George Mackay Brown was a great but under-rated author. Though his last novel, Beside the Ocean of Time (which I wrote about in 50 Books for Life), was short-listed for the Booker Prize, Brown never really received the recognition he deserved for his novels, short stories, poetry, or children’s books. This is a real shame because he produced excellent books in each of those categories. And Pictures in the Cave is a great example.
The book is essentially a series of short stories told by a selkie, an Orkney seal, to Sigurd, a young boy who skips school and wanders down to what the islanders know as the witch’s cave. But it is nothing of the sort.
What Sigurd discovers in the cave is what the schoolmaster, Mr Prosser, has imprisoned in a poem to be learnt on pain of punishment. (“Mr Prosser dealt out poetry by the pound and the yard, as if he was trading in some kind of distasteful merchandise.”) What he finds is the lure of the sea and stories and seals, the poem he has been told to learn, Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Forsaken Merman’, opening his ears to what he soon hears and sees for himself. And what he hears are stories of the island through time, all revolving around the cave itself.
George Mackay Brown wrote very movingly about the Orkneys in all his books but he certainly didn’t make the mistake of creating a rose-tinted version of the islands. The adults are often foolish and sometimes wicked, though the children tend to see through the nonsense to what really matters.
That is why his portrayal of the Orcadian past is often strikingly downbeat. Robert the Bruce comes to the island but is treated with dismissive disdain by most of the people he meets. A Spanish sailor escapes a murderous crowd after his ship from the great Armada is wrecked. A Viking chief has a rather feeble ship burial. Nonetheless, Brown’s love of his people and place always shines through. His attitude is essentially the attitude of the abbot who gives Robert the Bruce shelter:
“Now, my son,” said the abbot. “Eat in peace. Speak if you want to speak. We don’t get many visitors in this lonely place, and so we don’t know what’s happening in the big busy world outside. We don’t greatly care either. So, friend, if you want to tell us who you are, and what you’re doing here, and what adventures you’ve had and what people you’ve met, we will listen with interest. But if not, bless your silence.”
Then, a little later, he continues with these wise words:
“You understand,” said the abbot, “we don’t ask here whether a man is a king or a beggar. It’s sufficient that he is an immortal soul. The Kingdom of Heaven is of more concern to us than Scotland or England or Norway. This much I grant – a man can work and pray better if he is a free man in a free country.”
There are some dark moments in the book, which means you might want to read it yourself before giving it to your children, but what is clear is the ability of children, when they are allowed to be children, to live lives of truth, love and beauty. In fact, one of the recurring themes of the book is the conflict between institutional schooling and the adventure of true discovery: “Imagine it, a boy who’d rather sit outside a witch-cave than in a fine school where he’ll learn to make progress, get on in the world, and improve himself!” the boy Sigurd says mockingly at the start of the book. Like Brown he is rather dismissive of false notions of progress. And here is the reaction of the alleged witch, Jenny, on being told that she was being sent away to school in Edinburgh:
“What did she want with Latin and mathematics and musical scales? She was perfectly happy where she was, in the island. To understand the clouds, and oatfields ripening, and the drift of stars and the drift of seals – that was the wisdom she was interested in.” Which explains why she eventually ran away to become a seal-bride.
Pictures in the Cave doesn’t fit very easily into the typical categories of modern children’s fiction, so it can be a disconcerting read at times. Nonetheless, it is a great book that is well worth owning because it is grounded in a profound understanding of reality, is beautifully written, and has a really moving ending. Oh yes, and it contains some really good stories.
And stories really matter. So, I’ll finish with a quotation not from Pictures in the Cave but from another of his books: Winter Tales:
“Much of the old story-telling has withered before the basilisk stare of newsprint, radio, television. Maybe, the people reckoned, after 1873, it was better to forget the ancient sorrows and joys. There had been too much hardship. The promised land lay all before them.
“But not many modern stories hold children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.
“Every community on earth is being deprived of an ancient necessary nourishment. We cannot live fully without the treasury our ancestors have left to us.
“Without the story – in which everyone living, unborn, and dead, participates – men are no more than ‘bits of paper blown on the cold wind …'”