Rebekka and the Unwashed Child of Eve by Angela Stevens


This was an excellent book, despite the off-putting title.  I don’t often read anything with a fantasy element, but this contained so much detailed information about rural Iceland in the 1870s – houses, systems of labour, the roles of men and women, food, drink, religion, medicine, clothes, embroidery -, all put across extremely well, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Belief in huldafolk, or fairy folk, remained strong in Iceland until recent times, and to some extent still does.  It’s become fused with Christianity via a belief that Adam and Eve had children who didn’t appear in the Bible as Eve was ashamed to show them to God because she hadn’t had time to wash them, and that it’s from their line that the huldafolk come.  In this book, a childless couple foster a child who’d fallen into the water and been frozen in it, and it transpires that the lost child and a fairy child had become fused together.  Their farm and their community prosper from when she arrives, and she and a local youth fall in love, but their neighbours become suspicious of her and she eventually leaves.

It sounds weird, but it really does come across well.  The folklore itself is interesting, and the picture of the society of the time and place, an unusual setting for an English-language book, is incredibly well-drawn.   This isn’t my usual thing, but it was very, very good.


The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner (Facebook group reading challenge)


The month’s challenge was to read a book from a genre you wouldn’t normally touch with a bargepole, which for me meant either sci-fi or (with the honourable exception of the Narnia books) fantasy.  I really couldn’t face sci-fi, so that left fantasy; and I thought I might get on OK with this one because it was set in and around Alderley Edge, an area I know quite well.  In fact, were it not for Lockdown III, I’d probably have been there today.  The first weekend in February usually means an outing to see the snowdrops at Rode Hall, and then a stop off at Alderley Edge on the way back, for a walk through the woods and out to the Edge, where the dwarfs, elves et al hang around in this book, and then a nice cup of tea at the aptly-named Wizard tearoom.   Sadly, not this year 😦 .

The book does draw heavily on the legend of the wizard of Alderley Edge, and most of the places mentioned in it are real and familiar, so I did enjoy reading it … although I was rather puzzled as to why everyone in Alderley Edge sounded as if they were from Bolton.  It was very well-written as these things go, with dwarves, elves, wizards and shape-shifting witches, and it was interesting how a lot of it included elements of Norse and Celtic mythology, but fantasy is really not for me.   There’s overlap between history and folklore, and also between folklore and fantasy, but actual fantasy is a step too far: I’m much better with historical fiction.  But that’s obviously not Alan Garner’s fault: if you do like fantasy, this is a very good book.

The legend of the wizard is that a farmer was approached by an old man wanting to buy his white horse.  After failing to get any other offers, he agreed – and the old man told him that he was a wizard, and that there were 140 knights with 139 white horses sleeping under the Edge, ready to do battle with evil.  It’s not clear why there were one horse short, but they were.  He showed the farmer a huge treasure trove, and said he could take as much as he liked in payment.  Some versions conflate this with Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table.  In this book, the white magic is controlled by a stone, the weirdstone, and the farmer stole it, and it was passed down through the generations, eventually coming into the possession of a young girl called Susan.

Susan and her brother Colin came to Alderley Edge to stay with their mother’s old nurse and her farmer husband, whilst their parents were working abroad.  Made a change from being dumped at boarding school or on a maiden aunt, I suppose.  Alderley Edge and the whole “Golden Triangle” has become so closely associated with footballers’ wives, wealthy business people from Manchester and the whole Cheshire Set thing that it was lovely to read about an ordinary farming couple, even if they and their friends did sound way more Bolton than Bollington.  Alan Garner knows Alderley Edge far better than I do, so presumably he knows the accent and the dialect, but it didn’t half sound Bolton to me.  Anyway!

The farmer got quite involved with it all, which was different: parents; guardians and other relatives don’t usually feature much in fictional children’s adventures.  He seemed entirely unfazed when two dwarfs turned up at his farm, and even suggested that they could get a bus from Macclesfield to Shutslingsloe, where they were meeting the wizard.  That sort of thing was why I chose this book.  I’m guessing that most fantasy books do not involve people suggesting that dwarfs get buses from Macc.  I should really go and walk up Shutlingsloe (“the Matterhorn of Cheshire”) some time, when lockdown’s over and that nice ice cream place there is open again.

Before all this, Susan and Colin had gone for a wander in the woods and up to the Edge, but had been attacked by a lot of baddie elves before being rescued by the wizard.  However, a load of witches and other baddies also came after them, and stole Susan’s bracelet, which she’d belatedly realised contained the weirdstone mentioned by the wizard.  She and Colin got it back, but were pursued, and there was a detailed and rather claustrophobic description of how they the two dwarfs who came to their rescue – one of whom was killed in the final battle towards the end of the book, which was very sad 🙂 – escaped through the old copper mines which have been in the area since Roman times and probably earlier, although there’s been no mining there since the 1870s.

They then had to get the weirdstone to the wizard, whom the dwarfs were due to meet on Shutlingsloe.  The weirdstone contained all sorts of magic, but evidently couldn’t send messages to suggest meeting sooner and nearer.  The bus idea having been abandoned, the children, the dwarfs and the farmer set off down the Congleton Road, but, instead of going on towards Capesthorne Hall, Little Moreton Hall, Biddulph Grange and Rode Hall, turned left, past Gawsworth Hall (not being able to go for days out during lockdown is doing my head in – can you tell?  I’m desperate to get to the Lakes and Blackpool, but I’d quite like to get out into Cheshire too) and headed for Shutlingsloe.

All the baddies turned up and there was a great battle.  The baddies got the weirdstone.  Oh no!  But, at the last minute, hurrah, the wizard arrived, evil was defeated, and the wizard used the weirdstone to suppress the forces of evil.  You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you?  But hooray for the wizard!

As I said, it was probably pretty good as children’s fantasy go, but fantasy is just not my thing.

Picture of the Edge, taken last year: