares its name with that of the Greek god Deucalion—the Greek equivalent of the Judeo-Christian ark-builder, Noah. In Greek mythology, Deucalion survives a great flood and is offered a second chance at life. Does the Deucalion Hotel represent a hopeful future, in a kinder world, for Morrigan? On the roof of the hotel, soon after her arrival in Nevermoor, Morrigan feels ‘expansive, bursting with a new joy’:

‘It’s a New Age … and I’m alive … This was her second chance; the beginning of a new life she never dreamed she’d have.’

Character and place names help build a picture of the world Townsend is creating, a world where power is wielded, protection offered, and futures re-made.

Values

The Free State is renowned for ‘innovation, industry and thirst for knowledge’. Those who seek to qualify for membership of its highly selective Wundrous Society must manifest those characteristics via a series of trials that test them ‘physically and mentally’.

In the Book Trial, candidates’ honesty is tested. Morrigan proves herself worthy through her ‘sincerity, reasoning and quick thinking’. The Chase Trial requires ‘daring, tenacity and an instinct for strategy’. The Fright Trial distinguishes ‘the bold from the meek’, exposing candidates’ courage and resourcefulness. Finally, the Show Trial reveals candidates’ talents or ‘knacks’. Interestingly, Morrigan learns that knacks are not regarded as candidates’ most significant quality. Jupiter explains that children with ‘fascinating knacks’ might be knocked out in the first three trials.

‘The point is … if you are not honest, and determined, and brave, then it doesn’t matter how talented you are.’

The Wundrous Society Elders need to establish ‘what sort of person you are’ first.

Honesty, tenacity, boldness and talent are the Wundrous Society’s entry hurdles. But, as Jupiter tells Morrigan, once admitted, members must earn that privilege, ‘over and over again, for the rest of your life’. The flip side of this commitment is that the Society will ‘have your back until the day you die’. This is especially good news for Morrigan who was viewed as an encumbrance and a liability in Wintersea. In Nevermoor, membership of the Wundrous Society could afford her: ‘Family. Belonging. Friendships to last a lifetime.’

Power

Readers of Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow are not fully apprised of Jupiter North’s motives for bringing Morrigan into Nevermoor. (There are some clues and, no doubt, more will be revealed in the second book in the series.) In any case, Jupiter North is not the only one vying for control of Morrigan’s future and her latent power. There is also Ezra Squall to consider.

Almost all fantasy worlds are underpinned by a battle between good and evil. Townsend’s world is no exception.

When Morrigan is given the chance to choose Ezra Squall as her patron, the offer is couched in these terms: if she accepts Ezra’s invitation, she will eventually become heir to the Squall Empire:

‘Every citizen, every household in the country will owe you a debt of thanks. You will be their lifeline – the provider of their warmth, power, food, entertainment.’

Morrigan is asked to envision what it would be like to be ‘so beloved. So respected and needed.’

For those acquainted with the New Testament, this offer will have a familiar ring. In accounts of the temptation of Jesus, the devil shows Jesus ‘the kingdoms of the world’, saying: ‘All this I will give you if you bow down and worship me’ (Matthew 4:8). If Morrigan aligns herself with Ezra, there is evidently much to be gained.

Ezra’s offer also echoes the power afforded by the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo offers the ring to elf queen Galadriel, she sees clearly what acceptance would mean: ‘All shall love me and despair!’ She, like the wizard Gandalf, refuses the offer.  As Gandalf puts it: ‘With that power I should have power too great and terrible … Do not tempt me!’

Which side will Morrigan (and Townsend) choose? Remember Morrigan’s name means ‘Great Queen’—there will be power at her disposal, but how, and with whom, will she wield it?

Want More?

This post only scratches the surface of Nevermoor’s moral framework. The narrative mix also incorporates anxieties over border control and ‘illegals’, litigious propensities, class distinctions, and Hallowmas and Christmas celebrations. To see how these factors influence Morrigan’s world, you’ll just have to read the book yourself! (In case you’re wondering, my own Nevermoor reading experience was entirely delightful. I’m ready and eager to ‘Step Boldly’ into book two. )

Links and Sources

Design by Beatriz Castro

Tanka: A Brief Introduction

What do you know about tanka? Possibly not much. You might have heard of haiku, the three-line Japanese poems with the 5‒7‒5 syllable count, but tanka—another form of Japanese poetry—is less well known.

Tanka (pronounced ‘tongue-ca’, ‘ca’ as in ‘cut’) has its roots in the ancient Japanese Heian era (794‒1185). It literally means ‘short song’.

Here’s an example:

at 92
and short of days
my neighbour
hands his garden’s fruit
across our common fence

I wrote this tanka about my elderly Dutch neighbour. It’s true that he shared the produce of his garden with me (along with stories of his childhood in Friesland), but it’s also true that these simple acts of communion marked an understanding between us that our sharing, like the garden produce itself, would not continue indefinitely. Our days of chatting across the fence were numbered. One of tanka’s gifts is that it can both capture and extend a moment in time.

 

Where’s the punctuation?

Japanese tanka (the same word is used for both singular and plural form) have a 5‒7‒5‒7‒7 syllable count, but because consonant clusters in English are longer than in Japanese, English tanka often have shorter syllable counts; somewhere between 19 and 31 is common. ‘at 92’ has 22 syllables. Here’s one with just 17:

sloughed
at water’s edge
on turning tide
these charcoal rocks
shine sealskin bright

You’ll notice that there is no capitalisation and no punctuation in these tanka. Each word has a job to do, and it generally needs to do it without relying on visual cues to add meaning. In Japanese, tanka are written vertically in one continuous line. In English, at least the line breaks help a little.

 

Pivot points

Tanka sometimes use a device known as a ‘pivot’. It’s the point in the poem where the meaning shifts unexpectedly. The reader is caught off balance—what was anticipated does not materialise:

a red cherry
on a summer’s day
plump and round
sweet in the centre
of the cricketer’s bat

Initially, the reader of this tanka might be salivating at the thought of fresh fruit from Young’s cherry harvest, but then the imagination shifts to the thwack of leather on willow. The poem plays on cricketing slang—‘cherry’ refers to the marks left on a bat by a red ball.

 

Tanka themes

The three tanka above, to varying degrees, connect with nature. Seasons and landscapes are common tanka subjects.

Other regular themes are love and death:

her typewriter
still on the table
memories
of a 40-year marriage
keyed to completion

and travel and displacement:

standing
under chalky cliffs
on Dover’s cloudy coast
my errant voicemail
welcomes me to France

 

‘Sketches from life’ and ‘poetry of the self’

‘at 92’ and ‘her typewriter’ are a type of tanka known as ‘shasei’ or a ‘sketch from life’. A second category is ‘jiga no shi’, meaning ‘poetry of the self’. In the latter type, a first-person pronoun can provide the clue.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a4/Strings_gallery.jpg By Tanya Ursova on behalf of the Royal Academy of Music (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsalready
I am strung too tight
pegged tensive
all day long
I’ll be playing sharp

 

Re-reading and reading aloud

Most tanka offer meaning on the first reading, but successive readings (especially aloud) can enhance the experience. If you go back to the tanka ‘sloughed’ and read it out loud, the repeated use of the ‘s’ sound might evoke the sloshing/sucking sound of waves at the turning of the tide. Or look again at ‘her typewriter’—does ‘still’ refer to the typewriter remaining in place or being silent, or both?

Sometimes, a tanka’s meaning is veiled—even to its author. The very first tanka I wrote came to me unbidden during an early morning walk. I ponder it still:

o my soul
tender me gently
enfold me
as the cloud on the hill
and I shall be well

 

Links and Sources

  • All tanka quoted in this post are the copyright of the author, Tessa Wooldridge. Some have been previously published (and sometimes later revised): ‘already’, Eucalypt (no. 2, 2007); ‘her typewriter’, Stylus Poetry Journal (2008); ‘a red cherry’ Eucalypt (no. 6, 2009); ‘at 92’ Eucalypt and Take Five: Best Contemporary Tanka  (2011); and ‘sloughed’ LTP Anthology (2012).
  • Photo credits: ‘Strings Gallery’ by Tanya Ursova on behalf of the Royal Academy of Music (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
    Other photos are free to use and share, but please attribute and link back to the blog.
  • If you want to explore tanka further, a good place to start is the Australian tanka journal Eucalypt. The journal’s website includes articles and reviews, and the ‘Scribble’ section contains award-winning Eucalypt tanka together with appraisals.
  • Image courtesy of Penguin Australia

    My favourite collections of tanka are Beverley George and David Terelinck’s Australian anthology Grevillea & Wonga (2011) and Jane Hirshfield and Aratani Mariko’s translation of Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikubu’s The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems (1990). Komachi and Shikubu were each woman of the Heian court—an era in which female poets flourished.

  • If you’d like to learn more about tanka, these two articles are by English-language tanka exponents: Jeanne Emrich’s ‘Between Us: An Interview with Beverley George’, Tanka Online. (2013) and Jane Reichold’s ‘Teika’s Ten Tanka Techniques’, AHA Poetry (2010).
  • And if you want to start writing tanka yourself, there are excellent guides and expert tips and exquisite examples on the Tanka Online website.