Imagine a world where a 1950s fantasy novel became first a cult classic and then a global bestseller setting trends for decades to come and spawning blockbuster movies.
The year was 1952 and the novel was Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison. As with many other epic fantasy writers, Mitchison rooted her work in classical myths, Greek and Norse legends in particular.
Travel Light begins in almost fairy tale manner:
It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the king that the brat must be got rid of at once.
So orders are issued to kill the baby but her nurse turns herself into a black bear and carries the child into the woods to safety. The girl, Halla, is for a while raised amongst bears until the day a dragon appears and the nurse bear tells him the whole story.
Now, if there is one kind of human being which dragons dislike more than another it is the kind commonly called kings or heroes. The reason is that they are almost always against dragons.
In this simple story telling fashion Naomi Mitchison charms the reader through Halla’s adoption by Uggi the Dragon, learning dragon tongue and being fireproofed in a ceremony involving three other dragons. Halla grows up amongst dragons wondering why she’s a little bit different to those dragons. So Halla Bearsbairn becomes Halla Heroesbane until once again her life changes with the arrival of the All-Father.
At this point we are less than a quarter of the way into this rapid light and dramatic novel. Halla is sent by All-Father on a fantastic journey, riding a unicorn no less, until she arrives at the great city of Micklegard. On the way she hears of the huge palace in Micklegard and the powerful Purple-born.
Page after page is full of Mitchison’s sly wit and acerbic observations. She pokes at economics ‘always an important part of dragon history‘ and heroes such as ‘the man Beowulf, who had actually followed the poor old lady right into her house at the bottom of Terrible Mere and cut off her arm.’ Halla’s upbringing leads her to conceive of the Purple-born as the ‘Master Dragon of Micklegard. And indeed things were believed of the Purple-born that could not be believed of any man, and nothing was too strange but that it might happen within the bounds of that place.‘
Micklegard was the Viking name for Byzantium and Purple-born clearly refers to the Roman and later Byzantine emperors. When Halla reaches the city Mitchison becomes explicitly critical of the Christian church:
‘A true Christian – then he is a poor man?’
‘No, no,’ said Father John. ‘On the contrary, he is very rich.’
Reading a summary like this it might be easy to view Travel Light as a witty, comic satire on many of epic fantasy’s clichés but remember this was two years before The Lord of the Rings appeared. However Mitchison was a friend of Tolkien, and it is likely she was aware of his work. She was also a lifelong socialist and feminist whose other novels and volumes of autobiography contain radical ideas of sexuality and equality throughout. Travel Light sits comfortably with these works.
When Halla’s friend Tarkan Der talks of marriage, she queries the need, and his assumption.
‘Why shall we be married?’
‘Because it is not right that we should travel together always and not be married,’ said Tarkan Der.
‘Perhaps I will not travel with you always,’ said Halla.
‘We will not always travel … You will like to live in a small house with me.’
‘I do not know at all,’ whispered Halla. … he was no more a dragon than he was a hero.
That exchange, and the others quoted, exemplify Naomi Mitchison‘s often scathing commentary on the assumptions of powerful figures, the viewpoints of privilege, and the true nature of heroes. The god-like Purple-born is just a little man, dragons are not the purely venal creatures we are told, and as for unicorns? You’ll have to find out yourself.
Many SF readers will be aware of Mitchison’s classic Memoirs of A Spacewoman, and her historical novels are well-known, but her fantasy work, including Travel Light, is forgotten. I’d like to acknowledge SF author Amal el Mohtar for bringing it to my attention in her piece here: www.npr.org/2014/01/01/2583. As Amal suggests, how might our view of what Fantasy is have differed if Travel Light had become the touchstone that Tolkien became? Tongue lightly in cheek I can’t resist wishing Mitchison’s 130 page novel had influenced certain current authors. But seriously, Travel Light is a fun read, and a novel that will make you think differently about your next fantasy novel.