Astercote, The Whispering Knights, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Astercote by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

In Astercote (1970), when a chalice known only as ‘the Thing’, which is supposed to have protected the village of Charlton Underwood from the Black Death in medieval times, goes missing, the modern-day villagers begin to cut themselves off from the outside, and chalk white crosses — indicators of infection — on houses where people are showing the slightest sign of being unwell. In The Whispering Knights (1971), three children, bored in their school holidays, boil up a witches’ brew (or the closest they can get to it — ordering frogs’ legs from a London shop, for instance, but having to use drawings for some of the more hard-to-obtain ingredients, like the wing of a bat) in a barn supposedly once inhabited by a real witch, and manage to bring themselves and their village to the attention of an increasingly baleful supernatural presence. In The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (also 1971), a new vicar (‘Frightfully nice man — full of ideas’) decides to revive the quaint old Horn Dance of Hagworthy as part of a fête to raise money for the church roof. But the Dance is linked with the far more ancient and powerful Wild Hunt, which isn’t something any of the village oldsters want to see revived.

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

The Whispering Knights by Penelope Lively, cover by Neil Reed

Penelope Lively’s first three books for young teens are characteristic of a type of British YA fiction in the late 60s and early 70s (as well as the TV shows of the time, like Children of the Stones, or The Changes), mixing Famous Five-ish ‘what we did on our holidays’ adventure with touches of 1960s kitchen sink realism and incursions of the folkloristic supernatural. The Whispering Knights is the most Famous Five-ish, with the characters feeling a little light and cartoonish, and the adventures being mostly episodic. (It’s also the most explicitly supernatural of the three.) The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, on the other hand, has the most realistic development of its two lead characters, with the slightly withdrawn Lucy Clough and the rebellious Kester Lang both feeling like proper teenagers. And, in both The Wild Hunt and Astercote, the supernatural is more a psychological force than an external one, working through people’s superstitions and prejudices more than through actual manifestation. (Though manifestations do occur.)

At the heart of each book is an abuse of something traditional and sacred, something tied to the village as a continuing way of life, but also to the dark, dangerous forces of superstition and the supernatural. This means there’s an odd tension in each story, with the sacred thing — be it an object, such as the chalice in Astercote, or a practice, like the Horn Dance in The Wild Hunt — needing at once to be preserved, and to be hidden away or suppressed; protected for the village, and from the villagers.

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilber

The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy by Penelope Lively, cover by Yvonne Gilbert

In both Astercote and The Wild Hunt, the sacred thing is abused for financial reward (even if, in one case, it’s for the repair of a church roof). In The Whispering Knights, it’s the children’s playing at witchcraft that feels like an abuse, even though it isn’t done for gain; afterwards, with the witch Morgan on the loose, it’s village life itself that comes under threat, when the newly-embodied witch marries a local factory owner, and gets a proposed motorway’s route altered to take it straight through the centre of the village. At first, the children who summon Morgan are told that she thrives on superstition, and that their best weapon against her is reason; later, it’s their very belief in her — that she represents a supernatural threat, rather than just a physical one — that means they can combat her in the proper way, and so save their village.

If there is a right way to deal with the sacred in these three books, it seems to be to revere the idea of it, while keeping the reality hidden away. This is most obvious in the attitude of Kester Lang’s uncle, the blacksmith of Hagworthy, towards the Wild Hunt. On the one hand, he says:

‘It were a great thing, once, the Hunt. Nothing to be afraid of. It were a splendid thing…’

But, at the same time, it was ‘not for a man to look on with his eyes’:

‘Because once you seen them you’re a part of them, aren’t you, girl? You’re with them under the same sky and treading the same ground. And they’re a Hunt, aren’t they? They have to hunt something, or someone, don’t they?’

This ambivalence may explain what I found to be the main fault of the first two books (and present in the third, but not as a fault), in that, in each case, once it was obvious, quite early on, what the problem was — a missing chalice, a summoned witch — the teen protagonists don’t really do anything, but sit around watching events unfold, and only right near the end suddenly clock that some action needs to be taken. The Wild Hunt has a similar delay, but in this case the time when nothing happens is used to build tension and deepen the characters’ relationships. Perhaps it’s significant that in this book the building supernatural tension causes a split between the two main characters, Lucy and Kester, and they have to heal that rift before they can act, together, against the supernatural.

Red Shift by Alan GarnerThis idea of a threatened sacred ‘thing’ (chalice, village life, dance) reminds me of the similar ‘sacred thing’ in Alan Garner’s novels — usually a nonsensically-named, apparently worthless but in fact deeply important object which comes to stand for a precious relationship, or a person’s identity, or the sacredness of the landscape itself — but in these three of Lively’s YA books, this ambivalence, this need to treat the sacred as both easily endangered and supernaturally dangerous, adds an interesting layer of complexity, even if it isn’t explored as deeply as in Garner’s novels.

The teens in these late-60s/early-70s ‘folk-fantasy’ style YA books are liminal creatures, existing on the border between the past and the future, tradition and progress, rational knowledge and irrational imagination, just as they’re hovering on the verge of adulthood. They listen to the old folks’ superstitions and take them seriously; they believe in the strange things they themselves see and hear; but they also believe these things can be changed, challenged, and faced, which (usually) the overly superstitious old folks don’t.

There’s a real feeling in these books (both Lively’s and others of the time) of being at an important cultural crossroads, with the possibility of genuinely sacred things being put at risk from a galloping, money-minded modernity, severing life from the quiet meaningfulness symbolised by village life, while also needing to take a properly rationalistic attitude towards the prejudices and superstitions of the past. It’s not, in any of these books, a clear-cut choice, and all of them end with a feeling of real peril as the forces of the irrational are let loose in a series of wild hunts (be they motorbike gangs, ancient witches in modern limousines, or stag-antlered faerie men with green-flame-eyed dogs) across stormy but beautifully-described landscapes.

To me, there’s something haunting about that cultural crossroads. Is it just nostalgia on my part? Or was there something genuinely sacred — some idea or ideal — which was lost in a battle with modernity midway through the 1970s?

(I was prompted to read these three novels after listening to The Heartwood Institute’s two albums inspired by them, both available at Bandcamp, The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, and Astercote.)

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