Monday, June 21, 2010

Short Story Review: “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” from Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu – plus Inquiries into The Raven King


This is a review of a short story, some miscellaneous finds around the story subject,  and a summary post for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. (Badge links to the beginning post for the challenge) 

Mini Synopsys:     This short story, “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”  is apparently based upon an ancient fable about the Raven King/Fairy King/John Uskglass/Oberon/and more – all being one and the same name. The theme of the fable and this story is a king being fooled by a common man.

This common man, a charcoal burner, is unaware that the man hunting near his home is in fact the Raven King. He becomes outraged when his home, garden, and supper are ruined by the king’s hunting party. This creates indignation in the charcoal burner, where he then takes some extreme measures to get back at the Fairy King.

Thoughts:    This is the second story that I have read in this collection by Susanna Clarke. It is actually a light and slightly humorous story, and I would say although I enjoyed it, I did not quite as much as “Antickes and Frets” (see my review and misc info post). However, it has intrigued me more, as you will see from the research and links below. 

The Intriguing Bit:   I have never really been a big fairy fan, although recently I am finding current retellings of  some classic stories, especially those of a dark ilk, especially fascinating.  As a child fairies always felt too frilly, and fluffy. I preferred aliens, mythic gods or goddesses, other legends such as Nessie, big foot, or trolls. So my adult knowledge of fairies is very limited.

Now in my 40s, for some reason fairy tales have come into my interest orbit. The name the Raven King intrigued me, amazingly so. So as any self respecting computer addict would do I “Googled” it. Expecting loads of information around the search, I found very few pages with substantial stuff regarding him. I did, however, find that he has a variety of names, like the names mentioned above - Fairy King, Oberon… and that he is linked to King Author and Camelot. Some legends even say that King Author was the Raven King.

Here is the information that I found which is of substance. This quote was taken from an online encyclopedia at The live links in the text are Wikipedia links for more information on the particulars for the subject word.

Oberon, also Auberon, King of the Fairies, is most well-known as a character in William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, written in the mid-1590s. Oberon gives his wife, Titania, a potion that causes her to fall in love with Bottom - in order to get the changeling, who was given to Titania by her dying maid.

And an interesting bit, via this same source:

..the medieval concept of the character Oberon arose from a multitude of earlier sources.

Susanna Clarke specifically  tells readers her thoughts around this character, which she molded for her story. He plays a role in her award winning book Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This excerpt is taken from an interview on her website:

The Raven King had an odd genesis. Ursula Le Guin has a magician in the Earthsea trilogy who has no name: the Grey Mage of Paln, whose magic was so dubious, his name was forgotten. And there’s a magician in The Lord of the Rings, right at the very end, who comes out of Mordor to do battle against our heroes, and no one knows his name because he himself has forgotten it. I thought this was rather cool, and when I was developing my magicians, I wanted one without a name.

Unfortunately I hadn’t quite understood what would happen if I had a major character without a name. The consequence has been that he has acquired more names than most people: the Raven King, John Uskglass, the Black King, the King of the North and a fairy name that no one can pronounce.

All very interesting and leading to a number of wonderful links, and misc connections.  One in particular is from a creative new blog called Celestial Elf; Machinima. Here Celestial Elf (the blog owner) put together a short video within the online game Second Life. It’s based upon a poem he wrote about the Raven King, where he reads it with an English accent within the video. 



You can read a portion of the short story online - “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”. 

If you know anything about the Raven King, have books you recommend, or links about this subject, sharing them in the comments would be wonderful!

For your convenience purchasing links from Amazon for the books mentioned in the post are linked below:

  • Amazon purchasing links for The Ladies of Grace Adieu - US/UK/Canada.
  • Amazon purchasing links for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - US/UK/Canada.


Challenge Conclusion:  This is the last short story, and post, for this year’s Once Upon a Time Challenge. I will have completed three shorts and three books. To see my thoughts about them see the links below. All are excellent stories. 

Short Stories:

  1. “Antickes and Frets”  by Susanna Clarke from The Ladies of Grace Adieu.


  1. Keeper by Kathi Appelt  (young adult/tween, mythic – slipstream)
  2. The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Ochsner  (slip stream, literary)
  3. The Song of the Whales –  by Uri Orlev  (translated children’s fable, slip stream/magical realism)

I would like to thank Carl V. from Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting this fun challenge.

Have a great Monday!


logankstewart said...

Oh how I truly enjoyed this story. I laughed enough that I read it aloud to Keisha, who also enjoyed it. Glad you liked it. Now I'll have to do some Raven King investigation.

Unknown said...

Thanks Logan -
Perhaps you'll find more stuff than I did?

Please let me know! :)

Carl V. Anderson said...

I'm so thrilled that you participated and am glad you got through some short stories (one of my favorite things in the world) and some books during the challenge. Thanks again for being a part of this.

Unknown said...

Carl -
I love your two seasonal challenges! They are truly perfect for both spring and fall.

Looking forward to next year's and the RIP.


Carl V. Anderson said...

I almost added that I would hope you would be joining for R.I.P. V but I didn't want to seem self-serving, despite that not being why I was wanting to invite you. I'm listening to an audio of Kelly Link's short story collection, Pretty Monsters, which would be perfect for R.I.P. Unfortunately I am now stuck into it and cannot imagine pulling back and waiting until September.

Unknown said...

Carl -
I will have to check out your review for Pretty Monsters. Perhaps it will be perfect for me for the RIP short stories?

Since you can't wait I am sure if you saved or re-posted it in the fall we would all overlook it :)

Besides don't you have a huge list for your fall challenge? Goodness knows I do. Such a great feeling.

Including the short story collection that I have not finished which are brilliant by the way The Best Horror edited by Ellen Datlow. She's amazing... the stories are too.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Yes, my autumn reading list is growing tremendously, that is why when I saw Pretty Monsters on the shelf in the library I just decided to go ahead and snag it now rather than wait.

Unknown said...

Carl -
I have been reading Nancy Pearl's books Book Lust, More Book Lust and Book Crush - she has a wonderful philosophy which is if you don't enjoy something then don't read it and the older you get the less time you should spend trying. I love it.

You should see my list on goodreads its huge. If only I could just read faster.

Snagging books like that is a great idea since you never know if they will be available when you want them. And buying them is tough on the pocket book.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I couldn't agree more. I certainly have made some effort to challenge myself in my reading over the last few years, but the challenge has been to read things I sincerely wanted to read but felt intimidated by. I have no desire to read War and Peace, which may by all rights be an amazing experience. It just isn't for me and I have no illusions that my life would be better for making myself read it.

Unknown said...

Carl -
I am currently reading Lolita (well listening to it).. its brilliant. I had my doubts but I am so glad I did started it, despite its controversial and difficult topic.

I do give myself a little while and if it doesn't click I just give in. To the out pile it goes.

Now Pride and Predjudice I am having a problem with. I am going to change narrators so perhaps that will work.

I do want to be able to say to myself that I have made an effort on some classics. But there are some I have no interest in. I'm not sure about War and Peace, only if I can find it in audio. I do have trouble actually reading classics - but listening to them is so much easier.

But who knows when I am much older... I may change my mind. I may love War and Peace, perhaps Anna Karenina?

My reading skills have gotten better now that I have started reading again, after a long fiction hiatus.

But whose to say it makes us better people. I do think enjoyment does.

So how is Pretty Monsters... is it good?

Carl V. Anderson said...

The first story in Pretty Monsters was great...creepy dead girl story. The second, about Wizards, is going along very good thus far. Each story is narrated by a different author, which makes the collection kind of fun to listen to. So far so good on the narrators.

Unknown said...

Carl -
Narration is a key element - like I said with P&P - the narrator is good but you voice quality is just plain annoying. 12 hours of that - no thanks.

I was thinking have you signed up for the BBAW yet for best challenge blog. I think they have a section for that. I will vote for you :)

Carl V. Anderson said...

Yes, narrators do make all the difference. I have stopped listening to audio books of authors I enjoy just because I couldn't stomach the narrator.

I appreciate the offer, but I am not participating in BBAW this year.

Unknown said...

Just a thought.. :)

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