Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This book has a very pleasant, flowing narrative style about a child called Burt Marshmallow who possesses a powerful imagination, along with an amiable dog called Sandy. Burt likes to confront monsters and other baddies.
This story masquerades as a book for children but by page 34 we have exorcised a ghost, defeated a witch and engaged in a theological discussion which includes a debate as to the nature of God. This leaves you asking as to what market it is aimed at.
Then you get it. This is an allegory, and a delightful one at that.
There are distinct parallels with Bunyan’s `Pilgrim Progress’ but not as holy and in modern dress. This is not a treatise on the soul but on the natural environment so goes a lot further than that. Jamie Burn provides us with talking animals led by a badger, bringing shades of Kenneth Graham’s `Wind in the Willows’ along with a water rat doubling as Charon, the Ferryman. At a critical point Burt transforms into a lion. Is this the shadow of Aslan, that other lion in C S Lewis’s tale of `The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’?
There are other deeper parallels that draw us through the druidic tradition, the Mabinogion and the transmigration of souls from human to animal, to bird and back to human again. Then the tale takes us on a more Classical journey along the River of Dreams, the violent oppression of the fisherman’s hut, the Underworld and the Labyrinth until we arrive at the final, climatic battle.
In the Wood-Land is a parliament of animals with wormhole technology. These animals are desperate to protect their environment from the depredations of humans as represented by The Fisherman who is a conflation of the god Hades, a thieving fairy and anything ugly and unpleasant.
Burt goes through a succession of tasks before he is recognised as one of the prophesised Golden Children to champion Nature in a David and Goliath struggle. Before the final battle Burt meets a Captain Firebrand who seems rather like Bunyan’s Captain Greatheart, who is reputed to be an aspect of Oliver Cromwell.
This book is beautifully written, fun to read and elegantly constructed. It taps into a deep cultural, literary tradition; borrowing, reinventing and modernising tales that rest at the beginning of story-telling – that is about five thousand years ago in the Neolithic period – and the start of fiction, for which we had to wait for the printing press.
This book is to be commended even though its target audience is unclear. Just go with the flow as it will also make you think. This is what books are for!