An enmeshed forest

Avebury: WordPress Free Photo Library

Darkhenge by Catherine Fisher.
Definitions, 2006 (2005).

‘No one,’ she said firmly, ‘treats me like a little girl. Not any more.’

O. On: Gorse.

Chloe, a deeply troubled teenager living in the shadow of her brother, a talented artist, is in hospital in a coma after a horse-riding accident on the Marlborough Downs. For a few months now her family are distraught, resorting to displacement activities – the father and mother being largely absent at work, and her brother Robert losing himself in his art – all observed by Mac, a concerned Catholic priest.

But then things come to a head when Rob becomes a paid volunteer on a nearby hush-hush archaeological dig and, almost simultaneously, is drawn willy-nilly into a New Age ritual at the Avebury stone circle, destined to help what seems to be a shape-shifting druid escape from a pursuer.

As we watch things play out in the mundane world of the chalk downs of southern Britain we start to become aware of a voice breaking into the narrative, the voice of somebody who ostensibly is lying in a coma, a state where archetypes and monsters freely roam; the voice in fact of a sleeping beauty surrounded by dark woods.

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Although we might assume that Rob is the principal protagonist in Darkhenge it turns out that Chloe is the real mover and shaker. In her comatose state she believes she’s being kept prisoner in a series of castles or caers (caerau in Welsh), menaced by a forest of encroaching trees. When we realise that Chloe’s name derives from Greek χλόη, meaning spring foliage or greenery, and that the place in which she’s apparently incarcerated is called Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld often located below the earth’s surface, we start to wonder whether she is actually more a willing prisoner than one forced against her will.

Meanwhile, the man whom Rob has rescued and who calls himself Vetch emerges as a figure who appears in Welsh folklore under a different name, a personage who has supped from the cauldron of inspiration and become a shape-shifting magician and poet. Who then is the secretive director of the dig excavating a Bronze Age timber circle, one which like the so-called Seahenge discovered in Norfolk in 1998, uncovers the focus of the ritual site to be a four thousand year old tree planted upside down? Rob belatedly starts to realise that he, Chloe, Father Mac and a few others have been drawn into ancient myth and that only together with Vetch, the King of Annwn, and the poet’s female adversary do they have the faintest possibility of rescuing his sister from the limbo she’s in.

Catherine Fisher is both poet and novelist, with experience of archaeology, and as might be expected her broad interests find their way into this fantasy. In her Author’s Note she acknowledges ideas from the early medieval Book of Taliesin, the folk legend of Gwion and Ceridwen, The White Goddess by Robert Graves and the speculative writing of John Matthews; and I also note deliberate parallels from various fairytales – including Jack and the Beanstalk and the Scottish chantefable of Childe Rowland – the classical legend of Persephone and Hades, and of the Siberian shaman’s spirit journey up or down the Axis Mundi or World Tree.

But she’s not merely retelling or recycling myths and fairytales: there’s far more to Darkhenge than that. This is a story of an adolescent’s growing resentment and of the harm it can and does do. It’s explicitly a tale of one young adult who’s a talented artist but who doesn’t see what’s under his nose, and of another who secretly weaves words into narratives but never voices how she feels, how she feels overlooked and dismissed:

Vetch closed the book. ‘Paintings are easy to see,’ he said after a moment. ‘Open, presented flat to the eye. Words are not easy. Words have to be discovered, deep in their pages, deciphered, translated, read. Words are symbols to be encoded, their letters trees in a forest, enmeshed, their tangled meanings never finally picked apart.’

I. Ur: Heather

Darkhenge is told with a passion that captures exactly the petulant young adult’s inchoate rage, the anger which when it erupts can give them the power to control and wreak revenge on those they both love and hate. It’s a powerful narrative to immerse oneself in.

The author and poet Catherine Fisher was born in Newport, Wales, and this YA fantasy was read for this year’s Reading Wales Month, #Dewithon23

18 thoughts on “An enmeshed forest

  1. Pingback: Reading Wales 2023 – Book Jotter

    1. It was a delight to read, full of prose poetry and incidental nature writing too. I could send you my copy if you like – much as I’d like to hang on to it I’m trying to divest myself to create space … for more titles!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Stonehenge has magic too, though of a different kind to Avebury’s I think! In the years while the M4 was being constructed my parents often took the A4 towards Marlborough and we paused by Silbury Hill, West Kennet and Avebury, so my memories are mainly from the 1960s, though I’ve obviously visited a couple or so times since then. This novel brought a lot of it back for me even though it’s set more recently.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The only book I’ve read by Catherine Fisher is her short story collection, The Red Gloves, and I found that deliciously creepy. Some of them were based on folklore too and I liked her writing style. I do like the sound of this, Chris.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it’s a shame that with children’s books reviewing commitments take priority over the books that I want to read. Of course sometimes the two coincide which is great but unfortunately I’ve neglected The Clockwork Crow and its sequels which is a shame. I’ve just read your brilliant review so must make time for it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ve just reminded myself of what I said there and realised I mentioned a shadowy figure called Captain Arthur Jones, the absent owner of Plas y Fran. Having recently read her introduction to Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams I’m forcibly reminded that Machen’s surname was a pseudonym, his given name being … Arthur Llewelyn Jones! (Though of course Machen was never a captain.)

          Anyway, I do hope you manage to get to these books to read for pleasure – which reminds me that I’ve yet to pick up on Seren’s later adventures in The Velvet Fox or The Midnight Swan, both of which came out in 2020 during lockdown.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Avebury and the Marlborough Downs – my teen stomping grounds. Used to get the bus to Avebury or Marlborough and walk home. Half-term adventures. No trees planted upside down though, to my knowledge at least. But perhaps I was just not in tune with the dark mythic forces of the land.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah! Those dark mythic forces can be hard to discern… Fisher gives a scenario for how a Seahenge-like timber circle, with a tree’s roots emerging from its centre, might otherwise be found in the chalk subsoil of the Downs – a little far-fetched but logical within the rationale of the fantasy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I will always be too obtuse to discern them. Growing up with a spiritualist parent can do that for you.

        That said, those early belief systems (and the structures that were a result) are quite astonishing.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Some places and buildings do inspire awe in me, but it’s a personal response, not necessarily that inherent in a landscape or intended by the architect. And it might be absent on a return visit…


  4. I’ve made a note of this one, Chris, it sounds dark and delicious. We went to Avebury for my birthday last autumn – I hadn’t been for almost 30 years and it was as magical as I remember it. We then watched the 1970s tv show Children of the Stones which combines sci-fi with mythology and has an eerie choral score by Sidney Sager.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, Sidney Sager, a name from my Bristol past, Jan! He conducted the Bristol Sinfonia for many years (not to be confused with the New Bristol Sinfonia!) and was very active in the local music scene but there were rumours he had a complicated private life which rather coloured my view of him, despite his talent and achievements. I’ll have a dig around for that TV music, it sounds to be interesting!

      Yes, the Avebury landscape, as dark and delicious as it’s made out to be in this novel!

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.