Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
de La Mare, Walter

(1873-1956) UK poet and writer who published actively from about 1895 to the end of his life. During the 1920s, when his reputation was at its height, he was deemed in the first rank of English writers; he is today seriously undervalued. From the beginning of his career he wrote in an elusive, nostalgia-drenched style which quite effectively concealed the true, cold, modern worlds at the heart of his work. He wrote voluminously – both as a poet (many hundreds of poems) and an author of short stories (over 100) – while also habitually publishing and republishing this large corpus, under different titles and in variously revised states. We do not normally attempt to unravel these complications, but the first volume of WDLM's complete short stories, Walter de la Mare: Short Stories 1895-1926 (coll 1996) ed Giles de la Mare provides detailed information and lists 102 stories: 95 published stories plus 7 previously unpublished stories due to appear in a following volume.

Given the bibliographical tangles WDLM wove, there is little hope of presenting his work in anything like chronological order. His poetry has been assembled as The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare (coll 1969) ed Leonard Clark et al., with helpful notes, and is perhaps best read thus – though WDLM's inveterate revisions, and the high quality of illustrations accompanying some original editions and reprints, mean that no individual volume can safely be ignored.

Of greatest fantasy interest are the numerous verses written ostensibly for children (see Children's Fantasy). The subtlety of some of this work is remarkable. Individual volumes include Songs of Childhood (coll 1902) as by Walter Ramal, The Listeners (coll 1912), A Child's Day: A Book of Rhymes (coll 1912), Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (coll 1913), Down-Adown-Derry: A Book of Fairy Poems (coll 1922), Stuff and Nonsense (coll 1927), Poems for Children (coll 1930), Bell and Grass: A Book of Rhymes (coll 1941) and Collected Rhymes and Verses (coll 1943). Certain themes/terms which recur throughout his poetry (dream, snow, sleep, listener, journey, traveller, veil) almost invariably work as markers of WDLM's central territory, which might be described as the complex, shifting, ethereal and essentially boundless Threshold between the Bondage of the material world and the world of Dreams – which may be Faerie in those poems written most clearly with children in mind, or more commonly perhaps a state, or geography, very close to death. A darkened rendering of the illimitable ins and outs of threshold appears in much of the adult poetry, most specifically – though least interestingly – in some of the more didactic long poems of his later years, like The Traveller (1946 chap) and Wingèd Chariot (1951); and a sense that our mortal condition is one of Belatedness – a sense common to many writers concerned with childhood – is given its most moving articulation in the last stanza of WDLM's greatest poem of desiderium, "All That's Past": "Very old are we men;/Our dreams are tales/Told in dim Eden/By Eve's nightingales;/We wake and whisper awhile,/But, the day gone by,/Silence and sleep like fields/Of amaranth lie."

WDLM began publishing stories of genre interest (as Walter Ramal) with "Kismet" for The Sketch in 1895; these early stories, posthumously assembled as Eight Tales (coll 1971 US), are entirely consistent with later stories in their basic attitude towards the world. Putting the numerous nonfantastic tales to one side, that attitude can be described as a sense that the mortal world is a kind of Labyrinth. WDLM's Supernatural Fictions represent failures to penetrate that labyrinth – which is in this context a synonym for threshold – into a Secondary World; his fantasies, almost invariably written as for children, are generally set entirely in a secondary world. The stories in Eight Tales run the gamut from "The Village of Old Age" (1896 Cornhill Magazine), whose protagonist is caught in an unchanging senescent Bondage, to "The Moon's Miracle", in which mortals on Earth are able, for a night, to observe a vast supranatural battle on the Moon.

Variously revised and recast in later editions, WDLM's mature supernatural fictions first appear in Story and Rhyme (coll 1921), The Riddle and Other Stories (coll 1923), Two Tales: I. The Green Room; II. The Connoisseur (coll 1925 chap), The Connoisseur and Other Stories (coll 1926; cut vt The Nap 1936) – the title story is much revised from the version that appeared in the previous year's collection, but both versions are concerned with a mystical shedding of the lures of the material world – On the Edge (coll 1930), The Wind Blows Over (coll 1936) and A Beginning and Other Stories (coll 1955). Further collections of adult stories – including Seven Short Stories (coll 1931) and Ghost Stories (coll 1956) – contain no new material.

"The Creatures" (1920 Monthly Review), from The Riddle and Other Stories, is a tale whose narrator discovers in a valley an Eden where children are sinless, but he cannot, of course, remain there; "Seaton's Aunt" (written 1909; 1922 London Mercury), from the same volume, is a tale of psychic (and possibly literal) vampirism (see Vampires). In "All Hallows", from The Connoisseur and Other Stories, a foul Transformation is enacted upon a haunted cathedral by supernatural invaders who ParodyEvil is here seen as a parody of Good (see Good and Evil) – the actual structure of the Edifice. There are several Ghost Stories, including "A Recluse" (in The Ghost Book, anth 1926, ed Cynthia Asquith), "Crewe" (1929 London Mercury) and "The Green Room" (in Two Tales, coll 1925 chap), from On the Edge, and "A Revenant", from The Wind Blows Over, features the shade of Edgar Allan Poe. "The House" (1932 The Observer), another from the latter volume, is a Posthumous Fantasy.

By contrast, in WDLM's fantasies there is no threshold over which to pass. Except for "The Riddle" (1903 Monthly Review; in Story and Rhyme and The Riddle and Other Stories), all WDLM's fantasies appear in two volumes, Broomsticks and Other Tales (coll 1925) and The Lord Fish (coll 1933). Various stories also appear in separate editions: Miss Jemima (in Number One Joy Street anth 1923; 1925 chap; vt The Story of Miss Jemima 1940 chap US), Lucy (in Number Two Joy Street anth 1924; 1927 chap), Old Joe (in Number Three Joy Street anth 1925; 1927 chap) and Mr Bumps and His Monkey (in The Lord Fish as "The Old Lion"; 1942 chap US). All of WDLM's short stories for children subsequently appear, sometimes deleteriously revised, in four further collections: The Old Lion and Other Stories (coll 1942), The Magic Jacket and Other Stories (coll 1943), The Scarecrow and Other Stories (coll 1945) and The Dutch Cheese and Other Stories (coll 1946); these volumes serve as copy texts for Collected Stories for Children (coll 1947) and for all subsequent editions, including Selected Stories and Verses (coll 1952), A Penny a Day (coll 1960 US) and The Magic Jacket (coll 1962 US).

Notable stories from Broomsticks and Other Tales include: "The Three Sleeping Boys of Warwickshire" (1925 Virginia Quarterly), in which the boys undergo a decades-long magical sleep; "The Lovely Myfanwy"; and "Alice's Grandmother", in which Immortality is offered and – without WDLM's usual melancholy – turned down. The Lord Fish includes several remarkable tales. In the title story – first published in different form as "John Cobbler" (in Number Four Joy Street anth 1926) – a young man finds a Mermaid kept in bondage by the Lord Fish in his strange castle, and frees her; "Dick and the Beanstalk" is a comic sequel to the Folktale. In Old Joe variously retitled "Hodmadod" and "The Scarecrow", a scarecrow teaches a lesson about the passage of Time.

WDLM's first novel, Henry Brocken: His Travels and Adventures in the Rich, Strange, Scarce-Imaginable Regions of Romance (1904; rev 1924), hovers strangely between the abstract and the particular. Brocken sets out on an allegorical journey (see Allegory) to various booklands, where he meets characters like Jane Eyre, Nick Bottom, Sleeping Beauty and Criseyde; but the mild educational benignity of the trip is destroyed, in the end, by Brocken's refusal of Criseyde's erotic needs, and he is cast back, defeated, into a dry mortality. The Return (1910; rev 1922; further rev 1945) is a supernatural fiction of some intensity, and with the same message: the protagonist is possessed (see Possession) by the Ghost of a passionate man, becomes a more vital figure (see Shadow) in his new guise, fails to consummate the love that has been held for centuries in anticipation of this moment, and returns to "life". Only in The Three Mulla-Mulgars (1910; vt The Three Royal Monkeys 1927) – arguably WDLM's single greatest fiction, and certainly one of the central Animal Fantasies of the 20th century – does he allow the world beyond the threshold full, unlimited, sensuous play. The land through which the three mulla-mulgars conduct their Quest has some aspects of a Land of Fable (a kind of indeterminate Southeast Asia) and some aspects of a full and mature Secondary World (the talking monkeys inhabit an internally consistent environment, have a Pantheon and Magic, and never leave their Land, whose geography has no direct correspondence with the mundane world's). They are questing for their father, a mulgar of the Royal Blood who has returned to the Valleys of Tishnar, where his brother is king. The sights they see, and the adventures they undergo, are described with a remarkably delicate eye for the transfiguring detail. At novel's end, on the verge of entering Tishnar, they hear a call; their father, "a basket of honeycombs over his shoulder", approaches them from within the longed-for land.

Little of WDLM's work avoids a sense that what humans attempt to describe is either indescribable or lost. More important, WDLM does not depict any secondary land – or its shadow – in a manner that points to any religious backing or sanction. Unlike the stalwarts of Christian Fantasy – such as George MacDonald, who influenced him deeply – WDLM shows absolutely no evidence in his fiction that any form of secondary world can represent a higher, more real form of God's handiwork. In this sense, he is far more modern than J R R Tolkien, or any of the fantasy writers who make secular use of derivatives of Tolkien's world (see Fantasyland). The transcendental call of WDLM's secondary worlds issues solely from within. [JC]

other works: Memoirs of a Midget (1921), not fantasy; Ding Dong Bell (coll 1924; exp 1936), fictionalized ruminations on graveyard inscriptions; Told Again: Traditional Tales (coll 1927), Stories from the Bible (coll 1929) and Animal Stories: Chosen, Arranged and in Some Part Rewritten (coll 1939), three compilations of Twice-Told tales; A Froward Child (1934 chap).

Walter John de la Mare


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.