Almost unclassifiable

Hardback illustration by Lynton Lamb

The Twelve Dancers
by William Mayne, 
illustrated by Lynton Lamb.
Hamish Hamilton 1962.

In the upper reaches of the Severn a Welsh valley bordering England retains a centuries-old tradition. A folk dance enacted annually by the village schoolchildren precedes a ritual whereby the locals use a battering-ram to force the local lord at the castle to accept their rent and to drink their mutual healths from a cup.

But Emrys ‘Plow’ Jones wants the Commons Wood for himself. If he can find the long-lost Cup he might be able to curtail the ritual and thus justifiably claim rights over the land.

Newcomer Marlene Price and her schoolmates involved in the dance think they are in a position to alter the outcome of events and save the Commons Wood, but will the tightly-knit valley community be able to sort things out amicably before matters turn sour?

© C A Lovegrove

Dedicated to Eleanor Farjeon (“in exchange for the story of her encounter with a tree-frog”) this is an almost unclassifiable story. Ostensibly a novel for children its Welsh English dialogue may well confuse anyone not familiar with its distinctive syntax; there is a mild sense of conflict but not nearly enough to make it a thriller; the hint of ritual and a quest may suggest a fantasy but it’s all settled almost mundanely.

So what is it exactly? Well, amongst other things it’s a grail quest of sorts, exactly the theme that first attracted me to this novel back in the early seventies when I was on high alert to such things: the search for a missing cup, the finding of which that could turn the wasteland that is the largely denuded Commons Wood into profitable arable land, is akin to medieval epics such as Le Conte del Graal where the young innocent lad Perceval seeks the secret of a mysterious relic. And lo and behold, there is a toddler, known to both his sister Marlene and their mother as Porky, whose real name is – Percy.

But this is more than a literary roman-à-clef: it is a celebration of a small village community rooted in the past trying to adapt to the present; it’s also a poetic paean to Nature, to its vibrancy and its quirks, a portrait of casual friendships and relationships engaged with in primary school, an insight into children learning that adults are often just big kids with a bit more authority, and a reminder that life has changed – not only for the better – in the sixty years since this first appeared.

A bit about the language that some overseas readers may find strange: I think it’s an approximation of the rural Welsh English on the margins of Shropshire, as spoken in the early 20th century but really archaic sounding now. Some of the turns of phrase and the syntax sound authentic to me (as one who’s lived in Wales for a score of years) but the now outdated repeated language tag “look you” becomes tiring very quickly. But it underscores another theme that is evident here: the ancient unease that can exist between a people and those who once subjected them.

Map by Lynton Lamb

The crux of the narrative is the once enforced tribute payable to the medieval overlord at Dan Castle located at the head of the valley. That payment has been withheld for many due to the ancient cup (an echo of the famous Nanteos Cup perhaps?) having been hidden; clues to its whereabouts may possibly be identified in the ritual dance held annually on Lord’s Hill, the choosing of dancers according to height, the mock attack on the castle with a battering ram in the shape of a red dragon, and a local boardgame that goes under different names.

But the owner of Dan Castle is no Norman or English lord, he is Emrys Jones, yet any latent antipathy may be resolved if Plow Jones and the schoolteacher Miss Williams get engaged. Will however the proposed union be jeopardised or will it come to pass? Coexistence depends on give and take, as Marlene’s friend explains during a break in the music for the ritual.

“They are talking twice,” said Jessie. “One time in Welsh, and then all over again in English. Nobody understands the Welsh, and no one listens to the English, but they like it.”

Chapter XV

The flag-like symbolism of the lowering sky, the red dragon and the green fields of this corner of Wales is counterbalanced by the idealised picture of a sky which grown-ups would prefer as “a big blue lawn” with “a dandelion of a sun.” But weather, like the affairs of men, doesn’t have to be in a permanent state of either one thing or the other – it can be both, as suits. This thoughtful magical novel, if it wasn’t for the author’s subsequent fall from grace, could so easily have been celebrated for its joyful subtleties rather than, as now, consigned to oblivion.

I’m including this as part of my Wyrd & Wonder reads because although there’s no magic as such the use of ritual and folklore and the undercurrents of the grail story for me make this a classic British children’s fantasy

Wyrd & Wonder 22: tree wolf image by chic2view on

27 thoughts on “Almost unclassifiable

  1. jjlothin

    Now I didn’t realise William Mayne had ‘fallen from grace’ … I had to proof-read ‘A Game of Dark’ (large print edition) way back when, and it made quite an impression at the time. I wonder if the fall from grace has anything to do with the fact that his books no longer seem to be in print?!

    And two entirely contradictory Amazon reviews for ‘A Game of Dark’: a one-star headed ‘Tedious and unpleasant’, versus a five-star which describes it as ‘an absolutely brilliant book’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, JJ, placed on the sex offenders list for reasons I will never condone, an ignominious end to his literary career and a self-delivered tarnishing of his reputation. I’ll make no excuse for reviewing his books though, favourably whenever justified: Nick Swarbrick has pointed to the case of Eric Gill, a giant amongst 20th-century artists and designers, who though guilty of the same offenses in his lifetime is still highly regarded for his work.

      I’m intrigued about A Game of Dark now. But first I want to reread Earthfasts, another copy which I’ve hung onto since the 1970s. Nick has posted an interesting discussion of this on his blog:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        Thanks for that link, Chris – I have to admit that, even in the 2020s, ‘homosocial’ was a new word to me!

        And whilst I’m generally in favour of considering the creation as apart from the creator, I don’t really feel moved now to re-read ‘A game of dark’, given the prominence in the plot of (in Aonghus’s words below) ‘a giant, disgusting worm’!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, ‘homosocial’ is definitely a term in common use now: I came across its use in an essay on friendships (like Sam and Frodo) and male-bonding as portrayed in LOTR and emulated by fans.

          As for A Game of Dark I don’t know what to think now!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I was both bewildered and entranced by William Mayne novels as a child, but that was how I saw the world, so they seemed right to me. And then to have them taken away? Some I have thankfully been able to find again, they are very precious to me for recalling that particular state of mind, childhood and innocence.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this, Lizza. Can we ever separate the work a creative type does from who they were? Do we always have to insert caveats if we comment on their output, or should we refuse to consider them at all and consign them to the dustbin of history? We’d be missing much of intrinsic value if we do the latter, I think.

      Like you I somehow knew that Mayne had interesting and very individual things to say about how we could view the world, even if I didn’t quite get what he was trying to get across. I’m hopeful that stuff will continue to come my way so I can appreciate it more fully, even if I retain the caveats in my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I always think that the best fiction can appeal across the board, Mallika,* young or old notwithstanding. Precocious young readers may just skip what’s not immediately comprehensible – though that’s unfortunately a barrier to slow readers – and hopefully return to works that remain impressed on their memories when they’re of an age to appreciate those nuances. For me, for example, it’s taken several years and a significant time living in Wales to recognise what Mayne may have been trying to achieve here. (Though there’s no guarantee that I’ve got to the bottom of his intentions!)

      * Sorry, autocorrect somehow decided I really meant ‘Matthew’! Adjusted now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When you started describing the plot, I could never have guessed this was a children’s book. All that folklore, all that insight about old rituals and customs — it’s fascinating. And then I read through the comments, and I saw the bit about Mayne’s life… You’re right, how do you review a work like that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope I gave a good shot at reviewing this despite the difficulties! Mayne wrote pretty exclusively for children so in that sense he was a children’s author, but I suspect he mainly wrote for himself, perhaps for his inner child or the child he had been who I guess may have been unusual in his sensitivity to everyday assumptions.

      This article by Catherine Bennett, written a couple of years before Mayne’s death (suicide?) is apposite:


  4. Goodness! Lots to process here, Chris… The book itself sounds intriguing and unusual if, as you say, unclassifiable. As for Mayne himself, I’m not sure that I’d read him thought I do know his name. I wasn’t aware of the conviction – shocking. Hard to separate the man from the work, but I think we have to try to – after all, so many authors of brilliant books turn out to have been not very nice people…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed this in a way I couldn’t have fathomed when I first read it, Karen, and precisely because there was – as you say – a lot to process. I agree too that we have to try to evaluate a work on its own merits, regardless of our valid disapproval of an author’s predilections and, most important of all, our profound regret at the detrimental harm they’ve caused. We certainly don’t forget.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose an apt response would be to praise the creation but not the creator, Aonghus, but that’s easier said than sincerely done. I’m curious now about A Game of Dark as you’re the second person to comment on it here.


  5. A Game of Dark features a city being held hostage by a giant, disgusting worm. If I was being charitable (and fanciful) I might argue that this was a metaphor for Mayne’s own situation – ie, that his better self was besieged by his darker self. I doubt if Mayne was aware of that corollary, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your summary of this title reminds me of Mayne’s The Worm in the Well (reviewed at which similarly had a “giant, disgusting worm” menacing the countryside. It is indeed very tempting to heap a Freudian interpretation on what seems to be becoming an obsession with the author. Maybe he wasn’t totally unaware of the corollary but sublimated it by writing nightmarish fiction.


  6. Aonghus Fallon

    Thanks for this, Calmgrove. I’m familiar with the story of the Lambton Worm, but never realised Mayne had written a book inspired by it. I must track it down. The only other book I read by him was It, which was good but didn’t pack the same punch as A Game of Dark.

    As for the subtext to the latter – this is all just conjecture on my part, but I absolutely agree: if the theory has any basis, Mayne wasn’t so much confronting his issues as being haunted by them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. jjlothin

    Vis-a-vis Game of Dark, I’ve just happened quite serendipitously on this, from an interview with John Christopher (Sam Youd):

    “I should like, incidentally, to take this opportunity of expressing my great admiration of A Game of Dark: far and away Mayne’s best, and one of the finest in children’s fiction. If, that is, it should properly be classified as children’s fiction. As with The Owl Service, I have doubts.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that’s such an interesting quote, and from an author who himself wrote in such a variety of genres as well as for both adult and child readers.

      I agree with what he said – Mayne and Garner both wrote for the discerning reader of whatever age, one who could appreciate the text at some level; yet both made no allowances for what was regarded as popular, only what they thought suited their subject. Both were (one still is) what I think of as makars in the Scottish sense, poets or bards, with a deep reverence for their material and being true to it.

      Liked by 1 person

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