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The Retreat of Magic

This is the year that Denys Watkins-Pritchard was born, one hundred years ago, a minor children’s author who bought joy to many schoolboys lurking around public libraries. Although Tolkien was the pre-eminent fantasy author, there were others to delve into on rainy afternoons, and under the pseudonym of ‘BB’, Watkins-Pritchard produced his own elegies to the passing of a pre-industrial England.

The most famous books were The Little Grey Men and The Little Grey Men Go Down The Bright Stream. The adventures of the four last gnomes in England, with the fantastical names of Cloudberry, Dodder, Sneezewort and Baldmoney, and their escape to a rural Ireland remind me of the ‘rural retreat’ that pervaded English literature from the beginning of the industrial age. As with the Cottingley Fairies, that famous fraud perpetrated on the gullible, BB recounted seeing a gnome:

The seeds of the idea for The Little Grey Men were sown when, as a small child, BB saw ‘a diminutive being.3 It had a round, very red, bearded face about the size of a small crab apple. It wasn’t a dream I can still see the little red astonished face.’

When myths and fairie-tales wove a stronger spell on the populace, brought up on rural tales of an idyllic past, the ring of authenticity provided that extra magical effect for the young audience, an extension of Peter Pan into real life.

There is a strand of merging reality and fantasy in British children’s books and plays that can be traced to J.M. Barrie and probably precedes his Neverland. This proved a strong influence throughout the twentieth century and ‘BB’ tapped into the long retreat of magic that was to pervade the work of Alan Garner as well. Some may explain this as the workings of modernity or industrialism or empire but these authors wished to infuse their own pasts with a magical glow and pass it on to new audiences as part of their long summer childhood.

Sometimes, as I take the Bluebell Light Railway, I can imagine that it is passing through the Forest of Boland.

4 comments to The Retreat of Magic

  • Luniversal

    The Bluebell Railway isn’t a light railway, dear boy. It was part of the standard-gauge East Grinstead-Lewes section of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, was used as an alternative route for Brighton expresses on occasion, and was the first full-sized line in Britain to be taken over by a preservation society.

  • GCooper

    Thank you, Mr. Chaston for that rare, reflective moment amid all this political madness.

    May I suggest the addition of poor Edith Nesbitt to your list? Few caught the Edwardian glimmer better than she.

    And, of course, very congruent with your Bluebell link.

    In winter, at Sheffield Park, where the platform signal box is still gaslit, all you have to do is but half-close your eyes…

    But magic isn’t really in retreat. Leonard Cohen had the last word on that (Link)

  • David Wildgoose

    Alan Garner! Wonderful Stuff! I read everything he had available when I was at Junior School, and then read “Red Shift” when I was 11. I didn’t understand it, and read it again aged 22 at which point I was blown away by it – it’s not possible to understand it without having gone through puberty. I’ve never understood why it’s always found in the Children’s section.

    Another fantastic author everybody should read is Susan Cooper and her “The Dark is Rising” sequence. The very first book is really only for young children, but the following books can be read and enjoyed by all ages.

    Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows), all classics that should be read by every child.

    And Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece for their historical epics and retelling of old myths.

    Any other suggestions for developing minds?

  • David Gillies

    Amen to Alan Garner. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, The Owl Service. All marvellous stuff.

    I reread The Wind in the Willows last week (it was in the bargain bin in the bookshop). I’d almost forgotten what a masterpiece it is. In particular, the chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn harks back to the old, wild magic, as do the Garner novels.

    Among books in this genre I read as a child until they nearly fell apart: Clive King’s Stig of the Dump; The Wind Eye by Robert Westall, who also wrote the brilliant The Machine Gunners; of course The Eagle of the Ninth; the whole of T. H. White’s Arthur cycle.

    I suppose the modern author who most fittingly inherits the mantle of thse authors is Phillip Pullman. Right now I’m reading Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It’s a wonderful book, and like Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, I feel faintly cheated that it wasn’t available when I was growing up.