The Hidden Book Within 'An Umber Coin'

February 15, 2024

Arthur Salenci’s An Umber Coin, published in 1932, has widely been hailed as one of the most transformative and revolutionary works in English literature, significantly recontextualising much of the post-war writing scene and laying the groundwork for much of modern fantasy. The book’s importance is commonly accepted, and deserves little analysis here. Much has been made of its many facets, from its strange blends of folklore, to the use of rhyme and song; readers interested in examinations of these will naturally find rich veins of work elsewhere.

What I intend to examine is instead a particular thematic object, which on first pass seems almost wholly irrelevant. Items are crucial in An Umber Coin; swords, cups, and coins move throughout. Great battles are won and lost on the possession of certain tokens. In light of this, the focus of my writing here may seem strange: a recurring book, which takes many appearances throughout, which easily blends into the scenery. But this obscure text is, in fact, read by many characters throughout the epic.

Indeed, no excerpt from this work is included verbatim in Coin. While many in-universe poems and performances are included entirely, and draw comment from its various characters, a particular text is repeatedly mentioned, yet hardly ever described. Its first mention is early, when Arth – the friendly Cewri who assists the heroes on their journey – reads it:

The great man was hunched in the firelight, poring over a tome that seemed by perspective slender. When Arth noticed his entrance, he straightened, and placed the book beside, not caring to mark his place. Rolando could see the cover was made of red and gold.

“Hello, boy,” Arth said. “Is all right?”

An Umber Coin, p. 63

Such small observational turns are frequent throughout the work, and most serve to do nothing more than lend a sense of verisimilitude and detail to Salenci’s creation. However, the “book of red and gold” appears throughout An Umber Coin, and different mentions allow us ever narrower glimpses into its content and themes. The tome is never named; a curious omission compared to the easy namedrops of other works.

A more naive approach may be to catalogue all of the appearances of the book, one by one, throughout the text. But instead I have elected to divide them here by type; in doing so we can reveal far more subtle and interesting aspects of the curio.

The Book In Passing and Brief Appearance

This section is the hardest to fully detail. Salenci’s work, while accessible to reading audiences even today, is quietly labyrinthine. Even now I cannot be sure that I haven’t missed an allusion somewhere.

Firstly, its passing appearances, where they do not matter to the plot:

They were disturbed, he could tell; all except Lou, who performed the strange trick of managing to ride and read at the same time, with the usage of a strange apparatus. The creature appeared to be poring through an oddly bound volume with a purple backend.

p. 154

Upon Traocea’s shelves Rolando saw many wonders: […] a huge lurking treatise of black inscribed with gold, written in circular writings he couldn’t read […].

p. 213

The boatman cursed at him. “Thin waters drown you.”

Then, seemingly considering the matter over, she went back to thumbing through a large collection of papers, bound with a red cover.

p. 668

They stepped inside the mill. It was dark; but through Traocea he scryed the days-old bowl left on the counter, the half-burned candles, and the abandoned black book upon a small mantle in the back. The cover was face-down, but Rolando could somehow see the round pattern upon it, surrounding the icon of a yellow eye.

p. 919

It is mentioned once in connection with the eponymous coin:

“Foolishness,” said Traocea. The prince stepped to a pile of books half-hidden in the shadow, and raised a white title from the stack.

Then he held the thing by its spine and shook it gently. Something fell out. As it rattled noisily to a stop Rolando made out its shape; it was a coin, of strange copper, a large hole at its centre.

p. 25

The book is used twice more, in its various forms, as a method of barter:

“We will pass,” Arth said, and from a deeper part of his cloak he revealed a crimson book. The guard stared at it for a moment; then took it. The tome seemed comically large in his hands.

“No better reason to trust strangers on the road,” the man said.

p. 94

“Care for a trade?” The magician grinned, and then proffered an item in each hand; a set of five green juggling-balls, a dusty white book with a strange jacket, and a deck of telling cards. Rolando ignored her.

p. 745

In the first example, we can reason it to be the same edition as Arth was reading earlier; Lou later describes it as “the only book I have ever seen them read.” (p. 112)

Nothing further about it is said during that conversation, but Rolando asks after Lou’s own copy:

He felt a strange compulsion to utter the words. “What is that you’re reading?”

Lou looked up sharply. Then the thing laughed, throwing his head back and baring his teeth; he closed the seagreen book quickly. “It’s the story of a great journey,” he said. “Or part of one.”

“It looks different than when you were reading it earlier.”

“A different part. They’re all the same book… after a fashion.”

p. 160

The Book As Metaphor

Here lies the most explicit reference to the book in the entire text. Towards the end of the second act, Rolando is ensnared within the Mad House; a “confluence of jesters, creatures, and nameless folk” (p. 378), who are notably not affected by the coin’s strange power. As the House members describe themselves:

Adorned in bells, the chorus chant:
Grapevine blood and copper wine!
and weave heroes of yesteryear,
These rituals divine.

And players, too, act out these parts
quelling all in cabaret
Set on the crowd! draw out their hearts!
then lightly darkness fade.

p. 504

The implication, here and elsewhere, is that the Mad House is a collective; that the ‘folk’ inside have given themselves to the celebration, and in that sacrifice gained a sort of immortality, mental fortitude, and prescience. (One could easily extend this strange prescience to Salenci himself. One House member describes “a long border, cruelly separating two parts of a single city; and for fifty-seven years, free boy, no man could cross except by deceit or strange circumstance.” (p. 507) It must be a coincidence, and yet it is a strange one.)

Likewise, the Mad House is deliberately designed to mirror the structure of An Umber Coin. Rolando is forced to delve through three “wings” of the House (p. 518, although on p. 603 Rolando describes them to Queen Alkhatam as something else; this is either a small typo or a giveaway to the relative geography of the House). His movement between each is marked by a similar trial as in the overall text itself. Rolando himself notes that the Statue Room mirrors his own river crossing that comes at the end of the first act. Outside his frame of reference is the battle with the beast, at the end of the second (matching the Hall of Strands), and the final confrontation (the Basalt Room). One wonders whether Rolando could start predicting his own experiences, with a little more understanding.

Within this Mad House, then, we can chart the entire progress of the narrative. How does Salenci choose to represent the part of the book in which the Mad House itself resides? Or, to put it another way: how does the narrative view itself?

Placing it precisely is a little difficult. We could guess that the Central Stairway is supposed to represent the Barren Heath; if that is the case, then the entire route through the second floor must be referring to Rolando’s stay in Puliera, which is somewhat odd. But that makes this small remark –

[…]and he passed a small doorway, beyond which he could only see upturned brows, and the darkening of the way.

p. 522

– line up with the appearance of the sunken people in the Heath, probably the clearest connection. Under this schema, only one passage can refer to the Mad House itself.

The next room Rolando came to was wide, roughly square on all sides, with a sort of fresco on the ceiling designed to trick the eye. In the centre, a glass box: and inside the box lay a collection of books, many large and thick, others in sets of three, the colours myriad. Some were resplendent: one thick-covered vermillion and aureate, another a deep green with a strange texture, another a triplet of white with round patterns adorning the cover, another triplet of black with red, green, yellow trimmings. A group of three lay stacked, teal and purple and burgundy from top to bottom. More were beaten and soft, with images and patterns; crisp faces he could not recognise, trees and cities on rolling landscapes.

A small sign adorned the bottom of the glass box. It held five short words, with a brief description below.

The glass spun in his hand again. Rolando continued on.

p. 523

(One might recognise the many different novels included so far in the essay. The description here, combined with Lou’s earlier description, strongly implies that they are all copies of the same work.)

At the point in the narrative where Salenci allows himself to comment directly on the ongoing story itself, this is how he chooses to do it. Certainly we should place much import on how an author chooses to consciously respond to their own work. The most surprising thing here is that these books are probably not An Umber Coin, where the “small sign” with “five short words” suggests a longer title. Instead, they seem to be some other work. Why so?

An easily offered answer is that the works here are An Umber Coin; indeed, while Salenci destroyed many of his personal papers, one that survives notes many potential longer titles for the work. Had he instead published his debut novel under the name An Umber Coin Gone Ringing, that would have been five words. But five short words they are not.

It could also easily be that nothing is meant by this. Parts of Coin are, by Salenci’s own admission, merely included to expand the scope of the world, or tweak the imagination. In a letter to Auden (one of Salenci’s only surviving correspondences), the author says:

Cormondi’s doll house is not a metaphor or an allegory. In fact I have an inherited distaste for such things. Any good author attempts to write with meaning – but in any work there must be room for strange wonder, and I like the thought that perhaps the doll house means something different for every person.

Letter from Salenci to Auden, 1948

There is, however, another potential reading.

The Author In The Work

While it is not generally politic to use an author to read their work, an understanding of Arthur Salenci’s background in this case may be instructive. Salenci’s childhood is not well known. It has been speculated that he grew up in poverty, or moved to Britain as some sort of refugee, as he first enters the historical record surprisingly late: in 1926, lecturing Modern History at Hertford College. Some sort of arrangement is also known to exist between Salenci and the British Government, notably in an informational capacity. This has led to some speculation that he worked as some sort of spy in the post-war period.

And (again, from one of Salenci’s only surviving correspondences) it appeared that the author himself felt a kind of culpability, and what modern psychologists might term impostor syndrome.

I expect this to not make sense to you. I often wake gripped with the knowing that I have done a terrible thing, with only my own memory to hold me properly at account. Perhaps you should consider a painter destroying the works of da Vinci so that his own canvases are held in higher regard. The truth is that vandalism is my name and nature, and to a certain extent my profession. I shall be awarded medals for my injudiciousness.

Letter from Salenci to Beynon, 1957

The War consumed the lives of many other poets, writers, painters, musicians, and artists. Salenci’s own apparent impostor syndrome might stem from this; his belief that he was “destroying” better works by publishing his own – while itself patently ridiculous – makes more sense as a sort of survivor’s guilt.

In this light, a third reading easily develops. It is harder to support solely from the text, but I present it all the same. The hidden work in Coin is meant as a kind of ideal; a better work, that Salenci himself is unable to write, which still exists within the world of Umber. For an author who (probably) saw an entire generation of great talents die, it can be seen both as a scathing self-criticism and a fashion of paying respects. Perhaps the work is indeed a version of An Umber Coin; a version that Salenci, himself, wishes that he could have written.

In truth I do not find this explanation fully satisfactory. Would mere survivor’s guilt trigger the manner of severe and singular culpability that Salenci seemed to possess? But for now a compendium of all these thematic elements exists; I therefore leave it in the hands of future scholars to determine what, if any, meaning was intended by this great author.

With thanks to my beta readers: Julia Ceccarelli, Farid Khuri-Makdisi, and Reagan Guan.