The Bodach/The Walking Stones by Mollie Hunter

1976 Target Books PB

Some more Scottish YA folk-fantasy… First published in the UK in 1970 as The Bodach, and in the US in the same year as The Walking Stones, this was then re-released in paperback in the UK under the more Earth-mysteries-friendly US title in 1976.

“Bodach” is Gaelic for “old man”, and the Bodach of the title lives in a Scottish glen, a storyteller and possessor of the Second Sight. Living close by are the Campbell family — shepherd Ian, his wife Kitty, and their ten-year-old son Donald — and one evening when the Bodach is visiting, the old man foretells that, the next day, three men will come to the valley, one with a forest on his back, one with lightning in his hand, and the third bringing death. Sure enough, the next day, three men — all called Rory — turn up. One has a sack of seeds for planting a forest, the other has the plans for a new hydro-electric dam to be built in the glen, and the third has the responsibility of turning on the dam and flooding the glen (thus bringing death to it). They offer the Campbells and the Bodach modern, new houses in the nearby town (with “electric light, hot and cold running water, an electric stove, a refrigerator and washing-machine — everything, in fact, that a modern house should have”), and while the Campbells accept (Ian is to get a new job, too, working as a forester under the first Rory), the Bodach says, politely but firmly: “you will never flood this glen until I give you leave to do so.”

1970 Blackie HB

Work progresses for two years. The day the dam is due to be turned on (by Royalty, no less), the Bodach stands as one of the crowd — but suddenly, he’s there in the glen. Knowing they can’t turn on the dam till he’s safe, men are sent to get him, but every time he’s about to be caught, he reappears somewhere else. Things continue like this till the end of the day, and the dam hasn’t been turned on. That evening, the Bodach tells the now twelve-year-old Donald why he’s using this skill of creating a “Co-Walker”, a double, in this way. There’s a circle of thirteen standing stones in the glen, and:

“Once every hundred years, they say, these stones move from their places. They walk to the river and dip their heads in it, then they go back to their places and stand fast there for another hundred years.”

The Bodach wants to see this wonderful event. But before he can, the two of them encounter a creature from the Otherworld, the Bean nighe, the Washer at the Ford, whose appearance foretells death. The old man saves the boy from becoming its victim, but only at his own expense. Now knowing he’s going to die, and so maybe not to get to see the stones walk, he asks Donald to see them, and passes on his gift of the Second Sight to the boy (which he’d always meant to do anyway). The Bodach falls ill and is taken to hospital, so Donald must use his new abilities (creating his own “Co-Walker”) to keep the dam from opening, then gets to see (I hope this isn’t a plot spoiler, as it’s in the title of the book) the stones move.

1986 Magnet Books PB

There are already connections between this book and two other Scottish YA novels I’ve covered on this blog. The Washer at the Ford appeared in Winifred Finlay’s Beadbonny Ash — though there she didn’t portend death — and The Grey Dancer was also about a glen being flooded due to the creation of a hydro-electric dam (and there was also a cyclical supernatural occurrence, too). The Walking Stones is a lighter book than either, aimed at a slightly younger audience. The threat level is low, and none of the characters is really villainous (one of the Rories is clearly tempted to flood the valley even with the Bodach in it, but is persuaded otherwise). Usually I find books aimed at pre-teens to be too light for my tastes, but The Walking Stones has a bit of an edge (with the death of the old man), plus a genuine scene of wonder and weirdness when Donald gets to see the walking of the stones. It’s an evocative and mystical moment, very nicely written, with strands of wreathing mists gathering about the stones, then becoming the long white hair and flowing beards of old men.

1998 PB from Magic Carpet Books

For Donald, the protagonist, it’s basically a tale of initiation, as he’s granted the power of Second Sight. Any modern book of this type (or even The Dark is Rising, from a few years later) would use the idea to be the first in a long series, with Donald going on to fight all sorts of Otherworld perils, but here, there’s no sense that’s going to happen. Donald, we can be sure, is going to live just as quiet a life as the Bodach did, telling tales of wonder and mystery, and providing a little Second Sight and Otherworldly wisdom to his local community. (Will it be a strange and lonely life? We’re not told, though Donald does rather sensibly express some doubts as to whether he wants the gift of the Second Sight.)

1973 PB from Harper Trophy

Like so many similar books of the era, there’s a sense of old ways — along with both their faerie dangers, and their supernatural sense of wonder — being erased by the encroachment of modern technology — with its greater ease of life, but paucity of wonders. Compared to the Bodach, we’re told, “there was no one on the television who knew stories as strange as the ones he told, or who could tell them half so well”. But Donald is handed the baton, and becomes just such a storyteller for the next generation, ensuring the old ways, wisdom, and stories aren’t quite going to die out just yet.


The Grey Dancer by Alison Fell

Lions PB, with art by Jennifer Eachus

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.”

Full PB cover, art by Jennifer Eachus

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.”

Alison Fell bio, from the HB

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!)


The Waterfall Box by John Gordon

Kestrel Books HB, art by Chris Molan

The Waterfall Box was John Gordon’s fourth YA novel, published in 1978. The box of the title is a small (“no higher than a teacup”) box of heavy, dark wood, ornately carved and bearing the words “IN TIME OF NEED” on the outside. It belonged, a few centuries back, to Silas Waterfall, known as Potter Waterfall for his founding of the Waterfall Pottery and his invention of his own unique green glaze. The box has been passed down — not to Waterfall’s descendants, as he had none, but to those of his housekeeper — until, in the present generation, it and the item it held (a small, sealed flask containing an unknown liquid) have been inherited by sisters Alice and Martha, one of whom has the box, the other the flask. There’s a family injunction never to sell these items, but whereas Martha married into money (her husband Richard now runs the Waterfall Pottery), Alice isn’t so well-off, and when she’s approached by antiques dealer Harman (“buying up the past to sell to the present”) offering her a substantial sum for the box — enough for her, her husband, and teenage son Bran to escape “this narrow house, squeezed by its neighbours in a crawling ant-run of a street” — she at first refuses, but, when Harman’s gone, changes her mind. She and her husband go out to celebrate the decision, and are killed in an accident.

Bran inherits the box, and is moved in with his aunt Martha, uncle Richard and his teenage cousin Sandy, who falls into an instant flirtation with him. (Even though Sandy’s parents are well-off, she’s impressed by the fact that, because he has the money from the sale of his parents’ small house, Bran is “rich”.) But it’s not long before Harman is back, claiming the sale of the box was agreed (even though he couldn’t know Alice changed her mind and decided to sell it after he’d gone). And by this time Bran has learned there’s more to the box than its being a mere antique. As well as a potter, Silas Waterfall was an alchemist, and it’s possible the liquid in the flask is the Alkahest (the “universal solvent” required as part of the process of turning lead into gold), while the pottery base of the box might be the Philosopher’s Stone.

By this point, the novel is following two strands. In the one, we have the development of Bran’s relationship with Sandy, in the other we have Harman’s desire to own the Waterfall Box. We never learn much about Harman, why he wants the box or how much he knows, only that he seems to know more than he rightly should. He approaches other people in the village, including Sandy’s best friend Stella, recruiting them to gain information about where the box and its now-reunited flask are kept. Harman has the patient-impatient air of a man who knows he’s close to getting what he wants, something he’s wanted for a long time, and believes he’s entirely capable of getting, by whatever means necessary. And there’s more than a spooky air about this shadowy figure, as we learn he’s able to call on a supernatural strength at times.

The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, Kestrel Books HB, cover by Allan Curless

But it’s clear the relationship strand is Gordon’s focus. Bran is attracted to Sandy, and Sandy is flirtatious with Bran, but the situation is more complex than boy-meets-girl. Prior to reading The Waterfall Box, I read Gordon’s first book of short stories, The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories, and noted there how a four-person teen relationship dynamic showed up in several stories, most notably “Better the Devil You Know” (about a girl deciding how much gruff masculinity she wants in a boyfriend, and gets a close encounter with something perhaps-supernaturally both beast-ish and man-ish to help her decide). There, you have an intelligent, sensitive, slightly loner-ish main boy; a tough, at first belligerent, but ultimately principled rival boy; an attractive, though superficial, better-off girl who flirts with both boys, even playing them off each other; and a quieter girl, the other girl’s “best friend” in an uneven relationship, giving way to her but clearly more sensitive and worthy of the main boy’s love. That quartet is here, too, with Bran as main boy and Sandy as flirtatious girl, then Sandy’s “best friend” (as in “She’s my best friend and I hate her”) Stella as the quieter girl, and her amateur boxer of a boyfriend Griff (who Stella knows is really attracted to Sandy) as the belligerent rival. It’s obviously a tangle Gordon himself felt the need to revisit and rework, a mess of male identity (being tough versus being quiet and sensitive) and sexual attraction (the more flirtatious and outgoing girl who too-quickly changes loyalties, or the more serious girl who puts herself in the background), all superheated by teenage hormones, and with an added dose of class tensions (the more flirtatious girl is more well-off, the quieter girl is poor) just to keep things difficult. (Or, now I think about it, is it to keep things simple?)

The TLS review of The Waterfall Box (1st December 1978, by Gillian Cross) criticised the incompatibility of these two narrative strands:

“In practice, however, the two elements of the book act against each other. The fate of the alchemist’s enigmatic legacy is almost totally subordinate to the interaction of the characters. The violent implications of the mystery undercut the more prosaic teenage romance. It is hard, for example, to be patient with the long accounts of Bran’s reactions to Sandy’s sexual teasing when his grief for his parents—who are killed a quarter of the way through the book—merits only half a page of description. The final effect is one of insubstantiality, of a sketch for a powerful book with neither the incidents nor the characters to flesh it out.”

But I think the point is that Bran can’t resolve the situation with Harman and the box till he resolves the inner tangle of his relationships, and so sorts out his own values and priorities. Just as Harman’s offer to buy the box means easy money, in a crude way Sandy is easier in terms of sexual relationships, but ultimately both are shallow and perhaps (though we’re never given an explicit reason to feel Harman is evil, only that he has the air of it) immoral. It’s only by coming together in the right combination that Bran and the others can see Harman off, once his more supernatural aspects come to the fore.

Still, I do agree it’s not an entirely successful novel — but more because the supernatural aspects are worked out a little too quickly, with a lot of rushing about and characters intuiting things about Harman at the last minute, as a means of defeating him. I think that aspect of the novel needed more laying out of a few clues as to how Harman could be defeated, and perhaps about his motives, too, just to make the victory feel a bit more morally satisfying.

The Waterfall Box, as far as I can tell, seems only to have been published in hardback in the UK, with no subsequent paperback edition. This makes it quite difficult to find (and a little more expensive than I’d normally pay for a book of this vintage). Still, I think it’s an interesting part of Gordon’s work, clearly developing some of his concerns (and a better novel, on a first read at least, than The Ghost on the Hill, which I read last year but didn’t write about because it was too confusing on a first read — but which did get a paperback edition). Valancourt Books have recently reissued Gordon’s most well-known (among readers of weird fiction, anyway) novel, The House on the Brink, and I wonder if they’re going to work through his others, in which case The Waterfall Box might get a paperback edition at last. Who knows?