Year King by Penelope Farmer

Cover to Year King, art by William Bird

After A Castle of Bone, Penelope Farmer’s next novel was Year King (1977), and, in keeping with its protagonist’s age (eighteen), is more an adult than a YA novel, certainly compared to the not-yet-teens of that earlier book. Nevertheless, it’s about a stage of growing up: the struggle to leave home and break free of family ideas about who you are, and so to properly find yourself on the road to adulthood.

At the centre of the novel are Lan and Lew, twins of quite different characters:

“Lew playing rugger and excelling at work, Lan developing a reputation for being mildly way out… playing the guitar a little, having professedly anarchic friends, his hair over his shoulders…”

Lew is away at Cambridge, Lan is struggling with history studies at a local university while living in the basement at home. Although this gives him a certain amount of autonomy (the basement has its own front door, and its own kitchen), he’s nevertheless finding his mother’s presence too much. A lifetime of casually belittling judgements have left him ultra-sensitive to her moods (which Lew, who could play their mother like a harp, pretty much protected him from, before), and one day he takes her car and drives to a cottage the family own in Somerset, and starts spending as much time there as he can.

Although it takes him a while to adjust, Lan comes to love the rural community more and more:

“I am an alien, Lan thought. And then: but I love it. I must be stark raving mad. I love it all.”

He decides to give up his studies and gets work on a local farm. His long hair (the local men refer to him as “her”, though mostly joshingly) sets him apart from the community, but he starts to find himself accepted — with exceptions. One in particular being a middle-aged man, Arthur, for whom Lan feels “a strange, ancient antagonism”.

There are subtle mythic forces at play. One is to do with the land itself. Lan looks at its hills and dales, and though they’re overwritten by the “male lines” of hedgerows, feels, “underlying all of it, meet, receptive, yet in its own way just as strong, refusing to be eclipsed, the soft, lush, swelling shape of the countryside itself; like a woman laid widely…” And when he meets a young American woman of his own age, Novanna, staying with her aunt at a nearby farm, he takes the difficult first steps in building a relationship with her, though he has none of his brother’s ease with women.

Lan’s troubled relationship with his twin is another thing. His resentment of a lifetime of being compared to his (always more capable) twin has left him unsure of where the boundaries between the two of them lie. Now, suddenly, he finds himself at times literally slipping into his twin brother’s body:

“The outside, the crust, was wholly Lew, controlling Lew’s nerves and Lew’s responses; yet right at the centre lay this inappropriate kernel, this little hard obstinate nut which was Lan’s mind, Lan’s thinking.”

The valley isn’t a refuge from his family — no distance could be, because he carries its influence too much within him. Nor is his relationship with Novanna, which also has its troubles. Lew visits on his scooter, and instantly and easily chats Novanna up, and is the first to take her to bed. Lan’s mother asks him back, wants to know what’s happening with him and his studies, asks who’s going to pay the bills at the cottage, insists on having the use of her car. (There’s a younger sister, too, Bronnie, who comes to visit — an island of un-trouble amidst the rest.)

Penelope Farmer, photo by Jill Paton Walsh, from back cover of Year King

Year King has an air of other books I’ve reviewed from the same era. The way Lan slips into Lew’s consciousness without any warning recalls, for me, the way Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark slips between worlds mid-sentence; the fact that Lan is experiencing what it’s like to exist in the body of a more sportily capable, masculine male makes me think of William Rayner’s Stag Boy; but there’s also Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Year King’s suggestions of ancient mythical patterns being played out in modern times.

Lan and Lew, for instance, are named after twins from Welsh mythology (Dylan and Lewis, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes — who has his part in the Blodeuwedd story Garner uses). More important, though, is Lan’s relationship with the land — his becoming, in a way, the “Year King”, as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth.” (from The Golden Bough Wikipedia page.)

As the year waxes into summer, Lan wins Novanna, and his place in the valley, from both his rivals (Lew, and Arthur, who I take to be, perhaps, the existing valley “Year King”, as he’s a local authority on farming matters), and everything seems to be going well as he works on the land. Then, as the summer changes back to winter, his fortunes wane. His sense of who he is — his resistance to that flickering into Lew’s body — was strong in the summer, but now he flips into Lew’s body more and more as the year approaches its end. When his brother comes down for an end-of-year visit, Lan is convinced the two must fight some sort of duel for psychological survival in a family whose boundaries aren’t at all healthily defined. As Novanna says:

“You’re all hooked up, you know, all of you, still. I’ve never known anything like your family. Like junkies, all of you.”

The mythic references in Year King are more understated than in Garner’s book, though it’s true they nevertheless represent a very real danger Lan could fall into, particularly at the end, in his final confrontation with Lew, that takes place “literally in the bowels of mother earth (and symbolically in utero)” (as a contemporary Kirkus Reviews review has it).

It’s far less tense and intense than The Owl Service, more lyrical and slower-paced — something fitting the 1970s ideal of taking a rural retreat in order to find yourself. (It feels, to me, very much in line with the folk-rock 70s that Rob Young covers in Electric Eden.) But also it’s timeless, in its tale of a young man’s struggle to find himself against the pressure of subtle, but nevertheless psychologically constricting familial patterns. Farmer is excellent at representing those subtle tensions without ever having to blow them up into major dramatic scenes (it could, after all, be the very lack of confrontations between the characters that cause them so much trouble). And the fantasy element — Lan slipping into Lew’s identity — is handled with just as much subtlety. It’s never central to the book, but is nevertheless essential.

The Visitor by Josephine Poole

Jacket by Gabriel Lisowski

The mysterious Mr Bogle arrives in Cormundy Village to perform some ‘light tutoring’ duties for fifteen-year-old Harry Longshaw, who (as with other protagonists of children’s fiction, like Marianne in Marianne Dreams and Henry in The Night-Watchmen) is out of school recovering from a fever that (like Mark in Marianne Dreams and Colin in The Secret Garden) has left him with difficulties walking. Harry and his older sister Margaret live alone (their parents being dead) at a large house called Fury Wood, which they’re about to sell, as Margaret is marrying Rupert Musgrave, a young man newly moved into the village, who has plans to revive its farms and mills with new machinery and modern methods. Harry takes an instant dislike to Mr Bogle, with his goat’s foot inkstand and coat of tabby-cat fur, and who claims to have a scholarly interest in witches. Bogle says Fury Wood is built on land where, long ago:

‘The trees were cut down and burnt, and the spring filled in; that was the usual procedure when they were mopping up witchcraft.’

When not tutoring Harry, Mr Bogle is not exactly to be found doing local research. Instead, he’s seen dancing the ancient Horn Dance in the local square, a ludicrous-looking performance (to Harry’s eyes, anyway) that for some reason fascinates the village adults, the men especially. Later, Bogle urges the village’s out-of-work men into flights of resentful nostalgia with a (surely magical) film show evoking their lost past:

‘And that old school… remember the horseshoes and hopscotch, and a week off from lessons at haymaking time? Are your own kiddies any better for their posh education? It’ll take them away from you in the end, away from the village… But that’s progress, I suppose.’

Inscribed above the fireplace in Harry’s room is a line from Virgil — ‘Arise, thou avenger to come, out of my ashes’ — which Mr Bogle says refers to the execution of the local witches. And it soon becomes obvious he not only believes the ‘avenger to come’ is himself, but that he is not merely the gentleman-scholar he seems:

‘Mr. Bogle frowned and drew the curtain behind him. He disliked the habit of swearing. People were too apt to take his own name in vain.’

I came across mention of this book while looking for reviews and information on William Rayner’s Stag Boy, and found a post at the Whistles in the Wind blog, which mentions The Visitor (released in the UK as Billy Buck, which is what some of the villagers call Mr Bogle), alongside Stag Boy and Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (which I reviewed here), all of which were published at the start of the 1970s, and which share a lot of common characteristics. All three, for instance, feature teen protagonists caught in a struggle between the old ways and the new in otherwise quiet English villages. In The Visitor, Rupert says of Cormundy:

‘The village is dead all right, with people out of work, and buildings standing useless and empty. But one rich man could start the ball rolling again…’

Rupert is that rich man, and it’s significant that the final action of the novel takes place before a church where, the next day, Harry’s sister Margaret (representing old village stock) is to marry the forward-thinking Rupert. (Margaret is also linked, through her flower-spotted wedding dress, to the May Queen, thus representing new life and hope in contrast to the village’s wintry despondency.) Mr Bogle, on the other hand, is set to wear the costume of antler-headed Cernunnos in his own secret revival of the Horn Dance pageant, making him yet another character in early 1970s YA fiction to assume stag’s horns, and to revive an ancient festival. Bogle plans to use that pageant, though, as a means of exacting his long-overdue revenge for the burned witches. (Which makes you wonder why he waited so long.)

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

In contrast to The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy and Stag Boy, where the battle between the old and new is tied up intimately with the teen protagonists’ inner struggles between childhood and adolescence, Harry of The Visitor doesn’t really have an inner struggle going on, and the story isn’t as focused on him as the Lively and Rayner books are on their central characters. In addition, the forces of paganism which, in Hagworthy and Stag Boy, are dangerous and alluring, but which also point towards valuable but little-acknowledged truths about the wider world, are here reduced to nothing more than wrongheaded forces of backwards-thinking superstition. There isn’t the same ambiguity, so The Visitor, for me, doesn’t pack the same inner tussle, the same sense of brushing against wider, weirder, darker truths. Paganism, in The Visitor (aside from the identification of Margaret with the Queen of the May), is simply deviltry by another name, and Mr Bogle, in the end, is a rather pallid Devil.

Stag Boy by William Rayner

Stag Boy by William Rayner, cover by Michael Heslop

Stag Boy by William Rayner, cover by Michael Heslop

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.’

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

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

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.)