Saturday, January 19, 2013

Introduction to The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane

My first exposure to Robert Macfarlane happened a year ago when I picked up a battered copy of The Wild Places in order to shelve it. Instead, I checked it out from my branch and stayed up past midnight to read it. Thanks to Macfarlane, I was exposed to Roger Deakin's Wild Wood and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm. I found photos of Walnut Tree Farm, the late Deakin's house, much visited by Macfarlane, while searching for more information about both of them online.

I am from probably the last generation of American children to be raised on English children's books. I know that there is a generation of Quidditch-playing adults that were weaned on the Harry Potter books of British-born J. K. Rowling. While the Harry Potter books are gripping, they lack an essential British characteristic shared by many successful authors of British children's books:

  • Rudyard Kipling - the two Puck of Pook's Hill books
  • Rosemary Sucliff - all of her books
  • Elizabeth Goudge - Rowling helped get Linnets & Valerians and The Little White Horse republished
  • L. M. Boston - the Greene Knowe series
  • William Mayne
  • Robert Westall
  • Diana Wynne Jones - the British landscape of an alternative Britain
  • J. R. R. Tolkein -The Hobbit
  • Kenneth Graham - The Wind in the Willows
  • T. H. White - The Once and Future King
  • Susan Cooper - The Dark is Rising series
I'm sure that there are many more. What these authors and books have in common is a palpable sense of landscape; the English and Welsh earth itself is as present and influential as any of the characters. In any Harry Potter book I had the sense that the only character connected to the land was Hagrid; the rest of the wizards were interested in nature only insofar as they could exploit it for magical potions or familiars.

Both Macfarlane and his late mentor Deakin possessed the same sense of awareness of the land as these children's authors. Deakin kept his hedgerows alive to shelter birds and let animals wander at will through his house. Macfarlane travels, mostly on foot, as he did while he hiked and climbed in both The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Evocative booklist in an evocative post (or series of posts, as it turned out). Some I've read, one I will. Puts me in mind (as my grandmother would have said) of Robert Holdstock's The Hollowing (still unfinished), Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (exhausting, but wonderful), Wordsworth among the daffodils, and an Arthurian knight, only vaguely remembered, who forsook his mount and walked until he met his destiny.