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.

Blodeuwedd (Flower Face) from The Mabinogion

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Flower Face

And then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they called forth the fairest maiden that mortal ever saw, and baptised her with the baptism of that time, and named her Blodeuwedd.

Blodeuwedd was made thus for Lleu, ‘a man in stature and the handsomest youth that mortal ever saw’ and they marry. But Blodeuwedd betrays Lleu and takes a neighbouring lord, Gronw, as her lover. They plan to kill Lleu.

Even though he is protected, with guile Blodeuwedd finds his weakness – to be slain with a spear which has been crafted only when folks are at Mass on Sundays. Lleu is killed and turns into an eagle, and flies away.

Lleu is rescued and restored to human form and health, and with an army marches on Gronw and Blodeuwedd to seek redress. As Blodeuwedd flees, Lleu catches up with her and turns her into an owl:

I will not slay thee. I will do thee that which is worse; that is,’ said he, ‘I will let thee go in the form of a bird… thou shalt not lose thy name, but that thou be for ever called Blodeuwedd (Flower Face).

The text continues to say ‘Blodeuwedd is ‘owl’ in the language of the present day’; and owls are shunned and mobbed by other birds today because this was the fate of Blodeuwedd.

Gronw is then slain by a spear which breaks through the stone he uses to shield himself and breaks his back.

It is the core of this story from fourth branch of The Mabinogi which Alan Garner uses in his book The Owl Service. The background photo in the image of Blodeuwedd was taken in Wales, at the location used for the television adaptation in 1969. Directly behind Blodeuwedd is the iconic hilltop…