The power of the land: Patricia Wrightson and John Gordon

I felt that it was time to get back to nature here at Books and Adventures.

A few weeks ago, I found out via Judith Ridge, Young People’s Literature Officer for Western Sydney, that Patricia Wrightson had died. I was pretty ignorant about this acclaimed but controversial Australian children’s writer, so I ordered up The Song of Wirrun, three linked quest stories describing the efforts of a young man to protect his land from troubled spirits.

The trilogy is incredibly powerful – I really hadn’t experienced anything like it since I heard The Iron Man and Beowulf told on the BBC when I was a child. The background, a blend of Aboriginal beliefs, is powerfully evoked as humans and spirits alike are threatened by the misadventures of magical beings. When the delicate balance of nature is upset, one young man, Wirrun, finds himself called to save his land and restore some kind of order.

Our heroes’ quest across Australia is thrilling, but undercut with a deep melancholy. Wirrun and his allies face much sadness and loss on their travels. The second story, The Bright Dark Water, finds Wirrun united with a girlfriend and ready for a ‘happily ever after’, but the ambivalent conclusion, Journey Behind the Wind, complicates matters and challenges us as readers to think about love, forgiveness and the nature of victory.

By chance, the next book I picked up after The Song of Wirrun was John Gordon’s The Giant Under the Snow. This British children’s fantasy from 1968 also takes its sense of landscape and native magic very seriously.

Jonk, a girl on a school trip, is separated from her group and stumbles across what appears to be a giant hand buried in the woods. Taking a treasure that she finds there, Jonk finds herself drawn into the final stage of a centuries-old battle between an invading warlord and the mysterious local spirit Elizabeth Goodenough.

There’s so much to recommend about this book – the unsentimental portrait of the teachers who lose Jonk on the school trip, the terrifying monsters unleashed by the warlord, and the sense of deadly high stakes for the children caught up in a plot to revive the ancient Green Man. For me, the exciting thing shared by both The Giant Under the Snow and the Wirrun books, is the sense of respect for the power of the land.

Both John Gordon and Patricia Wrightson’s spirits show a great sense of territory, and the landscapes they evoke are as powerful as they are distinct from one another. Wrightson’s spirits literally turn the world upside-down, travel through the Australian rock, or call a new Ice Age into being – but they do so with a healthy respect for the laws of territory and trespass. Gordon’s benevolent Mrs Goodenough is barricaded in her forest retreat by the evil “leather men”, while the warlord’s power gradually seals off Norwich along the lines of its old city walls. It’s also interesting to note that the heroes in both stories are given the power of flight by benign spirits, allowing them to survey their native land from a new perspective, and cross the supernatural borders.

Great children’s books are coming out all the time, but it’s also good to treasure books from the past, and it would be a real shame for either of these works to be forgotten. They’ve aged well and as fantasy stories they have a special quality: serious without being solemn. I love the high adventure of books like Skulduggery Pleasant or Artemis Fowl – when Skulduggery blows the front door off Stephanie’s house in the first book I stood up and cheered! – but there’s also something cool about stories where you really feel something is at stake.

There’s so much more to say – particularly about Patricia Wrightson’s work – but it will wait until a future blog post. Tonight I have gardening to do: the closest I get to the power of the land these days is pulling out fence-posts with a pickaxe…

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