Naomi Mitchison, |
(Faber & Faber, 1952;
Small Beer, 2005)
You can find a lot of fantasy on the bookshelves in your local bookstore. There are all sorts of epics set in carefully worked-out worlds, complicated sagas of magic and politics and society. Usually they run to several volumes; particularly successful franchises can fill whole shelves by themselves. But the true connoisseur of fantasy will be eager to tell you that true fantasy, that rare book with the real sense of wonder, is still a hard-to-find commodity. Those shelf-filling series have their own pleasures, of course, and many of the authors writing them are talented and skillful. But in today's publishing climate, it's hard to imagine a book like the one at hand being written for the fantasy market. It's a "stand-alone," as they say nowadays, and it's short, to boot. But every page is full of magic and wonder.
Travel Light tells the story of Halla, a princess cast out by her father, who has married a new queen. In an attempt to save her, Halla's nurse Matulli transforms herself into a bear and takes the little girl into the woods. ("Now this nurse was from Finmark," the reader is told, "and, like many another from thereabouts, was apt to take on the shape of an animal from time to time.") Halla's raising by bears is only the beginning of her adventures, however, as she is adopted by a dragon when hibernation looms and she is unwilling to sleep the winter away. When her adoptive dragon parent Uggi is killed by a human hero, Halla is set on a trajectory that ultimately takes her far away from the magical woods and mountains in which she has spent her life, and to the great city of Micklegard (or Constantinople). The one-eyed All-Father shows her kindness and leaves her a piece of his night-blue cloak, which allows her to understand the languages of animals and humans. This cloak will stand her in good stead during her travels, as will the All-Father's advice: "Travel light."
She falls in with three men from the land of Marob who are seeking to right the wrongs visited on their land by an unscrupulous governor. They must take their case to the highest levels and at first their quest seems hopeless. But with Halla lending a hand, things may not be as bleak as all that. As Mitchison spins her story, the reader is quickly engrossed. She has drawn inspiration from the world of Norse and Russian folklore, and the magical landscapes she paints owe much to that. But her evocation of historical Byzantium, where paganism and Christianity jostle alongside each other, is equally well done. Mitchison is known for her historical novels, and her knowledge of this era allows her to put a substantial foundation of real history beneath her fable.
Travel Light is a children's story, but there is a bittersweet quality to it that adults will recognize, too; it is about how life inevitably changes things, how ideals may be shaken and how the old familiar things of childhood have a way of disappearing. But the story is eventful and adventurous, and when we last see her, we are sure that Halla has more adventures in store for her. Halla herself, with her bearish and dragonish ways, is a heroine with a lot of character who should appeal to any girl who can be called "spunky."
Alas, you will not find this story on the shelves of your local bookstore, unless it is a well-stocked used bookstore. Like many gems, it is currently out of print. But it is well worth seeking out. It is difficult to imagine any child with a love of mythology not loving this story. Highly recommended.