by Mary Stewart
I noticed this book in the window of our local used bookstore one day as I was walking past. I must admit, I didn’t walk past, I walked in. Mary Stewart was well-known a couple of decades ago for her Gothic-type romances and, perhaps more so, for her Merlin trilogy. Less well-known were her three books for children. I had heard of this title, but had never read any of her children’s stories, so I went into the bookstore and nabbed it.
The story opens in the Black Forest in Germany, where the best fairy tales take place. What happens is inevitable, given the setting. Two English children on holiday with their parents, castle visited, picnic eaten, parents napping, children stroll off for a walk. Just as far as that fallen tree across the path, so’s not to get too far from the car. It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that, of course something causes them to go beyond the fallen tree and they are drawn into magical circumstances. The reader knows that is why we’ve all been summoned here.
The book is only about 150 pages long and carries on apace, but Stewart takes the time for occasional lovely imagery, particularly in setting the forest scene:
“Not that it was really silent. If you lay with your eyes shut, and really tried to listen to the silence, you could hear it; it was made up of thousands of tiny sounds which might be the trees growing, or the toadstools pushing up through the pine needles, or the air breathing gently through the twigs overhead as the sun heated the ground and the moisture drifted upwards from the mosses. Then there were the insects; under and over and through all the silence was a steady throbbing hum that was so much a part of the forest that it seemed to be inside the listener’s brain, and not outside in the wood. It was made of the wingbeats of millions of tiny insects, gnats, bees, wasps, hover flies. The forest hummed silently, and the still air vibrated.”
The tone becomes menacing as the children come to the realization that all is not as it had seemed:
“No bird called. Except the owl. One hooted, whisperingly far away among the pines. Then suddenly, another answered, from quite near at hand. Not the whispering tuwhoo this time, but the dreadful screech that goes by in the night like murder, leaving the small creatures crouching, terrified, in their hiding places.”
There is nothing startlingly original in the story. Two modern day children are transported into the past to help rescue a kingdom being insidiously taken over by an enchanter. But the story is wholesome in ways that many current stories for children lack. The children are not disobeying their parents when they step into the past. They are being quite careful not to disobey. At first they believe they are dreaming, so they are brave because they don’t believe anything bad can really happen to them. Later they have to make the decision to do what they think is right even though they might never make it home again. And they really are our kind of children.
“It was a storybook adventure, no more, and they would waken from it the moment danger threatened, to find themselves safely back in their own familiar world. And, like any other children who read a lot of stories, they believed that this one must end happily, that with faith and courage and the right actions, everything would come out right in the end. . . They knew that if you find some person or creature in desperate need of help which you can supply, you have a human duty to supply it, even if it could inconvenience or even hurt you to do so. This, after all, is how the greatest and best deeds in the world have been done, and though the children did not say this aloud, they knew it inside themselves without even thinking about it.”
The victim of enchantment, a werwolf, whom the children have come to help, says, “If trust dies, and vows come to count for nothing, then I must stay a forest wolf till they hunt me down to death. There will be no more reason for me to stay a man.”
Of course, trust does not die, the wolf is proven faithful, the kingdom is saved, and the children get home before their parents have missed them.