“It’s a funny world if they don’t learn about stories” – William Mayne’s A Grass Rope

I’ve been reading William Mayne’s A Grass Rope, published in 1957, for the next chapter of my book. Mayne’s one of those sort of seminal authors who is currently out of fashion yet to my mind is more accessible than say Alan Garner. As I’ve also just re-read Phillipa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden which brought home the change in children’s fantasy in the 1950s. Instead of entering the secondary worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, Pearce develops the fantastic as a time slip in the garden.  Mayne changes this entirely and immerses the world and the reader into the fantastic, rendering the world in a different manner. Suddenly it is less sure of itself, waiting for the element of Story to break free and run riot.

Set in the Yorkshire Dales, the book immerses the real landscape into a world of story which is half-remembered by the children in it. Their garden used to be a house and they still remember its former function by assigning room names to the place.

The land itself is also permeated by Story and myth which gives A Grass Rope its depth. There is a local legend that a knight went away and his bride to be was coveted by the local innkeeper. Whilst the lord was away, the innkeeper married the bride and banished the lord’s dogs into Yowncorn Yat, not realising that the wealth was contained in the dog collars. Only two dogs remained, one lame and the other deaf. It is said that on certain nights, you can still hear the dogs hunting. The landscape is made magical through the stories which are told about it, something that Alan Garner exploits brilliantly in his novels.

The story brings the group of children together and they begin searching for the treasure with near fatal results.  Indeed Mary, the youngest girl, comments “It’s a funny school if they don’t learn about stories.”

The book becomes something of a clash of old and new worlds. Charley, the helper, speaks entirely in dialect whereas the children speak received pronunciation. Perhaps this is a comment on Mayne’s own childhood given that he lived in the Yorkshire Dales but was sent to school in Canterbury. He observes that the world is changing and cannily allows his own fantasies to relive the stories and the older land which is vanishing through the change of the 1950s and the postwar boom. He observes the dialectal shifts and muses on the notion of Yat being dialect for Gate and how this has standardised itself.

I wonder if this version of the fantastic is a response to Tolkien and to the world, like Steve Augarde’s trilogy. It marks the ending of one world but unlike Tolkien takes a perhaps more mature path. One questions whether this is partially from the relative youth of the author when writing nd from his engagement with the world instead of academia.

The 1950s and 1960s sees a generation of writers, including Susan Cooper, abandoning the Romantic notions of the fantastic which drive writers before them. They are more aware of the impact of children’s literature in shaping their outlooks having grown up with the golden age of literature.

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