Book review

Earthfasts by William Mayne (1966)

Part one of the 'Earthfasts' trilogy

Mysterious standing stones. Prehistoric monuments built at fantastic labour for some long-lost religious purpose. We see them in desolate places. They are earthfast. That is, they are visible on the surface, but are fast in the earth. One thing for sure, they don't go anywhere. Unless you live around Vendale ...

Keith Heseltine and David Wix are a couple of careful young lads. We first meet them out in the summer dusk on the edge of Haw Bank searching the high field, for what? Badgers, perhaps. Or a ground spring bubbling its way to the surface. They can hear vibrations, a drum, there's a strange light, and in an extraordinary and eerie sequence, out of a crack in the earth steps a smiling drummer boy. Actually, I was quite spooked.

Our drummer boy, Nellie Jack John, apparently stepped into an underground passage up at the town castle two hundred years ago looking for King Arthur's rumoured treasure, and got a little lost somewhere along the way. He hangs around for a day or two rather forlornly looking for his own people before he finally has to admit to himself that he is wildly astray and needs a little help to find his way home. Keith and David are able to oblige and see Nellie Jack John off back down the crack in the earth.

But that is not the last they see of him. And, more important, the little candle-end which he leaves behind acts as a kind of door wedge in time. All manner of evil things start to drift around on the open moor. Things which are normally best left sleeping the long sleep along with King Arthur and his knights, waiting for their time to come. We glimpse marauding giants who think nothing of rustling two hundred pigs at a time - there's our connection with the wandering standing stones - and a brilliant boggart (see my article 'Boggart' in the Ideas section of this site).

A tense read. I love the way William Mayne writes, dense and powerful, but his style is demanding of the reader, and I do find I have to read his books quite slowly. I find parts of the dialogue challenging because it is written in dialect, some of it ancient dialect, but you can be sure that if it is important William Mayne will translate it for you.

There's one scene in this book which I find particularly memorable. Having set Nellie Jack John back on his way to his own time down through the crack in the earth some months earlier, Keith and David are once again in the underground tunnels sorting out their own affairs when they see a light bobbing about in the distance:

The light was the light of an electric torch. It was the lamp from David's bicycle, and it was held by Nellie Jack John, who was walking at a snail's pace towards them. In relation to him they were racing by. Nellie Jack John looked as if he were working hard, and as if he were going very fast too. His hair, which was long below his cap, was streaming out behind him, and his clothes were pressed hard against him, and he was leaning forward. But the air round him was still.
'He's pushing against time,' said Keith. 'Try going back.'
David took a step back the way they had come. At once he found what Nellie Jack John was pushing against. ...

This is great, isn't it? Keith and David turn Nellie Jack John round and they all race back to the present together. But later Keith has his doubts and wonders if they should not perhaps have left Nellie Jack John pushing in the opposite direction:

'He never got there,' said David. 'You know he didn't. It would be better if he came with us, wouldn't it? ...'

Well, obviously he's never going to get back to his own time if you keep thwarting his every attempt. But watch this theme, because there's more of it in Cradlefasts, the next book in the trilogy!

What can I read next?

Earthfasts is the first book in a sequence so if you enjoy this book you might also like to look at:

This book also reminded me rather of Alan Garner's books. You could look at:

If time travel is your favourite form of transport, have a look at this really strange new one from Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

Actually, if you haven't already read it, perhaps you should look next at Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

Earthfasts features in these lists: