During lockdown I’ve been reading some old children’s books I remembered hearing about decades ago but never got round to reading at the time. I’ve had grippingly realistic stories about modern social issues, and stories that drift in to the paranormal. Recently I’ve looked back at some stories that touch on pagan mythology, though in these cases I did read the books when I was young enough to be in the target audience.
Norse mythology has an odd status as a topic that it is safe to teach even in designated Christian schools: the religion is as dead as those of Egypt or Babylon and thus can be a passive object of distant curiosity. Of course there are all kinds of modern esoterics trying to weave it into their homebrew spiritualities, but that is too marginal to count as a dangerous influence. The Vikings are part of the History Of Britain, so we should know about the enemy our kings defeated, and the Gods they failed. This is also a marginal interest, and it is heartwarming to see the grave of Athelstan in Malmesbury Abbey is not festooned in crap from far-right idiots, although there would be something fitting in them making an empty tomb their shrine of Lost England.
The oddity of these books, which seems even odder when reading them again as an adult, is their attitude to the Norse belief-structure itself, and what the reader is expected to think about religion in general.
Eight Days Of Luke by Diana Wynne Jones (1975)
I read this in about 1986, possibly bought at a jumble sale. It is not set in a world I know but it’s the conclusion that made the most impression. Here’s how it starts:
Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great-Aunt Dot, Great-Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him.
David tried to be grateful. They sent him to a boarding-school which, as schools go, was not bad. Most holidays they arranged for him to go on an Educational Tour or to a Holiday Camp, and these were usually interesting enough to make up for David’s not knowing any of the other boys who went on them. He did feel grateful when Cousin Ronald pointed out that he had opportunities which few other boys were given. But when he was at home in Ashbury and not on a Tour or Camp, he found it much harder to be grateful. And the older he grew, the harder he found it.
His family are as dreadful as you will gathered, and they can afford to have their own cook and general servant Mrs Thirsk, whose role is never introduced as the reader is expected to grasp it right away. The time is contemporary, as his journey home from school is disrupted by “the railway work-to-rule” causing a 2-hour delay at Birmingham. Wherever home is exactly, it is somewhere from which a holiday in Scarborough is a special treat.
The Clarksons were the only children near and they were both younger than David, but they liked cricket and they were not bad fun, considering. The only trouble was that Aunt Dot said they were vulgar. David could never see why. He thought, as he climbed off the bus, that it was a habit of Aunt Dot’s to call things vulgar – like Kent at school calling everything spastic – and it didn’t mean a thing.
Because this tribe of snobs didn’t expect him home when he arrived, they didn’t book anywhere to bundle him off to while they went on their own holidays. So they decide instead to send him off to a crammer college, simply to get him out of the way. He broods on this when sent out from dinner in disgrace, grasping the central problem that these people simply don’t want him to exist.
’Oh, I hate being grateful!’ David said. And he wished his relations were wicked, instead of just ordinary people, so that he could do something awful to them… Suppose he put a curse on them? Yes, that was it. He had read a rather pointless book last term, in which the boy put a curse on someone and it had worked…
David roved up and down the hot space thinking what to put. And he had another idea. He would not curse them in English, because that was too ordinary, so ordinary that it might not even work. But he had read somewhere else that if you gave a set of monkeys a typewriter each and let them type away for twenty years or so – wouldn’t they get tired of it within five minutes? David broke off to wonder – anyway, they typed away and ended up accidentally typing the complete works of Shakespeare. In the same way, surely, if you just said any sounds that came into your head, wouldn’t you, mightn’t you, end up by reciting a real rattling good curse that would make it snow in Scarborough all next week and perhaps bring Cousin Ronald out in green spots into the bargain? And if it did, it would have the advantage of an accident, and not truly David’s fault at all.
The mad excitement of early teenage intellectualism, with its inane “facts” taken from trashy articles and tatty paperbacks.
At last he found the best combination of all. He could really almost believe it was words, fierce, terrible words. They asked to be said. And they asked to be said, too, in an important, impressive way, loudly, from somewhere high up.
And so the command is uttered and a great rupture occurs and the void brings forth… “the stranger, jauntily smiling. ‘I’m Luke. Who are you?’ – though the more immediate distractions are the large venomous snakes that appeared at the same time as his new companion.
And so also begins Luke’s insinuation into the lives of David Allard and his relations, and David’s introduction to a wider group of strange people around the area: Mr Chew, Mr Wedding, Mr and Mrs Fry… there is also a jolly talking raven that follows him about, and assures him that it will answer all his questions.
’It’s only fair to tell you,’ said the bird. ‘You don’t know all the facts.’
’No. But I’m finding out, aren’t I?’ said David. ‘Thanks anyway.’
But what he has to find out is that his new friend has a history in this group and hasn’t told him everything right away.
Luke opened his mouth as if he wanted to deny it, but he seemed to realise no one would believe him if he did. He looked desperately round the circle, though whether he was looking for someone who sympathised or a chance of escaping, David could not tell. He did not find either.
David was so sorry for him that he shoved his way into the middle of the circle. ‘Look here,’ he said. ‘Luke told me he didn’t do anything and I know he meant it.’
There was a great silence, and everyone looked at David. Most of them were haughty and indignant. Luke gave him a harassed smile. Mr Wedding also smiled, a curious secret smile, but not, it seemed, because he was glad to see David.
’I see I should not have let you keep those shells and stones,’ he said. ‘Take my advice and go away. Don’t you realize by now that Luke has no conscience and has simply charmed you?’
In the end, the secret struggle reveals itself, and the Gods are visible.
’…These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.’
So… are the Norse Gods real? Was the rise of Christianity a temporary setback, or at least that’s how it seemed to them? Some strange messages here if you take all the huffing and puffing seriously, and it certainly isn’t a straightforward adventure. This is the start of a journey into the Great Questions, such as this one:
’Nothing you can help about, David. Wouldn’t you say it was worth it, to be really happy for a while, even if you knew you were going to end up sad ever after?’
Voyage To Valhalla by Robert Swindells (1976)
I read an earlier hardback edition of this when I was about 8 and of course it seemed much longer, and I probably took weeks to get through the 120 or so pages. The style was the problem – this was written in a coldly realistic world, where kids expected each other to be at home “probably sitting in front of the telly scoffing crisps”, yet also one where monstrous apparitions can appear, and the adults are not generally likeable either. The New Windmill Series edition I have (formerly property of Midhurst Intermediate School) includes illustrations, but I can’t remember if they were in the one I read.
Background details are sparse and it is not stated exactly where we are in Britain, but it seems to be contemporary and somewhere in Yorkshire not far from the coast, judging from the accents recorded and the fact that a longboat plays a role in the plot. We launch straight in with Davy, Chris and Paula trying to go apple scrumping from the big house as they’re used to doing, but it turns out the new owner isn’t too friendly. And they also notice that he’s put up a big shed over the ground where the “long, bush-covered mound” used to be. The man (we never learn his name) yells at the kids to get out, and the other 2 grumble that Davy was a useless look-out.
’What a miserable old pig!’ aid Paula.
’No more goosegogs or apples, it looks like,’ grumbled Chris. He turned on Davy. ‘And you’re a right one, and all; standing there looking at him like a wet nelly; why the hell didn’t you yell out as soon as you saw him?’
Davy was gazing back towards the wall, biting his lower lip. ‘It wasn’t him I saw,’ he said.
We do not always stay with the kids, and the narrative catches up with them in different locations. Where they live is a village not close to any large town, so they are happy roaming in country lanes. Whatever Davy saw was quite unusual (“The pointing finger shook a little”). Meanwhile the man sets to work to guard against further intruders.
The man came out of the shed, perspiring in spite of the chill and stood gazing through the tangle towards the wall. There was earth on his hands and he wiped them absently on the worn seat of his corduroy trousers.
The magic of this book is established in passages like the above: the slow picking-out of familiar details (sweaty faces, dirty hands, old trousers) to ground us in the every day world and not fantasy fiction, so the breaking-in of the historical paranormal is more unsettling. The defence mechanism of “story book nonsense” is harder when we have been introduced to this world as being somewhere inside the one lying just outside the pages, not a world only known in television.
There are of course local legends around Wemock House and the unhappiness of anyone who tried to live there for long.
Sam didn’t care much for being near this place in daylight, let alone the middle of the night. Queer things happened here, or so folks said. Nothing queer had ever happened to Sam but there was something about the feel of the place he didn’t like. Sixty-odd years ago, when he was a lad, Wemock House had had the only orchard in the county that was free of scrumpers. The kids just didn’t go there.
The implication, not drawn explicitly, is that our 3 modern youngsters have lost touch with the old local wisdom, and might be heading in to trouble even if the Man hadn’t taken over the property.
Old Sam Pogson finds his dog Gyp runs off and gets lost in the undergrowth, before he gets a fright at a mysterious stranger gazing at him in the dark. The kids find the dog trapped in an old badger sett and take the initiative rescuing it; another unstated implication is that it would have slowly starved to death without their rescue efforts. In the process they dig up a skull, which leads to a whole skeletal collection.
But now Davy is coming under a special influence.
The haze, suspended on breathless air, melted away. The sun beat down on the wood so that its foliage seemed to wilt into limp submission. Thin bright lances pinned tree-shadows to the earth and in their light myriad insects danced.
Motionless on the warm bank Davy gazed away down golden aisles until his vision blurred. When the movement began it impinged upon his vision only as a continuation of the shimmering insect-dance. Until the shifting kaleidoscope of light and shadow fell into a pattern which stirred a memory, and then the man was there, watching from a tangle of trees as he had in the orchard. Without motion, without sound or expression, yet projecting an appeal, more urgent now, that the boy should approach him. Davy’s eyes focussed again and there was change, yet his mind barely registered the change. The trench was gone, and the girl, and the boy in the tree. And when Davy rose, walking with his eyes fixed upon the one who waited, it seemed to him that the very trees were changed: he sensed in the wood some subtle alteration of density, of position, of…
This vision is just the start of Davy becoming possessed of mysterious secret knowledge of the area and the mission of the spectres who patrol it. He knows that there are 3 remains to be dug up, and how they died, and what is preserved in the mound that the angry new owner of Wemock House put a shed over, to protect his excavation of its treasures. He learns that this place was once “Ve Mork” in another language, which he can understand in dreams, but only the reader can see the hidden correspondence to the modern English name.
The kids know there is no point telling anyone what they’ve found, at least until they’ve reached the end of the investigation.
Paula kicked a stone. ‘Tell ‘em nowt!’ she snarled. ‘As soon as you tell grown-ups anything, they start spoiling everything.’
This does seem to be true, and Davy’s mum seems to be more bothered about policing his use of expressions such as “dead funny” – maybe she has anxieties about whether he will attend a Grammar School or Comprehensive, as worried some parents in early 70s children’s fiction. Mercifully we never get in to that topic. There are discos and club meetings that the kids can pretend to be attending. For some reason “the Adventurers” are a thing for boys in this village, not the Boy Scouts, although the Brownies can be mentioned. When the parents finally realised their kids have gone missing they call in “Chalky” who turns out to be “Constable White”, another name-correspondence that the reader is left to work out for themself.
The local police are used to this sort of thing (previous cases involving Wemock House?)
’But why can’t you go on searching through the night?’ Mrs Bassett sat on the edge of the sofa, her hands clenched in her lap. The sergeant turned to her, conditioned by experience to expect the brimming eyes; the brave, mobile mouth fighting the urge to break down. Conditioned to expect it, but not to be unmoved by it. He sighed inwardly. Of all jobs, he detested this the utmost. Missing children. Sometimes he wished that children might be kept on a leash.
The mystery man himself at Wemock House is a vain and desperate ex-academic creep who quite likely had never worked out the details of how he was going to flog the loot, even if he hadn’t made a mess of the improvised kidnapping of the children.
He flicked up his cuff. A quarter to ten. He was doing well. The parents would be worried, perhaps, by now, but he would be well away by the time they ground into action. People are so slow. Most people. Passing the mirror he winked at his reflection. ‘But not you, you renegade-archaeologist-millionaire,’ he hissed, picturing the heap of precious metal that waited in the van. And as he worked his mind re-ran for perhaps the thousandth time its familiar rationalisation of his infamy.
What did it mean, when you came right down to it, to be dedicated to archaeology? Years of training; grinding study through countless nights in some dreary student lodging. Thick, mildewed volumes by men long since dead, to be pored over while other young men caroused in the real world with money in their pockets. And after that? When the training was accomplished? He knew the answer to that one, too. Scraping for grants. Gong cap-in-hand for financial backing. Begging reluctant governments for permission to excavate their lands. And what lands! Always some bleak inaccessible spot where one was forced to live for weeks on end with disagreeable colleagues, fractious labourers, dust and flies. And for what? Often a quest proved fruitless, and when occasionally something of real value was found it was seized by the government in whose soil it had lain, or else it ended up in some museum to be gawked at by people who understood nothing of its significance. People like the parents of those damned kids.
But our cheap little egoist is about to have a nasty shock when the paranormal steps in very soon after. I don’t quite see how the narrative of his terror downstairs fits with the sound effects that the kids trapped in the attic are hearing, but they all come together in the final holocaust as the warrior can complete the titular voyage.
The ages of these children is not given but they seem to be no more than 12, losing interest in childish games in the woodland and maybe wanting to start to spend more time at the disco. In the Epilogue they have a sense that they are now entering a transformation, and that they have seen one of their friends already change into another being. Davy is called in to faith of the old Vikings and their Gods, to complete their mission, but he is replacing or representing one of their number. He is not ascending or transcending himself, the faith of the warriors does not offer any of that, Valhalla is the sleep of a long burial at peace in the Earth.
Adrift on the ocean of fire and no hand at the helm. Seared, screaming, he ran back along the canted deck as the vessel came broadside on, shipping flame. The great steering-oar swung before him and he clutched with blistered hands and it swept him sideways, dragging his puny frame across the scorched planking. And all about was roaring; roaring of the fire-sea and roaring of the oarsmen, and he fought; dug in raw heels and fought the helm, and slowly the dragon-prow came round into the wind and she rode, great waves of fire passing under her and away aft. And the oarsmen cheered, and he saw laughter in the eyes of his King. And the wind came to cool him, and the rain to heal, and the cloudmaidens sang for his welcome and he set his course toward their voice.