Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Chapter 7

glamalielWarning: Contains Spoilers!

Agnilla Hellekin no longer existed. Her mind and will had fallen into that of the hideous nightmare she had become, and so the greatest of our kind was lost. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: In this chapter we learn the nuances and limitations of wergling – the very skilled can master many different species of the same animal, and even pond life, from newts and toads all the way up to fish and river birds, are acceptable. (I wonder if any Wergle Master ever wore the azure mantle of the kingfisher? That bird plays a memorable role in B.B.’s The Little Grey Men, another somewhat underappreciated British classic featuring gnomey folk and their woodland adventures.)

We also learn the numerous hazards – aside from Unseelie fae and wergling into profane abominations by accident – that haunt the lives of the werling community. In Chapter 5, Kernella mentioned that it is forbidden to go beyond the small patch of woodland that the werlings have inhabited for generations, and now we see why. From Frighty Aggie to marauding predators on the night air, sometimes no shape can defend against a sudden, bloody demise.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: It starts out being all fun and games, this chapter – especially the amusing wergling battle between Master Gibble and Finnen. But a bit later, in the storytelling segment, it’s starting to become more apparent that you don’t have to go very far in this realm of Hagwood before everything suddenly becomes much more dangerous.

In the field, you could get taken by an owl. (And owls have now taken on a new and more sinister significance since the scene with the Smith in the previous chapter!) Wander too far, and you could fall afoul of some other creature. And clearly, this is a thing, given that Liffidia’s dad was carried off by something and both of Finnen’s parents are dead. In short, despite all the comedy, the werlings are living a pretty bleak existence.

Finally, the tale of Frighty Aggie – well, since when does Robin Jarvis ever randomly insert a tale of a monstrous being that doesn’t somehow make an appearance at some stage in the book, right?

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Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Chapter 6

glamalielWarning: Contains Spoilers!

In the remote cold hills they had been bred to slaughter and destroy, and their mouths gaped wide with the lust for murder that had been nurtured in them. The ghastly light that welled in their bulging eyes was an unholy glare fueled by loathsome hungers. They lurched for their victim, hissing and cackling with boiling malice. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: Oh boy, the High Lady’s Provost! I was waiting for that wily old flat-face to turn up. He makes Woden’s faithful Thought look like a fluffy duckling, and this slaughterous introduction is positively amiable in comparison to the havoc he’ll wreak in the name of his Lady throughout the rest of this trilogy.

We also have the Wandering Smith; a fine distillation of Celtic and Germanic mythology, and a fascinating mystery at this point in the narrative. I really appreciate the lengths Mr Jarvis has gone to in terms of reinventing ancient archetypes with his own unique flair for this series. All the characters we’ve met so far have a strong basis in familiar folklore – small, bumbling shapeshifters, fairy courtiers, forest demons and imps, and now dwarven smiths – and yet here they are, fresh and new (and bloodthirsty!)

Speaking of bloodthirsty, the thorn ogres make their first true appearance, and we get a lovely page of grotesque description which I couldn’t help quoting a little of for this post’s header. Among Rhiannon’s arboreal fiends, Snaggart is my diminutive favourite; from his way of speaking to his swivelly little rat eyes, he’s my idea of a perfect familiar. (Forget the cutesy werlings, Hagwood’s most adorable critter is, in fact, Snaggart the mini thorn ogre.) It seems he might be a favourite of Robin’s too, for there he is in full colour, menacing Finnen on the cover.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Frankly, after Thought being defeated and Quoth turning out all right in the Wyrd Museum books, I thought we were free from sinister talking birds, but evidently not. I think I like that owl even less than Woden’s feathered servants, but at least Thought taught us one thing:

job birds.jpg

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Chapter 5

glamalielWarning: Contains Spoilers!

Lovely as a winter night was she; her raven hair was like a trailing cloud of storm, and a circlet of gold sat lightly upon her pale brow. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: There’s so much folklore and history behind this chapter that I couldn’t even begin to cover it all. From age-old oral tradition, to The Ballad of Tam Lin, to W.B. Yeats’ ‘Trooping Fairies’, to Frodo and Sam watching the passing of the elves in The Fellowship of the Ring, the Seelie and Unseelie courts have been parading by awestruck onlookers since time immemorial.

For me reading this as a child, the ‘Trooping Rade’ was familiar territory. The fairy courts, with their haughty monarchs and changeling children, appeared often in the compilations of Scottish folklore I grew up reading, and a Victorian art gallery I’ve been visiting all my life still houses Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s exquisite 1867 oil painting, The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve. 

The Fairy Raid (2)
Unfortunately it’s almost impossible to find an image of it online that shows it off to its full advantage, but here’s a small segment to give you an idea.

Not pictured are the standing stones in the top lefthand corner – they really do resemble fingers, and I always expect to see Finnen and the Tumpin children crouching, saucer-eyed, in their shadow.

Of course, the main purpose of the Trooping Rade is to introduce us to the steely Rhiannon Rigantona, High Lady of the Hollow Hill. In the first chapter we were warned that her terrible eye would soon fall upon the werlings, and considering the rather sinister aura of her Court, we know that that probably heralds nothing good.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: And so the universe  of Hagwood expands. What’s interesting about the way this plays out is that we’re not given a great insight ahead of time into the Unseelie Court and how it all works.

We follow the werling youngsters as they watch the parade, and so our impression is really Gamaliel’s impression. And it’s a mixed bag, isn’t it? Hideous gobliny guards, but a stone-cold fairy queen in Rhiannon. But what is their agenda? What are they about?

What I find interesting is the mixture of beauty and ugliness. Normally, Mr Jarvis’ characters – unless they’re being a bit ambiguous – physically manifest their underlying natures. In short, the bad guys often look pretty foul. But the beauty of Rhiannon against the hideousness of some of her guards makes it a more complex thing. How does this all work? (We’ll have to keep reading to find out!)

And Finnen’s secret is a whole other thread as well. What’s going on there?

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Chapter 4

glamaliel
Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Perrun lanssa dirifeen, tatha titha Dunwrach.

Aufwader’s Thoughts: So we learn that the insect world is forbidden to the werling folk, and that those who try to flout this law end up as nightmarish hybrid creatures, banished beyond the Hagburn. Yikes! Gibble’s little rhyme about Frighty Aggie has strains of ‘for the Hobbers are dancing nigh’ in it – here, evidently, we have another nursery bogey who really does lurk in the wild dark wood.

Following this grimness, there’s the amusement of the young werlings trying to master their art for the first time. I like that Tollychuke is first to succeed – he may not be the wittiest pupil in attendance, but he’s good at the most important skill of his kind, and deserves respect. In some ways he reminds me of Twit, and I’m going to hazard that he might end up doing something quite grand for all Hagwood before this trilogy is over.

Finally, something has been nibbling at me as I’ve been rereading this book, and it’s this: why is the young werling’s first shape the mouse, and not, say, the squirrel? The werlings as a community are more alike to squirrels than to any other animal; they live in trees, consume nuts and seeds, have a natural acrobatic ability, and some of them even have tufty ears. Surely the shape of the squirrel would be an easy hop for a beginner? Then again, their tutelage seems to be all about chucking them in at the deep end, so maybe the decision to start with mice was the intentional sadism of some Great Grand Wergle Master of the distant past. I wouldn’t be surprised!

 

Matt’s Thoughts: Poor old Gammy! I totally feel like I wouldn’t get the hang of wergling on the first go either.

So is it mean that I got a little chuckle from him fainting at the end?

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Chapter 3

glamalielWarning: Contains Spoilers!

“Of course,” he muttered to himself, “at the moment it’s just a grand game to them. They don’t really understand yet.”

Aufwader’s Thoughts: We’ve established that the werlings as a whole seem to have a fairly bloodthirsty attitude to their fellow forest creatures, and in comparison to the skinning of moles, the youngster’s first challenge seems fairly tame. That said, I have to agree with Liffidia that, ‘Now children, divide into groups and go yank the fur out of some poor unsuspecting rodent’ is a somewhat bizarre and unnecessarily violent idea for a field trip.

Evidently, both the running with the mice and the gathering of the fur is essential for wergling, but one wonders if that was always the case, or if this is yet another antiquated tradition, upheld stoically by the Wergle Masters and elders, but perhaps not as vital as they make it seem.

To absorb the idea of ‘being mice’, could the children not simply partake of the running and playing with the creatures, which seems to be something they naturally enjoy and learn from? Why not spend a day cavorting with the mice, learning their ways, then snip some fur from them painlessly while they sleep? Seems less stressful for everybody, to be honest. Maybe the wergling curriculum is due for reform.

(As a final note, please take a moment to appreciate this chapter’s header illustration. Robin has, of course, drawn a lot of mouseys in his time, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen naturalistic studies from life. And amazingly, they don’t die! Mice, not dying in a Robin Jarvis book?! I never did!)

 

Matt’s Thoughts:  I really enjoyed this chapter the second time around because, while a mouse hunt is fairly low-threat, it actually sets up the personality of the different characters really well. Especially Finnen Lufkin. He’s not just the simple class over-achiever – instead, there’s a deep kindness to him. There’s also a hint of sadness and regret as well, but it’s so easy to miss that the astute reader has to be paying close attention.

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Chapter 2

glamalielWarning: Contains Spoilers!

Effortlessly, the shape of the magpie melted. In a moment the bird had vanished, and in its place was Terser Gibble – The Great Grand Wergle Master. 

Aufwader’s Thoughts: This chapter is like one of those nightmares you have as a kid where you go to school, but you’re late and everyone is staring at you. You think the teacher is absent and hasn’t noticed you slipping in at the back, only to find that they were watching you the whole time. You are then humiliated in front of your peers, everyone laughs at your expense, and you find that you somehow fail every lesson no matter how hard you try. Also, your uniform is on back-to-front.

We’ve all been there, be it in restless dreams before a big exam, or (less extreme but no less scarring) in real life, when an overbearing tutor on a power trip has taken us to task over some minor foible. To be publicly reprimanded for something that isn’t really your fault and have your classmates turn on you is probably one of the worst childhood feelings, so it’s wince-makingly easy to see ourselves in Gamaliel during this chapter, and to immediately empathise with him.

There’s hope, however, in the character of Finnen – a Piccadilly 2.0 if ever there was one, with the floppy fringe to prove it. If anybody can bring out the top wergler in Gamaliel, it’s this guy, but, since it’s Robin Jarvis we’re reading, we must proceed with caution on that front. Finnen is so lovable that his future can contain only death or villainy, and he evidently has some angst brewing already.

 

Matt’s Thoughts: And this, of course, is where we get the elaborate adjectives for our Reread – from Terser Gibble, the Great Grand Wergle Master himself. I don’t think he’d survive long in modern educational institutions, where the rules about harassment of students are a lot more robust nowadays!

It’s a nice mixed bag of characters. I have certainly always felt like Gamaliel in any sort of group settings, so I feel very sorry for the poor guy, with his petrification about the whole thing.

It’s also, of course, the introduction to the concept of wergling. If you have the Open Road edition of the book, it has a nice section up the back about Robin Jarvis which has this great description of how he came up with the book: ‘Robin gets his inspiration for stories from all sorts of sources. Once, on a hike through the forest, he heard a racket up in the trees and saw two squirrels chasing each other. The thought suddenly occurred to him that perhaps only one of them was a real squirrel and the other only looked like one. And so the werling creatures were born …’

Reading this for the second time, I’m still somewhat amused by how cute all of this was. For a few chapters, we think Robin Jarvis might have settled down and given us a charming old-school fairy story about small creatures in the woods. But, of course, this isn’t the case at all.

Thorn Ogres of Hagwood | Prologue & Chapter 1

glamaliel

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 classicIf 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!