In the lion’s den

Anne Fine: The Devil Walks
Corgi 2012 (2011)

A spiral has but one path to the centre, and like a whirlpool it may seem to suck you into its depths. A maze, however, gives you options, a chance to follow a different way should you so choose.

Anne Fine’s Gothick novel, aimed at young adults but no less engaging for more senior readers, offers its protagonist Daniel similar chances to escape the spiralling path of his life, one which seems to have consigned him to the life of a recluse in a sick room, fated to a permanent limbo of existence.

Until a Doctor Marlow comes calling, and releases him into the world. But at what a cost, one that will mean pain and death for some, and pangs of misery for our Daniel: will he have been freed from one lion’s den only to find himself in another?

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An awful story

Illustration by John Dickson Batten from More English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

William Mayne:
The Worm in the Well
Hodder Children’s Books 2003 (2002)

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye’s aall an aaful story,
Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the worm.

The title of this children’s novel brought to mind a ballad a fellow student used to sing many decades ago. He was from County Durham and in amongst his faithful renditions of Dylan songs was a folksy doggerel about the Lambton Worm, a dreadful medieval creature eventually vanquished by the Heir of Lambton (though not before the Heir had brought down a curse on his descendants).

The traditional story is a familiar tale type in the mould of St George and the Dragon, and Perseus and the sea monster. What William Mayne did was to take elements from this and mix them with motifs from other myths, legends and fantasy, yet all in a fashion that can disconcert the unsuspecting reader, whether child or adult.

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Unwelcome guests

Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)

I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.

“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.

— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’

Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.

At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.

I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.

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Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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