Warning: Contains Spoilers!
High into the chill night air her dying scream soared, and even in the depths of Hagwood, the ghastly shriek echoed through the ancient trees.
Aufwader’s Thoughts: Ah, Thorn Ogres of Hagwood. Here’s a spindly, lichen-encrusted classic. If I recall correctly, I discovered this one on audiobook first, somewhere between the original Deptford trilogy and the Histories. The combination of Geoffrey Palmer’s narration with that Stravinsky-esque theme tune raised it immediately in my regard to leave-the-lights-on levels of terror, and I’ve adored it ever since.
Rereading this prologue, though, it’s quite easy to see how nine-year-old me might’ve got the frights – there are no lovable cockney rats or cheeky city mice to soften the deathblow here. A fox slinks from a bush, the thorn ogres converge, sticks and stones really do hurt.
In hindsight I think those twiggy villains so scared me in part because, around that time, I had also read the book adaptation of The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, a 1990 film based on the Russian folktale of the same name. It’s a lovely story and you should all go watch it if you have a spare hour, but there was one scene in particular that I hated, in which a legion of twig soldiers came to life. Something about their malevolent little faces and thin, blood-red limbs bending in all the wrong directions just stood my hair on end, and the thorn ogres were like that, but worse, because they laughed while they eviscerated you. Sweet childhood memories!
Entering the first chapter, we calm down a little, and are invited into the snug treetop home of the Tumpin family. Poor Gamaliel does not seem at all cut out for the role of trilogy hero, and as for Kernella, pppftt! As an elder sister myself, I am offended at this buck-toothed, scraggle-haired caricature. (Offended, Robin!) Mr and Mrs Tumpin are a pleasant respite, however – Figgle Tumpin’s carefree misuse of his wergling powers is frankly admirable in what seems to be a rather stiff, tradition-obsessed community, and the bond between Gamaliel and his mum is a little ray of light in what will turn out to be a shockingly bad day for him.
A detail that always gives me a chortle is that brief aside in which Gamaliel’s parents gift him his new mole skin wergle pouch. It’s a sweet, slightly soppy moment until Figgle proudly announces that he caught the mole himself. If the happy little treehouse and fluffy squirrel tails had made any of us momentarily forget, here is the reminder that yes, we are in a Robin Jarvis book, and yes, the adorable tiny shapeshifters do, in fact, catch and skin hapless moles to make textiles.
If the following scene is anything to go by, it’s not only moles the werlings like to joyfully flay. Those hedgehogs might have died of natural causes, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s clearly a vicious world young Gamaliel is entering, but of course, the peculiarities of his kind seem quaint and charming when weighed against the horrors that await him beyond the werling’s hidden realm.
Matt’s Thoughts: And so we arrive at the first of the Hagwood series, which is unusual because it’s a trilogy that was something like 15 or so years in the making. Thorn Ogres, the first book was published in 1999, then Mr Jarvis went on to other projects (and different publishers, so that may well have been part of it) and finally came back to complete the trilogy with Book 2, which came out in the midst of the Dancing Jax series, and Book 3, which arrived between the first two books of the Witching Legacy.
By this stage, the series was now being published by a print-on-demand publisher from America, as far as I can tell. So, while I’d be speculating, it seems to me that the Hagwood books were perhaps fully conceptualised back in the late 90s, early 2000s, but didn’t quite find a publishing home until today’s day and age of ebooks.
Which leads me to suspect that, whatever traditional publishers might have made of the books, they are somewhat of a labour of love for Robin and something that he wished to see through to the end.
Personally, having read all three, I have found them to be the quirkiest of all Robin’s books so far. I think it’s because what you expect to get – especially from Book 1 – is not actually how the story goes. If you were ever to see the original Puffin cover (the one I bought years ago), it marked a real distinction from his previous books.
First off, it was a lot smaller – leading me, at the time, to the conclusion that he was now writing books for younger kids with shorter attention spans. It also looked just that little bit more ‘cute’ on the front cover. (The Deptford Mice were small and innocent-looking, but I never felt they had a cuteness aspect.)
However, all of this is an illusion. Once you get a few chapters in to the first book, this trilogy becomes one of the most blood-soaked, all-hell-breaks-loose Jarvis trilogies of all time. There are passages in this book that are so over-the-top that I almost feel Robin’s roguish sense of humour sitting behind it all, enjoying the mayhem.
However, you can all decide for yourself!
After a brief but intense prologue – just enough to remind us that this is not an Enid Blyton book – Chapter 1 introduces us to Gamaliel Tumpin and the werlings. Again, you could draw comparisons between infinite numbers of small magical creatures who live in a little community in the woods by themselves, so I won’t bother doing that. But there’s a bit of family, a bit of comedy, and a bit of nerves about their first wergling lesson.
Just having started karate recently with my kids, I can totally relate to nerves about learning new things that are outside your comfort zone!