By Tim Tilley
Myths and magic have inspired Tim Tilley to add these elements to his own book, Harklights. Currently Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month, this is an enchanting story filled with wonderfully magical moments.
Growing up, I have always loved stories with myths and magic, so it was inevitable that myths and magic would find their way into my own stories. Some of my favourite books include The Box of Delights, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Both of them have magical encounters in wildwood and forest settings.
I found it fascinating that forests featured in many myths and fairy tales. They were places of adventure, enchantment and transformation. Red Riding Hood, Robin Hood, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel – all of them found shelter, but also danger, among the dappled light and shadows of leaves.
I also loved Brendan Chase, which was my maternal grandmother’s favourite book. The story told of three brothers who lived as outlaws in a forest for eight months. The Hensmen brothers made their den in a hollow oak tree. When my younger brother and I, visited the hollow oaks in Bradgate Park, it brought the magic of Brendan Chase to life. And not just Brendan Chase, we played Robin Hood, and Narnia, and Return of the Jedi.
One of my favourite non-fiction books was – and still is – The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. We had an ancient copy of Brewer’s (the 1894 edition, four shillings) that belonged to my paternal grandmother, and might have come from the stationer bookshop her family ran in Chesterfield. I never met her as she died when my father was a boy, so the book held a lot of reverence and mystery for me, nestled alongside an old Grimm’s book of fairy tales illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
Brewer’s is packed full of history, myths, folk tales and legends. It was like a Rough Guide to magical people and places. In its mottled and foxed pages, I discovered that a phoenix was an Arabian bird that built its nest with spices, a dobby was a house-elf (very kind to servants and children), and a dryad was a tree-spirit. At one time, I think after watching the BBC adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia, I wrote out on index cards a bestiary of nature spirits and magical creatures, so I didn’t have to keep thumbing through an ancient book. Brewer’s has woven its way into the roots of Harklights – the Hobs take their name from Hob, a Scottish household spirit. Nissa’s name comes from Nisse, meaning gnome in Norwegian. Old Ma Bogey – the villainess who runs the match factory orphanage – takes her name from bogey, a Scottish hobgoblin or person of terror.
Asides the Hobs, the wood-sprites and magical tree-stag, Harklights also features a dragon, and makes reference to the phoenix myth. I can’t say I was surrounded by phoenix imagery, but I knew of them from an early age. My father worked for the Phoenix Theatre as a lighting designer, telling stories with light. The firebird was emblazoned onto the most coveted of the Matchbox cars my friends and I played with, as we drove around dust track roads carved into the dried-out flowerbeds of our primary school. The Phoenix was also the name of the G-Force team spaceship in Battle of the Planets, a favourite cartoon.
While writing Harklights, I revisited Brewer’s and Brendan Chase and Narnia many times. No longer was the phoenix the story of a bird that could die and be reborn, it was also a symbol of hope. In Slavic folklore, it was believed that a single feather from a phoenix could light up a whole room.
Hope was something my father held onto and never let go. He always believed that there was a chance for good things to happen, that if given tough challenges, people could bravely come up with ingenious solutions, and that light always triumphed over darkness. For me, the hope he carried, the enthusiasm he radiated, was a phoenix feather.
With this in mind, there is darkness and danger in Harklights, but there’s also hope and light. It’s something Wick and the other orphans hold onto, something Wick kindles within the Hobs, urging them to fight the Monster that threatens to destroy their home.