BY DAVID BOWLES
In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published his massive follow-up to his 1937 children’s book, “The Hobbit.” The three-volume work of fantasy known as “The Lord of the Rings” was a tough sell at the time, and Tolkien’s publisher turned to established authors for blurbs and marketing, including Naomi Mitchison.
Just two years earlier, Mitchison, who was a fan and friend of Tolkien’s for years, had herself published a slim fantasy novel titled “Travel Light.” The book in many respects reads as a conversation with or response to Tolkien’s work. Both authors were adapting epic heroic tales to modern sensibilities, but Mitchison arguably went further than her peer, turning the genre utterly on its head.
“Travel Light” tells the story of Halla, a princess who narrowly escapes the clutches of her murderous stepmother. She is brought up for a time by bears before being adopted by a dragon, under whose tutelage she gains the ability to speak to all living creatures and other small practical magicks.
Halla also learns to hate and mistrust heroes, whom dragons see as dangerous ideologues rushing off to murder and ransack. Indeed, great tragedy befalls her at the hands of a hero. Forced to leave the dragons’ world of treasure and ancient lore, she faces Valkyries, unicorns and other mythical creatures before being told by Odin All-Father to “travel light.”
Wandering through the world and the centuries, Halla finds herself in the company of men, whose tendency to want to rescue maidens from dragons without consulting with the ladies has always seemed suspect to her. But this particular band of men seeks to get justice from the Emperor in Constantinople, and Halla’s unique skills and world view are a godsend for them.
Right down to the twist of an ending, Mitchison is deftly subversive with genre and gender expectations while managing to tell a beautiful, moving story. She tackles issues of government, religion and tradition with a light but critical touch so that the book is simultaneously very accessible to children and immensely rewarding for adults.
Mitchison, who lived to be 101 and wrote some 90 books, may have been largely forgotten while her male colleagues Tolkien, C.S. Lewis et al. have been immortalized, but this engaging, witty and intelligent book needs to get into the hands of all the fantasy lovers you know, both young and old.
David Bowles is an award-winning writer and translator. You can contact him at www.davidbowles.us.