Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Review: Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

Review: Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison

by Rich Horton

This weekend, at the Montreal convention Scintillation, I bought a book from the Montreal bookstore Argo Books (which is Scintillation's bookdealer) -- a book I'd never heard of. This is Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison. I have known of Mitchison for a long time, but only for one book, the 1962 SF novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman. But this book, first published in 1952, looked enticing -- a fantasy about a girl who is saved from her evil stepmother by her nurse, who turns into a bear and spirits the girl away to live with the bears. This edition is from Small Beer Press's Peapod Classics line, and was published in 2005.

First a bit about Mitchison. She lived a very long time -- from 1897 to 1999. She was born in Scotland, and her maiden name was Haldane -- and, yes, the great scientist J. B. S. Haldane was her older brother. The longevity may have been in her genes -- three of her children, all prominent biologists, lived to be 98, 94, and 89. Her husband, Dick Mitchison, was a Labour MP, later named a Life Peer as Baron Mitchison. In her own right, Naomi was named a Commander of the British Empire. Mitchison was a very prolific writer, publishing over 90 books, and is considered one of the giants of Scottish writing. She was a committed Leftist, though she was frustrated by such things as their defense (or at least avoidance of criticism) of the Moscow Show Trials, and by the end results of the Russian Revolution, and she was good friends with J. R. R. Tolkien, and indeed helped edit The Lord of the Rings. She also worked with her brother on some genetic experiments, so she had scientific chops as well. She was a regular visitor to Africa, especially Botswana (which may account for me thinking at one time that she was a South African writer.)

Her best novel may be The Corn Kings and the Spring Queen (1931), though Memoirs of a Spacewoman is also highly regarded (especially in the SF community), and I suspect there are likely many neglected jewels in her oeuvre. She's probably best known for her historical fiction, but she wrote a lot of Fantasy, some SF, and some contemporary fiction (including the notorious We Have Been Warned (1935), which was censored (more, I gather, for the controversial treatment of sexual issues that for its warning about fascism) and which nearly got her publishers prosecuted.

As for Travel Light ... Halla is the daughter of a King, but when the King remarries her stepmother insists that "the brat must be got rid of." And so her nurse, who is part bear, takes her away to live with the bears. Quite soon, however, she encounters a dragon, who offers to adopt her himself (thus avoiding the issue of hibernation.) And for some long time, Halla lives with the dragon, and considers herself a dragon as well. She learns to hate human "heroes", who only want to kill dragons; and to covet treasure in the dragonish way. But she won't ever grow wings ... and when her dragon father is killed, she is off again (rescued from the murderous hero by a Valkyrie).

Then comes her traveling time, for she comes across a wanderer, whom she recognizes as Odin, the All-Father. And he gives her some advice -- travel light -- as she has decided to go to Micklegard (Constantinople) where she thinks the dragon emperor might live. On her journey she joins with a small band of men who have a petition to bring to the Emperor, concerning a corrupt Governor. As Halla can speak all languages (human and animal) she offers to interpret for them. In Micklegard they encounter more troubles -- a complicated bureaucracy, and more corruption, and lack of money. Here Halla's ability to speak to horses comes in handy ...

And things do resolve themselves, but with complicated results. For one of the man, his hometown is not worth returning to, so he and Halla head up the river to Holmgard (Novgorod), and a final resolution, again with ambiguities, and violence and sadness mixed with hope; and with some revelations about Halla as well.

This really is a delightful book. It is often funny -- the attitudes of bears, and horses, and the Valkyrie, and especially dragons are amusing. The syncretic mixing of myths and fairy stories is very well handled. But it's no pure comedy -- there are very dark events, real pain, real growth. It's also effectively "out of time". It's honest and deep when it needs to be, extravagantly imagined, morally affecting, and at the core optimistic despite depicting much tragedy and human wrongs. The (unsigned) introduction is quite good, but its opening claim -- that, with luck and the right illustrator, Travel Light could have become one of the last century's most popular children's books. That's all fine except -- I don't think it's a children's book. It's an adult book (though fine for children to read.) But I do endorse this comment from the introduction: "more than just a story: it is a map for living."

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