‘More earthy and meaty than Doctor Who’
The broadcaster and journalist, Ray Gosling, who died last year, reviewing a John Christopher novel, The Sword of the Spirits:
The question, in a story for children, is how do you keep as modern as electricity without losing the chivalry and personal combat of the days of King Arthur?
The answer can be surprisingly simple – John Christopher has succeeded by setting his three novels in a future time. The Earth had a Disaster. The Twentieth Century ended in ruins. London’s abandoned, and volcanoes now stretch from Bath to Chester. In our hero’s part of England, Hampshire, a new feudal society has managed to impose some order but they are surrounded by barbarians and infiltrated by dwarfs and ‘polymuf’ deformed creatures.
Mr Christopher’s trilogy of novels for children – which The Sword of the Spirits completes – is wonderfully spun. The writing is in standard English: firm but with plenty of pace. There are variations on every fable from St George and the Dragon to our hero explorer in a hippy cannibal’s pot, up a tree. Every warrior’s moral gets illustrated, from never trust your stepmother because she’ll kill your mother, to learning not to poo-poo the camp foreign captain on a horse with furbelows. Fine descriptions are woven with action-packed episodes and always the imagination gets stretched like the strong elastic rubber of a catapult.
Our hero begins as a soldier’s son and rises to be prince but fails in the final pages to be great. Though he makes a dwarf a free man he finishes as powerful and silly as any grown-up. Though in the earlier books – The Prince in Waiting and Beyond the Burning Lands – he’d been the wily swordsman, the David against Goliath, he finishes using Sten guns against his own birth-town whose people are armed only with gleaming swords. Butcher, Traitor, Grown up – to make a trilogy of books that are realer than a pantomime. Cleaner than Gulliver’s Travels. More earthy and meaty than Doctor Who. More gutsy than Rudyard Kipling and simpler than Shakespeare.
The three novels can be read individually or consecutively. The Prince in Waiting (1970) sets the scene. Although there are Christians like early Christians in the story, the main religion is dispensed by heathen high priests called Seers, who preach that the Disaster was caused by Science. So all machines and mention of machinery is forbidden on pain of death.
I guessed they were hypocrites, before I read it. That they used electricity, tape recorders and phones to make magic: to hold down ignorant people and keep their knowledge and their superiority to themselves. I was right. Now which character will break this web of trickery? But before we get an answer John Christopher has the Seers explain: though hypocrites, they are so in a good cause. They have chosen our hero to restore the world to how it was before the Disaster – which was not caused by Science but by natural causes within the Solar System.
The sun rarely shines, it snows till May and takes days to ride horseback 30 miles. There is no coffee or tea but there is mulled ale and suspense and surprise which continue into the second novel, Beyond the Burning Lands (1970). Our Prince in Waiting is trained by Seers in an electric wonderland beneath Stonehenge to lead his people on wars and expeditions. They cross the volcanoes to discover a Land of the Wilsh and a city of Klan Gothlan and shock at finding a city without walls, where potatoes are fried into yellow things called chips, science is not forbidden, and nor are deformed creatures set apart.
In The Sword of the Spirits adventure continues but character develops. Our hero’s young but sullen, sterling qualities are seen devalued. Grown up, spurred on now by revenge and shame, I was happy he failed to take the beautiful princess he wanted as a possession but couldn’t love. Glad I was she went off into the bloody sunset with her true love, leaving our broody hero of three novels to pout back to a foreign throne, and power, electricity and loneliness. A fitting, proper ending to a thrilling and chilling, sword and Sten gun-rattling good adventure.