I was extremely excited by the news that Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is about Sir Gawain. As anyone knows who has ever talked to me about literature for more than a few minutes, and particularly if we have talked about Alan Garner, my favourite medieval romance, by a long distance, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I first studied it at A-level, and it is pretty much the only text from that period of my life I can reread without shuddering, perhaps because the teacher also loved it and thus taught it well. (My second-favourite text, unsurprisingly, is Beowulf – thus are fantasy readers made.)
But The Buried Giant, the title of Ishiguro’s novel, also made me think of a couple of children’s fantasies, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and more immediately, John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow. I know The Dark is Rising almost by heart now, but it occurred to me that I have only the sketchiest recall of the Gordon, having read it so many years ago and then not returned to it. Which suggested it might be time to revisit.
First, to situate this novel, some dates. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published in 1960, The Moon of Gomrath in 1963. Elidor was published in 1965. Penelope Farmer published The Summer Birds in 1965, and Susan Cooper published Over Sea, Under Stone that same year. Cooper’s The Dark is Rising was published in 1973. I note these texts in particular for reasons that will become plain as this review unfolds.
The Giant Under the Snow, Gordon’s first novel, was published in 1968, but doesn’t seem to have attracted anywhere near as much critical attention over the years. He has something of a following among admirers of M. R. James, to whom his work, especially The House on the Brink, is sometimes compared, but generally his work seems to me to have been overlooked. I’m not clear why that might be but even the publication date of Giant Under the Snow sets him slightly apart from other children’s authors of the time, as though he is somehow slightly lagging in getting started.
The novel opens on ‘a cold wet day in December’, during what appears to be some sort of school trip into what are described as ‘the backlands’. Much is inferred, little is clearly stated. Of the trip itself, one teacher says ‘We should not have come here’ (10), while the other says ‘Oh I don’t know […] Even now, you know, there’s something about it’ (10). We have no idea what the children are doing out there, although we see two of them, Bill Smith and Arthur Minnett, usually known as Arf, looking at a fungus, described as ‘a skirt of fleshy frills on a dead tree’ (10), which suggests this might be some sort of field trip. Perhaps the point is that we don’t need to know; they’re out of place, they shouldn’t be there, that’s all that is important.
None is more out of place, however, than Jonquil – Jonk – Winters. It takes only a sentences to establish that Jonk is an outsider:
Too neat, was she? What was it that girl called her? Never mind! Never mind! The shoes, the “inappropriate shoes” (she clenched her teeth at the thought of Miss Stevens’ face as she said it) were wet inside and out. The pointed toe of one of them was scratched. Right! She opened her coat Let the rest of her get wet. New coat, best dress, everything. (9)
We never properly learn what it is exactly about Jonk that sets her apart – there are very vague hints that she is a newcomer to the area, but at the same time she and Arf have apparently ‘been at war ever since they could remember’ (33), which suggests something much deeper – but she seems to be consistently at an angle to the rest of the world. Her two closest friends (and this does seem to be friendship rather than adolescent romance, however buried) are Bill and Arf, and that also sets her apart, as well as earning the disapproval of Miss Stevens. We never see her interacting with girls of her own age. Indeed, the important thing at the beginning of the novel is that she has wandered off on her own. Though we never again see her entirely alone, neither do we see her with anyone other than Bill and Arf, except for a brief family interlude, and a moment when she talks privately with Elizabeth Goodenough. Always, there seems to be a brittleness in her exchanges with people.
The opening scene is extraordinary in its pace, detail, intensity. The setting is open heath, though there is also forest, but Jonk is making for a copse standing in the open. As she does so, she is defying the horn summoning the party back to the bus.
The copse was on a very low, flattish mound so regularly shaped it may have covered the ruins of a small building, a real temple perhaps. But four or five ridges splayed out from it like the spokes of a wheel, or the rays of a sun shape. Jonk counted them. Four straight ones and one shorter and bent. Not a wheel, more like a gigantic hand with trees thrusting up between the fingers.
If it closed on her … .(11)
As if we hadn’t realised by now that Jonk is at odds with the landscape in which she finds herself, this confirms it. It’s no longer about the inappropriate shoes, or clothes, but a direct engagement with the land itself. As Jonk steps onto one of the ‘fingers’ the edge crumbles, and she falls into the ‘hand’. The crumbling soil reveals a glinting object:
circular, about the size of her palm, and was composed of metal ribbons that twisted and writhed among themselves in an endless pattern. It looked like a brooch, perhaps an old one, perhaps gold (12).
There was a distinct pattern to it, and in the middle of the interwoven gilded strips was a shape like a man standing upright with his legs together and his arms outstretched. His head was a loop of metal. (12)
But this is not all that happens. The earth seems to move again – ‘A ripple ran the length of the ridge, and suddenly, with a soft sound almost like a sigh from underground, it humped itself in the middle’ (13). And then the dog appears.
It must have had its forepaws raised on a mound, but even then it was big for a dog. A solid mane of black hair made its head huge. Its sharp, back muzzle was pointed straight at her. (13)
And then, suddenly, the dog is hunting Jonk across the landscape until, as she falls from an ivy-covered wall, it attacks her. And then, unexpectedly, she is rescued by a woman, ‘slim, dressed in black’ (16) who appears to drive back the dog with an invisible whip. This is Elizabeth Goodenough. Jonk doesn’t know her but ‘There seemed something familiar about the face and the black helmet of hair, something she ought to recognize’ (19).
Although Jonk describes some of her experiences to this mysterious woman, something about Elizabeth Goodenough rubs her up the wrong way and she doesn’t mention the buckle she’s found. Instead, Elizabeth tells her:
When your friends come, you must go home and stay with them. That is where your safety likes. What you have seen today should be enough of a warning to you. (20)
Once reunited with the rest of the school party, Jonk tries to make sense of the experience she has just had, but it seems difficult to grasp, somehow elusive. She shows Bill the gold artefact she has found and the two of them suddenly realise that the dog is following them. Arf, however, can’t see it, and nor can anyone else.
It’s an astonishingly tense opening scene, oppressive, atmospheric, full of antagonisms, some more clearly articulated than others: between Jonk and Miss Stevens, between Jonk and Arf (he seems to regard her as something of an intruder into his friendship with Bill). Only Bill, who has also met Elizabeth Goodenough, seems inclined to believe Jonk. It is significant too that he is the first person apart from Jonk to see the dog.
The next day, on the way to school, Bill and Jonk see the dog again, and this time they see a man.
A great heavy head rested on shoulders that sloped out and down to the round bulk of his body. He wore grey, and the flesh of his face and the bald dome of his head were dull. The breath of the dog fumed about its head, but there was no sign of life in the man. His mouth was a straight line between heavy jowls, and the eyes that were turned towards them were like dark sockets cut in rock. (36)
And this time, Arf sees him too.
But it is Bill who has the theory about what happened in the backlands, drawn from a book he has read recently, which mentions a hill figure, a Green Man, that supposedly got up from its hillside, roamed the country and then vanished into the east. Bill theorises that while this isn’t necessarily true as such, it’s possible that someone destroyed the figure, usurped its power, so to speak, and then waged war across the country, claiming the power of the figure.
To find support for his theory, Bill leads the other two across the city to a small, unregarded local museum, tucked away in a part of the city, the Crescent, a place that clearly makes Arf and Jonk uneasy. For Jonk, it’s the ‘lonely streets they were heading for and the big old house which had been converted into a museum’ (45). For Arf, who is positioned in the text as the arch-rationalist, constantly seeking explanations for the apparently inexplicable , it’s the museum, ‘local rubbish’ (45).
It is in the museum, though, that they find the belt to which the buckle Jonk has found clearly belongs, and here that the attack is launched by the man and his dog. Again, like the novel’s opening, the scene is described in exquisite detail, drawn out almost beyond endurance, and incredibly tense, as Bill, Arf and Jonquil attempt to escape the house, now in darkness and make their way back to the comparative safety of the city.
It’s clear by this point that Gordon is fascinated by these ‘moments’ of intense peril, slowing down the narrative right down to take in every detail of the setting, the action. The focus is very tight and the reader is very closely engaged in what’s happening right there, right then. As the ‘camera’ pulls out again, the detail is lost, the action becomes more diffuse, the storytelling somehow sketchier, until it’s time for the next moment.
It was at this point I found myself thinking particularly of Garner’s Elidor, certain elements of which seem to resonate very powerfully with The Giant Under the Snow. I’m thinking especially of the point when the children have brought the treasures out of Elidor and into their own world, where they are transformed into mundane objects, but objects which nonetheless emit some sort of signal to the trackers within Elidor (as well as, famously, upsetting all electrical equipment within their proximity). There are those particularly tense scenes where the children have the objects in the cottage and can see the shadows of the trackers on the walls, before they finally break through.
There is a similar feel in the scenes in the museum, as well as in the streets as the dog and the mysterious ‘leather men’ track the children and try to prevent them leaving the city for the backlands, where they will be safe. And here, I’m thinking in of a scene where Arf and Bill are exploring an old part of the city, soon to be cleared for rebuilding, looking for the site of the warlord’s palace, the warlord being the figure with the dog, whose existence Bill had speculated about. Again, this reminds me of the children in Elidor, wandering through post-war Manchester, the bombed-out ruins about to be demolished as post-war regeneration gets under way. Though it seems to me that the ‘leather men’ are related in some way to the svart-alfar of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, while Elizabeth Goodenough is almost the antithesis of Selina Place.
This is by no means to suggest that Gordon has borrowed elements of those stories. Instead, I’d suggest that both are tapping into similar sorts of experiences of seeing bomb damage in large cities (Manchester in Garner’s case, Norwich in Gordon’s), and the subsequent clearance of buildings, and into local folklore. Gordon’s black dog is clearly based on Black Shuck, East Anglia’s very own ghost dog. One could speculate too about where the idea of the leather men might come from. Garner has written and talked about the folklore on which he drew from his stories. Gordon’s influences are more opaque, though the Sutton Hoo ship burial clearly plays a part, and I’d hazard a guess that Gordon read more than a little of the material produced by the earth mysteries movement that was beginning to appear during the mid-1960s. I remember reading the same sort of material myself, about ten years later.
But whereas Garner’s work is very much tied to actual places – most of his novels can be very easily mapped – Gordon’s portrayal of East Anglia is much sketchier. I gather that it is possible to identify actual places if one knows the area well but for those of us who don’t, for whom the geographical markers can never be more than ‘the city’ and ‘the backlands’, the vagueness of the story contributes to the atmosphere. And truly, this is a novel of atmosphere rather than action.
Once the teenagers realise the nature of the buckle, they understand too that they must return to Elizabeth Goodenough and tell her the story. Having told her the story they arrange to take the buckle to her, the big question being, of course, how they will escape the city a second time. After they’ve left her cottage, Jonquil reveals that Elizabeth has given her three bags which enable their wearers to fly. And this leads to another set-piece, as the three teenagers learn how to fly, their characters reflected in their approach to what is seemingly impossible. Of the three of them, Arf has been most difficult to persuade as to the reality of what’s happening. Even flying by magical means, he is still asking himself if this is actually real.
And it is with the gift of flight that the nature of the novel shifts somewhat, to my mind. The plot is still kept to a minimum, though it works well enough, but now, as Gordon becomes fascinated by the business of flight, it’s the flights themselves that take up the space, again described in great detail. Engagements with their putative enemy are few and far between. The teenagers do not fight alongside Elizabeth, for example, although they facilitate her escape from a group of leather men at one point. True, they are finally instrumental in the demise of the Green Man, now inhabited by the war lord, but his defeat seems oddly perfunctory after the flight to get there. It is all about the getting there, rather than the action once the characters get there. And this fascination with flight is in part what makes me think of The Summer Birds, another novel I’ve not read in any years
And throughout the novel, for all her evident power, Elizabeth Goodenough is an oddly elusive character. The most we learn about her is this:
Those of us, she said, who are set to watch over an area have certain powers, but we are reluctant to use them because they are so potent they are dangerous, and if put to too great use they diminish. They are a last resort. (79)
Other than that we surmise she is either immortal or extremely long-lived if she was there to witness the arrival of the warlord. Other than that, much is made of her shortness, her beringed fingers, her black hair, the sense of imperiousness she carries with her. She reminds me of the Lady in The Dark Is Rising, although she prefigures her by at least five years, and the latter is for the most part a gentler soul. Elizabeth Goodenough reminds me too of Meg, the mysterious psychotherapist in Garner’s much more recent Boneland.
Of the Green Man and the warlord we learn surprisingly little, as if it is enough that they exist to provide the novel with a reason to exist. There is a certain power in the scene in which Jonquil fights the Green Man, or rather, the warlord using the Green Man’s body, but at the same time that element of the novel seems to me to lack a certain conviction. The final tying off of loose ends, through an archaeological dig, seems to me to be a weak resolution.
(As it turns out, there is a sequel to the story, called Ride the Wind (1989), but it seems to have been released in hardback only, and in a small print run. I’ve never seen it, and the only two copies I’ve seen online are both extremely expensive, one almost insanely so, so I guess I’ll never find out what happened. (For that matter, it’s nearly impossible to find a copy of Penelope Farmer’s The Summer Birds that doesn’t require a second mortgage.)
It’s not difficult, though, to see why admirers of M.R. James’s work would want to claim John Gordon for the so-called Jamesian tradition. The novel’s opening sequence seems strongly tied to ‘A Warning to the Curious’ in particular, and Gordon excels at creating a wonderfully edgy atmosphere throughout the novel – in the museum and in the city’s streets, as well as in the backlands. There is not, if I’m honest, that much plot, other than the discovery of the buckle, the attack on Jonquil, the need to return the buckle to stop the warlord rising again, stopping the warlord. However, it’s not about the drama so much as the atmosphere and the tension that engenders. It is, I think, a much underrated novel.