Stag-men of various sorts have been popping up on this site from time to time, from the antler-wearing shaman of Robin of Sherwood, to Herne the Hunter in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, or the bothersome creature of imagination and sexuality that intrudes upon the narrator’s life in Patricia McKillip’s Stepping Out of the Shadows. In William Rayner’s Stag Boy (first published in 1972), fifteen-year-old Jim Hooper returns to the farm he grew up in to convalesce after life in nearby Wolverhampton begins to affect his health. There, he finds his childhood friend Mary Rawle being courted by Edward Blake, two years older, richer, and far more worldly than Jim, as well as being ‘tall and strongly made, a good rugger player and a first-rate horseman.’ Jim can’t help but feel trapped by the boy-ness of his own adolescent body:
‘Then he looked down at his whitening knuckles, the narrowness of his wrists, and felt a choking anger at being shut up in such a poor thing of a body. He was overtaken by a longing so enormous it shook him physically… His spirit, if it could only get free, he felt sure would be as strong and wild as a hawk.’
An idle wish made in a ruined witch’s cottage leads him to find an ancient, stag-horned helmet which, when worn, allows Jim to share in the life of the ‘black stag’ — a creature of local repute, and the prize target of the hunt (to which both Mary Rawle and Edward Blake belong). While he’s one with the stag, Jim can lend it his intelligence, meaning it can out-think the hunt instead of just trying to out-run them; and being with the stag plugs Jim into the natural power and dignity of this king-animal’s physicality, which rubs off on him as his own body starts to mature and he gains in confidence.
At first, Mary’s not interested in Jim. To her, he’s part of the past, a relic of her childhood and of the closed-in, dead-end world of ‘the moor and the woods’. Edward makes her feel grown-up, and seems like the gateway to the adult life she’s always dreamed of living, one of:
‘parties and dances… famous people, amusing people, rich people, and something new and exciting would happen every day.’
But Jim brings the black stag to stand outside her window at night, tempting her to touch it, even ride it. At first she resists:
‘I don’t want strange things in my life… I don’t want my life to be different… It’s like stepping out of a lighted room into the dark.’
‘How much more comfortable it was when you had the right dreams, the ones that people understood and sympathised with.’ But she can’t ignore the wonder of a stag of such power and dignity and gentleness that lets her ride it, or Jim’s uncanny connection with it. At this point, Jim and Mary’s relationship becomes a world of its own, a secret that binds the two of them, and goes beyond her dreams of ‘parties and dances’ to something that mixes physicality and vulnerability, intimacy and meaning:
‘They were timid, too much aware of other people’s opinions and of their own youth and ignorance. Only in their wordless journeys through the dark did all worries and embarrassment fall away, leaving them free and happy, and innocent.’
But the stag’s animal nature threatens to unbalance Jim. That strength and nobility can veer into arrogance and an animal sexuality Jim has to fight to control. And now it’s the stag that calls Jim when it needs him, not the other way round, and its need is desperate. The hunt, fed up of hearing about this ‘proud, mettlesome, outrageous beast’ parading itself openly through populated towns, bringing traffic to a standstill and running rings round them whenever they chase it, is intent on bagging this creature before the season’s over. And what will happen if Jim is joined to it when it’s killed?
Part of the strength of this short YA novel comes from how naked the central metaphor is. Contact with the stag connects Jim with his own burgeoning masculinity (it’s significant that his father is dead) and adolescent sexuality. It teaches him the natural confidence and strength he ought to feel, but can also at times be a wild ride with forces that will not be tamed, or contained, or made civilised. Jim has to learn how to set the limit, how to be fully human not merely an animal, before he’s overtaken.
Although William Rayner’s sympathies are obviously with the black stag in its conflict with the hunt, by the end of the book, when it’s obvious Jim has to separate himself from the influence of the stag, the hunt takes its place as part of the natural order of things, particularly when contrasted to what Rayner sees as even more degenerate ways of taming nature. The hunt is ‘the ritual that should attend [the stag’s] death’, as it means death with dignity, and this is contrasted with the artificial, constricted life of battery hens and, beyond that, human lives in cities with their:
‘…endless mazes of streets, the houses like cages, that world of hutches and batteries and stunted lives.’
‘To deny nature — that was the worst sin, the sin against life’ — but, in the end, to live as a human being, Jim must civilise the more powerful natural impulses. A balance has to be found against the force of male adolescence, and so of course it’s Mary, finally, who redeems him, despite being told ‘This is not a thing for women.’
Like The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and The Owl Service, Stag Boy is another YA novel from the 60s and early 70s that explores the clash between modernity and tradition, nature and civility, by having normal, vulnerable teenagers trying to adjust to themselves and their burgeoning adolescence, while facing forces of folklore, myth, and the supernatural. And it’s a good mix.
I can’t find out much about William Rayner, other than that he was born in 1929. Stag Boy came out in hardback (in 1972) and paperback (1976), both with the same cover by Mike Heslop (who also did my favourite cover for The Dark is Rising). And, if you’re looking at that cover and thinking, ‘Isn’t that…?’, well, the answer is yes, it is. Heslop used a photo of David Bowie as a reference. (One more influence by Bowie on 1970s YA.)