When their mother dies, Molly and elder sister Hannah are sent to live with their grandparents. Unused to the countryside and dark autumnal nights, they feel unwanted, unable to come to terms with the loss of their mum and their dad’s abandonment and inability to care for them.
One storm-tossed night Molly witnesses a strange event in which a young man, bedecked in leaves, is set upon by a huntsman and baying dogs the size of wolves. She comes across the young man again, and each time he is frailer. She delves into legend and discovers that he is the Oak King of ancient times, his pursuer the Holly King. The Oak King represents the greenery and growth of summer, the Holly King, the stagnation of winter. What she has witnessed is a fight for supremacy as winter takes over from summer. Little does she understand that the Oak King’s death is a prerequisite to spring and rebirth, and that his trajectory mirrors her own spiritual journey from bereavement to new beginnings.
The story has moments of feeling and poetic beauty though the intertwining of family crisis and ancient lore is not always successful. The Skellig-like figure of the Oak King as symbol of healing and creation of the imagination is haunting, and the vastness of themes touched upon – the cyclical nature of the seasons, folklore and the collective unconscious – is impressive in its scope.