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?
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.
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