Riddles and charms, Kathryn Walls

The Magical Verse of Margaret Mahy: The Word Witch
Tessa Duder (ed), David Elliot (illustrations)
HarperCollins, $44.99,
ISBN 9781869507077

The Dark Blue Hundred-ride Bus Ticket
Margaret Mahy
HarperCollins, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869508166

Awesome Aotearoa: Margaret Mahy’s History of New Zealand
Margaret Mahy, Trace Hodgson (illustrations)
AUT Media, $25.00,
ISBN 0958282970

As Northrop Frye has observed, the musical dimensions of poetry imitate the incantatory formulas used by priests and magicians in their efforts to control (or charm) gods, people and the universe in general. The title of Tessa Duder’s collection of Mahy’s verse, while cumbersome (and, in my view, unbecomingly promotional) does capture the almost literally magical aspect of Mahy’s verse.

Impossible as they so often are, Mahy’s narratives derive a kind of inevitability from aural imperatives. If you are the eponymous King of Castile, you will suffer from an illness beginning with a hard “c” that requires a “cure”, and if you are the king’s butler, you will wear blue and bring the requisite cure in a bottle. Magically efficacious as it is, the butler’s wine (that “tasted of phoenixes, tasted of flowers/
. . . tasted of summer-time’s happiest hours”) embodies the power of alliteration on stressed syllables, the insistent rhythm of four-beat lines, and those quickly-returning end rhymes.

In “Bubble Trouble” (“Little Mabel blew a bubble and it caused a lot of trouble”), a whole chapter of accidents expands (bubble-like) out of its opening two words. The reader experiences a quasi-sophisticated appreciation of the author’s verbal dexterity, as well as naive enjoyment of her story per se. When “the treble singer, Abel, [throws] an apple core at Mabel”, we register the action as such, even though we suspect that the “apple” originally sprang not so much out of Abel’s hand as out of the sound of his name.

The many magicians and musicians that populate Mahy’s verses invite interpretation as projections of the author. Furthermore, what is magical about these often turns out to be their capacity to project creatures like themselves. The witch of “A Witch Poem” conjures a “mouse that plays on a violin”, for instance. In the procession poems in particular, multitudes of such entertainers are invoked. The witch (or old woman) is just one among Mahy’s many archetypal figures – bird-boy, baby, animal-helper, good king, bad king, lovers, the “strange old man” that “had been sitting there since the world began”. While they tend to be observed in solitary (even achingly solitary) situations, fairytale figures appear as a group in “How the World Ended”. Provoked by unbelievers, they show themselves en masse before taking their revenge by initiating the apocalypse.

While many of her verses are action-packed and exuberant, Mahy can also exhibit a reflective and introspective vein, reminiscent of Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses. The speaker of “The Haunted Child” is troubled by the spirit within. Other child-narrators ponder mutability, identity, their place in the universe. In “Wonderful Me”, for example, the child sees itself as the centre, epitome, and (frighteningly) mainspring of the natural world:

I am made out of seaweed
I am made out of stones,
And my heart is a bird
In a cage of white bones.
I am made out of froth
I am made out of foam,
I am spinning the world
So I daren’t go home,
Or else like a penny,
Or else like a top,
The world would spin slower
and slower
and stop.


Like the child who won’t stop spinning, Mahy never abandons her lyricism. But while the obvious question “What am I?” never appears (the answer being anticipated by the title), “Wonderful Me” is quite like a riddle – the riddle being (according to Frye) the very antithesis of the charm. While the charm draws us into its orbit, the riddle forces us to think for ourselves. Mahy’s poems are always charming. Sometimes, however, they also model contemplation and self-realisation.

While we must be grateful to Duder for gathering Mahy’s poems into a single volume (and to David Elliot for his varied and tonally sensitive illustrations), it is a pity that no-one has bothered to date the poems, or to identify their original places of publication. The generalised list of acknowledgements is no substitute.

In The Dark Blue Hundred-ride Bus Ticket, Mahy revisits a motif central to one of her earliest stories for little children, the extraordinary Pillycock’s Shop (first published in the New Zealand School Journal in 1966). This is the tale of how the child Teddy, left resentfully in charge of two babies who are (the reader is left to assume) his twin sisters, enters an aeons-old antique shop where he exchanges his sister Penny for a mechanical monkey.

Realising his mistake before sunset (at which point any change of heart on his part would have been too late), Teddy returns to the shop and, shrewdly recognising a new penny on the counter as his sister, claims it, at which point the baby Penny materialises, and the shop crumbles into dust. The predatory shop-keeper is also central to Mahy’s classic young adult novel The Changeover (1984). When Laura takes her little brother Jacko into a shop owned by an ancient lemur (Carmody Braque), Braque places a stamp on Jacko’s hand, thus gaining access to his youthful life force.

The shop is just as important in The Dark Blue Hundred-ride Bus Ticket. But the “Supermarket at the End of the World” (reached by a magical bus reminiscent of the “knight bus” in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is the polar opposite of  Pillycock’s. In its infinite space providential items are checked out by a generous shop assistant (whose first name, significantly, is Sherwood). Loneliness is defeated, and socio-economic divisions breached, when Jessica (the mother of the convalescent hero Carlo) meets her wealthy partner-to-be (Dominic) in its aisles, while Carlo finds a friend in Dominic’s daughter Pearlie.

The pearl of great price (of Christ’s parable, Matt. 13: 46) is of course priceless – which is what I take to be the message of this junior novel. The spirit of Pillycock lives on, however, in the cloven-hooved “Dowlers” (“a big supermarket family . . . in the food-processing business”). Their take-over bids are entertainingly frustrated by Carlo and Pearlie, whose battle-cries could have been taken straight out of Word Witch (“Spray you to scrottle-scraps” etc). If only market forces could be defeated so easily.

Speaking of market forces, I presume that Awesome Aotearoa was the “brain” child of its publishers, AUT Media, who realised that a “fun” history by an author as well-known and well-loved as Mahy would be purchased by every school library (if not by every library) in the country. Spray them with scrottle-scraps!

Allergic as I am to self-congratulatory affirmations of “Kiwi” identity, I approached this book with a sense of foreboding that turned out to be justified, not least by a gratuitous stream of references to our national sport. The history of New Zealand is largely one of ongoing environmental exploitation and
degradation, inter-tribal warfare, imperial oppression, violent racial and class conflict and the like. But Mahy attempts to pre-empt anxiety by representing it as an “adventure”, and New Zealand as a loveable hero courting excitement at all costs.

Surveying New Zealand history for English consumption in her earlier New Zealand: Yesterday and Today (1975), Mahy – though never dull – could be plain and sober when her material required it. Here, however, unwilling to confront the child reader with the evil that men do, she adopts a jocular approach marked by throw-away exclamations, verbal pyrotechnics, and what may (or, worryingly, may not) be irony.

On pre-European inter-tribal warfare, for example, she remarks: “After all, back then they did not have television and they needed a bit of excitement and bloodshed. Everyone needs entertainment.” Minimising the agony of Orakau, she renders Rewi Maniopoto’s famous ake ake speech as “Now look here mate, I will go on fighting you for ever and ever and ever”). One chapter (gleefully entitled “Bang!!!”) begins as follows: “Bang! Atomic bombs! Wow again!  The Allies (basically those American allies) dropped the very first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, imposing damage that awed the whole world. Still does! Just as well the goodies (us) got those bombs first!” This is all Mahy has to say about the bomb, except to add: “But of course we Kiwis had had a vital part in making the bomb possible. (Remember Rutherford?).”

How would a child reader (or any reader, for that matter) know whether Mahy was being patriotic or ironic? In her brilliant fiction, Mahy offers hope to the next generation. Without denying the evil that men do, the difficulties of life, she insists “we shall overcome”. In Awesome Aotearoa, however, her affirmative spirit seems to have led her astray. A final point: no sources are listed, and there are no suggestions for further reading.


Kathryn Walls teaches in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington.


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