Like his character David, William Mayne was the son of a doctor and spent his boyhood in Yorkshire, where he returned later in life. Earthfasts thus reflects Mayne’s own experiences; his descriptions of the moors, dales, times, and seasons constitute some of the most powerful parts of his writing and suggest that he is at heart a realistic writer.
Earthfasts was Mayne’s first excursion into fantasy as a children’s writer. His first novel, Following the Footprints (1953), was followed by more than forty books in twenty years, the majority of which were realist, often with a historical dimension. Other fantasy novels, such as Ravensgill (1970), also have Yorkshire settings. It has been suggested that Mayne was pushed into fantasy by the success of Alan Garner. The latters The Weirdstone of Brisingamen appeared in 1960 and does resemble Earthfasts in locale, the intrusion of past time into the present, and the motif of reawakened knights prematurely disturbed.
Mayne certainly is conscious of the fantasy elements in his story. Much of the dialogue is about the nature of scientific evidence and explanation. At one point, David must warn Keith to treat the drummer boy as a real person with real emotions of confusion and fear, and not as a scientific experiment. Some of this dialogue is philosophical.
One of the critical difficulties with Earthfasts, as with other books by Mayne, is that although it is children’s fantasy, its style and concepts are much more likely to appeal to adults. Critic John Rowe Townsend describes the style as oblique, elliptical, and tangential. It is also intelligent. Adults are likely to be disappointed, however, by the lack of characterization and personal relationships. David’s death and reappearance, for example, are never described as personal losses or joys for his father or his friend.
The first part is the most successful; there, Mayne combines fantasy with the solid realism of the Yorkshire setting most effectively. The red-coated drummer boy marching off to find a home that readers know disappeared two hundred years ago is both poignant and symbolically resonant. The dialect Mayne gives him is likewise striking, if not always consistent.
In this example of time fantasy, Mayne raises interesting questions and makes the reader feel time as material, as weight and resistance. The overall feeling is of a mythically alive landscape, deeply and intelligently experienced by its author.