Beadbonny Ash by Winifred Finlay

A party of modern teenage girls and boys find themselves magically transported into the Celtic world of the sixth century — that’s how I was sold on this 1973 book from Winifred Finlay. But the actual story is slightly different. I’d imagined those modern teens viewing the Celtic past through (1970s) modern eyes, but that’s not what happens.

The novel centres on Bridie, a teenage girl sent to stay in Oban, Argyll with the MacDonalds, the family of a schoolfriend of her mother. Her mother is a stage actress, Jennifer Nicholson, who always insisted on her daughter calling her “Jenny” rather than Mummy, so they would be “more like sisters”. But Bridie is very much in need of a mother at this moment: on her last birthday, her father (“the handsome and popular radio and television personality” Simon Nicholson) came home drunk following an argument with his wife, and took Bridie on a too-fast drive that ended in a crash and his death. At that point the already flawed mother-daughter relationship fractured, as Bridie says:

“I have no mother. That is Jenny Nicholson, the actress. My mother was someone else — old and ugly and screaming at me because I survived the accident when my father was killed.”

Having recovered from her own injuries, Bridie comes to stay with the MacDonalds, who patiently put up with her “moodiness, her constant demands for attention and reassurance”, as well as her frequent fabulations about her glamorous father, which all too often slip into outright lies. Bridie is an imaginative girl, but has been relying a little too much on that facility since her father’s death:

“For over a year now she had moved in and out of an imaginary world, peopled with men and women of her own creation…”

The sensibly down-to-earth MacDonalds have three children, two (Sheena and Kenneth) of around Bridie’s age, while the eldest, John, is studying medicine, and learning to accept that he’s never going to be the world-famous surgeon he once dreamed of being, but will, if he applies himself, manage to make it as a solid local GP.

Bridie starts to have glimpses of three figures in ancient Celtic clothing, one of whom is playing a harp. She can see and hear them as though they are real. Whoever she’s with can’t — until they touch her, when they, too, can see and hear them. But this is subtly done, and nobody suspects they’re seeing actual figures from the past.

Then one night — just after Bridie has begun to feel that her developing relationship with John means she’s perhaps growing up at last — Bridie is drawn into the countryside by the harp music she’s already heard twice before. Kenneth, Sheena and John follow her, independently at first, but all of them come together at a river, where they’re confronted by the Washer at the Ford, a folkloristic figure who offers to give each of them their heart’s desire. But when, to do this, she takes from each of them an item of clothing to wash in the water, it emerges bloody and torn.

Winifred Finlay

Then suddenly we’re in the past. Bridie isn’t modern (1970s) Bridie, but a priestess of the goddess known as the High One. She was sent into the “Unborn Years” (our time) to fetch a healer because, in a recent battle with the Northern Picts, the king was killed and his heir injured beyond the healing skills of local priest Broichan. In this sixth-century world, Kenneth is an Irish Prince, and Sheena is there, too, and none of these three thinks of themselves as modern teens. Only John retains his knowledge of the modern world, and only he and Bridie speak English; but John soon disappears from the narrative, and Bridie never looks at the sixth century world with anything but sixth century eyes (nor does she think at all about the 1970s she visited).

John’s powers as a healer are needed because according to custom the heir to the kingdom, Aidan, can only become king if he is physically perfect, but he has lost several fingers in battle. Broichan, the high priest of the Great White One (the main god of these Celts, currently incarnated as a truculent one-eyed boar in a nearby sacred forest), needs John to heal Aiden, and make him fit to assume the kingship. These are difficult times, because the new God of the Christians is winning over the surrounding tribes, threatening to remove Broichan’s power.

The harsh contrast between the two religions comes out in this description of some carved statues in the forest shrine of the Great White One:

“On either side of the wooden shrine was a semi-circle of massive tree trunks shorn of their leaves and branches and crudely carved to represent some terrible nightmare aspect of the god. One was headless, its glass eyes and leering mouth set in its chest; the head of another was all gaping mouth set with three rows of pointed teeth; a third had monstrous hands which tore apart the limbs of its human victim. Each wooden statue was adorned with human skulls and stained with the blood of victims sacrificed throughout countless years.”

Kenneth, as a sixth-century prince from Ireland, points out the contrast between these savage images and the new God of the Christians:

“The God I worship asks for love, not blood sacrifices, and Columba, our priest, does not expect our king to be perfect.”

At the heart of this book is modern-day Bridie’s need to deal with the trauma of her beloved father’s death and her mother’s coldness. Her dislocation to the past doesn’t play out as a pure psychodrama of this inner turmoil, but contains elements of it, in the presence of a fading Celtic god, and a Celtic goddess who is ugly or beautiful depending on whether she is loved/loving or not. But the savagery and darkness of this past world, its being ruled entirely by fear and irrationality, is too powerful for it to be simply a moral lesson for Bridie’s sake. It’s more like a heightened experience of how harsh and unforgiving the world — then or now — can be, and so of the importance of seeing beyond one’s own mere needs (that “heart’s desire” the Washer at the Ford promises).

There’s also something of a critique, here, of the act of retreating into imagination as a way of not taking responsibility for the difficult aspects of life. As Kenneth muses early on, thinking about the superstitions of the past:

“Now he came to think about it, it was very convenient being able to shuffle off your own mistakes on a natural phenomenon which couldn’t answer back. Perhaps education wasn’t such a good thing after all. Or did he mean civilisation? Well, whichever it was, today you were left with no one to blame but yourself.”

Through understanding the nature of the Celtic goddess she serves — the High One, who can be beautiful to those who love her, but a hag to those who fear or hate her — Bridie does come to understand her mother somewhat (just as Donald Jackson comes to understand his ill father by facing a dragon in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark), it’s a mature rather than a childish understanding of an imperfect woman in an imperfect world:

“…what Jenny really loves is the idea of herself in the role of the loving mother. And that’s exactly what it is, a role, and she just can’t keep it up, month after month, year after year… People think that all women want children, and when they’ve got them, love them. I’ve learned that this isn’t true. Jenny wants fame, money and an adoring husband.”

Some of Finlay’s earlier books.

Beadbonny Ash (a local name for the Mountain Ash, which is said to ward off fairies, witches, and evil influences) fits in with 1970s’ YA melding of rural locations, folkloristic fantasy and real-world teenage problems. But unlike other authors I’ve written about in Mewsings, such as Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, and Louise Lawrence, Winifred Finlay had long been an established author of what were at the time known as adventure novels “for older children” by the time she wrote her entry in the 1970s YA rural fantasy genre. She began writing, in fact, with Children’s Hour radio plays for the BBC in the late 1940s, of the sort where a group of kids solve a mystery whilst on holiday. Jessica Kemball-Cook, writing on Finlay in Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers (1978), says that these usually ended with the mystery being revealed as “not as spectacular as [the children] had thought… the hordes of international crooks and caves stuffed with treasure remain firmly in the children’s imagination”. In the 1970s, though, Finlay broke away from this well-worn template. Kemball-Cook writes:

“In 1970 Winifred Finlay deserted the typical adventure-story for full-blooded fantasy of the Alan Garner kind, where supernatural creatures from the past come alive now. Singing Stones and Beadbonny Ash are magical adventures in Scotland’s Celtic past. They resemble the earlier books in their well-drawn family relationships and historical detail, but they abandon the cynical attitude to mystery for a genuine commitment to the power of the supernatural and the war between Good and Evil…”

(She goes on to note that “Beadbonny Ash is her masterpiece”, which is good to know, as it’s a lot cheaper to acquire than the earlier Singing Stones.)

After this novel, Finlay, who worked under health difficulties in the latter part of her life, moved away from fiction and produced collections of folktales, some in collaboration with her daughter, Gillian Hancock.

Knowing this background in the more escapist adventure stories of the pre-1960s makes Beadbonny Ash’s uncompromising take on a difficult mother-daughter relationship all the more striking, as Finlay was obviously branching away from a type of fiction that seems (though I haven’t read it) to have been of a more comforting kind. It’s also notable how well this older author’s work fits into the mood of early 1970s British YA, which I’d always assumed took the form it did because of a younger generation’s experiences in the socially revolutionary 60s.


Solaris by Stanisław Lem

Solaris was first published in Poland in 1961, and in English translation in 1970 — though this translation (the one I read), by Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox, is based not on the original Polish, but a 1964 French translation by Jean-Michel Jasiensko. (It’s only in 2011 that a direct English-from-Polish translation came out, by Bill Johnston, though it’s not yet available as a print edition. I’d have read this one, though, if I had done my research beforehand.)

I was prompted to read Solaris following a vague train of thought about non-horror treatments of the sort of cosmic themes Lovecraft addressed — the human individual set against the immensity of the universe, encounters with the incomprehensible/truly alien, and so on — first in Stapledon’s Last and First Men and Star Maker, and now here. Solaris certainly brushes up against the horrific — I’d say it has a more viscerally distressing moment than anything in Lovecraft’s fiction, simply because it’s magnified by the sort of emotional aspects Lovecraft left out — but though it insists on the same incomprehensibility of the cosmos, Solaris simply doesn’t treat it as horror material.

Polish first edition

The novel is narrated by Kris Kelvin, who arrives at a research station hovering above the world-spanning ocean of a distant planet, Solaris, expecting to be greeted by the station’s three inhabitants, but finds nobody around and the place in disarray. He finally locates Snow (Snaut in the original), in as much a state of disarray as the station, who at first reacts in fear. When he’s assured Kelvin is who (and what) he says he is, Snow tells him the station’s leader, Gibarian, took his own life that morning. He then gives a number of obscure but vague warnings before asking to be left alone:

“Keep a hold on yourself. Be prepared to meet — anything. It sounds impossible, I know, but try. It’s the only advice I can give you.”

The planet Solaris was discovered over a century before Kelvin was born. An apparently uninhabited world, it elicited scientific interest when it was realised the planet didn’t follow the expected orbital path around its twin suns. It should have been moving through forbidding extremes of temperature, but instead kept within a narrow range, almost as though some force were acting on it to keep its environment stable, even habitable. Could it be the planet’s “ocean”? Described as “a sort of gigantic entity, a fluid cell, unique and monstrous… surrounding the globe with a colloidal envelope several miles thick in places”, it’s a mysterious, ever-moving substance that sometimes forms itself into vast, solid structures, only to let them lapse. Could it be, scientists began to wonder, that these weren’t random effects but the thought processes of some vast sentient organism, in effect a world-sized liquid brain? And so the scientific field of Solaristics was born.

But in the hundred-plus years since, almost nothing has been definitively learned about this mysterious “gravity-controlling colloid”. Looking through one of the many exhaustive and authoritative books on the subject, Kelvin sees:

“Multicoloured illustrations, picturesque graphs, analytical summaries and spectral diagrams… explaining the type and rhythm of the fundamental transformations [of the ocean] as well as the chemical reactions. Rapidly, infallibly, the thick tome led the reader on to the solid ground of mathematical certitude. One might have assumed that we knew everything there was to be known about this representative of the category Metamorph… In fact, by no means everyone was yet convinced that the ocean was actually a living ‘creature’, and still less… a rational one.”

Every attempt to communicate with this vast thing failed. Some scientists turned bitterly against it and did everything to disprove its potential sentience. Others concluded that, however interesting it was to human observers, the ocean itself simply wasn’t interested in them. At the point where the novel begins, Solaris studies are in a lull, but nobody is quite able to break away from this fascinating yet seemingly impenetrable mystery. But things are about to enter a new phase.

Arrow books PB from 1973

Waking up on his first morning in the station, Kelvin finds a woman in his room. He knows her — she’s Rheya (or Harey in the original, though I can see why the change was made), the woman he was in love with ten years ago. The only thing is, he left her, and as a result she killed herself. This Rheya is the same age as that Rheya, and even has the needle-mark from her fatal injection visible in her arm. Yet the skin of her feet is “soft, like that of a newborn child” and her dress, when she tries to remove it, proves to have no zips, and only ornamental buttons. It’s Rheya, but not Rheya. She’s not human, but she looks and reacts too much like a human being for Kelvin to easily treat her as not human.

She doesn’t remember how she got here, and seems unable to be separated from Kelvin — doing so causes her emotional distress and even physical pain — but Kelvin is at first horrified by her. He realises this is what Snow was trying to warn him about, and learns that the other members of the crew have their own “visitors”, though of different, but equally personal significance. (We never learn what Snow’s or — the other surviving station-member — Sartorius’s “visitor” is, though there are hints that Sartorius’s is a child or, even, a dwarf. Gibarian’s, though, Kelvin does see: a tall black woman, dressed in nothing but a grass skirt, like an exaggerated racial stereotype. Snow hints the “visitors” aren’t necessarily people you once knew, but embodiments of deep, often guilt-ridden, perhaps even perverse, emotional responses, which is one of the reasons the crew members keep themselves and their “visitors” hidden away from one another. They’re like walking advertisements of one’s deepest guilt, shame and vulnerability.)

First UK hardback, from Faber and Faber

Although the “visitors” think of themselves as what they appear to be — human beings — they are different at a sub-atomic level. Kelvin, at first refusing to learn from Snow’s cynical-sounding “wisdom”, rids himself of one Rheya only to find a new one there the next morning, oblivious to what he did to her. This is part of what’s putting such pressure on Snow and Sartorius, and what drove Gibarian to take his own life: the “visitors” are a constant reminder of (in Kelvin’s case) the guilt he feels at Rheya’s death, but they cannot be escaped. Worse, the apparently human side of “Rheya” can’t help being aware that something’s wrong with her, that she’s not what she thinks she is. The scientists do their best to discuss these matters in abstract terms, referring to “Phi-creatures”, and not stating things too explicitly, so they don’t distress these “visitors” any more than necessary — while also trying to work out how to rid themselves of them, or at least understand what their purpose might be.

Are they a form of communication from the world-ocean? Are they experiments the world-ocean is performing on its new human inhabitants, or are they attempts to drive those human beings away? Or are they just one more random natural process that surrounds this weird planet of Solaris, devoid of any purpose or meaning?

Ultimately, Solaris is about the essentially unknowable aspect of a truly alien encounter. As Snow says:

“We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, for death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos…”

Lem says his main idea in Solaris was “to present the problem of an encounter in Space with a form of being that is neither human nor humanoid”:

“I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images.”

Iranian cover, art by Yiran Jia

In the same piece (written in response to the 2002 Soderbergh film of the novel, which he hadn’t yet seen, but is sure he won’t like), Lem goes on to compare Solaris with Melville’s Moby Dick and “Capitan Ahab’s pernicious quest for the white whale”. His novel certainly has a few chapters that recall the whale-related info-dumps of Moby Dick, as Kelvin reviews the century of Solaris studies, including the classification of the many forms created by the world-ocean, or the trends in how the ocean’s possible intelligence is judged, at length and in hard-science-fictional detail. For me, though, the first comparison to come to mind is with ghost stories, in particular Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, whose hauntings were equally personally tailored and psychologically manipulative of its poor victim, Eleanor.

But there’s also Mythago Wood. In both Holdstock’s and Lem’s novels, a vast natural form (a forest, an ocean) which can be read as a symbol of the unconscious, generates physical embodiments of what dwells in the human psyche, creatures which appear human and can be interacted with as human, but ultimately are not — or, perhaps, reveal our stranger, less-human-seeming innermost depths. As the narrator Kelvin says:

“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilisations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed.”

Solaris has the rare distinction of being adapted into films by both a Soviet-era Russian (Tarkovsky in 1972) and a big-name Hollywood American (Soderbergh in 2002).

Tarkovsky’s adds a preceding section on Earth (including here some of the material that, in the novel, was in the later info-dump chapters), and adds a somewhat trippy/highly symbolic ending which perhaps contributed to its being seen, at the time, as Russia’s answer to 2001. But it’s certainly engaging with the ideas of Lem’s novel, even if (as it should) it takes them in Tarkovsky’s own direction.

Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Soderbergh’s, on the other hand, seems far too intent on hitting the emotional highs without laying the necessary groundwork of plot, situation, or character. The early part of the story is dealt with so perfunctorily, it was obvious the filmmakers had no interest in anything till the drama between Rheya and Kelvin could get underway. Solaris, here, isn’t introduced at all, and it was only in a DVD extra that I discovered the filmmakers thought of it not as a planet with a perhaps-conscious ocean, but a planet-sized entity, seemingly made entirely out of energy. Nobody talks about the possibility of contact with this thing, and the mission is purely one to evaluate Solaris for commercial exploitation. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor for Hollywood there, somewhere.) It ends with a handful of twists, some obvious, some interesting, but in the end doesn’t, in my opinion, hit any note with sufficient force to leave much of an impression.

Soderbergh’s Solaris

Lem seems to have disliked both adaptions — in the case of the Soderbergh, without even seeing it — but that’s a common enough authorial stance. Certainly, his novel provided a template for some of the more thoughtful alien encounters in SF in subsequent years (Arrival, for instance).

For me, there’s an aesthetic to Solaris — both the novel and the films — of a pristine, almost surgically-clean technological surface, an island of apparent placidity and rationality amidst the bleakness and alienness of space, but one that serves to evoke the deepest human emotions of loss, guilt, and of vulnerability to one’s own undiscovered reaches. But I think this sort of emotional evocation works best with a light, even distanced touch, something the Soderbergh adaptation certainly doesn’t do. In space, no one needs to hear you scream; the vacuum, darkness, and immensity is scream enough.