No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

2015/30: Travel Light -- Naomi Mitchison

"What kind of game has All-Father been having with me?”

“What did he say to you, Halla?”

“He said,Travel Light.”

“If you did that, if you travelled light, you might travel through the years and travel faster than some. Would you have it otherwise, Halla?”

“I think he might have told me.” [p. 134]

Travel Light begins in the realm of fairytale, moves into history, and ends in mythology. Halla's mother dies and the new Queen decrees that Halla must be 'got rid of at once'. Halla's nurse Matulli, transformed into a bear, steals her away: but when winter approaches, Matulli -- now almost entirely ursine -- longs to hibernate, and Halla is adopted by a dragon, Uggi. Dragons are excellent economists, and Halla learns a great deal about gold and treasure -- and about heroes, who are the natural foes of dragons.

Heroes, in Travel Light, are not glamorous or admirable. They are those who devote their lives to murder and violence. Steinvor, a Valkyrie of Halla's acquaintance, has to deal with a lot of heroes in her role. She is most disparaging about their intellectual faculties. And she swoops in to Halla's rescue before a king's son can make good his promise to 'teach [her] the ways of women'.

Halla encounters Odin All-Father, in one of his more benevolent depictions, and ends up in Micklegard -- Byzantium -- some time around the turn of the first millennium. She falls in with a trio of men from Marob (the small town where much of The Corn King and the Spring Queen is set: one of Halla's companions is the descendent of Erif and Tarrik) who are petitioning the Emperor for a new governor. Halla's talents, gifts from the bears and the dragons, turn out to be extremely useful, and turn the tide for the men from Marob. They also enable her to break an ancient curse -- a curse laid on the descendants of the king and queen who banished a baby girl to her death in the forest.

Halla is a likeable, independent, and decidedly feminist heroine, a perpetual outsider who has a profound effect on those she meets. Though she starts life as a 'fairytale' princess, there is no heteronormative happy ending. Given that many of the men she meets are heroes -- or at least men of violence -- this is hardly surprising. A recurring theme is that of corruptive power: the governor of Marob, the Holy Roman Emperor, the king's son who steals Halla's foster-parent's hoard. (There is a passing mention of 'Fafnir, who was rudely awakened and brutally stabbed by a young man called Siegfried, who, however, came to no good end himself'. Despite the historical setting of the latter parts of the book, it's steeped in Norse mythology.) The powerful do terrible things to the powerless, in many places and times.

Mitchison's prose is simple and lyrical and quietly witty. Sometimes not so quietly: Halla's 'assumption to heaven', witnessed by startled nuns, is a gem. Travel Light is not the story of somebody changing the world: but it is the story of someone refusing to be changed by the world, or as the world changes around her. And it has a profoundly satisfactory ending.

How I wish this book was better-known! How I wish I'd read it as a child!

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