Trailing the grail

© C A Lovegrove

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper.
The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1965).

“You can search and search, in a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” — Barney

When I first read this in the late 1960s or early 70s I was on the lookout for stories featuring quests for the Holy Grail in modern times. It joined Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), Arthur Machen’s The Great Return (1915), Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and other titles, some best forgotten, as examples of how the notion of a grail, as cup as well as symbol, could inspire so many different tales of quests and trails followed by those seeking it.

A more recent second reading revealed more subtleties than I remembered and now a third has raised the novel even higher in my estimation, for its pacing, its verisimilitude (for all that it’s a fantasy) and above all its characterisation of the three siblings who are at the core of the fiction.

Among other things that struck me was the fact that apart from one or two details that set it firmly in the sixties this was a narrative which had scarcely dated, meaning that it’s perfectly enjoyable by today’s readers whatever their age.

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Coming to the boil

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Dream House by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jon Riley.
Puffin Books 1989 (1987).

“West Stenning is a sixteenth-century manor house set in rolling Kentish downland, four miles from Ashford and eleven miles from the historic city of Canterbury. Why not join us for a long weekend of writing, music or painting? Courses tutored by professional writers, artists and musicians run from…”

Dream House

West Stenning: a venue in rural Kent where schoolgirl Hannah helps with domestic chores between courses there; which celebrity-mad Dina haunts so she can glimpse or even meet famous people; where Julia, headstrong daughter of an actor tutoring on the course, heads to demand his attention.

Yet, unbeknown to all, Hannah’s younger brother Tom – who has visions of being a town planner and architect – is not only observing them all but, by sharing or withholding information, is also instrumental in deciding the outcomes of each girl’s hopes for the week, none of which are as they’d planned.

Having set everything up all Tom then has to do is to sit back and watch because, as we’re told, “Things were coming nicely to the boil on their own.”

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Riches to Rags

A Little Princess:
Being the whole story of Sara Crewe.
by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Vintage Classics, 2012 (1905).

Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they might do at night, an odd-looking girl sat in a cab with her father, and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.

Chapter 1, ‘Sara’

With this atmospheric opening paragraph Frances Hodgson Burnett set her take on the Cinderella story in  the grimy capital of England’s capital, far away from India climes where the ‘odd-looking’ girl had spent her first seven years.

True to the story’s fairytale roots the author will introduce figures equivalent to the wicked stepmother, the ugly sisters and the fairy godmother, though the last will morph into a faint echo of the male lead in Beauty and the Beast.

But A Little Princess isn’t just a rags-to-riches story – even if for a while it appears to be mostly riches-to-rags – for Burnett clothed the skeleton plot with gorgeous details and imbued the ancient archetype with psychological insights. In so doing she created a classic that has scarcely dated, despite being more than a century old.

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The heart’s desire

Red jasper ‘thet’-girdle amulet: to grant the protection of Isis. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Story of the Amulet
(third in the Psammead Trilogy)
by E Nesbit.
Illustrated by H R Millar.
Puffin Books 1999 (1906).

One summer holiday in the country four London siblings Cyril, Anthea, Robert and Jane discovered a strange creature, a Psammead or sand-fairy who granted wishes – a mixed blessing as they soon found out. The Christmas that followed found them lumbered with a Persian carpet and a Phoenix which got them into further scrapes.

Now it’s the next summer and they are staying in a London house owned by their old Nurse; left to their own devices, the heart’s desire of all four is to have their parents return home from abroad, one from reporting from the Russo-Japanese war in Manchuria, the other recuperating in Madeira. When the bored children start visiting shops selling caged animals they come across an old friend in dire straits who needs rescuing.

It is the Psammead, of course. And he has a plan to help each and every child achieve their heart’s desire.

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Love and authenticity

‘The Skin Horse tells his story’: Illustration by William Nicholson

The Velveteen Rabbit
Or How Toys Become Real
by Margery Williams,
illustrated by William Nicholson.
Carousel 1976 (1922).

A classic tale first published a century ago, The Velveteen Rabbit can come across as insufferably sentimental, and it was the rumour of this sentimentality that has stopped me from reading it for so long.

But unfounded prejudice is never a good attitude to cultivate, whether in a critic or in general, so in its centenary year I deigned to pick up a decades-old copy from the shelved books of our now grown-up children, in order to judge for myself and see whether the common opinion of it was justified.

I now find that it was justified, but – and this is a big ‘but’ – I’ve also experienced the magic that, sentiment or not, undoubtedly lingers around this story and renders it a true classic, aided immeasurably by the delightful original illustrations by William Nicholson which complement the text so well.

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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?

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A Finnish microcosm

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Moominsummer Madness.
Farlig midsommar 
written and illustrated by Tove Jansson (1954), 
translated by Thomas Warburton (1955).
Puffin Books 1971.

‘A theatre is the most important sort of house in the world, because that’s where people are shown what they could be if they wanted, and what they’d like to be if they dared to, and what they really are.”
— Emma, in Chapter 8

It is almost midsummer in Moomin Valley when flakes of ashy soot start falling about the Moomin house. A nearby volcano is erupting, accompanied by cracks in the ground, and soon creates a tsunami, with the sea invading their home. When a strange new house comes floating by their dwelling the Moomin family — Moominmamma, Moominpapa, Moomintroll — along with the Snork Maiden, the Mymble’s daughter and her sister Little My, plus castaways Misabel and Whomper all decamp to the apparent houseboat. This will eventually float into Spruce Creek, during which time the mystified passengers will explore what they’ve embarked on.

It soon becomes evident to the reader, if not the Moomin Valley residents, that this is part of a theatre, where both stage and backstage have become separated from the rest of the building. With help from what they at first took to be a ghost they decide to put on a tragic play, but when certain individuals become separated and find themselves in various pickles, it will take a series of lucky coincidences to bring everything to a successful conclusion on Midsummer Day.

But will the Moomins ever get back to their valley?

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The last Lightning

Nine Lightning F1 of No 74 Squadron RAF display at the 1961 SBAC show, Farnborough. Photo credit: TSRL

Thunder and Lightnings
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jim Russell.
Puffin Books 1978 (1976).

‘I wonder if that was the last Lightning of all,’ said Andrew.
‘Well, if that wasn’t, that ought to have been. What a way to go out, eh?’

Chapter 17

This is a tale of oddballs, obsessions and, to some extent, opposites. It is also a well observed sketch of friendship, of the inevitability of change, and of being comfortable with being who you are.

Two schoolboys in 1980s Norfolk are thrown together with nothing to suggest they have anything in common except being outsiders in their school, Andrew whose family are incomers and Victor who would be possibly be identified now as having learning difficulties.

And yet there is more to either than appears on the surface, and they will have more in common than their social backgrounds and familial aspirations would suggest, bonded at first by Victor’s obsession with English Electric Lightning warplanes and then by a comfortable companionship. And yet that easy companionship may be tested by matters outside their control.

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Amy’s angst

Illustration by David Parkins

Trouble Half-way
by Jan Mark,
illustrated by David Parkins.
Puffin Books 1986 (1985).

Amy Calver is a girl trapped by her fears and anxieties. She lives in Gravesend, Kent, but it might as well be the world’s end for all the familiarity she has with life outside this southeast corner of England. Her only interest is participating in gymnastics, and life will be rosy if and when she gets a chance to compete in the immanent Thames and Medway Inter-Schools Junior Gymnastic Shield event.

But, as a reserve on the school team, her happiness hangs in the balance when a phone call announces that her grandfather has been taken to hospital, followed by her mother and younger sister going off to keep her grandmother company. She is left with her new stepfather, Richard Ermins, and not only is she not at all comfortable with him as an addition to the family but, since he is a long-distance lorry driver concerned about losing a week’s work and pay, there’s every chance he will not want to leave her on her own.

So her anxieties, already sky-high when she knows that as a reserve she may miss out from actually competing, rocket ever higher when she realises that she may have to leave her familiar environment and travel ‘Up North’ with Richard.

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Steal not this book

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book.
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie.
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1992)
Walker Books 2000 (1947).

‘I saw Esau sittin’ on a seesaw,
Esau he saw I…’

I was brought up with this version of the tongue-twister, which doubtless continued though I have no memory now of how it ended; I was much more enamoured of the doggerel which went “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” The version recorded by Peter and Iona Opie was very different (“I saw Esau kissing Kate, | The fact is we all three saw; | For I saw him, | And he saw me, | And she saw I saw Esau.”) though the helpful endnotes admit that the first half of the shortened version I knew is often all that’s recited.

But this process of looking for familiar rhymes and ditties is one of the first things the new reader is likely to do; the second is to admire and rejoice in the visuals added to virtually every page. Originally published during the years of postwar rationing, I Saw Esau was reissued in 1992 with coloured illustrations by the redoubtable Maurice Sendak, making this probably the most heartwarming pocket book of “traditional rhymes of youth” (as the original subtitle informs us) I’ve had the fortune to see and now own.

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An Enchanted Summer

Talisman. With magic formulae, Ya c Ali at top right. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Half Magic
by Edward Eager.
Drawings by N M Bodecker.
Puffin Books 1968 (1954).

It was fine weather, warm and blue-skied and full of possibilities, and the day began well, with a glint of something metal in a crack in the sidewalk. ‘Ooh, a lucky nickel!’ Jane said, and scooped it into her pocket with the rest of her allowance, still jingling there unspent.

Chapter 1, ‘How It Began’

Thus begins a period of enchantment for four young siblings from Toledo, Ohio, a week when they learn the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for” but also the understanding of when to give it all up. Along the way we the readers gain enjoyment from a narrative that appeals both to young imaginations and to maturer minds who love witty yet also wise writing.

Jane, who finds the talisman, is the oldest: a little hot-headed and bossy but otherwise admirable. Mark is the only boy, around eleven years old, and fairly pragmatic. Katharine is the most bookish of the lot (though they’re all avid fans of the nearest library) and often spouting literary references. Martha is the youngest, easily bored but surprisingly full of sensible ideas.

Their mother Alison, working as a “woman’s journalist” to keep the family afloat in 1920s Toledo after the death of the children’s father, fears for her sanity when odd inexplicable things start happening, and dares not get too fond of the funny but nice Mr Smith who rescues this very 20th-century damsel in distress. All is made more complex by the existence of the weird half magic which the “lucky nickel” bestows on whoever possesses it. And worries begin to grow that its magic will eventually wear out.

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Calla and a blessing

© C A Lovegrove

How to be Brave
by Daisy May Johnson.
Pushkin Children’s Books 2021.

Good Sister Christine nodded. “People who tell you what not to read are generally not good people,” she said.

‘The Secrets of Good Sister Christine’

When a book begins ‘This is a story about three things’ and lists them as being brave, an Amazonian duck, and footnotes, you know this is no common or garden novel. Yes, if you’re a fan of Enid Blyton, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Angela Brazil, and have expectations that How to be Brave will be in the mould of classic girls boarding school fiction, you won’t be disappointed — but it’s so much more than that.

It’s a satisfying tale of how adversity of all kinds is overcome, but in place of the magic associated with fantasy we have a kind of heightened reality — because The School of the Good Sisters at Little Hampden has no ordinary curriculum and no ordinary teaching staff: here the subjects on the timetable include not just cooking but also welding, survival skills, helicopter maintenance and sundry surprising topics, and the teachers here happen to be what’s called a Blessing of Nuns.

In addition the school has two extra advantages in its favour: it has a library stocked with the most appropriate literature — books by Eva Ibbotson, Noël Streatfeild and Elizabeth Goudge for example, even The Lord of the Rings — and shelves, cupboards and drawers storing cakes of every kind, exquisite pâtisseries and biscuits including pink wafers. And of course architecturally it has all the best bits of Malory Towers, Hogwarts, and The Turrets.

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Wild magic waiting

© C A Lovegrove

Harklights by Tim Tilley.
Usborne Publishing 2021.

A match factory which masquerades as an orphanage. A manikin which it emerges was once alive. A monster which in reality mayn’t be alive. Butterflies which aren’t insects. A boy who doubts he has what it takes to put things right. It’s all here in Harklights, a debut novel from the first ever winner of the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize, set in a vaguely Victorian world with elements of fantasy and steampunk.

I’m not usually a fan of long narratives told in the present tense but here I think it works well: Wick’s first person tale gives both a sense of urgency and also uncertainty, just as youngsters’ accounts often are, and while the reader may guess at some of the things Wick puzzles over nothing is truly known until all is revealed.

While our focus is on the narrator’s hopes and fears, behind them all is a tale of despoilation, exploitation and cruelty fully relevant in our contemporary world which will resonate even with the most innocent young reader.

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A thing more necessary

The Princess and the Goblin
by George MacDonald.
Illustrated by Arthur Hughes.
Puffin Books 1996 (1872)

‘We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.’

‘What is that, grandmother?’

‘To understand other people.’

Chapter 22, The Old Lady and Curdie.

There are many key-notes in this most famous of literary fairytales but the one that impresses me most strongly after reading it is that of empathy. It’s not really a moral precept, more an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else’s place, particularly on an emotional or compassionate level.

To some such empathy comes naturally, though for Princess Irene and for her friend Curdie a reminder by way of an unfortunate sequence of events is sometimes required to reinforce a predisposition; but the goblins in this tale find empathy an elusive concept, with the almost inevitable consequences.

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Innocent and heartless

Michael Llewelyn Davies as Peter Pan (photo by J M Barrie 1906)

Peter Pan by J M Barrie,
illustrated by Elisa Trimby (1986).
Puffin Classics 1994 (1911)

Familiarity breeds contempt, it’s often suggested, and with countless reiterations of the Peter Pan story, each taking more and more liberties with the original, I was ready to sneer at this, incredibly my first ever read of the 1911 novelisation of the play.

I was forewarned by Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906) that I likely would be made to bristle at a grown man’s knowing attempt to enter into the mind world of a child; but then I remembered I’d done exactly that with children and grandchildren of my own, extemporising together imaginary narratives of adventures and dangers.

I modified the sneer then into an aspect indicating curiosity and was rewarded to find that the network underpinning the now hackneyed clichés and tropes was infinitely more subtle, moving and even troubling than I had expected. And Barrie’s characterisation of young children’s innocence and heartlessness is spot on, though empathy will not be far off sliding into many of their hearts.

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