Published in 1965, The Cloud Forest wasn’t North’s first book — that was the now impossible-to-find-anywhere Emperor of the Moon, from nine years before — but it’s the start of her short run of three gently mystical fantasies for pre-teens (the others being The Whirling Shapes and The Light Maze). The “Cloud Forest” of the title is a purely white otherworld one of the two protagonists, twelve year old Andrew Badger, slips into on occasion, and which he comes to learn exists inside the white gemstone of the Annerlie Ring, which he’s guided to find one night. Andrew is an orphan, currently living with his Aunt Badger, the matron of a girl’s school. She’s a somewhat Dickensian guardian, who discourages the boy from making friends with any of the pupils of the school he lives in, thwarts his attempts to have a night-light to stave off nightmares, and generally does her best to show him as little care as she can (“Most illness is pure self-indulgence. If you want to be well, you are well,” she says, in response to his being bed-bound with flu).
Andrew does find a friend, though, in the unconventional Ronnie Peters, an only child who “had always been so heavily wrapped up and protected from the cruel world (which she longed passionately to get at)” that she’s developed a no-nonsense approach to simply doing whatever she wants. As the book opens, she’s decided to bury a treasure map somewhere in the school grounds (even though she doesn’t have any actual treasure — the map itself will become the treasure to another map she’s then going to draw up), and so is present when Andrew finds the Annerlie Ring.
The current members of the Annerlie family live nearby at Annerlie Hall: Raymond Annerlie, virtually comatose since the death of his brother, brother’s wife and baby when their car went into a river, and Sir Rachet Annerlie, a neuro-psychologist who runs the expensive Annerlie Clinic. Researching their history, Ronnie finds mention of the mystical ring, which gives “creative authority to the imagination, if the imagining be sufficiently disinterested and freed from all attachment to results,” and “in its presence even the counterfeit may become real.” (When the normally timid Andrew pretends to be brave, for instance, he finds he actually is brave.) Even so, the ring’s power is “but the Symbol and Shadow of a greater truth.”
It turns out that Sir Rachet Annerlie desperately wants the ring. He’s interested in “the creating of True Power and the Knowledge of How to Use it”, and believes that, with the ring, “I can go to the heart of reality.” To this end, he hosts a series of self-improvement classes of a kind with vague but supposedly empowering beliefs. Andrew is dragged along to one by his aunt, and:
“He was urged to take an Active, Positive Attitude to Life, not to shrink from Having Opinions and expressing them as forcibly as he could, to beware of idleness and an empty mind; not to indulge in doubts and self-questionings and, above all, to realise the great power of DESIRE.”
Their outward message is: “You can all have what you want, if you want it deeply enough, and if you will it with all your heart.” But in fact the classes are simply a way of recruiting people whose will is weak enough that they can be hypnotised into providing a power source for Sir Rachet’s rather more Black Magical practices, focused on the recovery and ownership of the Annerlie Ring.
Aside from the fun adventure and light comedy, the thing I find most interesting about North’s books is her religious attitude. As in the other book of hers I reviewed (The Light Maze), she presents us with a mystical realm where various truths are made plain — here, that we have a True Self that may be lost to the domination of others, and that although imagination may have a magical power, it requires a certain disinterestedness in worldly gains to use it — meanwhile satirising a group of supposedly mystical-minded people who in fact have a power-centred or gains-oriented approach to the supernatural. The fact that Ronnie and Andrew’s main adult helper in The Cloud Forest is the Reverend Arbuthnot says something, perhaps, about where North’s own beliefs lie, but hers is not an entirely traditional Christianity: Arbuthnot, who accepts the children’s stories about the powers of the Annerlie Ring, admits it might be best not to inform the Bishop about such things. His own attitude to Sir Rachet’s classes implies that his — like North’s, I assume — is a somewhat Buddhistic or Eastern-tinged version of Christianity, that nevertheless manages to sound all the more English for it:
“All this constant wishing and desiring—this refusal to let the mind be at rest! It’s in the stillness and quietness that the true creative things happen.”
Mind you, as I’ve said before in this blog, fantasies are often about power, and in so many of them the answer is not learning to use power but deciding to renounce it (as with, most notably, that rather more famous Ring of Power, from Tolkien).
North’s adventures inevitably feel a bit light in contrast with the sort of teen-aimed YA fiction I like, which came only five or so years later, in the works of Alan Garner, John Gordon, William Rayner, Penelope Lively, and others, but the Jungian/Buddhist/lightly Christian form of mysticism that informs her fantasies feels very much both of its time (a 1960s moving towards New Age beliefs), and a matter of conviction on the author’s part.