Running with the deer – 1971 in children’s literature

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Image includes elements of Michael Heslop’s design for the cover of William Rayner’s novel ‘Stag Boy’

Stag Boy by William Rayner (1971)

Billy Buck by Josephine Poole (1972)

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively (1971)

The invasion of ancient folklore and myth into the present is a feature of many novels for ‘young adults’ of the late sixties and early seventies. There had been, of course, the Alan Garner effect: in 1967 The Owl Service redefined the remit of this type of writing, beyond ‘writing for children’, ambitious in the way it dealt with human emotions against an older, wiser and more powerful landscape. The stories were different because they were as rooted in everyday realism as the kitchen-sink dramas of British film.

It may or may not be true, but for me these books spring from a time when genres were undefined and inspiration was not moulded to the market. They existed against a particular sense of modernity at the time: heritage culture hadn’t really begun; things were either ‘old-fashioned’, or they were ‘modern’. Myth and folklore had yet to be plundered and Disney-fied in ersatz Celtic script (usually metallic and embossed).

The three titles here were published within a year of each other in 1971/2, and have much in common besides their mythic associations with deer. They share the setting of Exmoor and the Devon/Somerset border, where a deeply-buried folk heritage rises from the landscape – a Horn Dance of the type still enacted today at Abbots Bromley, a Wild Hunt, an ancient antlered helmet.

The protagonists are all perceived as ‘different’ in some way – they are weak and ailing, like severely asthmatic Jim in Stag Boy and Harry recovering from polio in Billy Buck; or intellect has isolated them – like Kester in The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, who goes to the grammar school (‘Brainy people aren’t always the nicest people, are they?’ says the strident village busybody to her daughters).

Of the three, it is Penelope Lively whose legacy is mentioned alongside Garner in critical studies. Josephine Poole’s and William Rayner’s out-of-print contributions are in danger of passing out of sight, although Poole is still writing today.

Like The Owl Service, Rayner’s Stag Boy deals with a relationship triangle. Jim returns to his childhood home from the urban sprawl of Wolverhampton and, by way of the helmet he finds in an undisturbed burial chamber, ‘shares a pulse with a stag’. His strength is restored as the mental and physical prowess of deer and human overlap, and he taunts both his rival and the pursuing hunt in shifting form. Jim as stag is hyper-aware of wild nature tamed and twisted: ‘What kind of world was this that made such cruel judgments on its creatures?’

At publication, The Guardian called Stag Boy ‘fine and powerful’ and others said ‘perhaps one day we shall see it on an enlightened GCE syllabus’.

Josephine Poole’s trump card is a deft hand with suspense and atmosphere and she is almost Wicker Man-esque in Billy Buck. Mr Bogle (‘His body was the shape of a fly’) arrives as tutor to the recovering Harry in a decaying, centuries-old family house. Soon he is driving the village to hysteria by way of bonfire night revels and a ritual dance, before exploiting the community’s appetite for persecution to destroy the remains of the ancient family.

Poole uses the marriage of Harry’s sister to a local landowner as a counterpoint of light; her dress will be sprigged with green, the garb of a May Queen, and the planned Christmas wedding suggests a Solstice-like triumph of light over dark in the depths of winter. In the United States the book was published as ‘The Visitor’ and the insidious presence of an unwanted guest is chillingly portrayed.

Penelope Lively’s Wild Hunt of Hagworthy also deals with persecution, seen through the eyes of the visiting Lucy. Like Jim in Stag Boy, Kester appears to goad and taunt, and won’t temper what sets him apart. When the vicar resurrects the Horn Dance, the rest of the village boys become malevolent beneath their antler masks, and over a lush and heat-hazed summer an inevitable storm gathers, and Kester becomes the quarry.

So why are these books worthwhile?

For one, it’s the deep sense of place that mark them out: both Poole and Rayner lived around Exmoor and they recreate a rich, sensory experience.

Here’s a genre that explores individuality and the search for identity. As such, characters are given a freedom that adults have only briefly, with parents and responsibilities elsewhere, replaced with relations who aren’t proprietary and whose homes are in wild spaces: urban, institutional lifestyles are removed, leaving ‘holiday’ spaces to explore.

All the books can be said to be ‘anti’ something repressive. Kester won’t hide his contempt for the blinkered outlook of the horsey Mrs Norton-Smith, a caricature of the rural guiding light; Jim (and there’s just a bit of Kes in there I think) is surly at the arrogance of humans setting themselves apart from nature; while a theme of Billy Buck is crowd manipulation.

It’s no wonder that there is much for adults in these books that can still resonate today. Don’t we all often need a space to explore, away from these things? Here the authorial voices aren’t hectoring; they create a world where nothing is yet set in stone, and possibility is king.

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9 thoughts on “Running with the deer – 1971 in children’s literature

  1. This is a great post – somehow I did not know any of these books and you make them sound fascinating – just my favourite subject matter ( compares with Alan Garner!) and also some of my ancestors come from Exmoor. I shall search them out.
    I quite agree with your remarks about the changes in tone and the existence of a pre marketing and heritagifying (not sure that is a word!) world.

    • Thanks, it’s great to have feedback – I could have gone on for ages with this one. I don’t think Stag Boy has been in print since the 70s and fell by the wayside. It was a real coincidence that the others turned up one after another – with Billy Buck I was surprised to find it set around Exmoor too. Then Wild Hunt turned up with the same location. I have this picture of all these authors huddled in a library in 1970 fighting over copies of Somerset Folklore, or else it was a great esoteric masterplan to get the nation’s youth horn dancing and antler-wearing. I’ve now found another Penelope Farmer title – and guess what, Exmoor too!

  2. This is so fascinating. Through my childhood in the seventies and during my adult years, I’ve been making journeys through mythic children’s novels, captivated by what they explore – but I’ve never heard of these three titles before. Thanks so much for your fascinating, insightful introduction to them. It’s such a trail of discovery, searching out these magic weavings of words and myth, time and place. I wonder if serendipity will lead me to any of these titles next time I’m in a secondhand bookshop. It’s so often the case!

    Reading your post, I was constantly reminded of Susan Cooper; the horned mask and wild hunt in The Dark is Rising etc.

    I love the blending of the trees and stag antlers in the picture, by the way – it beautifully encapsulates the overlapping of layers and deep patterns of connection these books so often explore…

  3. Thanks for the kind words! I had lined up Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising as a Christmas read, it sounded perfect. I was enjoying the atmosphere at the beginning until it got very wizard-ish and Tolkien-ish fantasy and all the Harry Potter associations of recent years threw a bucket of water on it for me and I had to put it to one side. I’ll try again now though…

    I love the original covers of these books – today’s interpretations always seem so ‘hyperreal’ and lose the sense of the everyday, of myth being part of its fabric. It’s a shame, because cover design elsewhere is really getting good again.

    • Yes, there’s something very special about those 1970s covers; they do achieve an organic relationship between text and illustration, conveying what’s central to the power of the narrative.

      Susan Cooper’s young adult novel ‘Seaward’ is an interesting one, which might appeal, if you ever come across it. I last read it many years ago now, but my memory of it is of a psychological exploration of grief, life and death and the choices for its two young protagonists as they come of age and face realities and loss. It explores all these landscapes of the mind through mythic journeys – drawing mostly on the selkie legend. I have a copy on my shelves, and have been meaning to re-read it for ages (with some trepidation; hopefully the magic will still be there for me now!)

      Reading your post reminded me that I also have a children’s novel by Penelope Lively on my shelves which I discovered in a secondhand bookshop, and have yet to read. It’s called ‘The Driftway’ – about an ancient road where messages from the past travel through time. It was first published in 1972…

      • I’ll look out for Seaward, and put The Dark is Rising on the end-of-year list… I’ve read Penelope Lively’s Astercote, and Thomas Kempe, but have still got The Whispering Knights on the shelf – I’ve been looking up The Driftway for a while though and wondering. I do hear A Stitch in Time is good too – and that’s set in Lyme Regis, which sounds promising. I think generally her children’s books don’t work so well for a wider readership, in that I think she writes very much at a set level and doesn’t explore very deeply, but they have the all-important atmosphere and imagination to be worthwhile all the same.

  4. Greg Sturman

    Thank you very much for producing this wonderful site. I arrived here looking for information on Poole’s Billy Buck. Sadly, I couldn’t find much in the way of information about that title elsewhere, but am extremely pleased to learn about it and other of her titles here. I shall be adding quite a few of the books I’ve learnt about here and on related pages to my ‘want-to-read’ list. With regard to the trio of hunt-folklore themed titles above, I read a recently published book last year that I feel can join them in terms of theme and atmosphere: ‘Bone Jack’ by Sarah Crowe – it’s good to know the same vein’s being tapped. I’ll be looking out for the Rayner, Liveley, and Poole books as I was left wanting more of the same. (On Liveley, I’m about to read a copy of her ‘House of Bones’ next and consider myself very fortunately in being able to pick up a second-hand copy of ‘The Driftway’ a few months ago for a pittance.)

    • Thanks so much for your comments – apologies for late reply. Penelope Farmer is excellent, particularly The Year King. It’s all about atmosphere isn’t it? Quite lucky to have these books to read for the first time… I’d pick up anything Josephine Poole you see, regardless of the way the later books were marketed with tacky covers. Will look out for Sarah Crowe. Interesting how this genre is being formed into a particular entity in the last few years – the Folk Horror tag is a bit sensational and I prefer ‘hauntological’ though I think the former tries to pinpoint the peculiarly British take on folklore and ‘weird landscape’ that ran through movies and TV in the late 60s and 70s. Enjoy reading.

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