Borrobil (1944)

Borrobil 1Anyone heard of this one? Published in 1944 along with other English wartime oddities (The Magic Door, 1943; The Magic Bedknob, 1943), it is clearly the product of a time of scarce resources, with bad illustrations and insufficient editing.

Borrobil is the story of two children on holiday in the countryside, who sneak out of the house one night to explore a spooky wooded hill. It happens to be Beltane night, and they come to a ring of standing stones with lit bonfires, and are transported into the mythic past. There they meet a fat little magician named Borrobil and go on adventures with knights with names like Giric and Morac who slay dragons. The story culminates with the defeat of the Black King of Winter by the White King of Summer.

Over Sea Under StoneWeridstoneIt is the earliest use I’ve found in children’s books of English mythic history (not counting Puck of Pook’s Hill and The Magic Door, both of which are kind of all over the place, with Normans versus Saxons and Robin Hood and Julius Caesar and even dinosaurs). Borrobil is quite a bit closer to its sources than many later books; you get the feeling that the author actually read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and all that, while later authors seem to be modeling after other children’s books. Notable books in this vein are The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and the Dark is Rising books starting with Over Sea Under Stone (1965).

Borrobil itself, though, however good its inspiration, suffers from desperately uneven writing. Here is Morac, the archaic hero who has just slain a dragon, sounding like a 1940’s middle-class English school child: “You will bring them to the castle, won’t you Borrobil? You’d like to come, both of you, wouldn’t you?” To which King Brude replies, “Right, then,” before lurching into “I gave my word that they should ride where they would and as they would. That word I keep. But in your care, Morac, shall they be.”

The Funny ThingOne amusing detail to note is that the dragon gets its tail wrapped around a hill, just like the dragon-creature in the picture-book A Funny Thing (1929).


Lad with a Whistle (1941)

Lad with a WhistleCarol Ryrie Brink is best known for Caddie Woodlawn, but she wrote a number of other books in a variety of children’s genres. Lad with a Whistle is her love-letter to Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a shamelessly sentimental Scottish highlands adventure, featuring Rob McFarland: orphaned, homeless, and perfectly happy, earning his living as an itinerant piper. He befriends a pair of wealthy children who end up at the mercy of evil-doers, ultimately saving them with his bravery and resourcefulness. (Rob is an excellent example of the Boy With A Shepherd’s Pipe trope, exemplified by Dickon in The Secret Garden.)

Wolves of Willoughby ChaseAnyone familiar with Wolves of Willoughby Chase will immediately recognize that Joan Aiken had to have read this book. Two upper-class children (Annie & Malcolm/Bonnie & Sylvia) are helped by an older boy who lives by his wits out of doors (Rob/Simon). They are assisted by a faithful manservant (Geordie/James) and ultimately by an adult man (Tammas/Dr. Field) who brings in reinforcements. The villain is the housekeeper/governess (Mrs. Minnock/Miss Slighcarp), who is tall and severely dressed, aided by an evil lawyer (Mr. Dipple/Mr. Grimethorpe) and evil servant (Brody/Marl). They proceed to sell the family valuables, burn incriminating documents, and try to displace the children as heirs.

The children escape with the help of the boBlackhearts in Batterseay, and spend a period of time wandering and camping out and becoming brown as “gypsies”/berries. They return to the manor house with the reinforcements, tricking the bad guys into incriminating themselves before the reinforcements leap out. There is a big feast for everyone after the bad guys are locked up, and a coincidental return of the lord of the manor (Sir John/Sir Willoughby) that evening. The boy turns down an offer to live at the manor, being too used to the simple life.

There are even a couple of elements that appear in the Wolves sequel, Blackhearts in Battersea: Rob carrying a stray kitten buttoned in his jacket, and a a painting being evidence of who is the real heir.

The White Stone (1964)

White StoneSwedish author Astrid Lindgren is well-known in the English-speaking world, and to some extent also Tove Jansson (author of the Moomin books). Almost unknown here is the author Gunnel Linde, who published 40-odd children’s books in Swedish. Only a few of her books have been translated into English, and even fewer were translated during my time-frame (up to 1975), which would allow them to influence the flow of English-language children’s literature during that period. One of those few is The White Stone.

Two children in a small village, Fia and Hampus, strike up a strange friendship in which they form an unspoken pact of playing a game of fantasy, and pretending(?) to believe each others’ stories. He is Prince Perilous and she is an enchanted maiden named Fideli. They set each other difficult tasks to perform, in order to earn from each other the white stone that they pass back and forth, during the last week of summer.

The story is full of oddities that would be workshopped out of a book today. Prince Perilous’s first task is to paint the clock face on the church tower. This episode has a meandering, dreamlike quality, with Prince Perilous doing some directionless playing about — he tries the game of “running up” the church wall for a few steps before falling again (leaving footprints that lead the grownups of the village into mistaken theories) — before striking upon an idea of how to accomplish his task. Another episode that would have been workshopped out, to the book’s loss, is a brilliant extended display of a housekeeper’s passive-aggressive spitefulness against those she dislikes, which ends up backfiring and only getting herself in trouble.

In another episode, Fideli’s task is to gather treasure. She briefly considers pilfering real money, but instead she gathers things that are beautiful: a silver globe garden ornament, seashells, green glass pebbles, pieces from a broken stained-glass window, a glass marble, the gold knob from the top of a flag-pole.  Adding to the strangeness, we are never told of Fideli’s decision not to take money or her reasons for that decision. We witness her considering taking money, and then we see her taking other things. But this is the moment when the children start to feel that their situation is becoming grave.

And this brings us to the most likely reason The White Stone is not better known in the U.S. Near the end of the book, when the two children can’t see a way out of their troubles (which only amounts to a risk of being caught for some mischief), they decide that they should die together, and they eat some mushrooms that they believe are poisonous. Fortunately the mushrooms are not, and this event fades into the background, just another passing piece of strangeness in the inner lives of children. The whole story is shot through with strangeness. It has the feel of an ill-fated medieval romance, while being firmly grounded in the antics of two absolutely ordinary children in an absolutely ordinary village.

In the end, when they are both in the first day of school and about to take up their regular lives lives under their regular names, they make another unaknowledged agreement. They will to pretend to pretend that they are ordinary children named Fia and Hampus. They will live their “real” lives to please all the regular people, but knowing that they are really Fideli and Prince Perilous.



The Wednesday Witch (1969)

Sorry, Monday is on a Tuesday this week. We drove south to escape the smoke so things have been a little upside down.

Wednesday WitchIt all starts because Mary Jane’s mother has a bottle of perfume called Mischief. Witch Hilda, who rides a vaccuum cleaner and does her best magic on Wednesdays, is irresistably drawn to the smell from Mary Jane’s house. (With regard to flying vaccuum cleaners, The Tree that Sat Down, 1945, got there first, but with only the briefest of mentions. Other vaccuum riders include the Grand Madame in The Blue Nosed Witch and Mrs. Breadloaf in The Amazing Vacation, both published in 1956.)

Hilda and the humans are soon embroiled in each others’ affairs. Hilda accidentally leaves her cat behind. When she returns for the cat, she loses possession of her vaccuum cleaner. (Mary Jane’s mother mistakes her for a service person, gives her the family’s malfunctioning vaccuum in exchange, and shuts the door on her.) Hilda steals Mary Jane’s roller skates out of spite. She also cuts the cat down to doll size with a pair of magic scissors, and the cat takes refuge in Mary Jane’s dollhouse. When Hilda runs into Mary Jane and demands her vaccuum back, Mary Jane grabs the scissors and cuts Hilda down to doll size. Things continue like this until Hilda and Mary Jane call a truce and join forces to create a magic measuring tape to restore everyone to their proper size. Hilda even repairs the family vaccuum cleaner and gets  her old one back.

This was the first of Ruth Chew’s many witch books (she cranked out about a book a year for the next three decades) and is by far her best. Though written to be readable by a young  audience, this book is clever enough to be enjoyed by older kids as well. Chew quickly settled into writing what would now be called beginning chapter books, with their choppy unnatural sentences and recycled plots. But Wednesday Witch deserves to be remembered.


The Apple-Stone (1965)

Stone CageDown in the CellarI’ve been exploring the works of Nicholas Stuart Gray, an English author who specialized in creepy British folklore and retellings of folk-tales. For example, he wrote Down in the Cellar, which features nasty imps called the Spoilers who come out of the ground carrying green lanterns at night, attracted by humans in trouble; and The Stone Cage,  the story of Rapunzel told from the point of view of the witch’s cat.

The Apple-StoneBut today we’ll be considering The Apple-Stone, in which he departed from his usual type and tried his hand at a Nesbit-style magic adventure book.

Five children, three siblings and their two cousins, decide to try one of every type of apple in the apple orchard, and in the process discover the Apple-Stone, a being that digs itself into the earth and grows inside an apple, until it is discovered and used by humans. Its magic is to make anything you touch it against come alive (though the rules for this are inconsistent — it doesn’t make the pouch it’s carried in come alive). The personality of the Apple-Stone is straight from the Nesbit tradition of Cranky Magical Creatures, which long for peace and quiet and chide the children for their foolishness.

Among the things they bring to life are a toy rocket-ship, a stone carving of a medieval crusader, and a feather boa that turns into the Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Some chapters are deeply creepy, as when they animate a guy they were building for Guy Fawkes day, who turns out to be quite mad and dangerous and ends up burning himself up on a bonfire. In the final chapter Gray gives his creepy folklore asethetic full rein. The children animate a gargoyle from the church tower, which turns into a nasty wizened child that delights in human misfortune. One of the cousins, who has been rather wild and a bit sociopathic throughout the book, is nearly caught by the lure of endless heartless destructiveness, but the others bring him back to his ordinary self.

Gray’s writing is excellent; this is definitely a literary book. But it is also cold. Gray had a miserable, abusive childhood, and it shows in the sarcastic one-upsmanship of the children’s banter, and the unnervingly realistic emotional abuse tactics of the evil creatures in his books.

The Richleighs of Tantamount (1966)

Four siblings from an E. Nesbit book find themselves in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, wander through a few Enid Blyton Famous Five books and The Secret Garden, to arrive, surprisingly, at a satisfying ending.

Edwin, Angeline, Sebastian, and Maud Richleigh are the children of wealthy Londoners around the year 1870. They are fantastically pampered, but live terribly constrained lives, and are only saved from insipidness by possessing wit and personality, and having each other to share interesting ideas and games with. As in Wolves there are parents who go to sea for reasons of health, shifty servants who should never have been left in charge, and the loss of a beloved rocking horse with a classical name.

The children go to the neglected family estate of Tantamount, only to discover it has been left in ruins and used as a smugglers’ headquarters by the dishonest absentee steward. When the last of the few servants abandon them, they befriend two local fisherman’s children (also temporarily without parents) and live a life of romanticized poverty for the summer. The climax of the plot comes through no particular action on the children’s part: there is a rescue of one of their new friends via a rowboat on a stormy sea, after which they see Tantamount on fire in the distance. The disloyal steward has learned that his shenanigans have been discovered and the parents are on their way, so he burns the house to the ground to hide the evidence.

For most people who are not literary scholars it’s not clear why we should care about “theme” in a book, until we see what happens without one. This book can’t make up its mind: though the plot is clear enough, it’s never clear what the book is about. Is it about the children learning self-reliance? Or is it about the eldest, Edwin, growing into his role as heir apparent of the family? Or is it a straight-up adventure story? Or is it about class differences? Or is it about cleansing the family honor of evil and starting anew? It could happily be about all of these things at the same time; the problem is that it is first one thing, then another. It keeps getting bored and dropping threads to pick up new ones.

The ending, though, very nearly makes up for it. The children are swept back to London to a life of clean clothes and proper behavior, but they have been irrevocably changed. They plan to rebuild Tantamount some day when they are grown, but more importantly they carry inside them what happened to them that summer. They will continue to live the life prescribed by their parents while they have to, but the parents no longer dictate, or even really understand, who their children are. It is an unexpectedly profound insight into how it feels to be growing up.

Lud-in-the-Mist (1926)

Lud-in-the-Mist is a neglected masterpiece of early 20th century fantastical and fairytale-inspired works. Though not written as a children’s book, it’s really is no less suited for children than Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (which, to be fair, would today be marketed as Young Adult). Teens could certainly enjoy Lud-in-the-Mist, and older children whose tastes run that way, as a read-aloud with a bit of prudent skipping. (The undercurrents of sexuality are heavily metaphorical for the most part, but they occasionally pop to the surface.)

The town of Lud-in-the-Mist is a thriving port and market town inhabited by comfortable, unimaginative burghers. They are doing their best to forget about magical doings beyond the borders of their realm and in their own past, particularly regarding fairy-fruit, the consumption of which is too shocking to mention. As one person after another falls prey to the lure of fairy-fruit, more and more people also turn out to be complicit in its resurgence. Who is on the side of good and who is not becomes more and more ambiguous. The plot is too complicated to recap here, so let me just say that the writing is exquisite and the imagery is haunting.

It’s a puzzle why this work was neglected for most of the 20th century. (There has been a recent surge of interest since modern author Neil Gaiman heaped praise on it.) I believe one reason is that it would be difficult to flatten and simplify, for purposes of imitation, in the way that the more obvious elements of Middle Earth (swords! wizards!) lent themselves to imitation. The wonders of Lud-in-the-Mist are subtle and elusive, difficult to isolate, bottle, and re-sell.