Children of the Stones: Prehistoric Sites in British Children’s Fantasy, 1965-2005 Charles Butler, University of the West of England
The Uses of Prehistory Henges, standing stones, barrows, ancient trackways and other types of prehistoric site are common features in British children’s fantasy fiction. As reminders of, and sometimes portals to, the past, they are natural subjects for any writer for whom questions of history and belief exercise a fascination. Here we can touch and gaze upon objects that were important to those who came before us. Indeed, we are looking at the work of their hands, which stands as a complex and mute puzzle, an empathetic conundrum of the kind novels seem well suited to explore. Who were these people? Why did they go to so much effort, over such a long period? What was it like to be them? These perennially elusive questions form one major aspect of the monuments’ appeal to writers, as to other people. Another consists simply in the longevity of the monuments themselves, which have stood, relatively unchanged, through so much human history. British children’s fantasies of the 1960s and ‘70s in particular are often characterized by a concern to ‘connect’ with the past; and prehistoric monuments can easily be called to the service of this humanist project.
Beyond such general observations, however, we can point to several more specific roles that have been played by prehistoric monuments in fantasy fiction, roles that derive in varying degrees from such external discourses as archaeology, folklore, and New Age theories. In what follows I shall attempt a brief survey of these roles, before considering the ways in which one in particular – the use of prehistoric sites as portals to other worlds – is exploited in Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and Catherine Fisher’s Darkhenge (2005), two texts which stand as chronological book-ends to my discussion.
a) Places for Ceremonial and Sacrifice. Most obviously perhaps, large Neolithic and Bronze Age sites are widely portrayed as ceremonial centres, where matters of social or religious importance are proclaimed and enacted. Thus, when the King is to abdicate at the climax of Diana Wynne Jones’s The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), the court is summoned to Stonehenge to watch him do it. Stonehenge in particular, with its concentrated, temple-like design, is an obvious theatre for such events – which may or may not be leavened with an element of human sacrifice.
b) Living Beings. The folklore of many stone circles suggests that they were originally people. The Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, for example, were once a king and his men, turned to stone after being cursed by a witch. A more common cause of this misfortune was sabbath-breaking, a trespass which accounts for the Hurlers in Cornwall, the circle at Stanton Drew in Somerset, and many others. Such legends, especially when combined with the equally common tradition that the stones fluctuate in number or cannot be counted, invite fictions in which megaliths are conceived of as sentient and possibly even mobile. In Penelope Lively’s The Whispering Knights (1971), for example, the witch Morgan le Fay is defeated by the power of a ring of stones, based on the Rollrights, which were once knights ‘who fought a great battle with a bad queen, and… won, and now… sit there to protect the valley.’1 A science-fiction variant appears in BBC television’s 1978 Dr Who adventure Stones of Blood (novelized as Dr Who and the Stones of Blood by Terrance Dicks in 1980), in which the megaliths of a Cornish circle are in reality an alien silicon-based life-form, the Ogri. The Ogri sustain themselves by drinking human blood, an idea that neatly accounts for the association of such sites with blood sacrifice.
c) Machines. By the 1960s the significant solar and astronomical alignments of various prehistoric monuments had long been recognized, and following the work of Gerald Hawkins and Alexander Thom in that decade, it became commonplace to talk of Stonehenge especially as a calendar or even a computer – as a machine, in fact, for predicting eclipses and regulating the agricultural year. To some, the sophistication and organization necessary to create such devices seemed to demand explanation, and explanations were soon forthcoming. John Michell in The View over Atlantis (1969; rev. 1972) suggested that the civilization of Atlantis had incorporated such sites as Stonehenge and Avebury into ‘a great scientific instrument… sprawled over the entire surface of the globe.’2 The various elements of this instrument were connected by lines of power, which in Britain Michell identified with the leys described earlier in the century by Alfred Watkins.3 Others suggested that the ancient architects had been not Atlanteans but aliens, a thesis popularized most famously in the many books of Erich von Däniken, beginning with Chariots of the Gods? (1969).
Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s Children of the Stones, written to accompany the 1977 Harlech television series of the same name, conforms well to these traditions. The programme was filmed in Avebury, which in both book and series goes under the nom-de-screen of Milbury. In Children of the Stones, archaeologist Adam Brake and his son Matthew arrive to carry out research, only to find the inhabitants of the village brainwashed into a state of perpetual, stupefied happiness. The reason lies in the leys that converge on Milbury, in the stones themselves, and in the dish-like layer of stone that Adam discovers to lie beneath the village, which act together as a powerful transmitter, through which negative feelings are beamed into space, there to be absorbed by a black hole. Although this is fundamentally a story about the henge-as-machine, like several others under discussion here it is also eclectic, making use of Stukeley’s serpentine drawings of the Avebury complex, the tradition of petrification (in the climactic scene most of the villagers are turned to stone), and even a time loop, in which the book’s events are shown to have been repeated continually since at least Druidic times.
d) Portals to Other Times. Since their establishment in the early twentieth century time travel and time slip stories have been amongst the most characteristic genres of British children’s fantasy.4 Time travel typically occurs when one or more protagonists come into contact with either an ancient place, such as Kipling’s Pook’s Hill, or an ancient artefact, such as the amulet in Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet. By the 1970s this was a well-established device: in 1976 alone, for example, it was utilized in Robert Westall’s The Wind Eye (in which the artefact is a boat), Lucy M. Boston’s The Stones of Green Knowe (a pair of stone chairs), Penelope Lively’s The Stained Glass Window (a stained-glass window) and Nancy Bond’s A String in the Harp (a mediaeval harp key). Prehistoric sites, combining the status of ancient artefacts and places, seem particularly suited to this treatment. As early as William Croft Dickinson’s Borrobil (1944) we read of two children, Donald and Jean, who dance in a stone circle at Beltane only to find themselves transported into a world of Celtic heroic myth. The mysterious Borrobil, who conducts them through their adventures, is a creature at home in many different ages, and carries something of them all within himself: ‘although in one way he looked as if he must have lived for hundreds of years, in another way he looked as young as they themselves’ (19). Indeed, it is sometimes hinted that prehistoric sites have the power to collapse time, rather than simply provide a means of transport from one period to another. Lively’s Mrs Hepplewhite, the guardian of the eponymous stone circle in The Whispering Knights (1971), exists in every age and shares Borrobil’s temporal versatility: ‘The face was young, and although it offered sanctuary, it carried with it also a total strangeness, a suggestion of something very old and far away.’5 This sense of simultaneity, of one set of experiences being overlaid on another, is one we shall meet again.
e) Portals to Other Worlds. The final function of megalithic sites is again as a portal – not to other times, but to other worlds. In the remainder of this chapter I will consider Elidor and Darkhenge astwo texts that use the Avebury complex in this manner.
Elidor Alan Garner habitually uses real-world settings in his novels. Garner is always attentive to the geological, archaeological and cultural history of his settings, and careful to integrate his fiction with the physical reality beyond the page. It is often possible to take his books and explore the territory where they are set. Indeed, his first two novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), incorporate maps of the area around Alderley Edge, perhaps with the possibility of some such expedition in mind. As this suggests, Garner does not habitually make use of secondary worlds.6 The one exception is the land of Elidor, which appears for a few chapters in the book of that name, although the rest of the story is set in and around Manchester. Even here, Garner draws on real places for his material. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1968, he listed the research tasks he had carried out in preparation for writing the book:
I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten’s War Requiem nearly every day.7 Avebury and Silbury do not figure in Elidorin propria persona. However, they are clearly perceptible in the briefly sketched land of Elidor. There the youngest of Garner’s four sibling protagonists, Roland, following the rest into Elidor in search of a lost ball, soon finds himself in the middle of a huge ring of standing stones. The stones are “unworked and top-heavy; three times bigger than a man”, and the ring itself “easily four hundred yards wide.”8 The similarity to Avebury is quite striking (the outer circle at Avebury is 460 yards in diameter), although this circle also differs from Avebury in that it crowns the top of a hill, and its stones are ‘smooth as flint.’9 What clinches the resemblance is that Elidor’s stone circle is linked by an avenue of megaliths to what the book describes as an “artificial mound, completely circular, and flat-topped.”10
The echo of Avebury’s own avenue, and the pudding-basin shape of Silbury Hill is unmistakable.11 In Elidor this is the Mound of Vandwy, and in due course Roland learns that it holds his lost brothers and sister. He is enabled to enter it and rescue them only by imagining the front door of his own house set into the mound itself – for Elidor is a land where imagination has the force of physical fact. Unlike his siblings he is strong enough to resist the enticing enchantment of the place, and returns home with them.
In this episode Garner echoes the many legends of fairy mounds which can be entered only at certain times, or by certain people. The story of Roland’s rescue is based fairly closely on one such legend, told in the ballad of ‘Childe Roland and Burd Ellen’. Such legends have of course often been associated with prehistoric burial chambers, and the Mound of Vandwy’s internal construction (in contrast to its Silbury-like external appearance) seems deliberately to echo that of Newgrange in Ireland. Like Newgrange its entrance is:
a square stone dolmen arch made of three slabs—two uprights and a lintel. Below it was a step carved with spiral patterns that seemed to revolve without moving.12
Like Newgrange too the Mound of Vandwy is entered down a long passageway, leading to a central chamber which gives onto three smaller chambers, forming the overall shape of a cross. In Garner’s book the smaller chambers each contain one of the three missing treasures of Elidor, a bowl, a stone, and a sword – which, with the spear Roland already carries, recall the four treasures of the Tuatha de Danann, Newgrange’s mythological founders. Much of the rest of the book concerns the siblings’ attempts to keep these treasures (which they bring home to Manchester) safe, and so preserve the safety of Elidor itself.
I have introduced this episode in the context of a discussion of the use of prehistoric monuments as portals to other worlds. Roland and the rest do not in fact enter Elidor through the Mound of Vandwy, but (like the siblings in the traditional ballad) through a church. However, in choosing the name Vandwy Garner implicitly identifies this mound as a route to an underworld, and Roland’s exploit as a rescue from the realm of death, Vandwy being one of the mystical underworld fortresses assailed by Arthur in the Welsh poem “The Spoils of Annwn.”13 We shall return to the “Spoils of Annwn” shortly – but first we must visit Darkhenge.