Friday 21 February 2014

Magical Classics: "The King of Ireland's Son" by Padraic Colum

"Then he came from where he was hiding and gave her the swanskin"

John Patrick Pazdziora on an enchanting Irish classic.

The affair began, as so many do, at a conference. I was just seventeen, and—no, it wasn’t that kind of affair. Good heavens. This was the love of a book.

There were booths aplenty in the Great Hall/gymnasium, but I bulldozed straight to one particular booth—the used book corner, a towering square of collapsible shelves filled with library discards. The bookseller was a charming woman of a certain age, one of those astonishing people who fill the room at a stropping six-foot-five and still manage to seem dainty. She was fond of me, knowing as she did from long experience that I would routinely plonk three months’ worth of allowance on piles of books I’d never heard of and didn’t know I wanted.

“I’ve got a book I think you’d like, hon,” she said. With an easy grace, her huge hand delicately plucked a battered hardcover off the top shelf and plopped it into my hand. It was like so many other easy introductions—half-distracted by the roar of the booths, my mind fretting with the jabber of what to do and where to go and who to see next, a quick glance that saw only the frumpy, mouse-nipped cover, the horrible green and pink striped jacket in the worst possible 1960s way.

“Ah yes,” I said. (What a miserable first impression I must have made.) I turned the book over. “The King of Ireland’s Son. I’ve never heard of this one.”

The bookseller nodded complacently. “It’s very hard to find.”

I looked at the price, swallowed a few times. Ass that I was, trying to measure its value in filthy lucre. “Is it worth it?”

The bookseller widened her eyes and tilted her head, like a duchess who has just found a caterpillar in the soup. “My de-ah! Anything by Padraic Colum is always worth it!”

So it went on the heap like the rest, in the casual way you jot down a number or an email (though this was before email was A Thing) and move on to the next introduction, the next drink, the next book. And it wasn’t till later—how much later I don’t know—that I remembered that ugly green and pink striped book that was so hard to find, that the soft music of the name Padraic Colum crept back in mind, and I sat down to read The King of Ireland’s Son.

Connal was the name of the King who ruled over Ireland at that time. He had three sons, and, as the fir trees grow, some crooked and some straight, one of them grew up so wild that in the end the King and the King’s Councillor had to let him have his own way in everything. This youth was the King’s eldest son and his mother had died before she could be a guide to him.

I honestly don’t remember reading it for the first time. I think, perhaps, there’s just a flicker of memory of my great-grandmother’s white armchair and the lights on of a winter’s evening as I sat, reading about the King of the Land of Mist and Fedelma the Enchanter’s Daughter. I think. I read a lot of books in that chair, so this memory might be confused with another, or several others. And try as I might now, I can’t unstitch the rhythms and richness and sound, the great rolling mouthy feel of the book, from the memories of my childhood and my adolescence, from my own faltering steps and proud determination at being a Real Writer. The memory of it has seeped in through all the cracks and gaps and crevices. Remembering when I first read it is like remembering when I first learned how to slot one word after another and talk. It’s that kind of book.

Now after the King and the King’s Councillor left him to his own way the youth I’m telling you about did nothing but ride and hunt all day. Well, one morning he rode abroad—
                              His hound at his heel,
                              His hawk at his wrist,
               A brave steed to carry him whither he list,
                              And the blue sky over him,
and he rode until he came to a turn in the road. There he saw an old gray man seated on a heap of stones playing a game of cards with himself. Now he would say “That’s my good right,” and then he would say “Play and beat that, my gallant left.” The King of Ireland’s Son sat on his horse to watch the strange old man, and as he watched he sang a song to himself—

Whenever it was, when I first read The King of Ireland’s Son, I’d never heard of the Celtic Twilight or Padraic Colum. I’d yet to have my undergraduate romance with the poetry of Yeats. I’d fallen under the spell of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, but not Harry Potter. I’d read Little Dorrit and Ivanhoe, but not Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was at an impressionable age, you might say, and certainly I was hungry for a good story, for magical sounding words. And if this strange little mouse-nipped book had simply been another cracking discovery, like The Twilight of Magic, it would have been good enough. 

But it’s one of those books that explodes in your hands and in your mind and in your heart, and gets all over the way you think about story and the way you use words—one of those books that twists round inside you and takes you in ways and places you’ve never thought of. Reading it was like seeing a magician for the first time, without knowing anything about sleight of hand or picking a card, any card, so you still think it’s all in the word and the mind and the eye, and would do even if the magician was holding a sheet over his face and saying he’d disappeared. Except it’s a really good magician, one of those sleight-of-hand lads that make professional illusionists look like hacks, one of those who, even long after you’ve learned all the tricks and knots and secret chambers themselves, when you see them perform you—you just can’t help but wonder…
You’re seeing magic for the first time, before your very eyes. And it’s all told in the most wonderful, magical, enchanting words. They’re words written for speech, these words, for resonance and richness and music. They’ll change your life, these words, or at the very least they’ll change the way you think about the stories that you tell, and listen to.

It’s that kind of book.

I put the fastenings on my boat
               For a year and for a day,
And I went to where the rowans grow,
               And where the moorhens lay;
And I went over the steppingstones
               And dipped my feet in the ford,
And came at last to the Swineherd’s house—
               The Youth without a Sword.
A swallow sang upon his porch,
               “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee,”
“The wonder of all wandering,
               “The wonder of the sea”;
A swallow soon to leave ground sang
               “Glu-ee, glu-ee, glu-ee.”

“Prince,” said the old fellow looking up at him, “if you can play a game as well as you can sing a song, I’d like if you would sit down beside me.”
“I can play any game,” said the King of Ireland’s Son. He fastened his horse to the branch of a tree and sat down on the heap of stones beside the old man.
“What shall we play for?” said the gray old fellow.
“Whatever you like,” said the King of Ireland’s Son.
“If I win you must give me anything I ask, and if you win I shall give you anything you ask. Will you agree to that?”

Listen! It’s as if Colum has taken every fairy tale and folk story you’ve ever heard or thought of, and a few you haven’t, and he’s taken all the best bits of them, the most magical, and woven them together into a seamless, shining whole. Tale after tale flows over you, and when you expect one story to stop, you find it’s given rise to another, including the best telling of “The Three Ravens” that I’ve ever heard. There’s tricksters and devils and storytellers, bold knights who fall in disgrace and daring maidens who rescue them. There’s three daughters, two of them bad and one of them good, and there’s a battle between the animals and the birds, and the King of Cats comes to Ireland. There’s Gillie of the Goatskin who’s gone in search of the Unique Tale and winds up confronting the Churl of the Townland of Mischance, and there’s Rory the Fox who steals the Crystal Egg and its power of wishing. There’s the silent maiden, Sheen, who follows the Hunter King’s soul into the Quaking Bog, there’s the Pooka—who’s a timid little fellow, as the Little Red Hen knows—and there’s the search for the Swan of Endless Tales. 

And it’s all one story! And that’s just the beginning, with more to come besides. Adventures, quests, enchantments, deceptions, impossible tasks, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love—heck, I can’t even describe it without sounding like Peter Falk.

Go read it. Go read it right now. It’s that kind of book, too.

“A goose to hatch the Crystal Egg after an Eagle had half-hatched it! Aye, aye, to be sure, that’s right,” said the Old Woman of Beare. “And now you must go find out what happened to it. Go now, and when you come back I will give you your name.”

John Patrick Pazdziora (PhD, St Andrews) is a research associate at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, St Mary’s College, St Andrews. His primary work is on Scottish literature in the nineteenth century, and the adaptation of folklore and the ballad tradition in children’s literature; he has particular interest in George MacDonald, James Hogg, and Andrew Lang. He has also published on more modern authors such as James Thurber, Claire Dean, and J. K. Rowling. With Christopher MacLachlan and Ginger Stelle, he co-edited Re-Thinking George MacDonald: Contexts and Contemporaries (ASLS 2013), and edited New Fairy Tales: Essays and Stories (Unlocking, 2013) with Defne Çizakça. He is also the general editor of Unsettling Wonder (, an imprint of Papaveria Press.

Picture credits: "The King of Ireland's Son": all illustrations by Willy Pogany via Sacred Texts: you can read the book online here.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Magical Classics: ROOM 13 by Robert Swindells

When vampires were vampires! Sally Nicholls, and the delights of being scared out of your wits.

There was one in the corner of every classroom. A bookcase on wheels, with shelves on either side, filled with books. The books were supposed to get more difficult to read as we went up the school, but there were a few titles which cropped up in classroom after classroom. Roald Dahl, of course. (It was the early 90s). Anne Fine. Dick King Smith. Carbonel the Witch’s Cat, and Noel Stretfeild’s The Circus is Coming. These were the books were supposed to borrow and write lists of in our reading journals. They were the books we read in Silent Reading every Friday, and from which our class readers were chosen.

Most of my class weren’t great readers, but since Friday came round as surely as the moon, we all borrowed books from the bookcase, and inevitably favourites developed. In Year Seven, our classroom favourites were Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’berg, which didn’t click for me, and Vivien Alcock’s The Cuckoo Sister; a wonderful, wonderful book which any publishers reading this blog should go and bring back into print immediately.

But in Year Six our classroom favourite was Room 13 by Robert Swindells.

Room 13 was about a vampire. Not a sexy vampire, but a vampire who was slowly murdering one of the girls on a school trip to Whitby. The hotel the class were staying in didn’t have a room 13, except in the middle of the night, when it did, because that’s where the vampire lived.

The vampire was frightening. That’s why we all loved the book. We didn’t want to date him, we wanted to murder him, as the children in the novel have to, with a stick of rock sharpened to a point, a large rock to hammer in the point, and a crucifix made from the crossed sticks of a plastic kite. (I think there may have been something else they used, but I’m deliberately not looking up the plot because I’m fascinated by how much I can remember of a novel I read once twenty years ago, when I was ten. Quite a lot, is the answer. Much more than I can remember of the Enid Blytons I read and read and read at the same time.)

Oh, a torch! They had a torch as well.

I didn’t have much opportunity to be scared when I was ten. There was Point Horror, about which I was somewhat snobbish, and were anyway mostly American and never managed to frighten me. My mother never censored my reading, but she did censor my viewing – I remember not being allowed to watch Labyrinth, and she was even a bit doubtful about The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which went out on the BBC when I was six. I don’t remember actually being that scared of Room 13, but I remembered the thrill of reading something which didn’t patronise its audience, that included dark nights, and hidden rooms, and children with agency, and villains who were unashamedly evil. We felt respected by Room 13 in a way I rarely felt respected by Point Horror or Goosebumps. It was also a great story.

When writing my first ghost novel for children, Close Your Pretty Eyes, I never considered toning down the terror. I was more worried about making it frightening enough. I wanted the child reader to feel respected. I wanted to appeal to the sort of child who enjoyed novels like Coraline, or the scarier Doctor Who episodes. Doctor Who may cut down the blood or gore, but it rarely worries about being too frightening. I wanted a genuinely murderous villain, like the vampire in Room 13, and child characters with the agency to defeat her.

I was a little unprepared for the adults who read Close Your Pretty Eyes and professed themselves ‘too frightened’, who questioned whether it was a children’s book and read it with the lights left on. I am sure there will be children who will be too young for this book, and will not want to read it. 

But when I was ten, I wanted to be frightened.

Sally Nicholls, courting danger. In the act of being swallowed by a mad tree.

 Sally Nicholls was born in Stockton, just after midnight, in a  thunderstorm. Her father died when she was two and she and her brother  were brought up by her mother. She has always loved reading and spent  most of her childhood trying to make life work like it did in books.  After school, she worked in Japan for six months and travelled around  Australia and New Zealand, then came back and did a degree in Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick. In her third year she  enrolled in a Master in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. It was here at the age of twenty-two that she wrote Ways to Live Forever, her first novel, which went on to win the Waterstones Children’s Book  Prize 2008. She was also named Glen Dimplex New Writer of the Year in  2008. Sally’s later work includes Season of Secrets, All Fall Down and the really rather terrifying ghost story Close Your Pretty Eyes.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Review: PUREHEART by Cassandra Golds

This has to be the most heartbreakingly beautiful book I have read in years.

It begins with a reunion.  Soon after attending her grandmother’s funeral, a young girl, Deirdre, looks out of the window of Corbenic, the rambling, near-derelict block of flats which is her home.  She sees a young man waiting huddled under the streetlight and recognises him as Gal, the love of her life. She runs out to meet him.

Since they were five years old, Gal has always loved and defended Deirdre.  As little children they played together and created a brief space of love and warmth before Deirdre’s manipulative grandmother separated them. Later, at school, Gal saved Deirdre from being burned when a bout of playground bullying went too far. Once more they were separated.  Although she loves Gal entirely, Deirdre has never had the confidence or the self-esteem to believe she deserves to be loved back. But now her grandmother is dead, and Gal has returned.

“Break free,” he whispered.
She touched him lightly on the arm, meaning to draw him back across the street with her, but he flinched, as if she had touched something sore.  Or as if her touch was so cold it shot arrows of ice through his veins.  Or as if he had not been touched for a very long time.
“Have you remembered?” he said.
She knew immediately what he was talking about.  It was the most important thing in both their lives.
“No,” she said.  “Have you?”

For there is something Deirdre and Gal must find – something they once saw as children but can barely remember. In search of it, they must explore the dusty, cracked passages of Corbenic, the residential hotel which her great-grandfather built and her grandmother kept extending. Corbenic, whose corridors and stairways open on to infinite dimensions. Corbenic, which is haunted by the terrible, shrill presence of a malevolent ghost-child.

‘Pureheart’ is a reworking of the legend of the Holy Grail. Gal’s full name is Galahad, the pure-hearted knight of the Morte D’Arthur, and the derelict, multi-dimensional block of flats is a version of the Grail castle, home of the wounded Fisher King. That’s not to say the correspondences are exact.  They’re not meant to be. But Corbenic is and has been the home of wounded, un-whole people. And Deirdre and Gal will never be whole and free until they find the forgotten thing at Corbenic’s hidden heart.

Cassandra Golds’ characters operate under immense psychological pressure. They are like creatures of the ocean deeps, so used to living and functioning under tons of black water that they accept it as normal.  Oddly, this isn’t depressing: her heroines may seem fragile but they are brave and true as steel, and there is always hope. Her books celebrate love and the power of love, acknowledging that it can be difficult to find but affirming that in the end, it is the one thing worth having.  

As they crossed the misty street together it was as if they were wading into that ancient subterranean river – the one that flows through all of us, so close to the surface and yet so impossibly deep – that marks the border between the present and the past, the land of forgetting and the land of remembering.

When I try to think of anyone whose work is remotely similar to Cassandra’s, the only writer I can think of is Hans Christian Andersen.  There is the same mix of strength and lightness, beauty and melancholy, the same ability to write apparently simple fables which resonate long in the mind. It’s also an utter joy to read such beautiful prose.  Golds is an artist. There are few authors of this calibre writing for anyone, anywhere, anytime.  Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get hold of her books outside Australia - although they can be ordered via this website: Fishpond - so if any US or British publisher is reading this, here is an opportunity not to be missed. 

 Visit Cassandra's website:

Friday 7 February 2014

Magical Classics: "A Necklace of Raindrops" by Joan Aiken

Jo Cotterill reflects on the enduring magic of Joan Aiken's marvellous fairytales.

I don’t know how old I was when I read A Necklace of Raindrops. I only know that it caused a tremendous longing in my soul for such a necklace. I was a girly child, fond of tutus and fairy wings, and a desperate desire for my own unicorn. The Necklace fitted perfectly into my romantic visions.

One dark and stormy night (yes, one of those beginnings!), Mr Jones, recently a father, finds the North Wind, personified as a tall man, stuck in his holly tree. On helping him get free, Mr Jones is rewarded by a necklace of three raindrops which the North Wind hands over as a present for his new baby daughter. ‘I will be the baby’s godfather’ he says imperiously. He promises to bring the girl a new raindrop every year on her birthday (the necklace starts life with three raindrops) and each raindrop will confer a new magic power. By the time she has the full set of ten raindrops (on her seventh birthday) she will be able to swim any river, go unharmed in the worst storm, and make it start and stop raining, among other things.

But as always there is a catch. The little girl, named Laura, is not allowed to take off the necklace, otherwise, the North Wind says vaguely, ‘it might bring bad luck’. What kind of a warning is that?

Anyway, Laura grows into a nice little girl who loves her necklace and dutifully wears it all the time – until she begins to attend school. Another girl, Meg, is jealous of Laura’s pretty necklace and so she tells the teacher that Laura is wearing jewellery. The teacher makes Laura remove the necklace, but Meg steals it from its safe place and takes it home. Laura is distraught – all the more so because it’s her birthday soon and her godfather is due to bring the tenth and final raindrop. Meg soon finds that crime doesn’t pay because the necklace doesn’t work for her, and her father takes it away. He sells it and soon it is on a ship, destined as a present for the princess of Arabia.

Laura cries desperately over the loss of her necklace, but in a Disney-like fashion, birds and animals pop up and offer to help her find it. Apparently, she has been kind to them in the past (though the story makes no mention of it up to now – an editor these days would demand earlier references!) and now they become her personal spies, sniffing out information.

Before long, Laura is on the trail of the necklace and has to take a ride on a friendly dolphin (since she can no longer swim) to Arabia where she begs the princess to return her necklace. In the ensuing argument, the North Wind arrives with the final raindrop. Annoyed that his god-daughter has taken off his present (after nearly seven years!) he lets the raindrop fall onto the grass where it is lost. The princess takes pity on Laura and hands over the necklace, whereupon one of Laura’s tears falls onto the necklace and becomes the final raindrop.

As a child, I was fascinated by the romance in Joan Aiken’s stories. Magic was referred to in such a practical way that it was taken for granted that buses could fly, unicorns could arrive on your lawn, and raindrops could hang from a necklace without falling off. It was the fantastical element that appealed, along with the stunning illustrations by Jan Pienkowski, my favourite ever illustrator.

It is interesting to me that as a writer, I shy away from fantasy now. It was such an enormous part of my childhood, and yet I don’t write fantasy at all. I hardly read it now either, and again I can’t explain why. Perhaps the practical, cynical side of me that says magic isn’t real has shouted down the inner romantic?

And yet…and yet…as I grow older, I find myself seeking out stories with magical elements. Not necklaces or unicorns, but real life experiences that defy rational explanation. And I am more and more attracted to fiction with a romantic edge: not necessarily a falling-in-love one, but a slightly rose-tinted one where people get the happy endings they deserve.

I do think that having children has had something to do with this. I have two young daughters, and for them, every day is magical in the smallest ways. My eldest licks frost from the tree. My youngest echoes the ‘beep’ from the microwave. I have begun to look at the world in fresh ways, noticing the beaded cobwebs in the garden and feeling so disappointed if there is no one to share them with.

And now I am sharing the necklace of raindrops with my eldest. At five and a half, this is the first story that she has eagerly wanted to read for herself. I read it to her, and then she wanted to read it to me. It took us four bedtimes to get through it, but she finished it in the end and the delight on her face was beyond words.

As if I needed any more proof of the power of this fairytale, she presented me with her Christmas list. Under ‘pink mobile phone, Rapunzel Barbie and chocolate coin maker’ she had written ‘necklace of raindrops’.

Here is the 'necklace of raindrops' that I made for my daughter this Christmas.  She was very excited to find it in her stocking on Christmas morning!

Jo Cotterill has been an actor, musician and teacher and now writes books at her home in Oxfordshire. She has published 21 books for young people and teenagers, including the critically acclaimed ‘Red Tears’ (as Joanna Kenrick) and her light romance series ‘Sweet Hearts’. Her new book, ‘Looking at the Stars’, a story of inspiration and imagination among refugees, has just been published by Bodley Head.