As we are now into May, I’ve decided to recommend an almost forgotten story which begins on May Eve, traditionally the most magical night of the year. “Borrobil” by William Croft Dickinson is a kind of `missing link’ in British Fantasy. Professor Croft Dickinson was a renowned expert on Scottish history who also wrote ghost stories and Fantasy novels for children. “Borrobil” was first published in 1944 with black and white illustrations by John Morton-Sale. It was reissued as a Puffin paperback in 1964 with a wonderful cover by Pauline Baynes. Very cheap copies of this edition are quite easy to find. None of Croft Dickinson’s fiction seems to be available online but it certainly should be.
Donald and Jean are a young brother and sister spending a holiday in the British countryside. They are fascinated by the Eldritch Wood – `a dark mysterious ring on the crest of the far-off hill’. Most people avoid this wood but Donald and Jean decide to visit it one moonlit night in the hope of seeing something magical. When the children enter the wood they see two bonfires burning at the entrance to a circle of nine standing stones. After Jean impulsively leaps through the flames, the children are transported back into ancient magical times. They are greeted by a bright-eyed little man who turns out to be the good magician Borrobil. He explains that every year on Beltane/May Eve, the King of Summer must defeat the King of Winter. First though, there is going to be a dragon-fight.
The children learn from a Pictish man called Giric why the curse of a dragon descended on the land and how every seven years a brave man tries to kill this massive dragon. The coming of strange children bearing gifts (biscuits) is held to be a lucky omen so they are allowed to watch the hero Morac put Girac’s cunning plan to defeat the dragon into action. After the thrilling combat, Donald and Jean are invited to go with Morac on his journey north to bring home his promised bride, Princess Finella. It is a trip full of perils. The children and their companions face a shape-shifting sorcerer, a malignant dwarf, a brutal giant, the Fairy Queen, fierce raiders from the sea and the dangerous Blue Men who live in the sea. With Borrobil, an elderly gatekeeper, and the Princess Finella, Donald and Jean form an `army of five’ to fight unexpected enemies. Can the children get back to the Nine-Stone Ring in time for the battle between Winter and Summer, Past and Future?
Do you have a special story that you loved when you were young but have never been able to find again? I adored this book as a child but I wasn’t sure of the title and I didn’t know the author’s name. The memories all came back when I recently spotted a copy of “Borrobil” in a charity bookshop. As soon as I saw the dragon and the dumpy man wearing a brown hat with a long white feather on the cover, I knew that this was the story I had searched for for so long. “Borrobil” also seems to have gone missing from most histories of Children’s Literature yet Croft Dickinson deserves to be remembered as part of the distinctively British school of academics who wrote Fantasy novels in their spare time. He was a contemporary of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien and like the latter he used his specialist knowledge in his fiction. I can see now that the archaeology of Iron Age Britain was the inspiration for the strange dwellings of the characters in “Borrobil”, such as the underground earth-house of Geric the Pict, or the massive stone tower of the Men of Orc. Don’t know a broch from a crannog? You will after reading this book but it always feels more like an adventure than a history lesson.
There are many similarities between “Borrobil” and Alan Garner’s well known first novel “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen”, which was published in 1960. In both stories a modern brother and sister meet a benevolent wizard who introduces them to a range of figures from legend and involves them in battles between good and evil. Both books incorporate British legends, fairy tales, and folk customs (such as lighting Beltane Fires on hills) and feature ancient landmarks. Of the two, I actually prefer “Borrobil”. Garner has a more poetic imagination and provides a stronger over-arching plotline but Croft Dickinson’s work has greater warmth and humour and his child characters are more convincing – apparently he wrote this story for his two young daughters.
Jean has more personality than Donald but both siblings are easy for young readers to identify with. They are adventurous (at one point Jean is resourceful enough to rescue her own rescuer) but they don’t suddenly change into sword-wielding super heroes when they enter a Fantasy realm. Jean and Donald sometimes get frightened, cross or tired and they never do anything that a normal child couldn’t do with a little luck and courage. If the children are ordinary, the people they meet certainly aren’t. Geric is a close-mouthed deep thinker who uses Fairy Tale tricks to defeat supernatural enemies. Morac is a warrior hero with a sword-stroke powerful enough to split a giant in two and Finella is a princess as kind and brave as she is beautiful. Best of all though is the story-spinning, poem-making, riddle-solving magician Borrobil.
Parts of this story are quite grim and scary but one of the reasons I enjoyed it as a child was that I never felt anything truly terrible would happen to Donald and Jean as long as smiling Borrobil was around. He practises traditional types of magic, such as rubbing snake-grease on his eyes to see things at a distance or carrying fern-seed gathered by moonlight to make himself invisible. Borrobil also uses wisdom and knowledge to defeat his enemies rather than force and he’s the embodiment of the word merry. There is real sadness at the end of the book when the children realize that they must leave the past and never see Borrobil again.
Croft Dickinson did write a sequel called “The Eildon Tree” (1947) in which a slightly older Donald and Jean meet another magical figure, Thomas the Rhymer, and are transported back to an alternative version of 13th century Scotland. Unfortunately vintage copies of this book are rare and expensive. I hope this post will help to make William Croft Dickinson’s fiction better known. I’d love to see his work back in print. Enjoy the merry month of May. Until next time…