The child, the book and the future, Margaret Mahy

When I was a child of about eleven, I read a book which not only entertained me but flattered me too, for it seemed to take me seriously as a reader. It admitted me to an adult world. The girl who owned the book did not like it and gave it to me willingly. (I swear she did!) But she herself had not been its first owner for, according to information still legible in the inside cover, it had once belonged to the Carnegie Library in Levin. (If you wanted to take out more than two books at a time you had to pay threepence for each extra book. It seems quite moderate in this day and age.)

Anyhow my particular book was published in 1910 and is called The Flint Heart. The author is Eden Phillpotts and (except for the girl who was so glad to get rid of it) I have never met anyone else who has heard of it, though Eden Phillpotts earns a mention in the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature as the author of a book of school stories called The Human Boy, “somewhat anticipating” (we are told) Kipling’s Stalky & Co.

The actual story of The Flint Heart has a folktale quality. A neolithic mystery man called Fum is approached by a young warrior who demands a spell which will harden his heart. Fum, rather reluctantly, sets to work to carve such a heart, thinking the work will take a long time. However, at his first blow the stone he is working on splits to reveal a perfectly formed shiny black Flint Heart – a charm with such heart-hardening capacity that any wearer becomes highly successful in both war and business, though at a predictable cost: for those who carry the flint heart (and there are four of them during the course of the story) are also disliked and feared. Finally, however, good triumphs; the wicked spell is reduced to a powder, which, when cast onto the land, into the air and into the water, imparts a new zest to the landscape. A delicate pinch of wickedness apparently adds edge and enthusiasm to the world.

Perhaps there is nothing in this plot to explain the impact that the book had on me. However, there is something idiosyncratic about it, which shows up in its details.

On his deathbed the hard-hearted warrior, now a chief of his tribe, instructs Fum to pass the Flint Heart on to his son, but Fum decides to bury it with its first owner.

“Kind hearts are more than coronets,” said Fum to himself – quoting Tennyson funnily enough. “Anyhow I’ll take what risk there is and bury the charm with him.”

I won’t pretend I had read much Tennyson when I was ten or eleven, but I did know his name. I knew he was a significant poet, and having a neolithic magician quote Tennyson (funnily enough) focused my attention. A chapter or two later the hero of the story, a child whose kindly father has been transformed, in turn, by the Flint Heart, seeks help from the Dartmoor pixies, and encounters a pixie called De Quincey, obsessed with the beauty of English prose. Once again I recognised the name of a significant writer. We had De Quincey’s essays in the bookshelf at home. And, once again, I was thrilled not only by the oddity of the reference but by the implicit assumption that I would understand the joke. I was being included in the extended world of books, not restricted to stories-for-children territory.

However, it was not simply these references that delighted me. The book had its own curious post-modern moments. The first chapter ended with an odd paragraph:

And this is the end of the first chapter. There is no special reason why it should be but it looks about long enough, and I like to keep my chapters fairly short because the long ones get puffed up and sneer at the little ones though often the little ones are much the best and the long ones are frightfully dull. Of course, in this book about the wonderful and never-to-be-forgotten Flint Heart there must not be a single dull chapter and if you find one please write and tell me which one it is. Then I shall look after it, and may even drop it out of the story altogether, if it does not try to improve and brighten itself up.

I was intrigued, for the book itself had somehow become a character inside itself. Though The Flint Heart is not the only children’s book to play this game, this was the first time I had encountered a device that prefigured the possibilities inherent in novels like The French Lieutenant’s Woman or post-modern fiction generally.

There are people who deplore, with reason, the author of a children’s book looking primarily at the adult behind the child and giving conspiratorial winks. I don’t think Eden Phillpotts does this, however. I think he directed his story at a certain sort of reader – a reader who might begin enjoying the book in childhood and who would then continue to enjoy it in shifting ways as he or she grew older. I think that when I read The Flint Heart I was not only being entertained at my own level, but was also being accepted as an inhabitant of the extended world of books – a world of which I already had intimations and which I longed to inhabit as fully as possible. I was being taken seriously (I thought) and invited in.

Margaret Mahy’s book of essays and talks, A Dissolving Ghost, will be reviewed in our next issue.

This is the first of a series called “Imprints”, in which prominent New Zealanders write about single literary works (novels, biographies, poems, plays) that have made a lasting impact on them.

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