Mayne, William 1928–

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William Mayne


(Full name William James Carter Mayne; has also written under the pseudonyms Martin Cobalt, Dynely James, Charles Molin, and Roger Mayne) English author of picture books, juvenile novels, juvenile fiction, juvenile short stories, and young adult novels.

The following entry presents an overview of Mayne's career through 2005. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 25.


A prolific author of fiction and picture books, Mayne is considered one of the major English contributors to the field of twentieth-century children's and young adult literature. For nearly fifty years, Mayne has produced works in a variety of genres—fantasies, historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, school stories, adventure stories, ghost stories, detective stories, folktales, and allegories, among others—that have been recognized for reflecting the virtuosity and enigmatic character of their creator. His texts often feature highly ambitious narratives that deal with serious problems and sophisticated subject matter, though he also writes lighthearted works, such as his many illustrated picture books. Mayne does, however, occupy a unique position in modern English children's literature. While many English critics and scholars hold him as one of the country's finest children's writers of the century—awarding him both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Medal—he remains only moderately popular with young readers. In recent years, Mayne's place within the pantheon of children's literature has fallen into question after the author pled guilty to indecent assault charges involving several underage girls in 2004. Mayne's conviction has stirred a passionate new debate surrounding the appropriateness of his books for young readers as well as inspiring many critical reinterpretations of both his canon and his role as a children's author as a whole.


Mayne was born on March 16, 1928, in the northern English city of Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, to William and Dorothy Mayne. One of five children, Mayne showed an early propensity for creative pursuits, excelling in both creative writing and music. He won a scholarship to the well-regarded Cathedral Choir School in Canterbury, England, in 1937, though concerns about the safety of Canterbury from air raids during World War II caused the school to eventually move to the city of Cornwall. Mayne spent six academic years at the Cathedral Choir School—which later served as the inspiration for his "Chorister Quartet" of young adult novels—singing as a member of its prestigious choir at area churches until he returned home at the age of thirteen. He would retain a lifelong interest in music, composing melodies throughout his life, including original music for a stage version of Alan Garner's Holly from the Bongs. Upon his return to Yorkshire, he was enrolled in local schools with the expectation that he would eventually become a doctor like his father. However, Mayne harbored a dream of becoming a writer in the vein of some of his favorite children's authors including Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley, and Jonathan Swift. He set a personal goal of becoming a professional writer by the age of twenty-one. In 1944, after Oxford University Press reacted positively to a draft of one of his stories, he sent them the manuscript to Follow the Footprints (1953), an illustrated mystery geared toward a middle-school audience. The work was published, marking the first in Mayne's prolific career of critically hailed works for juvenile readers. His sophisticated tone and willingness to consistently recreate his narrative style quickly earned him a series of positive reviews from a wealth of esteemed reviewers, among them, John Rowe Townsend, who likened the author to a "literary Mozart." Though some critics argued that Mayne's works were overly stylized for young readers, the author was awarded both the Carnegie Medal—presented to "the most outstanding book for children and young people" in a publishing year—for A Grass Rope (1957) and the Guardian Fiction Medal for Low Tide (1992). In addition, A Swarm in May (1955), The Member for the Marsh (1956), Choristers' Cake (1956), and Ravensgill (1970) have all received commendations from the Carnegie committee, and A Swarm in May was nominated as one of the Children's Books of the Century in 2000. Mayne's personal life was dealt a seri-ous blow when several women, who had been under Mayne's care as children between 1960 and 1975, brought charges of rape and indecent assault against the author in 2004. He eventually pled guilty to eleven charges of indecent assault in a plea bargain, and the rape charges were dropped. At his sentencing, however, Mayne sought to have his guilty plea removed, claiming his innocence, although the presiding judge rejected his attempted retraction and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison, beginning in May 2004. As a result of the high publicity the case received in England, many of his books were removed from bookstores, with several of Mayne's future books, including a young adult title by Hodder Children's Books and a picture book by Jonathan Cape Publishers called Emily Goes to Market, shelved for the near future.


Released in 1953, Mayne's first publication, Follow the Footprints is a mystery story that Mayne used as the blueprint for several of his subsequent works. Two siblings, Caroline and Andrew Blake, become involved in a hunt for hidden treasure after they move to an old tollhouse in the Cumberland countryside. After they hear local legends about a treasure hidden in an abbey, the children set out to find the secret hoard, encountering danger along the way. In 1955 Mayne produced A Swarm in May, the first of his quartet of "Cathedral Choir School" or "Chorister" young adult novels. Based on the author's experiences as a boarder at the choir school at Canterbury Cathedral, the series, which also includes Choristers' Cake, Cathedral Wednesday (1960), and Words and Music (1963), has been praised for its fresh approach to the often hackneyed genre of the English school story. In A Swarm in May, John Owen, the youngest Singing Boy, discovers that he must take on the major role in the choir's performance at the school's traditional beekeeping ceremony. Owen—always referred to by his surname—must recite the ritual that assures the bishop that the organist will supply good beeswax candles for the cathedral during the coming year. Owen also becomes involved in a mystery and discovers the haunts of the cathedral's earliest beekeeper. At the end of the story, Owen is able to help collect the bees with the aid of an odd-smelling globe he uncovers and performs successfully in the ritual ceremony. Subsequent volumes of the "Cathedral Choir School" series introduce social and moral issues as well as new characters. For example, in Choristers' Cake, Peter Sandwell (nicknamed Sandy) is an older boy who is having difficulty fitting in with the cooperative society of the school. Sandy tries to resist being upgraded to the rank of chorister, an action that leads him to be ostracized by the other boys. Finally, he realizes that he has been behaving inappropriately and changes his ways. In Cathedral Wednesday, an epidemic hits the school and depletes much of the student body. Consequently, day student Andrew Young is promoted to Acting Head Boy, a situation that causes problems with the two choristers below him in seniority. Andrew realizes that he must accept his responsibility fully and ends up putting these boys on the prefect's list.

In 1957 Mayne published A Grass Rope, a story that is often considered the first of his works to explore time and space and the impact of the past on the present. This book, which revolves around a Yorkshire legend about a unicorn and a pack of supernatural hounds, features Mary, a young girl who believes in the myth, and her friend Adam, the Head Boy of the local grammar school, who has a more scientific approach to the legend. The children, along with Mary's older sister and cousin, track the source of the legend and search for the rumored silver collars that can bind the hounds, items that were thought to have been lost since the Crusades. Only Mary sees the magical possibilities of the quest: she believes that the hounds and the unicorn have been summoned underground by fairies. Since she knows that unicorns can only be captured by a grass rope woven by a maiden, Mary weaves such a rope in readiness. After she throws her rope down an old mine shaft, Mary succeeds in locating the collars. With Earthfasts (1966), Mayne wrote a fantasy for young adults that is often considered his signature work. Based on an eighteenth-century Yorkshire legend about a drummer boy who went into a hole in the rock of Richmond Castle in search of King Arthur's treasure and was never seen again, the book features two contemporary boys, David Wix and Keith Heseltine, who encounter the drummer boy, Nellie Jack John, after he emerges from the cave, still beating his drum. Nellie Jack is carrying a candle that burns with an inextinguishable cold flame and possesses unusual powers. David becomes drawn to the candle, which is the Candle of Time, and begins to experiment with it. As a result, the worlds of the everyday and the supernatural start to mesh. Magical creatures that have been asleep spring to life, including King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (also called "The Sleepers"), who had previously been trapped as stone figures frozen in time. David finds himself pulled into the subterranean world of the legend, and it is up to Keith to return the candle, which has been taken from King Arthur's table, in order to restore the natural order. At the end of the novel, Keith enters the cave and replaces the Candle of Time in its stone socket on the Round Table. Arthur and his knights change back to stone, and time is brought back into balance. Underscoring the story is Nellie Jack John's reaction to the twentieth century and his difficulty in adjusting to it. Nearly thirty years after the publication of Earthfasts, Mayne created a sequel, Cradlefasts (1995). Five years later, he produced another sequel, Candlefasts (2000). These books again feature David, Keith, and Nellie Jack John. In Cradlefasts, which takes place a year after the ending of Earthfasts, the drummer boy is still looking for a way to get back to his own time. The novel has as its theme the emotionality of life and death. David meets a seven-year-old girl, Donna Clare, at a bowling alley and becomes convinced that she may be his sister, whom he thought died years ago with their mother. The boy is further convinced by the fact that Donna Clare possesses a toy that he had left at the hospital for his mother to give his baby sister when she was born. The novel explores the mystery of Donna Clare's identity while also examining David's feelings of grief and loss.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Mayne penned works that continued to cement his reputation as one of the most gifted and unusual English authors of children's fiction. Three of his books published during this period—the young adult novels Ravensgill, A Game of Dark (1971), and The Jersey Shore (1973)—are considered particularly representative examples of Mayne's unique qualities as a writer. Ravensgill describes how teenage cousins Bob and Judith reconcile a family quarrel that was prompted by an apparent murder committed by a member of one family against another. Ever since the murder took place forty-six years before, the respective families of the protagonists have been at odds. The cousins set out to solve the crime and end the bitterness that exists between their families. Unexpectedly, Bob finds a secret tunnel, an underground watercourse that provides a clue to the solution, and both he and Judith research the situation extensively. At the end of the novel, the teens clear the name of the main suspect in the crime, the late husband of Bob's grandmother, and bring about reconciliation. A Game of Dark is often recognized as Mayne's most controversial book, a highly personal and introspective work that combines reality, fantasy, and psychology. The story features fourteen-year-old Donald Jackson, a boy who comes to terms with his dead sister, dying father, and aloof mother by entering into an alternate life as a squire in a vaguely medieval time. After killing the horrid worm that is terrorizing a feudal village, Donald is able to finally accept himself and deal with the death of his father and with his life in general. The Jersey Shore is a novel set in the United States during the 1930s. When protagonist Arthur comes with his mother to stay with his Aunt Deborah in a coastal village in New Jersey, he learns about his family's past from his grandfather, who had emigrated from England and now lives in a wooden house on the sand. Arthur hears the tales of his ancestors, who lived in the village of Osney in the East Anglian fens. The tales include one about a stranger who comes from the sea, a dark man hung with chains. The only survivor of a shipwreck, this man settled in the village and married a village girl. One of their children became his grandfather's true love, whom he was never able to marry. Ten years after his visit to New Jersey, Arthur, who is now a tail gunner in the United States Air Force during World War II, is sent to East Anglia on assignment and finds the village just as his grandfather described it. In the British edition of the book, Mayne clearly states that the stranger from the sea is an African slave and that Arthur, being his descendant, is black. Mayne also notes that Arthur's grandfather married Florence, who was born a slave, after coming to America. However, the American edition of The Jersey Shore strangely omits these facts about Arthur's heritage, which explain why Arthur's grandfather never married his true love.

Mayne continued to create well-received books in the 1980s and 1990s. Among the most popular are his "Hob Stories," picture books and fantasies for primary graders about a helpful English household spirit, and Lady Muck (1997), a picture book that features a husband-and-wife team of comical pigs. In the stories that bear his name, Hob is a short, plump sprite who lives in a cutch, or cupboard, under the stairs of the homes in which he resides. At night, he does good deeds around the house and tries to banish discordant elements. The first four titles about Hob are "color" books—four volumes published in 1984 titled the Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green "Books of Hob Stories," later collected in one volume as The Book of Hob Stories (1991)—in which Mayne tells short stories about Hob and the family he services, who are referred to by generic titles. Hob can only be seen by Boy and Girl and not by Mr. or Mrs. Hob deals with a variety of household nuisances, which Mayne refers to descriptively by their function—Eggy Palmer, Hotfoot, Temper, Sootkin, Clockstop—as well as with a boggart. Through ingenuity, perceptiveness, and cunning, Hob puts things right and restores order. At night, Hob finds a gift left for him by the children. However, he cannot accept clothes—by receiving them, he must leave his home. Hob and the Goblins (1994) is Mayne's first longer story featuring the titular character. In this work, Hob has a new home, a house in the country called Fairy Cottage, and, since he has accepted a gift of clothes from a grateful human, a new family to serve. Hob must rescue the family he protects from evil forces, goblins who are intent on destroying the world. The sprite must also deal with a witch who is intent on undermining him. At the end of the story, Hob frees his family from the goblins and saves the world. In Hob and the Pedlar (1997; published in the United States as Hob and the Peddler), Hob is invited into a peddler's traveling wagonhouse while searching for a new home. At their first stop, the peddler sells Hob to a family in order to help them discover the source of the strange things happening on their farm. In the pond beyond the farm, Hob finds a sea serpent's egg—stolen by the peddler, who has wrapped it in pieces of night sky. After rescuing the sea serpent's child and smoothing out the sky, Hob is rewarded with a well-deserved cup of tea. Lady Muck, a picture book published in 1997, is a comic tale that is often acknowledged for the richness and inventiveness of its language. In this work, Sowk and Boark are old married pigs who put on airs but are affectionate with each other. When Boark discovers truffles, he decides to keep them for himself. However, Sowk soon discovers Boark's deception through a veneer of marital courtesy. Sowk convinces her husband to sell the truffles, so they go to market. Along the way, Sowk comes up with several excuses to eat the truffles secretly until there is only one left. Boark uses the profit from the one truffle to buy a wheelbarrow in which to push his wife home. When the barrow splits in two, the pigs fall into the mud once more. However, Sowk does not care, feeling that her social status has been elevated because now the neighbors call her "Lady Muck." Throughout the text, Mayne uses alliteration, dialect, diminutives, rhyming couplets, and invented words to create a unique language for his pig protagonists.


Though his recent arrest has caused many to completely reexamine their opinions of Mayne and his oeuvre—Catherine Bennett wrote a noted editorial in the May 27, 2004 edition of the Guardian titled "The Author Abused Children: Should We Read His Books?"—Mayne had previously been regarded as one of the most critically acclaimed English children's authors of the twentieth century. Commonly held among the upper echelon of his contemporaries, Mayne's diverse canon of works has inspired a wealth of critical accolades. Among the most vocal of his supporters, John Rowe Townsend has called A Swarm in May "as near to perfection as any children's book of its decade." Similarly, Margery Fisher has hailed Earthfasts as "a landmark in the progress of children's literature" where "language and thought have been reborn." Children's literature scholar Alison Lurie has labelled Maybe "one of the most gifted contemporary British writers. His thirty-five years in the field … have produced picture-books, family stories, tales of mystery and adventure, and some of the best fantasy and time-travel fiction to come out of England since Tolkien." However, despite his broad base of critical support, there has remained a prevailing belief among children's literature experts that Mayne's failure to attract a larger following of young readers speaks to the author's tendency to write "over" his intended audience. Peter Hunt has noted that Mayne "has some claim to be the most important modern English children's writer. Certainly no other author has had a comparably sustained output of such individuality and distinction—but he is in many ways an unsatisfactory 'major' figure … [d]espite having produced close on 100 books for all ages and in most genres he is still thought to be more liked by critics than by children." This divide between Mayne's critical and popular appeal has been widely debated, with some arguing that Maybe simply refuses to pander or write for an unengaged audience, while others fault the author for being too esoteric and idiosyncratic for developing readers.


"Chorister" Series

A Swarm in May [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (young adult novel) 1955
Choristers' Cake [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (young adult novel) 1956
Cathedral Wednesday [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (young adult novel) 1960
Words and Music [illustrations by Lynton Lamb] (young adult novel) 1963

"Earthfasts" Series

Earthfasts (young adult novel) 1966
Cradlefasts (young adult novel) 1995
Candlefasts (young adult novel) 2000

"Dormouse Tales" Series

The Football [as Charles Molin; illustrations by Leslie Wood] (picture book) 1966
The Lost Thimble [as Charles Molin; illustrations by Leslie Wood] (picture book) 1966
The Picnic [as Charles Molin; illustrations by Leslie Wood] (picture book) 1966
The Steam Roller [as Charles Molin; illustrations by Leslie Wood] (picture book) 1966
The Tea Party [as Charles Molin; illustrations by Leslie Wood] (picture book) 1966

"Hob Stories" Series

The Blue Book of Hob Stories [illustrations by Patrick Benson] (juvenile short stories) 1984
The Green Book of Hob Stories [illustrations by Patrick Benson] (juvenile short stories) 1984
The Red Book of Hob Stories [illustrations by Patrick Benson] (juvenile short stories) 1984
The Yellow Book of Hob Stories [illustrations by Patrick Benson] (juvenile short stories) 1984
*The Book of Hob Stories [illustrations by Patrick Benson] (juvenile short stories) 1991
Hob and the Goblins [illustrations by Norman Messenger] (young adult novel) 1994
Hob and the Pedlar (young adult novel) 1997; published in the United States as Hob and the Peddler

"Animal Library" Series

Barnabas Walks [illustrations by Barbara Firth] (juvenile fiction) 1986
Come, Come to My Corner [illustrations by Kenneth Lily] (juvenile fiction) 1986
Corbie [illustrations by Peter Visscher] (juvenile fiction) 1986
Tibber [illustrations by Jonathan Heale] (juvenile fiction) 1986
A House in Town (juvenile fiction) 1987
Lamb Shenkin [illustrations by Jonathan Heale] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Leapfrog [illustrations by Barbara Firth] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Mousewing [illustrations by Martin Baynton] (juvenile fiction) 1987

Other Children's Fiction

Follow the Footprints [illustrations by Shirley Hughes] (juvenile fiction) 1953
The World Upside Down [illustrations by Shirley Hughes] (juvenile fiction) 1954
The Member for the Marsh [illustrations by Lynton Lamb] (juvenile fiction) 1956
The Blue Boat [illustrations by Geraldine Spence] (juvenile fiction) 1957
A Grass Rope [illustrations by Lynton Lamb] (juvenile fiction) 1957
The Long Night [illustrations by D. J. Watkins-Pitchford] (juvenile fiction) 1957
Underground Alley [illustrations by Marcia Lane Foster] (juvenile fiction) 1958
The Gobbling Billy [with R. D. Caesar; under the joint pseudonym Dynely James] (juvenile fiction) 1959
Thirteen O'Clock [illustrations by D. J. Watkins-Pitchford] (juvenile fiction) 1959
The Thumbstick [illustrations by Tessa Theobald] (juvenile fiction) 1959
The Fishing Party [illustrations by Christopher Brooker] (juvenile fiction) 1960
The Rolling Season [illustrations by Christopher Brooker] (juvenile fiction) 1960
The Changeling [illustrations by Victor Adams] (juvenile fiction) 1961
The Glass Ball [illustrations by Janet Duchesne] (juvenile fiction) 1961
Summer Visitors [illustrations by William Stobbs] (juvenile fiction) 1961
The Last Bus [illustrations by Margery Gill] (juvenile fiction) 1962
The Twelve Dancers [illustrations by Lynton Lamb] (juvenile fiction) 1962
The Man from the North Pole [illustrations by Prudence Seward] (juvenile fiction) 1963
On the Stepping Stones [illustrations by Prudence Seward] (juvenile fiction) 1963
A Parcel of Trees [illustrations by Margery Gill] (juvenile fiction) 1963
Plot Night [illustrations by Janet Duchesne] (juvenile fiction) 1963
A Day without Wind [illustrations by Margery Gill] (juvenile fiction) 1964
Sand [illustrations by Margery Gill] (juvenile fiction) 1964
Water Boatman [illustrations by Anne Linton] (juvenile fiction) 1964
Whistling Rufus [illustrations by Raymond Briggs] (juvenile fiction) 1964
The Big Wheel and the Little Wheel [illustrations by Janet Duchesne] (juvenile fiction) 1965
No More School [illustrations by Peter Warner] (juvenile fiction) 1965
Pig in the Middle [illustrations by Mary Russon] (juvenile fiction) 1965
The Old Zion [illustrations by Margery Gill] (juvenile fiction) 1966
Rooftops [illustrations by Mary Russon] (juvenile fiction) 1966
The Battlefield [illustrations by Margery Russon] (juvenile fiction) 1967
The Big Egg [illustrations by Margery Gill] (juvenile fiction) 1967
Over the Hills and Far Away (juvenile fiction) 1968; published in the United States as The Hill Road
The House on Fairmont
[illustrations by Fritz Wegner] (juvenile fiction) 1968
The Toffee Join [illustrations by Shirley Hughes] (juvenile fiction) 1968
The Yellow Aeroplane [illustrations by Trevor Stubley] (juvenile fiction) 1968
Ravensgill (juvenile fiction) 1970
A Game of Dark (juvenile fiction) 1971
Royal Harry (juvenile fiction) 1971
The Incline [illustrations by Trevor Stubley] (juvenile fiction) 1972
Robin's Real Engine [illustrations by Mary Dinsdale] (juvenile fiction) 1972
Skiffy [illustrations by Nicholas Fisk] (juvenile fiction) 1972
The Swallows [as Martin Cobalt] (juvenile fiction) 1972; published in the United States as Pool of Swallows
The Jersey Shore
(juvenile fiction) 1973
A Year and a Day [illustrations by Krystyna Turska] (juvenile fiction) 1976; reissued with illustrations by John Lawrence, 2000
It (young adult novel) 1977
Max's Dream [illustrations by Laszlo Acs] (juvenile fiction) 1977
Party Pants [illustrations by Joanna Stubbs] (juvenile fiction) 1977
While the Bells Ring [illustrations by Janet Rawlins] (juvenile fiction) 1979
The Mouse and the Egg [illustrations by Krystyna Turska] (juvenile fiction) 1980
Salt River Times [illustrations by Elizabeth Honey] (young adult novel) 1980
The Patchwork Cat [illustrations by Nicola Bayley] (juvenile fiction) 1981
All the King's Men (young adult short stories) 1982
Skiffy and the Twin Planets (juvenile fiction) 1982
Winter Quarters (young adult novel) 1982
The Mouldy [illustrations by Nicola Bayley] (juvenile fiction) 1983
A Small Pudding for Wee Gowrie [illustrations by Martin Cottam] (juvenile fiction) 1983
Underground Creatures (juvenile fiction) 1983
Drift (young adult novel) 1985
The Blemyahs [illustrations by Juan Wijngaard] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Gideon Ahoy! (juvenile fiction) 1987
A House in Town [illustrations by Sarah Fox-Davies] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Kelpie (juvenile fiction) 1987
Tiger's Railway [illustrations by Juan Wijngaard] (juvenile fiction) 1987
Antar and the Eagles (juvenile fiction) 1989
The Farm That Ran out of Names (juvenile fiction) 1989
Netta (juvenile fiction) 1989
Netta Next (juvenile fiction) 1990
The Second-Hand Horse and Other Stories (juvenile short stories) 1990
Rings on Her Fingers (juvenile fiction) 1991
And Never Again [illustrations by Kate Aldous] (juvenile fiction) 1992
Low Tide (juvenile fiction) 1992
The Egg Timer [illustrations by Anthony Lewis] (juvenile fiction) 1993
Bells on Her Toes [illustrations by Maureen Bradley] (juvenile fiction) 1994
Cuddy (juvenile fiction) 1994
The Fairy Tales of London Town, Volume 1: See-Saw Sacredown, Volume 2: Upon Paul's Steeple [illustrations by Peter Melnyczuk] (juvenile short stories) 1996
The Fox Gate and Other Stories [illustrations by William Geldart] (juvenile short stories) 1996
Pandora [illustrations by Dietlind Blech] (juvenile fiction) 1996
Lady Muck [illustrations by Jonathan Heale] (picture book) 1997
Midnight Fair (juvenile fiction) 1997
In Natalie's Garden [illustrations by Peter Dale] (juvenile fiction) 1998
Captain Ming and the Mermaid (juvenile fiction) 1999
Imogen and the Ark [illustrations by Nick Maland] (juvenile fiction) 1999
The Animal Garden (juvenile fiction) 2002
The Worm in the Well (juvenile fiction) 2002

As Editor

The Hamish Hamilton Book of Kings [with Eleanor Farjeon; illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile short stories) 1964; published as A Cavalcade of Kings, 1965
The Hamish Hamilton Book of Queens [with Eleanor Farjeon; illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile short stories) 1965; published as A Cavalcade of Queens, 1965
The Hamish Hamilton Book of Heroes [illustrations by Krystyna Turska] (juvenile short stories) 1967; also published as William Mayne's Book of Heroes
Spooks, Spectres
[as Charles Molin] (juvenile short stories) 1967
The Hamish Hamilton Book of Giants [illustrations by Raymond Briggs] (juvenile short stories) 1968; also published as William Mayne's Book of Giants
Ghosts: An Anthology
(juvenile short stories) 1971
Supernatural Stories [illustrations by Martin Salisbury] (juvenile short stories) 1996

*Includes The Yellow Book of Hob Stories, The Blue Book of Hob Stories, The Green Book of Hob Stories, and The Red Book of Hob Stories.


Charles Sarland (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Sarland, Charles. "Chorister Quartet." In The Signal Approach to Children's Literature, edited by Nancy Chambers, pp. 217-24. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Sarland offers a critical reading of Mayne's "Chorister" series of young adult novels and questions why "many children find it difficult to come to terms with a writer who, on the face of it, would seem to have so much to offer."]

William Mayne is the great "problem" amongst modern children's writers. Everyone seems agreed that he is a writer of great subtlety and complexity, that he has an uncanny knack of seeing the world through the eyes of children, and that he is the most assured stylist of all modern children's authors. Yet he remains obstinately unread by children, and short of saying that he is a very sophisticated writer, which he is, no one has satisfactorily explained why. I do not intend, in this article, to question his critical standing, though I will declare a personal bias towards Choristers' Cake and Words and Music and some of the shorter books he has written about younger children like The Big Wheel and the Little Wheel and The Last Bus as opposed to Ravensgill, Earthfasts or A Game of Dark. Whatever their relative merits, however, I intend to confine myself to the four Cathedral Choir School books for they contain elements that are common to everything that he has written, from Follow the Footprints to A Game of Dark. I want in particular to look in some detail at the writing style, for it seems to me that valuable clues are to be found in it that go a long way to explaining precisely why many children find it difficult to come to terms with a writer who, on the face of it, would seem to have so much to offer.

On first reading the earliest of the Chorister books, A Swarm in May, one is struck by three things: the meticulously detailed descriptions of the physical environment; the uncanny insight into a small boy's concerns; and the wordplay, the witty allusions and puns that inform the book. These three aspects of Mayne's work turn out to be characteristic of his whole output and all three things relate to his style. First and foremost then, he is concerned to show exactly what it feels like to be a small boy in a choir school. He does this by detailing the physical environment from precisely the point of view of such a small boy, recreating for the adult reader that forgotten time when the immediate physical environment was a continual source of interest and even wonder. Consider for instance the climax of the book, the passage where Owen collects the bees with the aid of a strange-smelling globe attached to a large key by a chain that they have found.

Owen went alone into Dr. Sunderland's house, feeling unusual walking about outdoors alone in cassock and surplice. He went through the yard. He was about to lift the top of the hive when he remembered that the white globe, ready in his hand, had no smell or attraction when it was cold. He took it into the house again, and ran Dr. Sunderland's gas geyser over it until he smelt the strange smell of it through the burnt gas. He left the bubbling water, and waited to see whether the smell vanished. It stayed so he opened the back door again. There was immediately a crowd of bees on the globe, and from each of the three hives they came flying until the weight of them began to pull the key into his skin again, where the chain hung through his fingers. Owen stepped back and closed the back door against the rest of the bees. He had hanging from his hand a swarm as big as the one he had carried on Thursday. They hung in an egg-shaped brown lump, with a faint buzz coming from them; but they were perfectly docile. Owen did what he had seen Dr. Sunderland do: he touched them. They were yielding, but they had hard backs, and their wings were smooth. They took no notice of his hand.

It is the tiny detail that is telling; for instance, "he smelt the strange smell of it through the burnt gas", "where the chain hung through his fingers", or the description of the swarm. Furthermore it is immediately clear that the insight into Owen's concerns is achieved precisely by this concentration on detail. But something else also emerges from a consideration of this passage, and that is Mayne's handling of pace. The book is here nearing its climax, and the reader's concern is that Owen shall successfully negotiate the ordeal of the service. Yet the detail slows the pace deliberately: instead of warming the globe in his hand as he approaches and letting the bees gather until he has a fair-sized swarm, he must forget to warm it, take the globe back to the house, and even then he doesn't run, and then further detail is presented, the bubbling water, the weight of the swarm, the feel of the swarm, and so on. The reader must forget the action and concentrate instead on the sensations of the moment.

If one examines the wordplay of the same book one gets some idea of the mental processes that Mayne expects his readers to apply. For instance, one of the teachers, Mr. Sutton, has a nickname, Brass Button. At one point Owen puns on his name: "'No fear,' said Owen, 'Brass Button's come quite unsown with me'" and later in the book he develops the metaphor in answer to Dr. Sunderland, "'He won't for me, sir,' said Owen. 'I weaken his threads too much.'" And here is Trevithic, the head chorister, with two musical puns in the same breath, the one obscure and the other more obvious, "'You are burbling out the dullest passages I ever heard,' said Trevithic. 'I think you must have gone slightly decomposed in the afternoon.'" In order to appreciate such jokes—indeed in order to understand them, for their metaphorical applications have specific meaning within the narrative and emotional context of the book—the reader must stand back and make the connecting links that Mayne deliberately leaves out. In other words the wordplay alienates the reader from the drama of the narrative and draws his attention instead to the formal linguistic elements that serve to unite Mayne's delineation of character. In the above example on the two occasions that Owen puns on Mr. Sutton's name the reader is reminded of Owen's apprehension of Mr. Sutton but remains objective in his consideration of that apprehension.

Once again the technique is devoted to dissipating the immediate dramatic impact and replacing it with a contemplative consideration of the situation. The Brechtian term "alienation" would seem to fit the bill very precisely here, for Brecht's alienation devices were conceived with similar purposes in mind. I am not suggesting that Mayne is a Brechtian writer, merely that he has adopted and adapted the technique for his own use. In passages of dialogue the same result is achieved by somewhat different means. Take for example a crucial interchange in Cathedral Wednesday. A dayboy, Andrew Young, finds himself acting head chorister because of illness. He has a lot of trouble with the two boys next below him in seniority. Finally he puts them on the prefect's "list", a grave step. There follows this conversation when he meets one of them:

"Is it …?" said Silverman and stopped. "Hmn," he said, and shook his head.

"Better line up," said Andrew quietly.

"Yes," said Silverman. He looked fully round at Andrew. "Is it Book Boys?" he said.

"What do you think?" said Andrew.

"But honestly," said Silverman, "we…."

"Line up," said Andrew. "Attention, left turn, quick march, left, left, left."

This is, potentially, a highly dramatic exchange in which Andrew, for the first time in the book, asserts his authority. Yet the conversation is interrupted by passages of description, "He looked fully round at Andrew" and "said Silverman and stopped … he said, and shook his head", so that the passage takes far longer to read than it would have done to say. And even if it is objected that these would have been legitimate details under any circumstances, one still has to explain why there are so many "he saids" in the latter half. The passage might well have gone:

"Is it Book Boys?"

"What do you think?"

"But honestly, we…."

"Line up," said Andrew.

and immediately there is an increase in pace and drama. So clearly Mayne wishes to prevent his readers from becoming emotionally involved either in Silverman's desperation or in Andrew's triumph and they are encouraged instead to take a more objective view.

On other occasions he will deliberately create a situation in which he is forced to break off the narrative in order to explain what is going on. Here is Mr. Lewis, late for breakfast in Words and Music : "'… go and make the toast for me. It's my breakfast.' He didn't mean that the toast was for him, but that he should have been downstairs seeing that everyone else got it in time." Instead of a clear exposition of the total situation within which the drama can unfold, Mayne gives the reader little snippets of exposition in order to clear up the puzzlement that he himself has created.

If the opening section of Choristers' Cake is examined in detail it will be seen to exemplify all these points. It is the description of one of those games where a ball is rolled down between the legs of teams of boys standing in long lines. If the ball gets outside the legs it has to be fetched back to the same place. The game is never described directly, however; in-stead a number of sense impressions are presented which, as it were, move inside the structure of the game rather like a planet moves inside an orbit, and the reader has to posit the structure from internal evidence, rather as man posits a possible orbit from observation of related phenomena. Thus we start with a totally unrelated sense impression, an inscription, which is then related to a viewer, Sandwell, who himself is then related to the over-all situation.

"Sometime Dean of this Cathedral Church," said the two lines of carved letters just below Peter Sandwell's eyes and between the next boy's feet. Whoever had put them there had not thought that one day the Cathedral choir boys would be standing on it during their PT lesson. Standing was not the right word: Peter Sandwell had both heels on it, and so had Meedman, just in front, but their knees were wide apart and their heads were between their knees: they were waiting for the football to be rolled along through the arches of legs, so that it could be raced round to the front of the team again.

Meedman felt Sandwell's head butt against his seat, so he sat as much as anyone can sit who looks for the time being like the two legs of a wishbone. Sandwell resisted the weight, but his head was pushed lower and lower. "Sometime Dean of this Cathedral Church" slid out of sight. He found he was looking down the rest of the sometime Dean's inscription, reading a Latin verse from above.

The football came down the tunnel, being paddled along from above by hand, slapping along the stone floor over the inscriptions, bringing with it a shadow that was not round, but pointed like an arch and graded from dark to light grey, with the different depths of the grey moving among themselves as the ball ran through the alternate shadow and light from the openings of the cloisters. It rolled along a little tunnel (of boys) inside a larger one (the north walk of the cloisters). Meedman guided the ball along his yard of tunnel, and passed it to Sandwell, who hit it a two-fisted biff when it rested for a moment on a cherub's tombstone face, and set it flying down the cloister alone.

What is in fact being described here is a competitive game, but none of the excitement of such a game gets into the words. Instead we have the visual description of the ball and its attendant shadows, and when Sandwell commits his crime by sending the ball outside the line of legs it is not explained that it is a crime, though such can be deduced from the conversation which follows.

"Perfect fool," said Trevithic, loudly, from the head of the team.

"Don't tell him," said Lowell, who had come up from the back of the other team and was now leading it.

"He's an augmented fool," said Madington, brushing his hair more on to the top of his head in case Trevithic barged into him bonily again.

"Sandwell," said Trevithic, "fetch it."

"Run, Sandy," said Meedman, removing his weight from Sandwell's shoulders.

"Me?" said Sandy, sitting down on the Latin verse and exchanging his view of the sometime Dean for one of the bright coats of arms in the cloister vaulting.

The whole team lifted their heads and turned their bodies without moving their feet, and urged him to hurry. Sandy thought they looked like a row of startled looper caterpillars. The ball lay quietly against the door to the Bishop's garden. Sandy fetched it and ran forward to the head of the team with it. They bent themselves down as he ran past them. "Like the backbone skeleton of an animal," he thought; and fed the ball to Trevithic.

The point of course is that, within the context, it would not need to be explained to Sandwell that he had boobed so Mayne does not explain it; rather, he gives us the next aural impression that Sandwell would have had, Trevithic's comment.

The conversation itself bears close examination. It is the dramatic core of the scene yet the drama is held at arm's length. In the first place there is the musical pun of perfect/augmented fool. Secondly, there is the apparent meaninglessness of Lowell's remark until the reader works out for himself that it is because Lowell is in the opposing team that he does not want Sandwell told. Thirdly, there is the puzzlement about Madington brushing his hair to the top of his head, for nowhere in the passage previously has it mentioned that Trevithic has barged into him. Of course Mayne's "again" carries all the implication that he wants. Fourthly, there is the whole little episode of Meedman removing his weight from Sandwell's shoulders, an episode which has to be considered in the light of the second paragraph to be fully understood. In fact here, as with Madington's hair, there is a concealed causal relationship. What in fact happens is that Meedman has virtually been sitting on Sandwell, and Sandwell has been pressing upwards in compensation. Thus when Meedman removes his weight Sandwell overbalances and sits on the floor. Mayne does not make the causal link, the reader has to do it; and even then he has Sandwell sit on the Latin verse, not the floor, and looking not im-mediately at the ceiling but first at the coats of arms which are then placed in their correct context. In order to appreciate fully what is going on, the reader must carry Mayne's wealth of detail in his head because it is within the matrix of this wealth of detail that the structure of the book will unfold.

There is then this irony: that a more conventional author would give the reader an objective view of the situation, and by doing so, assuming a degree of competence on the writer's part, would engage him in the action, while Mayne, by presenting a subjective viewpoint, forces the reader to a more dispassionate consideration of what is going on.

In Choristers' Cake the central character, Sandwell, is unsympathetic. He is conceited, obstinate and foolish. At various points in the story he makes the wrong decisions. Yet he remains the central character, and it is through his eyes that we perceive the action. If it were not for his alienation techniques Mayne would never be able to handle such a delicate situation and retain an objective moral viewpoint. But the book requires a degree of sophistication in the reader that would not normally be found in children of the same age as his characters. It is clear from the way that he uses pace, dialogue, causal relationships, puns and wordplay that the last thing that he wants is that the reader should be carried along on the tide of the narrative. Always the requirement is that out of the sense impressions that he supplies the reader should construct his own pace, his own drama, his own causal and verbal links, and it is a measure of Mayne's mastery that they are there to be constructed. He admits no ambivalence of response, but the reader must work hard to pick up all the cues that are laid down for his guidance.

There are a number of conclusions that present themselves. One is that Mayne will quite simply remain a minority taste. Another is that perhaps the publishers could usefully look at the age range for which they are intending his books. There is a case for saying, for instance, that Choristers' Cake is suited to a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old audience rather than a ten-year-old audience. Certainly Ravensgill would seem out of place in a list of books for eight- and nine-year-olds. One hopes that the fact of his unpopularity will not discourage publishers from ensuring that the best of his books remain in print.

Works Cited

Books by William Mayne referred to in this article published by Oxford University Press: Follow the Footprints (1953), A Swarm in May (1955), Choristers' Cake (1956), Cathedral Wednesday (1960; now republished by Brockhampton); published by Hamish Hamilton: The Last Bus (1962), Words and Music (1963), The Big Wheel and the Little Wheel (1965), Earthfasts (1966), Ravensgill (1970), and A Game of Dark (1971).

John Stephens (essay date March 1989)

SOURCE: Stephens, John. "'I Am Where I Think I Am': Imagination and Everyday Wonders in William Mayne's Hob Stories." Children's Literature in Education 20, no. 1 (March 1989): 37-50.

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Peter Hunt (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hunt, Peter. "Mayne, William." In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, Third Edition, edited by Tracy Chevalier, pp. 650-51. Chicago, Ill.: St. James Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Hunt presents an overview of Mayne's career as a children's author, noting that, though some hold Mayne as "the most important modern English children's writer," Mayne is "in many ways an unsatisfactory 'major' figure."]

William Mayne has some claim to be the most important modern English children's writer. Certainly no other author has had such a sustained output of such range, individuality, and distinction—but he is in many ways an unsatisfactory "major" figure.

Despite having produced close on 100 books for all ages and in most genres he is still thought to be more liked by critics than by children. His language, always quirky and alert, has been described as inaccessible or oversophisticated. Even his work for younger children, such as Robin's Real Engine or No More School, can be dense, and seems to undervalue narrative.

Unlike Alan Garner, Mayne's books rarely seem to touch upon deep or allusive themes, tending rather to emphasise the local and interpersonal, the ordinary rather than the dramatic. Even supernatural elements turn back into the personal (as in It ) or into the social landscape (Earthfasts ). More recently, however, in books such as Winter Quarters, Drift, and The Blemyahs, it has become more obvious that the oblique linguistic surface of his texts disguise very subtle and far-reaching preoccupations.

Style, then, is the key to Mayne. As Peter Hollindale observed: "The style of a Mayne novel operates as a form of continuous subdued recoil against the narrative shape and impetus" and these stylistic tricks, of inversion, of shifting the grammatical categories of words, and of developing subtle rhythms from relatively simple sentence structures might be shown in this example from one of his best books, Ravensgill :

They were bones. They were bones of a hand; and in the other loop lay the separated wrist bones of another hand, and the arms were beyond, and the skull, clean and round and grown to the floor with the settling water, and beyond the skull the backbone, the worn spoons of the pelvis, a broken thigh bone and its whole fellow, and the lower bones of the legs. In the manacled grasp of the skeleton, Bob saw a small thing that was gold but not a coin, and hung on a tiny failing fingerbone a ring; and these he took, for Grandma, and this was her husband.

That extract also shows Mayne's fidelity to the three-way contract between author, reader, and character. He rarely abstracts; he stays close to the perceptions of his protagonists—not only in terms of their understanding, but also in their modes of perception.

Mayne's first two books, although minor, showed his penchant for idiosyncratic dialogue, and for the creation of the elliptical and allusive intimate family dialect (best seen in books like The Battlefield ). They also introduced his fascination for the arcane (surfacing as treasure hunts or local quests) and his genius for absorbing and transmitting regional differences.

With A Swarm in May, the first book in a quarter set around Canterbury Choir School, Mayne made a mature and original contribution to the moribund school story genre. A Grass Rope, set in his native Yorkshire, won the 1958 Carnegie Medal, and he continued through the 1960's with a series of striking regional books. His ear for dialect could be faulty on occasion (as with The Twelve Dancers ), but the capacity to populate a landscape with real people rather than types is marvelously sustained in books like The Rolling Season (set in Wiltshire), or Pig in the Middle (set in an inner city), the stifling atmosphere of Sand (the northeast coast), or the neglected A Parcel of Trees.

Ravensgill, a contemporary feud story, is perhaps his best work from this period. The solid Yorkshire atmosphere is also strong in Mayne's first excursion into fantasy, Earthfasts. He has also used fantasy as psychological allegory, in the sombre A Game of Dark, in which Donald's struggle to cope with his dying father is paralleled by his fantasy life.

The 1970's saw Mayne extending his range from the ebullient Yorkshire extravaganza of Royal Harry, to It which borders on self-parody, to the hypnotic The Jersey Shore. This stylistic tour de force is largely the reminiscences of an old man addressed to a small boy as they sit beside the sea in New Jersey—but it is also a subtle exploration of history, family, and race.

Perhaps Mayne's most impressive narrative achievement has been Salt River Times, a novel in the form of short stories set in urban Australia, and since then, he has ranged widely over age groupings and subjects. Tiger's Railway is a comedy set in Eastern Europe; Winter Quarters deals with contemporary Romanies; Gideon Ahoy !'s central character is mentally handicapped, and in All the King's Men and The Blemyahs he seems to be creating new dimensions of myth and original areas of folklore.

Mayne's influence on British children's literature has been pervasive. He has shown that the oblique, the subtle, the low-key, and the allusive can reach children, and that a distinctive, unpatronising style can find a market. In his mild and witty way, he has expanded the capacities of children's books.

His status may remain ambiguous, because he has not been seen to produce a bestseller or an acknowledged masterpiece. But, as more critics turn to children's literature, Mayne's genius is being analysed and appreciated more and more, and his reputation seems likely to grow.

Alison Lurie (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Lurie, Alison. "William Mayne." In Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie, edited by Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs, pp. 369-79. New York, N.Y.: Clarendon Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Lurie presents a contextual overview of Mayne's canon of children's works, calling the author "one of the most gifted contemporary British writers."]

Once upon a time children's books were the black sheep of fiction; like detective stories and westerns, they were tended mainly by specialists, critics of popular culture, or nostalgic sentimentalists. In libraries they were—and still are—herded together into a separate room, or quarantined from the rest of literature in the stacks under the letters PZ.

Recently, though, children's literature is beginning to be discovered by mainstream theorists and scholars. Learned volumes on its significance crowd the library shelves, and the professional journals are full of articles that consider every classic from Alice to Charlotte's Web as a 'text'.

And yet, except by the few people who write for these journals and the—I suspect—even fewer who read them, many of the most interesting children's books are little known. A case in point is William Mayne, one of the most gifted contemporary British writers. His thirty-five years in the field—in this case, you should probably picture a steep, stone-walled pasture in the Yorkshire dales, where Mayne has lived most of his life—have produced picture-books, family stories, tales of mystery and adventure, and some of the best fantasy and time-travel fiction to come out of England since Tolkien.

Mayne's dialogue has been likened to Pinter's, his 'exploration of sense experience' to that of Keats, his 'alienation effects' to Brecht's, and his sensitivity to landscape and primitive emotion to Lawrence's. By and large, these comparisons are not all that far off. Mayne also manages to treat extremely sophisticated ideas and subjects—including the ambiguities of perception and the shifting relations of present and past—in a lucidly simple manner, so that he can be read by children. If most of juvenile literature, however original and brilliant, was not still largely in quarantine, he would also be widely read by adults.

The first thing about Mayne's work that strikes most critics is the vividness and economy of his language and his acute, subtle sense of how the world looks and sounds. In A Game of Dark, a story about a boy who loses himself and finds himself again in an imagined medieval world, fallen leaves are 'circles of faded carpet along the streets … and between these circles with their unsewn edges lay the starlit desert of cloudless pavement' (A Game of Dark, p. 42).

When Mayne describes a train starting, the rhythm of his sentences is onomatopoeic:

Then there was a sort of small shake in the engine, and from the wheels there came a noise like sugar being trodden on, which was the rust on the rails being powdered. From the engine itself came a puffing roar and there was movement, and then there was going.

                         (Salt River Times, p. 103)

Even the briefest simile can open out: 'There was [a bird] quite near, and he heard its wings flutter against the air like a book being shaken.' (The Yellow Aeroplane, p. 15.) The reader, if he or she chooses—and no doubt some do so choose—can test this comparison by shaking the volume in which it is printed, so that the book becomes the bird. It is the sort of odd reverberation that occurs often in Mayne's work.

He is also acute in describing mental phenomena, as in this meditation by a bedridden boy:

What you see in a dream is like part of you, all the trees are like your own hands and all the ground is like your own feet and the sun is part of your own eyes. There were trees in the garden, but their shadows were just as important; there were birds flying in the air, but the air was just as important.

                           (Max's Dream, p. 27)

A related gift of Mayne's is the ability to enter sympathetically into the minds of a wide range of characters. It is perhaps most brilliantly demonstrated in Salt River Times, a series of interlocking sketches set in a working-class Australian suburb. With what seems effortless ease, Mayne reproduces the speech and thoughts of an elderly Chinaman, a squabbling married couple, and a whole gallery of children and adolescents, including Kate, who is fascinated by mortality:

Dead? says Kate. Bring them in, the death bed, the death sheet. Does anybody want them? I'll have them. I collect people, feathers, sharks, screams, ghosts. I am the collector. Bring them to me.

                                      (p. 160)

Though Mayne's portraits of adults are often skilful, his important characters are usually children or innocents—unsophisticated, half-literate people, separated from the contemporary world in some way: they are gypsies, uneducated servants, and labourers, farmers in remote Yorkshire villages, or inhabitants of an earlier period of history.

In Mayne's books such protagonists or narrators see nature and human relations uncontaminated by received ideas, and speak a language which is both simple and original. They also have the child's or the primitive's relation to time: it is not regulated by clock and calendar, but is free to expand and contract according to subjective perception. In the mind of the old serving-woman who remembers her girlhood in Max's Dream, today and sixty years ago melt into each other.

Several of Mayne's books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past, and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks, and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool-sometimes, indeed, 'Pinteresque'. In A Parcel of Trees, for instance, Susan (age fourteen) is sitting on her bed reading one hot day, when her mother challenges her:

'I don't know how you're going to make out at all,' said Mum. 'Or I wouldn't if we didn't all feel the same. It's the weather.'

'It's the dreadful life we lead,' said Susan.

'What do you mean?' said Mum. 'You're the dreadful life, lying about like an old stump.'

'I haven't any branches,' said Susan. 'Do you think my soul's died first, and I'm going on automatic?'

'To think you used to be a sweet little girl,' said Mum. 'I enjoyed having you.'

                                    (p. 27)

Even between children real connection is unusual. What matters is not how they feel about each other, but how they feel about themselves and the country or town they live in, or the success of some common enterprise.

Though Mayne often stands back several feet from his characters, his descriptions of Yorkshire are close and loving: he knows its economy of farming and sheep-raising, its plants and animals, its weather and seasons. His preference seems to be for late autumn and winter, when the land is bare of leaves and of outsiders:

It snew the night through and it froze hard. But there were warm spots, like the shippon at milking time with the cows chewing and slopping and the milk cracking in the pail and coming in the dairy with hairy ice round the rim…. And there was always this aske wind, that never stopped.

Most of the time it blew gentle, but there were days when it hurried on through our gates like the dog was on it, and the snow was stouring and banking up.

                     (While the Bells Ring, p. 70)

As with many other British writers, Mayne's sense of landscape is intertwined with an almost archaeological sense of the past. He rejoices that every field has an ancient name, and that popular legends keep old beliefs and events alive. For him history is literally hidden beneath the landscape, and may appear at any time, as when Patty in Underground Alley discovers a five-hundred-year-old street of houses buried under a hill behind her cellar.

Occasionally the reappearance of the past is supernatural. In Earthfasts an eighteenth-century drummer boy called Nellie Jack John emerges into the modern world from beneath a ruined castle, carrying a candle that burns with a cold unextinguishable light. His interpretation of contemporary events transforms them: 'A car started in the market place, went up the steepness in a low gear…. "Wild boars," said Nellie Jack John. "They come up by the town of a night."' (pp. 17-18)

Mayne's fascination with the past is not unique. Much of the population of Britain today appears to be living in the shadow of history, and sometimes—to judge by films, television, and popular literature—heroism, virtue, relevance, even meaning, seem to have ended after the Second World War. For Mayne, however, history is sometimes dark. Patty's 'Underground Alley' turns out to be a decoy built to entrap and destroy a caravan of horses and men carrying treasure from Wales: the bricks of its pavement are gold, but behind the false fronts of its houses lie bones. What is concealed underground, in the past, is often both death and treasure.

William Mayne has now written over seventy books; as might be expected, his work is uneven. But at his best he is remarkable. Among his most interesting tales are Winter Quarters, a moving account of life among contemporary gypsies; and A Game of Dark, which can be read either as a time-travel story or the account of a boy on the edge of mental breakdown.

Winter Quarters, though a realistic narrative, is full of near-magical events. It is the story of the reuniting of a clan of 'fairground people' that has been separated and leaderless for fifty years. They have now lost their permission—possibly their right—to camp in a field by the sea for the winter. Lall, a gypsy girl, stays behind with 'houseys' when her people are turned away. Instead of attending school, she reads the landscape:

The sheep were walking, standing, in clumps, scattered, lying at random. She herself added a punctuation to the meaningless sentence by standing in a corner of the field … on a rustling carpet of frost, while wrens flew about the hedge and bluetits scolded, and she heard the grass tear in sheep teeth.

                                       (p. 90)

Eventually Lall discovers the buried secrets of her text, which as usual include both death and treasure.

Meanwhile a baby is born with birthmarks that proclaim him to be a chief, and the boy Issy is sent to search for the former chief, who was cast out by the tribe. In the course of his quest Issy meets many strange fairground characters, including one called Fish, who recites a fairground spiel that is also a metaphor of Issy's search:

These are the original Sumatran Invisible Fish, and I had three this morning, but as you can tell there are now four, another one has hatched, what a sight, absolutely transparent except when they close their eyes, very rare. You get a better view if you close yours, that's it…. You understand, you are invisible to them when you have your eyes open. So blink gently.

                                    (pp. 84-5)

The undernote of the book is semiotic: the need to name the world before it can be known. As Issy puts it, 'A thing is hard to see until you know what you are looking at. You have to be able to imagine it at the same time' (p. 111). In a hall of mirrors he has another kind of vision, a new reading, if you like, of his own being:

It was a tall, distorted, mangled reflection of himself, uncannily tall, a spindly stranger. When he put out his arm to its full length the pathetic monster in the glass put out a slow stub and could do no more.

And does this part of me, he wondered, try to come out from beyond the glass, being thrown back injured time after time? Am I like that, now and then?

                                       (p. 113)

Clearly, he is; and the old chief, too, turns out to have a strange, variously-named, shifting identity.

The hero of A Game of Dark also has two selves. He is a fourteen-year-old English schoolboy called Donald Jackson, deeply alienated from his narrowly religious parents. Though the book was published in 1971, it is prescient in its portrait of an adolescent out of touch with reality and absorbed in a Dungeons-and-Dragons type of imaginary world. It can also be read as a tale in the tradition of Borges or Garcia Marquez, in which fantastic events are simultaneously real and metaphoric.

Donald's mother is an exhausted, priggish, and disapproving schoolteacher whom he cannot seem to please. His father is a half-paralysed invalid, white-faced and white-haired, angry, disapproving, and rigid in his faith. He and his wife read his affliction as a judgement or test: '"There was never much wrong physically," said Mrs Jackson. "We knew it was a visitation from God…. It was put upon us for our own good"' (pp. 124-5). Donald knows he should love and pity his father, but cannot: 'What he noticed most about the pain Mr Jackson had to bear was his own inability to appreciate and understand it. It meant to him a white-faced man of uncertain temper and dour disposition …' (p. 34). Later he begins to fantasize that he is not the son of Mr and Mrs Jackson:

If he had been taken in by them, adopted … that might account for the way he turned out not to please them…. If the man called Daddy was not his father, and the woman called Mum not his mother, then he had no need to feel guilty for no longer loving them as parents.

                                      (pp. 74-5)

When Donald goes to visit his father in the hospital he feels he is in a 'bedroom that he had no right to be in'. Mr Jackson, blurred by drugs, also denies his son's existence, though he remembers Donald's sister, who died before Donald was born; and Mrs Jackson reinforces the denial:

'Hello, boy,' said Mr Jackson, in a slow drawling tone. 'Where's Cecily?' 'She's all right,' said Mrs Jackson. 'She couldn't come today.'

                                       (p. 95)

Finally, approaching the hospital on his next visit, Donald imagines his father lying inside and rejects him wholly: 'That patch of life was not even a person at present, not even intelligence, and most of all it had nothing to do with his own existence, he had nothing to do with it; he had no feelings about it except revulsion' (p. 107).

But though it increases during the book, Donald's misery and disorientation is evident from the first line: 'Donald heard Mr Savery shouting at him: "Jackson, what's the matter?" Donald tried to speak, but he had no throat to speak with and nothing to say, nothing that he knew about' (p. 7). 'The days are just happening,' he says at one point. 'I can't do anything about them' (p. 94). His surroundings seem unreal, and he seems unreal to himself: 'Donald sat in the vacuum of indoors and heard the weather being pumped past, as if it were emptying the building and increasing the internal vacuum' (p. 11).

While he goes passively through the motions of living, Donald moves in and out of another world in which he is known as Jackson and is active, competent, and loved. Here he comes upon a medieval town threatened by a huge dragon, or worm: icy cold, death-white, with an unbearable stench and a slimy track twenty feet wide. At first Donald realizes that this world is fantasy: 'One is real, he said to himself. Donald is real. The other is a game of darkness, and I can be either and step from one to the other as I like' (p. 27). Soon his two worlds become equally real. In the medieval town he becomes the trusted squire of the local lord, and then a knight. Naturally, he begins to prefer this world: '… he was seeing both places, and could again choose which to take. He chose the one with less shame and guilt to it' (p. 59).

It is clear that Donald's alternate world, real or not, is a metaphor for the real one. The worm stands for violence and hatred; but it is also a version of his father, a death-white, cold, crawling phallic horror (Mr Jackson, like the monster, cannot walk) whose entire will is towards destruction. The girl Carrica, whom Donald rescues from the worm, and who comes to love him, is both his mother at an earlier age and his lost sister Cecily.

The lord Donald serves is an idealized version of Berry, the good-natured Anglican vicar. Both of them stand for order and reason: 'an accepted way of doing things, a framework in which to live and achieve the best' (p. 109). It is a limited vision, which underestimates the power of evil. Gradually, Donald comes to see Berry's tolerance as senseless: 'The meeting [of the church Youth Guild] had been what Berry called an open-ended argument, so open-ended that anything put into it fell right through without affecting what was being talked about' (p. 133). The lord is equally limited. 'With a proper administrative setup,' he remarks at one point, 'the worm would probably leave of its own accord' (p. 64).

The worm does not leave, but at first its taking of human life is controlled by providing livestock for it to devour. Eventually, however, the villagers begin to run out of cows and sheep, and the lord must fight the worm. He approaches it bravely in the traditional way, and fails: 'The orderliness had at last killed him, because the accepted way of dealing with worms had been fatal,' Jackson thinks (p. 133).

It is left to Jackson to destroy the worm, which he does by craft at the very end of the book. Meanwhile, in his other life, his father has come home from the hospital and is lying ill in the room next door, breathing loudly and raspingly so that Donald cannot sleep, haunting the place as the worm does the medieval town. 'The whole life of the house, the whole intent of the day, seemed to centre on him, or on something near him, his illness' (p. 132).

Jackson's triumph is flawed; the worm 'was slain in unfair combat, and no glory from its death could come to him' (p. 141). 'It was not an honourable deed,' he says to Carrica (p. 142). Yet afterwards Donald can see his two worlds clearly for the first time:

Half of him watched the house in Hales Hill. Half looked at the girl, Carrica…. She was his mother or his sister … and he knew that the man in the other room was his father, whom he knew now how to love. Carrica was a phantom if he wanted her to be, and the house in Hales Hill was another, and he had the choice of which to remain with.

                                       (p. 142)

Just after he has chosen to return to the present-day world, his father dies in the next room: 'There was no more breathing. Donald lay and listened to the quiet, and went to sleep, consolate' (p. 143). This is the end of the book; an ending that has puzzled and disturbed critics. The supernatural explanation would be that Donald killed his father when he slew the worm; he will know 'how to love' Mr Jackson now because Mr Jackson will be dead. A more naturalistic reading might suggest that once Donald realizes his father is dying, he no longer needs to hate and fear him.

On another level, we as readers repeat Donald's experience. While we are engaged with the book we are passive in the 'real' world and active in imagination: the bird flies as the pages are shaken. When we reach the end of the story and return to reality the characters become phantoms; in a sense, we have killed them.

One of the strengths of the story is that it holds all these readings, and no doubt others, in suspension. A Game of Dark, like all of William Mayne's best work, and most serious fiction, adult or 'juvenile', does not end neatly. Instead it opens out possibility and meaning.


The following books by William Mayne are referred to in this essay:

Underground Alley (1958).

A Parcel of Trees (1963).

Earthfasts (1966).

The Yellow Aeroplane (Reindeer Books, 1968).

A Game of Dark (1971).

Max's Dream (1977).

While the Bells Ring (1979).

Salt River Times (1980).

Winter Quarters (1982).

John Stephens (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Stephens, John. "Metafiction and Interpretation: William Mayne's Salt River Times, Winter Quarters, and Drift." Children's Literature 21 (1993): 101-17.

[In the following essay, Stephens classifies three of Mayne's young adult novels—Salt River Times, Winter Quarters, and Drift—as examples of metafiction.]

William Mayne has long been considered one of the more "difficult" of contemporary children's writers. Studies of his work focus mainly on books for older readers and tend to begin by remarking on their difficulty (Sarland 107; Walker 31; Rees 94). The essence of the "problem" of Mayne, first isolated by Charles Sarland and Aidan Chambers, is that he cultivates a narrative stance that distances reader from text, demanding that analysis predominate over empathy. With hindsight, we can see that in the novels discussed by Sarland and Chambers the narrative stance is part of Mayne's use of the strategies of modernist fiction (Stephens "Modernism"). In the early eighties, Mayne began to emphasize further the process of analysis (and thereby to reflect an increasing use of postmodernist modes) by including in his books substantial metafictional episodes that simultaneously advance the story and act as models for interpreting the narrative techniques that inform it. The function of those episodes in Salt River Times, Winter Quarters, and Drift is examined here. All three have again generally been regarded as "difficult" (a reviewer remarked in Horn Book, with some hint of relief, on the "less difficult and complex" prose of Drift ), but readers prepared to take up the challenge will not only find the books rewarding in themselves but may also discover that the experience broadens their awareness of how fiction works.

Metafiction—the strategy of suspending the illusion of fiction in some way in order to direct attention to the processes of making fiction—is often regarded with suspicion; at worst, it can seem merely a postmodernist self-indulgence. In Mayne's hands, though, it can play an important part in a reader's understanding of his fictions. When they are not being guided through a book by an omniscient and interventionist narrator, readers are subject to less constraint but must also take more responsibility, and this has two notable consequences. First, by drawing attention to aspects of the process of text production, Mayne invites his readers to share his delight not just in the end-product—at a simple level, the story—but also in the process of production. Second, by focusing on how the text means, he is able to offer analogies to how meaning is ascribed to events in everyday reality. Events in life, as in fiction, may not have a particular and obvious significance, but they acquire it by interpretation, and this in turn depends largely on the presuppositions of the interpreter.

The responsibility of the interpreter is enlarged in these three books by the way each involves the representation and interpretation of minorities or subcultures, and each shows to varying degrees how the presuppositions of an outsider result in misinterpretation. The distance Mayne maintains between text and reader reminds us that we, too, are interpreters outside the text. The analogy between interpreting human situations and reading fictions is expressed by the strategy of placing at the center of each narrative some element of mystery, a concealed center that the protagonists strive to reach as they struggle to interpret events and the world in which they live, and then building into the narrative the metafictional episodes, which represent this quest for the center as analogous to a reader's struggle with the text.

One of the ways Mayne signals the presence of this metafictional element is by his handling of levels of narration, whereby he virtually eliminates narrator presence in favor of character focalization—that is, presenting the world of the fiction as perceived by one or more of the characters in it. Theories of narrative have for some time distinguished between pri-mary narrators, who tell a story and present a framing point of view; secondary narrators within that story, who may narrate segments of story from a different point of view; and focalizers, characters who do not tell their own story but whose point of view nevertheless prevails because they are presented as the lens through which ideas, events, and other characters are perceived (see Martin 142-46; Stephens "Middle of Being"; Stephens Language 67-69). Broad movements in narrative level among these possibilities are obvious and commonly indicated by words denoting perception or communication. By overtly exploiting these differences in narrative levels Mayne draws attention to the process of narration, particularly to how narration shifts reader attention from story to theme.

In each of these books, Mayne has minimized the extent to which narration presents the point of view of an omniscient, primary narrator, preferring character-focalized modes instead. The result is a narrative stance situated close to events, in the sense that it enables readers little more, or no more, insight into what is taking place, and what it means, than is seen to be available to the focalizing characters. At the same time, though, the emphasis on narrative process draws attention to the essentially limited points of view represented by such focalization and hence heightens reader awareness of the different ways reality is filtered by story-telling: biases are imputed to a character because his or her perception is transparently selective, or else it is distorted or obstructed by simple misinterpretation or miscomprehension. When the intrusive forms of omniscient narration do appear, their function is no longer straightforwardly directive. In Winter Quarters, for example, narrator comment establishes a good-humored irony toward the characters' attempts to make sense of the world. Thus, such a direct address to readers as "It was [Lall's] worked-out thought. It was to be found wrong" (119) neither has a genuine prospective effect nor directs reader attention to "story," for the simple reason that the preceding chapter has already shown that Lall is wrong. Instead, it focuses ironic attention on the process of logical deduction (as Lall exemplifies it), which concentrates on circumstantial details and fails to penetrate to inner meaning.

The books offer many more substantial and more obviously metafictional comments on their own narrative processes. Of the metafictional scenes in Salt River Times, two are of particular interest, the first because it models how texts may obstruct reception, and the second because it shows how readers must decode this particular text. The primary narrator is here substantially effaced, since only six of the twenty-one chapters are presented from his point of view (7, 11, 12, 18, 20, 21), whereas the rest are narrated or focalized wholly or partly through one of the several children who are the principal characters. Indeed, in a remarkable tour de force, Mayne has welded together a narrative presenting the points of view of eight characters apart from the narrator.1 Such focalization is not merely a matter of particular chapters focusing on one of the characters but of locating perception of events within the mind of that character; this is achieved by restricting presentation of thought (as opposed to speech) to the one character, and by presenting the text's pervasive gaps in information as impinging specifically on that character.

The process is imbued with a metafictional effect in chapter 1, which moves between omniscient narration and limited perspective character focalization (through Mel). The act of observation is rendered more immediate by the use of the present tense:2

An old woman is telling a story. She says it happened long ago, and she has had a cold ever since. Her nose runs on cold days, so there is a drop on the end of it now. She leaves it there.

Mel is listening. He has his hands in his pockets.

There is a narrator present who "sees" Mel as much as the old woman is "seen," but as the chapter proceeds, point of view shifts between the narrator and the boy, so that by page 2 Mel has become focalizer: "Mel thinks that can't be true, because there's a Safeway one side of the road and McDonald's the other, and there must always be something there first. And what's a tram doing in a paddock? But the old woman is saying something about that." The use of present tense narrows the distance and blurs the distinction between reported indirect thought (signaled by "thinks") and the free direct thought marked by the interrogative. This shift to character focalization enables Mayne to establish a more restricted narrative vantage point. At the same time, it discreetly begins the novel's metafictional unfolding. The narrator begins the book with an account of story-telling, "An old woman is telling a story…. Mel is listening," and this is framed by the Narrator-Narratee relationship, which implicitly suggests, "A narrator is telling a story about an old woman telling a story…. The narratee is listening." This story-within-the-story immediately highlights a dialogic strategy characteristic of all three novels: there are internal dialogues between the various stories—or versions of a single story—that are told, and there is an external dialogue between reader and text. Mel's attempts here to decode and interpret the story mirror those of readers, in that Mel is overhearing the narrative, rather than being its direct audience (since, as it soon emerges, "The old woman is talking to Mrs. Anghelidas"), and readers likewise "overhear" (since the narrator addresses the narratee); further, Mel's reception of the text is fragmented because passing traffic periodically drowns the old woman's voice, and this in turn parallels the way the text's various restricted narrative stances withhold information from its readers.

An extension of the metafictional effect of this scene in the later part of the opening chapter suggests an obvious model for a reader's overall experience of Salt River Times. The old woman's story is continued, but now with Joe as audience: a crucial piece of information, that she chooses Joe because he is of Chinese descent, is held back until her story is completed; that Joe is the grandson of one of the Chinese involved in her story is not revealed until chapter 17. The "story"-line of Salt River Times is very fragmented, and although there is one mystery that runs through it, connecting most of the strands, and that is solved, the task the book poses for its readers is not simply that of solving this mystery; the apparent clues do not function only toward that end but also direct attention toward the book's themes—the important processes of perception, interpretation and communication, and the role these play in the development of a sense of self in relationship to a sense of place (and its history) and to the evolution of a multicultural society.

Perhaps the most intensely self-reflexive section of this rich novel is chapter 7, which functions as a mise en abyme. (I am using mise en abyme here in the sense of a small narrative segment which, embedded within a larger narrative, indicates how that larger narrative might be interpreted.)3 Chapter 6 had described how "One day Mr. Lee came into River Street and burned down Mr. Young's house"; chapter 7 represents the burning of the house as retold by Jack to his wife, Mary. The ironical title of the chapter, "The House That Jack Built," should alert readers to its game-playing aspect in two ways: first, because the old, well-known narrative it alludes to is one that is linear and simply accretes facts and assumes causality, and as such could hardly differ more from the convoluted and evasive narration attempted by Jack; second, because the title is metaphoric, as Jack's story about the destruction of a house is presented as an act of building—indeed, of fabrication—on his part. While Jack purports to describe an event that is factual, in the sense that it has already occurred in the previous chapter, his story radically exemplifies how narrative can filter and reshape fact, since he is actually attempting to conceal from Mary that in his hurry to reach the scene of the fire he has wrecked their car. But Mary adroitly decodes his narration and extracts from it the "story" of the car. This may be classified as a narrated chapter, and although the narrator has very little actual presence, since the chapter is constructed almost entirely as dialogue, the presence of a narrator point of view has a significant function in underpinning Mary's dominant role in the dialogue. The speech reporting tags are generally restricted to "said Jack" and "said Mary" (there are only five examples of marked tags—"said Jack, crossly"; "said Jack, taking no notice"; "Jack bellowed"; "said Jack. Shouted."; "said Jack, offended"), and the narrator's only other presence is in three short sentences concluding the chapter.

The chapter clearly connects with the rest of the book as a mise en abyme: it relates to the surrounding narrative at story level because it deals with the burning of the house, but it also has a metafictional function because Mary's decoding of Jack's story reflects the way a reader of Salt River Times decodes the narrator's apparently uncoordinated narrative to perceive significances beyond that of mere story. It thus becomes important that all marked speech reporting tags pertain to Jack, whereas the narrator remains totally neutral toward Mary, the interrogator of Jack's text and the image of a reader's relationship with the larger narrative. Mary's re-reading is sustained throughout the chapter, but the following extract is symptomatic:

"I just backed up in the space behind this ute, and, whammo, there's the fire engine."

"Just making this little scratch," said Mary. "Whammo?"

"This little scrape," said Jack. "Little whammo."

"This dent you mentioned," said Mary. "Was that it?"

"Just a little hole, you know," said Jack. "Soon fix it, no worries."

"Whammo," said Mary.

"You keep finding out things I never said," said Jack. "I suppose you think you can tell me about the two old boys. Because I haven't managed to tell you anything about them yet. I suppose you know about them already."

"Leaning on the gate watching the bullocks," said Mary.

"There aren't any bullocks in Iramoo," said Jack. Shouted.

"Just a guess," said Mary. "You leave such a lot out of your stories, Jack."

"I don't believe you listen," said Jack. "Only to the bits I leave out."

This duologue explores the constitution of narrative as a bundle of linguistic and literary structures (henceforth the "text") that encodes the story and then, by means of such features as textual organization and textual attitudes toward story, further implies thematic meaning or other such ulterior significances. As "story" is encoded as "text," various kinds of choice operate at the level of lexis. A particular lexical slot can be filled in a number of possible ways, suggesting various overtones and even hierarchies of degree, as in "little scratch … little scrape … dent … little hole"; or else a particular signifier may be invested with a shifting signified, as in the varying scales of impact indicated by "whammo." Such choices influence not just the "story" reconstructed from them but also the attitude toward and significance of that "story." Another crucial aspect of narration is the process of "finding out things I never said" by listening to "the bits I leave out," that is, reading in such a way as to move beyond "story," the primary abstraction from the surface text, to the secondary abstraction of ulterior "meaning." To effect this move, a reader must formulate hypotheses as he or she reads ("Leaning on the gate watching the bullocks."…"Just a guess"); Mary is teasing Jack with her reference to bullocks, but its absurdity foregrounds the point that the process of extrapolation that enables her to discover the truth about the car before Jack reaches the intended significance of his story is the same process that readers carry out to perceive significances in the narrative at a higher level of abstraction than that of the "story."

Jack's narrative discloses a double commentary on narrative point of view. On the one hand, his story is motivated by a point of view that is no more than narrow self-interest,4 as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to use story for an exemplary effect, to modify the behavior of his audience:

"Think of those two old boys, house burning down, not a worry in the world."

Mary said something Jack didn't want to hear.

Just walked away calmly. At full speed.

That is, he wishes to present the behavior of the old men as a model for Mary's response to the destroyed car. An implication to be drawn from this is that the author recognizes a reader's capacity to resist being manipulated by the text and regards the author-reader relationship as one of subtle cooperation, a cooperation readily apparent here in the joke of the contradiction between "calmly" and "At full speed," which is available to readers but not to the character in the text. If, for example, the text's propositions are then a distortion of the world as readers know it, those propositions will become the object of careful scrutiny.

Such a limitation is revealed, in the example of Jack's story, by the second implied comment on point of view: Jack's physical vantage point is restricted because he was trapped within his wrecked car during the fire, and so lacked access to the main actors within his story. Readers, with prior and superior knowledge, are aware of the further undermining effected by Jack's limited understanding of events and by his ignorance that the fire was deliberately lit. This further irony thus functions as another sign of the restriction placed on a narrative when it is focalized through the limited perceptions of a character within the text. The task of interpretation is passed back to readers with the chapter's final sentences, since a "something" left unstated has to be inferred from its impact on its hearer-audience. Just as the book as a whole encodes its interlocked stories as text but never overtly discloses the meaning(s) of the events described, so accordingly its mise en abyme chapter ends with a minute example of the larger task presented to its readers.

The other books employ comparable strategies, though they are not so clearly separated from the larger narrative. In each a crucial episode also functions as a mise en abyme, indicating how readers can extrapolate from text not only to story but also to meaning. The pertinent episode in Winter Quarters is that in which Issy enters the Hall of Mirrors. Winter Quarters is a thematically complex book, concerned with identity, responsibility, memory, perception, and understanding. By making his principal characters Travellers, people with a culture situated outside the hierarchies of mainstream, sedentary society (which dismisses them with the pejorative name "gypsies"), Mayne is immediately able to defamiliarize ways of looking at the world, thus making it harder for readers to formulate facile judgments by applying conventional social ideologies to the text. Indeed, strategies of defamiliarization are used to this end in all three books. Winter Quarters narrates a double quest: Lall, the Traveller, and Issy, the "housey," must exchange ways of life, families, and, in part, identities to carry out their interconnected searches. To Lall falls the task of being stationary and finding what is concealed in a single place; to Issy, who dreams of wandering to distant cities with romantic names, comes a wandering much more restricted and less romantic, in search of the Travellers' missing chief. Both quests are more than a merely physical searching, being also an exploration into the customs and traditions of a people in order to recuperate the past and make the present possible.

The book opens with the Travellers locked out from what they regard as their traditional winter quarters, an exclusion that becomes a metonymy for their separation from the core of their culture. On a larger scale, the Travellers' plight functions as a metonymy for any society that forgets its past and becomes rootless and fragmented. It is significant, then, that the Travellers are wary of their unofficial scribe's practice of preserving records in writing: "Clark Riston had papers on which things were written. It was a thing not approved of by the people of the coffle" (38). Riston's given name, Clark, preserves his function as a meaning trace (early English clerk, "scholar"), and some readers will recognize in this figure—the Bird Man with his cloak of feathers—the Egyptian god of writing and scholarship, Thoth. One of the important effects of Winter Quarters, indeed, is to show how the past can be recovered through a cooperative compilation of oral tradition and written records.

As the past is reflected in the memories of the present like images in a distorting mirror, and as people interpret signs and phenomena according to experience and expectation, so also fiction poses problems of interpretation for its readers. More specifically, as the questers in the novel have to turn clues into signs and signs into meaning, so the novel's readers have to progress from text to the meanings beyond story. How this is done is mapped out explicitly in the Hall of Mirrors, at that point in the novel when Issy achieves the major part of his quest by seeing and identifying Shemer, the Travellers' lost chief. The episode's double procedure of advancing "story" and of commenting on text-reader relations begins when, having been admitted to Shemer's compound, Issy rings the bell on his caravan but gets no response:

This is what happens, the nothing, thought Issy, when you get to Chimborazo, the Gold Coast, Samarkand. No one comes to the door. There isn't anything at the end, after all. You get there, and that is all there is. [110] … [Issy then gazes at the marquee that houses the Hall of Mirrors.] Issy looked. A thing is hard to see until you know what you are looking at. You have to be able to imagine it at the same time. Issy felt clearly the distinction between seeing and understanding. Somewhere between seeing and knowing is Samarkand.

However, you are not in Samarkand very long. Behind him, in the road, a street lamp gave a sulky glop, and began to cast a sullen light. The result was that the rest of the world became darker. When it did so Issy understood what was taking place at the marquee. It was merely lit from inside; light shone through the canvas. He had seen the same effect before, at the tent in the woods. In the woods there had already been darkness; here there had been light all round, and at the moment of balance he had been looking but not seeing, seeing but not understanding.

It was clear now that he was to walk down to the marquee. It had been obvious all the time, in fact, but that was another instance of seeing and not knowing what you look at.


Constantly slipping, once again, between narration and character focalization, Mayne here asks his readers to perceive their task as comparable with Issy's. Both character and reader must perform a double mental process involving, on the one hand, the temporal progression from "seeing" to "understanding" or "knowing," and, on the other hand, the capacity to comprehend perceptually and conceptually (or imaginatively) at the same time. Issy's dream countries, represented here by Samarkand, are reinscribed not as goals or ends but as moments of transition, just as a passive reading of a book needs to be replaced by the kind of imaginative interpretive reading that goes beyond escapist dwelling on "story"—that is, which goes beyond "seeing" to achieve "knowing." Otherwise, if the step beyond story is not taken, textuality is emptied of significance and exists only in the moment of reception: "There isn't anything at the end, after all." What this metafictional episode asserts, however, is that the text will insist on the progression so that its readers will "not [be] at Samarkand very long," and the way it does this is by using foregrounding techniques to elicit significance. In this case, the gradually altering relativity of the light of the marquee and the fading light of a late afternoon in winter functions as a metaphor for the way artistic foregrounding techniques focus audience attention, so that what is "obvious all the time" can be "known" as well as "seen."

But the relationship between text and reader is not quite that simple, since it is also in the nature of texts to cultivate indirection and to make readers work at finding meaning:

[Issy has entered the marquee.] He took three or four easy steps towards the carpet, then rammed hard into something solid. It was as if a door had been slammed against him. It hurt. There was no need now to wonder about the difference between seeing and understanding. He understood that he was hurt, and saw nothing….

He had walked straight into a large sheet of something like glass. He put his hand on it, and felt it flex in an unforgiving way. He could see it now he had understood it, like glass, but not so. It is like that with Samarkand: you can't get through.

He got up. Now he knew he was in some sort of joky trap. It was necessary to look, see, know.


The further reference to 'Samarkand' here functions to play out the process the incident is exploring, in that rephrasing the impenetrability of the perspex as the Samarkand-metaphor brings out the metaphor also implicit in the perspex barrier. Text is also "like glass, but not so"; it can be a transparent window onto "story" but, "like Samarkand," the text-story relationship is not an end in itself but a means to a further end whereby significance ("understanding") changes the nature of text ("seeing").

The quest pursued by Issy (as also that pursued by Lall) gains meaning for him only in retrospect, when understanding pulls together all that has been seen and experienced into a fresh configuration that actually alters the meaning of the individual parts. This, of course, also models how readers experience the text. The prerequisite for decoding the text is understanding that it is like a mirror maze, "some sort of joky trap," and that the process of reading demands the progression "look, see, know." Ultimately, though, there are limits to understanding, as a work may always withhold some part of its mystery:

[Issy wanders, lost in the maze of mirrors, seeing numerous distorted images of himself.] Then he came upon mirror-sided steps, and went up slowly, beside himself, being edged off by his own double as the glass encroached on the treads. Then he came to the top, and walked on a strip of carpet, with wide glass either side. This glass started reflective, and with more mirror overhanging it there was an immense void either side, deeper than depth, going down to places the eye could not see, or mind ever understand.


While text order here emphasizes spatio-temporal linearity (especially by means of the temporal adverbs and correlative clauses), the progression is to-ward an ever-increasing self-reflexivity as the mirrors reflect in one, then two, and finally three dimensions, culminating in the infinity of inter-reflecting mirrors, which confounds notions of time and space, affirming the existence of places beyond Samarkand but which, situated in the paradox "deeper than depth," remain unseeable and unimaginable. A text cannot yield up answers to all the questions a reader may ask of it, and neither can a reader conceive all the possible questions.

The gap between perceiving and knowing is further explored in Drift, but here through a different kind of double narration, a telling of the same "story" twice. This metafictive strategy, long familiar from such early postmodernist texts as John Fowles's Collector (see Donovan 296), draws attention to the fact that a narrative is a process of representation. A complex model of reading is developed as, again eschewing narrator omniscience, Mayne focalizes the first two-thirds of the novel through Rafe, a white boy lost on the Canadian frontier and taken up by two Indian women. Unable to communicate with his captors through language, Rafe does not understand what is happening to him, and there are few clues available to a reader to enable any "reading" of events that differs substantially from Rafe's own misreading. The last third of the novel then represents events now re-focalized as the experiences of Tawena, the young Indian girl with whom Rafe had originally become lost.

The episode in this novel that I identify as specifically metafictional is that in which, under cover of darkness, Tawena pretends to be a bear and in that role orders the women to return Rafe to his village and then stages her own apparent death. Henceforth, shadowing the others, intervening at crucial moments, she becomes a deus ex machina similar to the author behind the text. Further, her own survival depends on her success in creating an incentive for the women to preserve Rafe's life and return him to his village, since this is also her village and she, too, is lost. The analogy between these central aspects of the story and the author-text-reader relationship lies in the area of the hermeneutic gaps that induce a reader to continue reading.5 Because Tawena's "play" is twice narrated at length, first focalized through Rafe as receiver and then through Tawena as author, the novel can present two very different perspectives on the event and in so doing can comment on the difference between creation and reception of a text. Tawena in-tends Rafe to know that the bear tells the Indian women to take him home and to think that the bear has also eaten Tawena. Here is the episode as Rafe perceives it:

Somewhere in the woods beyond, behind them, there was more noise, louder shrieks, and screams. And with the screams came the growl of the bear, the great noise of it moving about, and something like the snapping of its teeth. There was a shout of pain, and then, echoing among the trees, a last scream from Tawena, stopping suddenly. Tawena's talk with the bear was over. In Rafe's head the noise stayed. It seemed to echo back from the distant trees.

There was a fearful crunching noise now. Rafe remembered how he had eaten whole caterpillars, and at this minute the bear was eating Tawena in the same way, straight with its teeth.

And now, he thought, the bear would not tell the Indian women anything, because it had not been told….

Rafe slept. He had stopped being able to think, and his eyes closed by themselves. He was woken for a third time that night, this time by a deep and loud shouting from close by. He heard Hareskin and Deerskin get up, because the deep shout had words in it. The words came slowly out from the trees. Now and then among them was the snuffling noise of the bear. Rafe knew the sound well from the fisherman's hut on the ice, the snuffing, sniffing, large breathing, and the noise of claws on wood. The bear had come back and was talking, telling them all something.

Deerskin and Hareskin were listening. They were attending and obeying; they were answering quietly. After all, the bear was telling them what Tawena said it would. Rafe knew now that the only way to tell the bear anything was to let it kill and eat you, and that was how Tawena had given it the message. She had died, she had been torn apart by a wild creature, just to save him, Rafe. He knew it must be so, though he did not understand a word the bear said.


Even though much of the description of the bear's behavior seems factual ("there was more noise … came the growl…. There was a shout") and lacks the kind of signs, especially verbals and deictics, needed to shift point of view from narrator to character, many indicators show that Rafe acts as a focalizer (but not narrator, as Donovan [298] argues): the verbals "remembered, thought, heard, knew, did not understand"; the phrase, "in Rafe's head"; emotive point of view in "a fearful crunching noise"; and suggestions of free indirect thought, in the segment beginning "After all." Readers will perhaps only grasp the point of this gap between the apparently objective account and the character's interpretation once they review the episode after having read the second version of it (109-11), where it is revealed that there was no bear. A major difference between the two accounts is that the second is indeed factual, filling in the story elements missing from the first, and that it lacks the emphasis on perception and interpretation evident in the earlier version.

The process of "seeing, knowing, understanding" is thus given a whole new slant. From Rafe's point of view, all he failed to understand was the words spoken by the "bear" in the Indians' language. In fact, he has constructed a completely erroneous story from what he heard, on the basis of his recent experiences ("Rafe remembered how he had eaten whole caterpillars, and … the bear was eating Tawena in the same way"; "Rafe knew the sound well") and of the gender relationships presupposed by his cultural tradition (female dies so that male might live). At this stage in the text readers face a hermeneutic gap: there is insufficient information to explain what has taken place, but in line with the realistic mode of the text so far, a reader is apt to remain skeptical of the proposition that bears convey verbal messages to humans even though the Indians believe it and Rafe has been convinced.

The gap is repeated in other ways as the novel progresses: someone lights a fire for Rafe while he sleeps; when he loses his way collecting wood, he is driven back to camp by bear noises; and something creeps into the camp on occasional nights to snuggle against him. First-time readers will probably realize that Rafe, motivated by hope and fear, misinterprets all such actions, and the retrospective re-reading explains how Tawena is involved in each. One thing Rafe is sure he does know—"that the only way to tell the bear anything was to let it kill and eat you"—stands as a type of self-surrender to the text; it is a procedure the novel's retrospective re-reading of the episode rejects as misreading. In her secret visit to Rafe just before her bear play, Tawena had told Rafe that the bear would tell the women to take him home, yet Rafe concludes that he is to be sold into slavery because he can't believe Tawena and assumes the worst out of his ignorance of the Other. Traveling under this illusion, Rafe has to discover that what he thinks is a journey away and into slavery is a journey home to freedom. It is more than a physical journey, however: as affection slowly grows between him and the women, he gains insight into an Other (a way of life, of communication, of seeing the world) that has the potential to extend his mental and emotional boundaries.

On the level of "story" the book ends happily for Rafe, since he is returned to his home, but its meaning is more pessimistic. The last meeting between Rafe and Tawena, back in the village, takes the form of a third version of the bear-play, which Tawena partly acts out and partly narrates as she explains to Rafe how she had saved him to save herself. Rafe thus finally attains the same knowledge of the "story" as a reader has, but not the same knowledge of its meaning. He is left "startled and wondering" (155); he has made little progress in human understanding, and his potential for growth, it is suggested by the closing sentences of the book, will be restricted by his cultural milieu:

Rafe went in. But always he remembered the noise of the bear in the woods, the fire mysteriously lit, the footprints of bear; and mostly the presence once or twice by night of Tawena beside him.

Tawena went away with other Indians during the summer. Rafe was never sure whether she came back. She never spoke to him again, if she did.

"Women." said his father, when he spoke of it; and Mrs Considine said, when Rafe angered her again, "Wouldn't I rather have the bag of meal and them Indians have kept you!"

His experiences thus stay with him as a memory of the things he badly misread at the time, but they have not altered his life; he was granted an insight, as a reader of a text might be, and the possibility of an inner transformation, but the experience does not noticeably bring him and Tawena together—his sense of loss expressed in the last few lines is brushed aside by the conventional responses of his society (in his parents' sexism and racism). Readers, though, have seen that potential for growth and can move on into a realm of more generous values.

The ending of Drift foregrounds the relationship between fiction and society in another interesting way. With Rafe's return home and Tawena's explanation of events the "story" has been neatly rounded off in the manner of a classic realistic well-made plot, with its concomitant suggestions of shapeliness and meaningfulness. But by focusing on the problem of meaning through the metafictional use of the recurring accounts of the bear-play, the novel suggests that meaning that inheres only in story is not meaning at all, or at best is so only on a very limited scale. By pitting the well-made plot against thematic inconclusiveness, Drift challenges the conventional forms of endings in children's literature, with their tendencies either to strong closure or to the currently fashionable open-endedness. (Other writers have also done this, of course: John Gordon's The House on the Brink is a pertinent analogy.) The conventional fictional frame is broken more obviously by Salt River Times, which, beginning with its story-within-a-story, ends, after the "mystery" has been solved, with an apparently inconsequential chapter that flaunts a refusal to tie up loose ends. The implication in these handlings of the endings is that shapeliness is imposed on fiction, and by exposing the narrative frame Mayne makes the point, often made by metafictions, "that neither historical experiences nor literary fictions are unmediated or unprocessed" (Waugh 30).

The books I have been discussing are difficult in the way they draw attention to their own fictionality in order to involve their readers in an active decoding of text. While textual process is so insistently present, whether by the metafictional or focalizing strategies, it is impossible to treat the text as a mere cipher through which one passes to the "story." If the text seems to be transparent, it turns out to be like the perspex barrier in Winter Quarters ; attempts to construct "story" will be hampered by the fragmentary and elliptical representations of experiences mediated through focalizers who characteristically misinterpret the significance of what they observe.

But an understanding of the events depicted is not simply obstructed by this narrative strategy, since it operates in tandem with the metafictional reflections on obstructed reception and decoding. The metafictions inform a reader's observations of how the characters deduce wrong meanings from signs and events and subsequently arrive more or less successfully at better meanings, and by means of this process the reader is confronted with a commentary on how people impose presuppositional meaning on life, based on assumptions about race, sex, and culture. Literary and social codes exist in parallel. In everyday reality, people create fictions about others (just as fictional characters do in Salt River Times and Drift ) or about themselves (as in Winter Quarters ), and by reflecting on the process whereby fictions are made, and on their final arbitrariness, Mayne seeks to disturb his readers' literary presuppositions, and then through that their social and moral presuppositions, as he transforms the glass wall of fiction into a mirror.


1. Chapter focalizers are as follows: Mel (1, 5, 9, 17); Gwenda (2, 10); Joe (3); Sophie (6, 15); Elissa (8); Dee (13, 15); Kate (16). Two chapters (4, 19) are first-person narrations by Morgan.

2. Present tense is used only here and in chapters 4 and 19, where it is used to further the rendering of Morgan's re-encoding of immediately present phenomena as fantasy.

3. Discussions relevant to this use of mise en abyme are: Tadeusz Kowzan, "Art En Abyme," Diogenes 96 (1976): 78-88 (on "autothematism"); Moshe Ron, "The Restricted Abyss: Nine Problems in the Theory of Mise en Abyme," Poetics Today 8 (1987): 432-34; and Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 53.

4. For types of point of view, see Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 151-52, and Stephens, Language, 26-29.

5. This aspect of narrative is summarized by Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction (London: Methuen, 1983), 125-29.

Works Cited

Chambers, Aidan. "The Reader in the Book." Signal 23 (1977): 64-87. Reprinted in Booktalk. London: Bodley Head, 1985, 34-58.

Donovan, Ann. "Narrative Strategy in Drift by William Mayne." Pages 295-307 in Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, eds., The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature. New York: Greenwood, 1989.

Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Mayne, William. Salt River Times. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1980.

―――――――. Winter Quarters. Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1984.

―――――――. Drift. Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1987.

Rees, David. "Enigma Variations: William Mayne." Children's Literature in Education 19 (1988): 94-105.

Review of Drift. Horn Book Magazine (July-August 1986): 457.

Sarland, Charles. "Chorister Quartet." Signal 18 (1975): 107-13.

Scutter, Heather. "Fantastic Imagery in William Mayne's Winter Quarters." Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature 1:2 (1990): 87-94.

Stephens, John. "'In the Middle of Being in Two Places at Once': Perception and Signification in William Mayne's All the King's Men." Ariel 19 (1988): 59-71.

―――――――. Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction. London: Longman, 1992.

―――――――. "Modernism to Postmodernism, or The Line from Insk to Onsk: William Mayne's Tiger's Railway." Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature 3:2 (1992): 51-59.

Walker, Alistair. "Landscape as Metaphor in the Novels of William Mayne." Children's Literature in Education 11 (1980): 31-42.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction. London: Methuen, 1984.



Books for Children, 1966–1967 (review date 1967)

SOURCE: Review of Earthfasts, by William Mayne, illustrated by Mary Russon. In Books for Children, 1966–1967, p. 89. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1967.

David and Keith are amazed at the sight of an eighteenth-century drummer boy emerging from a crack in the earth carrying a candle which burns with a cold white flame [in Earthfasts ]. This strange occurrence is the beginning of a series of fantastic events in which the life of a quiet English neighborhood is disrupted by the activities of a giant, a boggart, King Arthur, and other legendary and folk characters. It is not until David vanishes under very mysterious circumstances that Keith discovers it is the drummer's candle that is causing the past to become confused with the present and finds a way to set things right again. A well-known English author masterfully blends the commonplace with the supernatural in an eerie, gripping tale which should appeal to intelligent readers in grades 5-8.


John Stephens (essay date April 1988)

SOURCE: Stephens, John. "'In the Middle of Being in Two Places at Once': Perception and Signification in William Mayne's All the King's Men." ARIEL 19, no. 2 (April 1988): 59-71.

[In the following essay, Stephens examines the three short stories that comprise All the King's Men, praising Mayne for how "a very complex inter-connection of themes is explored in relatively simple and accessible terms through widely differing narrative strategies."]

A remarkable achievement of the three stories which make up William Mayne's All the King's Men collection is the way a very complex inter-connection of themes is explored in relatively simple and accessible terms through widely differing narrative strategies.1 All three stories focus on existential dilemmas, especially concerning the nature of the Self and its relationship to the Other, and do so by developing as a common major theme the state of being caught between worlds; when, in "Stony Ray," this overtly becomes a matter of a child occupying the bewildering space between her own world and the world of adults, it also emerges that the earlier two stories are, in part, figurative versions of this theme. Together they form a trio which richly challenges and broadens the reading experience, because despite their thematic similarities they are very different narrative discourses, differing not only in such obvious things as setting, period, and events, but also in modes of narration and in the treatment of perception and point of view. The main characters at no point have any control over the events which affect them, but Mayne has nevertheless chosen to focalize those events through the limited perceptions of the characters, thereby inviting reader identification with character and involvement in his/her problem and the process of resolving it.

The title story is a first-person narration by one of the King's dwarfs, with all the self-concern, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding which a limited and fallible first-person narration entails. Though "Boy to Island" is formally a third-person narration, all its elements are presented as the boy, Colin, perceives and comprehends them (that is, he is the focalizer2). In "Stony Ray," the limitations of Kirsty's vision are underlined by her function as focalizing agent, a role the reader easily discerns because Kirsty is the only character to whose thoughts the reader has access, particularly through such "stream-of-consciousness" techniques as the slipping between mental processes presented as indirect thought and as free direct thought; the role is further indicated by the selection of inquit-tags for the other characters (Mum, Dad, Grandpa), who are thus marked by the names by which Kirsty knows them.

The pattern in each of the stories is quite similar, and conforms to some common folk-tale structures, of which two are of central importance. First, all involve a journey of some kind (to the winter palace; to the island and back; to a grandmother's), and each journey also becomes an inner journey, a rite of passage, leading towards some transformation of the Self germane to the themes of the book. Second, the stories chart the classic movement from lack to plenitude,3 though an important aspect of their interrelationship is that "plenitude" is only ambiguously and temporarily achieved in the middle story, whereas each of the other two presents its attainment by more than one character (or group of characters). The pervasive presence of dwarfs, kings, fairies, magic, and witches evokes the folk-tale tradition as an obvious intertext, though this is an observation which applies more directly to the first two stories than to "Stony Ray," which is located in a much more realistic environment and narrated in a much more realistic mode. Part of the subtle thematic interweaving of the stories is the intertextual use of folk-tale in "Stony Ray" to show how "texts" absorbed into mental experience may be used to corrupt perception of the real world. This third story, then, might be seen as constituting a comment on the second, having the effect of pushing the reader past the fascinations and tensions of the surface to the symbolic significance. Because in this aspect, and in its concern with the problems of language and signification, "Stony Ray" stands in a largely metafictional relationship to the other stories, it seems the appropriate story around which to build this discussion.

Despite the conceptual complexity implicit in Kirsty's meditations on space, time, and language, and the extremely sophisticated narrative presentation of these, "Stony Ray" is thematically the simplest of the stories, both because it indicates theme quite directly, and because its events are structured in such a way as to enhance their thematic implications. Thus the death and burial of the old cat, Boogie, with which the story begins, introduces the experience of emotional loss which, throughout the story, is largely conveyed in a language suggesting gaps and absences. In Kirsty's strongest expression of her sense of loss, "I've got the cold of where he isn't sitting by me any more" (131), the sensory apprehension is transformed into an emotional one by the figurative element of "cold" and the negation of companionship. Later, spatial relationships are invested with a signifying power as part of the simmering anger between the parents:

Sometimes it was without words. Kirsty could feel them both being very cross when they sat down. Between them, along one side of the table, there was a gap that neither of them went into.


Again, the child's perception, and the language in which it is couched, slips from the concrete and literal into the figurative, evoking the emotional tension implicit in the physical configuration.

On a larger scale, this creation of figurative relationships operates in the structural relationship between the dead cat and the grandfather. The dead cat is linked with Grandpa (through reference to age) before Grandpa is introduced, and, retrospectively, at least, the emotions which accrue around the cat throw light on the old man's strange behaviour, which is not explained until the end, and on the attitude of the rest of the family towards it. For example, the responses attributed to the other cats—one simply moves into Boogie's habitual spot; another displays unease—foreshadow the conflicting attitudes of Kirsty's parents towards the "sick" man.

In the first half of the story, Grandpa's illness has a double function: it creates the family disharmony that sends Kirsty out into the snow, and, through this, it initiates the theme of interpretation. Like Kirsty, the reader has insufficient information to fathom the apparently cantankerous decision to die—it is hinted that such information is passed during phone calls, but because everything is focalized through Kirsty the reader must also share her experience of the adult tactic of obfuscation. What the mother thinks never becomes clear, as her opinion seems to shift at least twice. The clearest attitude, and least sympathetic, is the father's, which demonstrates a refusal to look for complex meanings, or to allow meaning to emerge from discourse. His problem is acutely expressed by Grandpa: "Your dad … always starts with the answer. He never gets at the question" (152). This is at once an obvious clue to the reader on fabula level that there is more to the illness than we know and a pointer at discourse level to the story's concern with processes rather than ends.4 This interest in the difference between fabula and "discourse" appears again soon after in Kirsty's comment on her grandfather's claim that Stony Ray brought him to the farm: "Saying that it had happened was not the same as telling the story" (154), which seems to testify to the power of discourse to re-create and authenticate.

The contrast between the Father and Grandpa is profound—between the old man's act of existential renunciation in the face of a problem he can't cope with and the younger man's materialist/realist philosophy which asserts that one should choose a more convenient time and/or place for dying. Mediating these, from a very early stage of the story, is Kirsty's experience of existential doubt—"There's nothing happening inside me, and nothing outside…. I am not here. I have stopped being here. Or nothing is real" (138). While the inside/outside contrast expresses comprehensiveness, Kirsty is soon after able to solve the problem of existence by a recourse to a sense of how meaning is established by a pattern of oppositions, a solution suggested to her when her father miscalls one of the cats "Fang" instead of "Chang." The phonemic minimal pair this substitution creates has obvious semantic, and hence attitudinal, consequences (an exotic name being replaced by a local one with some violent connotations), though these are not explicitly taken up. Instead, she concludes that "if there is something wrong, like Chang being called Fang, then there is something for it to be wrong against, and what it was wrong against was what she knew to be right." Yet again, Mayne has been able to express a major tenet of the philosophy of language in a simple vocabulary which both defines and exemplifies, and at the same time is able to give direct voice to a principle structuring the three stories. The motif appears again when Kirsty, feeling emotionally helpless, is in the kitchen with her parents: "Kirsty tried to think of something calm to say, because there is room between words" (156). This is a simple way to introduce the notions of implication and sub-text, but also behind it lies the sense of the loose relationship between words and meanings, a sense which will be intensified when Kirsty is lost in the snow.

All three stories pivot on conflicts of will, and the resolution of these conflicts allows for growth. The conflict within the family in the first half of "Stony Ray" embodies the story's state of lack, since it is of a negative, emotionally alienating and diminishing kind, summed up by a remark of Kirsty's which points clearly towards the story's theme: "I get smaller when they're like this." Her adventure in the snow in the second half of the story is on the one hand an attempt to remove herself from domestic tension, and on the other a dramatic reification of the blurred perceptions which gave rise to that tension.

Like a folk-tale heroine, Kirsty sets off for Granny's house, but immediately violates an interdiction governing possible routes (see Propp 26-27). There are two possibilities—"The road was the long way to Granny's house. The short, easy way was to go across between the Brough and the Mire, and down over the moor." The short way is, of course, dangerous and forbidden, as we learn from a reminiscence about an earlier time she took it, but nevertheless that is the route she chooses. Since Kirsty at no stage leaves the farmyard, let alone gets near the mire, the function of the choice at fabula-level is essentially to send her away from the easily followed road to become lost and confused in the wilderness of snow. In addition, though, the choice functions as a connection with the world of folk-tale, since a violated interdiction is often the prelude to the appearance of the villain, and so Kirsty's act of choice is implicitly linked to her meeting with the "witch."

Moving through a realm of tangled perceptions, she meets Betty, her grandfather's wife-to-be, but cannot recognize her as another human being: Betty is first the pillar on Stony Ray, then a waff, then a fairy, and finally a witch. The gap between words and meanings had already been widened in her thoughts on being lost, as, for instance, in the discovery that the significance of the proximal deictic here may be subject to substantial drifting: "I know where I am. I don't know where I am is that's all…. I am in the middle of being in two places at once…. Lost is when you don't know where Here is. It is something to do with Here, not something to do with yourself" (161). As Betty approaches, Kirsty tries to find the right word to categorize what she sees, drawing on the lore accumulated from folk- and fairy-tale to do so, but without immediate success, and ultimately her pursuit of meaning through a logical process leads to a false conclusion and then an aporia: "The pillar, or the fairy, or the waff, spoke…. This wasn't a piece of wandering stone … this wasn't a fairy … this wasn't a waff…. This was a witch…. But she knew there were no witches outside the stories…. Here was something Kirsty did not believe in, clear in front of her eyes" (164-65). The incompatibility of fiction and perception is a way into the metafictional quality of the story mentioned above, as it reminds us of the arbitrary relationship between texts and the real world, that they are separate, and that to interpret one in terms of the other may be an act of misinterpretation.

The issue is placed en abîme in a small incident when sunlight breaks over Kirsty and Betty:

Then the witch began to be transformed. A light grew round her, brightness stood all over her, behind and in front, and Kirsty had to look away because of the dazzle.

The witch was smiling in all the radiance. Kirsty knew it was some sort of magic, and not at all real. It was not the same sort of thing as hoping that a fairy would lead the way to treasure. That would be real. This great light was not real, because it couldn't be, Kirsty thought. It was a magic act, and perhaps the snow would melt, but it would be an untrue enchantment….

It was sunlight, coming down from the sun above and getting to the ground again. On the way it had lit up the snow in the air like a spotlight. It was not witch work. It was weather work, and nothing to do with either of them.


The image dominating this episode, and made explicit in the final paragraph, is the theatrical spotlight, and this draws attention to the shifting relationships between make-believe and reality. The repetition of "real" emphasizes the drift in the word's significance, as the initial opposition between magic and reality is immediately dismantled by the inconsistency of the link between fairy treasure and reality, and then by the mental act which reduces questions of reality/unreality to acts of will, determinations within the Self. Kirsty's conclusion that what might happen would be "an untrue enchantment" merely winds back into the already deconstructed magic/real opposition, and thereby gives sharp focus to the problem of perception and signification. Do things exist because we perceive them? Do they exist in the form in which we think we perceive them? These are questions which also point back to the previous stories. Because the dwarfs of the first story lack "normal" shape and stature, and in some cases other "normal" faculties (hearing, speech, knee-joints), they are perceived as generally lacking the qualities of being human, especially the higher emotions. In "Boy to Island," the illusory beauty of the fairies induces Colin to perceive Janet (and himself) as physically repulsive ("so blotched and lumpish that he did not like to look … etc." [89]), even though he is quick to grasp that such perceptions come only because "his idea of things has changed" (90).

Second, the development within this episode is not merely one of clarified perception. It goes further than this to illustrate the movement beyond solipsism which is a key thematic turn in all of these stories. The solipsistic confusion of the Self with the World (which is natural in children) is the major corrupter of perception throughout All the King's Men, so it is important that a pivotal moment in this final story should enact a perception of phenomena external to both the Self and the Other, having "nothing to do with either of them." Only from this vantage point can the Other be properly grasped. In this sense, the transformation/illumination is a true enchantment: when the story does resolve, it is through a semantic integration which evokes but opposes earlier dissimilating speech acts. That is, "Betty, witch, granny-next-door" (182) embodies the filling of all lacks: she does eventually direct Kirsty home, resolves Grandpa's problem, becomes another Granny for Kirsty, and figuratively returns concord to the house (embodied in the parents sharing the task of removing Kirsty's wet clothing).

As remarked earlier, the title story also has as a major structure the movement from lack to plenitude, though this is an aspect of fabula more than of discourse. As with the other two stories, "All the King's Men" turns on a puzzle of perception in relation to concepts of the self. The dwarfs perceive themselves as Other, located outside society with other outsiders such as the King, his daughter the Infanta, and the Archbishop. Society itself seems to consist of palace servants, such as Don Emilio and the princess's Lady-in-Waiting, and peasants, prisoners, and dogs. The main conflict in the story arises from the ambiguity of the dwarfs' social position, as they attempt to assert their notion of it in the face of the contrary, conflicting notion of Don Emilio. The distorting effect of fallible first-person narration is very pertinent here. Joachim, the narrator/focalizer, is trapped by temporality, bewildered by the present and attempting to interpret it by means of memory, which includes past experience, lore, and texts. Yet he is so absorbed with the situation and doings of himself and his fellow-dwarfs that he is unable to make cause-effect relationships perceptively enough to see that their lack is preceded and caused by the King's lack: he has lost his wife and needs to fill that space. The reader is able to see that two thematically linked stories are proceeding at the same time. While the dwarfs' lack manifests itself as physical deprivation—they are sent away, and deprived of food, comfort, and access to the King—thematically, it is the emotional lack of not belonging. Joachim remarks early in the story that "it is right that others should laugh at us" (10) and that "no one loves, or hates, a dwarf; but we are valuable" (12). It is at the King's marriage feast that the purging of the two lacks begins, but the culmination is the discovery and sanctioning of the romance between Hubert and Elise, which acknowledges their belonging to normal society:

"My Lord Bishop," says the King, "do dwarfs then love?"

"Sire," says the Archbishop, "do Kings?"

"It is not unknown," says the King. "Good Master priest, they shall be kings and queens too in their day…."


Notwithstanding this positive beginning, the dwarfs still interpret the King's instruction to the Archbishop to do "what you think right" as an indication that Hubert will be executed. Their self-absorption, joined with their lack of information, thus leads them into a huge misunderstanding of what is happening. This twofold disadvantage is how the dwarfs offer an analogy for childhood, though they see themselves as more disadvantaged than children, as is seen in Roberto's comment that "They will never treat us as children, even, that might one day be men" (16). The direct comparison, of course, alerts the reader to the nature of the comparison the story is making.

The duels staged as part of the wedding feast offer a particularly illuminating example. Play and art (the difference is not always clear, of course) both frame and comment upon the events of the story. The dwarfs, in their capacity as fools, offer parodic versions of various aspects of court life (of Rafe's jokes and mimes it is said, "we knew they would be successful and that we should all be beaten for his cheek, after everyone, including the king, had laughed" [45]), but now Joachim sees that the usual parodic relationship does not apply. The soldiers play out their ritualistic game of challenger and champion with wooden ineptitude, "like the badly arranged combats in the street plays in the town at Epiphany" (i.e., comparing one game to another game), their wooden swords standing in a direct mimetic relationship to the real thing; the dwarfs use weapons which comically parody the real thing—cooking-pot lid and cooking skewer against spice jar lid and shank bone (even dipped in mustard)—but their duel is in earnest. Simultaneously, the children of the betrothed adults have retreated beneath the table, where they forge their own bond through childish disregard and disruption of the behaviour of the adults (as the dwarf-duel distracts attention from the soldiers' duel, so that the outcome is wrong, but goes unnoticed anyway). These are not separate events, though, since the re-emergence of the children leads to the helter-skelter end of the dwarf-duel, when the Infanta seizes the legs of one of the combatants.

"Boy to Island" is, in effect, about misperception—of time, of place, of self—and its relationship to the gain and loss associated with growth. When introduced at the beginning of the story, Colin is longing for the sign of social recognition that will mark him "a man" (72); at the end of the story he undergoes an accelerated growth that accomplishes this. But the cost of the intervening process has been high, and there are suggestions that its consequence is a flawed maturation, since Colin is never entirely at rest in the world. What happens to him is very complex, and our reading of his experience is further complicated by the supplementary theme of the growth of the artist, in that conventional notions about the separateness of the artist in both vision and experience qualify our sense of what becomes of Colin. The effect of his experience, though, can be seen as epitomized within the story by the simile of the torn book:

"I am dizzy with coming home," said Colin; and he thought it might be so, but it was his seeing that troubled him, with a patch down the world now as if the middle of a page were torn out and the next showed through, reading no sense.


Colin is still stranded "in the middle of being in two places at once": the fairy world he has just left was always a text in which he was unable to read sense, because it did not conform to the human experience of the spatio-temporal axis by which we measure meaning.

Every time Colin and Janet fail to get from the centre of the island to the margin, they find themselves returned to the beginning (both temporal and spatial); the failures occur as soon as they enter a fairy pathway or green, whereupon they are immediately transported into the midst of the amoral hedonism of the fairy realm, with its endless feasting and dancing or its passive contemplation of the beauty of the fairy king and queen. The fairies appear to represent a self-indulgent impulse to remain always at play, and to resist change and growth, as they interrupt Colin's struggles to find his way. He has to struggle against despair, and to grow beyond self-preoccupation to the point of learning to love Janet (significantly, after he has briefly escaped from the enchantment but returned into it for her sake [113-14] they no longer see the beautiful fairies, but only the ugly, vindictive dwarfs). The fairies take and possess, but it is finally human affection which breaks their hold. At the same time, though, the mystery and beauty of their world—the world of imagination which we expect to transcend time and space—can be carried over to enrich the human world. Here, the medium for doing this is music: Colin, the trainee piper, is captured by the fairies because he plays the chanter he finds on the island;5 as he plays for his captors, his own tune grows and develops, though it is not complete until he has returned home.

But this positive quality is only one aspect of the chanter's very complex symbolic significance. One of the most important symbols in the story, it remains the most difficult to grasp. It enters the story as a found object, but at the same time as a temptation, as its obvious quality and rich ornamentation indicate. It takes on the function of giving a voice to Colin's imagination and creativity, but it is also the instrument of his thraldom, and a pointer to the meaning-lessness of action in the fairies' out-of-time world. Its self-destruction at the end of the story, coinciding with Janet's disintegration and Alasdair's death, also figures the deconstruction of the narrative search for simple meaning. The chanter plays for the last time as Colin completes the fourth part of the tune that has been evolving as he played for the fairies and at the same time as he ages the seven years that have passed on the island beyond the reach of time, so it might seem that the fabula has no further use for it. Within the discourse, however, it becomes a self-reflexive element, another comment on the ambiguous and fragile connections between art and life. Its immediate link is with the figure of the torn book, but it then refers on to the concerns of "Stony Ray," and also back to "All the King's Men," to the arbitrary linking of card-games and life, and especially to Roberto's songs towards the end of the story, the first of which is an emotive reflection of a misreading of events.

In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that the story resists a conventional happy ending, as can be seen most obviously in the summary treatment of Colin's marriage, where the text focuses attention not on the couple but on what must constitute an impediment to sharing and emotional wholeness: "He and Anabel came to live in Alasdair's house. Always across Colin's eyes was the streak of another world. As the years went by, that streak became wider, and he was still young when he could no longer see this world" (129).

In summary, the story can be said to pivot around the following oppositions, and the need either to determine priorities between them or to accept their interdependence:

fairies: humans

timelessness: temporality

play: work, responsibility

centre: margin

imagination: reality

possession: love

The process of sorting out these oppositions has helped Colin to grow, and to develop beyond childhood's solipsism. Like Hubert, in "All the King's Men," he has found that love can move one out of the state of being in the middle of two places at once, but he has had to lose Janet, with whom he learned this lesson, and to learn that Anabel, the girl whom Colin the boy disliked, might be loved by Colin the man. He has also grown as an artist, and has learned how the musician can give something back to the music, for the sake of the music, not for the Self; he serves his community in the appropriate way, but at the cost of eventually becoming a solitary, slightly uncanny, figure, like his teacher Alasdair before him, until he finally retreats, via blindness, entirely into the world of the imagination.

The three stories turn out to be very complex in themselves, and even more so in their inter-relationships. They demand from the reader a strong (intuitive will do) grasp on the implications of varying narrator discourse modes, and on the problematic connections between art and life, and then, through these, a sense of the pressing existential problems faced by the individual in the simultaneous process of self-development and the growth of a deeper awareness of others. Not all human beings do escape the restrictions of solipsism, but Mayne's readers will somewhere be aware of the dangers and the possibilities.


1. William Mayne, All the King's Men (Puffin Books, 1984).

2. By "focalizer" I mean, in Seymour Chatman's words, "the narrator's use of a character as a primary medium … through which the events, other characters, and setting of the story are rendered, but rendered always in the words or 'voice' of the narrator" ("Characters and Narrators: Filter, Center, Slant and Interest-Focus," Poetics Today 7 [1986]: 193). In "Stony Ray," discourse slips between Kirsty as focalizer and a presentation of her thoughts in her own language. For a full discussion of focalization, see Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985) 100-14. Chatman, in the paper cited, takes issue with some aspects of Bal's position.

3. These are widely used concepts, assumed, for example in Propp's Morphology of the Folktale (Austin and London: U of Texas P, 1968) Chapter III.

4. I follow Seymour Chatman for the kind of distinction made between "story" and "discourse" (in Story and Discourse [Cornell UP, 1978], Introduction), but have substituted fabula for story in order to retain the latter term's conventional reference to short fictional works.

5. Though I may seem churlish, I feel bound to point out that the reeds Colin is taught to make in chapter 1, and which he replicates to use in the fairy chanter, are drone reeds, not chanter reeds. A drone reed made for chamber pipes will sound in a practice chanter, but not in a bagpipe chanter, which requires a much stronger reed of entirely different construction (it is shaped like an oboe reed).

DRIFT (1985)

Ann Donovan (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Donovan, Ann. "Narrative Strategy in Drift, by William Mayne." In The Voice of the Narrator in Children's Literature: Insights from Writers and Critics, edited by Charlotte F. Otten and Gary D. Schmidt, pp. 295-307. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1989.

[In the following essay, Donovan explores the various narrative devices Mayne employs throughout Drift, commenting that the text's unique narrative structure "is the most notable feature of the book and upon which all its other effects and aspects depend."]

William Mayne is generally considered a writer of fantasy. His novel Drift (1985), however, is historical fiction, a tale of Indian capture set in the days of the North American frontier. In reading this novel, one is struck by the wealth of realistic detail of Indian life and lore that enriches the action. But the novel's most interesting feature is that it is a narrative maze as devious as any Mayne has ever devised. The tension of the plot, which is considerable, is wound even tighter by the ambiguities of the narrative itself. It is this narrative, transparent and simple on the surface, that is the most notable feature of the book and upon which all its other effects and aspects depend. Because of this illusion, even language, as such, is an element of the adventure, the different and antithetical means of communication among the characters reflecting the deliberate misunderstandings Mayne has effected between reader and text. The key to this carefully arranged structure is the narrator, and it is a mark of Mayne's skill that he has subtly contrived this narration to be virtually invisible as the reader is drawn, somewhat puzzled and resistant, into its web.

The plot is basically simple. Young Rafe Considine is sitting outside his house in a frontier village watching Tawena, one of the settlement's half-assimilated Indians, trying to catch a crow. She suggests they go and look at a hibernating bear. They walk to the nearby lake but are chased out on the ice by the bear who is already awake. As they head for home, the ice breaks up in the spring thaw. They are trapped on a floe along with the bear. Luckily, they drift apart from him and land on the far shore. Unfortunately, they are on the distant side of the lake, miles from the village. Through the snow, Tawena hears something coming and flees. Rafe, left behind, is discovered by two Indian women who capture him, and, much to his bewilderment, force him to accompany them. Shortly after this, Rafe hears a horrible struggle in the forest nearby: Tawena is being torn apart by the bear that has followed them. After weeks of wandering together, during which Rafe tries and fails to escape, the Indians return him to his village, are rewarded, and depart. He misses the Indian women who have taught him much and to whom he has become attached.

This much of the novel is perfectly straightforward. But this part of the book is followed by a second, shorter section: Tawena's story. This in itself is a surprise because Tawena has been presumed dead, eaten by the bear. She can have no story. The reader assumes that some mistake has been made. Tawena's part of the tale explains this misconception, revealing Rafe's perspective, that of his white society, as limited culturally; Tawena's account shows a totally different sequence of events unfolding for the Indians, one which is based upon their cultural orientation.

Many authors have retold the same story from various viewpoints using different narrators' or characters' perspectives. The effectiveness of this practice depends on withholding information, juxtaposing quite different points of view, contrasting cultures or backgrounds (e.g., sex, profession, age, education, etc.) and sticking strictly to one narrator at a time. Mayne has, for the most part, been quite scrupulous in abiding by the rules he has set up for his narrative, and in doing so, has effectively drawn the reader into the story and required him to follow, project, and imagine the events related and evaluate the reliability of the characters relating them. The effect is not unlike that of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet or John Fowles' The Collector or The French Lieutenant's Woman, with much of the same stunning impact.

Although the story is told in the third person, the voice of the author is effaced until it seems almost as if it is a first-person narrative. The reader is given no information at all other than what Rafe (usually) observes. Rafe's age, the location of the village, and other details of background are omitted completely, or included casually, presumably because they are known to Rafe (and Tawena) and do not pass through his mind during the narrative or require his attention. That they would be interesting or useful to the reader is unimportant to Mayne. They would dilute or distract from the unity of narrative view and therefore have no role. Such omissions make others more natural; indeed, Rafe's irrelevant thoughts, emotions, fleeting impressions are all more important in the narrative than basic information that an author might easily impart in a more conventional fiction. This is well illustrated in the opening paragraphs of the novel.

The Indian girl was trying to catch a crow that had stayed in the village by the lake all winter. The girl's name was Tawena, and she lived in the tents and cabins at the end of the village.

Rafe Considine watched her, sitting on a heap of hard snow outside his own door. Tawena was throwing down little balls of suet from a lump of fat she had in her hand. Now and then she ate some herself. She had a fatty face, Rafe thought, and brown eyes deep in the fat. He was sure she had stolen the suet. The tent and cabin people had nothing much to live on, but some of them were well-covered.


The sentences are direct, the vocabulary simple. The tense is simple past, giving an impression of present, ongoing activity. Information important to what will happen is given offhandedly, but very little else. But the novel's key, the relationship between Rafe and Tawena, is immediately established. Rafe is observant but not particularly bright or insightful; clearly he considers Tawena an unreliable savage, but he has no particular fear, aversion, or doubts about her. She is just one feature of his environment. Her ways are different; she is not his equal. Here we may note that were Tawena a male character, the entire plot would suffer, as her femaleness is merely one more aspect of her inferiority and unreliability—her otherness. In addition to their relationship, we know the time of year, a critical factor, and we see Tawena as active and Rafe as passive, modes in which they will remain, and which are an important clue to reliability.

Only the second half of the opening sentence and all of the following one could be described as coming directly from the author. The entire second paragraph is Rafe's assessment of what he can see directly or accepts as true. Even the last sentence seems attributable directly to Rafe, although it is only so by implication and tone: it sounds like what Rafe would think. Already we hear his unspoken voice. Soon we hear Tawena directly: "Don't move, Rayaf," she said. "Don't do ever thing. Bird for pot" (9). Tawena is clever, but she cannot speak good English. Rafe speaks, unfortunately for his future plight, not a word of any Indian language. Thus, although this implies her stupidity, Tawena has a decided intellectual advantage from the beginning.

Further, living on the edge of the settlement, scavenging on it, she has learned to see life there and accept it to some extent. Rafe and his family have not paid much attention to the Indians or the wilderness. When Rafe's mother hears the ice breaking up, she assumes it is the French. When Tawena invites Rafe to visit the bear, she adds, "Bear my people father," a statement that means nothing to Rafe, although he is intrigued.

Rafe thought he wanted to know what Tawena meant by looking at bear…. But to go and look at one is something different, even with someone you don't at all like, smelling of old fat, even if she is the bear's daughter, somehow.

Tawena was round the corner of the house. The bear was not with her, of course, and Rafe was glad of that.


This explanation is entirely typical of Rafe as narrator: he is Mayne's frame for all the action, for the relationships, for the manipulation of the reader's understanding and sympathy. We are as dependent on Rafe's sensory and mental processing of events as if the narration was pure stream-of-consciousness.

Mayne does not say, "Rafe wanted to know what Tawena meant." That would give us Mayne's observation of what Rafe wanted, his omniscient certain knowledge. But the more oblique construction, "Rafe thought he wanted to know," tells the reader what was in Rafe's mind, and at the same time indicates Rafe's tentativeness, his lack of comprehension of Tawena's cosmology, his naivete, and even a hint of humor or irony in Rafe's thought. Similarly, landscape and action are viewed and given to the reader by Rafe:

Now the ground itself began to shake under them. All at once Rafe could not tell where he was, where he had come from, how much time had gone by, whether it was day or night, or whether he was alive or dead….

… Something seemed to be wrong. They were still running down the lake towards the hut and the village, but the village was no longer there. It had skipped far over to the left. Rafe did not know why that could be so, but it did not matter because the fisherman's hut was straight ahead of them…. They went into the hut, because that was the next thing to do.


Unfortunately, the bear has tagged along and peers in at them. We have Rafe's impression of this moment:

The bear looked back at Rafe. Rafe stood and looked at the bear. He did not know what to do. He knew there was something he could do, something simple, but he could not remember what it was. He could only remember that a brown bear was standing on all four feet just outside the door. He could smell it, and it could smell him…. He stood in the doorway and saw the bear walking towards him, because his eyes were still working, even if his arms would not.


Occasionally, Mayne shifts to another point of view. Here, the bear's: "The bear thought about things, still deciding what to do next…. It did not like the way the door shook under its weight, and was not sure whether it was safe to walk on…. The bear had been thinking about the door lying loose on the floor and perhaps being a trap" (22). This is how the bear sees things. But even in this, it is Rafe, clearly, seeing and interpreting the bear's thoughts. This sounds like, has the ring of, Rafe's mind. Tawena might experience the same events, but, as the reader will learn later, she does not hear them in the same way. Rafe, with occasional brief variations, is the only consciousness of which the reader is aware. Like him or not, and sometimes he is not particularly likeable, however bumbling, he is our only Virgil in an unfamiliar world.

We can be sure, then, that Rafe is our narrator, but is he reliable? Wayne Booth, in discussing the "distance" of narrators from "the author, the reader, and the other characters of the story" observes that all these engage in a dialogue. He writes: "Each of the four can range, in relation to each of the others, from identification to complete opposition, on any axis of value, moral, intellectual, aesthetic, and even physical" (155) and lists some five ways these distances can be important. The first two, distance between the narrator and the implied author, and between the narrator and other characters are the two Mayne uses. Booth continues: "For practical criticism probably the most important of these kinds of distance is that between the fallible or unreliable narrator and the implied author who carries the reader with him in judging the narrator …" (158) and concludes, after discussing a few unreliable narrators: "All of them make stronger demands on the reader's powers of inference than do reliable narrators…. Sometimes it is almost impossible to infer whether or to what degree a narrator is fallible" (159).

That is our problem with Rafe.

The implied author, that is, the author created for us by the implications of his tone, style, theme, sincerity, objectivity, in short as "… we infer him as an ideal, literary, created version of the real man … the author's second self …" (159) is almost undetectable in Drift. Mayne is barely there, perceptible only as a pervasive, gentle irony. Booth calls Hemingway's story "The Killers" "rigorously impersonal" and remarks on the fact that his degree of distance or invisibility is unusual. Mayne has crafted his novel with this same level of impersonality.

One way this has been achieved is by simplicity. Like Hemingway, Mayne has kept his vocabulary simple, his syntax uncomplicated, his rhythms short and repetitive—all in all, much like Rafe's own interior self. This harmonious matching of the narrator's mental style with the narrative style effaces the author almost completely. It provides the added pleasure of giving the reader an unexpected delight when Rafe exhibits, after nothing but such simplicity, a flash of and then a pronounced tendency toward growth and insight. Indeed, having worked hard throughout the novel, the reader can hardly tell whether the satisfaction he feels at the end is for himself or Rafe. Our powers of inference have had an ordeal almost comparable to Rafe's.

But the second kind of distance is also at work here—that between characters—in fact, between the two major ones. Usually, the reader knows nothing about what Tawena, for example, is thinking except through Rafe's eyes:

Tawena did not think he had done well. He could tell by the way she looked at him that she thought he was an ignorant rough savage…. She was right. Tawena herself had made three little footprints as she came from the lake, and she still stood in two of them.

I go about breaking the world to pieces, thought Rafe.


Similarly, the reader's awareness and understanding of the Indian women is based entirely on Rafe's. When the Indian women approach, Tawena disappears, taking Rafe's knife, and leaving Rafe crouched by the faltering fire he has made a mess of. Because one woman wears a cloak of deer skins and the other is in the skins of hares, Rafe thinks of them as Deerskin and Hareskin. "The Indian woman hated him. He did not hate her. But he could tell he was her worst enemy, and that at any moment she would kill him" (33).

Rafe is not killed, of course, but taken prisoner. With his capture, Rafe moves into a different and incomprehensible world, taking the reader with him. From this point on, Mayne uses Rafe's confusion to confuse the reader. The reader and Rafe are as one: nothing is known but what can be seen or felt by Rafe. For example, when the women give him food:

"Eat," she said. Rafe did not know the word in their language but he understood it. And the long black things smelled good…. The long black things had legs. They had eyes as well. But they were cooked, and hot, and smelled good. And most things you eat have legs and eyes, though not usually so many.

Rafe ate his caterpillars….


Later, still tied, Rafe sleeps fitfully. He is awakened,

… because something had got hold of him. Something was on top of him, holding him down so that he could not speak. This was of course worse than a dream, and worse than real…. Rafe thought that there were things in the forest he had not been told about, something stronger than animals, more frightening than ghosts … it breathes in his ear. Where it breathes is where it keeps its teeth, thought Rafe. What is it? Can it be the mother of the caterpillars?


Here Rafe plunges out of his own context and is at a loss, so disoriented that he reconstructs reality badly, based on fear, confusion, superstition, conjecture; but rather than describing this for us from an authorial perspective, Mayne allows the reader only Rafe's perspective with all its limitations of age, education, experience, and character; and since the reader, therefore, is in Rafe's circumstances, it is impossible to evaluate this view with total objectivity. Rafe is not only the narrator of events, he is the only meeting ground between reader and reality, effecting as, Booth puts it, "a nearly complete union of the narrative and reader in a common endeavor, with the author silent and invisible" (30).

Occasionally, however, Mayne lapses. When the presence is revealed as Tawena, Mayne observes, "All his life Rafe would remember this dark night when his only friend came to visit him in the vast forest with danger close by. But at the time …" (39). There is no apparent narrative necessity for this interjection, and it could be omitted although it underlines in advance the poignant ending, a fact not to be guessed at this juncture. Perhaps Mayne does this to insure our trust in the narrative, which returns at once to Rafe and becomes even more untrustworthy, although we do not know that. Tawena tells Rafe, in several ways, to instruct the Indian women to take him home. She says she will tell the bear to tell them also, and slips away into the darkness. This sounds peculiar to Rafe, but as he wonders about it, he hears the bear attacking Tawena in the forest: "There was a fearful crunching noise now. Rafe remembered how he had eaten whole caterpillars, and at this minute the bear was eating Tawena in the same way, straight with its teeth. Tawena's plan of talking to the bear did not seem to work …" (40). Presently the bear snuffles and shuffles around the camp. The Indian women listen:

They were attending and obeying; they were answering quietly. After all, the bear was telling them what Tawena said it would. Rafe knew now that the only way to tell the bear anything was to let it kill and eat you, and that was how Tawena had given it the message. She had died, she had been torn apart by a wild creature, just to save him, Rafe. He knew it must be so though he did not understand a word the bear said.


And here, the reader takes the bait along with Rafe. The natural egoism of white dominant culture, hope, and all previous experience/reading, suggest that Rafe's understanding of what is going on in the forest is true. Rafe and the reader are told to believe something and they do believe it: Tawena has spoken to the bear, Tawena has been killed by the bear, and the bear has conveyed a message to the Indian women. Mayne's entire narrative hangs on the reader's believing this preposterous sequence. But so cleverly has he entwined us with Rafe, who has crunched up his caterpillars and sensed the supernatural abroad in the forest, that we do believe what Rafe does, even though we sense that Rafe is not a particularly sagacious or insightful hero (like many to whom we are accustomed in fiction). Mayne, as author, has told us nothing, only what Rafe believes. Foolish Rafe, gullible reader, clever author.

Having maneuvered us to this point, Mayne continues the basic tale of Rafe in the wilderness. Rafe is clumsy and stupid from the Indian point of view. The women find him a sore trial and treat him with disdain while taking care of him. He cannot understand their instructions; he cannot do simple tasks such as building a fire with sticks; he lumbers noisily along in the forest. In short, he is uncivilized. They punish him for his apparent laziness and obvious incompetence. Once in a while he hears the bear in the forest, and once, after falling asleep when he should have been building a fire, he awakens to discover a small fire in a bit of moss and thinks perhaps the women have been secretly nice and built it for him: "He thought it could not be a mystery, because there are no such things. He thought that Deerskin or Hareskin had come back and been secretly kind to him. Rafe was all at once very happy, because one of them must like him …" (52).

However, he deceives himself and the reader by reasoning thus; and although the phrase "he thought it could not be a mystery," a syntactically peculiar one, cries aloud for the reader to notice this mystery, while the following ironical "because there are no mysteries" declares that there certainly is one here, in perfect harmony and trust with this demonstrably unreliable narrator, the reader hardly pauses in rushing to agree.

But the women are not pleased with him, thumping him and twisting his face in vexation. He tries not to cry and sets himself to learn. They teach him simple skills until finally, "All at once the little group of them round the fire felt like a family. Rafe felt he be-longed to them and they belonged to him. He was full of tough bird and woody parsnip, and they had been kind to him, and they were all three alone in the wild places. What nice faces they had, he thought, when they were not cross" (53).

So things go better, the women teaching, Rafe learning. Rafe, convinced in spite of Tawena's whispered message (to say nothing of the bear's) that they are taking him with them into slavery, decides to escape; he craftily makes a bid for freedom. Unfortunately, he gets lost in the forest and panics. His situation becomes more desperate when he realizes something else is with him in the forest: "Behind him something moved among those trees. Not fast, not perhaps following him. But maybe following him; always there, not coming any closer, and not being seen … always he heard behind him the thing that followed, followed, with never a breath of voice, never a glimpse, merely breaking its way through the forest after him" (61).

In terror he flees; it continues after, now snarling, growling, even touching him in the darkness—a dream? No, no dream; it is laughing and seizing him. It is Deerskin. Rafe "… was so glad to be rescued that he clung on to Deerskin, hugging her, holding her, as if she were the only safe place in the whole world. She and Hareskin had followed and saved his life" (65).

Although she twists his face to chastise him for running away, it does not hurt his face so much as his feelings:

… he knew how badly he had behaved, how he had been so ill-mannered, so ungrateful, he had insulted the people who had kept him alive, how he had scorned their feelings, wasted their time and annoyed them. What they had done was follow him patiently, creep up on him in the dark, and give him a very great fright. They thought it was funny, and somehow so did Rafe.


Rafe is changing, becoming different, and after this they work more amiably together. In fact, when Hareskin is shot and nearly dies, Rafe saves her by making a poultice for the wound from moss as he has seen his mother do.

Once more, Rafe encounters the bear when he is gathering wood in the forest. He hears it coughing and growling in the mist, first in one direction, then in another. When he regains camp and tells Deerskin, she listens and then "she made it quite plain to Rafe that there was no bear near, had not been, and would not be, and that he was to stop being silly and fetch more wood," (74) which he does. At last, crossing a narrow ledge under a waterfall, they come face to face with the bear, crossing in the opposite direction. Deerskin, Hareskin, Rafe, and the bear consider what to do.

He had another feeling about it too, because there had been bears all round them, right from the day he and Tawena went to look at one. That bear had only wanted a lump of bacon to eat; in the forest a bear had looked at him without harming him…. Rafe began to feel there was something different about bears, as Tawena had said.


As the little quartet ponders, noises from below float up, bearlike noises; not the shadowy gray wolf that has been skulking nearby, but another bear, which the first one lumbers off to investigate.

Shortly after this, the Indian women march with Rafe into his village. By now Rafe and the women can communicate, and Deerskin says, "'We will take you in…. That will be safe for us. And you are dressed like Indian so be careful.'… when Rafe came close, he found that his own people had a strange strong smell he did not much like. He led the way through, and no one knew him" (94).

Rafe goes to his house and enters. "It was like going into a box, a trap." Rafe has come home. At last he understands:

He understood too that he was not going to be sold as a slave…. All that Hareskin and Deerskin wanted for him was a reward, some return for their trouble or kindness. That was what the bear had told them on the night that Tawena had visited him. That was what they had told him but he had not understood, that night in the forest. They had brought him back to gain a present, not because they liked him. But he was sure that at the end they had liked him.


Had they? We can only conclude that this is so because we also like Rafe now. We like him and the Indian women, and so it must be true. And this is the end: the women receive a pony and travois, and they leave; Rafe resumes his life as it was. He wonders about Tawena, knowing now how she felt.

He saw, as if it was happening again, that Tawena had despised him when they reached the shore again [for his clumsiness]…. She will have hated me, he thought. But she did her best to save me, and she did.

But if she had lived, how would it have been?


With Rafe safely back at the village and the story complete, the reader's feeling of satisfying closure receives a rude shock to discover that Tawena's story follows. How anticlimactic! And how can this be, inasmuch as she is dead?

In the retelling with Tawena as narrator, the reader hears quite a different voice indeed. Tawena's version begins on the shore after they have drifted across the lake. She is exasperated with Rafe's noisiness, his helplessness. "'The white people do not think,' said Tawena to herself. 'Their faces are pale and their hearts do not work. He is, moreover, dancing like a bear'" (107).

Tawena thinks conversationally to herself and views things in her own way. Rafe is a liability in the wild. She cannot depend on him.

He is worse than a bear, she thought. In fact, a bear would have more sense than to make such noise. A bear is a wise creature…. It was no use talking to [Rafe] in her own language, and she did not know enough of his to explain. And how could I explain, she thought, to people who know nothing? And I have no breath now I am blowing on the fire to make it burn.


She fears they cannot get home unless they work together, a doubtful prospect considering Rafe's uselessness. He does, however, have a good knife, which she has borrowed to strike sparks from a rock. Rafe watches with interest, but without comprehension. While she is thinking and working on the fire, she hears two Indian women approaching. They will kill her if they find her because her family has broken tribal law: her cheeks are unmarked with the scars of acceptance. She hopes the women, obviously a mother and daughter on a foraging expedition, will pass, but they smell the smoke and turn toward Rafe and Tawena. She tells Rafe they are coming, that she must not be discovered, and slips away. Rafe understands none of this and flounders about, then tries to keep the fire going. The women come upon him as Tawena watches from hiding.

They came up to Rafe as he knelt over the fire…. Tawena could not understand how Rafe did not know, how he could not have heard. But he did not know. When he did look up his action was pathetic and ridiculous. He behaved like some simpleminded animal, smiling at the Indian women, thinking he had been rescued, saved, set on his way home.

The smile soon went away.


Tawena follows the trio, safe because of the noise and blundering of Rafe's passage, and conceives a plan she hopes will take them all back to the village eventually. She observes Rafe and the women, and disparages Rafe's lack of politeness.

"Bear," said Tawena to herself.

She loved Bear, real Bear, because Bear was the animal of her people. She loved him for his strength and pride, for his greed and anger, for his ferocity and his way of doing all he wanted. But she, and all her people, would laugh at him too, for the way he walked (not caring about his track) … for the way he would eat (not minding how sticky his jaws got). Now Rafe was eating like Bear.


She discusses her plan with Maneto and visits Rafe in the camp to tell him what she will do. Then she disguises the tracks to look like a white boy, followed by a bear: "Now anyone looking would see how a white boy had come here, a bear had come after him, and only a bear had gone away." Then,

She started the next thing she had to do. She began a great noise. She ran about, stamping her foot into the frosty ground. She tore off a strip of the brown village dress she wore. She shook and broke branches, throwing herself down among them and against them, making them snap and whip. She was acting out a child being caught by a bear, and eaten.

The worst part came at the end … she lifted the bright blade and cut herself deep the length of her forearm, the sudden burning pain, the hot and cold of the blade and the blood, made her scream the loudest scream. And that was all from her, because she was not meant to be dead. She had to be dead. Rafe had to think she was dead.


Rafe does. The reader does, or rather, did. At this point, awakening to what has happened, really happened, the reader, instead of being relieved at Tawena's escape (like Rafe, we felt sad at her terrible end, her great sacrifice), feels anger, admiration, and deep chagrin. Tricked! No better than clumsy Rafe—ignominious!

Here Tawena's voice, her narration, can take on any aspect. The reader can be told directly by the author, by the narrator, or by his own surmises whatever Mayne chooses. We know Tawena's story already; the entire sequence lies before us in a new light, seen for the first time in its true meaning. Authenticity is clear; we were duped by Rafe's blindness, blinded ourselves in turn. Out of curiosity, seeking to fill the now deeply suspicious gaps of Rafe's original story, we follow Tawena's feet, Indian feet. In great pain and weakness, she assures that Rafe will be taken home, even building a fire he is supposed to manage:

He is going to sleep again and has made no fire, and that is very foolish. White men are like this. No doubt they think of something, but what it is they do not know. They talk so much all the wisdom runs out of their mouths. But I know there should be a fire, and if there is not there will be something worse for him.

While Rafe slept Tawena made fire….


And when Rafe makes his break for freedom, Tawena discovers this: "She went to look for him, because it was not right for him to wander alone, by night or by day. She heard him easily. 'It is Rayaf or a bear,' she said to herself. 'He goes as quietly as he can, like a tree walking'" (140).

She follows, leaving a Rafe-like trail for the women to read since Rafe has learned under their stern tutelage to hide his tracks. Uncertain if they will pursue him, leave him, or kill him, Tawena watches them encircle Rafe, and she sees that they will not kill him, that they have become fond of him. Sadly, feeling alone and lonely, she sees Hareskin shot near the whiteman's camp. But the bullet had been meant for her, had glanced from a tree and struck Hareskin. It is Maneto's expression of displeasure with Tawena: "'I have done this,' said Tawena. 'In spite of all, if one of them dies the other will not take the white boy to his own village …' and she followed slowly…. 'If she should fall … I shall bring the other woman to her, and they will kill me …'" (144).

Instead she helps Hareskin back nearly to camp, where she is found by Deerskin, then trails the trio as they struggle on. She sees Rafe helping the women, saving the wounded one, being gratefully treated. Her loneliness is acute: "She went away into the forest alone, very much alone. 'I am alive,' she said to the bird with blue wings, 'but not as I want to be. I cannot say who I am, and no one cares for me'" (150).

By now, Tawena's story is no longer Rafe's retold. It is truly Tawena's, the Indian story. The mother and daughter and Tawena form their own unit, at one with the place they are and the spirits that move there. Tawena's narrative is that of Bigfoot, Maneto, and Wendagoo, of wolves and the bird with blue wings, and the bear.

Rejoining her own mother a day before Rafe arrives in the village, she observes his return with the Indian women. She shows herself to them in the crowd: "The daughter [Hareskin] looked at her, touched her own cheeks, and said nothing. Tawena touched her own left shoulder. That, for them, was a long conversation, with much meaning" (163).

By now the reader, too, can understand this conversation and its full meaning. What a distance he has come under Mayne's relentless shepherding: from a very limited and somewhat confusing perception of events, given by an unreliable narrator, through a more straightforward, open narrator explaining an unknown world, to a clear understandable story. The dim twilight of Rafe's narrative, darkening the reader's understanding and dogging Tawena's version so long, has disappeared. Were the reader to return to the beginning and read again, he would find a third version, the one hidden from him the first time around, and which he has himself now constructed. The plot, such as it is, has become relatively unimportant. That is, "what really happened," now known through Tawena's story, has no significance per se. Perspective is what is important, what creates the tension and opens up before the reader's gaze an undetected world.

In the story itself, Rafe, at this point, has lagged behind the reader. He has no idea what has happened to Tawena and is unaware of her presence still. She approaches him, after the Indian women leave, to return his knife as she has intended to do all along, as she has promised Maneto. He does not recognize her; she speaks, calls him by name,

Then she began an extraordinary thing. She leaned forward, pointed her elbows out, and took a deep breath…. She made a noise like a bear snuffling and hunting. Somehow she made the noise of claws on wood. She took another breath and screamed.

Rafe had heard a scream like that in the woods….


At last the two narratives become one. Rafe has joined the reader in the new perspective. But even though Tawena, to his amazement and enlightenment, reenacts all the events for him, he cannot know everything. Rafe knows more, but far from everything. The author knew all from the first; now the reader does, too, achieving what Booth calls "a secret communion of the author and reader behind the narrator's back" (300). He has finally escaped any narrator.

The effect of Mayne's novel, as Booth warns and as we can observe, is to make unusual demands upon the reader. But to what purpose? Wayne Booth and Wolfgang Iser have in turn given critical attention and approval to narrative opaqueness. Booth speaks of the "[t]hree general pleasures that are in some degree present whenever the reader is called upon to infer the author's position through the semitransparent screen erected by the narrator."1 And Iser describes "[spurring] the reader on to build up the syntheses which eventually individualize the aesthetic object" (118). In short, the reader who creates the text for himself has thereby a greater stake in both the events and the narrator/narrative. A happy ending, closure, growth of and identification with the characters, plausibility of plot, and similar narrative conventions all bow to the satisfactory participation of the reader in the process itself.

Few novels for intermediate readers make these demands. Young readers are usually served up a transparent narrative that relies on one or two appealing features to capture their involvement. Creativity is almost all on the author's part. By his masterful use of the narrator's voice, Mayne, in Drift, offers the reader not only a rousing tale, but a hand in making it and thereby a greater response to its rich and multileveled diversity.


1. Booth, p. 301. ("the pleasure of deciphering, the pleasure of collaboration, and secret communion, collusion, and collaboration") which leads to participation on a moral level, "one of the most rewarding of all reading experiences." p. 307.


Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Mayne, William. Drift. New York: Delacorte Press, 1985.


Martha V. Parravano (review date January-February 1998)

SOURCE: Parravano, Martha V. Review of Hob and the Peddler, by William Mayne. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 1 (January-February 1998): 77.

In the further adventures of Hob (following Hob and the Goblins ), the friendly household spirit is stumped [in Hob and the Peddler ]. Hob's work is "putting little things right, like folding away trampled thoughts, mending arguments, drying up spilled tears, unkicking bruises, or unscorching the milk pan," but in his new home (to which he has, unthinkably, been sold by an underhanded peddler) there are no little things wrong, only one big thing. The pond is unfriendly—"there is just dark, still water, and then the edge, and that's it. No tadpoles, no pretty fish"—and, mysteriously, whenever Hob says the word egg, the ground hiccups largely. With the help of the obnoxious magpie Pyke, Hob finally discovers that the peddler has stolen the egg of a Sea Serpent, wrapped it in darkness stolen from the Night, and hidden it in the pond. The story does not have the mythic, goodversus-evil quality of Hob and the Goblins, and Mayne takes a somewhat dreamy, oblique route to Hob's eventual, delightful hatching and rescue of the Sea Serpent's child. But the book contains more than enough of Mayne's masterfully inventive, mind-expanding language and of Hob's benevolent, homey charm to keep readers turning the pages.



Baskin, Barbara H., and Karen H. Harris. Review of Max's Dream, by William Mayne, illustrated by Laszlo Acs. In More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled, pp. 314-16. New York, N.Y.: R. R. Bowker Company, 1984.

Characterizes Max's Dream as a "surrealistic story."

Mayne, William. "A Discussion with William Mayne." Children's Literature in Education, no. 2 (July 1970): 48-55.

Group interview in which Mayne discusses his literary output, concluding with a postscript by Mayne that states, "I apologize to the reader for the formlessness of the article."

Rees, David. "Enigma Variations: William Mayne." Children's Literature in Education 19, no. 2 (June 1988): 94-105.

Identifies Mayne as a problematic writer, capable of works of great interest and complexity, but also prone to overly mature and "literary" stories that are unappealing to children.

Townsend, John Rowe. "William Mayne." In A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, pp. 130-42. Philadelphia, Penn.: J. B. Lippincott, 1971.

Profile of Mayne's literary career which argues, "Mayne has never made any concessions to the lazy or inattentive reader."

Additional coverage of Mayne's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 25; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 37, 80, 100; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 12; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 6, 68, 122; Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Vol. 11; and Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 2.