Seaward by Susan Cooper

1985 Puffin PB, art by Steve Braund

Published in 1983, this was Susan Cooper’s first novel since finishing her Dark is Rising sequence with Silver on the Tree in 1977. Like those books, Seaward is a fantasy for young adults, though in this case a standalone one.

Two youngsters, separately, find their way into another world. The boy Westerley, whose home nation isn’t identified, though it’s evidently on the totalitarian spectrum, is told by his mother how to escape to this other world the moment before she’s shot by a political branch of the country’s police. He knows his father is by the sea and, thinking himself pursued even in this other world, heads towards it. The girl Cally (full name Calliope) has recently found herself alone after first her father then her mother are taken away to some place by the sea for a cure for a muscular disease — or, more likely, care before they die. Drawn by a music she vaguely recognises, Cally enters a mirror in her parents’ room and finds herself in this strange land. Like Westerley, she decides to head for the coast, where she believes she can reunite with her parents.

The world they’re now in is ruled by two beings — or, perhaps, ruled by one, who’s tempered by the other. There’s the blue-robed, white-blonde Lady Taranis, kind one moment, cruel the next, and the gold-cloaked, owl-eyed Lugan, who is much more of a helper to the two kids, though only at times:

“Sometimes I may intervene. Not always. There are perils in this country, but there are also laws—and while you journey here, I watch that neither you nor anyone else break those laws.”

1983 Bodley Head HB, art by Joseph A Smith

There’s something of an Alice in Wonderland feel to the fantasy in this book. Not only does Cally enter the world through a mirror, but Westerley’s first adventure is to find himself part of a chess game, played by unwitting squares of soldiers on a wide, flat plain. But this isn’t a nonsense fantasy, nor is it meant to be taken lightly. The whole point is that the perils Cally and Westerley face — at first alone, but soon together — are life-threatening, or at least potential prisons. This book is closer to, say, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold or Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, in that it’s about a lonely boy and a lonely girl meeting in another world and, through facing its perils together, forging a relationship that allows them to return to our world and face it with a renewed hope and strength. (Though I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as either of those.)

And that theme, I think, would have been the thing I’d have responded to had I read it first as an adolescent, but as I’m reading it for the first time now, many years later, I was more bothered by the lack of solidity to the story. Lugan may mention laws, but his use of the passive voice (“there are also laws”) means we’re not going to told what they are, and his pronouncement that he “may intervene” sounds more like a writer letting the reader know that random interventions may occur, but they’re not going to tell you when. Cally and Westerley’s adventures are full of invention, but have none of the sort of logic that can allow the reader to really take part in the tale (anticipating what will happen, working out what they would do in the characters’ place). Most of the time, the pair are rescued from peril by some magic helper or gift that just works at the right moment: a magical wind to take them away, the help of birds, a friendly giant snake, a friendly giant insect. As Colin Manlove says of Seaward in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England:

“Though the book’s settings are finely imagined, they are not suggestive of meaning, but are there simply as fantastic inventions to give an exotic and exciting air to the plot.”

1987 PB, art by David Wiesner

In a sense, to use Tolkien’s word, the book is a series of eucatastrophes — last-minute miraculous rescues from certain peril — but used so often they soon lose their fairy tale element of genuine magic and just become frustrating. But the point of the book, I’d say, isn’t the story, but the way these perils bind the boy and girl together, teach them to trust one another and form a new bond of a type they’d only previously had with their parents.

Manlove’s other criticism of the book, I don’t quite agree with:

“Part of the trouble is that the book is non-moral: enjoyment of life is the only notion of good, hating it the bad.”

But I think this is to be too harsh on a novel that’s basically about overcoming grief and loss, and the fear of growing up in a world which can so easily take away what is most valuable, in human terms. As Charles Butler says in Four British Fantasists (a study of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper and Dianne Wynne Jones — four writers who happened to be at Oxford when Tolkien was lecturing there):

“One of the book’s main themes is that the two rulers of the secondary world, Lugan and Taranis, are not moral opposites, even though they at first appear to be so, with Lugan protecting the children and Taranis attempting to bar their escape. Ultimately, they are brother and sister, life and death: each of them has both a kindly and a cruel aspect.”

2013 PB cover, which makes use of a single (very brief) appearance of a dragon to sell this as the sort of fantasy it isn’t

“Nothing is black and white, Westerly, in this long game we play,” Lugan says at an early point, which isn’t, I don’t think, a moral point, but one about learning to accept the apparently bad things as part of a life that will inevitably contain both the bad and the good, as well as many things in between. It’s a novel about learning to balance the threat of/fear of death and loss, and the other negative aspects of life, with at least the possibility of the positive (here, the promise of love as a balance to loss).

Ultimately, Seaward is a coming of age tale, taking both characters to the point where they must decide to return to the real world, with all its losses, perils, and difficulties, in order to either mature into a full life, or escape from harsh reality and remain children forever. As I say, it’s not, I don’t think, the sort of YA book that can be read for the first time as an adult — something I’d say is also true of Cooper’s Dark is Rising books, which also have too much passive-voice fantasy (“this must be”, and so on) for my full enjoyment. But, they’re not written for me, at least not the non-adolescent me I am now.


The Spring on the Mountain by Judy Allen

Children’s Book Club edition, art by Kay Wilson

The Spring on the Mountain, first published in 1973, was Judy Allen’s first novel. It evidently had some success because, after being published by Jonathan Cape, it was brought out by the Children’s Book Club (run by Foyles) in 1974, and then as a Puffin paperback in 1977. Like her second novel, The Stones of the Moon (which I looked at a few mewsings back), it takes some traditional YA elements (city kids spending their holidays in the country get tangled up in a mystery) and brings them in contact with early-70s concerns, such as Earth-mysteries, sacred sites, and the oppressive influence of the past.

A trio of twelve-year-olds, Emma, Michael and Peter, are spending the end of their school holidays at the cottage of Mr and Mrs Myers. Mr Myers has recently retired from a city job to live on the interest from his savings in “a large cottage in a high moorland valley”, and his wife has decided to earn a little extra (and, perhaps, stave off boredom) by taking in children for the holidays. Emma, Michael and Peter haven’t met before, and are, it seems, from quite different backgrounds (though we only learn about Peter’s, that I recall, and then only that he has a “blunt Yorkshire manner”), and at first they fail to gel. But they go for a walk, and soon get introduced to some local mysteries: there’s a lane with a sort of dark-feeling, maybe-haunted corner, and beyond that, over the moor, reached by a straight path, a single mountain that Peter instantly decides he wants to climb.

The trio are introduced to a local old woman, Mrs White, who provides some no-nonsense explanations about lingering energies and powers within the earth. For the haunted lane, there’s this:

“At some time… fear has been felt at that place, very, very strongly. No one knows what the cause of the fear was, and it doesn’t really matter. That’s gone long ago. But the emotion itself has become trapped and repeats itself in an endless cycle.”

And for the mountain, Mrs White says that its remarkably straight approach is known as:

“…Arthur’s Way. That’s because some people an exceedingly long time ago had the idea that the Holy Grail was hidden at the top and that Arthur’s knights would have come this way in search of it.”

HB from Jonathan Cape

But Mrs White, it turns out, has had her own direct experience of the strangeness of the mountain. Years ago, she climbed it and found a spring which had a magically rejuvenative effect (“I was refreshed beyond all possible expectation. I felt more alive, more awake.”), and since then she’s always meant to return and divert the spring so it joins the river flowing into the local village, so everyone can feel the benefit. She, though, has got old — or perhaps some force is preventing her from being able to climb the mountain — so when she learns Peter, Michael and Emma are interested in going up, she persuades them to have a go at finding the spring and diverting it at the source.

Michael is established early on as being a sceptic as far as earth-energies and the like go, saying “I believe what my eyes tell me” — whereupon Mrs White ridicules him for having to believe, then, that objects in the distance are smaller than those that are close by. Peter, on the other hand, is of a more mystical bent, and has already had a vision of sorts by gazing into a crystal ball (though the Myers say it’s only a fisherman’s weight). Michael thinks Peter has “no intellectual discrimination at all”. Emma, meanwhile, keeps out of the debate. (Though Peter says “You want to believe him [i.e., Michael] because it sounds safer. But really you believe me.”)

It sounds like a set-up for an interesting exploration of scepticism and belief with regards to the supernatural, but by the halfway point Peter is proved right in his belief that “There are forces on the earth, you know there are.” “Why,” he continues, “shouldn’t a sort of life-force flow in straight lines?”, and Allen is evidently on his side, as she concludes the book with an author’s note:

“There really are ancient tracks, like Arthur’s Way, all over Britain. If you would like to know more about them and about how to discover if there is such a track in your area, you will find information in The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins and The View of Atlantis by John Michell, both published by Garnstone Press, London.”

Alfred Watkins was the first to suggest the existence of “ley lines” linking ancient and modern sacred sites through a series of straight lines. The View Over Atlantis (1969), meanwhile — “the book which”, historian Ronald Hutton says “more than any other, defined and energized the earth mysteries movement” — links ley lines to UFOs and flows of earth-energies, like the lung-mei or “dragon paths” of ancient China. This, and other post-60s beliefs, led to an alternative archaeology movement throughout the 1970s, though it wasn’t till Tom Williamson and Liz Bellamy’s Ley Lines in Question (1983) that the idea of ley-lines was subjected to more rigorous and academic interrogation, and found wanting.

None of this should detract from Allen’s book, but I have to admit I felt a slight C S Lewis-like sense that here the writer was, by making their own beliefs the justification for the fantastical elements in a story, going to skimp on giving their tale that deeper sense of reaching for the truly mysterious that a less dogmatic basis would have had.

Puffin PB, art by Jill Bennett

Michael, Peter and Emma climb the mountain, encounter some weirdness — including a Merlin-like figure called Aquarius who warns them away from diverting the spring, not because it shouldn’t be done but because it’s Mrs White’s Quest, not theirs — but the ending is a bit rushed. Why shouldn’t the kids divert the spring? Why should Mrs White be the one to do it, or attempt to do it? Why hasn’t she managed to do it? What would happen if she did? Or didn’t? These questions don’t get answered (nor the larger question of who’s deciding all this “meant to be” stuff), but we do at least glimpse the event that sparked off that haunted feeling in the lane (a hanged man, intense emotions, and a divergence in the straight track causing an energetic “whirlpool” where life-energies get trapped), thanks to Peter slipping briefly into the past.

There are similarities with other YA novels of the same era — William Mayne’s IT, for instance, with its need to rebalance some ancient boundaries in the land so as to lay a troublesome power — but Allen’s novel lacks the sense (in Mayne’s IT) of a redoubtable protagonist ultimately overcoming a supernatural difficulty in their own personal, if quirky, manner.

But I think that’s why it’s interesting to read the, as it were, second-rank offerings in a genre, just to find out what makes the top rank work. Garner, Mayne, John Gordon, and Penelope Lively bring in the supernatural but the focus is always on the characters first of all and, ultimately, the way they deal with these pervasive influences from the past, from myth, from the landscape: because, supernatural though they may be, they always tie in with the characters’ personalities and relationships, meaning they can be read without having to believe in anything but the story as a story. Allen’s, I think requires a measure of belief in earth-energies, and semi-human powers like Aquarius, who pop up to tell us that certain things are just meant to be this way or that way, but without any reason behind them. Not to believe means you can be left wondering what it was all for. (Though I am, of course, approaching these books as an adult. The top rank YA books can be re-read as an adult, less so the lesser works.)


The Stones of the Moon by Judy Allen

UK HB, art by Pat Marriott

David Birch is the son of a professor of archaeology currently working on a Roman mosaic uncovered during the construction of a new motorway in a small Yorkshire town. Although he’s been taken out of school to be with his father as he’ll supposedly learn more on an archaeological dig, Professor Birch is happy to let his son follow his own interests. David fixates on a local stone circle, something his father — and, it seems, just about everyone else — has no interest in at all. Standing among the Weeping Stones, though, David gets a strong feeling of fear:

“He didn’t believe that they wished him harm, only that they were dangerous, unimaginably dangerous, just as heavy machinery in action is dangerous.”

Touching one of the stones as he leaves the circle, he gets an electric shock. These things, then, have a power, but what it is and what it’s for, nobody, at first, can tell him.

He bumps into a pair of local kids of his own age, Tim and Jane. Tim wants to be an ecologist when he grows up and is, as part of a school project, checking pollution levels in the local river, both above and below the local mill. He knows that downstream from the mill the amount of life in the river declines, but keeps wanting to double-check his results, not because he’s unsure of them, but because his father works at the mill and they need the money. Jane, meanwhile, has some unspecified connection to the stone circle.

Paperback from 2000

It’s not until David meets John Westwood, though, that he learns anything more about the Weeping Stones. John is, in the eyes of about everyone else in the book, just “some elderly hippie”. He’s fascinated by the stones, and has embarked on a fifteen-year-long project of self-education so he can understand them, a syllabus that not only includes history, archaeology and geology, but astrology and folklore. He believes the stones are associated with the moon, and tells David’s father the mosaic, when uncovered, will show that the Romans knew this too. When the mosaic proves to be of Diana, though, Professor Birch shrugs it off:

“I’ve come across them before, these people. The world of what you might call Alternative Archaeology is full of them. They give up everything of real value in their lives to prove something they believe to be external. In fact it’s all inside their own heads…”

“Or it could be,” David counters, “that he’s being true to himself. He’s given up all the things society thinks are important…” But David also starts to doubt Westwood when Tim and Jane’s father says the old hippie is into drugs, and doesn’t want his kids having anything to do with him. When David asks Westwood if it’s true, he says:

“I began to use drugs about five years ago in the hope of finding a short cut to the knowledge I was looking for… I met strange and magical things, but the only knowledge I found was this—that illusion blurs the perceptions even while seeming to heighten them… Now… I try to approach the truth as it should be approached, with directness.”

But, he admits, “the drugs I used are using me. They have left my mind just a little clouded…” When Tim and Jane’s father sees his kids with Westwood again — even though they’ve only bumped into him by chance — he gets the police onto him, and Westwood is taken away. Sure that he was onto something about the stones, David goes through Westwood’s papers (they were staying at the same boarding house) and comes to realise the stones do have a sort of power: they were created long ago to draw water up from deep in the ground so as to replenish the river in times of drought. Back then, they’d be activated by singing to them, but now it seems the sound of the machinery at the mill is providing a constant vibration of exactly the same note, and the stones are set to flood the town…

Judy Allen

Judy Allen’s The Stones of the Moon (1975) is a very short novel, chiming in with some of the folk-fantasy themes of the day, as well as the belief in “Earth mysteries” that took off in the 1960s, before going into flying saucer overdrive in the 1970s. As a YA novel, it doesn’t quite have the toughness of Alan Garner or the quality of Penelope Lively, but it does hit a few of the same notes. Tim, for instance, taciturn throughout most of the novel, at one point bursts out with an “it’s all right for you” type of speech about how it’s easy for middle-class David to talk about shutting down the mill to stop the stones from destroying the town or polluting the river, but his working-class family needs the income. But some aspects of the novel — such as Jane’s odd link with the stones, which never gets developed (I was expecting to find she was possessed by Diana, or something), or the fact that Westwood never gets his “I told you so moment” when the town is flooded — made me feel this isn’t quite as strong a work as the real classics of the era. (It was re-released in paperback in 2000, though, so it evidently had some staying power.)

What was most interesting to me was the attitude it takes to Westwood. It’s one of my fascinations with the culture of the early 1970s, how it deals with the aftermath of the late-60s upheavals not just in social change, but in imagination. The hippie era dumped a whole lot of weirdness into the culture, and suddenly everything, from aliens and UFOs to magical stone circles, ley lines and paranormal powers, not to mention psychedelic weirdness generally, were seeping into the mainstream.

Here, Westwood is dismissed by everyone as a slightly crazy hippie, mixing astrology with archaeology and using it to come to conclusions no one in their right mind would accept. His one-time drug use is latched onto as an excuse to dismiss him entirely. Even David, though drawn by his enthusiasm, starts to doubt him, comparing drugs, and the ideas they conjure, with the notion of the “fairy food” of folklore:

“In every story it is made plain that eating the fairy food is an irrevocable move, and that those who once taste it pursue it to the detriment of their lives, right to their lives’ end. It is never a beneficial or nourishing food; it is a teasing food, and it changes the personality.”

“So did the fact that Westwood had made that mistake [taken drugs] invalidate all his ideas?” It’s as though we’re also being asked, “Did the fact the hippies believed in so many crazy things mean that nothing they valued — all the social changes, and so on — is worth holding onto?”

Ultimately, in this book, Westwood is proved right, but, as I say, he never gets his “I told you so moment”, as though to keep his right conclusions at some distance from his unsound methods. Once he’s been carted off by the police, he’s not seen again — which is, perhaps, a symbolic ushering out of all that suddenly seemed slightly embarrassing, naïve, garish, or just plain wild-and-weird about the 60s, by the harsher side of reality. David is the one who’s left with Westwood’s ideas, to try to sort out what’s right and wrong, just as (it seems to me) Children of the Stones-era kids were perhaps being handed all that Earth-mysteries/UFO/psychic-powers craziness of the 60s as though to say: we don’t know what to make of it, you sort it out.