Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Luck of the Lynns (1952).

One of the perks of being a bookworm is that it can sometimes allow you to discover the unexplored corners of life.  I'm not talking about anything esoteric, so much as the avenues that got overlooked by time.  It doesn't happen often, however my own experience is that if you dig around the forgotten corners of the great library known as the world, you can come upon a text, or a name that can sometimes be so worth your time it's a wonder (and almost something of a crime) that there was never at least some kind of recognition.  That said, it's also possible enough to uncover a bunch of junk that probably should have stay in the trunk.  I'm not sure where the subject of today's post fits into this scheme.  I've talked about him once before.  From what I've been able to uncover about him, he never seems to have been one of the Big Names.  However, that didn't stop him from knowing at least some of them, and of making a few artistic contributions of his own.

Talking about someone like Roger Lancelyn Green can be a challenge.  It's one I've discussed before, here and there, on this blog.  One of the hazards of being an author is that even the the promise of publication can't guarantee any kind of Brand Name recognition or longevity in and of itself.  That's all up to how much the reading public decides whether it likes you or not.  Some of these scribbling types are able to garner a small handful of the audience.  This minor sort of fame might give off a brief sense of satisfaction.  At least there's someone out there who likes what you do.  The trouble with that type of circumstance is that there's no real assurance that even the best word of mouth reputation will grow from there.  Many of them never get beyond that initial step.  An author like H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, got lucky in that sense.  He started out as a sensation among a small circle of fans and friends, only to gain worldwide fame after his death.  A lot of the others who followed in his train are barely on the tip of the tongue anymore.  Who, for further instance, has ever heard of a moniker like Clark Ashton Smith?  That's got to be too fanciful to be real.  Right

Then of course, you have authors so obscure that part of the problem is being able to find any reliable background information on them.  The best example of this latter type is H.F. Arnold.  If the name sounds unfamiliar, that's no real surprise.  He's remembered today for publishing a short story called The Night Wire, and his reputation is kept alive mainly by fans of the Weird Circle of Cosmic Horror authors that center in and around the works of HPL.  The trick is a lot of folks know what Arnold wrote, and it's almost impossible to find any reliable info on his life.  The man himself remains a total enigma.  It's almost as if the story itself appeared out of thin air, complete with byline, and nothing else.  As a result, Arnold could be thought of as one of the most famous authors who wasn't there.

Roger Green seems to have escaped that level of literary fate.  It's possible to dig up some information on him, though what little there is remains patchy and scarce in places.  His date of birth can be traced to somewhere right around the end of the First World War, on Nov. 2nd, 1918.  This all happened in Norwich, to a couple listed as Helena Mary Phyllis and Maj. Gilbert Arthur Lancelyn Green.  The Green family itself is, or was part of the landed gentry of the English Upper Class.  It's lineage is reported to trace back all the way to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (web).  As is the typical case with most families of the nobility, there was a deeded and titled estate on which generations of the family grew up.  Roger appears to have been no exception.  His childhood was spent living in Poulton Hall.  It's was and remains one of those old English manor houses that can sometimes contain a storied history.  

It's nowhere near as vast or impressive as any of the old royal households, such as Hampton Court, and to be fair, that's kind of in its favor.  Unlike the grand, forbidding presences attached to an estate such as Beverston Castle, Poultan Hall's compact appearance tells of a more expansive and generous nature.  It's atmosphere is less that of the genuine Nobility, and more in the line of the Old County Squires.  It is just possible (once you've scaled the whole thing down to an appropriate size) to imagine a family of Hobbits emerging from its doors, maybe one of the Tooks or Brandybucks.  Perhaps that's why it seems fitting to discover that the old place has become the kind of setting that various artists like to arrange their projects in.  The house and grounds even served as a backdrop for a children's series known as The Owl Service.  This happened back in 1969, when its last owner was still alive.  It's somewhat telling about Green himself that he was willing to allow or open his own home to such a production.  It's also the dwelling that served as his first great window onto the world.  

Being the scion and heir of an old, established, military family was often viewed as being born into a fairly conservative milieu.  In England, that same framework still appears to be in operation today, at least among the ruing classes.  It is just possible to expect that Green would have experienced the same difficulties as those faced by a writer like E.A. Wyke-Smith.  The opening setting is almost so prototypical that it won't be too much of a surprise to learn that Roger grew up in the shadow of a strict, and authoritarian father figure.  Instead, the truth itself seems to amount to a more or less complete subversion of the trope.  Far from being a strict disciplinarian,  Arthur Green comes off as unconventional by the usual standards of the gentry.  His own son is able to provide the best possible snapshot of his upbringing in Poultan Hall through a brief snippet of memoir found in the opening pages of his later critical survey, Tellers of Tales.

"Being myself a rather bookish child, more often at home than at school owing to ill health, my reading played a very important part in my life.  It had always done so, as I was fortunate in having a father who delighted in reading aloud, began to do so long before I could read, and continued the custom, when occasion permitted, right up to the last year of his life when I was nearly thirty.  My own reading of children's book went on longer perhaps than is usual, and was succeeded by a delight in the story-tellers of the Nineties that I never lost; but it did not exclude other tastes, and I remember when I was fifteen or so reading Shakespeare plays and Tarzan stories alternately, and my reading lists of the time show an amazing variation between Stevenson or Haggard and Thackeray or Greek drama (8)".

If the interactions with his father were his first big influences, the second most important element in Green's introduction to Literature was the library housed on the estate.  This is one of the salient facts that marks Green's trajectory out as yet another type.  One of the commonalities to be found in the public statements of a lot of famous writers is how they all tend to go on, sometimes at a length which must seem absurd to casual reader, about the importance of libraries, or any kind of booksellers in their lives.  It seems to be one of the few, constant, real-life tropes that is able to unite an ongoing series of lives that are different in most every other respect.  Stephen King, for instance, noted that his education in books got started from at least two places.  One was the Stratford Library, in downtown Connecticut.  The other were the occasional bookmobiles that would drive through his hometown neighborhood of Durham, Maine.  For Ray Bradbury, meanwhile, it seems to have been the public library of Los Angeles that initiated him into the broader arena of world literature (Weller, 9).

Green's own experience of this same process appears to be a Victorian - Edwardian spin on the same process as that undergone by the other two mentioned above.  If his father wasn't there to read for him, the young Roger could often be found browsing through the volumes contained in the house.  From the sound of it, that library appears to have been an example of one of those old, private collections that some of the higher nobility could afford to compile for their own amusement, leisure, and in some cases, a genuine interest in literacy and learning.  The results could sometimes amount to several whole rooms given over to the shelving and stocking of various assorted tomes.  It is from this age old enterprise that we owe the by now still somewhat familiar image of the classical library; a vast and echoing hall lined with shelves of various leather-bound volumes of forgotten lore; most of which tend to alternate in color from red, to green, to brown, and always with the titles highlighted and bordered in gilt-edged gold.  Green seems to have been lucky enough to have inherited a variation of this image.  As first Bradbury, and then King would later do, once the young lad was let loose in that living image, he seems to have taken to it with the natural skill of a salmon running in its main stream.

It is from this experience both of parental bedtime reading, combined with the discovery of the library that shaped the contours of Roger's mental architecture.  This is where his story conforms to type, as it fits in with an established pattern that may have begun as far back as the Renaissance.  It would often be the custom for middle and upper class families in England, before the advent of public education, to pass on their learning to both heirs and descendants by introducing them to the contents of these private libraries.  The practice probably isn't as widespread now.  However, at least before the beginning of the 20th century, this household practice of educating through the library remained more or less the sole means of giving a future to one's children.  In addition to Green, other names like John Ruskin, William Morris, Prime-minister Arthur Balfour, and Oxford scholars like R.G. Collingwood were able to achieve as much as they did because of their exposure to this tradition.

Just like Morris and Ruskin, Green's introduction to the library (just as a type, or thing in itself) fostered a love of the written word.  The passion grew enough to the point where it determined his future career.  The rest of it is surprisingly available in the public record.  That said, the record itself is scant, almost constipated.  If that counts as a fault, then it's mainly down to the lack of curiosity shown to the writer's own output.  The fact that he's remembered enough at all is something of a small miracle.  The relevant data is here laid out in full, as it provides a decent enough beginner's summary of all the salient points of Green's life and his once and future career.  The following is taken verbatim from the back of the book promotional material of the Puffin Books edition of Myths of the Norsemen.

"Roger was a man who loved storytelling and was fascinated by traditional fairy tales, myths, and legends from around the world...Roger was often ill, though, and couldn't go to school - so he spent lots of time at the family's manor house in the country of Cheshire.  His family had been wealthy, and there was a huge library in their house.  He spent many hours reading the old books in there, and this is probably where his love of myths and legends started...

"...Roger loved reading adventure stories and fairy tales, and as he grew up he became fascinated by the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, and the legends of the Norse countries of Scandinavia.  He went on to retell their ancient stories in his books Tales of Ancient Greece, The Tale of Troy, Tales from Ancient Egypt and Myths of the Norsemen - a continuous story gathered from the ancient Norse folktales, ballads and poems...He was well known for his retellings of traditional stories.  Including those mentioned above, he wrote The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, all published as Puffin Classics.  He also wrote many books for adults, including a biography of...J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan (262-3)".

That is the extent to which the public knows him.  In all, Green was responsible for six of these compilations from world mythology.  They comprise the sole number of his books that remain in print to this very day.  The result is an author who exists as sort of like an anomaly.  Very few people seem to know he even existed at some point in time, and so his books are never taken off the shelves.  The result is that they continue to make a steady enough profit to keep restocking their places in the racks.  The whole thing sounds like a series of impossibilities that keep happening with a persistent regularity.  The whole or complete truth, meanwhile, remains in obscurity.  It's like what the Puffin blurb observes above.  Green's life as an author encompassed a lot more than just a series of folklore collections.  He wrote material of his very own, for a start.  The fact that all of it has vanished from memory is what accounts for the length of this opening.  When you're dealing with an unknown quantity, first introductions tend to take a bit more time.  That's what this entire article amounts to, in a way.  

If Roger Lancelyn Green is an unfamiliar name on the lists of published authors, then it just leaves one question.  Where do you start?  Perhaps the best way to begin is to take things slow, and not all at once.  It's with this in mind that I think the best place to start is by looking at one of the first entries in his career as a writer.  He'd published just one other book before this one.  The Luck of the Lynns appeared on the shelves two years later.  The tale goes as follows.

The Story. 

One of the most common sights to dot the English countryside is a feature known as the Manor House, or the Old Family Estate.  You get them every now and then.  Their appearance has been determined, and in some cases literally shaped by the history of the land.  Mereford Hall is one such establishment.  A surface glimpse at the place reveals nothing all that spectacular.  The house itself is made of pebbledashed brick, which is probably a reconstruction of older stone, some of which may date back to the Middle Ages.  The house has undergone additions, like many of its kind over the years.  In addition to the original two-story structure, there is now a basement connecting to a well outside which might trace its lineage back to the age of William the Conqueror.  Also, if they had attics back in those times, the one occupying the final stretch of roofed space is much too contemporary in its design to be anything other than a late edition.  The place has stood on the same ground it was constructed on for more than a hundred years.  If anyone is willing to look after it, there's no reason the house can't stand for a hundred more, or even longer.  In other words, there seems to be nothing remarkable about it.

The house itself belongs to a Col. Spearlake and his Wife, along with their son, Robert.  The house has been in their possession for as long as the family can remember.  There have been no other owners.  That's why everyone is a bit "grim" of late, as Robert puts it.  "Father says all the rents go back into the estate, and there's not enough even for that because of the beastly Income Tax...I don't follow it all; some awful rot about Death Duties, when grandfather died, and mortgages...and things like that.  Mother keeps saying we can't afford to go on living there,...and one feels pretty miserable and uncomfortable inside.  Anyhow the Spearlakes are jolly well suffering from fallen fortunes, and we've got to make a pile in double quick time to save the ancestral home, and all that (11)".

There is one possible, literal ace in the hole for the family.  Houses like Mereford come with a legend attached.  It's like a standard requirement for mansions of that sort.  If there isn't a ghost hanging around to rattle its chains in the attic, then it's not a proper dwelling place.  That seems to be the general rule, of thumb, anyway.  Mereford, sadly, appears to have no family skeletons.  It might have a treasure hidden away somewhere on the premises, though.  That's what Robert claims he's found tucked away in an old family record.  It seems one of Robert's ancestors, a certain Sir Thomas Lynn, came into a more than substantial inheritance when ownership of Mereford was eventually passed into his hands.  The only thing to keep Sir Thomas and his own wife and son from enjoying the pleasant life of a quiet and humble country squire was a simple matter of bad timing.  There was this whole English Civil War matter going on.  For whatever reason, Thomas Lynn soon came under the ire of none other than Cromwell himself.  

The result was somewhat inevitable.  The Roundheads were a committed lot, and family's like the Spearlakes were on the undesirables list.  Before he was beheaded, however, Sir Thomas took great care to hide away the family fortune in order to make sure the likes of Cromwell and his allies never managed to seize it for themselves.  Robert has been fascinated by that legend his whole life.  Now, with the family in dire financial straits, he's become determined to prove that the legend is true.  There are a number of obstacles and difficulties, however.  In the first place, there's no real guarantee that the myth of the family treasure isn't just what that word implies, a complete and total fabrication.  At the same time, the real trouble is that Robert isn't alone in his search.  There are other vested parties out there.  They seem to know a great deal about the legend known as The Luck of the Lynns.  Like Robert, they would very much like to lay their hands on it.  Unlike Robert, these guys don't play nice, and they're willing to eliminate anyone who gets in their way.

An Older Type of Story.

When it comes to books like this, I think a little bit of context helps things to go a long way.  The Luck of the Lynns is an example of what might be called the Silver Age of Young Adult books.  If the Victorian Era can looked at as the Golden Age for this type of fiction, the high water mark to which all others examples aspire, then perhaps the second biggest phase occurred for a stretch of time that seems likely to have spanned the early to mid-1950s to about the early or mid-80s.  Those were the days when you could expect to find the likes of Madeline L'Engle , John Bellairs, and E.B.White making the kind of living off of YA books that's all but impossible to sustain today.  Those are just the ones with trace elements of familiarity attached to their names.  In addition to the three listed above, the field was able to garner a cache of lesser known, yet still respectable titles such as Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes, Eric Knight's story about a "come-home dog" named Lassie, and Beverly Cleary's ongoing family saga featuring a pair of sibs known as Beezus and Ramona.  It's one of those phenomena that you almost have to explain nowadays in order to get the youngest generations to understand.

There was just something about a lot of the older children's books from the mid to late 20th century.  Their cover designs and setups almost amounted to a series of textbook illustrations of the definition known as simplicity.  In the case of the vintage Dell Yearling books, the cover itself was just a simple color scheme with little in the way of variations.  Most of them had a limited choice between light blue, a rich, almost golden brown, sometimes a light purple here and there, along with the series's most common setup, which was a light, cream colored background.  At the center of all these editions would be either an illustration of a scene or action chosen as most representative of the story nesting between the covers.  Either that or else the artist would choose to present an image that tried to suggest a general idea of the story that awaited the readers on the other side of the front cover. 

I don't think I've ever seen anything like an actual museum exhibit devoted to the kind of drawings I'm thinking about.  Perhaps that's a sign of how under-regarded they are.  If that's the truth, then all I can do is go to bat for those old, battered editions.  They almost were, and in some sense probably still remain in a class by themselves.  It's kind of tough to pin down what it was about them that just made it all work.  Perhaps its was down to a combination of the simplicity of the surrounding color scheme which helped make the sometimes elaborate detail of the front cover image stand out so well in a way that did more than just grab the wandering eye of the young reader.  At their best, those books were able to generate an atmosphere, the kind that can only be known by recalling what it was like to be an elementary school kid who was just discovering the written word for the first time.  It was a mingled idea of anticipation and excitement.  It generated in you the desire and allure of narrative in and of itself.  The flavor of this suspense was often determined by the nature of the genre each story represented.  In my case, since it was the Horror genre that got me into books, the atmosphere was always that of a delicious form of make-believe dread.  It was this aesthetic emotion that ushered me into the reading life.

The Luck of the Lynns is, in essence, the kind of narrative you could expect to find waiting for you if the reader decided to go past that brief first glance at the cover.  Like most of those Silver Age adventures, the narrative revolves around a group of young kids who seem naturally drawn towards each other as much by their shared desire that an adventure of some sort should happen, as much as anything else.  The fact that the ancestral home of one of the main leads is in dire need of rescuing tends to act more as a spur to their excitement.  Green doesn't make the mistake of treating the book's main conflict as a total lark, however.  He appears to be too smart to know better than to try and pass off the Spearlake's dilemma as something the reader can't take seriously.  He makes sure to give the circumstance just as much weight as it requires for the kind of story he has to tell.  Once that's been properly established, the writer knows all he has to do is just leave the plot point right where it is, as a lingering background threat that could be activated at any moment.  

This is all the motivation his main set of characters need in order to get the story going.  In their case, it involves a plan with a surprising level of complexity in its execution.  The whole narrative is basically that of a race against time in a treasure hunt.  Think The Goonies, except its all set in the English countryside.  What sets Green's fictional account apart from similar material is the care for detail that he is able to give to the proceedings.  Almost every element or prop that could be of use to the plot is given its moment in the spotlight.  There is, for instance, a moment early on in the action, where the kids take an opportunity to explore the entire underground basement section of the the manor house.  It's one of those old, subterranean passages designed by medieval builders with both shelter, confinement, and traps in mind.  In other words, the kind of place where you might have to watch your step if you want to see daylight again.  Green allows the reader to spend as much time exploring that passage along with the characters.  He really wants us to pay attention to the nature of that underground layout.

Chapters like these could have a divisive effect on the modern reader.  I can see audiences splitting into positive and negative camps over the way Green writes in these sections.  Some of them, the ones who have grown accustomed to the more fast and furious, action-oriented types of this story are likely to complain that he keeps the pace moving too slow for their liking.  Creative choices like this will tend to be a deal breaker for this type of reader.  Then the are those on the other side of the coin.  This other form of reader is likely to relish the way Green chooses to highlight the details.  Some of them may choose to point out that the author is laying out set pieces that will come into play later on in the plot.  It's a distinction between giving the story what it need and presenting a random tour of some medieval ruins.  Inasmuch as Green is able to let the setting serve as a decent enough part of the final payoff, I'm willing to say he's earned the right to take his time with the scenery.  He never draws things out to an interminable degree, and he remembers that the key element in scenes like this is to know how to find the suspense tucked away even in the relatively quiet moments.

When it comes to questions of characterization and action, the verdict seems to be that the writer has done a workmen-like enough of a job.  The entire story is told from the point of view of a lad named Roy.  He's presented as the most ordinary figure in the entire narrative.  The audience witnesses the entire story through his eyes, and his reactions seem grounded enough to say that you can believe this is happening to a real guy.  He seems incredulous about the proceedings even when they are happening to him.  His reactions are very similar in that way to Dr. Watson.  Like Conan-Doyle-s famous narrator, Roy is often stuck trying to keep up with Robert as he guides him through the plot.  Along the way, he makes acquaintance with "three messengers, a boy a few years younger than Roy and two girls of about his own age, all dressed in brown drill shorts, with broad leather belts at which hung knives, and blue Aertex shirts that might perhaps have been blouses in the case of Phyllis and Diana.  Dick, who seemed to be about six or seven years old, was carrying a small gun, which yet seemed rather too large for him, and was walking a few steps in advance with a great air of importance (24-5)".

Phyllis winds up as the most talkative of the group.  The fact that she is Robert's sister might have something to do with this.  Robert's role in the grand scheme of things is to be the Holmes to Roy's Watson.  With such a take-charge attitude to things, can you blame one of his siblings if they feel the need to assert themselves?  At least there's no sense of fundamental ill will going on.  Green keeps the familial relations cordial and snarky like most normal households tend to be.  Diana, meanwhile, is Robert's other sister.  She sort of places herself by the curious nature of her observations.  For instance, here's how she discusses the origin of the family crest.  "...the Earl of Chester gave us a cat's head of solid gold as a reward, oh, ages ago, about the time of King John and the Magna Garter (64)".

Perhaps its best to give a fair warning right up front.  The passage cited above isn't the last time she does that.  The book is pockmarked here and there with Di's somewhat "unique" form of (mis)pronunciation.  So she's the Mrs. Malaprop of the group, and for the record, I am aware of the kind of pitfalls a writer can make when it comes to this sort of character.  The trait itself is often used as a short-hand for a lack of humor trying to masquerade as the real deal.  Also, in a lot of the other times a character is given this particular quirk, it's often the first signal that the author doesn't think much of them, and is mostly just there to provide comic relief.  I think what I object to most about this is that its a further signal that the writer is unable to take the story itself as seriously as it deserves, and is more or less ready to phone it all in.  This is a bad way of writing, as far as I can tell.  Any author who wishes to live up to that title should know better than to treat the work itself as something that doesn't matter.  

The good news is that Green somehow manages to make it work.  Diana is noticeable, yet not in a way that ever becomes a grate on the nerves.  Instead, Green allows her to be the team brainiac.  She turns out to be very smart in her own right, and the mispronunciation trope is somehow worked into the proceedings in a way that manages to be endearing.  Forgive me, but sometimes one of the true tests of talent is the ability to take material that can't work and making it do just that.  Got to give a round of applause for such an accomplishment, even if it was the last thing I was expecting.  Then of course, there is Richie, who shows all the signs of growing up into the trope of group bruiser.  The main cast is itself a trope, though this tells us nothing about its quality.  That is all up to the problem of execution.  If this is the case, then all it does is just beg the most important question.  Is the story itself any good?

The way the plot unfolds comes off as natural enough.  There's nothing in it that made me want to put the book aside.  I think what could help the reader gain a better idea of the kind of story we're dealing with is to quote from a passage that more or less telegraphs the novel's context.  Near the start of the book, one of the main leads give the following statement. "This is the real thing, right enough,' said Robert, his face lighting up with eagerness.  'Not just playing at it, like those Bastable kids in The Treasure Seekers.  There is a treasure, and it belongs to us - only no one' has ever been able to find it (12)".  I think Green is trying to do two things at once here.  On the one hand, that whole exchange is a signal to the reader of just what type of book they're holding in their hands.  With The Treasure Seekers E. Nesbit was able to pioneer one (if not the absolute) first kind of story where the child protagonists are able to have an adventure involving the search for some hidden goal, or item of great importance.  The concept itself is little more than a Macguffin.  It's a concept that has existed in tons of literature before Nesbit penned one in her own book.  

Her story just turned out to be one of the first in which is was done with enough amount of literary finesse that it turned out to be not just a success, but also an under-heralded game changer.  In the wake of Treasure Seekers, it has become a commonplace to find Young Adult books lining the shelves with plots in them featuring a pre-high school cast that discovers, learns of, or hears about a plot device that winds up motivating the rest of the narrative, and their actions throughout.  In that sense, the concept was old enough by the time Green came along and had his own idea for a riff on the subject.  The writer seems to have a more than passing familiarity with the subject.  This can be a potential kiss of death if the author can't be bothered to give a damn about whatever he's writing.  The risk is that the author may give in to the copycat urge, and leave out all sense of dramatic vitality.  It's pretty clear that Green, however, is possessed of the kind of enthusiasm for his subject that is usually the preserve of very young children.  In that sense, he's one of the lucky few that were able to hold on to that aspect of his youth without too much sacrifice.  It is just possible he got lucky in that sense.  The outcome is a tale that sounds familiar without being derivative.

A further result of this preserved sense of enthusiasm is that Green knows enough to not to let the story flag.  Every scene has just enough going on in it to keep the reader turning the pages, even when the content is a description of old architecture.  Even in these sequences, Green is able to ladle in a decent amount of peculiarities that give the proceedings a quirky sense of excitement.  A good example goes back to a passage cited above.  It's the one where we get yet another sense of Diana's personal quirks.  Another element that wasn't touched on is the actual subject of the passage.  It's the one that mentions "a cat's head made out of solid gold", the one passed along by the Earl of Chester.  "Robert nodded.  'If we find the treasure, that may be amongst it,' he said.  That Golden Cat used to be called the Luck of the Lynns (64)".

I've focused attention on what may sound like a small matter about the story's Macguffin.  The reason for doing so, however, is because the trick with bells and whistles like this is that they can vary in importance based on how well they are baked into the plot itself.  Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, liked to just toss his Macguffins into certain films in a way that often them rendered them almost nonexistent..  That's no real complaint, however, because he always made it work, more often than not.  Green, on the other hand, brings up the narrative's title object in such a way that he seems to be trying to pack it with a bit more than just a plot moving significance.  For lack of a better way to describe this, it almost reads as if Green was trying to make the object out as something of more than normal value.  This practice is not all that unheard of in this kind of story.  The title object in Raiders of the Lost Ark might be one example of this creative function.  However, unlike that one, I'm not all that sure just what value Green or the story itself might invest the Lynns Cat with.  

There are just two snippets from the tale that make me think that either author or narrative are dropping clues for us to follow.  After introducing the Luck of the Lynns to the reader, it's noted that it comes with a Latin inscription.  This prompts a reaction from one of the cast.  "I can understand Latin - heaps of it!, said Diana, in her more serious voice.  'I've got as far as the third Conjuration already - and I know all about Absolute Obsoletes (ibid)".  It's sometimes possible for the critic to see too many faces in the clouds.  However, the key with that entire statement is that there is a kind of layered lesson tucked away within the joke, if that makes any sense.  On the surface, the character seems to have confused the phrase Conjugations (as in the verbal statement, "To conjugate the Latin"), along with misnaming the Absolute Ablatives.  

There's a bit of a tricksy quality to these misstatements, however.  For one thing, there is a sense in which each misplaced word acts as a buried commentary on the teaching of Latin.  It's a subject that used to be a lot more common in Green's day, especially if, like him, you had attended a university such as Oxford.  I haven't set foot in an academic setting since the start of the 21st century, however.  So I don't know what the status of Latin studies is here in this country at the moment.  I do know it wouldn't surprise me to learn that lack of public support had more or less rendered it a dead language.  Whatever the case, it's clear enough that Green is drawing on his own education in the language for passages like this.  He does this mainly by indirect hinting at both the status of the language itself, as well as the more esoteric aspects of its history.  Even in the author's day, Latin was and remained a specialist subject, with little to no discernible use outside the halls of academe.  It is, in that sense, an absolutely obsolete portion of the past, at least as far as we are concerned as of the present moment.

Then there's the use of the word "Conjuration".  In placing it on the page, I'm left to wonder if Green isn't trying to give an inkling into one of the most remarkable and fascinating aspect of the language's use in history.  When people think of Latin today, the best image they might be able to "conjure" up is that of a bunch of old Greek guys wearing togas as they scribble the ancient vocabulary onto pieces of parchment.  Either that or we tend to picture those same folks holding up pieces of paper with the same words on them as they make grand speeches before a bunch of classical looking assemblies or other people wearing similar togas.  It's an image that's been passed down to us from the way the history of the language has been taught in schools (where it ever managed to get a break, at least).  That's because a lot of the most famous users of Latin in history tended to belong to the same Greco-Roman class of philosophers and thinkers.  Whenever a college professor brings up the topic in a classroom, names like Cicero, Horace, and Aristotle are never all that far behind.  That's because Latin was one of the two or three main vernaculars any of them could have used in composing their works.

It's because of ancient texts, such as Cicero's political orations, or Aristotle's various treatises that we are even aware of Latin at all.  It was and remains the greatest use the language has ever been put to.  In addition to Classical Philosophy, however, there was a more popular usage that often gets treated more as a minor footnote.  That's because the second usage of Latin was sometimes related to old world folklores and superstitions.  Some of these included ideas for the sort of concepts that we now tend to think of as charms and spell work.  In fact, the phrase Incantation itself is derived from the Latin Incantere, "which means "to consecrate with spells, to charm, to bewitch".  It also forms the basis for the word "enchant".  In that sense, there is a direct linguistic connection between an enchanter making an incantation, and author enchanting the audience with their creative dexterity, whether on the stage or page.  These are all elements of a long and fascinating history.  

To go any further almost takes us off topic.  Let it suffice to say that it does seem like Green has some level of awareness of these same elements.  How far his knowledge, or learning in this subject goes is something I just don't have much of a clue about.  If he has any letters of correspondence, or journal entries that could help shed light on the matter, then until they are published, the contents and influences of the author's education will have to remain an admittedly frustrating blank slate.  All that can be said with any certainty is that (1) the writer has a surprising amount of knowledge about the Latin language. Furthermore, (2) he has an awareness of its use in systems of belief that have nowadays been relegated to the realm of myth.  For some reason, (3) Green is willing, almost eager to incorporate swatches of this material here and there into his own narrative.  Perhaps one other example of this in-text practice jumps to mind.  It comes near the start of the book's climactic chapters.  I almost feel I need to let the whole thing get quoted in full, otherwise I think it'll make less sense than it does on the page itself.  It all starts when Roy is making his way through the fields around Mereford towards an old well that plays an important part in the plot.  As he does so, an animal walks across his path.

"Silently it came all towards him, sniffing and pausing and then suddenly it scurried away and disappeared down a hole in the bank.  Roy had caught his breath as he watched, and every thought had gone from his head except the one thought that this was a badger - one of the rarest and shyest of creatures in England.

"When it had gone, he continued on his way down the valley towards the junction with the Clatter below the Intack Wood.  But that moment in the magic glade seemed to have washed his mind as clear and bright as the dew-drops which danced and sparkled all about him in the grass and among the leaves of dog-mercury; and he found himself repeating a verse he had once read in a story...a verse that was translated from the old Latin of a real magician called Cornelius Agrippa who had written a book of magic many centuries ago:

Silver Moon on the waters riding

Who knows what shall be and has been,

Show me the secret the heart is hiding,

Wash me the truth of it clear and clean (140)".

After that, the character and the scene continue on, as if nothing in the world had happened.  I can almost understand why modern readers would be tempted to treat the whole thing as a rare example of a Big Lipped Alligator Moment on the printed page.  I don't think the passages above really fulfill any of the criteria necessary.  For one thing, it reveals the earlier line about "Latin Conjuration" was not exactly a moment of humorous misstatement, but was rather a blink-and-miss-it instance of foreshadowing.  This means, in effect, that the passage above is meant to function as some kind of payoff.  I just wish I could decipher exactly what the writer was up to when he made these decisions.  

He mentions that passage in connection with assuaging a character's anxieties, so there's the one part that I'm able to make out on my own.  It's just I get the sense moments like these are hinting at something a bit further up and in, and for the life of me I wish I knew what that was.  It reminds me of something I said in an earlier post about a theme known as the problem, or Question of Character.  If it is at all possible this theme is in play during the course of Green's novel, then while I don't object to it, it still remains that I'm just not as good at connection the dots here as I would have liked.  Sometimes you're just left drawing a blank, I guess.

The funny thing is I'm not sure this ruins or spoils things for the book in any way.  On the contrary, this strange, unsolved puzzle tucked away in the plot might just be said to raise what could have been a by-the-numbers YA story.  It lends things a certain aura of mystery that helps to elevate the proceedings, precisely because there's an understatement that allows the story to linger in the mind.  Perhaps that means its one other factor that keeps the book afloat.  Another aspect is a lot more explicable.  Green knows that one of the key ingredients of making any adventure a success is to let their be a clear sense of stakes and consequences.  This is something even a book like The Hobbit seems aware of.  If a literary adventure has no price tag, then it's not really fulfilling its proper function.  It's a mistake that both Tolkien and Green avoid by showing the wages of heroism.

The moment in The Luck of the Lynns that demonstrates this maturity of awareness comes during a climactic fight scene between Roy and the novel's main villain.  "Come back, you little fool' shouted Mr. Adcock, seeing Roy above him - and his voiced echoed up and down the well in a damp reverberating rumble.  But Roy didn't pause, and the Adder stepped forward and caught hold of the ladder from underneath, meaning to swing round on to the stage opposite him and follow Roy up it, or to prevent him from moving its present position.

"Then everything happened in a sudden, sickening rush.  There was a rending, splintering sound of breaking wood, Roy felt the ladder fall from under him, clutched wildly at the stage, which was now on a level with his eyes, and gripped it firmly with his fingers as he swung against the wall in the most terrible moment of his life.  The next second his feet were on the ledge of the old window that had given into the well from the alcove in the passage, and he felt that he was saved for the moment.

"But in the same instant of time there came from below him a terrible cry of fear, a horrible gasping yell of mortal terror which roared and rang up and down the walls of the well until many seconds later it sobbed itself away into silence.  At the same moment he heard the thud, thud, thud, of something striking and rebounding on wood which came up from far below him in a damp, moaning wind.  And looking down all in that one instant of time his fascinated eyes saw the Adder's torch falling straight down the center of the well with its lighted end immediately downwards - down, down, down, until the well seemed no wider than a thimble: he saw a dark shadow falling behind the torch and occasionally hiding the light, then a momentary gleam of inky water far below him: darkness, a double splash which echoed up to him like a haunting shadow following the echo of the cry.  And then silence (182-3)".

I'm not sure if a passage like that comes off as tame in today's environment.  What I do know is that if you take the whole thing on its own terms, it tends to come off as a minor tour de force.  It's a passage that allows Green to show off his chops as a weaver of that most necessary element in a book of this type, suspense.  His choice of words is neither too limited, nor underwritten.  Instead, he seems to have been able to pinpoint that happy middle ground where his words are allowed to convey all the meaning that's necessary to give the action the weight it deserves.  As for the scene itself, it is perhaps the one moment in the entire story that veers as close as possible to a genuine moment of literary terror.  There's a familiarity with Gothic imagery on display here that makes me wonder what else Green knows about that genre in particular?  Something tells it would be worth digging into based on how he wrote the scene above.

Like a lot of storytellers who manage to rise above the level of the merely competent, Green is able to tap into his imagination so that it allows the stakes to climb the ladder in a way that kind of allows the novel's payoff to fit into the more than serviceable category.  It almost reads like a a scene in a Hitchcock movie, if that makes any sense.  The only question I have left to ask about it is how the scene might play out to modern sensibilities?  All I can say is that if any modern parent gets squeamish over a scene like the one above, and then allows their kids to sit and watch Roger Rabbit all the way through, then that is some serious dissociation of sensibility right there.  Even granting that one story is way more cooler and messed up than the other, there's no real way to object to the darker elements in this book.  It's one of those elements that the narrative would seem incomplete without.  It allows Green room to make what in retrospect is kind of a smart move.  

It all goes back to what I said about the injecting darker material into children's entertainment.  There's just something about the trope itself that can sometimes give even the slightest children's work a level of sophistication it might not have had otherwise.  A lot of it stems from the weight that a sense of genuine peril or suspense can give to the action, always provided the author isn't just asleep at the wheel.  Green seems to know that ultimately the book is the real boss in the literary enterprise.  When the story rounds a corner and he discovers that it wants to edge just a bit or so into the realms of the macabre, he simply walks right into the shadows with nary a glance back.  To do otherwise might well have been a mistake.  Instead, it's that brief moment of taking a walk on the wild side that helps put everything over the edge.  

Like all the best fairy tales, Green's story knows what kind of dangers can be lurking in the shadows.  The troll in this story wears a very convincing human mask, and yet he's still a fairy tale villain for all that.  I don't say he's up there with the likes of Hannibal Lector, and besides the Green book is a different kettle of fish altogether.  However, I think credit is due for the way the story pulls the wool under our eyes.  The Adder starts off sounding like a figure of fun, and that's the way all of the kids treat him throughout the text.  When the final showdown comes is the moment where the rug gets yanked out from underneath, and our intrepid gang learns that what they took to be a bumbling jester is really more like a the dangerous sort of viper he's nicknamed after.  The reason the sudden reveal of the danger works is because the reader's attention has all been focused in another direction.  That way when the tables turn, it's still all in fair play because nothing is out of place, and the menace of the situation fits in seamlessly.  It also conforms to the tropes of folklore in other ways by suggesting that even the ogre under the bridge has to have a weak spot.

Conclusion: A Fun Piece of Nostalgia.

What I keep coming back to as I read through this book is the context of children's novels in the decade it was written.  What the Green book does more than anything is to help regain a sense of what it was like to grow up in the particular atmosphere fostered by stories of this kind.  Perhaps this is something that only happens to bookworms.  If so, then all I can do is swear I'm telling all I know when I say that growing up as a bonafide bibliophile means experiencing, pretty much living, in a curious and beguiling sort of ambience.  It can be very difficult to describe a fact that is now just a memory, for the most part, anyway.  I know I wasn't lying when I use a word like atmosphere to describe the initial encounter with the written word.  A lot of the texts that passed into my hands during those formative years might be considered a mixed bag from a grown adult's perspective.  Some of them might even be considered too low-brow even for young adults.  However I maintain it all did me a world of good.

That atmosphere was almost a composite character.  It was made up of at least two main components.  The first was the antiquarian character that can only come from your first experience of a classroom library.  It's a setting that is both normal and unfamiliar, in many ways.  The building itself can be as normal and underwhelming as a DMV.  I suppose I was lucky in that sense.  My own elementary school library was almost just a small alcove in a white-gray brick and plaster building, and yet it's still one of the clearest memories I have of the place.  A lot of it probably had to do with the way the stock jumped off the walls.  What it lacked in decor, it made up for in doorways.  I didn't choose to open all of them.  One of the ironies of the library is that it makes you realize just what kind of a reader you are, if at all.  However, there was something comforting just in knowing all those other doorways were there.

The second component of this atmosphere came from the books themselves.  It didn't come from any one text I read.  Rather, in looking back on it, the whole mystique seems to have emerged from the amalgamation of images and aesthetic responses each book I picked up at that time was able to plant in my brain.  Since I had (and still retain) a pretty high liking for the Gothic imagination, a lot of what I checked out back then was geared toward the Bump in the Night category.  In fact the one book that continues to stand out as a kind of persona symbol of those early reading years was literally titled Things That Go Bump in the Night, edited by Jane Yolen.  I can still recall the cover with near perfect clarity.  It's the darkened staircase of a modern suburban family house.  The entire setting is colored in atmospheric shades of blue.  The view is from the top of the staircase looking down at the front entrance.  The door has been blow open by a gust of otherworldly Autumn wind, and a pile of leaves have strewn in.  The difference is these pieces of brown and crumpled foliage have taken on a malignant supernatural life, and the wind has blown them steadily up the stairway.  One leaf in particular is extended out toward the reader, like a ghastly hand.  It's the image I always return to when I try to remember what it was like back then.

There were others that I can recall from those or similar shelves.  There were Sideways Stories from Wayside School.  There was a collection of young folks anthologies edited by Bruce Coville.  An amateur folklorist named Alvin Schwartz provided a taste of old world chills with the help of Stephen Gammell.  I remember a rather macabre, interconnected book of stories held together by the machinations of a figure known as The Wish Giver by Bill Brittain.  It was a YA book that, in retrospect, did me a world of good by laying out the ground for a later encounter with a similar novel of the dark fantastic entitled Something Wicked This Way Comes.   There were a number of enterprising young heroines, all of whom shared the same mother called Judy Blume.  Then there was this one young kid with a photographic memory.  She could recall any scene that unfolded before her if she just concentrated on it, shut her eyes, and said the word "Click!" out loud.  I know her nickname was "Cam" (because of course it would be), yet the name of the series of mystery adventures she took part in escaped me at first.  It took some long searching to realize I grew up with the Cam Jansen Mysteries as kid. 

I realize it's quite possible I've done a pretty poor job of helping the reader "see" the collective atmosphere that was generated by growing up with all these assorted texts.  Part of the reason for that is simple enough.  It all happened to me, and no one else.  They say you should learn to walk a mile in another's shoes.  What they don't tell you is how difficult it is to convey the experience of one mind to another.  I'm not saying it can't be done, it just takes a lot more than a few mere steps to accomplish the job.  Perhaps the best description I can give of it is to point out the shared suburban, or small town settings a lot of my favorite reading material had in common.  It wasn't so much that I saw myself in these characters or backgrounds.  It was more the sense that I was seeing my everyday world taken into a number of capable hands, and then shaped or remolded, and handed back to me in a form that suggested the possibilities of extraordinary hidden corners lurking around the next block or two.  When I try to conjure up a collective image of the countless neighborhoods and street corners that each of these books suggest to my mind,  always see a leafy Autumnal setting, like something out of Rockwell.

That's just about the best image I can conjure up of the aesthetic space my early reading placed in my mind.  The only other way I can think of conveying this same atmosphere would be to make the crazy recommendation that you listen to an obscure James Taylor number called Her Town Too.  It sounds like a coda to Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone series, yet its the closest I've ever found to an actual sound for that particular time in my life.  Together, Yolen's book cover and Taylor's song just appear to sum up to me what all of these initial readings mean on some sort of fundamental level.  If all of this sounds like one great big diversion away from the real point of this essay, then here's why I beg to differ.

When it comes to the Green book, it's all down to what kind of aesthetic response it places in my mind's eye, for better or worse.  Part of what makes me so well disposed to this tale of a bunch of English school kids, and the adventures they are able to get themselves into and out of, stems from the fact that I could tell it really was, and still is a callback to a time that I suppose you could describe as simpler, at least in terms of the children's book market.  It was published at the start of the 50s, just a year or two shy before The Lord of the Rings hit the shelves and began its slow way up the ladder.  That was a ground breaker for it's time.  Roger Green's text, by contrast, has been relegated to the dust bin.  I think that's a mistake on account of both it's hidden sense of sophistication, and also its historic value.  I've said that Green composed his novel during what might have been the second great age for children's publishing.  This was not long after the finish of the Second World War.  In that sense, the Lynns makes up just one part of a whole collective trend.

If it makes sense to view Green's efforts as part of a popular wave, then one of the most remarkable things about this phenomenon is just how long it lasted.  If it began sometime around the late 40s, then I think it is just possible that it didn't reach the end until some time in the mid to late 90s.  That is a remarkable span of longevity for something like the Young Adult Novel.  It never made it to the current era of mass social media awareness, it's true.  At the same time, I can't help wonder if that's sort of a blessing in disguise.  The simple fact is that it appears to have been the early rumblings of the sea change brought about by the post-90s tech industry that may have had a hand in edging what might now be thought of as the classic children's book out the door and into the bargain basement bin.  The unfortunate upshot is that the sub-genre itself may be falling on hard times.  I don't think I've seen many recent texts with half the kind of efforts as those I picked up in my youth.  The one writer who comes closest might have to be J.K. Rowling.  The irony there is Rowling's spot on the timeline might signal her out as the last major effort in that particular field.

I guess that's sort of the reason I find Roger Lancelyn Green's adventure yarn to be something like a breath of old fresh air.  It's a snapshot from a time gone by, and yet it also reminded me of what made those times so special.  It may have also given me something more in return.  If there's any merit to the idea that the Silver Age of children's fiction ended with the 90s, then maybe Green has helped me to gain a better understanding of the literary context in which I grew up.  It may be that I came of age at just the right moment, at a precise time when another era was reaching its tail end.  In that sense, I suppose I'm lucky.  I got to be one of what must have been very few witnesses to the final bow of one of the last vestiges of literacy in modern writing for growing young minds.  I'd like nothing better to be proven wrong about that, and I keep myself firmly waiting in the wings in the hopes of some literary Romatnic moment further on up the road.  Until then, I think I'll hang on to a book such as The Luck of the Lynns.  Part of the reason for that is that they can do more than just provide us a glimpse of the old days.  Books like this may also act as springboard for rediscovering what it was that really made these old kids books so special, and how those same elements can find their renewal for readers of the future.


  1. Never, so far as I remember, heard of this gentleman. "The Luck of the Lynns" sounds like the sort of thing I'd have enjoyed reading when I was a kid, though; I wonder if it was sitting on the shelves of the various libraries I went to, just waiting for me to discover it. Wouldn't be surprised a bit!

    I second the love for the art of the paperbacks you mention; I'm not always one to sound the "things were better in the past" bell, but in this case I think it's an objective fact.

    1. Finding out about that whole genre of books was a definite lucky break, that's for sure. I think part of what makes it stand out is that a lot of the older authors responsible for it all were literate in a way that their millennial counterparts are struggling with.

      I think I recall Jane Yolen saying she once asked a group of young professionals how come they aren't reading history, and a lot of other materials that the writer needs to bolster the narrative. I know for a fact that's what she did, and it's a downright lie to claim her books are the worst for in my opinion.