The Wild Hunt of the Ghost Hounds, aka The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, by Penelope Lively

I recently got a new computer, and made a nice little space for it on the desk under the stairs.  I moved the bookshelf that was on the desk, but there is still a small little bit of TBR creep (six books) off to one corner of it...and there I was this morning, reading blogs etc., and I saw that one of these books was The Wild Hunt of the Ghost Hounds, by Penelope Lively (UK title--The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, 1971), and I asked myself why the heck I'd never gotten around to reading it...so I did.

Lucy has been sent from London to spend the summer with her aunt Mabel, who lives in a small Somerset village.  She'd been there once before, as a child, and remembered vividly the fun she had had with three local children, two girls and a boy, and as the train gets closer, she's filled with anticipation, imaging them all having a wonderful summer together.   But though her aunt's cottage is lovely, her old friends have changed--the two girls, daughters of a posh family, are now frightfully keen on all things pony (not of interest to Lucy), and Kester, the boy, being from a non-posh family, is rather beneath their notice, except as something to be patronized.   And Kester doesn't seem to want much to do with Lucy....

Happily, this changes--Kester, in the lonely position of being sent to a better school than the other village kids, unbends toward Lucy, and for a while, they are happy exploring the wild moor and the forests and looking for fossils on the beach.   And all is calm...(and beautifully described).

And then the dance begins.  It seemed harmless enough to the Vicar, when he found the old leather mask to which stag horns had been attached--why not revive what was clearly an Olde Tradition, and use the recreated stag dance as the center piece of a fund-raising village fete?   And soon six boys and six girls are outfitted with masks and horns, and the dance is brought back to life. 

But the older people of the village remember the stories of what happened back before the dance was abandoned...and are afraid.  It was more, or less, than a dance...there was a hunt, and there was the one hunted, and always there was the risk of wakening the old wild magic that the dance only imitated.  And Lucy, watching her friend Kester pulled into that old story, is afraid as well.  She can sense the Wild Hunt coming closer, looking for its quarry...

Doesn't that sound excellent, and just the sort of book a young imaginative Anglophile girl (me at 12) would love?  And it was very gripping, and very real, and very magical...and the horror of the Wild Hunt grew and grew as the land was gripped by heat and drought...but yet it wasn't, quite, as good as I thought it should have been.  I've had this sense of vague let down with Penelope Lively before--a feeling that I should be more swept off my feet then I am by the numinous magic of the story and by the wonderful evocative sense of old places and traditions that fill her books. 

Is it, I asked myself, the fact that there's not a lot of tasty food in her books?  That may sound shallow, but a nicely described meal of appropriate beauty/mystery/homeyness goes a long way toward making a story real.  "Have another scone," as Aunt Mabel says, just doesn't do it.

But I rejected this hypothesis.   Food alone wouldn't have filled the uncertain void I felt.

I considered the lack of something else I like very much in books--the main character doing something particular, either of a crafty sort, or an imaginative sort--making or pretending, in a way that makes a character a unique person.    Lucy and Kester mostly have no external points to their lives--they like books, they like fossils, but mostly they are pretty blank.  I felt I was getting closer...

And then I realized that Lucy and Kester, and for that matter the boys in the Stag Dance, have no agency to speak of, and are simply being washed over by old magic because they happen to be the ones that are there at the time.  Who they are as people has little to do with it (Kester gets the role he does because of his outlier status, but it's not because of his particular Kester-ness).   Looking back at the other Penelope Lively books I've reviewed (Astercote, A Stich in Time, The Driftway) the same lack of agency is there too-they are strong on place, evocative as heck, and they should be books I loved to bits....but I didn't, quite.

Oh well!  I wouldn't mind quite so much if they hadn't come so close, especially this one....


  1. Sorry, too many typos, here is my comment again:

    That's an interesting review, almost like an investigation into what bothered you about the book. I've never read her but I've had similar feelings with other books when it's as if the characters could have been anyone and were only there to support events much bigger than them. It's not pleasant, I agree, and usually I don't finish this kind of book.

    Your remark about the lack of food descriptions is far from shallow, it's one of the things I always, always enjoy reading about. It's such an easy way of warming up a scene I'm often surprised not more authors decide to incorporate pages and pages of meals in their books :D

    1. I'm glad I'm not alone with regard to food! It has to be done well, though--better no food than lavish descriptions that lack substance!!!

  2. What a thought-provoking review. I don't generally notice food in books, but the lack of agency behind a character becoming something more is something that I have noticed. It's as though any old character could be the hero and this one only was by chance. Disappointing, sometimes.

  3. I was interested to read this - I too never felt entirely gripped by Peneloppe Lively's children books. You may have put your finger on the reason why. I love her adult books and especially her short stories, though!

    1. I'm glad I'm not alone! I've never tried any of her adult fiction...someday....

  4. I loved Penelope Lively's books as a kid, but you put your finger on something I had never quite articulated. The stories are full of children that something happens to, not children who make choices or do things. I do remember particularly liking the Whispering Knights, which somehow captures the natures of the three children very well. They are all ordinary, but it's this that makes the story come alive. The action derives completely from what sort of people each of the characters are, even the supernatural aspects.

    I never liked her grown up books very much though.

  5. I loved the book as a child - probably because I know the area. Hagworthy has to be somewhere around Roadwater or Luxborough in Somerset. But I would never have written in unless my own daughter had not been fixated on the story when I read it to her. Like JK Rowling, the story thrives on understatement. I love the themes of belonging/outsider and wisdom/being popular. Food themes? Never thought of them. It's the burgeoning awareness of the bigger world around them, traditional and modern that makes these two young people so real.

  6. It just goes to show how variable peoples' reading experience can be--maybe if I had read this at a different age, in a different mood, in a different place, I'd have loved it!


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