The Sterkarm Handshake
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This issue’s cover is from Edward Ardizzone’s Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. Brian Alderson discusses this classic picture book, now reissued in a beautiful new edition by Scholastic in ‘Classics in Short’. Thanks to Scholastic Children’s Books for their help in producing this January cover.
Price’s make-believe invention, the vital part of a secret international project to colonise and exploit the past, is the Time Tube (cf H G Wells, 1895). While the Tube is in use, one half of it remains in the high tech surroundings of ‘the 21st’. The travelling end is seen to disappear into thin air, and to operate in a different dimension of time, ‘the 16th’. Passengers emerge on the wild tussocky hillsides of the ‘debatable land’ of the Borders, the home of feuding families, reivers, the Sterkarms. Proud and vindictive, they hold their land, Man’s-Home, by fighting for it against all corners. Their moods and moves swither according to what they regard as threat. No handshake binds them. They do not wonder at the Tube, but see it as the work of strangers from Elf-Land. Elves are welcome as guests bringing ‘wee white pills’ which soothe arthritis. As invaders, they are resisted to the utmost.
In this reversal of folk-tale visitations (Tam Lin, True Thomas and others), the Sterkarms’ sodden, smelly communal life in a tower amongst sheep and heather is the author’s stunning imaginative creation, fed and renewed, as is much of her earlier work, by the dark side of ballads and tales older than writing. In response to the detailed clarity of the descriptions, readers are bound to set aside any conception of Sterkarms as uncivilized robbers, the view held by Windsor, the boss of the Tube, and reach back to stylistic features of even older legendary heroes, or the stuff of Beowulf. For Price, the war of her two worlds is the age-old rivalry of nature and science.
The contrasts and conflicts between the ancients and moderns are skilfully limned in the character and actions of Andrea, the energetic, buxom, go-between anthropologist employed to report to the entrepreneurs on the nature and culture of the Sterkarms. Sympathetic, intuitive and an understanding observer, she is safe as a guest and the prospective bride of the only son of the family chief and his implacable, fearsome wife. She speaks the local language and knows the difficulty of conducting negotiations between two groups of people with irreconcilable notions of reality and human engagement: hand-to-hand fighting and kissing are normal for Sterkarms. When Per, the handsome, impetuous heir, Andrea’s friend and lover, is badly wounded in a raid, she organizes his removal by Tube to recovery in a 21st hospital. Because Per knows that to eat the food of Elf-Land is to remain for ever in thrall, he discharges himself. In a ring-road subway he meets another, modern Sterkarm, homeless Joe, who is glad to leave his cardboard box to serve Per as his liegeman. Per’s experience of the actualities of the 21st is one of the most expertly realized episodes in a story where attacks and blood-letting come straight from their atavistic sources.
When it comes, the inevitable encounter is relentless and prolonged. The men of the 21st plan to shock the Sterkarms into compliance. The Sterkarms plan an ambush to dispatch the Elves and nearly succeed, but, losing Per bound and gagged to the invaders, they are bound to follow when he is again taken to Elf-Land. Once there, the Sterkarms fight their way back, laying waste the installations of the Tube headquarters. Per goes back to Man’s-Home, as does Joe. Andrea stays in the 21st, but is not ever fully at home. Where, now, are the readers’ sympathies, so strenuously recruited throughout on the side of the ‘uncivilized’?
Science now offers writers an extended range of fictive ways of coding human values and behaviour. The Time Tube device works well enough, adding suspense. But it is the power of the storytelling, raised here to new heights by an expert, that encourages young readers, and others, to consider what they believe is of most worth.