Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

The Rolands’ quests




Elidor was Alan Garner’s third novel, first published in 1965, and the point where, half a lifetime ago, I became engrossed in the work of this great British writer.

At the start of the novel he quotes a phrase from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came – ”, spoken by Edgar as he pretends to be mad in order to protect himself from his malign brother Edmund. It is only recently that I have appreciated that this reference is one part of a literary chain spread over centuries.

In Elidor, Garner’s Roland, Roland Watson, is one of four siblings who become embroiled in an adventure to save the magical world of Elidor. Although the youngest, he is identified as the strongest by Malebron, the nobleman who seeks their help, and at many points of the story he is the leader. In Elidor at the start, he is able to rescue his siblings from the dungeon of the Mound of Vandwy. Later back home in Manchester, it is he who undertakes the task of recovering the four priceless treasures which they have hidden for protection. He retains a faith in the whole Elidor story when the older ones are becoming sceptical, and continues to take seriously their duty to bring it to a successful resolution.

That original quote from King Lear comes supposedly from a medieval ballad called “Childe Rowland” and when you discover the narrative of this (as, for example, through the collection of Joseph Jacobs) you see how liberally Garner drew from this source for the opening of his own novel. The ballad has Rowland playing with a ball with his brothers near a church and him kicking it away and it getting lost; his sister Ellen tries to find it but she has been captured by supernatural beings in the Dark Tower which appears to be within a small hill. In Elidor Roland kicks a football through the window of a derelict Victorian church which is the gateway to the fantasy world and then rescues his sister Helen and his two brothers from the Mound of Vandwy . The ballad’s hall encrusted with diamonds and rubies and emeralds is similar to a branch of “apple blossom…silver…crystal (and) spun mercury” inside Garner’s location.




The Shakespeare phrase influenced in turn Robert Browning’s 19th century poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Browning’s autobiographical narrative starts with Roland meeting a “hoary cripple…with his staff”, who is reminiscent of the tramp with the violin who leads the children into Elidor. The landscape this Roland walks through, “starv’d, ignoble nature…(full of ) penury, inertness and grimace” , is comparable to Garner’s desolate inner city landcape which he later specifically dubs “The Wasteland”.

In my youth, as regularly rescanned as my copy of Elidor was Poetry 1900 to 1965, edited by George Macbeth. In his notes on Louis MacNeice, Macbeth said that MacNeice’s 1946 “parable play” The Dark Tower was “the best piece of writing ever done for radio”. I heard it recently for the first time.  It imagines yet another young Roland, training to embark on a quest to visit the Dark Tower and fight an indestructible dragon.

Amanda Wrigley says that MacNeice did not wish his parable to be interpreted too literally and she herself describes it as “morally complicated”, but it seems clear to me that its theme is duty and sacrifice, risking your life for an important cause, even if you didn’t want to regard the dragon which Roland may face as a symbol of fascism.

Benjamin Britten’s music is a significant part of the reputation of The Dark Tower, and a significant part of its impact, notably the strings and percussion section at the end as Roland strides towards to his destination. But I found the text and production impressive too. The fantastical mixed into an atmosphere of political anxiety and idealism recalled Yeats’ play The Dreaming of the Bones, Brecht and Auden, Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Orwell’s 1984. To my ear its form has been copied by a lot of radio drama in the subsequent decades.

MacNeice’s Roland is, like Garner’s, the youngest of his family, regarded by his mother as “flippant” and someone who “lacks concentration”, described even by himself as “the black sheep”. However, he is trained to follow in the family tradition of travelling across the ocean to challenge the dragon of the Dark Tower. During the play, he faces various voices of persuasion and dissuasion, from his mother, his tutor, girlfriend Sylvie, old Blind Peter, a tavern drunk and the steward on the ship which is taking him towards his destiny.

As you listen, you are struck by the similarities with the other “Roland texts” even though you know they will not be coincidental. Mountains move like the circus of ancient Rome and the Dark Tower grows from the ground, just as Browning described hills as being like living “giants” and Roland Watson felt the standing stones in Elidor were multiplying and moving. The tavern drunk, the Soak, has a dream that Roland’s mission will have an “unhappy” end which undermines his confidence while the Watson children meet the drunk Paddy whose warning about “horses with horns” directs them towards the scene of the climax of the Elidor quest.





Whereas in Browning’s poem and in MacNeice’s play a crucial role is played by Roland’s horn or trumpet, in Elidor other musical elements are significant. A violin tune, “thin and pitched high in…sadness”, starts the children’s journey from the abandoned urban landscape and a sinister melody hypnotises them briefly in the Mound of Vandwy. At the end the saving of Elidor is signalled by the dying cry of a unicorn, the song of Findhorn, in Manchester city centre on a frosty New Year’s Eve.





All of the Rolands’ quests share some degree of happy resolution. In the ballad, the King of Elfland, the wicked resident of the Dark Tower, is defeated in a duel and Ellen and the two brothers are rescued. In Garner, Elidor is saved by the Watson children despite the challenge of armed warriors and the death of the unicorn. In Browning, Roland, “dauntless”, reaches the tower where stronger people before him had failed. In the same way in MacNeice, Roland pushes himself towards the Dark Tower and sounds his horn as taught by his elders, including the specific command to “hold that note at the end”.



Macbeth, George (1967) Poetry 1900 to 1965  London: Longman/Faber
Garner, Alan (1974)  Elidor  Glasgow: Collins Armada Lions

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The links between Britten and MacMillan


Despite growing up during a 1970s pop and rock music era which borrowed heavily from classical music, I took some time to develop an interest in that classical music. While that interest has remained fairly narrow, it has long included Benjamin Britten.

Some of my interest in Britten, I confess, comes from extra-musical areas.

For example, his left-wing politics. During my 20s, as both artistic and political interests developed, I was always particularly fascinated in the points where they joined : works of art on political subjects or which had a political impact, artists who were politically active. Britten was more subtle in his political practice than others, like his friend and collaborator W.H.Auden, but works like War Requiem were a significant part of the interest I formed in him.

Another was his setting up of the Aldeburgh Festival. This emphasised that Britten was not just a believer in the idea of the arts as social and community events, but someone who was willing to spend time and effort to bring them about.

Another area of interest was his use of literary texts in his music. The most famous example was the use of Wilfred Owen poetry in War Requiem  but he also adapted writing by Auden, Donne, Rimbaud, Blake, Tennyson, Keats and many others.

Finally, even a shallow knowledge of his music couldn’t fail to be impressed by its range, and especially the vocal and choral work. The song cycles which featured the aforementioned writers; the church music; the reworkings of traditional songs; operas like the dark and melancholy Peter Grimes whose plot and atmosphere seemed so alluringly similar to other things I had loved elsewhere like Fairport Convention’s Babbacombe Lee album or the Christmas ghost stories on TV with their rural Victorian settings.

Marking the centenary of his birth, there’s been plenty of great Britten stuff to peruse at Britten 100  and Ben Hogwood’s punningly-titled web-site.

There are several similarities between Britten and the still very active James MacMillan.

Like Britten, MacMillan could be said to have charted and mined a rich seam which drew from both the mainstream and avant-garde classical musics of his period.

Like Britten, he has been prolific, writing vocal and instrumental compositions for small and large groups. He too draws both from traditional music and from sacred and liturgical music, in the latter especially from medieval forms. Many of his compositions, like Britten’s, are designed to include amateur and community participants.

My memory of early acquaintance of MacMillan’s politics is that they were attractively left wing from an internationalist  perspective. Supportive of the ideas of Catholic liberation theology, he used the letters of the Argentine group Mothers of the Disappeared in his work Búsqueda and similar Latin American texts in Cantos Sagrados. Shortly after, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie focussed on the 17th century case of a woman executed for alleged witchcraft, and by extension, MacMillan has said, on contemporary witch-hunts and persecution.

In recent years, he could be said to have become politically more conservative. As a self-confessed Celtic fan, although brought up in Ayrshire,  he has sometimes become drawn into discussions about a perceived anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland. His interest in reviving Latin church music, although a valuable artistic project, could be said to be a rather elitist one which might not help the Catholic church to engage the younger generations who were not brought up with the pre-Vatican II traditions.

As  argued in an earlier post, there has been a significant loss of confidence in the value of classical music on television since the time of Britten’s death in 1976. Britten’s 1971 opera Owen Wingrave was written specially for television while my own very first acquaintance with the name of Benjamin Britten was a TV version of Billy Budd being shown in the late 1960s on Christmas Eve on BBC1 – alarming to a child looking for more lightweight entertainment but proof of how substantial (and how mainstream) a piece of music and drama it was judged to be.

The success of MacMillan’s breakthrough work The Confession of Isobel Gowdie was certainly helped by the BBC screening of its Proms premiere in 1990 and the corporation premiered his cantata Seven Last Words from the Cross during Holy Week in 1994. Around the same time, I remember MacMillan presenting a programme of Arvo Pärt religious music on BBC2 on a Good Friday evening.

However, although his music has continued to be performed and praised in the twenty years since, MacMillan has unfortunately tended to gain more mainstream media attention for extra-musical contributions such as his comments about the aforementioned perceived anti-Catholic prejudice.  I suspect that coverage of Britten during his lifetime concentrated on his music, although posthumously of course that has changed somewhat.


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