Raven

First broadcast in six parts from 19th September to 24th October 1976, Raven was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray, the duo who also brought us Children of the Stones. And Trevor Ray has another connection to 70s kids’ telefantasy, in that he acted in an episode of Sky, playing the sinisterly avian Rex. Perhaps that gave him the seed of the idea of creating a series called Raven.

The series is named after its main character, Raven (played by Phil Daniels, best known now for Quadrophenia two years later, and Blur’s “Parklife” 17 years later), a 15 or 16 year-old orphan (found as a baby in an earthworks maze, watched over by a raven) on trial release from a borstal. He is to spend time with archeologist Professor James Young (played by Michael Aldridge, later Professor Diggory in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and his ornithologist wife (Patsy Rowlands, of Carry On fame). The Professor is currently investigating a subterranean cave system he believes to have been an ancient sacred site associated with King Arthur. (It also has a circle of standing stones above it, which he claims to be the origin of the idea of the Round Table.)

The Professor, professing

The Professor, though, only has a month to finish his work, because the government is putting plans in motion to turn the caves into a containment site for nuclear waste, and to build a reprocessing plant above it. Raven, on first hearing this from the project’s manager, Bill Telford, is all for it: “No good living in the past. Got to look after the future, right?” But the Professor is horrified. “Why are you talking like the establishment?” he demands (knowing how best to win over this rebellious young man), and gives him a pile of reading about the site, saying he should be better informed.

Raven has already had some visionary moments in which he’s seen the old professor as a bird — a merlin, in fact. Now he goes down into the caves and has a vision of himself as King Arthur, who presses his thumb to Raven’s forehead, leaving him with the astrological mark of Pluto between his eyes. From that point on, Raven is committed to saving the caves.

Phil Daniels as Raven

He falls in with local cub reporter Naomi Grant, who as well as junior reporting jobs (where she always has to follow the editorial line, however much she’s personally against it, and at the moment the paper is for the nuclear waste dump), does the paper’s horoscopes. When the professor gets her to recognise the symbols carved outside each cave as ancient versions of our modern astrological symbols (Gemini once being a giant, and Cancer a ship, apparently), she realises Bill Telford’s men are trying to tunnel between two caves whose astrological energies are in direct opposition. She’s convinced it will lead to disaster. Bill doesn’t listen — who would? — and so gets trapped in a cave when the new tunnel’s roof collapses. Naomi and Raven pick a more astrologically-harmonious route into the now-sealed cave, and though the surveyor doesn’t think it will work, it does. The rescued Bill emerges with the sign of Pluto on his forehead, converted to the anti-nuclear-waste point of view…

There’s a way of looking at Raven as a sort of reverse folk-horror. The cave site is sacred, and must be protected, and to ensure people protect it they’re forcibly initiated into its cult, usually by being trapped in the caves, leading to a vision of King Arthur pressing the mark of Pluto onto their foreheads. After this, they change their minds about the nuclear waste site. Professor Young is the head of this coven, and it seems even more folk-horror-coven-like when we learn the local vicar is one of his main allies. There’s even a night-time gathering of all the main players at the sacred stones, and a hint of ancient ritual sacrifice when a skull (of a young male of Raven’s height and age) is found in one of the inner caves.

Key to the Professor’s efforts is convincing young Raven he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur — or, at least, the latest incarnation, as “Some people believe that Arthur was the name of the office, rather than the man himself.” Raven is, at first, resistant:

[Professor Young]: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

[Raven]: “Yeah, and some thrust it right back again.”

But he comes round, not because he believes he’s King Arthur, but because he believes in the cause, and finds that other people are listening to him: “First time in my life I’ve ever felt useful.” This is the only one of these 70s’ kids’ telefantasy shows I can think of to so heavily feature the media as a necessary part of its story. Raven not only has to recruit the local newspaper to get his message across, but, through TV man Clive Castle, the general public:

[Raven]: “They’re destroying the countryside to make way for a lot of industrial garbage. They’re starting a dangerous game with no idea how it’s going to finish. And they’re dumping a lot of poisonous waste which might top us all one day…”

[Clive Castle]: “So you see yourself as the guardian of the future, as the representative of a younger generation who’s battling against the shortsightedness of your elders?”

[Raven]: “Listen, mate. We’re responsible for the kids who ain’t even born yet.”

This echoing of ancient mythic patterns in the modern world recalls The Owl Service, but in this case in mostly a benevolent way (Raven does get its replaying of the Guinevere story, though). I did find people seemed all too eager to see Raven as a new King Arthur, but for me it was the astrological stuff that was the least convincing. Perhaps if a little more effort had been made to tie modern astrology with ancient Earth-mysteries and ley line energies it might have seemed a little less ridiculous that knowing the incompatibility of two birth signs could lead to predicting a rock fall and saving someone trapped by it. Perhaps that’s just because I find one sort of nonsense (ley lines) a little less nonsensical than another (astrology), but to me it seemed Raven took the Earth-mysteries-type mysticism of Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes just a little bit too far into the ridiculous — not because it is unbelievable, but because it was too convenient, story-wise.

It’s the acting that makes Raven work. Phil Daniels is properly both annoying and charismatic as a spiky, street-wise rebel, a ne’er-do-well with his head on straight, and you never doubt he might actually become the sort of public leader he does become. It can almost make you ignore the fact that the story culminates not in the sort of exciting confrontation with dark mystical forces you find in Sky, Children of the Stones and The Changes, but in a public hearing in a local government hall — and that the tactics our heroes use basically involve the sort of mind-control most often associated with the villains in this kind of story.

Was Raven starting to show the limits of this brief cycle of Earth-mystery-inspired kids’ telefantasy? I think The Moon Stallion, which came two years later, showed there was more to be mined from this particular subterranean strata, though perhaps that show’s being set in the past helped. Still, Raven’s an interesting entry in this little sub-genre.

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The Earth Witch by Louise Lawrence

UK HB, art by Ronald Himler

Having recently read Lawrence’s 1978 YA novel Star Lord, how could I resist following it up with 1981’s The Earth Witch, sounding as it does so much like a companion piece? And there are a few similarities between the two. Both, for instance, are set in rural Welsh valleys, and in both the teen characters find themselves dealing with the archetypal/mythic entity of their book’s title, both of which sound like one of the major arcana from an alternative Tarot deck laid down by the post-60s imagination.

In The Earth Witch, the main characters are a trio that recalls Alan Garner’s The Owl Service: we have an English brother and sister, John and Kate Henderson, whose parents have recently bought Tregarron Farm in Wales, and Owen Jones, Welsh working class to the English pair’s middle class, adopted son of Ifor and Gladys, who have worked on the farm and lived in its tenant cottage all their lives. Owen is Ifor and Gladys’s nephew, abandoned by his mother when she had him out of wedlock — “born on the wrong side of the sheets”, as Aunty Glad puts it — after which she left for America, where she’s now married and has all but forgotten her son. Though his aunt and uncle look after him like a mother and father, there’s nevertheless a mother-shaped hole in his life, just from the knowledge that she’s out there but not in his life.

Lions UK HB, art by Jeff Cummins

The book opens in February, as the first signs that winter may be on the way bring a new sense of life to the valley. The three teens learn that a new tenant has moved into the dilapidated cottage of Mynydd Blaena, formerly the home of the eccentric (perhaps outright mad) Megan Davis, who was somehow involved in the death of a local man a little while back, and was then found dead herself in her isolated home. The new woman, Bronwen, claims to be a relative of hers. In fact, to Owen, she claims to be something more:

“I am her… I am her blood. The white roots woke me and I rose from the grave of her bones and her dust. I know all that she knew.”

Owen is the only person to offer Bronwen help with the cottage, though she seems more to resent than welcome it, while at the same time feeling it’s exactly what she’s due. She has her distinctly witchy aspects: control of a crow and a sometimes-vicious black dog, as well as a thorough knowledge of the magical uses of plants. And as winter turns to spring, her personality thaws. She starts to act like the mother Owen never had. She becomes a teacher in the local school, and her relationship with Owen shifts from the motherly to that of a lover. In the fullness of spring, she’s the May Queen at the village celebrations, though some locals still mutter darkly about what happened with Megan Davis and the ill-fated Gareth Llewellyn, and how they expect it all to happen again.

Ace PB, art by Winslow Pinney Pels

To Owen, Bronwen speaks openly about what she believes herself to be: not just the valley’s May Queen but a Goddess, at once Rhiannon of the Underworld, Blodeuwedd of the Owls, Angharad of the Lake, Cerridwen the Shape Changer, and the embodiment of Nature itself, who “gives life and destroys it, like the earth, like the seasons”. (In many ways, she’s a human version of the unforgiving Mawrrhyn mountain in Star Lord, a force that encapsulates all that nature gives in bounteous spring and summer, and the harsh price it demands in winter.)

She has moments of bitterness directed against the male-dominated modern world:

“Goddess I was once but they are despising me. They are setting up the male God in their own image and casting me down… You [men] are all one to me. All answerable for the crimes you have committed.”

She seems to come round when Owen reminds her she has “no right… to blame a single person for the sins of all”, but the cycle is started and just as she — and nature in the valley — gives of her great bounty in the year’s harvest, so she’ll demand her price. One life for all that she has given. And whose life but the boy she lavishes her greatest attention on?

Kate is the other character to feel something of Bronwen’s archetypal nature:

“Kate could feel her. She was cold in the river voices, hard in the heart of stones and black as hell. She was cruel as the peak of Pen-y-Craig and the look in the crow’s beady eyes. She was bats and moths and crane flies, everything Kate hated and feared…”

Yet:

“She seemed to embody the spring within herself; the song of the river over its stones, the wind through the sedge and the drift of willow leaves. She was the essence of flowers, the soul of the sunlit land, old as the maypole dance and eternally young…”

But in her case it’s what the sight of this powerful woman awakens in her own depths:

“Below the surface of herself Kate could feel something so hideous she could not bear to think of it… an instinct of blood sacrifices and fertility rites, ancient rituals of birth and death…”

“She doesn’t want love,” she tells Jonathan. “She wants worship.”

There’s so much in this novel that ties in with the strand of living-myth-meets-kitchen-sink-drama I love in 1970s YA (here lasting into the 80s). There’s rural Wales as a place on the border between myth and gritty reality, where folk beliefs sit unexamined alongside a fading Christianity, while both are being replaced by a scientific rationality that denies they exist — which simply means that those who encounter these mythic forces must do so without help. Modern and traditional ways rub together to produce a weird, magical, and often tragic friction. Like so many of these books, it’s about that 1970s balance point where the modern, technological, and rational meet the ancient, imaginative, and sacred: something’s that fading away, or perhaps only temporarily sleeping, and prone to rise up in all its dangerous, harsh, timeless and often inhuman power. As Kate says — talking simultaneously about Bronwen, the Goddess, and Nature all at once:

“The earth… That land out there… We’ve forgotten what she means. We’re not connected anymore. We just live on the surface and nothing touches us. We don’t think deeply of the soil and the stones and the hearts of the hills. We’re not part of the land… [We] just use her.”

The theme is just as relevant today, but I can’t imagine it being put in similar terms, framed as a sacred thing. Now, the landscape is a thing to manage, to care for, like a sick patient, not the wounded Goddess she may in fact be. The difference being that a sick patient may die, but a wounded Goddess is likely to hit back…

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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.

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