Once upon a time children’s books were the black sheep of fiction; like detective stories and westerns, they were tended mainly by specialists, critics of popular culture, or nostalgic sentimentalists. In libraries they were—and still are—herded together into a separate room, or quarantined from the rest of literature in the stacks under the letters PZ.
Recently, though, children’s literature has begun to be discovered by mainstream theorists and scholars. Learned volumes on its significance crowd the library shelves, and the professional journals are full of articles that consider every classic from Alice to Charlotte’s Web as a “text.”
And yet, apart from the few people who write for these journals and the—I suspect—even fewer who read them, many of the most interesting children’s books are little known. A case in point is William Mayne, one of the most gifted contemporary British writers. His thirty-five years in the field—in this case, you should probably picture a steep, stone-walled pasture in the Yorkshire dales, where Mayne has lived most of his life—have produced picture books, family stories, tales of mystery and adventure, and some of the best fantasy and time-travel fiction to come out of England since Tolkien.
Mayne’s dialogue has been likened to Pinter’s, his “exploration of sense experience” to that of Keats, his “alienation effects” to Brecht’s, and his sensitivity to landscape and primitive emotion to Lawrence’s. By and large, these comparisons are not all that far off. Mayne also manages to treat extremely sophisticated ideas and subjects—such as the ambiguities of perception and the shifting relations of present and past—in a lucidly simple manner, so that he can be read by children. If most of juvenile literature, however original and brilliant, was not still largely in quarantine, he would also be read by adults.
The first things about Mayne’s work that strike most critics are the vividness and economy of his language and his acute, subtle sense of how the world looks and sounds. In A Game of Dark, a story of a boy who loses himself and finds himself again in an imagined medieval world, fallen leaves are “circles of faded carpet along the streets,…and between these circles with their unsewn edges lay the starlit desert of cloudless pavement.” When he describes a train starting, the rhythm of his sentences is onomatopoeic:
Then there was a sort of small shake in the engine, and from the wheels there came a noise like sugar being trodden on, which was the rust on the rails being powdered. From the engine itself came a puffing roar and there was movement, and then there was going. [Salt River Times]
Even the briefest simile can open out:
There was [a bird] quite near, and he heard its wings flutter against the air like a book being shaken. [The Yellow Airplane]
The reader, if he or she chooses—and no doubt some do so choose—can test this comparison by shaking the volume in which it is printed, so that the book becomes the bird. It is the sort of odd reverberation that occurs in Mayne’s work.
He is also acute in describing mental phenomena, as in this meditation by a bedridden boy:
What you see in a dream is like part of you, all the trees are like your own hands and all the ground is like your own feet and the sun is part of your own eyes. There were trees in the garden, but their shadows were just as important; there were birds flying in the air, but the air was just as important. [Max’s Dream]
A related gift of Mayne’s is the ability to enter sympathetically into the minds of a wide range of characters. It is perhaps most brilliantly demonstrated in Salt River Times, a series of interlocking sketches set in a working-class Australian suburb. With what seems effortless ease, Mayne reproduces the speech and thoughts of an elderly Chinaman, a squabbling married couple, and a whole gallery of children and adolescents, including Kate, who is fascinated by mortality:
Dead? says Kate. Bring them in, the death bed, the death sheet. Does anybody want them. I’ll have them. I collect people, feathers, sharks, screams, ghosts. I am the collector. Bring them to me.
Though Mayne’s portraits of adults are often skillful, his important characters are usually children or innocents—unsophisticated, half-literate people, separated from the contemporary world in some way: they are gypsies, uneducated servants and laborers, farmers in remote Yorkshire villages, or inhabitants of an earlier period of history.
In Mayne’s books such protagonists or narrators see nature and human relations uncontaminated by received ideas, and speak a language that is both simple and original. They also have the child’s or the primitive’s relation to time: it is not regulated by clock and calendar, but is free to expand and contract according to subjective perception. In the mind of the old serving woman who is the narrator of Max’s Dream, today and sixty years ago melt into each other.
Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idio-syncratic memories of the past, and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the children is practical: they make rules, set tasks, and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool—sometimes, indeed, “Pinteresque.” In A Parcel of Trees, for instance, Susan (age fourteen) is sitting on her bed reading one hot day, when her mother challenges her:
“I don’t know how you’re going to make out at all,” said Mum. “Or I wouldn’t if we didn’t all feel the same. It’s the weather.”
“It’s the dreadful life we lead,” said Susan.
“What do you mean?” said Mum. “You’re the dreadful life, lying about like an old stump.”
“I haven’t any branches,” said Susan. “Do you think my soul’s died first, and I’m going on automatic?”
“To think you used to be a sweet little girl,” said Mum. “I enjoyed having you.”
Even between children real connection is unusual. What matters is not how they feel about each other but how they feel about themselves and the country or town they live in, or the success of some common enterprise.
Though Mayne often stands back several feet from his characters, his descriptions of Yorkshire are close and loving: he knows its economy of farming and sheep raising, its plants and animals, its weather and seasons. His preference seems to be for late autumn and winter, when the land is bare of leaves and of outsiders:
It snew the night through and it froze hard. But there were warm spots, like the shippon at milking time with the cows chewing and slopping and the milk cracking in the pail and coming in the dairy with hairy ice round the rim…. And there was always this aske wind, that never stopped. Most of the time it blew gentle, but there were days when it hurried on through our gates like the dog was on it, and the snow was stouring and banking up. [While the Bells Ring]
As with many other British writers, Mayne’s sense of place is intertwined with an almost archaeological sense of the past. He rejoices that every field has an ancient name, and that popular legends keep old beliefs and events alive. For him history is literally hidden beneath the landscape, and may appear at any time, as when Patty in Underground Alley discovers a five-hundred-year-old street of houses buried under a hill behind her cellar.
Occasionally the reappearance of the past is supernatural. In Earthfasts an eighteenth-century drummer boy called Nellie Jack John emerges into the modern world from beneath a ruined castle, carrying a candle that burns with a cold, unextinguishable light. His interpretation of contemporary events transforms them:
A car started in the market place, went up the steepness in a low gear…. “Wild boars,” said Nellie Jack John. “They come up by the town of a night.”
Mayne’s fascination with the past is not unique. Much of the population of Britain today appears to be living in the shadow of history, and sometimes, to judge by films, television, and popular literature, heroism, virtue, relevance, even meaning seem to have ended after World War II. For Mayne, however, this history is sometimes dark. Patty’s “Underground Alley” turns out to be a decoy built to entrap and destroy a caravan of horses and men carrying treasure from Wales; the bricks of its pavement are gold, but behind the false fronts of its houses lie bones. What is concealed underground, in the past, is often both death and treasure.
William Mayne has now written more than seventy books; as might be expected, his work is uneven. But at his best he is remarkable. Among his most interesting tales are Winter Quarters, a moving account of life among contemporary gypsies; and A Game of Dark, which can be read either as a time-travel story or the account of a boy on the edge of mental breakdown.
Winter Quarters, though a realistic narrative, is full of near-magical events. It is the story of the reuniting of a clan of “fairground people” that has been separated and leaderless for fifty years. They have now lost their permission—possibly their right—to camp in a field by the sea for the winter. Lall, a gypsy girl, stays behind with “houseys” when they are turned away. Instead of attending school, she reads the landscape:
The sheep were walking, standing, in clumps, scattered, lying at random. She herself added a punctuation to the meaningless sentence by standing in a corner of the field…on a rustling carpet of frost, while wrens flew about the hedge and bluetits scolded, and she heard the grass tear in sheep teeth.
Eventually, Lall discovers the buried secrets of her text, which as usual include both death and treasure.
Meanwhile a baby is born with birthmarks that proclaim him to be a chief, and the boy Issy is sent to search for the former chief, who was cast out by the tribe. In the course of his quest Issy meets many strange fairground characters, including one called Fish, who recites a fairground spiel that is also a metaphor of Issy’s search:
These are the original Sumatran Invisible Fish, and I had three this morning, but as you can tell there are now four, another one has hatched, what a sight, absolutely transparent except when they close their eyes, very rare. You get a better view if you close yours, that’s it…. You understand, you are invisible to them when you have your eyes open. So blink gently.
The undernote of the book is semiotic: the need to name the world before it can be known. As Issy puts it, “A thing is hard to see until you know what you are looking at. You have to be able to imagine it at the same time.” In a hall of mirrors he has another kind of vision, a new reading, if you like, of himself:
It was a tall, distorted, mangled reflection of himself, uncannily tall, a spindly stranger. When he put out his arm to its full length the pathetic monster in the glass put out a slow stub and could do no more.
And does this part of me, he wondered, try to come out from beyond the glass, being thrown back injured time after time? Am I like that, now and then?
Clearly, he is; and the old chief, too, turns out to have a strange, variously named shifting identity.
The hero of A Game of Dark also has two selves. He is a fourteen-year-old English schoolboy called Donald Jackson, deeply alienated from his narrowly fundamentalist parents. Though the book was published in 1971, it is prescient in its portrait of an adolescent out of touch with reality and absorbed in a Dungeons-and-Dragons type of imaginary world. It can also be read as a tale in the tradition of Borges or García Márquez, in which fantastic events are simultaneously real and metaphoric.
Donald’s mother is an exhausted, priggish, and disapproving schoolteacher whom he cannot seem to please. His father is a half-paralyzed invalid, white-faced and white-haired, angry, disapproving, and rigid in his faith. He and his wife read his affliction as a judgment or test:
“There was never much wrong physically,” said Mrs. Jackson. “We knew it was a visitation from God…. It was put upon us for our own good.”
Donald knows he should love and pity his father, but he cannot:
What he noticed most about the pain Mr. Jackson had to bear was his own inability to appreciate and understand it. It meant to him a white-faced man of uncertain temper and dour disposition.
Later he begins to fantasize that he is not the son of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson:
If he had been taken in by them, adopted…, that might account for the way he turned out not to please them…. If the man called Daddy was not his father, and the woman called Mum not his mother, then he had no need to feel guilty for no longer loving them as parents.
When Donald goes to visit his father in the hospital he feels he is in a “bedroom that he had no right to be in.” Mr. Jackson, blurred by drugs, also denies his son’s existence, though he remembers Donald’s sister, who died before Donald was born; and Mrs. Jackson reinforces the denial:
“Hello, boy,” said Mr. Jackson, in a slow drawling tone. “Where’s Cecily?”
“She’s all right,” said Mrs. Jackson. “She couldn’t come today.”
Finally, approaching the hospital on his next visit, Donald imagines his father lying inside and rejects him wholly:
That patch of life was not even a person at present, not even intelligence, and most of all it had nothing to do with his own existence, he had nothing to do with its; he had no feelings about it except revulsion.
But though they increase during the book, Donald’s misery and disorientation are evident from the first line:
Donald heard Mr. Savery shouting at him: “Jackson, what’s the matter?” Donald tried to speak, but he had no throat to speak with and nothing to say, nothing that he knew about.
“The days are just happening,” he says at one point. “I can’t do anything about them.” His surroundings seem unreal, and he seems unreal to himself:
Donald sat in the vacuum of indoors and heard the weather being pumped past, as if it were emptying the building and increasing the internal vacuum.
While he goes passively through the motions of living, Donald moves in and out of another world in which he is known as Jackson and is active, competent, and loved. Here he comes upon a medieval town threatened by a huge dragon, or worm: icy cold, death-white, with an unbearable stench and a slimy track twenty feet wide. At first Donald realizes that this world is fantasy:
One is real, he said to himself. Donald is real. The other is a game of darkness, and I can be either and step from one to the other as I like.
Soon his two worlds become equally real. In the medieval town he becomes the trusted squire of the local lord, and then a knight. Naturally, he begins to prefer this world:
He was seeing both places, and could again choose which to take. He chose the one with less shame and guilt to it.
It is clear that Donald’s alternate world, real or not, is a metaphor for the real one. The worm stands for violence and hatred; but it is also a version of his father, a death-white, cold, crawling phallic horror (Mr. Jackson, like the monster, cannot walk) whose entire will is toward destruction. The girl, Carrica, whom Donald rescues from the worm, and who comes to love him, is both his mother at an earlier age and his lost sister, Cecily.
The lord Donald serves is an idealized version of Berry, the good-natured Anglican vicar. Both of them stand for order and reason: “an accepted way of doing things, a framework in which to live and achieve the best.” It is a limited vision, which underestimates the power of evil. Gradually, Donald comes to see Berry’s tolerance as weakness:
The meeting [of the church Youth Guild] had been what Berry called an open-ended argument, so open-ended that anything put into it fell right through without affecting what was being talked about.
The lord is equally limited. “With a proper administrative set-up,” he remarks at one point, “the worm would probably leave of its own accord.”
The worm does not leave, but at first its taking of human life is controlled by providing livestock for it to devour. Eventually, however, the villagers begin to run out of cows and sheep, and the lord must fight the worm. He approaches it bravely in the traditional way, and fails: “The orderliness had at last killed him, because the accepted way of dealing with worms had been fatal,” Jackson thinks.
It is left to Jackson to destroy the worm, which he does by craft at the very end of the book. Meanwhile, in his other life, his father has come home from the hospital and is lying ill in the room next door, breathing loudly and raspingly so that Donald cannot sleep, haunting his world as the worm does the medieval town, so that “the whole life of the house, the whole intent of the day, seemed to centre on him, or on something near him, his illness.”
Jackson’s triumph is flawed; the worm “was slain in unfair combat, and no glory from its death could come to him.” “It was not an honorable deed,” he says to Carrica. Yet afterward Donald can see his two worlds clearly for the first time:
Half of him watched the house in Hales Hill. Half looked at the girl, Carrica…. She was his mother or his sister,…and he knew that the man in the other room was his father, whom he knew now how to love. Carrica was a phantom if he wanted her to be, and the house in Hales Hill was another, and he had the choice of which to remain with.
Just after he has chosen to return to the present-day world, his father dies in the next room: “There was no more breathing. Donald lay and listened to the quiet, and went to sleep, consolate.” This is the end of the book; an ending that has puzzled and disturbed critics. The supernatural explanation would be that Donald killed his father when he slew the worm; he will know “how to love” Mr. Jackson now because Mr. Jackson will be dead. A more naturalistic reading might suggest that once Donald realizes his father is dying, he no longer needs to hate and fear him.
On another level, we as readers repeat Donald’s experience. While we are engaged with the book we are passive in the “real” world and active in imagination: the bird flies as the pages are shaken. When we reach the end of the story and return to reality the characters become phantoms; in a sense, we have killed them.
One of the strengths of the story is that it holds all these readings, and no doubt others, in suspension. A Game of Dark, like all of William Mayne’s best work, and most serious fiction, adult or “juvenile,” does not end neatly. Instead it opens out possibility and meaning.
February 18, 1988