The Spring on the Mountain by Judy Allen

Children’s Book Club edition, art by Kay Wilson

The Spring on the Mountain, first published in 1973, was Judy Allen’s first novel. It evidently had some success because, after being published by Jonathan Cape, it was brought out by the Children’s Book Club (run by Foyles) in 1974, and then as a Puffin paperback in 1977. Like her second novel, The Stones of the Moon (which I looked at a few mewsings back), it takes some traditional YA elements (city kids spending their holidays in the country get tangled up in a mystery) and brings them in contact with early-70s concerns, such as Earth-mysteries, sacred sites, and the oppressive influence of the past.

A trio of twelve-year-olds, Emma, Michael and Peter, are spending the end of their school holidays at the cottage of Mr and Mrs Myers. Mr Myers has recently retired from a city job to live on the interest from his savings in “a large cottage in a high moorland valley”, and his wife has decided to earn a little extra (and, perhaps, stave off boredom) by taking in children for the holidays. Emma, Michael and Peter haven’t met before, and are, it seems, from quite different backgrounds (though we only learn about Peter’s, that I recall, and then only that he has a “blunt Yorkshire manner”), and at first they fail to gel. But they go for a walk, and soon get introduced to some local mysteries: there’s a lane with a sort of dark-feeling, maybe-haunted corner, and beyond that, over the moor, reached by a straight path, a single mountain that Peter instantly decides he wants to climb.

The trio are introduced to a local old woman, Mrs White, who provides some no-nonsense explanations about lingering energies and powers within the earth. For the haunted lane, there’s this:

“At some time… fear has been felt at that place, very, very strongly. No one knows what the cause of the fear was, and it doesn’t really matter. That’s gone long ago. But the emotion itself has become trapped and repeats itself in an endless cycle.”

And for the mountain, Mrs White says that its remarkably straight approach is known as:

“…Arthur’s Way. That’s because some people an exceedingly long time ago had the idea that the Holy Grail was hidden at the top and that Arthur’s knights would have come this way in search of it.”

HB from Jonathan Cape

But Mrs White, it turns out, has had her own direct experience of the strangeness of the mountain. Years ago, she climbed it and found a spring which had a magically rejuvenative effect (“I was refreshed beyond all possible expectation. I felt more alive, more awake.”), and since then she’s always meant to return and divert the spring so it joins the river flowing into the local village, so everyone can feel the benefit. She, though, has got old — or perhaps some force is preventing her from being able to climb the mountain — so when she learns Peter, Michael and Emma are interested in going up, she persuades them to have a go at finding the spring and diverting it at the source.

Michael is established early on as being a sceptic as far as earth-energies and the like go, saying “I believe what my eyes tell me” — whereupon Mrs White ridicules him for having to believe, then, that objects in the distance are smaller than those that are close by. Peter, on the other hand, is of a more mystical bent, and has already had a vision of sorts by gazing into a crystal ball (though the Myers say it’s only a fisherman’s weight). Michael thinks Peter has “no intellectual discrimination at all”. Emma, meanwhile, keeps out of the debate. (Though Peter says “You want to believe him [i.e., Michael] because it sounds safer. But really you believe me.”)

It sounds like a set-up for an interesting exploration of scepticism and belief with regards to the supernatural, but by the halfway point Peter is proved right in his belief that “There are forces on the earth, you know there are.” “Why,” he continues, “shouldn’t a sort of life-force flow in straight lines?”, and Allen is evidently on his side, as she concludes the book with an author’s note:

“There really are ancient tracks, like Arthur’s Way, all over Britain. If you would like to know more about them and about how to discover if there is such a track in your area, you will find information in The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins and The View of Atlantis by John Michell, both published by Garnstone Press, London.”

Alfred Watkins was the first to suggest the existence of “ley lines” linking ancient and modern sacred sites through a series of straight lines. The View Over Atlantis (1969), meanwhile — “the book which”, historian Ronald Hutton says “more than any other, defined and energized the earth mysteries movement” — links ley lines to UFOs and flows of earth-energies, like the lung-mei or “dragon paths” of ancient China. This, and other post-60s beliefs, led to an alternative archaeology movement throughout the 1970s, though it wasn’t till Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy’s Ley Lines in Question (1983) that the idea of ley-lines was subjected to more rigorous and academic interrogation, and found wanting.

None of this should detract from Allen’s book, but I have to admit I felt a slight C S Lewis-like sense that here the writer was, by making their own beliefs the justification for the fantastical elements in a story, going to skimp on giving their tale that deeper sense of reaching for the truly mysterious that a less dogmatic basis would have had.

Puffin PB, art by Jill Bennett

Michael, Peter and Emma climb the mountain, encounter some weirdness — including a Merlin-like figure called Aquarius who warns them away from diverting the spring, not because it shouldn’t be done but because it’s Mrs White’s Quest, not theirs — but the ending is a bit rushed. Why shouldn’t the kids divert the spring? Why should Mrs White be the one to do it, or attempt to do it? Why hasn’t she managed to do it? What would happen if she did? Or didn’t? These questions don’t get answered (nor the larger question of who’s deciding all this “meant to be” stuff), but we do at least glimpse the event that sparked off that haunted feeling in the lane (a hanged man, intense emotions, and a divergence in the straight track causing an energetic “whirlpool” where life-energies get trapped), thanks to Peter slipping briefly into the past.

There are similarities with other YA novels of the same era — William Mayne’s IT, for instance, with its need to rebalance some ancient boundaries in the land so as to lay a troublesome power — but Allen’s novel lacks the sense (in Mayne’s IT) of a redoubtable protagonist ultimately overcoming a supernatural difficulty in their own personal, if quirky, manner.

But I think that’s why it’s interesting to read the, as it were, second-rank offerings in a genre, just to find out what makes the top rank work. Garner, Mayne, John Gordon, and Penelope Lively bring in the supernatural but the focus is always on the characters first of all and, ultimately, the way they deal with these pervasive influences from the past, from myth, from the landscape: because, supernatural though they may be, they always tie in with the characters’ personalities and relationships, meaning they can be read without having to believe in anything but the story as a story. Allen’s, I think requires a measure of belief in earth-energies, and semi-human powers like Aquarius, who pop up to tell us that certain things are just meant to be this way or that way, but without any reason behind them. Not to believe means you can be left wondering what it was all for. (Though I am, of course, approaching these books as an adult. The top rank YA books can be re-read as an adult, less so the lesser works.)


The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay, Annotated Edition

What started as a late lockdown project to research some points that intrigued me about David Lindsay’s second novel, 1922’s The Haunted Woman (which I wrote about in Mewsings a little while back), has turned into an extensively annotated edition, which I’ve now published in hardback, paperback and ebook. (Full details here.)

The thing that kicked it off was a phrase one of the novel’s characters uses early on, when explaining the name of the house at the centre of the book’s mystery, Runhill Court:

“Historical—supposed to be derived from the old Saxon ‘rune-hill,’ so he says. The runes were engraved letters, intended to keep off the trolls and blendings…”

1968 cover for G A Hight’s translation of Grettir

On first reading, I assumed “blendings” were some specific kind of fairy or goblin, but I could never find the name listed in reference works. It was only when I decided to solve it once and for all, and started by learning more about trolls, that what perhaps ought to have been obvious struck me: Norse sagas often feature the offspring of trolls and humans, and though these are usually called half-trolls in English translations, I realised this could be what “blendings”meant. And — thanks to the Icelandic Saga Database with its multiple translations and original-language versions, I found out that the original Icelandic word used in the sagas is “blendingum”. The only translator I could find who rendered it in English not as “half-trolls” but “blendings” was one G A Hight, translator of the 1914 Everyman edition of The Saga of Grettir the Strong. This makes me feel Lindsay could well have read Hight’s translation. (Sadly, Lindsay’s personal library was sold off before anyone was interested enough to note what it contained.)

It was a hugely enjoyable project, allowing me to indulge myself in researching a wide variety of topics, including the speed of cars in the 1920s (and, how did you lock a car in those days to prevent theft?), what exactly a “cream ice” is if it’s not an ice cream (and sometimes it isn’t), when David Lindsay was likely to have witnessed a solar eclipse (shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, it turns out), whether there ever was a “Hotel Gondy” as there is in the novel (there doesn’t seem to have been) and where that name might have come from, what supernatural creatures were likely to “ride the roof” of a house to require it to be protected by runes (not goblins, as one character suggests), what the novel’s Mrs Richborough might mean by claiming to be a “Spiritist”, how long it would have taken to reach Worthing by train from Hove in 1920 (thanks,, plus many others. (There’s 172 footnotes in all.)

Postcard of Chanctonbury Ring, with Wiston House in the middleground. Wiston is an Elizabethan manor about three miles north-west of Steyning, which is where Lindsay places Runhill Court

In some cases, I couldn’t find definite answers, though hopefully I’ve provided enough in the annotations to add to the reading of the novel anyway. What, for instance, is the sound of “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection” that Isbel thinks she hears in Runhill Court’s upstairs corridor? She answers the question herself — it’s a “a kind of low, vibrating hum” — but I wanted to find corroborating evidence. How did other writers of the day describe that sound? Try as I might, I couldn’t find any other description of what a telephone line sounded like while you were waiting for a connection — though I did find intriguing passages from Proust and Kafka on the almost supernaturally expectant moment of listening to a phone line before the connection is made. So, enough to make for an annotation, anyway.

From a publishing perspective, this was the most technically challenging book I’ve produced yet, with endnotes, a host of page and endnote cross-references, a table, maps and other visual material, and so on. Up till now, I’ve produced the layouts for my Bookship publications using only a word-processor (Nisus Writer Pro), but this time I had to combine it with Affinity Publisher, plus some dragging and dropping via MacOS’s surprisingly useful Preview app. I almost skipped producing Kindle and ePub versions altogether, as it meant I had to do a lot of the endnote-linking and cross-references again from scratch (using Jutoh, the only ebook-creation app I’ve been able to find which gives me the flexibility I get from a word processor), but I hate to leave a project feeling half-finished, so the ebook versions are there.

And then there’s the cover. I actually started on the cover way before anything else, not with this edition in mind, but simply because I’d produced covers for all the other books Lindsay published in his lifetime (A Voyage to Arcturus, Sphinx, The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly, and Devil’s Tor), and wanted to see what I could make of this one. That particular project sat around as a black rectangle with basic lettering on it for way over a year while I struggled to find anything to put on it. Wanting to stay true to the novel’s descriptions, I couldn’t find anything looking and feeling like Runhill Court, and didn’t even try (at first) to find faces that might stand in for the two main characters. Finally, though, I had to admit that the only thing to put on the cover of a book called The Haunted Woman was a woman looking at least a little haunted, so I started searching around for someone fitting Lindsay’s description of Isbel (“Her face was rather short and broad, with thick but sensitive features…”). First I went through pictures of women from the 1920s, but none were right. When I finally settled on a piece of stock photography (mostly used to advertise hair salons, it seems), I had the lingering feeling she looked too modern — until I added a dab of lipstick (Isbel, in the novel, is described as generally wearing too much makeup) and it somehow pushed her back into the 1920s. The male face was another challenge, one I resolved, a little cheekily, by using Margaret Cameron’s photograph of one of the Victorian’s era’s leading writers, Thomas Carlyle. David Lindsay’s friend E H Visiak wrote that Lindsay both “facially resembled” and admired Carlyle. (Visiak also called Carlyle Lindsay’s “kinsman”, which I at first took literally and tried in vain to find a genealogical link between the two, before realising he probably just meant they were both Scots.) I only realised once I’d added Carlyle’s face that Henry Judge, in the novel, is described as “clean-shaven”, whereas Carlyle has a beard and moustache. I faded out the beard, but the moustache remains. Sorry, Henry Judge, but I always imagined you with a moustache, despite what Lindsay says.

Postcard image of Hove’s Medina Esplanade, where one of the novel’s chapters takes place.

Among the background elements on the cover are floor-plans, with one slightly emphasised staircase to represent the novel’s mysterious stairs that only appear to certain people at certain times. I looked through a lot of floor-plans for mansions and manor houses thanks to and Wikimedia Commons, but in the end the ones that most suited the look I was going for were, appropriately enough, for Borley Rectory, reputedly the most haunted house in Britain. (I broke up the floor-plans into their constituent elements, so the layout isn’t Borley Rectory — meaning I’ve either confused any ghosts who may be lingering in the floor-plans, or enraged them. If it’s the latter, I’m sure I’ll soon find out.)

I don’t know if I’ll be producing a similar edition of any of Lindsay’s other novels — certainly not in time for the centenary of Sphinx next year — but it’s been a fun and varied project, and hopefully one that might be of interest to other Lindsay readers. Or, at least, it’s a way to mark the novel’s centenary.


Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Harper Collins, 1995. Art by John Howe.

Assassin’s Apprentice, first book of the Farseer Trilogy, came out in 1995, a year before George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. Hobb’s world of the Six Duchies shares something of the feel of Martin’s, with its Machiavellian politics, bitter ruling-family dynamics, and the general grimness of its world, where a likeable character can be killed off suddenly. Both have an unreasoningly bleak background threat (the White Walkers in GoT, the Red Ship Raiders here). But Assassin’s Apprentice’s world is smaller than GoT’s, and a little bit more politically stable, so it doesn’t have quite the Renaissance-tragedy levels of revenge, counter-revenge, and general bloodshed, though the potential is certainly there.

The thing that most struck me at the time it first came out, though, was that it was written in the first person. I’m sure this must have been done in genre fantasy before then, but it seemed to me something of an innovation. I read I, Claudius around the same time time and felt Hobb was taking a similar approach. Like Robert Graves’s Claudius, Robin Hobbs’s FitzChivalry is writing the story of his life from a now wiser perspective, and like Claudius, FitzChivalry’s tale is of a ruling family told from the knowing perspective of its (initially, at least) most looked-down-upon member.

2019 Del Rey cover, art by Paul Lycett

FitzChivalry’s name means “bastard of Chivalry”, Prince Chivalry being the name of the (at the time) next in succession to the throne of the Six Duchies. In this world, nobles are given the names of admirable qualities, in the belief it will instil these qualities in them (“names that would shape their lives and beings”), but generally these names come across as ironic. King Shrewd, though often wily, is mightily indecisive over at least one key point affecting his realm; Chivalry quite unchivalrously fathers a bastard then ignores him; Regal is foppish and selfish; Lady Patience is flighty and impulsive. But FitzChivalry doesn’t even get that name until a long way into the first book. Initially, he’s just known as “fitz”, “boy”, or, at best, “Newboy” by a few child friends he picks up in the nearby town.

This concern over naming reminds me of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster Trilogy with its heavily-loaded, poetic use of the word “name”, to mean “identity” in the deepest sense. Like that book (and so many other fantasies) Assassin’s Apprentice is about the ways we pick up or form identities, and therefore our destinies (or, as here, just our life stories). At first, Fitz has no name because to name him is to acknowledge him and bring him into the royal family. But, as King Shrewd says in one of his shrewd moments:

“A bastard, Regal, is a unique thing… He may safely be sent where a prince of the blood may not be risked… So, what will you make of him? A tool? A weapon? A comrade? An enemy? Or will you leave him lying about, for someone else to take up and use against you?”

Shrewd apprentices Fitz to his own bastard-brother Chade, to learn the arts of the “hand that moves unseen, cloaked by the velvet glove of diplomacy”:

“It’s murder, more or less. Killing people. The fine art of diplomatic assassination. Or blinding, or deafening. Or a weakening of the limbs, or a paralysis or a debilitating cough or impotency. Or early senility, or insanity…”

This first book is mostly about FitzChivalry’s education, and not only in the arts of assassination. There’s also this world’s two magical arts which, it turns out, although they’re both rare, Fitz has some ability in.

Bantam 1995, art by Michael Whelan

First there’s the Wit, which enables someone to share the mind and senses of animals, usually specific ones (in Fitz’s case, it’s dogs). Then there’s the Skill, a mind power fostered by the ruling elite (it’s presumably how the Farseers got their family name), which enables long-distance communication between minds.

Both of these arts have their negative side. Over-indulgence in the Wit can drag a person down to the level of the beasts whose mind they share, or so popular prejudice has it. (Fitz’s main protector in his early years, Chivalry’s stableman Burrich, is so sure of this that he thinks any sign of the Wit needs to be stamped out immediately.) The Skill, on the other hand, seems to act more like a drug, where it can make its user so aesthetically sensitive he or she can get lost in endlessly staring at one thing for hours — or even the rest of their life — so rich does every sensory experience suddenly become. (Apparently it was wondering what if magic were addictive that sparked off the series in Hobb’s mind.)

2011 cover

So, both forms of magic can eat away at a user’s individuality, one working from the lower instincts, the other from the higher. There’s a third fantasy element in this book that also destroys individuality, and that’s what the Red Ship Raiders are doing to people on the Six Duchies’ coasts. Apparently part of some Outlander cult, the Raiders capture people and in some way destroy the part of them that makes them fully human. People who have been “Forged”, as it’s called (after the first town to suffer such an attack), aren’t physically hurt, but become “Heartless ghosts”, “sound of body, but bereft of any of the kinder emotions of humanity”:

“As predators, they were more devoid of decency and mercy than any wild animal could be. It was easy to forget they had ever been human, and to hate them with a venom like nothing else.”

This is the most intriguing part of the book, but for the first part of the trilogy it’s generally a background element, a threat that’s being set up to (presumably) be dealt with more fully in the next two books.

Folio Society edition, art by David Palumbo

Assassin’s Apprentice is primarily concerned with establishing its main character and his world. Fitz’s position is unique because he combines so many opposites. As a bastard, he’s the lowest of the low, but as he’s of the royal blood, he has the potential to be the highest of the high. He works in the stables, tending horses and dogs, but also learns the most arcane arts of political assassination, political influence, espionage, and mind-power. Identities such as his aren’t like Morgon of Hed’s in the Riddlemaster trilogy. With Morgon, it was all about a magical destiny emerging from within to be written onto the external world; with Fitz, it’s about who he is in relation to others, who his loyalties are to, and how he can be useful to them. Fitz’s inherent identity, his being a royal bastard, is merely a potential; his actual identity in the world is all about how that nature is developed and employed, and most of all about the relationships he forms, both to allies and to enemies.

I read Assassin’s Apprentice when it was first published, but didn’t feel sufficiently inspired to read the next two books in the sequence. But the Folio Society’s bringing out a luxurious edition of the trilogy in 2020 prompted me to give it another go. I’ll be working my way through the rest of the trilogy in future Mewsings.