William Mayne, A Grass Rope

A couple of years ago when Mayne died I wrote a bit about my conflicting feelings about him. A couple of weeks ago I reread A Grass Rope and was utterly blown away by it – as I had been the first time.

Last week’s column:

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Years ago I wandered into the children’s section of a library and found a couple of things that probably didn’t belong there – including Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Presumably someone had glanced at the titles, decided that these books were about child characters, and that therefore they were meant for children to read. This is nonsensical of course- some of the best child characters in literature work as well as they do precisely because they’re being read from the perspective of an older reader.  Swami and Friends is great fun to read if you’re Swami’s age, but it’s even better if you’re old enough to see his fears as ridiculous (and yet completely understandable). I struggle on a daily basis to work out what the difference between children’s and adult literature is, all I can really say for certain is that child characters have nothing to do with it.

One of my favourite examples of a book that contrasts ‘child’ and ‘adult’ perspectives is William Mayne’s A Grass Rope which is in all probability a children’s book (it was certainly published as one, and won the Carnegie Medal in 1957). A Grass Rope brings a group of children together to discover the truth of an old legend connected to their families. An ancestor, trying to protect his daughter from an unsuitable lover, locked her up and left her guarded by a pack of hounds and a unicorn. The suitor, calling on magic to help him, managed to lure the hounds and the unicorn into Fairyland and escape with his bride, but he didn’t get his hands on his father-in-law’s fortune. That, in the form of silver chains on the hounds’ collars, had been lost forever.

Various characters in the story have different feelings towards this story. Adam, the oldest, thinks there might be a non-magical explanation and that, were they to solve the mystery, they might be able to recover the treasure. Nan dismisses the whole as just a story, while for Peter and Mary, the two youngest, the story is completely true.

Mary’s unquestioning acceptance of magic comes into conflict with Adam’s insistence on finding a scientific, rational explanation of events. And for most of the book it seems that Adam is right – it is possible to form a reasonable, logical hypothesis for the old legend. It’s through science that the children discover where the hounds might have gone; but it’s Mary who goes through the gate, hoping to dance with the fairies.

Even as Mayne appears to validate Adam’s science, the book is fully alive to the greater beauty of Mary’s stories. One huge fact is left unexplained for the reader, though we are told that there is a possible explanation. And throughout Mary’s experience of the world teeters on the edge of magic.

They walked along in the dusk. The sky hung overhead in colours of new roses; and to the west lavender and marigold; to the east the green of sage and under the cloud that rolled behind the sunset the edge of darkness came on: silver lined like a well edged with daisies.

‘What colour are we?’ said Mary. ‘All grey and white like that dead woodlouse I found under the rug on the landing?’

‘Dream colour’ said Nan.

Mayne is a difficult subject for many lovers of children’s literature. He was one of the finest children’s writers of his generation, but he was also convicted for the sexual abuse of some of his young female fans. Upon his death in 2010 it seemed clear that few people were sure how to speak of him. Yet speak of him we must; not to remind ourselves that artists can be both vile and brilliant (though that’s a useful thing to know) but because we can’t afford to forget that books as good as The Grass Rope have existed.

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