Having enjoyed Borrobil so much I splashed out and bought the sequel, The Eildon Tree. This was published in 1947 and unlike Borrobil it was never re-issued. It has a different illustrator too: James S. Richardson, who provides mediaeval-influenced line drawings, in place of John Morton-Sale.
The Eildon Tree begins with Donald and Jean standing beside the Eildon Stone which, they are assured by Andrew the ancient shepherd, stands by the spot where the Eildon Tree once grew. Ballad-lovers will know that it was by the Eildon Tree that Thomas the Rhymer first laid eyes upon the Fairy Queen riding by in ‘grass-green silk’. Andrew tells a version of the story of Thomas the Rhymer, who travels to Elf-land with the Queen and is given the gift of ‘a tongue that could never lie’ (hardly a useful gift, I’ve always thought) which here means that he can foretell the future. Thomas is then brought back to the ‘real’ world, a turbulent mediaeval Scotland which has been divided into three under three kings. However, Thomas remains a servant of the Fairy Queen and is eventually summoned back to Elf-land. Andrew concludes his tale by adding that at times of great need Thomas will return to Scotland.
No sooner has Andrew left them than Thomas the Rhymer arrives and the children find they are now sitting by the Eildon Tree, the stone having vanished. Thomas the Rhymer tells them some prophecies, one of which they are part of, and gives each of them a vision. Donald’s vision is of a black knight defending a besieged castle; Jean sees a ship leaving an island. These visions and prophecies are crucial to what follows, as the children find themselves in the Middle Ages during a power struggle between Gabran the Good and Maldred the Malcontent, a usurper. They are taken to the castle of Dunverran, captured, escape through secret passages and help to restore Gabran as the sole and rightful king. (In an afterword, Croft Dickinson explains that this part of the plot is inspired by events in Scottish history from the end of the thirteenth century, when the heir to the Scottish throne died aged eight and a number of men stepped forward to claim it.)
When The Eildon Tree was written, children’s time-slip novels were still quite unusual. Its predecessors are Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle and Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, but it is quite different from them: closer really to the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings. Their portal to the past is not a house or an object but a person, Thomas the Rhymer: Thomas’s uncertain status as a ‘real’ person signals that the past the children will enter may not be the ‘real’ past, informed though it is by Croft Dickinson’s knowledge of mediaeval history. This is also unusual, since most authors of time-slip novels take pains to situate their stories in an accurately recreated past. Perhaps Croft Dickinson is making a subtle point about the impossibility of doing that.
The most absorbing parts of the novel, I found, were those in which the children played an active part: escaping through the secret passages, hiding in the heather and taking a boat down the river at night. The climax of the book is the siege of Dunverran which is probably more thrilling for children to read than me. As in Borrobil Jean is a slightly more compelling character than Donald although, older now, she has lost the charming habit of inventing words as she did in the earlier book. For much of The Eildon Tree they are under the protection of two knights, Hugh of the Hill and Gilbert of the Long Bow, both of whom are very brave but otherwise slightly bland; they speak in that slightly antiquated, ‘heroic’ way that the ‘high’ characters speak in the novels of Lewis and Tolkien.
They sat down beneath the green shelter of the trees. Everything seemed strangely still. No song of birds, no sound of scuttling small animals, no hum of insects came to them. No breath of wind rustled the leaves above. Of all of them, only Hugh seemed to be undisturbed and unaffected by the strangeness of it all. From time to time Gilbert looked cautiously about him, pretending to be merely curious; but Donald and Jean both knew that like them he was under the weight of suspense, that like them he was feeling that fro the surrounding stillness something unwelcome, something fearful might suddenly spring upon them and hold them powerless in its grip. Again Donald shuddered at the eeriness of it all. Jean began to draw closer to Hugh. And at that moment a long drawn-out cry broke the silence of the wood.
‘Four of you! Four of you!’
The Eildon Tree is for slightly older children than Borrobil. Not only are Donald and Jean a little older themselves, but there is some darkness here and the tone is less light-hearted and more adventurous. Magic has been replaced by mysticism. I have now discovered that there is a third novel in the series, The Flag of the Isles, which draws on the Battle of Culloden. Perhaps, if it’s not too wildly rare and expensive, I might read it...