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…”


“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…


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.”


“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.


The Wyndcliffe by Louise Lawrence

cover art by Anthony Maitland

I came across this book while looking for art by Anthony Maitland (having seen his cover for John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow and wanting more). Louise Lawrence was the pen-name of Elizabeth Holden (1943–2013), and this was her third novel, published in the UK in 1974. (It came out in the US in hardback in 1975, but doesn’t seem to have got a paperback edition in either country.)

It opens with the Hennessey family buying a house in a remote spot near the village of Oakers Mesne. Hollies Place, as the house is known, stands atop the Wyndcliffe, an escarpment overlooking the River Wye. As well as Mr and Mrs Hennessey, the family comprises Simon, 22, who’s studying at the Royal Academy of Music; Ruth, 17, who at first thinks moving to so remote a part of the country will leave her cut off from the world, but soon finds that being from London makes her somewhat glamorous and interesting at her new school and it’s not long before she’s set up with a boyfriend with a motorbike; and Anna, 15, who is lonely at the beginning, and remains lonely as she fails to click with her new classmates.

The contrast between Ruth and Anna is set up from the start:

“Only eighteen months divided Ruth and Anna in time, but Anna seemed so much younger, still a little girl who showed no sign of growing up. Anna at fifteen was very different from Ruth at fifteen, and Ruth at seventeen had left Anna far behind.”

Ruth is destined to fit in, while Anna seems bound for the opposite:

“Ruth had always said she [Anna] wasn’t normal and now Anna knew what she meant. Anna didn’t care about pop singers, and Georgie Best, and eyeshadow, and what her hair ought to look like, and what she ought to wear. But worst of all Anna had never had a boyfriend. There was something wrong with her and they all knew.”

But Anna soon finds a friend. John Hollis is a poet and lover of the natural landscape that surrounds the Wyndcliffe, and he’s 22 years old — but he’s been 22 for nearly a century and a half, as he died in 1823. (Lawrence dedicates the novel to Keats, who is presumably the inspiration for Hollis.) Though both dead and insubstantial, Hollis can be seen and heard by Anna; what’s more, Anna can feel his sensations and emotions, and comes to see the natural world around her in an entirely new way thanks to his presence:

“Perfect. Everything was so perfect. Each feathered grass, slender, delicate, separate and perfect. She was afraid to touch them for fear they’d break. Every frond of bracken, intricate, tinted, perfect. Spiders’ webs, filigree strands, complex, woven, perfect. Everything sprang at her, alive, vibrant with colour. It was as if she became part of the sunlight, insubstantial, intangible, slipping through pink flower petals that brushed her face, smooth, china-smooth, strong and cold…”

If this novel is a kind of supernatural teen romance, it’s clear from the language it’s not a romance between Anna and John Hollis so much as it is between Anna and the landscape, which takes her up and caresses her with its poetry:

“She was helpless in the booming wind. It clutched her with hollow hands as it beat on the percussion sky. It touched her with gentle fingers that played the harpstring trees. She was drowning in the sky full of sounds. Sinking and there was nothing to hold. She reached out for the moving wings, the drifting leaves, the propeller parachutes of white whirling seeds but everything eluded her. She was left to sink. But her falling brought no fear, only a thrill for she was buoyant and the wind always held her.”

Where Anna was lonely before, she comes to learn to appreciate solitude — that is, the solitude of being with John and the countryside that surrounds the Wyndcliffe:

“Solitude and loneliness, John had told her they were different. Once she’d been lonely, she’d had no one and she’d found it terrible to be alone. But now she chose it and was glad.”

back cover detail from the UK HB, art by Anthony Maitland

The Wyndcliffe started by reminding me of other YA novels in which the (often lonely or troubled) protagonist’s coming of age is achieved through contact with a supernatural entity, as in John Wyndham’s Chocky, or William Rayner’s Stag Boy. But whereas Chocky is being told through the sceptical father’s eyes, and he can never be sure, till the final chapter, that Chocky’s not just an imaginary friend, so for most it the whole thing’s treated with a sort of parental indulgence, the second half of Wyndcliffe is all about the very serious struggle to wrest Anna from her relationship with Hollis.

US HB. Art by Stephen Bommell (if I’m reading the signature correctly)

But it’s not her parents who do the wresting. Mr and Mrs Hennessey don’t stay around long enough to establish themselves as characters. Mr H has to go on a month-long-plus business trip to the States, and Mrs H goes with him, leaving Anna and Ruth alone in a new house. Ruth starts to suspect Anna has a boyfriend and follows her to find out who it is, but only sees her sister wandering the countryside talking to herself. When she hears Anna calling out John Hollis’s name, she asks around and though what she hears is clearly folklore, it’s evident this John Hollis is dead. There’s tales of “Mad Edie” who also walked about talking to him, and a story that, because he took the stone to build Hollies Place from the Wyndcliffe, he’s been cursed to haunt that location till he’s driven enough suicides over the cliff’s edge to repay each pound of stone with a pound of flesh. Ruth at first doesn’t believe it, but she can see it’s driving Anna to spend too long in the foul weather, making her ill. She calls Simon back home, and suddenly the pair are like stand-in parents — though far from ideal ones. Simon is condescending, still treating Anna like a little sister half her age and threatening to smack her if she doesn’t simply obey him; Ruth is indifferent and at times doesn’t seem to care if Anna is determined to self-destruct.

But both come to accept, to some degree, that Hollis is real. Both even talk to him, despite not seeing or hearing him: Simon to castigate him for preying on someone who’s still just a girl, Ruth to tell him to face up to reality — the reality being that he’s dead, and ought to act that way.

from the spine of the UK HB, art by Anthony Maitland

There are moments when the book teeters on the edge of Owl Service territory, with Ruth unintentionally taking on the appearance and manner of Sorrel Lancet, the girl who Hollis originally fell in love with, and who his attempts to please led to his early death. Is there to be a replaying of past tragedies? But ultimately, John Hollis is not the implacable force that haunts Garner’s Welsh valley, and Anna, by the end, achieves a new depth and maturity, though on her own terms. She doesn’t give in to Simon and Ruth’s demands she behave and fit in, but neither does she become wholly unworldly like Mad Edie. She hardens, but only to the extent of accepting that life for someone as sensitive and imaginative as she is will likely be tough, and not to the extent of giving up on being who she truly is.

Lawrence wrote a sequel, Sing and Scatter Daisies, published in 1977, but it’s pretty hard to find at a reasonable price, so it might be a while before I read it (if I ever get to). Instead, I think I’ll try some of her other books. She clearly has a way with language — she’s brave enough to give us a full poem from Hollis at one point, and it doesn’t fail to convince — plus a sensitivity for the solitudinous, imaginative type of soul that used to so populate 1970s YA.