Literary history is littered with the husks of reversed fortunes. Writers once lauded are forgotten, and minor authors are rediscovered to indulgent fanfare. The book that was once up careers downwards, and the mentored becomes the master. When The Lord of the Rings was first published, Allen and Unwin knew that such a strange book by an outsider of Tolkien’s idiosyncratic calibre needed a few literary heavy-hitters to offer positive judgement, paving a way into the libraries of sophisticated readers and the dailies’ books pages. In thus inventing the celebrity blurb, they turned to C.S. Lewis, Richard Hughes, and a fiercely intelligent writer of startling breadth named Naomi Mitchison.
Sixty years on, it is Tolkien who is feted and Mitchison who is forgotten. The woman who helped sell Tolkien’s epic to a sceptical reading public has been relegated to rare footnotes buried in the reverent biographies written about him. A female writer being eclipsed by the similar work of a privileged male writer is barely news, but in Mitchison’s case the story seems to be more one of publishing luck than active suppression—well known and highly respected in her day, Mitchison’s is a tale as much about the vagaries of the publishing industry as it is the evils of the literary patriarchy.
Hurrah, then, for Small Beer’s Peapod Classics imprint, which seeks to republish quirky classics that have for too long been mouldering in the corners of second-hand bookstores. As the second book in this series, they have published Mitchison’s 1952 fairy story, Travel Light. The story of Halla, a princess spirited away from her evil and murderous stepmother and brought up amongst bears and dragons, Travel Light takes place in mythical lands not unlike those of The Hobbit, but also in the very real city of Byzantine Constantinople. And it treats the two no differently—Steinvor, the harried valkyrie, is as real a character as the Emperor, if not more so.
In that solicited thumbs-up for The Lord of the Rings, Mitchison compared Tolkien’s work to both science fiction and Malory’s Arthurian cycle. This is telling: Mitchison likes to mix styles and worlds, and unlike Tolkien was not so much interested in creating a new mythology as revivifying the old. Tolkien rewrites Beowulf to write about Edoras; in Travel Light, the family of Grendel are actually given a cameo. In Mitchison, the unreal mixes with the real—her books assume that the mythological was also actual, and that its characters and races continued to exist well into recorded history, as glosses and marginalia scribbled at the sides of accepted human knowledge. “But dragons there are, yes, and giants!” Halla protests when these staples of her infancy are spoken of in the mythical past tense. “In the same way, perhaps, that there are angels and other good spirits, my child,” comes the reply, “but as seldom seen.” (p.128)
Indeed, Travel Light is all about this clash between what we believe and what is real: consistently, it tells us in its quiet way that reality is simply a matter of perspective—in bearish, for example, there is no way “to think about clouds or the flying of eagles, because the bears did not look up into the sky.” (p.2) When Halla spends time with bears, she becomes a bear; when she is schooled by dragons, she assumes herself to be a dragon. The God of Halla’s world, the All-Father, is known as a Wanderer, a being constantly walking between cultures and people and worlds. He tells Halla, “Travel light, my child, as the Wanderer travels, and his love shall be with you.” (p.47) Time and again, it is flexibility—her ability to speak new languages, or a willingness to understand others—that helps Halla survive in her long journey from Novrogod to Constantinople (known to her as Micklegard) and back again.
Mitchison is a profoundly incisive and able writer. Her prose is restrained but accomplished, and, however important her message, she never hectors (not something, perhaps, we can always say of that Tokien fellow). She is aware of her chosen mode, and the focus of Travel Light is always its story. There are moments of gore and pain and devastating emotion, but Mitchison’s enviable skill is to paint these with an economy and plainness that communicates the depth of horror or joy in a scene without labouring the point or boring the reader more interested in the next episode of action. This is a fairytale first and foremost; its intelligence is ever-present but always understated, and the reader immediately warms to this commendable lack of self-importance. Take this delightful quote from Uggi, Halla’s dragon guardian, when Halla asks him where he got the Princess of the Spice Lands’ scarf:
“The Princess of the Spice Lands was offered to my cousin by the populace. It was a very suitable and acceptable idea on their part. Unfortunately, there was a hero sent to interfere with everybody’s best interests. In the result the princess—and the hero—perished. My poor cousin had a nasty jag over one eye. He gave me the scarf in exchange for a duplicate bracelet I had acquired. Yes, yes.” (p.5)
Travel Light is a gently subversive book. Unlike many works of fiction for children, it steadfastly refuses to insult the intelligence of its reader, instead assuming that he or she can cope with difficult and uncomfortable ideas. Thus, the worldly priesthood comes in for some serious criticism, along with the rest of organised religion (one character’s take on the succession of Saint Peter— “can milk stay good that is left too long in the bowl?” (p.61)), whilst the moral certitude of the average fairytale is entirely jettisoned. This is a book in which the term ‘hero’ is used pejoratively, simply to signify a person who makes their living from killing and murder. The truth changes based on where we are, and the hero is always killing someone with a family and friends. Halla is terrified by them, because they are by and large convinced they are doing right … and in that way almost always do harm. After all, “no princess was ever asked whether she wanted to be rescued and carried off by a dragon-slayer.” (pg. 11)
Nevertheless, belief is not derided in Travel Light. Rather, it is seen as important to our identity and self-worth, but not something that we should hold onto too blindly, for fear of disillusionment or worse. Even time is fluid in this book—Halla is still more or less a child by its end, and yet many more years than that have passed—and so its relativism becomes a practical method for living, rather than an apologist’s get-out clause. In short, Travel Light teaches its young readers respect, understanding, and tolerance, and it does so lightly and without self-righteousness.
This is a gem of a book, with memorable characters, a wonderful narrative thread, and the sort of questioning intelligence that is often woefully missing from children’s literature. Mitchison and her complex, accessible tale demands a modern audience, and will surely find fans in readers of Philip Pullman and any writer who engages as they entertain. If a child asked me for a story, this is now the one I would take from the shelf. But secretly, I’d be reading it to myself.
A new generation of blurb-writers needs to get scribbling.
Dan Hartland is a freelance creative thinker figuring out what to think. A writer and musician of the inverted commas variety, he splits his time equally between these two things and procrastination. He comes to science fiction from outside the genre, and is a little too happy to remain a gadfly.