(Maureen) Mollie Hunter (McIlwraith)

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Mollie Hunter

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[It was] at the insistence of my two young sons that I wrote my first children's book, they being much charmed with two short stories I had written for them in a style which was then new to me.

There was an old, old device, however, at the heart of this style; the device on which I have since hung all the books my publishers call fantasies, and which I have borrowed from Celtic folk-lore.

A voice is implied, and as in folk-lore, the voice sounds as if recounting a familiar and accepted tale in which fact is seamlessly integrated with fancy. The modern story-teller, however, does not have an audience conditioned to accept and believe in all those incidents of the supernatural which give folk-lore its dramatic dimensions, and thus a further device is required to make such fantasies credible.

Quickly, on to the matter-of-fact opening scene, there must be brought characters with an equally matter-of-fact acknowledgment of certain superstitious beliefs and customs—and it makes no difference whether this acknowledgment is a scornful or a believing one. The seed has been sown. The reader has felt the touch of the Otherworld on his shoulder; and imperceptibly from this point, so imperceptibly that no-one notices the actual moment of lift-off, the story can soar into fantasy.

The stories I had already attempted on these lines concerned a foolish boastful Irishman called Patrick Kentigern Keenan. I liked Patrick. My sons persisted in wanting 'a proper book about Patrick', but my foolish hero by this time had discovered for me the pitfalls in trying to reproduce the authentic voice of folk-lore.

I will take the world for my pillow. Thus the hero of the Celtic tale speaks, traditionally, as he sets out on a journey which is also a quest through life. Thus the narrative of folk-lore flows in a style as spare and smooth as polished bone; and thus the high poetic insight of its verbal imagery. (p. 129)

I had given my Patrick the gift of laughter, a wife patiently enduring of his folly, and a young son dearly loved. Now I set him growing in stature as he pursued a running conflict in which he lost every battle, yet always learned a little wisdom in the process. And gained a small loser's prize too, for Patrick's opponents were fairies who always left some trace of their magic behind them…. (pp. 129-30)

These were the lordly and beautiful ones of the hollow hills; the skilful magicians of the Otherworld, the soul-less ones who were the ancient terror of men … I sensed the grue running up my children's backs as I read, the fascination of being within touching distance of that terror—yet always with the comfort of knowing there was Patrick's saving grace of laughter between it and them, always aware of the safe ground of human warmth to which they could retreat.

Until the moment finally came when it seemed there was no more room for laughter, or courage, or cunning; for this was the moment when Patrick's small son became a hostage in the conflict with the fairies, and Patrick was stripped of every weapon save his great love for the boy.

Yet still the hostage did not become the victim, for this—the love of one human for another—is the very thing the soul-less ones can never experience or understand, and over which they have therefore no power…. [In] basing its outcome on the triumph of human love over the dark powers of the soul-less ones, I had laid the cornerstone of my whole life's philosophy. (p....

(This entire section contains 3350 words.)

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Jamie, the sixteenth-century street-boy, was also my challenge to the cosy tradition of middle-class heroes in historical novels for children; and with satisfaction, when I came to write [The Spanish Letters], I knew I was not addressing it to the privileged minority of readers for whom the tradition had been invented. I was writing it for all those in the shared state of being called childhood; and charging headlong with Jamie, I was going to demolish the barriers which prevented that sharing.

There were problems in all this, of course; the first being the one peculiar to Scottish writers in this field—how to set the scene in a country whose history is unknown to non-Scottish children. Secondly, I had to deal with an extension of the difficulty facing all writers attempting to convey the flavour of period dialogue without falling into the 'prithee' and 'sirrah' bog; for any dialogue in a Lowland Scots setting had also to give at least the impression of being conducted in the dialect proper to it. In narrative also, the Scot naturally uses dialect words which are infinitely richer in meaning than their nearest equivalent in standard English, and since I was determined to retain this native piquancy of expression, I had to find ways of making it self-explanatory in context.

The first 'historical' [Hi, Johnny] had been my 'prentice effort to cope with these problems. The second was my journeyman piece, and I emerged from it professional enough to know that this had been satisfactorily completed. (p. 131)

One other thing I knew was that a book altogether different from these two was growing in my mind, and that I had to write it.

Its scene was the Scottish Highlands. The time was the nineteenth century when thousands of poor crofting folk were 'cleared'—a euphemism for being driven with guns and dogs and whips from their native glens—to make way for sheep-farming. The incident which had gripped my imagination was that of a boy in the glen called Greenyards, unexpectedly pulling a pistol on a Sheriff Officer serving writs of evacuation there; and through this action, appearing briefly in history as the central figure in a short, doomed resistance to that particular clearance.

This boy haunted me. Looking at Ardgay Hill, from whence he and the other children of the glen had kept watch for the arrival of the Sheriff's forces, I found the thought of those other children also haunting me. (p. 132)

I knew much already of the Highlander's passionate, almost mystic attachment to his native land. Now I was reliving the despair of spirit which had filled them in the knowledge they were being driven from it, never to return. I was touching the edge of a sorrow so great that some of these people had literally died of it. But how to convey all this in a story for children? How to convey also the sense of kinship among these people, their respect for learning, their innate courtesy? Most of all, how to convey the courage of that pathetic little resistance?

I needed a new writing technique for this. I had my journeyman skill as a novelist. In the three fantasies I had written by this time, I had continued to refine the art of projecting verbal imagery. Now I needed to synthesize these separate skills into a first-person narrative spoken swiftly, bitterly, angrily, yet still with all the beauty of phrasing which comes naturally to the Highland tongue. And because children were an integral part of my story, it was the voice of a boy that was called for—the boy who had pulled the pistol on the Sheriff Officer in Greenyards.

I was unaware at the time of thinking this out, of course, that I was one with other iconoclasts then busily breaking all the rules previously observed in writing for children. (pp. 132-33)

Nor did it even occur to me that I was ripping away convention in allowing the voice of poetry to come through a boy's narrative; or by drawing this boy's character in depth so that, by showing all the linking strands of his emotions, I could also show the emotions of his people.

I had figured out a method of presenting the brutality of the attack on the women in a manner which would cause the young reader to rise in indignation rather than recoil in horror. I was eager to meet the challenge of language in my chosen medium….

I felt a rage of pity for the innocent courage of these children. For they were real—they had lived through what I had to tell. And surely one child could cry out to another over any gap of years? Surely, surely, it was possible for other children to hear the courage in the cry? (p. 133)

I had already noted the compulsive force this book had exerted on the elder of my sons, although he was not by that time particularly interested in historical novels. Now the writer in me preened at this tribute—the one of all others which told me I had succeeded in what I had set out to do—and something dark which had been couching at the door of my mind began to diminish in size. But not to vanish entirely. That was not to happen until several books later, when I was walking alone in the hills around my home and thinking deeply of the fantasy then engaging me.

As always, on these occasions, I was keenly aware of the delight of manipulating language at its two extremes of exactitude and subtlety. The quiet of the glen held a sound beyond silence. The light on the hills had the gentle, ever-changing quality unique to the Highlands, necessary for the vision beyond sight; and as always, listening and watching like this, I became aware of my mind operating on two levels.

A blacksmith goes poaching. He finds evidence of a hare caught in one of his traps, but the trap has been destroyed by something infinitely more powerful than a hare. A boy makes a whistle. He plays on it some music remembered from a dream, and finds he has discovered the secret of a call belonging to a dangerous and unnatural enemy. A young farmer ploughs land that has always before been left fallow, and finds that his action has also disturbed a dark and deadly magic.

This was the superficial level on which I had created The Haunted Mountain, and other fantasies; the level of the suspense story in which ordinary people suddenly encounter creatures from the Otherworld, and which a young reader could relish simply for the drama of events unfolded by the encounter. On the deeper level, however, I was continuing to pursue the philosophy which had led me to climax the first fantasy with the triumph of human love over the dark power of the soulless ones; and it was language used like a sharp tool which enabled me to penetrate to this depth, for here the suspense came from that duality of feeling which traditionally characterizes men's attitude to the Otherworld itself.

It was a world of perfection which held for them all the attraction of a golden age; a world without sickness, pain, or death, yet still a world without love in it, and thus hollow at the heart. For this was the world of the beautiful soul-less ones; and any man who entered it would be hopelessly in their thrall and became prisoner—as they were—of their desolate Eden.

And so, always between themselves and the temptation to enter this world, men interposed the barrier of this fearful knowledge. Always, for those who had been abducted to it, they clung to the redeeming promise in the power of human love. For this, men have always dimly known, is the essential of their lives. This is the thread in folk-lore that binds Greece to Connemara. That a man should retain the power to look up and see the face of his God—whatever face that god may wear. That a man should be able to stretch out a hand in the illimitable darkness of eternity, and always from somewhere in that darkness, feel the warmth and comforting touch of another human hand.

A one-to-one contact between man and God, and between man and man; this is all that ultimately matters.

This, too, is something known instinctively to the child young enough to be responding still to the pull of the wholly fantasy world of his very early years, yet still reluctant to lose the foothold he has just gained on the real world. In the half-remembered fantasy world, there are terrors lurking; in the real world, a certainty of safety. Thus, it seems to me, even the child reading the story at its superficial level will be touched by something of its underlying philosophy. As he feels the touch of the Otherworld in the prickle of his skin, so will he feel the emanation of this philosophy in a prickling of his mind. And even although the mind-prickling will be incomprehensible to him at the time, some day he may associate it with his own philosophic strivings; and remembering, will understand. (pp. 133-35)

A sixteen-year-old ordered to kill stealthily and in cold blood the people who have been his friends is no different in 1692 from a youngster of similar age in our own and other centuries. The horns of his dilemma are still the same—to obey the law, or to follow his conscience. So it was Robert Stewart's agony of conscience which became the theme of [The Ghosts of Glencoe]. And so it became a children's book, for Stewart's agony was the universal and timeless one which lies in wait for all young people compelled to take their first look at the distorted face of the adult world.

'History is people.' I have said this often enough to adults as well as to children, and this is the sum of all my research; this is the basis of everything I have learned about the historical novel. History is ordinary people shaped and shaken by the winds of their time, as we in our time are shaped and shaken by the wind of current events. And so, to write about the people of any time, one must know them so well that it would be possible to go back and live undetected among them.

Rather than writing from the outside looking in, then, one will write from the inside looking out. Then also, as when a raised window permits interior and exterior to merge in the air and sunlight flowing into a room, the past will merge with the present. The feelings of past and present will be shared. There will be engagement between reader and characters, irrespective of superficial differences in dress, speech, and habit; and in identifying with these characters, the reader will find his own identity.

A sense of identity. This is the key phrase in considering the desired impact of a historical novel. It was at this point in my thinking that the dark shape in my mind slipped away for good. I recognized it as it went, and knew it for that very mean emotion, self-pity. I felt an impulse to laugh at my own stupidity in having so long allowed it to linger with me; for surely, I argued, achieving a sense of one's own identity is the first step towards total identification with one's environment and one's kind? And surely, also, this total identification is only a more sophisticated term for the one-to-one contact which is all that ultimately matters?

I was back with the power of human love against the soul-less ones, but approaching it roundabout by analysis, instead of directly by intuition, as in my first fantasy. I was examining the component parts of this power—courage, compassion, humility, a passionate militancy in believing the importance of truth, justice, and honesty. I was taking a fresh look at my historical novels, and realizing why—apart from the joy of following my story-teller instinct—I had continued to write them for children.

The cloak and dagger of the first two had not obscured the fact that one had been essentially about a poor man's right to justice, and that the other had been concerned with integrity. I had followed this with a much deeper exploration into the themes of courage and conscience. Similarly, in every historical novel I had written since then, I had been concerned with some aspect of this power of human love; each of these being one that a child has to learn to recognize as a component part of the whole before it can grow from its first, intuitive reliance on this power to a reasoned alliance with it.

A caring alliance too, for loving implies caring. And caring, by its very nature, is something which stretches into the future as well as covering the present. Yet how can one care about the present unless one understands it; how understand the present without a sense of the past on which it is based? How, without a sense of the whole time-continuum of past, present, and future, achieve that contact which is all that ultimately matters?

Equally, with such a simple message to impart, how could I address my historical novels to those already lost in all the twists and guilts and deformations of the adult world? I had no interest in the crowns-and-cleavage school of writing, or in racy, sub-professorial sequences of bed-battle-bed. I could think of nothing more boring than presenting a painting-by-numbers panoramic view of a period, unless it was the repetition of a sure-to-sell formula as before.

I was interested only in trying to write well enough to tell a good story; in dipping into any period of history at will, and coming back from the experience having expressed something of my own philosophy of life. These were precisely what my historical novels for children had given me opportunity to do, and so what reason had I to feel sorry for myself?

We have in Scotland a saying which runs: There's a providence looks after bairns, fools, and drunk men. (pp. 136-38)

[If] it looks after the drunk, it surely has some pity for the mad also, for there was a time when I was—not clinically mad—but pressured beyond the brain's endurance by a book which had to be written.

I called it A Sound of Chariots. I wrote it one hot summer when the rest of my world was going about its business not realizing I was exploring into the great pain of my childhood which had been the beginning of my knowledge that I would be a writer. I finished it, put it in a drawer, and lived in peace at last, with my ghosts. (p. 138)

[Re-reading the manuscript after several years, I saw] for the first time how I had unconsciously demonstrated there what I had later waded through seas of reasoning to prove to myself—that I was first, last, and foremost a children's writer. For it was not an adult's remembered view of experience which came off the page, but a child's urgent view of living that experience.

With relief then, I realized how well the providence had looked after me, for although it was clearly a children's book, it was clearly also one which could never have been published as such unless there had been a revolution in children's writing during the years it lay hidden. But the revolution had taken place, and my other books had allowed me to take part in it! With shame also, however, as reviewers confirmed the editor's opinion, I recalled the foolish years; for the lesson had long been writ large in my mind by then, that self-pity, for a writer, is self-destruction.

There must be inward-lookingness, of course, but only in order to project outwards what one finds in one's inmost feelings; only for purposes of identifying in that projection with one's fellow human beings. And with that God—whatever face he wears—with whom we must all finally seek to identify, or be ever held in thrall to the soulless ones. (pp. 138-39)

Mollie Hunter, "The Last Lord of Redhouse Castle" (© 1975 by Mollie Hunter; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen, Kestrel Books, 1975, pp. 128-39.


David Churchill


Robert Bell