I’ve been following the wonderful #thedarkisreading hashtag Twitter with delight. There is amazing fan-art, as well as readers old and new, has been a midwinter treat. This question from Robert McFarlane, who first proposed the re-read, got me thinking.
I was given Dr Dimitra Fimi’s Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy for Christmas from my wonderful and supportive parents (academic books aren’t cheap, you know!) and coincidentally have been researching and drafting a chapter for my PhD thesis- a timeline of British children’s fantasy fiction from Alan Garner’s Elidor to Robin Jarvis’s The Whitby Witches- so I have been thinking about developments in children’s fantasy fiction over 50 years. Elidor features a mix of Welsh and Irish myth; The Whitby Witches is strongly rooted in Whitby and contains a mixture of legends of Whitby, such as St Hilda, the Hand of Glory from the Whitby Museum and the Barghest.
It is not surprising that both Garner and Cooper write mythopoeic fantasy, since they (as well as Diana Wynne Jones and Penelope Lively) studied at Oxford during the era of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein, as C. Butler’s Four British Fantasists (2006) discusses. Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn‘s 2016 Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction posits the positioning of Britain as a melting pot, a mongrel nation, by the British left of the 1970s. In the face of National Front marches, Robert Leeson’s A Third Class Genie was explicitly positioning racist and classist attitudes as both wrong and against the spirit of Britain that won the war, although it uses the myths of the Arabian Nights rather than British or Celtic myth.
I recommended three books in response to Robert McFarlane’s tweet. One I have already written about: Recent reading: James Clammer and Louise O’ Neill. The other two are Peader O’ Guilin‘s The Call and Alex Wheatle‘s Crongton Knights.
The Call is not, like the books above, written about Britain. The book is set in the North West of Ireland, a dystopia where the Sidhe, terrifying fairy folk, have risen to take back Ireland from humans. They are stealing teenagers and taking them back to the fairy realm. Most do not return, and those that do are altered, either mentally, physically or both. Because of this education is focused in boarding schools, on training students to survive the call for three minutes. The use of Irish mythology is unsettling; it disconnects the students from the land, rather than reinforcing their place in it. The body horror is vivid and, well, horrible. The sequel is published in March and I’ll be waving my money at a bookseller soon after.
Crongton Knights is also set in a dangerous, alienating landscape: that of the fictional London borough of Crongton. This is the second in a trilogy, but I first read it as a stand-alone book and it’s easy to pick up the narrative and the characters from the first book, Liccle Bit. McKay, Jonah and Liccle Bit are 14 year olds, living on an estate in South Crongton. They go on a perilous quest on the bus to North Crongton, to retrieve the phone of the beautiful Venetia, stolen by her ex-boyfriend, Sergio, who took naked photos of her, that her strict Christian family cannot find out about. A simple enough task, apart from the ongoing feud between North and South Crongton youth, and the gangster Manjaro, who has a score to settle.
McKay is an engaging character; a boy who has been teased for his weight, and who takes joy in becoming the cook in his family following the murder of his mother. Touchingly, as well as appreciating how attractive Venetia’s Turkish friend Saira is, he also picks up the scent of lamb kofta at her house; a delightful detail. The story is told in McKay’s voice; he loves both Star Wars and Tolkien, and uses imagery of chivalric Arthurian quests along with Black London slang to create a new language that is distinct and metaphorical: castles for tower blocks; drawbridges for doorways; McKay goes to his dungeon rather than his bedroom. The book even has a map at the front of it. It’s a beautiful book, well worthy of its Guardian award for children’s literature.