Do you have books that you remember reading for the first time, or that you associate strongly with a particular time in your life, or that you feel changed your life in some way? Oh good – then it’s not just me.
When I was 7, my cousin (from a different country and 15 years older than me, hence she was the living embodiment of ‘cool’) gave me a book, telling me it was one she’d read when she was little, and now she didn’t need it any more. I took it from her, immediately captivated by the cover image, which showed a rearing white horse. But then I looked at the picture more closely. ‘It’s a unicorn!‘ I cried, to my cousin’s delight. I remember taking it up to my room, which at that time had a little seat in the window (perfect for reading), and as soon as I had started this book, there was nothing that could entice me to move. Dinner was ignored, as were my friends, as was the sunshine outside the window. I had to finish the book. I remember being electrified by scenes where shadow-people from another world project themselves onto a boy’s bedroom wall – those scenes terrified me, but it was terror mixed with exhilaration. I was afraid to look at my own bedroom wall, for fear of what I might see there. I kept reading. I read about four ancient treasures, found by four siblings, which have the power to save or destroy another world. I read about a dark hill, which exuded a black light-beam in order to find its enemies, and which the child-hero had to enter in order to save his family. I read about the unicorn, who had to sing to save the world, and even as a child I knew that this song would spell its doom. I finished the book, I cried, I wiped my eyes and then I started it again.
The book was ‘Elidor’, by Alan Garner, and it changed my life. It was the book which awakened my imagination, and which fixed forever my love of mythology, folklore, fantasy fiction, fairytales, even historical fiction. There is a little verse of poetry in the book, which is important to the plot, and it is written in a language that seemed like angels’ speech to me as a child; it turned out to be something even better than that. It was the first time I had ever read Middle English, though I didn’t know what it was at the time – later, much later, during my Ph.D. studies into the medieval period, I recalled ‘Elidor’ and smiled to see how much influence it’d had over my life.
The first book I ever tried to write, I remember with a rueful grin, was a sequel to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s magical ‘The Little Prince’. That, also, was a book which touched my sentimental heart and made me cry bitter tears for the loss of the Prince, and his departure for another unknown world at the end of the story. The narrator poignantly asks the reader to tell him if the little prince ever returns to earth, and so my book (complete with illustrations, I’ll have you know) was based on that idea – the little prince had returned, and I was rushing to tell the author the good news, so that the friends could be reunited. Little did I know that, of course, in real life M. de Saint-Exupery had long since disappeared himself. When I found out that he had been lost in action during WWII, I mourned for him as I would have for one of my own family.
These two books are the pillars around which I built my childhood. I can’t overstate how important they were, and are, to me. I still read them at least once a year, and I love them just as much now as I did then – and, believe it or not, every time I read them, I learn something new.
As I grew up, of course, I began to love other books – but that’s for another day, and another blog post.