(Maureen) Mollie Hunter (McIlwraith)

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Peter Hollindale

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3471

Mollie Hunter is by general consent Scotland's most distinguished modern children's writer…. [She] is read with pleasure not only in her own country or by the offspring of expatriate Scots, but by legions of young children whose prior knowledge of Celtic legend is nonexistent, and by older readers whose acquaintance with Scots history is at best rudimentary. (p. 109)

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The fact is that one cannot talk about Mollie Hunter without talking about Scotland. If one finds her work parochial, one finds Scotland parochial. If one is surprised by the international interest shown in her work (given, of course, that it has the major intrinsic qualities that I for one believe it has) one is surprised that Scotland itself should be so interesting. The general idea that a confined setting means a confined range of interest was obviously laid to rest long ago…. But somehow the notion persists for some readers that Mollie Hunter subjects should by all the rules be indigenous, provincial, and abstruse, yet have somewhat eccentrically turned out not to be.

The opposite is true…. [She is a national] writer, and it is in her work that children can find the fullest recent expression of the legend and history which make Scots culture distinctive. On the other hand, she has achieved this without being at all eccentric, difficult, or insular. The chosen geographical bounds of her fiction are narrow, yet they reach to distant horizons. Her 'Scottishness' … is uncompromising, but it is not limiting: it is also open, hospitable and generous towards readers who are not Scottish, combining an imagination which is charged by the historic energy of a precise locale with a humane moral intelligence that seeks always to be accessible and understood.

The combination is admirable. It is also—if the impertinent generalisation can be pardoned—typically Scots…. Here the whole strength of Scots literary tradition is on her side, and without inferring direct 'influences,' it is not hard to see how it has aided her. First, the historical novel is one of its established forms and glories, not as in England a kind of subliterature which has never fully severed the umbilical cord which binds it to 'escapist' romance…. [It enables] her to use the form with all the confidence and flexibility of a writer who knows that her national tradition fosters and respects it.

Second, and this is important for a writer who, like Mollie Hunter, is repeatedly concerned with witchcraft and the supernatural, Scots writing has a long history of concern with such phenomena…. A strong available tradition of this kind is clearly helpful to a modern writer like Mollie Hunter, whose historical novel The Thirteenth Member is also powerfully concerned with witchcraft and with bigotry, and whose 'fantasies' for younger readers touch constantly on the nearness and un-summoned energies of the supernatural.

Both technically and thematically, then, Mollie Hunter's work is assisted by a long and distinguished national tradition. She is helped, too, by its profound respect for the craft of storytelling. It is not uncommon for the storyteller to appear in some form, often very subtly, as a participant in his own stories…. At less-complicated levels of narrative procedure, the Scots novel is full of experiments in first-person storytelling and in identification of author and hero. For Mollie Hunter these have been particularly conscious problems—in achieving the special narrative 'voice' of the fantasies, and in judging the control of first-person narrative, or the correct 'distance' between author and protagonist, in the historical novels. Pistols in Greenyards, for instance, uses a 'double' first person narrative, through which the boy hero tells the story himself telling his story. The seeming oversubtlety of this method is justified both by the greater depth of insight we gain into the boy himself, and by the enhanced attention to some appalling events which is produced by our prior knowledge of their final outcome. This is the careful craftsmanship of a professional writer, but it is also the product of a tradition which regards stories highly as a means of transmitting simultaneous diversion and wisdom. That Mollie Hunter herself regards stories in this way is made clear through such characters, among others, as The Bodach in the story of that title, and Old Da' in A Stranger Came Ashore.

Linked closely to such respect for the storyteller's craft is the absence, in Scots literature, of a clearcut division between 'adult' and 'children's' literature such as exists elsewhere…. There is a professional certainty about her work which comes, I can only suppose, of writing in a secure tradition which respects children's literature, which acknowledges the adult reader's continuing need for tales, and which has produced a remarkable number of stories which belong to both children and adults alike and appeal exclusively to neither.

What, then, have her gifts and good fortune so far achieved? Her work falls broadly into three sections: the historical novels, the fantasies, and (so far unique in her work) the autobiographical novel A Sound of Chariots. (pp. 109-11)

The historical novels are diverse, both in subject and narrative tone; certain preoccupations tend to recur in them…. [Several] refer to the tension, not always hostile but always uneasy and ambivalent, in relations between Scotland and England. Again, they show a passionate concern for the poor, the neglected, the dispossessed, the underdogs. Both of these concerns are also present in A Sound of Chariots, and insofar as a coherent political mood is discernible in her writing, it perhaps has more to do with the fierce humanitarian socialism so ardently celebrated in that novel, rather than with anything specifically national.

In general, however, it is the diversity that needs to be stressed. The historical novels themselves fall into three groups. Three of them—Hi Johnny, The Spanish Letters, and The Lothian Run—I would term romances. They have serious themes, certainly, and they do not romanticise history, but the basic emphasis is on the vigorous development of stirring blood-and-thunder plots. Three others have a sharper historical focus and a more-searching investigation of human behaviour in crisis: they each involve, in Mollie Hunter's own words, 'a much deeper exploration into the themes of courage and conscience.' The Thirteenth Member is not affixed to any one notorious historical event, but in its depiction of innocent children trapped between the opposing cruelties of diabolism and superstitious repression—between the witch and witchfinder—it has much in common with The Ghosts of Glencoe and Pistols in Greenyards. Here too, in the recreated tragedies of the Glencoe Massacre and the Highland Clearances, young people are snared by forces more powerful than themselves, and must try against the odds to obey the dictates of conscience and keep their bravery alight.

Finally and most recently there is The Stronghold. In some respects this book has themes in common with the more 'serious' historical novels mentioned above: it deals with conflicting loyalties; it explores questions of belief and heresy; it presents the realities of power and the plight of the weak; it too isolates the young and tests their wits and courage to the utmost. In this way it develops basic preoccupations in Mollie Hunter's work. But this novel has a new historical dimension and a new, important theme. Its setting … is far more remote in time and place, far less documented, than anything Mollie Hunter has previously attempted, and places a different kind of demand on her historical imagination. And in its hypothesis concerning the origins of the 'brochs'—those extraordinary stone structures which are the 'strongholds' of the novel's title—the story explores the marvellous excitement of inaugural acts of imagination: those moments when history is altered by a single original mind. This is the novel's particular achievement—its utterly plausible and moving account of slow, meticulous, and brilliant innovation, a massive act of intellect and will. The historical depth of the novel is enormously enhanced by its reverence for this long-ago event…. Through Coll's vision past and present are united. Through the novel we reach out to make contact with our unnamed ancestors. In this way the book is a very impressive achievement.

In other respects, however, the book is perhaps rather less successful. It clearly prompts comparison with the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, not least because its hero, like so many of hers, is a cripple who wins his place in the sun under dreadful handicap. As a total atmospheric recreation of distant times it is less convincing than Rosemary Sutcliff's work usually is. It seems, too, incompletely imagined and structurally flawed, for reasons I should like to reapproach by way of the earlier historical novels. (pp. 111-13)

Each boy [in the 'romances' The Spanish Letters and The Lothian Run] is rewarded for loyalty and for that combination of virtues which Mollie Hunter so often links admiringly. 'courage and cunning.' Courage alone is never enough for her; without quick-wittedness and subtlety it is next to worthless. This delight in mental agility as well as physical daring is characteristic of all Mollie Hunter's work. It is refreshing and realistic, but it also raises problems.

In The Spanish Letters the problems are negligible. Any moral scruples for Jamie, as a Scottish boy, in serving an English master are resolved by the convenient fact that his own King James VI will shortly be king of both countries. But The Lothian Run is a more-complicated issue, and demands a more-complicated plot—a double plot, involving both Jacobite intrigue and smuggling. Here the rights and wrongs are less clearcut, and one cannot help feeling that the smuggling plot is adroitly used to divert attention from Jacobite and Hanoverian politics. The English master whom Sandy serves is, after all, a Customs Officer, and only by chance a political agent. (Attention is further diverted from the straight dynastic conflict by the fact that the chief Jacobite agent is not a committed Stuart loyalist but a cruel, unprincipled mercenary.) In this way contentious political matters, which Mollie Hunter is understandably reluctant to simplify, are instead evaded, and the unambiguous rights and wrongs of smuggling placed in their stead.

The trouble is that these rights and wrongs are not unambiguous except in law. Part of Sandy Maxwell's duties on 'secondment' to the Customs Service is to mingle with the fisherfolk of Prestonpans, helping them to repair their boats. In this way he can eavesdrop on their talk, and draw them into indiscretions. His first target is the fisherman Rob Grierson. This is all very well in the impersonal world of law enforcement. But Sandy's world is not impersonal. [These] are men whom Sandy has known from childhood,… men who, so far as their wariness allows, are his friends…. Later on, Sandy is directly responsible for Rob's capture and imprisonment.

We know that the exploitation of friendships is a time-honoured ruse of efficient law-enforcement. All the same, it is difficult not to feel distaste for Sandy's behaviour here, while also feeling that one is expected to admire its skill and daring. (pp. 113-114)

[Hunter's dialogue] is intensely dramatic—contentious, suspicious, watchful. Even so, the subtleties of Sandy Maxwell remain questionable, and with them there remains the possibility that Mollie Hunter, in celebrating certain intellectual and moral qualities with such impressive vigour and conviction, tends to overlook other aspects of behaviour, and hence to condone the unpardonable.

The same kind of tension between simple values and complex behaviour is also apparent in Mollie Hunter's love of double meanings. She is clearly fascinated by equivocation and ambiguity. This is another aspect of 'courage and cunning,' and it is the resource of good characters as well as bad. (p. 114)

To return to The Stronghold, here we have more double meanings. In the first part of the novel a power struggle takes place between the tribal chief, Nectan, and the Chief Druid, Domnall, and the reader's sympathies are clearly aligned with Nectan. In the aftermath of Domnall's uneasy victory comes his terrible counterstroke, the choice of Nectan's daughter Fand to be the virgin sacrifice at the sunrise festival of Beltane. Coll, whose brilliant mind conceived the brochs, is Fand's foster-brother and lover, and he conceives the further idea of saving her. To do this he need only disrupt the festival enough to delay Fand's death beyond the sacred moment of sunrise, and, having contrived disturbance of the ceremony by fostering doubts of Fand's virginity, he finally achieves his purpose with the superb ambiguous confession: 'I have spoiled the sacrifice.' This is cleverly and bravely done, for love.

However, a consequence of the Beltane festival … is the transformation of Domnall from enemy to ally. Aversion is abruptly converted to sympathy; religious tyrant becomes aged hero and sage. In itself the change is too sudden and extreme. But it also leaves unresolved the question of Domnall's choice of Fand as the Beltane sacrifice. Was this indeed a choice made by the gods themselves, and mediated through Domnall as their priest? Or was it Domnall's own vindictive revenge on Nectan and his tribe? Or was it a skilful manoeuvre to gain political power? All these are possibilities…. [The] whole distribution of sympathies in the novel, fundamental questions of faith and doubt which it has raised, the whole movement of the plot at the Beltane festival, are left unresolved in a cloud of devious ambiguity. For all its power, the novel thus lacks imaginative wholeness, and its fragile unity rests instead on mere verbal equivocation.

This points, I think, to a self-damaging conjunction of skills in Mollie Hunter's historical novels. They rest, in the end, on a few very simple, very profound values: courage, loyalty, initiative, truth, creative intelligence, and above all on love. Yet their superstructure depends on quite different terms of reference: on the realities of political intrigue and struggles for power, on expediency, on ruthless service to a cause, on ambition and opportunism, on equivocation and duplicity. I do not suggest that Mollie Hunter approves of all these things, only that she recognises their prevalence. The result is a certain imaginative discordancy and moral inconsistency. Two sets of values coexist in unreconciled confusion. Only The Spanish Letters and The Thirteenth Member (for differing reasons) are entirely cohesive. Of the other novels, Pistols in Greenyards and The Stronghold in particular are very impressive works in many ways, and all the stories have their merits. But Mollie Hunter has yet to write a historical novel which is fully commensurate with her gifts.

The fantasies are a different matter entirely.

In this group of stories, which take as their theme the relationship between humankind and the many supernatural beings of Celtic myth, we find a narrative form under immaculate, almost flawless control. The books have much in common. In all of them a child or an adolescent has a crucial role to play—'children see with the eyes of truth'—and even when the child is the hapless victim of adult folly …, he has moments of wisdom beyond the reach of his parents. Usually, however, the child has insights which are closed to adults, and with his understanding comes the need for a resolute courage in facing dangers which he alone knows to exist, or which he alone must undergo. In these stories it is a great happiness to be young, but it is also a solemn and momentous responsibility.

A conspiracy of vision commonly exists between the young and the old…. Death is not excluded from the compassionate humanism of these magical stories…. Natural rhythms of youthful strength and aged weakness, of growth and decay, coexist in the stories with the unearthly everlastingness of the nonhuman world.

Between young and old are the grown men and women, often deprived of the wisdom which belongs to elders and children. The parents, like Peter and Janet in A Stranger Came Ashore or the Campbells in The Bodach, are often good-natured and well-meaning, but unsuspicious of strangeness or danger. They are frequently more childlike than their children. This is especially true of those three reckless heroes of stories which resemble each other closely in theme, structure and feeling: Patrick in Patrick Kentigern Keenan, Thomas the blacksmith in Thomas and the Warlock, and MacAllister in The Haunted Mountain. All three are rash enough to challenge the malignant powers of magic; all three owe their final happiness to the reciprocal love between father and son; all three depend above all on their love of their wives, and the faithful, patient, and forgiving love they receive in return. Each of the three stories moves with relentless inevitability towards a climactic battle with the imprisoning forces of magic: these are titanic scenes, and in each of them the human victory is won by love, the redemptive emotion of mortals, which the timeless supernatural can neither feel nor understand. (pp. 115-16)

The matter of these stories accords completely with the manner of their telling. The narrative comes essentially from a speaking voice of distinctive quality. It is matter-of-fact and brisk, daring the reader (or listener) to find anything implausible in its strange tales; it is confidential and intimate; but it is also spare and economical, almost bardic in its adroit and dignified simplicity; and it is full of humour and full of music, not least the music of Gaelic idiom and sentence-forms. These diverse qualities merge, with remarkable consistency and control, to express a wide span of moods and emotions within a taut narrative structure. This style is an extraordinary achievement: one example of the effects it allows is the characteristic undulation of mood which occurs near the end of several of the stories. That is a smooth and delicate transition from sorrow and wistfulness to acceptance and joy. The Kelpie's Pearls has it to perfection; so do The Haunted Mountain and The Bodach. (p. 117)

Mollie Hunter's fantasies, and above all The Haunted Mountain, are in my judgement one of the outstanding and mostoriginal achievements of contemporary children's fiction.

Last, and unique in her work, is A Sound of Chariots. It is an extraordinary novel, avowedly autobiographical, and of all her works the one least-sensibly labelled a 'children's book.' It is for children, certainly, if they are mature enough to cope with its relentless emotional honesty and the dark valley of childhood tragedy through which it passes. It is for adults equally: a far better, more accomplished, more demanding book than most novels of childhood published with an adult readership in view.

The patterning of the novel is an act of mature imagination. It opens with the central, cataclysmic event: the death in her mid-childhood of Bridie McShane's beloved father. The first half of the novel then reapproaches that moment of shattering bereavement; the second explores its aftermath. This structure invests many moments and episodes with searing irony, or haunting sadness, or almost unbearable pain. Through the shaping process of retrospect Mollie Hunter can also trace the pattern of Bridie's growth: her developing love and command of language, her fierce independence and stubbornness, the rebellious passion for justice that she inherits from her father. She can also highlight the crucial incidents which decide the wider pattern. It is this act of retrospective imagination which transforms the fiction of memory from mere reminiscence to art. And through it we can see the origins of those central themes and energies which inform her other work. (pp. 117-18)

It would be wrong to present A Sound of Chariots as a uniformly painful book. It is often very funny, and Bridie's turbulent, youthful spirit provides a counterpoint against the weight of loss and grief. All the same, its central subject is mortality, its central emotion Bridie's obsessive consciousness, having lost her father, with the passage of time and her own inevitable death. Within the mature patterning of the novel—and because of it—we are made vividly intimate with the youthful Bridie, and share with her the appalling clarity of initial experience….

She goes forward from childhood, aware of so much life to be lived, so many words to be written, pursued by a sound of chariots. The novel which emerges from it is powerful, deeply felt, beautifully written, and starkly memorable.

To borrow another phrase from ["To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell], Scotland has given Mollie Hunter 'world enough, and time.' It is a sufficient canvas for her very distinguished work, and its historical and mythical depths have provided her with that deep time-perspective by which she has remained obsessed. There is an undertone of fateful sadness running through her novels, sadness with which the vibrant energies of youth and the spirit of human love must always find the courage to contend. (p. 118)

Peter Hollindale, "World Enough and Time: The Work of Mollie Hunter," in Children's literature in education (© 1977, Agathon Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 8, No. 3 (Autumn), 1977, pp. 109-19.

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