Saturday, April 12, 2008

Reading Journal: Travel Light

I'll let you read about the life of author Naomi Mitchison on Wikipedia. One salient fact that I will mention is that she was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and one of the proofreaders of The Lord of the Rings. Her own short novel Travel Light (1952) is a fantasy, straddling the magical world of Norse mythology and the corrupt and fallen world of Christian Byzantium. The heroine, Halla, is a princess, but she is raised first by a female bear and then by a male dragon, and brought up with a healthy dragonish distaste for meddlesome heroes. Along the way, she is befriended by a Valkyrie named Steinvor, as well as by various horses and rats; she, in turn, befriends three men on a mission to seek justice for their troubled homeland from the Purple-born, the Byzantine Emperor. It would be easy to pass it off as Tolkien for feminists, but it's more than that. For one thing, Mitchison has a sense of humor. Steinvor the Valkyrie is almost Whedonesque in her flippant humor and the matter-of-factness with which she goes about her job of shuttling dead heroes to Valhalla.

Travel Light
is a fable, a fairy tale, a morality play about suffering and forgiveness, about obligations to others and the freedom to be oneself. It's not just a children's book. It's not simply your mother's Tamora Pierce or Gail Carson Levine.* But in its sympathy for dragons and antipathy for conventional heroes, it does look forward to John Gardner's great 1971 novel Grendel. In fact, the Grendel family make a cameo appearance in Mitchison's novel:

Once they [the dragons] were visited by the Grendel family, curious-shaped and rather watery folk who looked askance at Halla because she reminded them of the awful fate that had befallen their grandmother and their elder uncle, at the hands of the man Beowulf, who had actually followed the poor lady right into her house at the bottom of Terrible Mere and cut off her arm. And all because they had punctually taken their tribute—and no more—from the hall of the King of Denmark. It made you wonder what the world was coming to. It made you suspect anyone of humanity. But soon they realized that Halla was not that kind of human, and when they said good-bye, leaving wet marks on the stones of Dragon Mountain, where they had been sitting, they had been so delighted with Halla's sympathy and anger that they suggested she should be called Halla Heroesbane. They were sure that she would be the means of avenging dragons and Grendels and such on the race of heroes, and a proud girl was Halla that night, curling up to sleep in her nest of moss and pearls, half-bearish and half-dragonish.

But forgiveness and reconciliation, not revenge, become the theme of the book and the meaning of Halla's quest. Halla is such a beautiful heroine—strong, gentle, loyal, independent, fierce, and affectionate. When I came to the end of Travel Light, I was ready to start reading it again right away. I was reluctant to leave its world or Halla's company. I wanted to go back with her to a dragonish cave and curl up with my treasure.

Many thanks to my LibraryThing friend Paola for sharing her treasure and sending me her spare copy of Travel Light to add to my small dragon hoard of Virago Modern Classics.

*In 1927, Naomi Mitchison published a fantasy novel called The Fairy Who Couldn't Tell a Lie, the premise of which seems similar to Gail Carson Levine's wonderful Ella Enchanted.

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