Mythic matriarchs and troubled twins – Penelope Farmer’s ‘Year King’ (1977)

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At the heart of Year King is landscape, an Exmoor landscape – and one that is earthy and real, powerful and unsentimental. It’s as much dour and wet as lush and verdant. People live and work as part of it; it’s not a place that is visited and admired – it’s a landscape utilised. Animals are hunted, earth is worked.

‘Year King’ was published in 1977 by Chatto and Windus. The first edition cover illustration here is by William Bird.

Year King rests on a framework of ‘the king of the year’. There are many aspects to this ancient folklore – fertilised by James Frazer with The Golden Bough, branching into the neo-paganism of the early 20th century, adapted by many, and examined objectively in recent years by Ronald Hutton.

It explains death and renewal over the year – in winter, the land is barren; in spring, it grows. The king reigns for the first half of the year, until harvest, when he is cut down… we see this when our evenings shorten from the solstice in June, until the depths of December when the hours of light lengthen and it is summer again.

Dylan and Lewis – or Lan and Lew – are twins. Lew studies at Cambridge, confident and successful; Lan studies at Bristol, from the family home. His lonely and demanding mother, her husband constantly absent with work overseas, raises his younger sister. Lew can deal with his mother; Lan cannot. Lew has physical prowess, Lan does not.

Lan is the Year King: after Christmas, he leaves Bristol for Exmoor, and as the year grows, so does he.

Some magical-realism illustrates Lan’s dislocation in his search for identity – for brief moments he lives within Lew’s body: he makes love to his girlfriend, he rides a wave, he climbs a rock face.

Lan’s visits to Exmoor are brief at first, but he is soon immersed. He goes to earth. Layers of identity are removed – he leaves the family home, rejects academia, and is drawn to working with the land. He sees the contrast between his arty ‘student type’ and the childhood friend Greg who now works a farm, and represents a naturalness, solidity, at ease with himself. Lan does not ‘belong’ and yet in this space there is freedom from a definition of who he is.

Into this comes Novanna, an American student living in the next valley. Travelled, learned, and from an academic family (with whom she has a happy relationship) she represents a liberal, privileged independence that assumes it can see into Lan and Lew to reveal the family dynamics.

In the spring Lan and Novanna are lovers; at the harvest celebration, again Novanna chooses Lan over his brother Lew. But as autumn draws on, Lan’s growth is challenged – he is forcibly cut free from his old life by the wiles of his mother and Novanna’s wisdom is unwanted.

At the darkest point of the year, Lan is repeating the lyric ‘I am a rock, I am an island’. It’s a mantra that straps him to his sense of self as the mind-swapping phases with Lew grow more frequent and more dangerous.

More layers of myth are introduced when Lan and Lew both descend into the earth – a disused mine is the land of the dead. As they break down, Lan cannot bear the weight of being the ‘failing’ twin, but neither can Lew bear the pressure of being the ‘favoured’ one as they have collided with their mother’s unhappiness. But it emerges that they are not as psychically connected as Lan thinks.

That night he [Lan] awoke, though, weeping once again, and with an immense and hurtful sense he could not identify at first; except that it was to do with his mother. Pity, he decided eventually, pity – which in the end only made him feel sorry for himself too, because if she was lonely, so was he, he ached with loneliness: while Lew lay there, beside him; but not there, because asleep… because he was alone inside his skull and so was Lew.

Year King overflows with myth and meaning, and really marks Penelope Farmer out as a fascinating writer as she explores how we survive the path among brothers and sisters and the needs of those who gave us life. The breadth of her exploration of the inner mind is as wide and expansive as the landscape she uses, and it surpasses something like The Owl Service in this respect; her observations are acute and finely tuned to nuances of meaning in everyday life.

Year King is another title inexplicably out of print…

Appreciating Josephine Poole – Moon Eyes

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First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together…

The original dust-jacket for Moon Eyes from 1965 – as artfully composed as a movie poster and bursting with Josephine Poole’s imagination

For three days wind filled the valley, running wild like an animal. It hunted down over the blue meadows, that were striped across and across with long black shadows, as if they had bones humping up under the grass; it entered the woods, making them flap in brown and green flags; it whisked the whole landscape into movement, and it made the earth race with reflections of the clouds it pelted through gun-grey sky. Those nights the house nearest the woods seemed balanced in a giant pair of hands, rocking and knocking, with a tapping and drumming of finger-ends against doors and windows, so that every board creaked and loose bricks tumbled down inside the huge old chimneys…

Both ‘Billy Buck’ and ‘Moon Eyes’ feature an L-shaped stone house: this image appears in Poole’s 1977 title ‘When Fishes Flew’, which weaves together a series of Westcountry folk myths into a family’s move to an old farm

I’ve already talked about Josephine Poole’s Billy Buck, where an Exmoor village is exploited by way of revels and ancient folk dances to a disturbing hysteria by the sinister Mr Bogle. Moon Eyes is an earlier title from 1965, also set around Exmoor. It begins with cryptic phrases scratched on a stone urn in the grounds of a country house called Hurst Camber: First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together. Poole excels at creating tension, and details such as telling the story in three parts: ‘Whistling’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘Dancing’ are smart.

I need a name for this type of story – ‘British Ancient Landscape Hauntological Domestic Realist Wilderness’ anyone? There are plenty of requisite details here  regardless: Widowed artist grieves wife and leaves eldest daughter in charge of mute son while he recovers (absent parental figure); Mrs Beer, a comfortable housekeeper from nearby cottage (salt-of-the-earth figure steeped in local history who dispenses tea, cake and common sense); rambling old house (gothic architectural landscape)… into which steps the enigmatic, beguiling Rhoda Cantrip (spark for age-old battle of light and dark) and her canine companion.

A reprint from the early seventies – and a striking sci-fi makeover…

It’s all a little more than the standard mythic battle though – although conventional in its telling, Moon Eyes bristles with metaphors of fear of the alien stepmother figure, and all the fairy tale associations – but at the stage of what might be called a preventative cure.

Poole dedicates the book ‘To all children with a battle to fight’ and young Kate’s plight is well-drawn to address issues around defining identity and independence: when does unease become manifest and how is it faced? Who do we trust? How do we achieve control of what happens to us? How do we deal with responsibility?

Once again Poole uses folklore and myth intelligently and authentically – rarely does she fall into Disney’s traps and her cooking pot (or cauldron) of prose simmers with full summer in all its moods and herbs such as St John’s Wort.

Minor characters are neatly sketched with depth too, such as Kate’s tutor Miss Bybegone:

It has been said that Miss Bybegone hated the country. As a protection against any rustic scent or sound that might assail her, she went about on an automatic bicycle, very old, very noisy, very smelly, that enveloped her genie-like in a cloud of blue smoke. Seated upright on it, every hair miraculously in place, she sped about at breakneck speed, a hazard to the countryside.

So far so Bedknobs and Broomsticks – but even this minor character is developed with pathos, for later we are told:

She hurried from the room in an agitation of mauve artificial silk. In fact she was a devoted daughter, and nobly supported her mother, a rather short-tempered old lady who found her infinitely ridiculous.

The author from the cover of Billy Buck (1971). Ms Poole, we salute you. Someone else who could mend a nuclear power station and still look cool while the rest of us are ineffectually fiddling with our phones

Josephine Poole has written widely and successfully, including a lyrical picture-book story of Joan of Arc and a retelling of Anne Frank’s life, both beautifully and sensitively illustrated by Angela Barrett. In the early eighties she contributed scripts to a low-budget but intriguing collection of supernatural Westcountry folk tales called – unsurprisingly – Westcountry Tales – which is well-known to anyone of a certain age from the viewing region. Her later novels I haven’t read – I imagine they’re just as good but were victim to dull and lazy marketing.

The two books here really should be in print and as oft-mentioned as Penelope Lively in this field.