Friday, 5 March 2010
William Horwood, Hyddenworld: Spring
There was once a metal-smith named Beornamund who lived in Mercia and loved a maiden who died, afterwards riding the White Horse through the sky. In her honour he fashioned a series of magical jewels, all of which were lost save the jewels for Summer, Autumn and Winter. He also fashioned ‘a pendant disc of gold in which he set the three gems he found in the belief that Spring … might one day come to light.’ OK, there’s your pseduomythic backstory. Now: we’re in present day England, a country inhabited by mortals like you and me, but also ‘Englalond’, a simultaneous magic land inhabited by the ‘hydden’, Horwood’s ‘little people’, a kind of magical hobbits, or leprechauns, or borrowers, or wombles, or smurfs, or what you will. People used to spot them from time to time, but now they’ve become better at hiding from the Big Folk. (I was reminded of Tolkien’s ‘prologue’ to Lord of the Rings where he says, with uncharacteristic self-indulgence, that ‘even in ancient days they were as a rule shy of “the Big Folk”, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find.’ In point of fact I was rather grievously reminded of Tolkien throughout, for this is a deeply derivative Fantasy yarn).
Anyhow, there are virtuous ‘hydden’ and also wicked ones called 'Fyrd', or more specifically ‘Sinistral’ (this latter a family name which, like Nogbad the Bad, doesn’t seem to me have given the people involved much chance of eschewing the Dark Side). And there’s a young lad called Jack who’s a sort of saviour figure, and who rescues a human girl from a fiery car-crash at some cost to the skin of his back. Beyond that there’s a good deal of rather fidgety setting-the-scene and putting-characters-into-play that goes no further than doing these two things, such that the novel doesn’t make a very satisfying read overall. The plot goes through the sorts of advances, reversals and collection of symbolic coupons you might expect for this sort of novel; the writing is often slack; the characterisation nugatory, and occasional moments of ultraviolence feel tacked on. Hyddenworld: Summer is in the works, but I can’t say I’m desperate to read it.
The basic construction unit of this novel is the chunk of explanatory or discursive conversation. It’s a shame Horwood relies so heavily on this, since he has no skill for writing good dialogue at all. His characaters all speak in the same grey and interchangeable manner, whilst occasional attempts to give it particularity or flavour crash into cliché or daft po-faced pseudo-elevation, or, indeed, both (‘there bain’t a single solitary soul at our feast who is not honoured to have you among us, a giant-born’). Quite a proportion of the dialogue reads like filler: (‘“Er … um!” said Jack, rather desperately. “Aah!” declared Stort in a strangled sort of way’). Otherwise the story is a sort of Tolkien/Weirdstone of Brisingamen mashup. Except that where Tolkien took a deep linguistic philosophy as the ground for his aesthetic—he wrote his stories as a means of realising his philological vision, as we know—Horwood substitutes a sort of nostalgic orthography. It’s Old English, used here as a garnish (two and a half lines of Anglo-Saxon quoted on p.192 have an unearned magical effect on the characters). Calling England ‘Englalond’, Birmingham ‘Brum’ (yes, ‘Brum’) and swapping the ‘i’ for a ‘y’ in ‘Hyddenworld’ (why not ‘Hyddenweorolde’?) seems to me a much less effective mode for realising rounded Fantasy than Tolkien’s more systematic mytho-linguistic approach.
Also: according to Horwood, one of the main characters, Arthur Foale, is ‘Professor of Astral Archaeology at Cambridge University’. Since Foale believes that actual archaeological digging is a kind of violation of the sacred earth, and that Stonehenge was a portal into another world, this implies, I would say, a surprising laxness in the application of professional standards by Cambridge University's promotions committee.