At the moment I am writing a chapter of my PhD thesis on working class children in British fantasy fiction from 1965 to 1991. The fantasy fiction of the 1960s and 70s was rooted in the mythology of the British Isles, as Catherine Butler’s Four British Fantasists and Dimitra Fimi’s Celtic Myths in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy. However, I have noticed a repeated figure from British folklore in children’s fantasy literature: the Black Dog, also known as the Gytrash, Barghest, Black Shuck, Grim or Skriker. The Black Dog often foretells death or disaster, as 19th Century literary examples demonstrate: in Jane Eyre Jane mistakes Rochester’s dog Pilot for the Gytrash. Of course, Jane meeting Rochester does bring about death and disaster. Dracula adopts the shape of a huge black dog when he lands at Whitby.
The Giant under the Snow (1968)
Jonk, the splendidly sullen teenage protagonist of The Giant Under the Snow, is attacked then stalked by a menacing black dog during and after a school trip to an ancient burial site. The black dog is accompanied by a stone faced man, who, the children learn, is an ancient warlord wanting to reclaim a golden belt buckle, so he can regain his power.
This book was recommended as a follow up after the Twitter re-read of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. If I had read it as a child I think I’d have enjoyed it more than I did as an adult; while parts of the book were tense and atmospheric, once Jonk and her friends gained the ability to fly from the wise woman Elizabeth Goodenough (a welcome woman mentor figure in a genre populated with many old bearded men) much of the peril is diminished. Black paw print score: 3.
The Whitby Witches (1991)
Ben, 8 and Jennet, 12 were orphaned by a car crash, sent to live with unsympathetic relatives, then they are put into the care system. Ben has second sight; he sees the ghosts of his parents, but also other ghosts, and this has caused trouble for the children, until they move to Whitby to live with elderly Miss Alice Boston, a distant connection of their mother’s, who also has second sight and respects both children- not only “special” Ben, but also tough, determined and empathic Jennet.
Miss Boston tells the children the stories and legends of Whitby- Dracula landing at Whitby as a Barghest, legends of St Hilda and Caedmon, and the Hand of Glory, which can still be seen in Whitby Museum. All of these stories and legends are woven into the narrative, a fight between good and evil, and Jennet is attacked by an enormous black hound with glowing red eyes, which appears to be controlled by the witch Rowena Cooper. Thankfully the distruction that this Barghest is foretelling is not carried through, though it does predict a death. Black paw print score: 5
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)
The third book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999) introduces a vital character: Sirius Black. As Beatrice Groves points out in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling is very deliberate when choosing names for characters. Sirius Black’s name gives us a clue to his nature: Sirius is the Dog Star, and he is an animagus- a wizard who can shape shift. Harry’s first introduction to Sirius is when he is in the shape of a huge black dog, which leads to Harry accidentally summoning the Knight Bus and travelling to Diagon Alley. During Harry’s first Divination lesson, Professor Trelawney reads his tea leaves, and sees a Grim- a black dog that foretells death. This is the first in a long sequence of the Professor predicting Harry’s death; her divination is very Harry-specific. Harry sees the Grim alongside Dementors during Quidditch, leading him to faint and fall from his broom.
Harry is given the Marauders’ Map by Fred and George Weasley, and this is the first time he encounters the names Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs; Padfoot is a name for the ghostly Black Dog of West Yorkshire. Ironically Prisoner of Azkaban the book in the series with the lowest bodycount; thanks to Hermione’s Time Turner, both Buckbeak the hippogriff and Sirius Black are saved, but the arrival of Sirius Black does foretell the darker tone of the next four books, and the return of Lord Voldemort. Black paw print score: 4.
What are your favourite ghostly black dogs in literature?