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Mayne, William

Entry updated 25 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1928-2010) UK author whose work, more than a hundred titles, was published exclusively for children and Young Adult readers; he also wrote as Martin Cobalt, as Dynely James in collaboration with Dick Caesar, and as Charles Molin. His work is sometimes realistic, sometimes – especially in his later career – fantastic; the Fantasies, however, are treated in so down-to-earth a manner that more often than not they naturalize the supernatural. His style, which is sophisticated and sometimes oblique, was found difficult by some children; others love him, as do some critics who see Mayne as perhaps the most distinguished UK writer of children's fiction in the late twentieth century, regardless of genre. His first book was Follow the Footprints (1953), the earliest of the many treasure-hunt stories he was to write.

Mayne wrote very little pure sf; the Earthfasts sequence, comprising Earthfasts (1966), Cradlefasts (1995) and Candlefasts (2000), is typical in that its sf elements crosshatch with Fantasy readings in a manner that ruthlessly evades any clear generic fix [for Crosshatch see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below; see also Equipoise]. Earthfasts itself is a fine Timeslip tale in which an eighteenth-century drummer boy enters a cave to search for King Arthur's treasure deep Underground, emerging two centuries later from the edge of a hill, where he is befriended by modern youths, one a sceptic who feels impelled to interpret this and other fantastic intrusions in scientific terms. The lad soon disappears backwards through time, but his incursion has shaken the structure of reality in the contemporary world, dizzyingly in the second volume, slightly more reassuringly in the third, where much of the distress proves to have been caused by an entity from the Far Future who has been trapped in our earthfast landscape. Along with Earthfasts, two similarly complexly equipoisal tales – A Game of Dark (1971), whose protagonist travels to an Alternate World to kill the Monster whose death allows him to love his monstrous father, and The Jersey Shore (1973), a Timeslip meditation on race and destiny (the text was censored in America to gut it of any reference to the possibility of miscegenation) – constitute perhaps his central achievement.

Mayne's fiction typically (in a great variety of ways) depicts the past impinging on the present, often as a kind of mystery to be decoded; his work tends to climax in epiphanies where a chaotic present day is suddenly illuminated in this way; some of his books feature psychic Time Travel and ESP. A Swarm in May (1955), for the most part a realistic choir-school narrative, introduces a centuries-old talisman whose power to attract bees appears to stem from some pheromonic essence: an Invention of past chemistry or alchemy. Eerie noises from a "marsh-dragon" in The Member for the Marsh (1956) are explained as a mere pumping-engine, but usher in the true secret of the marsh, an Iron Age settlement with its associated sense of Time Abyss. A Grass Rope (1957), about a unicorn hunt (see Supernatural Creatures), won the Carnegie Medal; the unicorn searched for may be genuine. The Gobbling Billy (1959) as by Dynely James, with Richard Dynely ("Dick") Caesar (1906-1974), applies Mayne's collaborator's deep knowledge of vintage racing cars to the tale of the secret rebuilding of an implausibly huge 1907 six-cylinder sixteen-litre "Gobelin-Billet" capable of speeds well over 100mph on unprepared roads; the actual French car maker Gobron-Brillié stopped at 11.4-litre around 1907. The Invention in The Changeling (1961) around 1920 of a Free Air Platform, using the compressed air machinery that powers an entire village, is used by its inventor forty years later to assist in the recovery of the childhood memories of an old friend who believes herself to be a changeling. The elaborate enactment of Arthurian ritual dramas in The Twelve Dancers (1962) darkens and then lightens an ongoing quest to make a Welsh village, and its homesteaders, secure. The much later Winter Quarters (1982) imagines the customs of travelling fairground folk (who have forgotten important aspects of their own past) with an effect of deep strangeness, as of an alien culture. The overtly sf Skiffy sequence, comprising Skiffy (1972) and its sequel Skiffy and the Twin Planets (1982), was written for rather younger children, and while the second volume is interesting, it is not the equal of his best work.

Among Mayne's other more highly regarded books, mostly for older children, all of them containing fantastic elements (some very obviously, some crucially but near-invisibly), are The Glass Ball (1961 chap), Over the Hills and Far Away (1968; vt The Hill Road 1969), A Year and a Day (1976), IT (1977), All the King's Men (coll 1982), Gideon Ahoy (1987), Antar and the Eagles (1989), The Farm That Ran Out of Names (1990 chap), Low Tide (1992), and Cuddy (1994) – the last again featuring repeated supernatural Timeslips and some Shapeshifting, on lines that prefigure aspects of the novel Cuddy (2023) by Benjamin Myers (1976-    ). Written ostensibly for younger children the Hob sequence – comprising The Blue Book of Hob Stories (coll 1984 chap), The Green Book of Hob Stories (coll 1984 chap), The Red Book of Hob Stories (coll 1984 chap) and The Yellow Book of Hob Stories (coll 1984 chap), all assembled as The Book of Hob Stories (omni 1991); and followed by Hob and the Goblins (1993) and Hob and the Peddler (1997) – play sophisticatedly with metamorphoses and multi-layer narratives. A sense of ardour also marks single titles like The Blemyah Stories (coll 1987 chap); or The Men of the House (1990 chap), an Apes as Human tale; or the Animal Fantasies assembled in The Fox Gate and Other Stories (coll 1996 chap); or the affectingly complex Imogen and the Ark (1999), in which a miniature Ark survives a modern-day Flood [for Animal Fantasies above and Toys and Twice-Told see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; or Jubilee's Pups (2004), which includes magical creatures and a cross-country chase in a steam-engine; or Every Dog (2009), in which a ghost dog keeps the past, as so often in Mayne's work, properly alive. These tales are no more conventional children's literature than was the late work of Alan Garner.

Mayne's later work was increasingly pared to the bone and fantasticated. Some are some of specific sf interest. The young protagonists of Low Tide (1992), set in nineteenth century New Zealand, are swept away in the wrecked ship they have been exploring by a vast tidal wave, which deposits them far up a mountain where they are rescued by a wild creature, a Maori iteration of the wodewose. In The Animal Garden (2003) two young friends, separated from their scientist fathers by rebel action in an unidentified Middle Eastern country, find a tiny tribe of monkey-like beings (see Evolution) that their parents had surgically modified, giving them the power of speech (see Apes as Human; Uplift); the Animal Garden itself, an ancient Zoo now desiccated, suddenly flowers with life after the removal of a blockage allows water to flow again. A sudden flowering also marks Emily Goes to Market (2004 chap), a tale set in the sunshine of a village magically immune from progress.

Soon after, Mayne's life and work were tragically darkened – a tragedy first and foremost for his victims – when he was charged with child abuse in 2004 and imprisoned for two and one half years. His oeuvre went out of print, his books were removed from libraries, which was expectable; but his name was also conspicuously cancelled from the influential 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up (anth 2009) edited by Julia Ecclestone, an erasure with grave implications. His death may eventually have the effect of allowing his books to live again. [PN/DRL/JC]

see also: Children's SF.

William James Carter Mayne

born Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorkshire: 16 March 1928

died Thornton Rust, North Yorkshire: 23 March 2010

works (selected)



  • Earthfasts (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1966) [Earthfasts: hb/David Knight]
  • Cradlefasts (London: Hodder Children's Books, 1995) [Earthfasts: hb/Steve Wallace]
  • Candlefasts (London: Hodder Children's Books, 2000) [Earthfasts: hb/Mark Preston]



Fairy Tales of London Town

individual titles

collections and stories

works as composer

further reading


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