The books that shape us: 1
The books that shape us: Interlude

The books that shape us: 2

La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Arthur Hughes

From an essay by A.S. Byatt in The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser:

The Pained Heart by Arthur Hughes"The roots of my thinking are a tangled maze of myths, folktales, legends, fairy stories. Robin Hood, King Arthur, Alexander of Macedon, Achilles and Odysseus, Apollo and Pan, Loki and Baldur, Sinbad and Haroun al Rashid, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast, Tom Bombadil and Cereberus. I have no idea now where I got all this, except for the Norse myths, which came from a turn of the century book, Asgard and the Gods, bought by my mother as a crib for her Ancient Norse and Icelandic exams at Cambridge. I read the Fairy Books of Andrew Lang and several collections of ballads, and 'How Horatio Kept the Bridge' from Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. The tales and myths and legends...made it clear that there was another world, beside the world of having to be a child in a house, an inner world and a vast outer world with large implications -- good and evil, angels and demons, fate and love and terror and beauty -- and the comfort of the inevitable ending, not only the happy ending against odds, but the tragic one too.

Enoch Arden's Despair by Arthur Hughes

A Music Party by Arthur Hughes

The Death of King Arthur by Arthur Hughes"At the same time, and just as early, I remember the importance of poetry, Nursery rhymes, ballads, the 'Jackdaw of Rheims' from Richard Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends and A.A. Milne's Now We Are Six, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and 'Slowly silent now the moon' by Walter de la Mare. I think one of the most important writers to me ever has been Walter de la Mare, though it is a debt hard to recognize or acknowledge. Partly for the singing strange rhythms of his poetry, partly for the strange worlds and half-worlds he gave one glimpses of, the world of a pike suspended in thick gloom under a bridge, the journeyings of the Three Mulla Mulgars, which I read over and over. The most important poems were three coloring books we had, a page of poetry beside a picture, all three complete stories: The Pied Piper, Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott,' his Morte d'Arthur. I knew them all by heart long before I thought to ask who had written them. Their rhymes haunt everything I write, especially the Tennyson. The enclosed weaving lady became my private symbol for my reading and brooding self long before I saw what she meant for him, and for 19th century poetry in general.

The Lady of Shalott  by Arthur Hughes

"Truthfulness forces me to admit that we did not have that great anthology of magical and narrative verse, de la Mare's Come Hither, but we were brought up on its contents by my mother, who gave us poems and more poems, as though it was unquestionable that this was the very best thing she could do for us.

The Rift Within by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad Armed by an Angel by Arthur Hughes

"What about fiction, as opposed to fairy tales? What I remember most vividly is learning fear, which I think may be important to all animals -- I used to love the song from The Jungle Book -- 'It is fear, oh little hunter, it is fear.' And I remember Blind Pew tapping, the terrible staircase and the heather-hunting in Kidnapped, I A Passing Cloud by Arthur Hughesremember Jane Eyre locked in the Red Room, and poor David Copperfield at the mercy of Mr. Murdstone, the horrors of Fagin in the condemned cell (I could only have been eight or nine) and worst of all (though I still have nightmares about executions) Pip on the marshes being grabbed by Magwitch in that brilliant and terrible beginning of Great Expectations. I must have been very little. I didn't understand any more than Pip that Magwitch's terrible companion was fictive.

"I remember my first meeting with evil, too, and it has only just recently struck me how strange that was. I worked my way along my grandmother's shelf of school prizes -- was I nine or ten? Or younger? And read Uncle Tom's Cabin before anyone had told me that slaves had really existed outside The Arabian Nights. Tom's sufferings and the evil of the system and the people who killed him, with cruelty or negligence, made me feel ill and appalled. I never talked to anyone about it. We sang about Christ's suffering in church but that seemed comparatively comfortable and institutional and had after all a happy ending, whereas Tom's story did not. And yet one is grateful for the glimpses of the dark: as long as they do not destroy, they strengthen."

An illustration for George Macdonald's Phantastes by Arthur Hughes

An illustration for Phantastes by Arthur Huges

The art today is by Arthur Hughes, a Victorian painter associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Born in London in 1832, Hughes studied art at Somerset House and the Royal Academy, and had his first picture accepted for a Royal Academy exhibition when he was only 17. Upon meeting Rossetti and other members of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Hughes pledged himself to the Brotherhood's cause and spent the rest of his life creating paintings and drawings rooted in Pre-Raphaelite ideals. He was also a leading book illustrator in what was known as the "Sixties Group," remembered best today for his classic drawings for the fantasy novels of George Macdonald. The artist was married (to the model for his painting "April Love") and had six children, one of whom became a successful landscape painter.  (The "fairy painter" Edward Robert Hughes was Arthur Hughes' nephew.) The artist died at home in London in 1915, after a long and prolific career.

The White Hind by Arthur Hughes

Fair Rosemund by Arthur HughesThe passage above comes from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992); I recommend reading A.S. Byatt's essay in full. All rights reserved by the author.


Hello Terri,

I did promise myself that I wouldn’t contribute anything today so that everyone could have a rest from my yammering. But if you remember, some weeks ago I mentioned that I was painting a picture called ‘Young Odysseus’, with an accompanying poem, that I hoped would be a sort of mirror image of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’. You were kind enough to ask me to provide a guest post based on the picture and poem, and at the time I accepted, saying I was honoured. Well, at long last the picture is almost completed, (the process having been interrupted by a hideous fluey virus thing, and then all of the demands of Yule and Christmas) My question is, do you still want me to write a guest post? If not that’s fine, but if so is there any way I can send you photos I took of the various stages of the picture’s painting so you can decide if it’s up to the required standard or not? I’ve looked through your site but can’t find a contact email. Sorry to be a pain yet again. By the way I love the artwork you posted today and yesterday.

This could have been titled: A Stroll through the Garden of Remembered Delights. And it is a pleasure to be reminded that illustrations have stayed a part of our interior landscape.

Yes, I do! Send it to me via the Endicott Studio, and I'll give you my private email in response (rather than post it here). The Endicott Studio address is:


Folks, I'd love to hear more about the books that shaped *you* in childhood, including very early childhood.

Believe it or not, Rupert bear! I remember one story where he was on a desert island where there were many exotic fruits ... and caves ... and another story where a cave had a little platform that was used as a kind of theatre ... very much appealed to my imagination. There was also the tale of Aladdin ... the genie, the magical lamp (found in a cave?) Something about caves & treasure, archetypes maybe for exploring the psyche?

The collection, "My Book House". Though from the distance of years I can't recall all the stories, the illustrations are engraved in my psyche. I would dream the geography of those images, and almost always they were good dreams of safety and beauty, with some minor interruptions. Pooh was and always has been present. I had to translate "Winnie Ille Pooh" in senior high school Latin. I met a man a few years ago who had many worldly adventures with great world figures. But what sticks in my mind is that he once held the original Pooh...

Also E.B. White's wonderful stories and their illustrations.

I still have many of my childhood books. They are all frayed and tattered, held together with rubber bands. "Snow White, Rose Red" was one of my favorites as was "Silver Snaffles" by Primrose Cumming. However the two books that had the most influence on me as a young girl were Grimms' Fairy Tales (the color has all been worn away from the binding and there are dozens of loose pages, which is how I can pinpoint my favorite tales) and A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My copy of A Little Princess was so worn down from love that even rubber bands wouldn't keep it together and my mother finally had to throw it away. I remember crying for days and days. I was never as strong as Sara, but I wished I could be. I loved her determination and kindness even when she was faced with the worst cruelty imaginable. I longed to have a friend like Becky and a mysterious benefactor like Mr. Carrisford. That never happened, but I still have hope, which is the most priceless gift of all.

Oh my, the books of my childhood. The beloved friends of my childhood. A volume of the Grimms Fairy Tales, illustrated by Walter Crane. (I still have it.) The Greek Myths and Legends, gorgeously illustrated but I can't recall by whom. (That book began a decades long obsession with the Greek and Roman pantheon.) The Land of Far-Beyond by Enid Blyton, which is why I became a writer. I can still remember the colour and texture of the cover, the weight of it in my hands. I lost it, and have been longing for another copy ever since. And then came middle childhood and school, and the quality of my reading diminished vastly as I was given books by school. The best was The Hobbit, read to us after lunch by an excellent teacher when I was eleven - she reawakened my magical heart. Then, when I was a teenager and trying to write the kind of stories I wanted to read but could not locate on school library shelves, my uncle gave me the Riddlemaster trilogy by Patricia McKillip, and I found home again.

The earliest I can remember was Black Beauty, we lived in England for a few years and I had become smitten with horses by age 6; and I was an early reader, so Mom bought me a copy of BB, illustrated by Lionel Edwards watercolours. I studied it from one end to the other, knew all the illustrations, understood the stories. Still have the book. I spent a lot of time poring over a book of prints of famous works of art, and I started to draw at that age, probably helped by that book.

I know there were other early books, because I was caught reading in math class in Form 1 in Bath, and sent down to Sandbox for the day.

Peter Pan, and I still have that original gift; the Bobbsey Twins, Hiawatha/Longfellow, Felix Salten's "Bambi" read it many times, Ernest Thompson Seton's books and illustrations about Canadian wildlife, Winnie the Pooh, Now We are Six, Alice in Wonderland, The Water Elf and The Miller's Child, which I thought was illustrated by Rackham (silhouette illustrations), but after hunting for it, have found a copy, and it's not Rackham. Norwegian Fairy Tales, English Fairy Tales, King Arthur I read many times, and Robin Hood was a huge favourite, Robinson Crusoe - and in my teens I read The Gentle Infidel by Schoonover 11 times; counted them ..Wind in the Willows - Black Stallion books, My friend Flicka. That's all I can think of at the moment. Tolkien I didn't read until I was in late teens/early 20s, same with Narnia.

The Secret Garden.

Hi Terri

My first encounter with books were the little golden books which covered everything from lessons to fairytales. And I particularly loved the fairytales. They placed their cloak around me and I disappeared, for a while, into their world of good, evil and enchantment. Later during adolescence, I became fascinated with the Arthurian tales and the poetry of Tennyson. I especially loved his "Idylls of the king." At the same period. I was also engrossed in Greek/Roman/Egyptian mythology along with books on ancient history. The motifs found in folk tales, myth, Desert or Celtic lore, spun themselves into my mind and lingered. They began to shape my writing, especially how I metaphorically conveyed various aspects of insight, experience and character. When I write about current or past events, personal angst/joy or simply ideas that spring up spontaneously, those influences come back with tremendous power.

Perhaps, one of the best examples of this ( in my poetry) is when I heard about the antiquities of Syria being destroyed by ISIL. I thought of the temple, the art that held so many tales, a civilization that prevailed through its artifacts, the spirit of time and place echoed in the standing ruins. Somehow, images from its past, the colors, the textures, the offerings, the mythic figures and so much more, entered my thoughts; and I felt as if I was drawn back there, a passenger in a caravan of stories. It was my way of relating respect and grief for what had been taken from humanity.


A train moves across our wall
vibrating in shadow,
traveling to some
local destination.

The sky overlooks the desert
glancing back two-thousand years,
a caravan of stories
journeys toward its origins.

The first stop -- a temple
where the stone urn is burning
the musk oil of rose and myrrh,
a woman invokes
prophecy from the perfumed flame.

Her wrists melodic
in bangled silver,
her body a white breeze
of linen.

Outside, river birds wade
in coolness among the leafy blooms
of papyrus and lily,
trees and pillars
portico the water in refection.

The city is young
gathering her greatness;
and foretellings of ruin
remain unspoken -- scenes

of her relics forgotten,
then found, (sanctified), and then
scattered into many
mortar-shelled pieces;
wood, limestone, iron, the green tiles
of paradise.

Their final loss
wept in shock and anger,
their legends left
to a train of stars, ancient
passengers in the night sky.

Tomorrow, we will rise
boarding a routine
of coffee, work and more news
of antiquities destroyed
in Palmyra.

Their caretaker dead
at 82, beheaded by a masked swordsman.

Thank you for such a fascinating presentation and discussion. In art books, I have always been drawn to the Pre-Raphaelites along with the illustrations of Rackham, Dore, Du Lac, Florence Emma Harrison, and other haunting artists of the period.

Take care

Books I remember: The Crooked Little Path series - I'm sure that's why I love animal stories. Of course, Pinnocchio didn't really put me off fibbing. Most of all I remember a radio program called Let's Pretend that dramatized fairy tales. I remember the girl whose brothers were turned into swans and she knitted sweaters for them. Also i grew up with Classics Illustrated comic books which gave me a large working knowledge of Western lit.

The earliest one I remember was called "Pussywillow." It was a picture book about a gray kitten born under a willow in the spring, under "gray fur flowers that look just like me." When the flowers disappear, the kitten goes on a quest, being terrified by gigantic cabbages and buffeted by weather, always asking, "Have you seen any gray fur flowers that look just like me?" At long last the kitten returns home, a year later, and there are the pussywillows. "Anything you're looking for is usually where you left it."

I had both the Alice books with the Tenniel illustrations, which I read and reread from the time that I could read at all (that is, after I learned in first grade); a collection of tales from the Arabian Nights, of Andersen's fairy tales, of Grimm's fairy tales, and a big orange book of Japanese fairy tales that was so frightening that it had to be left under the bed lest something come out of it and rampage. We also had lots of Dr. Seuss, of which the best in my opinion were On Beyond Zebra and the Bartholomew Cubbins books; and the Jungle Books and Just-So Stories, of which I preferred the former until I was in my teens.


I remember first, an illustrated book of Greek myths in a bright yellow binding (the dust cover was gone), that I got from the library when I was about 6. I remember being so excited by it that I got my mum to renew it, on several occasions I think. Then came Enid Blyton's 'Adventures of the Wishing Chair', which led to the 'Secret Seven' and 'Famous Five', and I read every one in the library. Having discovered a taste for mysteries, I then moved on to 'Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators'. Then the 'Little House on the Prairie' books. But then, a young Religious Instruction teacher (back when it was still part of state school curriculum) began reading "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' to the class. I was 9 and the world changed forever. Mind you, the 'religious allegory' bit sailed entirely over my head, I had found REAL magic. Imagine my joy when I discovered there were 6 more books and ALL of them in the school library. I read 'The Hobbit' at about 12 (but got stymied by the LOTR and still haven't read it...hanging head in shame), and 'Little Women' in there too somewhere, before I got to high school. I also read Australian authors; Colin Thiele's gorgeous 'Storm Boy' (after seeing the beautiful movie at age 11), and discovered local magic with Patricia Wrightson's 'The Nargun and the Stars'. 'The Black Stallion', "Kidnapped', 'Black Cocks Feather' and 'The Coral Island' (passed on to me by my mum who had loved them). But at the age of 13, I discovered Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' series, and again the world changed. And then Madelaine L'Engle. Anne McCaffrey. Ursula Le Guin. Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Stewart. And so many others who fitted in between the greats, who all shaped me. Leading up to Robert Holdstock, in my mid 20s. I don't think I've found anyone yet who can surpass him. Except A.S. Byatt, whose 'Possession' was so perfect, I've been scared to read anything else of hers because I cannot believe it could possibly measure up! Oh, and a beautiful book by some author or other (wink!) called 'The Wood Wife'...another moment frozen in time and remembered forever.

There are probably a few more, who i will remember as soon as I hit the 'post' button!

Alan Garner! I knew I'd forget someone important!

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