A powerful and unexpectedly different novel from a major writer that takes a new direction … Julia Eccleshare investigates.
Babe, the movie version of that best-selling modern classic, The Sheep-Pig, endorsed Dick King-Smith’s reputation as the best and the funniest writer of such anthropomorphic animal stories.
It would have been easy for Dick King-Smith to sit back and continue to mine that successful vein which also includes such hits as Daggie Dogfoot and The Mouse Butcher. But he has not stood still since the start of his prodigiously productive writing career. Godhanger, his new novel, marks a significant and weighty step forward and beyond the territory that he had so clearly marked out for himself.
How much Dick knew this when he wrote the book it is quite hard to tell as his modesty makes him prone to play down his belief in it. His surprise at the response it has received seems wholly genuine. ‘When a new book comes out, of course I like to have nice reviews. I was sweating on this. I’m still enormously surprised at the reception it has received.’
So what is so special about Godhanger and why did Dick write it?
‘Now his old familiar nesting-place beckoned, high on a sheltered ledge on the Atlantic cliffs, with his old familiar mate, mother in her time to his many children: the gruff-spoken, hairy-chinned, comfortable roosting partner at the end of so many thousands of days. He was just about to turn for home when he saw a solitary black and white bird flying silently along the wood’s edge. As he watched, it perched for a moment in the top of a single outlying skeleton-elm, long tail dipping up and down, and then flew suddenly and rapidly away with loud calls of alarm.
“Chakka-chakka-chakka-chak!” cried Myles the magpie and Loftus circled higher still. He knew Myles for a thief and a double-dyed villain, but he also knew better than to doubt the ’pie’s warning.
And at that precise moment the evening’s peace was shattered by the blast of a gunshot. After a heartbeat’s pause came the noise of a second shot, followed by a thin agonized screaming that ceased as suddenly as it had arisen. Silence fell again on Godhanger Wood as the raven beat away towards the west.’
So ends the opening section of Godhanger, revealing the power of Dick’s writing, the extent of his descriptive skills and a dark side to his storytelling that he has not previously explored. It is the combination of these which give Godhanger its strength and definition. It is a finely crafted book, carefully written, revelling in description and imagery.
Death features large in Godhanger – not that that is new for Dick. Even in his comedies, such as Magnus Powermouse, the inherently dangerous nature of a mouse’s life lies at the centre of the story. And Babe, after all, revolves around the need to save the piglet from the chop. The difference with Godhanger is that death lies at the very heart of the story giving it an overall air of foreboding, redeemed not by humour but by belief. For, in addition to changing audience by writing a longer book for older readers, Dick has also made a huge leap of subject matter by writing an allegory.
For someone who calls himself an agnostic this seems a surprising thing to do, especially as the allegory is no loose, tentative affair but a full-blown structure with the strange, powerful bird Skymaster as the Jesus figure and a full set of twelve disciples chosen from the birds of the wood.
‘Some of the birds of the wood had come together as followers of the Skymaster, and all these carried different pictures of him in their minds. Because all found themselves unable to meet his gaze directly, each tended to think of him in the image of his own kind, as some sort of hawk or falcon or crow or owl. Only once in their lives were they able to look directly at him, and then it was too late.’
Just occasionally the allegory gets uncomfortable, as at the description of the Skymaster’s birth, in my view, and at the end where he is nailed out – spread-eagled – in an imitation crucifix, in Dick’s.
‘I was worried that I had cut the allegory too close on that occasion,’ says Dick.
Overall, however, he is pleased with the structure and happy with the way the story contains the message. ‘I wrote Godhanger as an exploration of faith by someone who doesn’t believe but would like to. It is my way of looking at death and the afterlife.’ Against the charge that it is gloomy, he cites the lasting feeling of hope with which the reader is left.
But, though the allegory lies at the centre of the story, it does not provide the sole reason for Dick writing it.
‘I was longing to write something for older children where I could expand the language and the description. And I wanted to give rein to my eternal admiration for Henry Williamson (the author of Tarka the Otter). He knew far more than me about animals, but I did check out all the details and I have got them right!’
Dick’s vivid and detailed descriptions of the interactions within the animal and bird worlds revolve much around the food chains which means that everything is prey to something. Descriptions of one animal killing and eating another are clearly defined as an inevitable part of natural survival.
The role of humans is different. Dick wanted only one human character in this book and, as the gamekeeper is unremittingly unpleasant, humans seem to come off very badly.
‘Man is the supreme predator. He kills for killing, not just to eat. But I wasn’t making a statement about all of mankind or all gamekeepers. This man is not evil because he is a gamekeeper but because he happens to be an evil man.’
For his insights into nature and his vivid descriptions of them, Dick King-Smith is an exceptional writer. In the new, more sober voice of Godhanger, he shows just what a good storyteller and writer he is.
Godhanger is published by Doubleday (0 385 40778 5) at £9.99.
Julia Eccleshare is a critic, author, broadcaster and the children’s book correspondent for the Bookseller
The beautiful woodcuts that adorn the interior of Godhanger are by award-winning Andrew Davidson who, amongst other things, illustrated Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man.