I found this book while looking for more 70s/80s YA folk fantasy, and it’s one I hadn’t heard of before. Published in 1981, The Grey Dancer is the first novel from poet and novelist Alison Fell, and doesn’t seem to have been reprinted after its initial hardback and paperback. This may be down to its length — at 90 pages, it’s a very slim paperback, even for YA books of the time.
The story is set around the village of Dal, near Laggan in the Highlands. Change is coming to this remote community, in the shape of a new contraption: a television, acquired by the small, two-teacher school, to let its pupils watch the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, thus placing the start of the novel in June 1953. The protagonist is eleven-year-old Annie Latto, who sees the young queen in the TV’s “flickering grey square” as something out of a fairytale (“her Cinderella carriage”) and feels enough of a link with this far-off woman to worry “what would happen if the queen needed to go to the bathroom in the middle of it all.” It seems to be a symbol of progress — all those lords and ladies bowing to a young woman — as does the building of a new hydroelectric dam in a nearby valley. Annie’s father, who used to drive the school bus, is now employed in the building work there. The new bus-driver, said to be a gypsy, is Lal McLennan, a man with eyes “the yellow of a burn in full sun, or the feathers at the throat of an eagle”, soon makes friends with Annie by curing a wasp sting with a wad of sphagnum moss.
But not everything in Annie’s life is so positive. Her father is not pleased with lax standards in the dam’s construction, but no one will listen to his warnings about what might happen when the water starts flowing. Meanwhile, Annie’s headmaster and main teacher (or “Dominie”) is a sadist, far too fond of corporal punishment for the slightest reason. Annie’s favourite place to be by herself is under a tree she’s named the Grey Dancer, “for the way it swayed and rippled its branches higher than any other tree of Dal, and wilder” — a symbol, perhaps of her own spiritedness. When a local bully, sixteen-year-old Fergie, finds her there and starts to chase her, she’s saved by the sudden appearance of a golden eagle, swooping down on the lad and scaring him off. This awakes a defiance, and a sense of power, in Annie for the first time: “she knew that the eagle had left something to her. Like some kind of territory which was in her own keeping.”
Bus-driver Lal begins to tell her his story, and it’s here the book’s folkish fantasy element comes in. For, although it’s his story, it’s one that happened “a fearsome long time ago. A hundred years or more.” Back then, it was also a time of changes. A new laird had come to Dal, with his English woman and his wealth acquired from British India. Another new woman comes to the valley, too: lame Isobel, who can cure the sick with her knowledge of plants. Lal, a farmworker, falls for Isobel, and the two declare before the village that they are to be married. The new laird, meanwhile, says he has to make more efficient use of the land, and that thirty-five of the residents are going to have to move on. Isobel, who has come from a similarly depleted community, warns that this will be just the first step in them all losing their homes. But when Lal speaks out against the laird, Isobel is summoned before a court, accused of “Unlawful practices and irreligious conduct” — basically, witchcraft — though the couple know this is just the laird getting his own back. And, as the only consequence is that they won’t be able to be married in church, Isobel conducts her own marriage ceremony, in front of the tree that Annie will later call her Grey Dancer, invoking the name of “Bride, goddess of the old religion”. (So perhaps she is a little bit witchy after all.)
It’s hard to describe the book’s fantasy element without giving the whole story, but it’s established from the start that Lal lost his Isobel — and that Lal is, in some way, also the golden eagle who saved Annie from the bullying Fergie. It’s an old folk-tale element, though: the separated lovers transformed, Lal into a golden eagle, Isobel into a trout, to meet again as humans only once a year, on Midsummer’s Night. But the place they meet is, Annie realises, one of those soon to be flooded when the dam begins operation, and that’s going to be on Midsummer’s Day.
As well as being about times of change — which recalls, to me, Robert Holdstock’s idea in the Mythago books that myths emerge in times of change — The Grey Dancer is about standing up to oppression. Lal and Isobel did so, speaking out against the laird and letting him know they could see what he was up to with his part in the Highland Clearances. Annie’s father does so, too, speaking out in a meeting about how the dam might not be as safe as everyone’s claiming it will be. Annie does her own standing up to the misuse of power, cheekily writing the word “tyrant” on the blackboard when the Dominie asks her to spell one more word than everyone else in a spelling test.
That moment of hope through change the novel opened with — the crowning of a new queen — is, Lal says, not to be accepted without question. Having told Annie about the Clearances he lived through a century ago, he says:
“Never forget that tale, Annie… So when your teachers stuff you with pap about the braw Queen and her Commonwealth and the great Empire, mind some of the crimes that were done in the building of it.”
I can’t help feeling there’s an ambivalence about how the fantasy element is brought into this tale of speaking truth to power. Lal and Isobel’s story of standing up to the new laird can only find its happy ending through a shift to the supernatural, by Lal and Isobel’s transformation into a bird and a fish. Without that, it’s the tale of the laird’s retribution and nothing else. It’s similar to how I felt about Pan’s Labyrinth, where one reading of the film is to see the fantasy elements as a desperate re-shaping of tragic events, in the moment before poor Ofelia’s death at the hand of fascists, because there’s no other place to find that much-needed sense of fulfilment except in her own imagination.
Or is the right way to see it that stories of defiance of misused power, even ones that need to resort to fantasy to find their sense of justice, are at least an inspiration for the powerless to stand up to the powerful, even if they will, in most cases, not win? Because perhaps, every so often, one will win, and there will be a genuine positive change?
The feeling The Grey Dancer ends with is, I think, one of hope, a sense that Annie will in the future be all the more ready to speak out against what she knows to be wrong, even if she has had to witness the tragedy of Lal and Isobel — or perhaps because she’s had to witness that tragedy. Lal certainly says he sees this spirit in her:
“I see you seeking and not finding… and Scotland is aye full of those who forget the seeking and live on, never hearing the speak of the land, never noticing their hearts wither within them.”
The 70s and 80s YA I’ve covered on this blog — by the likes of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, John Gordon and so on — always has something of a political sensibility, or at least an awareness of social wrongs, certainly when it comes to class. But mostly class is presented in these books as a fact about the world, a thing that individual characters have to deal with, rather than a social problem to be solved. Gwyn’s solution in Garner’s The Owl Service is to self-educate himself out of it, to fake his way into the middle classes by losing his accent; in other books of the time, the mark of social progress is for the middle-class main characters to be friends with a working-class character, but not to think much, or do anything about, the political or social injustices that lead to such a divide. But these books, in the main, are about conflict with more fundamental, primal forces, and class differences are there to add realism to their fantasy narratives. Fell’s novel is by no means preachy, but it feels to me that, in it, there’s much more of the sense of needing to challenge social and political wrongs and the misuses of (non-supernatural) power, be it political, local, or personal. To accept those misuses is to let a little bit of yourself die.
It’s a nice, short, and poetically-written tale, infused, through its language, with an awareness of the natural world, and the intense, slightly fantasy-tinged mind of a child protagonist on the verge of adolescence. Its length would have made it perfect for the sort of hour-long TV adaptations some similar books of the time had — Red Shift, The Bells of Astercote, The Ghost in the Water — but that was not to be. Still, a nice addition to my growing collection of 70s/80s YA folk fantasy. (Which needs a better genre-name!)