Friday 9 September 2011

Black Swans

Every now and then you come across a book that’s just different.  It might be a one-off by an author who puts everything she or he has to say into a single creative burst – or it may be something that stands out from a writer’s other work like a black swan in a white flock.  Especially in the latter case, such books often don’t get the attention they deserve. Perhaps they simply puzzle the author’s faithful followers.  They can’t be categorized.  They come out of nowhere and don’t seem to lead anywhere.  The easiest thing to do is – not to talk about them.

But they tend to be memorable. 

Here are three examples, all fantasies, all written by highly talented and in some cases famous children’s writers – and none of them, I suggest, as well known as they deserve to be. 

A Dark Horn Blowing by Dahlov Ipcar (Macdonald 1978) 

I hope and believe that some of you will have read this book (because so far in my life I have met only one other person who has).  It’s based on an old ballad called The Queen of Elfan’s Nourrice, in which a mortal woman, stolen to be nurse to the Queen of Elfland’s son, laments for her own child from whom she was taken when he was only four nights old: 

I heard a cow low, a bonnie cow low
An’ a cow low down in yon fauld;
Lang, lang will my young son greet
Or his mither take him frae cauld…

Ipcar’s book opens with the sound:

I heard a cow lowing, lowing low on the lea – a mournful sound, full of calling.  It called me as I stood there at the window listening in the warm twilight of October.

Eben said, “Come to bed, Wife.”

But the enchantment is already working.  As her husband falls asleep, Nora steals out into the night, leaving her four day old son wailing in the cradle, down through the wet fields to the shore. 

A cow’s lowing is a sad sound – I had always thought so – but this was more than that.  There were words crying in the sound.  Almost a song:

Come Nora!
Come Nora!
You must come!
You must come with me!
You must come nurse the Erl Prince
In a kingdom low by the sea.

…It was a small man with a horn, standing by a long black boat there at the edge of the tide. But I never knew when it was that I first saw him, or when he first spoke.  The cow’s lowing became the dark horn blowing, and then it was too late…

Full, full of enchantment, this tale – told by various voices – follows the path of Nora, trapped in the Erl Queen’s kingdom, her husband Eben who believes she has drowned, her son Owen, raised by the only woman his father can find to feed him – the witch Bab Magga, and Eelie, the Erl-Prince himself. 

Dahlov Ipcar the author, who was born in 1917, is an artist who has written and illustrated many other books for children.  She currently lives in Maine and is still painting.  You can see examples of her work at her website here.  I don’t believe her other three YA novels are in print, but I would love to read them.

Second of my three examples is Seaward by Susan Cooper (Bodley Head 1983, Puffin 1985)

Though Susan Cooper is best known for ‘The Dark Is Rising’ sequence of YA novels, in my opinion ‘Seaward’ outshines them all.  It’s simply one of the strangest, most haunting fantasies I’ve ever read. 

After his mother is killed, a boy called Westerly goes travelling seawards through a mysterious world to find his father - while Cally is a girl whose parents, one after the other, have left her, heading west to the sea themselves in a car driven by a mysterious woman with silver hair.  And then Cally begins to hear singing in the empty house… ‘rhythmic waves of melody repeated again and again.’  The voice sounds like her mother’s, but no one else can hear it.

Cally washed, pulled on a shirt and some jeans, went back into her parents’ room – and then all at once the singing was back… changed… to a pattern of hammer-blows, beating at her ears.  Cally wheeled about, her hands up in defence, terrified.

“Ma!  Ma!” 

It was instinctive, a cry for help. Where are you?  I need you, I don’t know what to do, where have you gone?  Ma, Dad, I can’t do without you, you’ve always been here, come back, come back…

On this note of unbearable grief, Cally is propelled, like Alice, through the cheval glass in her mother’s room and into the same world where Westerly is… a world where god-like figures play chess with mortals, where the bones of dead fish call out ‘in a thin high scream shrilling like a cicada’ to warn of danger, a world where Cally and Westerly are befriended by a creature like a silver mosquito three feet high, or pursued by The People who come to life when the sun touches them but change to stone at night:

All round the house, out at the edge of the trees, the massive stone figures had been standing in a silent ominous line. Now the sun was going down, and the shadow of the trees had overtaken them – and where they had stood was a long unbroken barrier of rock.

After many strange adventures, Cally and Westerly follow a path beside a small river leading towards the sea, and the path merges with a stone paved road:

And the road was filled with people, walking.  …There was no sound but the song of the birds and the slow-speaking river, and not one of the figures walking down the road spoke to any other…

Finally, at the sea, under the eternal sweeping beam of a lighthouse, Cally and Westerly come to their journey’s end. It's a moving and wonderful exploration of life, death and grief.

Third on my list is Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Stones Are Hatching (Oxford 1999). McCaughrean is one of Britain’s most original YA writers: she never repeats herself; but I still think this book stands out from the rest of her work.  It’s just… peculiar… in the most inventive and satisfying way. Perhaps there are echoes of Alan Garner – or even more, of William Mayne – but it’s another black swan, all right.  Set in rural England during World War I, while the guns thump and crump just across the Channel in France, young Phelim wakes up one morning to discover that his world is turning upside down. The stove has been pushed against the door - ‘the whole massive, five-door, cast-iron range’ – the kitchen is full of glashans: ‘stark naked men and women about as tall as his waist, shaggy and matted with filth’ – there’s a Black Dog outside, ravening and raging, and the domovoy or house spirit he never knew existed shoves him outside with the information that he – Phelim – is the Jack o’Green who must defeat the Stoor Worm.

It takes Phelim a long time to believe this.  Almost too long.  Not until he’s almost mown down by corn wives:

Phelim swung his sickle.  The wheat hissed, the bearded ears fell against his face making him close his eyes.  Then the curve of the blade clanged against something hollow and metallic and black.

A woman’s rib cage.

No white-clothed beauty this.  At close quarters, he could see the rust-red eyes, the adze-shaped chin, the nose as curved as a bill-hook.  Her long black skirt was pale with dust, but not the shiny black of her iron upper body.  Her long, flue-black, iron breasts had blunted countless sickle blades as she stood amid the wheat, waiting for her victims to blunder into her.  She held a long-handled scythe, but she and her sisters had not come to harvest wheat.

Only the reapers. 

And with Alexia the young Witch, Mad Sweeney the Fool, and the ever-cheery Obby Oss, Phelim reluctantly sets out to deal with the Worm which the guns of France are gradually awakening from its age-old sleep. 

What perhaps all these books have in common is an almost hallucinatory quality, a vision of the world as an unsettling, startling, ever-changing place full of unexpected grotesqueries, dangers and beauties.  Do read them.  They will enrich your life.

“Only those few black swans I must except, who behold death without dread, and the grave without fear, and embrace both as necessary guides to endless glory…”

Sir Walter Raleigh


  1. Cor! Can't wait to read the first two. The third I HAVE read and you are right. It is an oddity... Can I recommend Susan Price's Ghost Song/Dance/Drum trilogy? Perhaps you already know them... but few people do and they are amongst my favourites (I'm sure Mr Pullman must have read them...)

    James Mayhew

  2. Oh YES! I do know Sue Price's Ghost World series and you are right, they are utterly wonderful. Classics. Did you know she has just re-released them on Kindle?

  3. Those all sound good. And I haven't read any of them!

  4. Fantastic recommendations! Thank you.

  5. Hooray! I've just finished a gigantic Philosophy book and need this sort of thing to balance me out - I'm off to Amazon to order in these lovelies!

    Many thanks :)

  6. Oh, I remember reading Seaward and being just ... enchanted. It was one of the few books I didn't want to re-read as soon as I finished, because I didn't want to spoil its mystical quality. Except it's been a few years now, so I think I can safely re-read it. And I'll have to look for the other two, too.

  7. I hope you can all find them - some are probably out of print, but findable on Amazon marketplace or Abebooks, I expect.

    They really are wonderful.

  8. I've read A Dark Horn Blowing, and you're right. It's sui generis and definitely a black swan. Her Queen of Spells is also special. I'm rather baffled that you state she wrote 4 YA titles. Save for these two books her other titles seem to be picture books. Ardath Mayhar's Medicine Walk, as well as Soul-Singer of Tyrnos have that black swan feel, as do some of her other books.

  9. Jenny, Ipcar's other two fantasy titles appear to be 'General Felice' and 'Nightmare and her Foal and other stories' - the latter is descibes on her website as 'best for adults - the dark side of Dahlov'. I haven't been able to find them though.

    I shall have to look up the titles you recommend!

  10. I am going to keep my eyes peeled for these books. They do look special. Susan Cooper was my first introduction into the world of fantasy, yet I have never heard of her book "Seeward". Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. I've read Seaward, but a long time ago, and never heard of the others! I've added them to my library queue--thanks.

  12. I must get hold of some of these wonderful-sounding books!

  13. I can't believe that I've stumbled onto your page and found a book that I had been looking for but I couldn't remember the name of the book! I had the book " A Dark Horn Blowing" when I was a child. I remembered the cover of the book. I will now have to get a copy. Thank you :-)

  14. How lovely, Claire! I know what it's like to long for a half-forgotten book - and it won't disappoint you!