Tongues of Flame

Voice of the Fire is a book of conventional text, a sequence of first person narratives set in a series of different historical periods from 4000 B.C.E. to the present day (or "recent past" as it now is),The Voice of the Fire all centred on the town of Northampton in the English Midlands. This is miles from the sort of territory occupied by Judgement Day, but it's still part of a strand which runs right through Alan Moore's recent work. The "present instant", the "here-and-now" described in the final section of Voice of the Fire is November 1995, the month of Alan Moore's performance piece The Birth Caul. That text, too, opens with the invocation of a location, the precise spot on which the performance took place, a solicitor's office and former courthouse where once Hadrian's Wall defined the limit of the Roman Empire. Tracing it forward through time from the earliest records, Moore creates a point in time and space from which to trace back the development of the individual.

A closer parallel, though, appears within Moore's comics writing. In the tragically unfinished Big Numbers, the teacher points to a map of the city thinly disguised as "Hampton" (whose shape is easily recognised in the cover design of Voice of the Fire) and tells his class "Where were England's last witches burned? Here. Who was it took their country's greatest poet and stuck him in a madhouse? It was us. Two world wars full of young men have died with their boots on, and who got rich making those boots? We did. It's important to have a sense of where we're living... of when we're living... a sense of history's patterns... of time's passing... I mean, that's the important thing, isn't it? To understand our context; the community surrounding us?" It's where we live, right? You couldn't ask for a better summary of Voice of the Fire: it's all here, the sense of place, the passage of time, the recurring motifs, even one or two of the individual voices.

For, despite the title, the fire has not one voice but many, and, because the book opens with one of the most distinctive of them, their individuality is impossible to overlook. The boy narrator of Hob's Hog speaks a language built out of modern English, but whose vocabulary and syntax are all its own: "This is a gleaning as I no whiles hear, to say that thing is, which is not. It is more big a glean as I may hold in I all in one whiles. Look I at she with mouth of I hang open." Here, on the one hand, is the metaphor whereby gleaning represents thought, the familiar external activity representing the barely grasped internal process. Here, too, is the analysis of sense into its component parts: "more big" for "bigger", "mouth of I" for "my mouth". It is not clear how far this represents the speech of the time, and how far its limitations are those of the individual speaker, whose slowness in the practical matter of gathering food has caused him to be cast adrift by his tribe, and who is here seen struggling with the concept of deceit which others around him already employ fluently. Whatever its rationale, the language is rich and dense, slowing the reader down in the pleasure of interpreting and savouring the unfamiliar senses given to familiar words. The effect is similar to that obtained in The Birth Caul, where disintegrated grammar and creative application of words to things expresses the wonder of the toddler gazing into the fire:

or upstand, cater-fingers hook in wire guard
through the nothing squares.
In firetown is red street
and crumble up black house in where the devil live
and if we bread throw on the fire
it eats it.
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The language of In the Drownings is poetic in a different sense. From the opening recitation:

The plaiting of the rushes
and the cutting of the stilts.
A hollow beak that spits out darts;
its making and its use.
the internal voice endlessly repeats, not only, as the narrator assumes, because of its familiarity, but also because of the satisfying pattern of two three-stress lines, one four-stress and back to three again (try singing it to the tune of the Christmas carol The Holly and the Ivy). Throughout this text, the phrases settle intermittently into the metre of verse. An apparently straightforward passage of narrative:
I passed him by and went out from the camp
making my way down hill and past
that lower peak where lie the burning grounds
is (only slightly irregular) blank verse, two five-stressed iambic pentameters sandwiching a four-stressed line. This is as good a poetic form as any for a Briton of the period of the Roman conquest to lament his lost family and life. Once past the opening of the story, I was able to force the beat into the back of my mind, and read the narrative without being conscious of it; until the rhythm stumbled, and I realised that I had been counting stresses all the while. I found the effect disconcerting, but this is appropriate too, for the whole episode is constructed around a sudden change of focus, where the reader is lulled by the narrator's assertion that he has found another family to replace his lost ones; until the rhythm stumbles, and they rise and fly away.

Each section of the book is a different voice, and each voice conveys the character of the speaker. Men and women, kind and cruel, murderer and murdered, speaking to us through the ages, but always in the first person - always, that is, until the very last section, the here, the now, the author. Alan Moore seen by Oscar Zarate "This final chapter is the thing. Committed to a present-day first-person narrative, there seems no other option save a personal appearance, which in turn demands a strictly documentary approach: it wouldn't do to simply make things up. This is a fiction, not a lie." Curiously, though, this personal appearance is not quite in the first person, for it goes to some lengths to avoid using the word "I"; "The index finger of the right hand, poised above the keys. The author types the words 'the author types the words'." This isn't simply reticence, a reluctance to talk about personal matters, for (if we believe, and I do, the assurance that "it wouldn't do to simply make things up") he does reveal a considerable amount about his life and his family. Sad fanboys all over the country are reading "the girlfriend is at home. Melinda Gebbie..." and wondering whether their failure to dream of black dogs excludes them definitively from their hero's circle of friends. Among the symphony of voices, this chapter stands out, too, as being in Alan Moore's own voice, immediately recognisable to those who have encountered it outside these pages. For the writer has a larger existence than can be contained within the written text. He cannot be contained by a pronoun, he can only be represented by his words and actions. "Je est un autre" (I think Jean-Paul Sartre said that): "I" is the imagined other, created or re-created, who has no existence outside Moore's text.

There are any number of reasons why Voice of the Fire is a quite remarkable book, and all I have done here is to start to look at one of them: it is a book by a "real" comics writer, someone whose comics are conceived to make the most of the graphic medium, not just illustrated narratives. The starting point of Voice of the Fire is the very visual one of the city of Northampton, growing through the ages but with its basic geography of river and road established from the start. It's a theme which could have been handled perfectly successfully in comics, and if matters had gone differently probably would have been. But Voice of the Fire isn't just a "novelisation" of Big Numbers. By the time the book was completed, Moore told David Kendall in a fascinating and detailed article in The Edge magazine, he had come to see himself as "a self-styled Northampton shaman ... who would be using a kind of language-magic to create a songline in the form of a novel that would, at least in terms of its magical intention, hopefully spark something in the mind-space of people about the places they live." The language, that is, the actual words of the book, is important, because it is the medium through which the shaman-author conjures the city into being, brings the dead to life and, for that matter, invokes characters who are none the less real for being imaginary. Over the last few years, Alan Moore has come to describe this activity as magic. And it is: but then, it always was.

Voice of the Fire by Alan Moore, published by Victor Gollancz (London, 1996) ISBN 0 575 05249 X.

Anyone spellbound by Alan Moore will find an excellent source of material and contacts at the Alan Moore Fan Site.

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