Jane Yolen, The Wild Hunt (Harcourt Brace, 1995)

Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Excerpt from the Robert Graves poem, 'To Juan on the Winter Solstice"
(and the preface to
The Wild Hunt)

Ahhh, but is there but 'one story and one story only' or are there as many tales as there are tellers? In this novel lies the answer (possibly) to that question.

There are certain works of literature that I re-read every year, usually even at the same time of the year, as that is when they should be read. Some of them are James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, a tale set at Christmas time in a Royal Court that never was quite that way, and Jennifer's Stevenson's Solstice chapbook, a story of a dance party quite unlike anything a mortal has seen, both of which I read around the Winter Solstice.

Another work that I bring down from the Library when the days grow short and winter is hard at hand is Jane Yolen's The Wild Hunt, a slender volume that tells the tale of Jerold and Gerund, two boys living in similar houses that appear to be in intertwined Universes. As you suspect from my comments above, Yolen has set The Wild Hunt in the dead of winter, a winter where the weather is very, very bad -- as bad as it will be at Ragnarok itself. The story told here is that Herne the Hunter, He Who is The Lord of Winter, is battling . . . a cat . . . a rather small cat at that. Ahhh, but not just any cat, for, as Herne puts it to Gerund after he captures him:

She is known in many nations by many names, boy. It is not surprising that you do not know all of them all. She is called also the Summer Queen, The Lady of Light, the White Goddess, Many names, but only one true name. If I can uncover it, recover it, She will have to acknowledge me at last as the Master. But until I find out Her true name, we fight a battle at the year's turning. And Her champions die, one by one -- as do my hounds. But whosoever dies, She still goes on. And So do I...

Need I say that Gerund is now Herne's bait in an attempt to make her do something that will tip the Eternal Game in his favor? Now given that Gerund is a 'running, falling, leaping, slipping, sliding, tumbling' sort of lad, I'm slightly puzzled that She -- in that universe -- chose him as Her Champion. And She, in another Universe also picked Jerold, a quieter and perhaps even smarter lad, who seems no more likely to be a Champion who can fight the nightmare that is the Wild Hunt. Now in classic Hero fashion, both boys are true innocents with their hands free of sin in any form. And The White Goddess intends that they will play their roles as Her Champions have always done. Two young boys against the entire Wild Hunt complete with Hell Hounds ('They growled over their memories of the last hunt; they could almost taste time.') doesn't seem at all fair. Nor is it. But not in the way that would be expected.

Yolen appears to be basing her Wild Hunt off the English variant of this ancient myth. One Web site notes that the 'Peterborough Chronicle entry for the year of 1127 [has this tale]:

Then soon thereafter many men saw and heard many hunters hunting. The hunters were black and large and loathly, and their hounds all black and broad-eyed and loathly, and they rode on black horses and black bucks. This was seen in the same way in the town Burch and in all the woods from that town to Stanford, and the monks heard the horns blowing, that they blew at night. Trustworthy men who watched at night said that they thought that there might lit well have been about twenty or thirty horn-blowers. This was seen and heard from when they came thither all that Lenten-tide to Easter. This was its incoming; of its out-going we can not yet say. God fore see.'

Yolen has all the elements of the Wild Hunt here: hounds that no one would want to meet ever, a warrior king leading them on the hunt, 'mine-black horses', and a quest that cannot ever end for if it did, so should existence itself. This is truly great reading -- truly mythopoeic in nature, and quite entertaining to boot!

(Watch for the references to other works of fantastic literature. I won't spoil your fun by pointing any of them out as you should have the sheer joy of realising what they are. Some are obvious, some are not so obvious. Even her conception of Herne the Hunter connects very nicely to those created by other authors, including one that you'll likely know rather well.)

Who shall win this battle is never in doubt -- never try to outthink a cat, let alone a feline who really a Goddess. (I know -- all cats are deities. We have nine of them living here in this house with us, and they know it.) However the fate of the lesser players on both sides is very much in doubt. Can The White Goddess, source of all things creative, ever be outwitted?

Jane Yolen on her Web site says of this novel, 'Another dream-inspired book, this adventure with two very different boys, an enchanted house, a talking white cat, a bumptious dog, and the Wild Hunt itself, is really a gloss on the entire genre of fantasy. It may be the most seriously weird book I have ever written.' What she fails to note is that The Wild Hunt, in the original hardcover edition, is one of the truly outstanding works ever printed. No, this isn't a thousand dollar Neil Gaiman play done in extremely limited numbers which only a collector would want, nor is a huge, sprawling works that will keep you reading all winter long. If you want the latter, go pick Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel which at eight hundred pages will keep you reading for quite some time. (Yes, I have a review copy of it here. It looks, errr, really long. Is it good? That is another question altogether. Ask me in a few months, say at Candlemas.) No, what Yolen has lovingly crafted is a tale that fits in a compact work of less than one hundred and forty pages, which includes the amazing illustrations by Francisco Moro including this cover illustration that complement her text perfectly. And the odd, not quite chapters tell the tale far better than a conventional novel would. I can picture this being read aloud on dark winters night around a fireplace dancing with the shadows the fire creates.

You've got in this work a really memorable setting and believable characters both human and not (including a dog named Mully who, like Gerund, is more than he appears to be). The hardcover edition, which you will definitely want, is long since out of print, but readily available online at abebooks.com. Get it so you too can experience over and over a truly wonderful reading experience. Just make sure the fireplace is stoked well and the windows are tight against the winter cold as you settle in to your favorite reading chair! You won't regret it!

[Cat Eldridge]