Archives for category: Children’s Books

As the Scots are so good at celebrating the arrival of New Year, I’m choosing a Scottish author for my first recommended Fantasy Read of 2017. Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a journalist, critic, poet and novelist who is now best remembered for the twelve anthologies of Fairy Tales which he edited, starting with “The Blue Fairy Book” (1889) and ending with “The Lilac Fairy Book” (1910). Lang himself was prouder of two original  stories for children which he wrote – “Prince Prigio” (1889) and “Prince Ricardo” (1893). These two novellas, and a sequence of short stories called “Tales of a Fairy Court” (1907), are set in the invented kingdom of Pantouflia and are collectively known as “The Chronicles of Pantouflia”. You could get the two novellas under this title as a very cheap ebook or search out  an anthology called “My Own Fairy Book”, which includes all of Lang’s original Fairy Tales. Another good choice would be “Prince Prigio and Prince Ricardo”, a 1961 edition which has pictures by D.Watkins-Pitchford and an excellent introduction by Roger Lancelyn Green. Old copies of this, and paperbacks based on it, are quite easy to find.

Lang begins with a potted history of Pantouflia, an ancient kingdom somewhere “up the Danube” and its peace-loving royal family, whose crest is a dormouse, dormant. After relating the story of the spirited founder of the dynasty, Lady Dragonissa, he skips forward to the birth of her ever so many times great-grandson, Prince Prigio. The prince’s rational mother refuses to believe in fairies, so none are invited to the christening party of her first-born son. The fairies come anyway, bringing magical gifts, but one of them puts a curse on Prigio that he “shall be too clever!” Prince Prigio grows up to be the ultimate know-all. He argues about everything and is always right – which makes everyone detest him.

The King and Queen have two ordinary younger sons, Alphonso and Enrico, who are universally liked. When a terrible Firedrake, made of red-hot iron, threatens Pantouflia, the King promises his throne to whichever of the princes succeeds in killing the monster and bringing back its horns and tail. Prigio refuses to try, because he knows that it is traditional for the eldest son to fail , and suggests that this is a job for Enrico. Both the younger princes enthusiastically go off to fight the monster but neither of them returns. Prigio is then shunned by his family and left behind in an abandoned castle, where he finds the fairy gifts and learns to use them. When Prigio falls in love with the English ambassador’s daughter, the idea of being a hero becomes more attractive. With a little magic and a lot of ingenuity, can Prigio kill the monster, save his brothers, win the right girl and make people like him?

The seven stories in “Tales of a Fairy Court” tell us more about the relationship between Prigio and his father King Grognio, and describe some of the adventures which Prigio fitted in before his marriage. The second novella is set 17 years later when Prigio is King of Pantouflia and he and Queen Rosalind have a son called Ricardo. Prince Ricardo is always off fighting “dragons, giants, cannibals, magicians”. He has rescued lots of princesses, including a clever one called Jaqueline, but he isn’t interested in marrying any of them. The trouble is that the quests and fights are too easy for Ricardo because he always uses his father’s fairy gifts, such as the sword of sharpness, the seven-league boots, the magic carpet and the cap of darkness. Through a spell known as Drinking the Moon, Jaqueline discovers that Prigio plans to swap the fairy gifts for ordinary objects. The princess soon has to use more of her magic to protect Ricardo when he goes up against fearsome enemies such as the evil Yellow Dwarf  and The Giant who does not Know when he has had Enough. After Jaqueline is imprisoned by a monster, Prigio goes on an extraordinary journey as part of his plan to save her.

The more I’ve read about the life of Andrew Lang, the more I feel that Prince Prigio was a self-portrait. He knew from his own experience that while the canny Scots admire cleverness, the English tend to distrust it. In one of the “Tales of a Fairy Court”, young Prigio is described as picking up every language he heard and knowing “more ancient Greek and Latin than his tutor before he was six”. Moreover, “he knew the history of everywhere, and all the fairy-stories in the whole world.” Much the same could be said about Lang. He was a Classical scholar, renowned for his translations of Homer, but he also edited the work of British poets and was an expert on Scottish history. He was a pioneer in the field of Psychic Research, wrote adult books on the interpretation of mythology and folklore and the development of religion but he thought it just as important to introduce children to the riches of traditional storytelling. Lang was a man of strong opinions whose sarcastic wit made him many enemies – just as Prigio’s conceited cleverness does. In “Prince Ricardo”, Prigio uses the weight of Stupidity (particularly the stupidity of learned writers on Shakespeare, Homer and the Bible) as a weapon to crush a monster. Lang was a life-long fighter against ignorance and stupidity.

One of his battles was against influential educators of the late 19th century who claimed that Fairy Tales were irrational, violent and bad for young minds. Does that argument sound familiar? In every age well-meaning people have wanted to ban or censor Fairy Tales but, with help of scholars like Andrew Lang and his wife Leonora, the stories survive. Lang didn’t collect directly from oral storytellers and he credited his wife with much of the work of translating and adapting stories from foreign sources. His great contribution to children’s literature was to provide easily accessible, entertaining versions of Fairy and Folk Tales from all over the world. Nobody knew more about the structure and rules of traditional tales than Lang. In his original writing he plays with those rules in what seems a very modern way. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are both enjoyable stories in their own right and amusing commentaries on the way that Fairy Tales function.

Lang hated it when other Victorian writers produced moral tales in which pretty-pretty fairies preached at children. The only preaching in his own stories is done tongue-in-cheek. “The Chronicles of Pantouflia” are the work of a serious scholar having fun with his own special subjects. For this reason Pantouflia is not the most consistent of Fantasy realms. Lang borrows magical objects from “The Arabian Nights”, tosses in episodes from his beloved Scottish history (Ricardo has an encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie) and provides new endings for some Fairy Tale characters.  He mocks Prigio’s scientific-minded mother for refusing to accept anything that doesn’t fit with her world-view and the very English Ricardo for treating quests as a form of big-game hunting. A scene in which Ricardo hacks up a giant but the pieces cheerily keep on fighting reminds me of the anarchic humour of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Other characters refuse to be constrained by the conventions of the Fairy Tale world – Jaqueline (who turns out to be an Inca princess) is consistently braver and smarter than her beloved Ricardo, while Prigio has no intention of being the disposable elder brother who loses out to the lucky youngest son.

Of all the Fairy Tale princes I read about when I was a child, Prigio was the only one I wanted to marry. He uses brain-power rather than force to solve problems and he doesn’t care if this approach makes people call him a coward. In fact, Prigio is an early example of the Nerd as hero. His method of dealing with the Firedrake is particularly ingenious but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Prigio does have to learn what we would now call people-skills before he can become a good ruler. In “Prince Ricardo”, King Prigio is shown as a worried father, failing to let his son make his own mistakes, but he still saves the day with panache. Lang gave Prigio his own hatred of violence and cruelty. In a new version of “The Goose Girl”, which is one of the darkest of Fairy Tales (see my March 2015 post on “Thorn”), Prigio intervenes to stop the villain being executed in a horrible way. Pantouflia represents the world as Lang would like it to have been rather than as it actually was. You might enjoy his dream-world too. Until next time….

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

The second of my choices for December is a haunting children’s story about a mid-winter journey by English poet and novelist, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” was published in 1910 and remains one of the best animal-based Fantasy novels ever written. The first edition, with illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop, is a stunningly beautiful book which now sells for equally stunning prices. You don’t really need illustrations because de la Mare’s word-pictures are so vivid, so you could download the original text for free from Internet Archive or go for a cheap ebook. In 1935 the novel was reissued, with new illustrations by Mildred E.Eldridge, under the title of “The Three Royal Monkeys”. Copies of this edition are much easier to find, especially after it came out as a Puffin Paperback (1979) with a charming cover by Pauline Baynes. A story about monkeys set in a strange version of East Africa may not sound very Christmassy but most of the action takes place in frosty forests and snowy mountains.

By the edge of the Forest of Munza a lonely Fruit Monkey called Mutta-matutta lived in a hut with the skeleton of a long dead explorer for company. One day she took in a sick traveller called Seelem, who claimed to be a Mulla-Mulgar (a royal monkey), and nursed him back to health. Seelem told her that he was own brother to the Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar but he’d left his idyllic home to explore the world beyond the mountains. He and Mutta-matutta lived together for thirteen years and had three sons – Thumb, Thimble and Nod. Then grim and broody Seelem began to long for his home and decided to go on the long return journey “through dangers thick as flies” to the Valleys of Tishnar. He promised to come back for Mutta-matutta and their sons but seven years passed without any sign of him.

Mutta-matutta sickened and when she heard the voice of the goddess Tishnar calling, she knew that she was dying. She told her sons to seek the country of their father and the palace of their royal uncle. Then Mutta-Mututta gave weapons and red jackets to stout Thumb and strong Thimble but their little brother received a sheep-skin coat and his father’s milky Wonderstone because Nod was marked as a “a Nizza-neela, and has magic in him.” She warns Nod never to lose, give away or even lend the Wonderstone to anyone because if he rubs it in times of danger, Tishnar will send help.

Even after their mother’s death, the brothers are reluctant to leave the safety of their home but that changes when Nod accidentally burns down the hut. The three monkey-princes enter the frosted forest. On this first stage of their epic journey they face greedy pigs, prowling leopards, speckled tree-spiders, a mighty bull-Ephelanto, a gigantic Gunga-Mulgar and the even more dangerous flesh-eating Minimuls. When Nod is separated from his brothers he is snared by a lone Oomgar (a man) whom he helps to protect against Immanala – the Wandering Shadow. Once the monkey-princes are reunited they face even greater challenges as they try to cross the Peak of Tishnar with the aid of the agile monkeys known as the Men of the Mountains. Perils and enchantments lie ahead. Even with the help of the Wonderstone, can Nod and his brothers ever reach the fabled Valleys of Tishnar and be reunited with their father?

Walter de la Mare is now best remembered for volumes of poetry such as “Songs of Childhood” and “Peacock Pie” which capture the imaginative worlds of children. His most famous poem “The Listeners” (“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door…) can, like most of his work, be summed up by two words – magical and eerie. As a young reader I was quite traumatized by some of the sinister imagery in “Songs of Childhood”, such as John Mouldy sitting in his cellar “Smiling there alone” while rats creep over him. Less well known are de la Mare’s ghost and horror stories and his quirky Fantasy novels for adults and children. Each of these novels is very different but for me “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his masterpiece. Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down”, has been quoted as saying that “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his favourite book and I think I can detect its influence on Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.

I love the beauty and inventiveness of  de la Mare’s language. His sentences shimmer and dance  -“Away went the three travellers, bundle and cudgel, rags and sheep’s coat, helter-skelter, between the silver breaks of the trees, scampering faster than any Mulgar, Mulla, or Munza had ever run before.” Characters often break into lively verse, sometimes in invented animal-languages, and the text features many familiar words twisted into strangeness, such as Zevveras for zebras or Babbabooma for Baboon (be warned that in one case de la Mare adapted a word which is no longer acceptable). The book is full of lovingly described animals, birds and plants. Some are real species; others are imaginary. Among my favourites are the birds who talk with tree-spirits “the tiny Telateuties, blood-red as lady-birds, that ran chittering up the trees” and the sad-faced, silken-haired Men of the Mountains who form living chains which look “like a long black-and-white caterpillar, clinging to the precipice with tiny tufts waving in the air.” Africa is used as a distant place which could contain anything that de la Mare wanted, including a wise Witch Hare and a dark-eyed, flaxen-haired water nymph.

The world of this novel is a frightening and melancholy one. The only human in the story, a lost English sailor who comes to like and respect Nod, is almost certainly doomed to die alone and a very long way from home. The various monkey tribes represent many of the vices and virtues of humanity. Some are cruel, greedy and violent; others are capable of kindness, courage and unselfishness. The three monkey-princes themselves are far from heroic. They try to follow their mother’s instructions never to taste blood, walk on all fours, or climb trees, but there are constant quarrels and mistakes. Thumb and Thimble are often proud and foolish and sweet friendly Nod is hopeless at keeping hold of the vital Wonderstone.

Yet Nod does have faith in Tishnar -who is not just a goddess but “that which cannot be thought in words, or told, or expressed.” In the most magical scene in the book, he uses the Wonderstone to allow the weary band of travellers to enjoy a heavenly feast in a scented meadow. This is a quest story which doesn’t have a conventional ending. Whether the brothers survive their journey over and under the mountains is a matter of interpretation and what they will find in the beautiful Valleys of Tishnar is mainly left to the individual reader’s imagination. I promised to recommend another “feelgood” novel before Christmas. “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” isn’t sentimental or cheery but it may make you feel braver and more hopeful about what Walter de la Mare called “the journey that has no end.”  I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a happy Holiday Season. Until next year…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

During December I’ll be recommending two feel-good Fantasy novels for children, one fairly old and one fairly new. I’ll start with the modern one – “Flood and Fang” (2009)  by Marcus Sedgwick. On the cover this is called Goth Froth (is that a genre?) but I’m going to classify it as a Gothic Comedy. “Flood and Fang” is Book I of The Raven Mysteries and there are five volumes in the series so far. You can get “Flood and Fang” as an ebook but because the witty illustrations by Pete Williamson are such an important part of the story print copies work better. There is though a spiffing website to go with the series – http://www.ravenmysteries.co.uk

“Flood and Fang” is narrated by a raven called Edgar and set in Castle Otherhand – “home to all sorts of oddballs, lunatics and fruitcakes”. The castle is owned by Lord Valevine Otherhand and his wife Lady Euphemia, known as Minty. Valevine is an unsuccessful inventor who spends most of his time in his laboratory in the East Tower, reluctantly assisted by Flinch the butler. Minty used to be a witch who specialized in curses but now she’s obsessed with baking the perfect spongecake. The Otherhands have four children – twin toddlers, Fizz and Buzz, wimpy son Cudweed, and teenage daughter Solstice who writes gloomy poems with titles such as “Why aren’t I dead?” The wise old raven thinks that, “The Otherhands are all so very stupid, even for people,” but he does have a soft-spot for raven-haired Solstice.

The Otherhands are looked after by many servants; so many that when housemaids start disappearing it takes a while for anyone to notice. Edgar has already been alarmed by a glimpse of the huge slimy tail of a “hideous, horrible, hateful thing” in the castle gardens and has spotted what looks like a new tunnel in the rock the castle is built on. Unfortunately as none of the Otherhands speak Raven they pay no attention to his warnings. When Edgar discovers that the castle  cellars have mysteriously flooded and that the water is still rising, he has to devise a cunning plan, involving pork crackling and Cudweed’s malicious pet monkey, to get the family to notice. Even then, Solstice is the only one who really helps Edgar to investigate the horrid fate of the missing maids. As the waters keep on rising, the castle itself seems to have turned against the Otherhands putting everyone in terrible danger. Can Edgar work out what is going on before it is too late?

Marcus Sedgwick’s compelling Young Adult Fantasy novels, such as “The Book of Dead Days” or “The White Crow”, are usually described as dark, chilling or bleak – never as funny and cheerful. Sedgwick is the last author I expected to make me smile and laugh a lot, but writing for younger readers obviously brings out a different side of him. The Raven Mysteries are rather like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” played for laughs. As in Peake’s books, the castle itself almost counts as the main character. In “Flood and Fang” each decorative chapter heading contains interesting facts about the history of Castle Otherhand. There is, for example, information about the exact number of arrows fired during 32 sieges of the castle, about the legend of its Lost Jewels, and about the castle’s most terrifying inhabitant – “fearsome, foul and flatulent” Nanny Lumber. During the story, Edgar describes various parts of the architectural nightmare that is Castle Otherhand including the Great Hall, the Lost South Wing and the sinister cellars. He suspects that the castle “has its own views on things” and sometimes acts in its own defence. In “Flood and Fang” Castle Otherhand has a plan for defeating an invader. It just happens to be a stupid one…

Like the Tower of London, Castle Otherhand has Raven guardians, except that Edgar is the only one left and he is old and tired. Ravens have a strong presence in Myth and Fantasy. They can be birds of ill-omen and bringers of war, symbols of collective wisdom, Trickster gods or divine messengers. I can think of several notable ravens in children’s literature such as melancholy Marshall in “The Stone Cage” by Nicholas Stuart Gray or the anarchical Mortimer in Joan Aiken’s “Arabel and Mortimer” stories. Excitable Edgar is a welcome addition to the list of leading ravens and his peppery narration is a joy to read. He can quoth rather more than “Nevermore” but words such as rock and rack aren’t often useful in general conversation and most humans can’t interpret raven noises such RURK! “which is not as rude as FUTHORK but still a bit”. Fortunately, Edgar explains to us what he’s thinking and saying, which allows young readers to feel superior to the ignorant adults in the story – always an enjoyable experience.

Much of the humour in this book arises from the daft behaviour of the Otherhand family. Lord Valevine is wasting time and resources trying to prove that frogs cause thunder and lightning – his gruesome experiments will probably horrify older readers and delight younger ones. Lady Minty is so keen to find the right cake tin that she fails to notice the perils her adventurous twins are exposed to amongst the sharp knives and roasting pits of the castle kitchens.  Cudweed eats too much and is “…amazingly, award-winningly scared, all the time,” while Solstice loves excitement and is prone to dash into danger. Compared to the others though, Goth Princess Solstice is the smart one.

The plot of “Flood and Fang” is wonderfuly wild and absurd but clever characterization make you think of the Otherhands as a real family, not so far removed from the sort of eccentric neighbours or relatives everyone has some experience of.  A monstrous threat brings this family together in a very literal way but they are still slow to grasp Edgar’s brilliant plan to save them. At one point, exasperated Edgar considers abandoning the castle but part of him still cares about the people who live in it in spite of their foolishness. Choose to help people whether they deserve it or not seems like a good motto for the Christmas season. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Ghost Month on my Fantasy Reads blog. Prepare to be chilled by some very unquiet spirits. I’ll start by recommending a classic haunted house story – “Frost Hollow Hall” by British author Emma Carroll. This  novel, which came out in 2013, is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. It was published as a children’s book but is multi-layered enough to appeal to adults as well. The story is set in South-West England in 1881 and moves between a grand country house and the cottages of the local village.

Teenager Mathilda (Tilly) Higgins lives in the village of Frostcombe with her Ma and her older sister. Tilly’s Pa has been away for a long time. If he doesn’t come home soon, the Higgins family will be turned out of their cottage because of unpaid rent. On the day that her Pa is expected back, Tilly is dared by annoying Butcher’s Boy, Will Potter, to come skating with him on a frozen lake in the forbidden grounds of Frost Hollow Hall. Tilly falls through the ice and nearly drowns but is guided to the shore by a vision of a beautiful golden-haired boy. She soon identifies her golden boy as the ghost of Kit Barrington, the young heir to Frost Hollow Hall who drowned in the same lake ten years previously.

Tilly begins to dream about Kit who tells her that he “can’t rest in peace until the truth is known”. After Tilly and her Ma suffer a betrayal, Tilly asks for work at Frost Hollow Hall in order to earn some money and investigate the death of Kit Barrington. At the hall, the intimidating housekeeper, Mrs Jessop, offers Tilly a job as a housemaid. Tilly makes friends with a maid called Gracie but it quickly becomes clear that Frost Hollow Hall is a very unhappy household.

Lady Barrington cannot get over her grief for Kit and has her son’s room kept exactly as it was on the day that he died. Tilly can’t sense Kit’s ghost in his room but she and Gracie encounter a spiteful poltergeist who smashes china and haunts the back stairs. Risking everything in her quest for the truth, Tilly learns about a second untimely death and discovers that someone at Frost Hollow Hall has been keeping a terrible secret. How can the dead rest in peace while the living are crippled by guilt and remorse?

This is a ghost story which manages to be both frightening and moving. It deals with two very different types of haunting: one that seems benevolent and one that seems malevolent. Tilly sees Kit’s ghost as gentle and sad and she is flattered that he has entrusted her with the important task of uncovering the truth about his death. This gives Tilly new confidence in herself but as she becomes increasingly obsessed with solving the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall, the reader begins to wonder if Kit’s influence might be a dangerous one. The way that Lady Barrington insists on a fire always being kept alight in Kit’s bedroom to warm her frozen son is extremely creepy. Yet it is the absence of Kit’s ghost from his old home which Tilly finds troubling. Instead, Tilly has to endure what seems to be an alarmingly physical manifestation of someone’s unresolved anger. An episode in which Tilly and Gracie are trapped in the dark with a being that whispers, pinches and smells strongly of honey, certainly scared me.

The supernatural elements in “Frost Hollow Hall” work because the late 19th century village and country house settings are convincing and the leading characters are credible individuals. I believed in the ghosts because I believed in Tilly and her world. If you enjoyed watching “Downton Abbey”, this novel may appeal to you but it has a less romanticized view of the past than the popular television series. Carroll shows the Higgins family living in grim poverty. Pa is forced to take labouring jobs a long way from home and Ma does sewing and mending seven days a week even though “it paid little and hurt her eyes”. Most of the village is dependant on the whims of the local aristocrats. There is a telling incident when Tom fails to back Tilly because he knows that his family will be ruined if they lose the custom of the Barringtons. Tilly isn’t ill-treated at Frost Hollow Hall but her work as a housemaid is exhaustingly hard and she can be unjustly sacked at a moment’s notice.

Sharp-tongued, fierce-tempered Tilly Higgins is a distinctive heroine. She is sometimes surly and unreasonable but she never lost my sympathy. Tilly is convinced that she is far less attractive than her blonde elder sister and her critical mother makes her feel worthless. In the course of the story, Tilly has to face the hard truth that the father she adores has chosen to abandon her in order to follow his dream of a new life. She longs to be needed and trusted, if only by a ghost. Tragic Kit Barrington is the kind of romantic youth that girls dream about but ordinary Tom’s friendship proves solid and real. The prickly relationship between Tilly and Tom is beautifully observed. Tilly’s viewpoint dominates the narrative but Carroll sometimes gives us glimpses of the way that other characters see her – as a courageous wild rose of a girl.

Carroll is good at making the reader think that they know what kind of people her characters are and then changing that perception with a single speech or incident. Tilly’s Ma seems harsh and her Pa feckless but I ended up feeling some sympathy for both halves of this incompatible couple. At Frost Hollow Hall, Mrs Jessop at first appears to be a standard sinister housekeeper and Lady Barrington a typical selfish and capricious aristocrat but there is much more to both of them than that. The hauntings don’t arise from some ancient evil but from a plausible sequence of events in which understandable actions have disastrous consequences. Tenacious Tilly uncovers a story of the strength of maternal love and the healing power of forgiveness. You might find it worthwhile to explore the mysteries of Frost Hollow Hall alongside her. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last recommendation was a big and colourful novel (“The Rook”) so this time I’m choosing something small and delicate – “The Ghost’s Child” by Australian author Sonya Hartnett. She is best known for her Young Adult fiction but she has also written books for adults and for children. “The Ghost’s Child”, which came out in 2007, has won prizes as a children’s book but I would call it a fable which you need to read at the right point in your life. That point might be when you are ten or ninety; it depends on the individual. “The Ghost’s Child” is available as an ebook but print copies are better for appreciating the exquisite black and white illustrations by Jon McNaught.

The story begins in an Australian seaside town when an elderly lady called Matilda comes home to find a strange boy sitting on her settee. Matilda (Maddy) has lived alone for a long time with only her dog for company. She is pleased but puzzled by her unexpected visitor. “He was like a strong bold bird that had flown into the room and, finding itself cornered, was bored, but unafraid.” Over tea and biscuits, the boy asks some very direct questions, such as, “Isn’t it horrible, being old?” Maddy struggles to explain how she feels about being old and looks back at the history of her life and loves.

Born in the late 19th century, Maddy was the only child of wealthy parents. She was a shy and lonely girl who never seemed able to please her mother. Many children have imaginary friends whom their parents can’t see. Maddy’s friend was the nargun; a cynical monster “old as the hills, larger than a draught horse”. When sixteen year-old Maddy finishes school her father asks her, “What is the world’s most beautiful thing?” Unsatisfied by her answer, he takes Maddy on a grand tour to see the world’s greatest buildings, works of art and natural wonders. They return to Australia when Maddy is eighteen. She is still unable to choose one thing that “is lovelier than anything else combined” until she meets a mysterious young man called Feather.

Feather lives on a beach, talks to birds, and spends most of his time gazing out to sea. Maddy is soon desperately in love and insists that she and Feather belong together. For a while their life in a secluded cottage seems idyllic but a force that Maddy doesn’t understand is driving them apart. Feather warns her that, “There is somewhere else I need to be – someone else I have to be.” Maddy’s search for understanding will take her on a voyage through seas inhabited by lost souls, talkative fish and battling monsters, to the Island of Stillness where a person’s deepest desire is granted. But one person’s paradise may be another person’s nightmare…

“The Ghost’s Child” does have something in common with my previous choice, “The Rook”, in that both books are by Australian authors. There is a great richness and diversity in Australian Fantasy fiction at the moment. Other examples I’ve recommended include “Spindle” by W.R.Gingell (July 2016) and “The Brides of Rollrock Island” by Margo Lanagan (November 2013). If you assume that Australian culture is still a bit rough and ready, please think again. Both Lanagan and Hartnett write particularly elegant prose. “The Ghost’s Child” is a book you may want to read aloud to savour Hartnett’s poetic use of language. There are dazzling descriptions of extraordinary events such as the battle between two sea-monsters  (“Round and around the two legendary creatures careered, the leviathan tangled in tentacles and bellowing, the kraken silent as a tomb, its huge eyes flatly reflecting the clouds and the sea”) but Hartnett also captures the essence of ordinary things in a few simple words. When the boy tells Maddy that old people smell “Like coats in mothy cupboards…Like taps dripping for years and years.” you just know that he is right.

This short novel has some unusual shifts of tone and genre. The opening chapter and most of the scenes involving elderly Maddy and her young visitor seem to belong to a well-observed realistic novel.  The unnamed visitor looks like a normal boy and mainly behaves like one. He’s easily bored, embarassingly direct and squirms when Maddy talks about love. Yet there are chilling hints that his presence is transforming the narrative into some kind of ghost story. Maddy’s account of her childhood and of her successful professional life as a grown woman could come from a historical novel similar to “My Beautiful Career” but her teenage years belong firmly in Fantasy fiction. Maddy and Feather are described as “the lonely fairytale princess and the wondrous being chained to the ground” and Maddy’s second voyage takes her into a dream-like realm where she can converse with whales, the spirits of the drowned and the west wind. Jon McNaught’s drawings, which are more like patterns inspired by the text than conventional illustrations, are particularly magical in this section.

I found the shifts between realism and Fantasy a bit disconcerting at first but then it struck me that for many people the teenage years do stand out from the rest of their life like an era of legend. It is the time for meeting your prince or princess, fighting the dragons of the established order and going on quests for the meaning of life. Fables that try to teach important lessons about how to live your life are fragile things. One false step by the author and belief fails and trust is lost. I found it jarring that the child which Maddy miscarries is always coyly referred to as `the fay’. Apart from that, the story worked for me because it isn’t a rigid allegory with just one set of meanings. The title of the book raises more questions than answers and the character of free-spirit Feather remains open to a variety of interpretations. He seems to be a young girl’s dream boyfriend, desirable because he is unattainable, but is he as imaginary as Maddy’s monster-friend? Even if Feather is real, does he represent the kind of spiritual longings that cannot be satisfied in the material world? Every reader has to come to their own conclusions.

“The Ghost’s Child” is inspiring without being relentlessly upbeat and it doesn’t offer easy solutions to life’s problems. Hartnett believes in being honest with children about the “hard laws and complicated outcomes” of the adult world and she writes unflinchingly about love. Maddy explains to her young visitor that “Love isn’t always a good thing, or even a happy thing. Sometimes it’s the very worst thing that can happen. But love is like moonlight or thunder, or rain on a tin roof in the middle of the night; it is one of the things in life that is truly worth knowing.” This is a story of failed love and incompatible desires but it also shows how Maddy survives rejection and loss by having faith in her own worth and courage. Young Maddy doesn’t always behave wisely or well but I’ve added mature Maddy to my list of favourite older characters in Fantasy fiction. Perhaps you would enjoy meeting her too. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we are now into May, I’ve decided to recommend an almost forgotten story which begins on May Eve, traditionally the most magical night of the year. “Borrobil” by William Croft Dickinson is a kind of `missing link’ in British Fantasy. Professor Croft Dickinson was a renowned expert on Scottish history who also wrote ghost stories and Fantasy novels for children. “Borrobil” was first published in 1944 with black and white illustrations by John Morton-Sale. It was reissued as a Puffin paperback in 1964 with a wonderful cover by Pauline Baynes. Very cheap copies of this edition are quite easy to find. None of Croft Dickinson’s fiction seems to be available online but it certainly should be.

Donald and Jean are a young brother and sister spending a holiday in the British countryside. They are fascinated by the Eldritch Wood – `a dark mysterious ring on the crest of the far-off hill’. Most people avoid this wood but Donald and Jean decide to visit it one moonlit night in the hope of seeing something magical. When the children enter the wood they see two bonfires burning at the entrance to a circle of nine standing stones. After Jean impulsively leaps through the flames, the children are transported back into ancient magical times. They are greeted by a bright-eyed little man who turns out to be the good magician Borrobil. He explains that every year on Beltane/May Eve, the King of Summer must defeat the King of Winter. First though, there is going to be a dragon-fight.

The children learn from a Pictish man called Giric why the curse of a dragon descended on the land and how every seven years a brave man tries to kill this massive dragon. The coming of strange children bearing gifts (biscuits) is held to be a lucky omen so they are allowed to watch the hero Morac put Girac’s cunning plan to defeat the dragon into action. After the thrilling combat, Donald and Jean are invited to go with Morac on his journey north to bring home his promised bride, Princess Finella. It is a trip full of perils. The children and their companions face a shape-shifting sorcerer, a malignant dwarf, a brutal giant, the Fairy Queen, fierce raiders from the sea and the dangerous Blue Men who live in the sea. With Borrobil, an elderly gatekeeper, and the Princess Finella, Donald and Jean form an `army of five’ to fight unexpected enemies. Can the children get back to the Nine-Stone Ring in time for the battle between Winter and Summer, Past and Future?

Do you have a special story that you loved when you were young but have never been able to find again? I adored this book as a child but I wasn’t sure of the title and I didn’t know the author’s name. The memories all came back when I recently spotted a copy of “Borrobil”  in a charity bookshop. As soon as I saw the dragon and the dumpy man wearing a brown hat with a long white feather on the cover, I knew that this was the story I had searched for for so long.  “Borrobil” also seems to have gone missing from most histories of Children’s Literature yet Croft Dickinson deserves to be remembered as part of the distinctively British school of academics who wrote Fantasy novels in their spare time. He was a contemporary of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien and like the latter he used his specialist knowledge in his fiction. I can see now that the archaeology of  Iron Age Britain was the inspiration for the strange dwellings of the characters in “Borrobil”, such as the underground earth-house of Geric the Pict, or the massive stone tower of the Men of Orc. Don’t know a broch from a crannog? You will after reading this book but it always feels more like an adventure than a history lesson.

There are many similarities between “Borrobil” and Alan Garner’s well known first novel “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, which was published in 1960. In both stories a modern brother and sister meet a benevolent wizard who introduces them to a range of figures from legend and involves them in battles between good and evil. Both books incorporate British legends, fairy tales, and folk customs (such as lighting Beltane Fires on hills) and feature ancient landmarks. Of the two, I actually prefer “Borrobil”. Garner has a more poetic imagination and provides a stronger over-arching plotline but Croft Dickinson’s work has greater warmth and humour and his child characters are more convincing – apparently he wrote this story for his two young daughters.

Jean has more personality than Donald but both siblings are easy for young readers to identify with. They are adventurous (at one point Jean is resourceful enough to rescue her own rescuer) but they don’t suddenly change into sword-wielding super heroes when they enter a Fantasy realm. Jean and Donald sometimes get frightened, cross or tired and they never do anything that a normal child couldn’t do with a little luck and courage. If the children are ordinary, the people they meet certainly aren’t. Geric is a close-mouthed deep thinker who uses Fairy Tale tricks to defeat supernatural enemies. Morac is a warrior hero with a sword-stroke powerful enough to split a giant in two and Finella is a princess as kind and brave as she is beautiful. Best of all though is the story-spinning, poem-making, riddle-solving magician Borrobil.

Parts of this story are quite grim and scary but one of the reasons I enjoyed it as a child was that I never felt anything truly terrible would happen to Donald and Jean as long as smiling Borrobil was around. He practises traditional types of magic, such as rubbing snake-grease on his eyes to see things at a distance or carrying fern-seed gathered by moonlight to make himself invisible. Borrobil also uses wisdom and knowledge to defeat his enemies rather than force and he’s the embodiment of the word merry. There is real sadness at the end of the book when the children realize that they must leave the past and never see Borrobil again.

Croft Dickinson did write a sequel called “The Eildon Tree” (1947) in which a slightly older Donald and Jean meet another magical figure, Thomas the Rhymer, and are transported back to an alternative version of 13th century Scotland. Unfortunately vintage copies of this book are rare and expensive. I hope this post will help to make William Croft Dickinson’s fiction better known. I’d love to see his work back in print. Enjoy the merry month of May. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

This holiday week I’m recommending some entertaining dragons. Do you have any favourite Fantasy authors who are guaranteed to cheer you up when you are in a fit of the glooms? One of mine is E.Nesbit. She is famous for classic novels such as `The Railway Children’ and `Five Children and It’ but she also wrote delightful modern Fairy Tales. Modern in 1900 that is, which is when `The Book of Dragons’ was first published. The eight stories in this collection had previously appeared in `The Strand’ magazine, the original home of Sherlock Holmes. Cheap paperback copies of `The Book of Dragons’ are fairly easy to find or you can download the text for free on most e-readers. Better still, find a copy of `The Complete Book of Dragons’ a 1972 edition which contains an extra story `The Last of the Dragons’ and witty illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This book has also been republished under the title of `The Last of the Dragons and Some Others’.

Nesbit’s funny and fast-paced stories all feature intrepid young people who have to deal with monsters, including a clever cockatrice (in `Kind Little Edmund or the Caves and the Cockatrice’), a cat-eating manticora (in `The Book of Beasts’) and lots and lots of dragons. One story is set in Cornwall `before what you call English History began’ (The Last of the Dragons’) while two start in Victorian London (`The Deliverers of their Country’ and `The Ice Dragon or Do as You are Told’) and contrast everyday life with some very strange happenings. Others are set in invented realms, like the Kingdom of Rotundia where `all the animals were the wrong sizes’ (`Uncle James or the Purple Stranger’) or have typical Fairy Tale backgrounds with a distinctive twist or two – such as a royal pack of hippopotamuses in `The Fiery Dragon or The Heart of Stone and the Heart of Gold’ and a griffin who does housework in `The Island of  the Nine Whirlpools’. Like traditional tales, Nesbit’s stories often claim to explain the origin of something, ranging from the English climate (`The Deliverers of the their Country’) to the first cat (`The Dragon Tamers’).

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) was an unconventional woman who flouted many of the rules of Victorian morality.  She cut her hair short, earned her own living by selling her poems and stories to magazines, was a campaigning socialist and enjoyed what we might now call an `open marriage’. She had three children and also brought up her husband’s two children by their housekeeper as her own. Nesbit was too busy to be the type of ideal mother who appears in `The Railway Children’. She was sometimes neglectful to the point of irresponsibility and she herself claimed that she retained a child’s mind in a grown-up’s body. All this shows in her writing in various ways.

Nesbit is the most unstuffy of Victorian authors and her stories are seldom preachy. She knew what children liked, so there are never any boring bits in her Fairy Tales and the plots get underway very quickly. For example, in `The Book of Beasts’ a little boy unexpectedly becomes king of his country on the very first page. Nesbit remembered how children think and feel – especially the kind of children who frequently get into trouble. The behaviour and motivation of her young characters is always convincing, even in her Fantasy stories, so you’ll believe that the bizarre things which happen to `Kind Little Edmund’ are due to his laudable desire to `find out new things that nobody has thought of but me’. Above all, like the writers of many of Pixar’s films, Nesbit has a sense of humour which appeals to both children and adults.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am keen on dragon-centred Fantasy. I particularly admire the variety of Nesbit’s dragons. They can be clever or stupid, gentle or ferocious, huge or tiny. There is a dragon made of ice, and a dragon that sets everything on fire, a smooth-talking purple dragon, a rapacious red dragon and a giant yellow dragon who turns out to be a devoted mother. In `The Deliverers of their Country’ an `Alarming Plague of Dragons’ begins with a dragon small enough to get in a little girl’s eye and swiftly progresses to people finding earwig-sized dragons in their soap and butter, dog-sized dragons steaming in their baths and sheep-sized dragons scorching their bedsheets. Nesbit, who also wrote Horror stories, isn’t afraid to make her bigger dragons scary. There are jaunty descriptions of these monsters gobbling up animals, people, and in one case an entire football match `players, umpires, goal-posts, football and all’ (`The Book of Beasts’).  A major function of dragons in literature (and of dinosaurs in movies) is to eat the bad guys before being defeated by the good guys. Nesbit has her dragons munch on the kinds of people she disliked, such as greedy politicians, arrogant aristocrats and big-game hunters. Who would you put on the dragon-food list?

There is a two-headed dragon that only eats kings and queens in a story called `Billy the King’ which you can find in another collection called `E.Nesbit Fairy Stories’, which was published in 1977 and edited by Naomi Lewis.  I wouldn’t put Nesbit in the very first rank of Fairy Tale writers. Her stories are always witty and charming but they lack the poignancy and the haunting qualities of the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (see my `Snow Queen’ post of January 2013) or Oscar Wilde (see post of November 2013). Where Nesbit does score highly is with her female characters. They are not just there to cast evil spells or to look pretty and be rescued. In most of her stories, the girls are as smart, brave and resourceful as the boys. As plucky Jane says to her brother in `The Ice Dragon’, `I’m not so stupid as you think, George’. If you believe that Feminist Fairy Tales are a recent development try `The Last of the Dragons’ which features `the strongest and boldest and most skilful and most sensible princess in Europe’. She won’t tolerate being rescued from a dragon by a prince in the traditional manner. The princess persuades her weedy but nice prince that they should tackle the dragon together. If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to seek out the treasure that is E.Nesbit’s dragon stories. Happy Easter.

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk