You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2009.

North of Never LandColumbine: When Tinker Bell’s quick temper and sharp tongue drive away her best friend, the sparrow man Terence, she decides to go on a quest to find the perfect present to say sorry. She heads north to find the legendary cloud of dust from the Pixie Dust Tree. On her way she has several mishaps and meets up once more with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

Though this is a slight enough tale, Tink’s abrasive personality, her impulsive nature and the pride she takes in her skills are well portrayed. There is also a glimpse into the history of Pixie Hollow.

And doesn’t Tink look cute with her little bundle on a stick?

Creature of the Night by Kate ThompsonColumbine: This is a very compelling book, but upsetting, both because of the central character who is rather urban and gritty and not at all sympathetic and because of the fairy subplot about an abandoned changeling.

Bobby, the fourteen-year-old narrator, is a bit loathsome to tell the truth, a thief and a liar, and revolting to his admittedly feeble mother. When the family moves to the country his only thought is how to get back to a life of crime in Dublin. Later on he does show some human qualities of diligence and doggedness, and there’s a hint he won’t turn out so bad. But you are unlikely to enjoy seeing the world from his point of view.

It is his little brother Dennis who has the fairy encounter. The cottage they are living in is on a path between two fairy forts. The family are warned by the farmer’s wife to put out a bowl of milk every night, but being citified they find this quite hilarious. Being deprived of the milk, the little old fairy woman comes through the cat flap into the kitchen.

Dennis takes it in his stride, but for Bobby, who has only whispers and odd noises and indications to go by, the whole business is sinister and nightmarish to a degree. He hears the story of the people who many years ago lived in the cottage with a strange daughter they thought was a changeling, who used to shriek in the night: “high shrieking, like something out of hell. You couldn’t tell if it was pain or anger or both… Once you got that sound in your head there was no way you would sleep again that night.” Eventually he puts the two things together and has a unexpected realization about the little woman, imagining her living lonely and scared in the fairy fort.

Down in the CellarColumbine: Nicholas Stuart Gray has written some great fairytale novels like How Many Miles to Fabylon and The Stone Cage, which have magic and witches and so forth, though not fairy folk. This is a very different sort of story. It is set in the country about fifty years ago (when the book was written). A family of rackety children are staying in a big old house with a Rector uncle and a busy housekeeper, playing imaginative games and getting into scrapes. Then they meet a wounded stranger who is scared of mysterious pursuers and does not want to be helped. So, naturally, they decide to hide him “down in the cellar”. They have no idea what they are letting themselves in for.

The children are Bruce, the narrator, and his twin sister Julia, the down-to-earth sensible ones, their young brother Andrew, who is brilliant in a scientific sort of way, and their five-year-old sister Deirdre. Deirdre, it seems, has the fairy sight: on the hillside she sees the little green lantern-men she calls Spoilers. These are nasty types who go looking for anything hurt or suffering so they can point and laugh. They are also in league with some horribly creepy witches including the sinister Mr. Atkinson. There are some quite frightening scenes where the children are pursued and surrounded.

However, the cellar wall abuts what was once a fairy hill, before some silly humans took the top off and found it full of useful sand. But the portal to the Fair Land is still there. Deirdre sees it as a golden door surrounded by roses, and she also sees the Lady of the Hill. In the end all the children see something, though poor old Bruce sees the least of all, and is left with the dubious advantage of remembering everything while the others forget.

I’ll leave him with the last word: “Whatever it was all about, it was a rum do, and rather fun in a creepy sort of way”.

An Older Kind of MagicColumbine: This is a children’s book by the author of the brilliant fantasy series The Song of Wirrun. While that series is concerned with the vastnesses of the land and the traditions of its aboriginal people, this book is very much about the city and the people of the city. However, here too the encounters with the ‘hidden folk’ are true to the spirit of the land. The author admits she has little to go on: “a few spare and undescriptive words”, but she “brooded over those spare words, trying to capture the character of each creature and its place in that mysterious world at the edge of Australian vision.” The result, to my mind, is convincing and captivating.

The story interweaves different kinds of magic – the older kind is the magic of the land and its creatures, but there is also the illusion magic represented by the Magic Shop, the sorcery of spells and potions in the book found by Benny, the magic of mind manipulation exemplified by the advertising man Ernest Hawke and the magic of the city itself, which could be said to be the child of Commerce. Above them all is the magic of the comet, returning to bypass earth again after a thousand years – in the hour of its arrival the most extraordinary things happen.

There is something of the familiar plot of children and fairy folk combining to upset the plans of the greedy developers – here embodied by the champion of Commerce Sir Mortimer Wyvern who wants to build a car park in the Botanical Gardens. Yet there is no co-operation. The Nyols, small, stone-grey, shadowy creatures who live in underground caverns, are simple and playful – their involvement at the crucial time is entirely accidental. It is Sir Mortimer who comes face to face with them, and his attempts to communicate get him nowhere. The children are pretty much unaware of the old creatures around them, though Selina sometimes catches a puzzling glimpse of the Bitarr, and Benny accidentally conjures a Pot-Koorok, a frog-like swamp trickster, while trying a spell.

I particularly liked the portrayal of the relationship between land and city: “The city… whispered in the splashing of its fountains and breathed in the tides of its harbour. It spread its net of lights to shut out the stars, and held the land in a grip of concrete and steel. Yet deep under the city, forgotten under the concrete, the land was still there. Its soil was there, stripped of ferns and shut away forever from the sun. Its stone was there, deep and abiding; and out of the stone the Nyols crept, the old creatures of the land.”

A Fairy's Child by Robert Graves

From Duke University's Adaccess collection

Columbine: The picture above is by Milo Winter, an American artist who illustrated fairy stories, Alice in Wonderland, Aesop’s Fables, 1001 Nights and many other books. I don’t know of any other fairy pictures of his, though there is this splendidly sinister Genie.

I think the story is a little fanciful, don’t you? I mean, turning into a shop! Though I have heard of fairies turning into things, and I have heard of fairies opening a shop in the human world, and usually a magic shop of some description. So there may be a foundation of truth there, as in most fairy tales.

Robin: No comment! Beauty shops are outside my realm of expertise. However, I do think the author has rather missed the point of the story of “The Ugly Duckling”.

The Song of Wirrun by Patricia WrightsonRobin: The Song of Wirrun is a trilogy set in modern Australia in which a young man of the People encounters the ancient spirits of the land. The author, whose own ancestry is European, draws on aboriginal mythology in her depiction of the “gnomes and heroes and monsters” of Australia. Rather than transplanting elves and dragons and the like to an alien country, she looks for “another kind of magic,” one that belongs. She divides the humans of Australia into three races: the Happy Folk, the Inlanders and the People. Yet “the oldest race of all lives among them and is hidden. This is a race of creatures born of the land itself: of red rocks and secret waters, dust-devils and far places, green jungle and copper-blue saltbush. They are sly and secret creatures. The People have known of them for a long time and said little. As for the other two races, if a man of them ever meets an earth-spirit he is silent for lack of a word and so no word is said.”

Many of the spirits, particularly those referred to as “earth-things” – have their own particular place and do not tend to travel. It is when they roam abroad that the People, who have their own old songs and rituals for the purpose, must take a hand. This is perhaps the biggest difference apart from the setting – that the knowledge and traditions of the “old ones” are believed and respected, not dismissed as fanciful and out of date. These books are not only unusual and fascinating, but powerful and haunting.

The trilogy is also called The Book of Wirrun. The individual books are: The Ice Is Coming; The Dark Bright Water and Journey Behind the Wind (sometimes just called Behind the Wind)

The Ice Is Coming The Ice is Coming by Patricia Wrightson
The Ninya are ice men who live in ice caverns under the burning desert in the heart of Australia. “They are the makers of ice and their blood is white.” Though green-eyed and beautiful, they are quarrelsome and ruthless. They once, aeons ago, ruled the land, but were driven back by the Eldest Nargun, a rock spirit with the power of fire. Their leader proposes that they should travel south and conquer their ancient enemy, so that they may rule the land once more.

As they debate, a Mimi, a frail rock-spirit of the north, is swept up by the winds and dropped in the centre of the country where Wirrun, a young man of the People, is camping. He doesn’t see her. Nor does he see the Ninya, though he sees ice on his water bag and a brief vision of an inverted landscape. Enough to worry him and eventually lead to a meeting with the spirit of the mountain, the hero Ko-in, who guides him to a hidden power of the People and unites him with the Mimi. For the danger is to all the races of the land.

The reluctant Mimi teaches Wirrun how to fly on the wind and acts as a go-between with the earth spirits he encounters – the fierce little Wa-tha-gun-darl, the grey Nyols, the clawed Bagini, the white bird-spirits called Yauruks, and others. Even the fearsome Bunyip helps in its startling way.

The Dark Bright Water by Patricia WrightsonThe Dark Bright Water
While the Mimi, heroine of The Ice Is Coming, is on her long way home travelling through the rocks, another spirit from her country finds herself far from home. The dark-haired Yunggamurra, water-spirits of the northern rivers, who appear silver-grey from their coating of river-slime, are playful and excitable, but can be dangerous to the unwary. During a fierce storm, one is torn out to sea, where the salt water burns her, and in a desperate attempt to get back to fresh water, she becomes lost in tunnels and caverns under the earth. She is lonely and desolate: “She was used to wild laughter and singing, savage play and the joining of hands – all her life, wherever she looked, she had seen herself everywhere in her sisters. Alone she had no self.” When she falls prey to some jealous earth spirits, the disturbance is felt over a wide area.

Meanwhile, Wirrun is finding it hard to be regarded as a hero, only wanting to retire back to normal life. He is also haunted by a song, which although he doesn’t realize it, is the calling-magic of the Yunggamurra. When he is summoned back to the central country where the elders suspect a supernatural agency is interfering with the water, he goes unwillingly. Seeing the tracks of the enormous Pungalunga from the air, he is soon convinced that strange spirits are abroad. Mainly female spirits, it seems, including the Unthippa who have no heads, the dancing Mungga-mungga and the tailed wives of Koolen. His cheerful friend Ularra is transformed into a beast by the seductive Abuba. When Wirrun rescues – or captures – the Yunggamurra, he only wants to return her to her sisters, which puzzles her. Doesn’t he know the rules? Well, no… it is almost only by accident that she becomes the golden girl he calls Murra.

She warns him that he should keep her from the water, but he doesn’t have the heart to as she loves it so much, but in Behind the Wind her sisters find and reclaim her. He must win her back as well as facing the unnatural red-eyed monster menacing the land.

Robin: This would be a rather disturbing little booklet if it were not so firmly established as a part of the fictional reality of the Harry Potter Saga – it even has scribbled comments by the young wizard Harry and his friends. As it is, however, it still reveals what it might be like if human beings had knowledge of and power over the magical world: in short, we see the familiar pattern of exploitation and control.

There is a rather sketchy account of how, in the face of persecution by Muggles – that is, non-magic humans – the wizards came to the decision to suppress Muggle knowledge of magic. This necessitated extending their control over all magical creatures; convenient, a sceptical person might think. Exaggerating danger from outsiders is a recognized tool of tyrants. Another chapter explains how the wizarding world came to its classification of creatures into beings, beasts, and spirits. Attempts to distinguish between them based on number of legs or ability to speak proved disastrous; in the end, it seems to have come down to self-classification. Perhaps tellingly, the centaurs and the merpeople chose not to align themselves with the wizard-dominated ‘beings’, preferring beast status.

I have indicated before the sorry portraiture of fairy-kind in this particular world, and here it is highly explicit: “A fairy is a small and decorative beast of little intelligence”, both vain and quarrelsome. It is decidedly insect-like, laying eggs on the underside of leaves and weaving cocoons. The similar doxy (or “biting fairy”) has extra limbs and sharp teeth. Leprechauns get the best entry, being described as “more intelligent than the fairy and less malicious than the imp, the pixie or the Doxy” – however, they are still a wild variety, oddly green in colour.

Also listed are gnomes and trolls, the former an annoying garden pest, the latter fearsome and violent. Although dwarfs and elves are not included, presumably classed as beings (neither race is specifically mentioned in this book), the dwarf-like Red Cap and the elvish Erkling are.

While the casual references to wizards’ use of the blood, eggs and powdered parts of beasts indicate a rather cavalier attitude, I did enjoy the description of various bizarre and wholly original beasts, such as Erumpents and Fwoopers. As an edition of the famous Hogwarts textbook, however, this edition is distinctly lacking. Despite the title, specific locations are not given and descriptions are short, with many details conspicuous by their absence. Above all, no photographs! Ruthless censorship by the Ministry of Magic?