William Mayne Essay - Critical Essays

Mayne, William


William Mayne 1928–

(Has also written under pseudonyms of Charles Molin and Martin Cobalt, and, with R. D. Caesar, under joint pseudonym of Dynely James) British young adult novelist and editor and author of picture books for children. Mayne is recognized as a writer whose young adult fiction has broadened the definition of this genre, preparing his audience for the style, content, and complexity of adult fiction. Mayne is not considered an easy writer due to the conciseness of his prose, which sometimes borders on terseness, and the intricacy of his plots. His books often expect readers to answer their own questions and have a particularly British reserve or coolness of emotion, aspects which are sometimes regarded as limiting their popularity with young readers. However, Mayne is an individualistic writer who is not content with recycling standard themes and plots. His books contain sensitive characterizations, skillful use of language, and lyrical evocation of atmosphere, giving them what many critics consider an uncommon depth. As a writer Mayne calls himself an observer, like a camera lens. "All I am doing," he says, "is looking at things now and showing them to myself when I was young." He was born in Yorkshire, the setting reflected in both the atmosphere and dialogue of many of his books. At nine he won a scholarship to Canterbury Cathedral, where he stayed until 1942; he later used his experiences as a choir boy for his cathedral school stories. Mayne began his career writing family stories involving mysteries and treasure hunts, books in which he first explored the nuances in relationships among members of all generations. In 1958 he was awarded the Carnegie Medal for A Grass Rope, a book considered the precursor of many of his later works, which investigate the intricacies of time and space, past and present. Perhaps the most successful synthesis of Mayne's literary characteristics is Earthfasts. Based on a local Yorkshire legend, it has been recognized as a modern classic of fantasy literature. Mayne has more than fifty books to his credit, including several for younger children, and is the editor of several anthologies dealing with legends and the supernatural. He is also a composer of music, and in 1965 composed the incidental music for Holly from the Bongs, by Alan Garner, a British writer to whom Mayne is often compared. As a literary observer, Mayne portrays what he sees in both his imagination and the real world with clarity, making him well respected among those young adults who know his work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vols. 6.)

Some might quibble at the whimsical humour and allusive conversations in [The World Upside Down], but read in the right mood it is delightfully refreshing, with its nice civilized children making quotable (and quotation-filled) remarks, and finding pleasure in being alive as well as a proper treasure of golden crowns and coins…. There is style in the writing, warmth and wit in the family relationships, and reality behind each character, even the poacher who sounds almost too much a character to be true. The kind of light reading which will stand up to many re-readings, and pave the way to the best kind of adult light fiction. (p. 247)

The Junior Bookshelf, November, 1954.

Without going outside the familiar convention of seek-and-find adventure in an English country setting, William Mayne has quickly established himself as the most original good writer for children in our immediate time. At this stage ([The Member for the Marsh] is his fourth) it is possible to see something of the pattern on which his imagination works. He writes on the edge of the past rather than on the edge of the future; he dismisses the age-barrier between friends; he makes his own traditions (among schoolboys, for instance), but they seem to lighten life, not burden it. He also expects his readers to think speedily. If it is a scramble to follow his quick wit at times, the book can always be read again; and the second reading often gives more pleasure than the first.

"The Edge of the Past," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1956; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 11, 1956, p. vii.

William Mayne is certainly the most excitingly original writer for children to emerge in the last five years. This is not to say that he is, even potentially, the most popular. The Member for the marsh confirms the impressions of his three earlier novels that he has an insatiable passion for oddities. When many writers are haunted by the shadow of the backward reader, he writes joyously and unashamedly for the top flight of the grammar school, for those who may be expected to enjoy fine style, original and provocative ideas and rich characters. He writes, one suspects, to please himself, as most of the best books are written.

Mr. Mayne is a master of the use of setting. This time his scene is the fascinating flat country of western Somerset. He knows the country well and communicates his appreciation of its not-very-obvious charms. Into this setting he puts—but no, they live there already—four very odd boys, the Harmonious Mud Stickers…. Never were there less typical schoolboys, but each is drawn consistently and convincingly. Their activities, in which schoolboyish fun charmingly breaks through the solemnity, are too good to give away. Mr. Mayne tells a good story, with certainty and without haste. Not a book for children, but definitely a book for the child who can deserve it. (p. 144)

The Junior Bookshelf, July, 1956.

To come to Choristers' Cake is to enter a new world, from the flat drabness of monochrome engraving to the colour and movement and depth of real life. The scene is that of A Swarm in May, but the viewpoint is changed. The Choir School [of Canterbury] is seen through the eyes, and interpreted by the rather muddled brain, of an older boy, one who does not easily find a place in the cooperative society of school. This is a most skilful study, and there is nothing contrived about Sandy's gradual achievement of self-recognition.

Psychological insight is not the whole of Mr. Mayne's armoury. He is a master—the master in contemporary English writing for children—of setting, and the hero of Choristers' Cake is not Sandy but the Cathedral. The Cathedral is ever-present. Its traditions provide the story with its main theme. Its services mark the passage of time. The precincts are the boys' home and their playground. The many, and delightful, minor characters are the Cathedral's servants….

Choristers' Cake may be a by-way of children's literature. Its virtuosity and verbal richness, as well as the undoubted oddness of many of its characters, put it beyond the range of the average reader. But for the child who can meet its demands it will be a deep and memorable experience. In insight, in gaiety, in exuberance of idea and language, it is in a class apart. Mr. Mayne is certainly the most interesting, as the most unpredictable, figure in children's books today. He has all the talents, and he has devoted them to the creation of a little world, self-contained and absorbed, in spite of quarrels and rivalries, in its work of praising God. (p. vii)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1956; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 23, 1956.

Mr. Mayne is not an easy writer, as we know. His love of words, his range of ideas and his interest in psychology, which are the very essence of his art, all act as stumbling-blocks to the young reader. One suspects that Mr. Mayne is not unduly distressed by this. He writes, as he must, to please himself. Will he at the same time please others? Yes, he will delight those who deserve writing of this quality, the children, a minority but not an insignificant one, who can recognise the truth of his observation of boys' behaviour and who can relish the convincing oddity of his adults.

This book is not a sequel to A Swarm in May. That inimitable book said the last word on its subject. In Choristers' Cake we look at the same school from a different viewpoint. The central character is an older boy than John Owen, who in this story is a very small and unimportant singing boy. Sandwell is one of those boys who fight a solitary war against school tradition and discipline. He is intensely real. (p. 341)

The Junior Bookshelf, December, 1956.

Jennie D. Lindquist

First published in England in 1955, [A Swarm in May] has a most unusual plot. It is based on an old tradition: the youngest Singing Boy is always the Beekeeper; he must "come before the Bishop one Sunday in May, to sing a short solo and recite the ritual assuring the Bishop that the organist will supply good beeswax candles for the Cathedral throughout the coming year." The custom is still carried on though now the candles come from a warehouse and are not made of beeswax. How John Owen the youngest boy refuses at first to be the Beekeeper but comes at last to realize how much the old tradition means forms one thread of the story. Running along with it is the mystery of beehives and a secret missing since the days of Henry VIII. The Cathedral background, the music, the beekeeping and the very real boys combine to make a story that will be loved by those children who are always looking for English books and by others who are lucky enough to have adults share it with them. (pp. 307-08)

Jennie D. Lindquist, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyrighted, 1957, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1957.

Ruth Weeden Stewart

[A Swarm in May] will have limited appeal. The writer presupposes a rather extensive knowledge of music and a knowledge of the slang and colloquialisms of England. The legend of the beekeeper and the ancient custom of presenting the candles to the bishop is charming but does not furnish sufficient spark for a boy's story today. This book is for the special child who has some training and real interest in the life of a chorister. (p. 149)

Ruth Weeden Stewart, in Junior Libraries (reprinted from the October, 1957 issue of Junior Libraries, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1957), October, 1957.


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Hamish Fotheringham

[Mayne's] first published story was Follow the Footprints, the story of a "treasure hunt," a motif which William Mayne has developed with freshness and originality in the majority of his books. Caroline and Andrew Blake come with their parents to live in an old Tollhouse in Cumberland. From local legends the children learn of treasure hidden in the former abbey of Saint Elda and set out to find it…. The children are portrayed as being staunchly independent, clever, but never too clever, thank goodness, and neither precocious nor prigs. They are aware that independent action free from adult control can bring with it occasional discomfort and much hard work. (pp. 185-86)

This framework of well...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

William Mayne is a witty, highly individual writer, author of that very British, very special story, "A Swarm in May" and the tricky, imaginative "The Blue Boat." ["Underground Alley"] is possibly the most accessible for the average American reader that we have yet had here.

The setting is a Welsh border town where the townspeople are preparing for the annual Town Day and the visit of a prince. The rather complicated action revolves around the discovery by Patty, a whirlwind of a little girl, of a buried medieval street which explains an ancient mystery and an act of treachery which had long ago cast the town into royal disfavor…. There is much coming and going, a good surprise at the end, and...

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Margery Fisher

Set in the Yorkshire dales, [A Grass Rope] is a treasure hunt, like so many of William Mayne's books, but with the difference that one of the characters, young Mary, believes so firmly in magic that her interpretation of events dominates the story rather than her parents's common-sense or Adam Forrest's grammar-school reasoning. (p. 140)

It is certainly not inappropriate to use the word 'magic' of a story where the author makes you aware of the irrational all the time, the poetic below the events of ordinary life, and does this while keeping his characters absolutely real, not eccentric or peculiar, but people with character and drive and personal idiom.

Mayne's particular...

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John Ashlin

[Words and Music] is a sequel to the remarkable trilogy A Swarm in May, Choristers' Cake, and Cathedral Wednesday…. Has the magic been achieved yet again? No one is more conscious than William Mayne of the difficulty of maintaining the level of interest over a number of volumes and in Cathedral Wednesday he adopted the unusual and successful device of looking at the school through the eyes of a day-boy. Now we are back again as boarders and with the fabric of the cathedral playing a part in the story as it did in A Swarm in May. Readers must judge for themselves but I felt that he has once more met the challenge successfully, but one or two characters such as Trevithic are becoming...

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Robert Bell

In both [A Parcel of Trees and Sand] the author's brilliant story-telling, character drawing, dialogue and perfectly-timed climaxes evoke, as always, the highest admiration.

The 'parcel of trees' is the legal term for a disused orchard, Susan's favourite retreat. When her right to use it is threatened by the railway authorities whose property it apparently is, a friendly lawyer establishes her legal ownership by 'squatter's rights.' The ingenious way in which this is done, and the significance of the intriguing objects in the orchard—a ruined lodge, a horse's skeleton, pieces of aluminum and concrete, and a row of dogs' graves—make a most absorbing story which is outstanding even...

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Alberta Eiseman

The background [of "Sand"] is perfect for a suspense story: an old English town by the North Sea where the sand drifts in relentlessly, burying houses and trees beneath great dunes…. Under the constant shifting of scene, each happening tends to become anticlimactic. And it is too bad that against this brooding backdrop, the characters, like footprints in the drifting sand, leave no lasting impression. (p. 46)

Alberta Eiseman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 28, 1965.

[Pig in the Middle does not contain] one of Mr. Mayne's complex plots. Indeed it...

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Geoffrey Trease

You either surrender to Mayne's spell or impatiently don't. Myself, I admire so many of his talents singly—his poet's eye and ear, his word-magic, his evocation of atmosphere—but I cannot make the surrender, and feel sure that at no age could I have done so. (p. 708)

Geoffrey Trease, in New Statesman (© 1966 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 11, 1966.

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Wallace Hildick

The descriptive matter [in The Battlefield] is seemingly casual, compressed, beautifully telling. The dialogue is wayward without being rambling, and fascinating in the way the half-formed thoughts jut up like stepping stones. But I couldn't help thinking that too much of this was muted bravura, put on for the benefit of older faithful admirers, especially in the first 30 pages. I'm not one who believes that children's stories should be pared down to their narrative essentials, with everything being used to push forward the plot. Children live in the present. To them any interesting incident is the plot. Even so, I feel that nothing need be lost and the whole may be enhanced by establishing the theme of...

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Margaret Meek

The pace of the plot of William Mayne's latest tour de force [The Battlefield] is slow and measured, country style…. The climax is conceivable only because by the time it comes the girls have woven themselves into the readers' consciousness by the quaint acuteness of their speech, their 'cleverness' in the northern sense. The author exploits the way they experiment with language before reality encroaches on metaphor. The result is an exploration in depth of sense experience, almost Keatsian in its richness, laced with good humour and memorable characters. I smell that shepherd yet. (p. 111)

Margaret Meek, in The School Librarian and School Library Review, March,...

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Edward Blishen

[What William Mayne's] writing has shown is that stories for children need not drive straight from opening to end; they can shape themselves by a sort of sly oblique process, emerge sideways and even backwards out of dialogue and hints. In fact, all his stories have strong narrative spines; but they are not rigid ones. He has also come so close to the true nature of children's talk and to the way they feel and think that it must be more difficult than it was for a writer of any sensitiveness to reproduce that blunt form of dialogue, always obviously to the purpose, and that falsely consequent rendering of patterns of young thought and feeling, that are conventions of writing for children. In a sense, Mr Mayne has...

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Colin Field

Once one has accepted the premise that is is possible to see backwards and forwards in time, and to conjure people from the past and the future, the logic of [Over the Hills and Far Away] is impeccable, and its unfolding inevitable. Particularly commendable is the portrayal of the children of both periods of history who are faced with situations which they do not understand. It is this portrayal of children exposed to the conflicts in the adult world which spells out Mayne's undeniable qualities as a writer. And, as always, his sense of place and atmosphere is acute and beautifully integrated into the story.

It is often pointed out that William Mayne's stories are not read by many children...

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Elva Harmon

[The Hill Road is adequate] historical adventure cum fantasy…. This story is not fully realized as fantasy—perhaps because the picture of life in post-Roman Britain is developed rather casually; perhaps because Dolly and Andrew remain passive, unknowing, almost unthinking participants in their remarkable trip backward through time. Yet it is strengthened by the author's sense of English atmosphere and by his sharply contrasting characterizations of Magra and her stand-in. Fine for readers not yet ready for either the power and poignancy of Rosemary Sutcliff's and Madeleine Polland's realistic stories of the period or Mayne's own evocative, chilling fantasy, Earthfasts…. (pp. 115-16)


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Houston L. Maples

Confirming the impression made by Earthfasts, William Mayne shows again the broadening of his talents in [The Hill Road, an] artful fantasy of superimposed eras in time….

The atmosphere of moorland and valley is, as we would expect from this writer, exquisitely conveyed, with the underlying sense of slumbering history beautifully heightened by the almost tangible juxtaposition of the two depths of time in the same place. Especially convincing is the author's recreation of the details, customs and mood of primitive life in the Dark Ages—a severe and somber picture made more persuasive by its contrast with the light-hearted puzzlement of the modern children. An engrossing and...

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Ruth Hill Viguers

Mr. Mayne's settings are most often Yorkshire villages, his characters ordinary middle-class people—except that they are never really ordinary. To browse through a number of his books at the same time is to realize how many people he has brought to life in print and how complete an individual each one is. The children disagree, sometimes quarrel and weep, but the atmosphere that one remembers in his many stories is good humor. The relationships are affectionate and amusing, the dialogue full of quips and jokes and amiable insults. Sand … is an especially good example of the individuality of characters, The Battlefield … of the quick wit and the lively give and take in the conversations. The...

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Eleanor Cameron

William Mayne's Earthfasts, which puts him triumphantly among that small group who have shown such an audacious and original grasp of the possibilities of time fantasy, [lures us into a kind of magic]. It is one which, rather miraculously for a fantasy, manages to absorb into itself and to interlace throughout the book, not only legend and folklore, but the kind of dry, witnessing, factual exchanges one would expect to hear at an ESP conference, as well as observations of the author's, through his own words and through the words and thoughts of his boy protagonists, very often phrased in the language of science. At times, indeed, one is almost inclined to say to oneself that this is not fantasy at all but the...

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Edward Blishen

We [teachers] might have missed the point about William Mayne…. You have to walk into one of his books sideways—it's an excellent exercise in being a crab, right down to having your eyes on stalks. The books he writes are mysterious, oblique books, the relief of reading which lies in the holiday they give you from the common effort in which we are normally engaged to make a sort of stodgy continuity out of the events and ideas and perceptions in which we are involved. William Mayne I think is one of the few pure wits who have ever written for children. We should be careful about analyzing and using such work until the excitement and delight of it are dispersed. (p. 66)


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Margaret Meek

The inner weather of a Mayne novel is as shifting as a spring day and inspires an expressive response rather than a report. As usual [in Ravensgill] the plot offers little more than the bare lines of a contrapuntal theme; two farming households, two grandmothers, children and two hired men are linked and separated by a murder mystery and the Yorkshire dales. As the details emerge, so does the pattern of time, place and relationships change, shifting like the elemental landscape features under the influence of the seasons. The language operates at many levels so that the action and the setting are both familiar and strange, as if all ordinary things have new significance. To make this possible Mayne not only...

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Leon Garfield

William Mayne's Ravensgill … has already been praised highly elsewhere; but that is no reason for not praising it again. It is, I feel, his most considerable book for some time. In addition to the usual brilliance of his writing, there is a chilling depth that lends the story a rare excitement. Little by little a long-forgotten crime is brought to the surface—both literally and metaphorically—and the weird grandmother who stands at the plot's centre becomes a shifting, fascinating character exhibited in the dimension of time. There are many memorable passages in the book, but one in particular stands out. Apparently unrelated to the movement of the plot, yet providing a necessary emotional balance, there...

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Brian W. Alderson

If you were to accuse Mr. Mayne of being 'uncompromising', he would probably stare back at you blankly as one who, despite a formidable vocabulary, has never encountered the word. If, in a given situation, little girls choose to behave petulantly and kick Dad on his bare shins then the narrator must record the sorry fact;… [matters like this], however odd, must take their place in the narrative. To compromise by wrapping them up in large dramatic statements would somehow make them incredible; to water them down with explanations would make them look like crude inventions. All Mr. Mayne can do is tell it the way it was.

Royal Harry, therefore, has all the characteristics—impossible to...

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Pat Smyth

With [Royal Harry], the adult reader finds his attention gripped with the same intensity as that of any child. This is an ideal situation for a genuine sharing of its experience.

What are the qualities of the book that contribute to its peculiarly universal character? The magical appeal of the core of the tale demonstrates ancient fealties and gives us hints of treasure to be discovered and a throne to be regained. The reader is refreshed by his journey deeper into the past and closer into the wild countryside untouched by urban and industrial development; but he is not allowed to make his 'escape'. All the happenings of the story are firmly embedded in the reality of human existence, the same...

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Natalie Babbitt

William Mayne's prose style has a club foot. For the first few pages of ["A Game of Dark"], the phraseology seems awkward, ill-assorted and confusing…. And then very subtly Mayne's unique rhythms begin to assert themselves. The reader finds he has fallen into step with them and is no longer parsing sentences to get at their meaning. The gracelessness has become a kind of power instead, a power well suited to such a strange tale as this.

Donald Jackson is a 14-year-old boy who lives, in his English town, a life that is utterly bleak. His mother is humorless and withdrawn, his father an engrossed paralytic, and both, when they speak at all, are given to sermonizing…. Donald realizes that he neither...

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Frank Eyre

William Mayne's name must inevitably appear frequently in any discussion of the late twentieth-century children's book. Not only because, despite conflicting views about his work, all critics agree that it is important, but also because he has written so many different kinds of book, for so many different ages. He is the one living writer of real stature who has already established a secure reputation. Whatever else he may write from now on he has written sufficient to demonstrate an instinctive understanding of the real nature of children, an infallibly sure ear for the truth of children's conversation, and a subtly complex way of looking at life, people and things which makes him unique among contemporary writers....

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John Rowe Townsend

William Mayne has never made any concessions to the lazy or inattentive reader: he has never written the fully-automated book. In any case, we cannot all like the same things, and even among books of comparable merit there must always be some that strike a more popular note than others. Nevertheless, the impression of Mayne as a writer of somewhat rarefied excellence—one who operates at a high literary altitude where the air is thin—still persists, and may have some justification. Re-reading many of his novels in a short time—after having previously read and admired them individually at the time of publication—I am inclined to feel that Mayne as a writer has a characteristic which deprives his work of a...

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Paul Heins

[In A Game of Dark Mayne] again illustrates his technical mastery of plot and his skill in manipulating the elements of time-fantasy…. The whole story alternates between the reality of the unhappy events in the life of Donald living in an English town and the fantasy of a world in which he can slay a monster—ultimately a world which he can choose to enter or to reject. The two elements—denoting outer and inner experience, objective and subjective perceptiveness—are uncannily combined in the dual awareness of Donald Jackson, who by the end of the narrative has solved his problem and can go "to sleep, consolate." Actually, the author has permitted himself to present more genuine human involvement in this...

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Robert Bell

It is almost becoming a cliché with reviewers to say that William Mayne's latest book is 'his most powerful to date,' but really one cannot avoid saying it of [A Game of Dark]. How he is able to go on giving us books which evoke ever higher and higher praise is nothing short of astounding…. The way the action slips from one world to the other and back again, and the subtle interaction between fantasy and reality, make the story totally absorbing. The dream world, although an escape, is no cosy, fairy-tale place, where everything comes right, but from the grimness and horror, and even his own 'honour rooted in dishonour', Donald derives a strange strength and consolation when his father dies. This is a...

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Margaret Meek

The day you start work is the initiation ritual. For Mason Ross [in The Incline] it means more than 'going to business' at the bank; it includes passing to the men's side and seeing the world of the quarry, where until now his father seemed unchallenged, as a microcosm of human insecurity and his father no stronger than others. (p. 259)

Although we now know how to become enmeshed in Mayne's characters despite the external simplicity of the situation, we can never capture in a short account enough of the complexity of feeling he portrays. This book is more direct than A Game of Dark, as if the author were offering us a tale of rural Yorkshire in the early days of this century, but its...

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Michele Murray

[William Mayne] is becoming the John Creasey of children's fiction…. [The Incline is] his best book in several years. Unfortunately, because it's all very English in its understated, clever dialogue and portrayal of a Yorkshire town at the turn of the century, with all its subtle class antagonisms, I suspect American children are likely to put it down in bewilderment, for all its virtues. In his resolute strangeness and obsession with certain themes, Mayne, like Ivan Southall, is much like a writer of adult fiction who works out of his private vision rather than a purveyor of made-to-order tales. (p. 8)

Michele Murray, in Book World—The Washington Post, Part II...

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Helen Stubbs

In The Unreluctant Years, Lillian H. Smith says "that a new book's claim to stand beside a well-loved favorite rests in the degree to which it possesses the magic of a Lewis Carroll or a Stevenson or a Mark Twain."

With what infinite certainty do we realize in Mayne's books that children do things 'with blitheness,' are endlessly searching for lasting truth, and in the process, reveal to us the heart of the matter. "The eager, reaching, elusive spirit of childhood is here. It has its own far horizons and a friendly and familiar acquaintance with miracle." It is because of this quality, which is innate in the books of William Mayne, that we cannot fail to recognize his universality, his...

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Penelope Farmer

William Mayne is one of the most considerable, and certainly in some respects the most interesting writer for children now and [A Game of Dark] is undoubtedly his best book. Less rich and localized in its fantasy than Earthfasts; less rich in human terms than Ravensgill; not as affectionately funny as A Swarm in May, it is still all those things in a highly concentrated and synthesized form, besides demonstrating Mayne's recurring obsession with mysterious family pasts and relationships. And it goes far deeper than any of the others.

Mayne's sheer brillíance has always been one of his drawbacks as a writer. Some of his books could almost be described as cons—marvellous...

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Brian Alderson

It seems to me that Over the Hills and Far Away and A Game of Dark are as important for their exploration of time and place as ever they are for the stories that they have to tell. In both books we stand like Magra and Korva 'surrounded by a misty edge where one time ran into another' and it is the uncanny skill with which Mayne summons up … an utterly convincing past and mingles it with the present in a particular place that gives these two books their peculiarly haunting quality. The effect is fairly obvious in Over the Hills and Far Away, but has not been so widely noticed in A Game of Dark. Reviewers, with a whiff of Freud in their nostrils, have gone chasing phallic symbols and...

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Jane Langton

[No] one merges past and present more seamlessly and masterfully than William Mayne. In some of his settings, the past is embodied in relics and monuments which litter the landscape, it incarnates itself in optical effects of light, it spills out of the cracks in the sky, it moves restively under the soil, it maintains a kind of urgent pressure on the present day. (p. 440)

Jane Langton, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1973 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), October, 1973.

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Paul Heins

Although he lacks the emotional intensity of [Alan] Garner, Mayne does have a sense of story; and despite his willfully oblique manner of style and method, he can convey the significance of events in such books as Earthfasts, Ravensgill, and A Game of Dark…. But although he displays in The Jersey Shore his flair for catching colloquial characteristics of speech and idiosyncrasies of character, he suggests a situation without developing it and tells a mere wisp of a story….

Until the epilogue, the narrative is singularly tepid and lacking in the kind of motivation that makes for storytelling. And there is little suspense, though much covert humor, in the detailing of casual...

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Charles Sarland

William Mayne is the great "problem" amongst modern children's writers. Everyone seems agreed that he is a writer of great subtlety and complexity, that he has an uncanny knack of seeing the world through the eyes of children, and that he is the most assured stylist of all modern children's authors. Yet he remains obstinately unread by children, and short of saying that he is a very sophisticated writer, which he is, no one has satisfactorily explained why. I do not intend, in this article, to question his critical standing…. I want in particular to look in some detail at the writing style, for it seems to me that valuable clues are to be found in it that go a long way to explaining precisely why many children find...

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Russell Hoban

William Mayne, in A Game of Dark, has taken on not only the Oedipal conflict but the basic existential one of staying or going, holding on or splitting….

Appropriately the story opens with a feeling of sickness and a pervasive stench. The bad smell of Donald's life has carried over into a second life in which he must ultimately fight a stinking worm who leaves a slimy track behind him as he preys on a feudal village….

Mayne is technically unlimited—he can do anything with words—and he handles his psychical shifts suavely. For a time Donald chooses the second life in the feudal village. Eventually he kills the worm, not in the proper knightly fashion but with the...

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Natalie Babbitt

At first, a William Mayne story always sounds to me as if it had been translated from some other tongue by someone with a rather thin gift for languages. The structures are awkward, and sometimes passages have to be paraphrased to reveal their meaning. But after a few pages, the reader grows accustomed to all this and forgets it, because Mayne's style has a strength all its own and the strength takes over.

This story [of "A Year and a Day"], unlike some others of his, is a gentle, uncomplicated tale….

It has no particular wisdom or message, nor even the traditional—suspense and drama of the folktales it most nearly resembles. The characters do not live on in the imagination...

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Sally Emerson

[A Year and a Day] is a fairy tale which superbly evokes the potency of words and the wonder of natural things. The language is simple and fresh, reflecting the sisters' sensual and visual appreciation of the beauties around them and their dawning delight in words…. The tenderness of the peasant family towards the strange little boy, the essential kindness of the squire and the rector, the humour of small incidents, and the pungency of the Cornish dialogue, provide a warm and realistic backcloth to the resonant tale of the fairy-child who returns to his own. In its simplicity it deviates from William Mayne's usual, more elaborate plots, and should appeal to readers of eight upwards, and upwards. (pp. 80-1)...

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In A Parcel of Trees Mayne evokes a languid, summery world of long and lazy days and slow quest. He unfolds his story unhurriedly, drowsing and droning, so it seems. But the impression is deceptive—a retrospective impression. In fact, the story seldom stands still, and then only for the shortest passages. (p. 148)

There is with Mayne a sense of a slow, deep, steady current of understanding underlying the lighter surface show. The surface carries the reader buoyantly; the undercurrent it is which is remembered. And this, of course, is Mayne's strength, this hiding of the introspective, reflective quality in dialogue and incident. (p. 149)


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William Mayne has devised a kind of dialogue in which the character speaks principally to himself, to clarify some facet of his personality for his own benefit. His children are surprisingly articulate but leave much unsaid. The possibilities for ambiguity, for private interpretation, are endless here, but the device is used also to project unequivocal feelings and uncertainties…. In Earthfasts … the author's concern with psychological effect is everywhere apparent: he has got inside the characters who are confronted with a variety of phenomena, in order to express more explicitly their efforts to extend conventional definitions to accommodate their experiences of the supernatural…. The author's...

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Aidan Chambers

It does not follow, of course, that a writer who places a child at the narrative centre of his tale necessarily or even intentionally forges an alliance with children….

William Mayne, always published as a children's author but notoriously little read by children and much read by adults, may, for all I know, intend to be a writer for children. But what the tone of his books actually achieves, as Charles Sarland brilliantly uncovered [see excerpt above], is an implied author who is an observer of children and the narrative: a watcher rather than an ally. Even his dramatic technique seems deliberately designed to alienate the reader from the events and from the people described. This attitude to...

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Margery Fisher

In Max's Dream William Mayne has returned to the Corn-wall of A Year and a Day, to the 1890's when, in a small community tightly organised, thirteen-year-old Katie, servant in training to Mrs. Veary, cherishes an unspoken love for Max, the boy who lies in the room above, dominating the household with his precocious speech and his physical helplessness. The story is distanced from the reader not only in date but also in the manner of its telling, for Katie, an old woman waiting for death, is looking back at this critical year in her life, capturing, as the old can, the very ebb and flow of her feelings and the precise detail of cottage kitchen or bedroom, carrier's cart or seaside ferry. The mystery of...

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Margaret Meek

To approach Max's Dream the reader has to switch into the rhythm of the language of recollection, so that the "then and there" becomes the here and now. Among William Mayne's many gifts is a facility for making memories for those too young to have them, so that his readers go back over experiences they never had….

The reader learns the rhythm of the narrative from William Mayne's delicate pacing. Familiar dialect conversation centres on immediate events, while the before-and-after comes with a slightly breathless tumbling of sentences as events crowd the recollection.

It is impossible to write about William Mayne without sampling the texture of his prose. The tenses of his...

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Margery Fisher

At first sight Alice Dyson might seem to be in the same position in William Mayne's It [as the character of Anne in Robert Westall's The Watch House]. But though this girl of nearly twelve might seem to be an obvious medium through which a spirit would reach out to the world of everyday, it is not her state of mild discontent which emotionally directs the release of "It". Instead, the plot of the story—as circular as the position of the four crosses at the city boundary, as circular as the rings Alice cannot help finding—turns on an ancient curse which, subtly and insidiously, affects (or might have affected) many people…. (p. 3237)

Certainly William Mayne is not detached about...

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Dominic Hibberd

It is not about IT, a familiar spirit, nor even about Alice, a twelve-year-old who wins a cathedral school scholarship, but about the power of imagination and the reality of free will. Alice, like [J.R.R. Tolkien's] Frodo, inherits a ring of power and can choose whether or not to wield it. The power is represented by the demon, who brings her nine rings by which it could master her; Alice, choosing to retain her freedom, rejects them all and eventually makes a tenth by which she can master the demon. IT manifests itself as a poltergeist and poltergeists, we know, are associated with the emotional conflicts of girls in early adolescence. Fully unleashed, however, this strength which throws eggs about and makes...

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Diana Waggoner

The magical blending of times and spells in [Earthfasts] is made more effective by Mayne's matter-of-fact attitude. His tight, intricate plotting, skillful prose, and distinctive, individual characters, especially the drummer boy and gentle, passive Keith, combine with the immense profundity of his invention to make this one of the best of all fantasies, a classic of speculative literature. (p. 240)

Diana Waggoner, in her The Hills of Faraway: A Guide to Fantasy (abridged by permission of Atheneum Publishers; copyright © 1978 by Diana Waggoner), Atheneum, 1978.

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Peter Hunt

Possibly because I am not primarily concerned with children, but rather with books and literary theory, I feel that Mayne is a major writer, who should be recognized as such. That opinion is based on the oeuvre, rather than on any single book…. In his style, Mayne is an original, one of the few true stylists of the twentieth century; if the language echoes a somewhat idealistic view of a child's perceptive processes, it is nonetheless at its best with the apparently inconsequential, avoiding patronizing either the characters or the implied readers. It sets up, in short, an honest narrative contract.

Consider, for example, the opening of The Twelve Dancers…. (p. 13)


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