Kate Crackernuts 
by Katharine Briggs.
Kestrel, 224 pp., £2.95, September 1980, 0 7226 5557 6
Show More
Socialisation through Children’s Literature: The Soviet Example 
by Felicity Ann O’Dell.
Cambridge, 278 pp., £14, January 1979, 9780521219686
Show More
Divide and Rule 
by Jan Mark.
Kestrel, 248 pp., £3.50, October 1980, 0 7226 5620 3
Show More
Show More

The boundary between books said to be ‘for children’ and the undoubted literary province of adults is a debatable land. Unless their pursuits are historical, psychological, sociological or educational, most grown-ups make only occasional nostalgic excursions into the country of Peter Rabbit, and then only as part of the ritual induction of their children into reading. In contrast, the young have always been efficient rievers of stories from all sources, and have carried off such literary booty as pleased them. Now that children have distinguished authors of their own, the marches of these kingdoms have become an interesting middle ground.

A shared territory is the fairy-tale and its modern derivatives, of which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the best-known examples. Tolkien is also a subtle apologist for the creators of the secondary world of enchantment ‘into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in its desire and purpose.’ Here the oral tradition that antedates the alphabet meets the art of story, and in this realm neither teller nor hearer, writer nor reader, is obliged to produce credentials of learning or literacy. The spellbinding is all.

At the present time, the fairy-tale is in good heart. The scholarly support given by ubiquitous antiquarians and folklorists to the oral tradition has legitimised for adult enjoyment what is often, mistakenly, regarded as the province of children. In the fantastic reality of the fairy-tale, truth is what has always been known and is therefore unchallenged. Where religious faith and scientific certainty waver, where astrology regains lost ground and exotic beliefs are commonplace. Puck and his meinie can walk without fear of mocking. And so may the critic. The author and readers of Watership Down have no sense of being caught stooping. What diverts is Tolkein’s ‘arresting strangeness’ of the art of the storyteller. Nowhere is this more clear than in the work of Alan Garner, whose imagination is haunted by goblins. He knows that the strangest thing of all is that, to see them, there is no need to make an expedition to Narnia or the Berkshire Downs. You can watch for them out of the corner of your eye, even in cities.

This climate of acceptance and interest has made possible the reappearance of two novels by Katharine Briggs, Hobberdy Dick, first published in 1955, and Kate Crackernuts, which Kestrel have reclaimed from the 1963 Alden Press edition. Dr Briggs’s scholarly reputation rests on The Fairies in Tradition and Literature and the four volumes of the Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language. A Sampler of British Folk Tales teaches the difference between fables, exempla, fairy-tales, jocular tales, nouvelles and nursery tales. Intolerant of self-indulgence (she doesn’t believe in fairies) and Peter Pannery, Dr Briggs investigates folklore in Shakespeare as a musicologist would examine folk-song in Vaughan Williams. She is not concerned to tell children stories, but in Abbey Lubbers, Banshees and Boggarts she sets us on our way towards the more exacting erudition of Propp’s morphology of the folk tale and the work of Aarne and Thompson. She is neither populariser nor pedant, but she fears the commercialism by which traditional stories can be coarsened and falsified. ‘This is not the legitimate spontaneous growth which we find in stories handed down from father to son or in customs that alter as they are practised; it is an ignorant and wilful debasement for the sake of money.’

What happens, then, when the lorist turns novelist? First, the known text of what was once public utterance gives way to a personal vision. The spellbinding changes into a private enchantment. The reader has both the known theme and the new telling; the text engages the reader’s skill. The experience, however, is not the same as that of reading a new novel – the archetype is still there, just below the surface.

Dr Briggs took Kate Crackernuts from Joseph Jacobs’ 1890 collection of English Fairy-Tales, and Jacobs says he found it ‘given by Mr Lang in Longman’s Magazine, vol. xiv’. Jacobs is regarded as a populariser who rewrote fairy-tales for reading aloud to children so that all classes of listeners would have ‘a common fund of nursery literature’. With more shrewdness than he is given credit for, he saw in the spread of literacy a threat to the oral tradition, and a widening of the ‘lamentable gap between the governing and recording classes and the dumb working classes of this country, dumb to others but eloquent among themselves’. The story has two heroines, both called Kate, but Jacobs calls one Anne for clarity. His version is only two pages long in the 1968 Bodley Head edition. The telling moves off at a spanking pace:

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen, as in many lands have been. The king had a daughter, Anne, and the queen had one named Kate, but Anne was far bonnier than the queen’s daughter, though they loved one another like real sisters. The queen was jealous of the king’s daughter being bonnier than her own, and cast about to spoil her beauty So she took counsel of the hen wife, who told her to send the lassie to her next morning, fasting.

The hen wife puts a sheep’s head on Anne. But Kate befriends her, and together they leave home. They find lodging in a king’s palace where one of the sons is also bewitched. By going with the prince to fairyland and back Kate breaks both spells. ‘So the sick son married the well sister and the well son married the sick sister, and they all lived happy and died happy, and never drank out of a dry cappy.’ In this short space the motifs of spells, the rule of three, transformations, the thwarting of the jealous stepmother, the link with Childe Roland, all combine. By bargaining for a husband and saving his life, Kate produces what Tolkien calls ‘recovery, escape and consolation’.

The skill of Jacobs’ telling lies in a certain matter-of-factness which excludes analysis of motive or explanation of events. The question of suspending disbelief does not arise. The hen wife is a witch, spells are her business, so that her speech alone is ambiguous. The actions follow in ritual succession, the language is ceremonial. Kate is ‘a very brave girl’. The prince under the spell was ‘dancing, dancing, dancing’. Jacobs claimed that he had ‘reduced the flatulent phraseology of 18th-century chapbooks to Literary English’ The strong cadence of his narrative keeps his listeners from wearying.

Dr Briggs’s historical novel is a subtle new creation. Tippett’s Divertimento, based on ‘Selinger’s Round’, with Gibbons, Purcell, Arne, Field and Sullivan threaded through, is the best musical parallel I can think of. We are now in 17th-century Galloway, no palace, but a decrepit castle, where Adam Lindsay, impoverished by religious wars and family feuds, cares chiefly for his daughter Katherine. For her sake, he marries dark, Medean Grizel Maxwell, whose jealousy of Katherine in favour of her own daughter, Kate, is again the mainspring of the story. The narrative directness is as firm as it is in the original, with no striving for metaphorical effect. The events fall as inevitably as the seasons, punctuated by calendar customs of Michaelmas and Halloween. The witchcraft, the expressive centre of the book, is firmly rooted in human desires and passions. Katherine believes her head has become a sheep’s head; we know she feels it, even when we also know that Kate sees no change in her apart from the change brought about by shock and her own imagination. Our grasp of the meaning of the event enhances the power of the magic.

The dialect is as authentic as anything in Scott and promotes the arresting strangeness. The text balances plain telling with charged saying. Its author expects the discourse to strike deep chords, though we may, if Scots and Yorkshire are unfamiliar in our ears, miss many of the resonances. The fantasy is more astringent than Tolkien’s because Kate Crackernuts, for all her expedition to fairyland, never leaves the world we know.

By setting the tale in 17th-century Scotland at the time of the civil war, Dr Briggs has chosen a significant time for ‘natural’ witchcraft. The Protestants had cancelled Purgatory. Both Milton’s heathen gods and other lesser spirits became devils who, joined with old solitary women, offered an explanation for the unsocialised features of man’s wilder urgings when these passed his understanding. The Protestant minister tells of drowned witches with such gusto as to make quite clear his attachment to the ‘old religion’ he is condemning. Kate is both fascinated and appalled when she sees the witches on the hill at Halloween. ‘Their religion was no passive sitting under a sour minister, but an active wild delight, something that drove them out in contempt of death and danger.’ But she is also the agent by whom the old spells are both used and broken, the bearer of that strangely modern idea of tolerance that struggled to birth in religious wars, an idea now so habitual that we rarely remember its painful evolution.

The Soviet Union tried to ban the fairy-tale. After the Revolution, the rich hoard of traditional stories was kept from publication until Kornei Chukovsky made it clear that the oral tradition has its own survival tactics. Now they are back in favour, but with strong official ties to the public virtues of patriotism, discipline and love of work. Felicity Ann O’Dell’s study of the socialising role of Soviet children’s literature makes it clear that while the stories are expected to delight the young, they are to be left behind in childhood. Only Lenin then survives as a legendary hero. Even the old saga The Lay of Igor’s Host ‘is used to describe not modern battles but the civil war’. Character education is all:

The child’s love for the familiar form of folk tales is used to heighten his sense of wonder at the real-life marvels of the Soviet 20th century. An example is Kassil’s story ‘The Knights’. He begins, ‘There it a folk tale about how 33 knights emerged from the sea on to the shore… But now you’re not going to hear a folk tale. I’ll tell you what truly happened: the fascists seized one of our towns on the sea shore,’ and he goes on to tell an adventure story in the idiom of the folk tale, referring throughout to the Soviet soldiers as bogatyri, the medieval name for heroic knights.

One virtue of the fairy story is its universality: the horrors of witchcraft are shared problems, not individual ones. In the modern derivative, the fantasy kingdom exists to promote the individual’s quest for self-determination in the face of prevailing myths and sanctioned belief. The problem of the hero who wants to belong to the group yet to be himself is unlikely to arise in Soviet literature, but it often does in ours. A recent example is Jan Mark’s Divide and Rule.

To his disgust and amazement, the young hero, Hanno, is chosen to serve as the ritual Shepherd, the focal figure in a dying religion. For a year, the nonconformist must conform. Jan Mark’s theme strikes home to everyone who has had to fill in a form which asks for details about schooling, parents’ occupation, exam results and aspirations. In the temple are all the orthodox power figures, the priest, the guardians, the mechanicals. As in school, the Authority of the Book is supreme. Hemmed in by outworn rites he treats with scepticism, with manhood just out of reach, the life of the Shepherd is that of the reluctant hero who will perform the miracle that will bring the people back to the faith. Irresponsible Hanno now becomes responsible for official duplicity. He knows that the Book has been secretly changed, that the miracle is a fake, but he cannot speak the truth and be believed. He is divided from himself: ‘The fool that will not when he may, he shall not when he would.’ There is nothing of the daemonic, the marvellous or the uncanny in the fantasy here. The temple where Hanno is remorselessly terrified is a place where everyone else is in the know. The uninitiated is both the victim and the holy fool: it is the traditional role of the adolescent, exiled from parents and friends, who can no longer believe in himself.

While this kind of fantasy attracts serious craftsmen who have made their reputations elsewhere, it rarely receives detailed attention because the novels are short, limited in scope, rarely ambiguous, speculative or self conscious. What is needed is an extension of critical hospitality to areas beyond Alan Garner’s acclaimed Stone Book Quartet.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences