Ah, how the mighty have fallen

Last night I re-read The Silver Sword, by Ian Serrallier, a book I read at about nine and have ever since considered to be a moving indictment of war and a harrowing story of children’s survival in the face of utter destruction.
Well … maybe.
I’m reading it now, obviously, having read a great deal of WW2 and Holocaust literature, and as someone able to deal with much more harrowing events than the nine-year-old. But knowing that, I still can’t help but see how Serrallier has sanitised much of the action. Yes, these Polish children caught up in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation are starving, homeless, and so are many around them. But everyone they meet just seems to want to help them, even the post-war Germans are all friendly and there’s no hard feelings on anyone’s part.
I imagine he was striving for some kind of reconciliation at that critical point in post-war history (late 50s), and interestingly the Red Army is portrayed as mildly as the American and British occupiers. But while the only hint of ongoing anger is personalised in the hostile attitude of the boy Jan to any German, it’s clearly because he’s simply disturbed and will grow out of it eventually.
Now. Far be it for me to suggest that there were not many German people or occupying soldiers who would have helped a group of starving children find their way to Switzerland, but this is rather extreme.
Funnily enough, I remember feeling a bit let down by the book when I read it all those decades ago because I thought it went all God-like and preachy at the end. That turns out not to be the case either.
My other trip down memory lane this week has been through a couple of books by Henry Treece, the Viking adventure expert, whose books sent me into several years of fierce determination to grow up to live in Norway, if not be an actual Viking. This is something from which I’ve never quite recovered.
Recently I’ve read a few learned assessments of that era of historical fiction for children in which Henry Treece doesn’t measure up to the other great favourites. I bristled. But now I admit those critiques are quite right.
Sure, there’s some good Berserker battle frenzy in Horned Helmet but the storyline jumps all over the place and the characters barely develop at all. You know when development has happened because the boy suddenly becomes tall and muscle-bound and miraculously learns how to wield a sword.
Hounds of the King is much worse, with great leaps in time and heavy dollops of Anglo-Saxon politics, incomprehensible even to me. The main character misses all the big battles (otherwise he’d be dead, but still it’s an anti-climax), and King Harold’s character is so confusingly drawn that we are not sure whether he’s great or bad, and therefore why our protagonist is fighting for him.
This is a tragedy. I feel somehow bereft.
Ronald Welch, whose Carey books inspired me to start fencing and whose great swordfighting scenes are still in my mind when I write swashbucklers, is also often criticised nowadays. I think his work still stands up pretty well. Yes, they are all about blokes, but he was a man of his time and you can’t really expect to have feminist heroines leaping about. And the swordfighting is just as sharply-drawn as I remembered (in fact, really much more technically detailed than I would write).
Happily, I’ve found that most of the work of Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff is as fine as I remembered, sometimes even better, and easily measures up to the historical fiction written now for children – although I find we can no longer assume that any young reader has heard of the Roman Empire, let alone Caesar’s conquest of Britain. But that’s another story, and makes me sound terribly old.
Tomorrow I am officially middle-aged. (There was some debate about this over breakfast, as nobody could quite remember how old I am and we had to get out the calculator – a sure sign. And the paper announced subsidies on medical care for middle-aged people, that is 45 to 64. I wonder if it’s worth paying the doctor an extra $25 next visit if they promise to pretend I’m not that old?)
Anyway, as I advance into middle-age, I can accept that I might not grow up to be a Viking.
I might have to write a Viking book instead.

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