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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Hobberdy Dick

hobberdydickThe moon had set, however, before they reached Stow churchyard, and found old Grim, playing a subdued and melancholy air upon the bones.

There’s no better treat than a children’s fantasy novel, so you can just imagine how excited I was to read this ghost story round-up from Katherine Langrish last year. Two novels–Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time (excerpted here, will blog about it soon) and K.M. Briggs’ Hobberdy Dick–sounded particularly appealing, and I ordered them both on straightaway. Turns out I was already somewhat familiar with Katharine Briggs; she’s best known as a folklorist, and I had read a few of her essays on witchcraft in the very early stages of writing Petty Magic. (And speaking of British folklore, you might be interested to read this mini-essay by Faber editor Walter Donohue on why he prefers Briggs’ fiction to Tolkein’s. Veeeeery interesting.)So I started with Hobberdy Dick, which was first published in 1955. Sarah says the title grosses her out, but I have to admit I love it for its (hopefully) unintentional perversity. From the introduction:

Long ago, long before our great-grandfathers were born and before the ancient ways left our countryside, there was plenty of secret folk-life in England, particularly hobgoblins who guarded the houses and lands and watched over the families who lived in them, until their task was done and they were released. These hobgoblins were shy folk who stayed out of sight, but they were also determined and meddlesome creatures with strong likes and dislikes. Happy the human they took a fancy to, and woe betide anyone who crossed them.

Our eponymous hero is a hobgoblin bound to Widford Manor, and though the novel is set in the 17th century Dick has already been around for several hundred years. The plot centers on the kind young man of the house, Joel Widdison, and his romance with his stepmother’s handmaid, Anne, who happens to be a gentlewoman of reduced circumstances (she’s a relative of the manor’s former owners, who were on the losing side in the Civil War). Of course Hobberdy Dick aids the young lovers any way he can, protecting Anne and all the rest of the servants from the ire of the ridiculous Mrs. Widdison and rescuing Joel’s little sister from a witches’ trap.

As you might expect from that introductory bit, Briggs’ prose sometimes feels rather didactic, but for a folk historian I guess it’s somewhat hard to help; and the trade-off is, of course, the ancient superstitions and bygone traditions brought into vivid color by her passionate expertise. I particularly relished all the lovely little details in the Christmas chapter (despite the curious absence of semi-colons):

There must have been more than a score of people in the room, for convivial labourers had come from the farms round…Martha, Diligence, little Samuel, Ned the houseboy, Charity and half a dozen others were playing at hot cockles. Rachel, Maria Parminter and Nancy, the oldest of the maids, were roasting chestnuts and crabapples, the butler, Jonathon Fletcher, a grave, silent man, was brewing a bowl of lambswool in which the crabs were to float, a group of lads at the far end of the room were improvising clothes for the mumming play, George Batchford, with a cushion on his head to mark his rank as King of the Revels, was directing everyone, his usually gloomy and impassive face aglow with good humour, and the nips he had taken to quicken his spirits. Hobberdy Dick unperceived added his own ho! ho! ho! to the sound of merriment which went up from the place, and slipped into a dark corner beyond the fire, from which he could watch all that went on…

Marvelous, no?I’ll leave you with my favorite line:

Their talk of dying had sent a pang through his heart, and he realized that he had never loved human beings as he loved these two.

2 Comments to Hobberdy Dick

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    January 21, 2011 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like a lovely book! Maybe it should be my reading for England?

  2. Kate M's Gravatar Kate M
    February 1, 2011 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    I *love* A Traveller in Time – I re-read it recently, and then began on Barbara Willard’s ‘Mantlemass’ series, which centre around a house a bit like Thackers during the Wars of the Roses all the way to the Tudor era.
    I got the Willards in the Old Children’s Bookshop, which you have to visit when you’re in Edinburgh 🙂
    Kate (pamina)

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.