Star Lord by Louise Lawrence

1978 Harper & Row HB, art by Ronald Himler

Louise Lawrence’s Star Lord was first published in 1978, and reprinted throughout the 1980s in both the UK and the US (where its Timescape paperback edition was titled Starlord). It starts with teen Rhys Williams out one evening on the lower slopes of the Mawrrhyn mountain in rural Powys, when he hears a sound he can only guess to be a low-flying aeroplane, followed by a tremendous explosion. It’s obvious something has just hit the mountain. He sets off to look for survivors, but doesn’t find any wreckage beyond some tiny splinters of a strange, pale silver metal. Soon after, the army arrive, stopping people from going up the mountain and evidently trying to find something, or someone. Then, at the farm cottage he shares with his grandfather Hywel Thomas, his recently-divorced mother Enid, and his sister Gwyneth, Rhys finds what appears to be a teenage boy hiding in the barn. He’s injured — not from the crash, but from being shot — and what’s more, his skin gives out “a pale waxed light, as if he were luminous.”

Rhys brings him into the family home, where everyone comes to accept that this “boy” is an alien being, Erlich, from Eridani Epsilon. Erlich claims there are others of his kind in other places on Earth, and if he could just reach them he’d be safe. There has already been an army officer, Captain Willoughby-Smythe, turning up at the cottage asking if they’ve seen anything, and it’s obvious the captain’s taken a fancy to Enid, so is likely to be back. The family think if they can just get Erlich well enough to travel, and take him over the other side of the valley to the nearest town, he could be picked up by his kin. The army, though, blocks all routes except directly over the pitiless Mawrrhyn. And, despite Hywel Thomas thinking Erlich is one of the mountain’s mythical fair folk (“He has the fairness”), the ancient power that is the Mawrrhyn is antagonistic to Erlich. It was the mountain, or the mystical power within it, that caused Erlich’s spacecraft to crash in the first place.

1980 US PB

There’s a lot about this book that’s similar to the 1975 HTV series Sky. In both, a golden, teen-looking alien comes to our world where some mystic force associated with nature immediately attacks him. In both, the main characters are just ordinary kids who have to try to help the alien get to some point of departure or safety, and in both there’s a sense of the thanklessness of the task. Sky, for instance, drops his teen helpers whenever he doesn’t need them, and seems to dismiss them as hopeless cases because they live in an age he only knows as being just before “the Chaos”. Here, Erlich is a little more sympathetic (when he’s even conscious), but helping him still comes at a price, and with no compensating reward.

Sky says “I suppose, in your terms, I am to be a god.” Erlich makes no such claim, but he seems more like an archetype than a living being. The Williams family immediately assume he has “powers” — “power enough and knowledge enough to blast this earth to a cinder” — but Erlich never says he does and doesn’t give any demonstration that he does. We don’t know why he’s here or what he intends, and nobody asks, as though it’s taken for granted that powerful alien beings are living hidden amongst us. Most of all, though, he’s set up as the opposite to the ancient power represented by the Mawrrhyn. Erlich is “pure and applied science”, Mawrrhyn is “mysticism”. “Like me,” Erlich says, “she has conquered time and space, but in some other, different way.” To her, Erlich, and the power of science that he represents:

“…was destruction on a scale hardly begun on earth. He was the power of concrete and atom bombs, exhausts spewing carbon monoxide factory waste, plastic, poison, and pollution. He was mechanised science in its final terrifying form…”

Mawrrhyn, meanwhile, represents an ancient power — nature — but nature in her bleakest form:

“Her breath was cold, her spirit roaming. She was here in the moods of earth and stone, in the wind’s whine and the cliff fall. She was the rock-scarred age of this place. The bleak barren beauty of summer days. The stark grey cruelty of winter.”

Hers is a way of life, and a form of unacknowledged belief, that Enid knew as a girl growing up in this area:

“They were funny, the people living hereabouts. They went to chapel every Sunday but they were not Christian. They believed in something older than that, powers that were deep and dark.”

But:

“People cannot live with that kind of knowing. That’s why I left, see? I was only fifteen. Went to Cardiff, I did, and she [the Mawrrhyn] didn’t matter there. That kind of thing is dead under dust and concrete and traffic fumes. In the cities people do not heed. All those years I was forgetting her.”

Louise Lawrence

It’s like the essence of a cultural clash that was felt at the time, distilled into two primal powers. On the one hand, there’s a belief in a technological future, on the other the back-to-the-land urge that was stirred up by the late-60s search for a more authentic and natural way of life. Both have their dark side: with science, it’s the pollution of the natural world and the existential threat from weapons of mass destruction; with nature, it’s the pitiless winters of the natural cycle, or the “laws of dead sheep and rotting bog” as Rhys puts it.

In the end, neither is a human power. As Enid says, “they have no mercy, star lords and mountains.” But the family are committed to taking Erlich across the mountain because to do so would leave him — who at least has a human form, and can talk to them, so they treat him with human sympathy — at the mercy of another sort of power, that government/military power that’s so often the villain in crashed alien stories:

“Erlich was no conqueror. Nor was he meant to be captured and contained in some Ministry of Defence prison. Not meant to be bled by greedy governments, tapped of his knowledge, used and abused and desecrated.”

It feels to me that, in so much SF and fantasy YA fiction of the early 70s, a sort of imaginative quandary was being played out on the cultural plane, as teens from Alan Garner’s The Owl Service onwards were faced with the burden of fighting off an overdetermining, myth-laden past, while having to work out how to deal with the dangers of a technologically-perilous future. This feel carried on into the 80s, but more and more that decade decided on the technological future as the thing it was committed to. It’s most notable in the way that — or this is how it seems to me, anyway — rural settings were dropped and urban ones became the norm throughout the 80s. Star Lord is set entirely in rural Wales (which, for British 70s YA fiction, was the most rural of rural settings), but ultimately presents its technological power, the alien Erlich, as a little more human than the mystical-mountain power of the pitiless Mawrrhyn, which perhaps shows the way the cultural scales were tipping.

Comments (2)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I guess the postwar world was on the cusp of becoming what it is today – computers, etc – and a lot of writers must have been aware of this. Maybe frightened too? With the The Good Life, the craft movement of the Fifties and Sixties – even the popularity of Folk – representing the alternative. And yeah, it is interesting how that dichotomy is no longer part of the zeitgeist. I wonder why? Because of the ubiquity of the Internet?

    Interesting also how the book mimics The Grey King; the Welsh setting, a pale, mysterious youth and a mountain/deity that is hostile to him, with the critical qualification that Bran actually belongs to the same pantheon as the Grey King.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    That’s interesting. I didn’t think about The Grey King, but you’re right. Seems to be a perilous place, Wales, for pale youths!

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