William Croft Dickinson and Borrobil

I’m reading a book called Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson which is really odd but quite exciting.

Published in 1944, two children dance around a Ring on Beltane and Borrobil, a magical being appears. He reminds them of the old ways, i.e. what Beltane means, and then takes them on a tour through the mythology of Britain.

Clearly there are echoes of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill where the children are reminded that reciting a Midsummer Night’s Dream on the White Horse will allow the faeries back from exile. It very much follows the theme of the Recovery of Merry England which dominates British children’s fantasy from the 1900s.

One reason might be the consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the collapse of Victorian optimism. The Empire was showing signs of its age and beginning to crumble as various countries pressed for self rule, the “invincible” British army had narrowly been victorious in the Boer War though through dubious means. The development of the middle and entrepreneurial classes had created larger social, gender and economic divides which were being challenged through the Suffragettes and the creation of the Labour party.

The First World War created a land and society shattered at a fundamental level. Whilst Modernism created its own language to deal with this, the fantastic retreats into Medievalism in Tolkien and John Masefield. Superficially the protagonists journey in a quasi-Medieval world but really it is part of an imagined community which the authors are aware never existed but reflects on what is missing in the society of the writer.

So a question arises – what is Dickinson really getting at? At one level he uses classical mythology to wonderful comic effect. When Giric is reciting his story of the tricking of the dwarf when he drops a rock on his head, he echoes Odysseus in Polyphemus’s cave and the use of the fake name to escape. Instead of claiming that Nobody dropped the rock, he says that it was “Dedit Meself”. He also reflects on the mythology of St George and the Dragon where Morac shows his worth and is able to claim the prize of the sword, the Egg and the maiden.

The overarching framework is a play on the court scene in fairy tales and collections where one character takes the reader on a journey through a series of tales. In Borrobil, Dickinson’s quest myth is the chase for the fair maiden’s hand but it can only be done through stories of bravery and trickery in which good triumphs.

There is a further story, that of Beltane. Since the action takes place all in one night where the White King must defeat the Black King to bring summer and joy to the earth, the children are there to record the rediscovery of hope and the emergence of light from the Winter night. Given the publication date, I don’t doubt that it has overtones in coming to the end of the Second World War. Dickinson appears to be hinting that a fundamental recovery needs to occur and that Beltane night is passing. It may of course be an overreading.

Like the Hobbit, Borrobil harks back to a mythological age and ideal which may not have existed. It reflects a pagan world of death and rebirth in which the land comes to the fore with the return of the children to England where they hear that Borrobil’s name is known. Pastoral and odd, it is to some degree the dream of an old man, to paraphrase Clute’s description of Pastoralism. I can see why it has slipped out of sight but it is definitely a book that I’m glad I read.

The only thing that troubles me is that I have been able to find any information about the author and I’d love to read a little about him.

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4 Responses to William Croft Dickinson and Borrobil

  1. janetofalbion says:

    I just found this book in a charity shop and read it on my holidays. Not sure how this one totally eluded me in my first quest for fantasy 30+ years ago,when I first discovered the genre (and had a devil of a time finding anything similar after LOTR/Hobbit).
    I found it an interesting little book,with some nice use of language. I especially enjoyed the mythic overtones in the fight of the Black and White kings at the end,and the additions of the magic stone circle and beltane fires. The only criticism is that sometimes the children seem a little ‘side-lined’ rather than in the main thrust of the story-almost as if the author wanted to write an adult fantasy but,in that era, added 2 children to aid in publication as fantasy was then primarily thought of as a children’s genre.

  2. Iain says:

    I haven’t read his other two books but you’re right, he does sideline the children. I’ve got a feeling it might be from a professional point of view in that he was an historian but also an archaeologist and that is what really interested him. I heard of it on a mailing list before tracking it down though glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Alistair Kerr says:

    Croft Dickinson was (although an Englishman) Professor of Scottish History at Edinburgh University. He was succeeded by the late Professor Gordon Donaldson. A founder of the Edinburgh University Press, he was the author and editor of numerous works on Scottish history. However he was also quite a well-known author of stories of the supernatural, including ghost stories of a peculiarly eerie kind, set in Scotland but reminiscent of the stories of M R James. Two such collections are ‘Dark Encounters’ and ‘The Sweet Singers’.

  4. Iain says:

    Thanks for your comments, Alistair, and the update. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy does not have a huge article on him. I’ve just come across this opening piece on JSTOR from the Scottish Historical Review special issue on the author though it appears to be locked behind a paywall.

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