Archives for category: Children’s Books

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…









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.





This week I’m recommending `The Sleeping Army’ – a children’s story which contains more interesting ideas than many Fantasy novels published for adults. In 2011 British author Francesca Simon took a well-earned break from her wildly popular Horrid Henry series to write a story inspired by a famous hoard of 12th century walrus-ivory chess pieces from Norway found buried on the Scottish island of Lewis. Most of the `Lewis Chess Set’ is now on display in the British Museum. You can see drawings of some of the pieces on the hardback cover of `The Sleeping Army’. This book, and its 2013 sequel `The Lost Gods’, are also available in paperback and as ebooks.

`The Sleeping Army’ is a `what if’ story. In this case – `What if people still worshipped the old Norse and Anglo-Saxon Gods…’  Twelve year-old Freya Raven-Gislason lives in modern London with her mother, Clare, who is a priestess of Woden. Freya’ parents are acrimoniously divorced but her father Bob gets to look after her once a week. One Thorsday night Bob has to take Freya into work with him at the British Museum. Bored at being left alone in a gallery `dedicated to exploring the spread of Wodenism as a major religion throughout Europe’, Freya can’t resist blowing a silver horn displayed next to the Lewis Chessmen. The sound of the horn brings some of the chess pieces to life and Freya is sucked into a vortex with them.

A king and queen from the chess set have turned into a boy and girl called Alfi and Roskva, and a knight has split into a berserker warrior called Snot and an eight-legged horse.  Alfi and Roskva tell Freya that they are human bond-servants of Thor and hustle her onto the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard, the home of the Norse Gods. Freya is excited by the idea of meeting her gods but when they reach Asgard it seems derelict. Alfi and Roskva realize that they must have been away `sleeping’ as ivory chess pieces for a very long time. When the gods and goddesses do appear, they are shadows of their former selves. A doddery Woden/Odin is pleased that a hero has at last sounded the Horn of Heimdall and woken his Sleeping Army, until he realizes that the `hero’ is a whiny girl and that only three of the army are awake.

The Norse Gods have lost their eternal youth because the goddess Idunn, who keeps the Apples of Immortality, has been imprisoned by the giant Thjazi. Loki the Trickster was sent to bring her back but, contrary to the legend Freya has been taught, he never returned with the lost goddess. Freya is told that she must go to the realm of the giants, with Alfi, Roskva and Snot in order to rescue Idunn. If they don’t succeed within nine nights, Freya will join the others as an ivory chess piece and sleep with the magical army until another hero blows the horn. On her terrifying journey to Hel and back, Freya will encounter a giant eagle, wolves, a dragon, the Queen of the Dead and deceitful Loki, the most dangerous deity of them all…

I’ve had replicas of several of the Lewis Chessmen sitting on my book-shelves for years. I always wondered why their faces looked so glum and now I know. Alfi tells Freya about being `frozen in that place of dead things for years and years and years…Listening and waiting….’, though it does mean that he’s learned to speak English and knows how to ask `Where are the toilets?’ in dozens of languages. Simon’s publishers obviously think of her as a comic writer, so the covers of all her books are designed to make them look like jolly romps. In the case of `The Sleeping Army’ this is misleading since the story is rather a sombre one, filled with genuinely frightening episodes. There are passages of broad humour based on the original myths, such as Freya nearly drowning in the piss of an angry giantess, but many of the jokes are of the grim kind that the Norsemen themselves would have appreciated. Snot’s idea of a cheerful poem is one in which an enemy is hacked to pieces `Ready for the eagle’s snack’. There is even a joke about my favourite Viking, the murderous poet Egil Skallagrimsson (see my January 2015 post on `Egil’s Saga’).

Elements of the plot of `The Sleeping Army’ are taken directly from Norse mythology and in an afterword Simon recommends Kevin Crossley-Holland’s `brilliant, poetic re-telling’ in `The Penguin Book of Norse Myths’. Plenty of modern Fantasy authors have drawn on Norse myth. What makes Simon unusual is that she tries – very successfully – to convey the mindset behind the myths. Her ancient characters do not have modern attitudes and one of the main differences is that they don’t expect life to be easy or fair. Norsemen and women believed that Fate was stronger even than the gods. Bickering brother and sister, Alfi and Roskva, have suffered the harsh fate of being taken from their family to become the permanent slaves of quick-tempered Thor, while Snot has been separated from a beloved wife and forced into an eternal cycle of violent death and resurrection as a warrior of Woden. As Roskva says, `The Gods do what they like. We mortals live with the consequences’. Very reluctant heroine, Freya, constantly moans about how hard her own fate is. She gets sternly told to accept her fate with courage and hope to be remembered for her noble deeds. It’s not the kind of advice that you find in most modern children’s books.

The idea of putting Norse deities into the modern world is not an original one but Simon stands out by refusing to make her deities likeable. They are arrogant and cruel and show little but contempt for the beings they have created. Her repulsive Loki is nothing like the Wrong but Romantic figure so dashingly played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel Thor and Avengers films. The only deity treated with sympathy is Loki’s daughter Hel, who has been sent to rule the unheroic dead. She is shown as part monster, part lonely girl. Freya may not be obvious heroine material (she hates nature and any form of outdoor activity) but when she succeeds it is because of human qualities such as the cunning of the oppressed, the courage of the desperate and the ability to show compassion.

Another unusual feature of `The Sleeping Army’ novels is that Simon has imagined what the old Norse religion would be like in an era and culture in which most people are not at all religious. Priestess Clare’s `throng’ mainly consists of a few old ladies and her ex-husband has become an atheist after reading Richard Dawkins’ `The Gods Delusion’. In `The Lost Gods’ there is some particularly sharp writing about trendy clergy like Clare who don’t really believe in their own deities and wouldn’t recognize them if they turned up in her own living room (as they do). The second book contains more humour and satire than the first but it also explores the difference between ancient and modern ideas of fame. So, don’t be put off by the covers or the fact that the leading character is a twelve year old school girl who wants to rid the world of `war, hunger, football and beetroot’. This is a series worth trying whatever your age may be. Until next time…


My Christmas curiosity is a Fairy Tale novel by a remarkable 19th century Irish-woman, Frances Browne (1816-1879).`Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was first published in 1856 and seems to have been in print ever since. It is sometimes  known by the longer titles of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and its Tales of Fairy Times’ or `Granny’s Wonderful Chair and the Tales it Told’. To add to the confusion,`Secret Garden’ author Frances Hodgson Burnett introduced a reprint called `Stories from the Lost Fairy Book’. I found a vintage copy on a charity bookstall but you can get `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as a very cheap ebook or even download it for free. Be wary though, some of the ebook versions leave out much of the delightful framing story about a little girl called Snowflower and her grandmother’s magical chair.

`In an old time, long ago, when the fairies were in the world’ orphan Snowflower lives with her stern grandmother, Dame Frostyface. The only good piece of furniture in their tiny cottage is a `great armchair with wheels on its feet, a black velvet cushion, and many curious carvings of flowers and fawns on its dark oaken back.’ When Dame Frostyface has to visit her cross aunt, she leaves Snowflower alone in the cottage but tells her that if she wants company, the armchair will tell her one story a day and if she needs to go anywhere, the armchair will take her. Snowflower enjoys the stories told to her by `a clear voice from under the velvet cushion’ but after a few weeks she runs out of food. So she asks the chair to take her the way her grandmother went.

During the journey, Snowflower stops at the palace of King Winwealth and Queen Wantall who are celebrating the birthday of their daughter Princess Greedalind with a seven day feast. The kingdom was a happy place when it was jointly governed by Winwealth and his brother Wisewit but one midsummer day the good prince disappeared in the forest. Now the King is depressed and everyone in the capital city seems greedy and discontented. The courtiers and the palace servants treat Snowflower with disdain but Winwealth thinks it might be amusing to see the moving chair and find out if it can really speak. On each of the seven evenings of the feast, the chair tells a story at Snowflower’s bidding. When Wantall and Greedalind try to steal the wonderful chair, its secret is finally revealed.

After reading this book, I wanted to find out more about the author. I was shocked to discover that Frances Browne was blinded by smallpox when she was only 18 months old. She was the seventh of twelve children in a Donegal family that had fallen on hard times. Apparently she used to bribe her siblings to read books to her by doing their share of the housework. Frances soon began composing poems and short stories, which she dictated to one of her sisters. As a young woman, Frances intrepidly moved to Edinburgh and later to London, where she supported herself by her writing. I would never have guessed that `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ was written by a blind person. This book glows with light and colour and is full of excellent descriptive detail. The `Blind Poetess of Ulster’ seems to have lived in the beautiful world of her imagination.

The last paragraph of `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ acknowledges the influence of Hans Christian Andersen (see my January 2013 post on `The Snow Queen’) but Frances Browne was one of the earliest British writers to make up new Fairy Tales. The seven stories told by the chair feature kings and princesses, fairies, merpeople and magical animals and birds but they aren’t retellings of traditional folk tales. The plots are original and full of striking incidents, such as a shepherd being forced to shear a pack of shaggy wolves by moonlight (`The Greedy Shepherd’) or two children having to rescue their fathers from a fairy spell which has condemned them to plant acorns all day and all night (`The Lords of the White and Grey Castles’). There is a great deal of humour in these gentle stories which often comes out in character-names  – like King Stiff-step of Stumpinghame, who rules a kingdom where large feet are admired (`The Story of Fairyfoot’).

The seven tales are cleverly integrated into the framing story. Some of them turn out to be the stories of guests at the royal feast, while Queen Wantall and her dreadful daughter miss the moral of the tale every time and covet the treasures won by virtuous behaviour. Yes, some of the tales do have a moral but is that a bad thing if they encourage children to be content with what they have, polite to everyone they meet (even fish) and kind to old people (even grumpy ones)? Frances Browne was no Puritan. Her good characters make other people happy and are merry themselves, as in the story of a fiddler called Merrymind who brings joy back into the lives of Dame Dreary and her people. This book shows great sympathy for poor children who suffer hardship and humiliation, presumably because the author had experienced real poverty herself. There is also nostalgia for rural life in a pre-industrial age before `the hum of schools’ and `the din of factories’ frightened the fairies away.

I’ve chosen `Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ as my Christmas book because in three of the stories wonderful things happen at Christmas – a young girl returns home from fairyland in a chariot drawn by six white horses (`The Story of Childe Charity’);  the seapeople sleep for the only time in the year, allowing two of their captives to plan an escape (`Sour and Civil’); and a magical cuckoo brings leaves from the two trees that grow at the end of the world (`The Christmas Cuckoo’). The leaves of the Golden Tree bring riches but the leaves of the Merry Tree give happiness. Which would you choose? I wish all my readers a joyful Christmas or Holiday season. Until next year…



I’m declaring December my month to recommend lesser-known Fantasy Classics written for children. In honour of a new feline in our household (blue-silver Norwegian Forest kitten, Lilith) I’m starting with Ursula Moray Williams’ stories about a cat called Gobbolino. As a Christmas bonus, I’m recommending two books – `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ (1942) and `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’ (1984). The first of these was illustrated by Moray Williams herself and the second by the incomparable Pauline Baynes. Both are still in print as paperbacks or as luxury edition hardbacks.

Gobbolino and his sister, Sootica, are the kittens of a witch’s cat. Pure black, green-eyed Sootica is looking forward to learning magic and becoming a proper witch’s cat like her mother but Gobbolino has been born different – he has blue eyes and one white paw. Even worse, Gobbolino longs to be an ordinary kitchen cat and says that, “I want to be good and have people love me.” Gobbolino soon finds himself rejected by his own mother and all the witches of the Hurricane Mountains.

Alone in the world, Gobbolino searches for a family to take him in. He thinks that he has found a loving home in a farmhouse but is soon expelled for being a witch’s cat. Gobbolino wanders the world, staying for a while with many different people including a group of orphans, the crew of a sailing ship, an invalid princess, a damsel in a tower and a travelling puppet-show. Every time he thinks that he has found a home, Gobbolino is forced to move on simply for being what he is. In the end his journey takes him back to the mountains where he was born. Can Gobbolino ever find a place where he belongs?

`Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ is a book which manages to be both timeless and distinctively of its time. Modern children (and adults) often find older books too verbose and slow-moving. There is no danger of that here. Moray Williams’ simple prose and snappy dialogue are still easy to read. The story fairly zips along with something new and dramatic happening in every chapter. Though some episodes, such as Gobbolino’s stay with an old man whose passion is winning prizes at cat shows, seem more modern than others, the book is essentially set in a Fairy Tale world which doesn’t date. Nor does the central theme of Gobbolino’s struggle to find acceptance in a society that is prejudiced against him. `Once a witch’s cat always a witch’s cat’ he is told.

Gobbolino’s misadventures are often amusing but there is an under-layer of sadness as the affectionate little cat faces rejection after rejection. Moray Williams wrote this book during some of the darkest days of World War Two when the ordinary joys of home and family life were not something that could be taken for granted. In the late 1930s thousands of refugees had arrived in Britain, where many of them still faced prejudice because of their race or nationality. I’m guessing that `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ was inspired by the plight of refugee children who needed new homes. If so, I think that Moray Williams intended her story to be both an appeal to people’s generosity and a message of hope. Gobbolino does, in the end, find a new family. Given the current refugee crisis in Europe, his desperate quest for a home seems topical again.

During her long life (1911-2006) Ursula Moray Williams wrote over 60 books but her most famous is `Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ (1938). This was one of my `comfort books’ when I was a small child. It tells of a hand-carved toy horse who meets with both cruelty and kindness as he tries to win a fortune for his maker, Uncle Peder, who has been put out of business by mass-produced toys. In 1984 Moray Williams put her two favourite characters into a new novel – `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’. At the start of this story Gobbolino receives a message from his wicked sister, Sootica, begging him to come and help her. Sootica has always been loyal to him, so Gobbolino sets out for the Hurricane Mountains. Deep in a forest, Gobbolino encounters the Little Wooden Horse who helps him to endure the long journey. The pair face dangers, such as a haunted church and pack of fierce hounds, but when they finally reach the mountains the situation is not what Gobbolino expected…

The leading characters make a well-contrasted pair because Gobbolino is nervy and highly emotional while the Little Wooden Horse is quietly brave and steadfast. Their `Further Adventures’ may lack the poignancy of the earlier books but I think the story will still charm and surprise many readers. Just when Sootica’s witch seems set to be the villainess of the piece, Moray Williams makes us feel sorry for this lonely old lady. The delightful drawings by Pauline Baynes, who was the original illustrator of books by C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (see my post on `Smith of Wootton Major’, August 2012), are a great bonus. Not many artists could rise to the challenge of illustrating the line, `The younger bats sat down and cried’  but Baynes does. So, if you are looking for heart-warming stories to read to your children over the Christmas holidays, the Gobbolino books could fit the bill. Until next time ….


P.S. In case you are wondering, I’m sure that my naughty Lilith would rather be a witch’s cat than a kitchen cat.


This week a briefer than usual recommendation for a shorter than usual book – `The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain’ by Lloyd Alexander.  His children’s books are regarded as Classics in America but aren’t as well known in Europe as they should be. I have always loved Alexander’s five-volume `Chronicles of Prydain’ , which began with `The Book of Three’ (1964) and culminated in `The High King’ (1968). Prydain is an invented country based on Welsh myth and legend. Alexander also wrote eight short stories set in Prydain which were first published as a collection in 1973. `The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain’ is still in print in paperback but strangely doesn’t seem to be available as an ebook. As the stories in this collection are all prequels to the main sequence, it is a good introduction to Alexander’s magical version of Wales.

Long before there was Harry Potter, there was Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, a boy who grew up with his readers during the course of five books. At the start of the series, foundling Taran is living in a cottage with ancient enchanter, Dalben and retired warrior Coll. Taran’s job is to look after an oracle-giving pig but he dreams of becoming a great hero. The small kingdoms of Prydain are frequently under threat from forces of evil led by Arawn, the Lord of Annuvin – the Land of Death. Taran soon gets all the danger and excitement he could wish for. During his adventures, Taran makes some unusual friends, meets a flame-haired princess, encounters all manner of supernatural beings and objects, and eventually discovers his true destiny. Taran is portrayed in depth and with emotional realism but the rest of the cast tend to be defined by a few outstanding characteristics and mannerisms, such as hairy Gurgi’s constant longing for `crunchings and munchings’ and would-be bard Fflewddur Flam’s weakness for embroidering the truth. They are vivid and memorable but somewhat one-dimensional. This works better in the short stories than it does in the novels.

In the wonderful compendium of Welsh myth and legend known as `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012), there are stories within stories to explain the origins of notable places, people and things. The stories in `The Foundling’ are mainly of this kind. The title story is about Dalben and explains his upbringing by three remarkable sisters and how he acquired one of the world’s greatest treasures – `The Book of Three’; while `The Truthful Harp’ is a full account of how reluctant monarch Fflewddur Flam (don’t worry, there is `Prydain Pronunciation Guide’ at the end of this book) came to be saddled with a lie-detecting harp. So, if you already have a favourite character in the `Chronicles of Prydain’, you will probably find out more about them in this volume.

In the Prydain novels and stories, Alexander uses numerous elements from Welsh myth but the storylines are his own. He’s respectful of his source material but also has great fun with it. Among the joys of his style are the sudden shifts from the solemn to the humorous. In `The True Enchanter’ for example, the narrative pompously states that `because Angharad was an enchantress of long and lofty lineage, it was forbidden her to wed any but an enchanter’. Then lively Angharad (mother of Princess Eilonwy) comments, “That is the most ridiculous rule I’ve ever heard of. It’s vexing enough, having to curtsy here, curtsy there, smile when you’d rather frown, frown when you’d rather laugh, and look interested when you’re actually bored to tears. And now, is my husband to be chosen for me?” The rest of this tale is a charming love story which argues that a true enchanter is someone who inspires people to use their own imaginations – as Alexander does.

In the Author’s Note at the start of this collection, Alexander says that the stories `relate matters bearing not only on the history of Prydain but on our own times as well.’  `The Smith, The Weaver and the Carpenter’ champions artistic integrity in the face of greed, while `The Sword’ shows how one selfish misuse of power begins a grim spiral into evil. This isn’t a collection full of twists and surprise endings. The stories develop in the way you might expect but that feels right because they are conveying truths that every generation needs to hear. In the title story, the mighty enchantress, Orddu, comments that hardly anyone asks for wisdom and yet, `the odd thing about wisdom is the more you use it the more it grows’.  `The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain’ is full of traditional wisdom. Any takers?





I usually recommend books which are easy to get hold of but this week I’m making an exception to that rule for the sake of an unjustly neglected writer – Barbara Leonie Picard (1917-2011). She was a self-taught expert on the mythology and folklore of a wide range of cultures and her retellings of myths and legends remain popular. Many people, including me, were first introduced to classics such as`The Odyssey of Homer’  and the `Stories of King Arthur and His Knights’ through Picard’s work. It is her own fiction which seems to have been forgotten. Picard wrote some remarkable historical novels for children including `Ransom for a Knight’ (1956) and `One is One’ (1965), the story of a boy who runs away from a monastery to pursue his dream of becoming a knight. The latter is one of the saddest books I know but also one of the most inspiring.

Picard’s greatest contribution to Fantasy is the fifty or so original fairy tales she wrote between 1942 and 1950. These were published in a series of illustrated volumes, none of which is easy or cheap to obtain.  The titles alone made me want to track them down. There is `The Mermaid and the Simpleton` (1949), `The Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter’ (1951) and `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ (1954) both with wonderful drawings by my favourite illustrator, Charles Stewart, and `The Goldfinch Garden’ (1963). `The Lady of the Linden Tree’ was reprinted in 1968 with two additional stories under the title `Twice Seven Tales’.  In 1994 Oxford University Press finally brought out a mass-market paperback called `Selected Fairy Tales’ which contains sixteen stories from these collections, chosen and introduced by the author herself. Plenty of book-dealers offer this volume. Unless I say otherwise, you can assume that the stories I refer to below are in `Selected Fairy Tales’.

Fairy tales seem to have been a comfort to Picard during her lonely childhood (she was educated by a governess and hardly ever saw her French father) while as an adult she read, translated and retold hundreds of stories from all over the world. She knew exactly how fairy tales and medieval romances were put together and she used many of the techniques of traditional story-telling in her own short fiction. Picard’s crystal-clear prose is beautiful but not consciously poetic like Oscar Wilde’s (see my November 2013 post on his Collected Fairy Tales); it never impedes the flow of the story. Dialogue is sparingly used and the settings and characters for each tale are swiftly introduced in a straightforward manner. Magic is taken for granted and you can be sure of plenty of action and no boring bits.

Another traditional feature is the use of repeated motifs with slight variations: so a farmer may dream three times that he has been visited by the spirit of the corn-fields (`The Corn Maiden’), a king may perform three nearly impossible tasks for three witches (`The Third Witch’) or a nobleman may kill three beloved animals in the hope of working a spell (`Betrade and Dominic’). All the character-types you might expect appear in Picard’s fairy tales. There are kings and queens, princes and princesses, noble knights and beautiful ladies, plucky goatherds, kind shepherds and clever servant-girls, witches and wizards, mermaids and nixies, fairies and djinns, woodland spirits and talking animals. The leading characters often do traditional things, like getting lost in woods, going on quests for magical objects, and falling hopelessly in love at first sight.

Yet there are some differences between Picard’s carefully crafted stories and authentic folk and fairy tales. There is rather more description than a traditional story-teller would have used, partly because the rural backgrounds of many of the stories are less familiar to most modern readers than they would have been to the original audience. So Picard makes it clear exactly what a ploughboy (in `The Ploughboy and the Nixie’) or a milkmaid (in `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’) does for a living and she is particularly good at evoking the colours and scents of the countryside by mentioning specific flowers. She also tells us more about the inner thoughts of her leading characters than a traditional story-teller would and there is a greater emphasis on character development. These are `transformative’ tales in which extraordinary events can change the whole outlook of the people involved. A flint-hearted witch may find that she is capable of love after all (`The Third Witch’) or an arrogant young ruler may discover the meaning of true friendship (`The King’s Friend’).

In the introduction to `Selected Fairy Tales’ Picard stated that she began writing fairy tales to amuse herself and `forget the sad war days’ while she was on duty as a firewatcher during the Second World War. So are these jolly morale-boosting stories in which good always defeats evil and everyone lives happily ever after? Mainly, no. There are a few light-hearted stories, such as `The Milkmaid and the Water-Sprite’ in which the sprite makes a hash of being a milkmaid, or the title story in `The Goldfinch Garden’ (about a lazy gardener and a wise old woman) but most of Picard’s fairy tales have a serious, even melancholy tone. They depict the world as a harsh place in which aristocrats mistreat their servants, princes fail to keep their promises, widows and orphans may be desperately poor and a mermaid can be sold to the highest bidder and kept in a cage (as in the title story in `The Mermaid and the Simpleton’). The endings of Picard’s stories are pleasingly unpredictable – sometimes joyful, sometimes sad.

I have noticed two recurring themes in Picard’s work which add depth to her stories. The first theme I shall call `the impossible couple’. In many of Picard’s fairy stories, two people fall in love but face terrible obstacles because of social or racial differences, ancient feuds or inflexible moral codes. So in `Heart of the West Wind’ there is no chance that a stableboy and an Emperor’s daughter will be allowed to marry; it is scandalous for a Christian young woman to want to run off with a pagan faun (`The Faun and the Wood Cutter’s Daughter’); and a boy and a water-spirit are kept apart by the physical differences between their worlds (`The Ploughboy and the Nixie’). Two tales depict the fairy people trying to prevent one of their own staying with a human (`Count Alaric’s Lady’ and `Diccon and Elfrida’) and the intense relationships between young men in some of the stories could now be read as `impossible couples’ too (try `The Ivory Box’). Sometimes a way is found for the star-crossed lovers to live together but almost as often flight or death seem the only options.

That brings me to the second recurring theme – escape from a cruel world. Some of Picard’s characters suffer overwhelming problems. In `The Corn Maiden’ a young farmer is about to lose everything he owns, while in `The Ivory Box’ a betrayed husband faces execution for a crime he didn’t commit, but magical escape routes are offered to both of them. Of all the stories by Picard which I read as a child, the one which had most impact on me was that of `Little Lady Margaret’ – a shy girl who escapes an arranged marriage by weaving herself into the beautiful world of a tapestry that she has created. Barbara Leonie Picard’s fairy tales seem to have been written to provide her with a refuge from the troubles of her own life. Perhaps they can do the same for you. Until next time….