Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2007
Review: Travel Light, by Naomi Mitchison
Reviewed by Anne KG Murphy
There once was a Princess whose father’s new Queen planned to do away with her. Her good nurse, overhearing this plan, turned into a Bear (as people sometimes did at that time) and carried the babe away. Halla Bearbairn would always have bearish tendencies toward berries and getting her paws in the earth, but her human form meant she wouldn’t hibernate like a sensible bear. As winter approached the nurse found a Dragon and convinced him to adopt the child. After a well-advised fireproofing ritual, Halla was raised by dragons, logically despising Heroes and wondering why Princesses were not traditionally consulted as to whether or not they wanted to be rescued.
Thus begins Travel Light, which Naomi Mitchison wrote just past half way through her 101-year-long life. Mitchison was born in 1897 in Scotland and wrote over seventy books of poems, plays, non-fiction and fiction both speculative and historical. Travel Light, a fairy tale with a whimsical tone, yet includes such serious themes as the disillusionment of men and the state of living among people who do not think remotely like you do. Small Beer Press reprinted it in 2005 as part of their Peapod Classics series – books small enough to fit in your hand and short enough to re-read as often as you please.
Mitchison organized the book into two parts. The first concerns Halla’s youth among dragons, trolls, unicorns and other mythical creatures. As the second starts, her life has been uprooted by a Hero. He is subsequently collected by Halla’s valkyrie friend, but the damage is done. Halla is taken under the cloak of The Wanderer, who recommends she set aside her dragonish treasure-keeping ways and travel light to Micklegard, though it is a far road.
As a dragon fosterling, Halla understands all languages including those of the animals and the birds. She is seen as a gift from god, a saint, a witch, an angel and, sometimes, a friend by those she comes among. She meets some men from upriver who seek audience with the Emperor in Micklegard (also called Constantinopolis or Byzantium) to complain of a tyrannical Governor. Halla becomes their benefactor and their voice as they struggle to achieve their goals in a world less just than they had hoped, yet she is not one of them and turns to her non-human acquaintances (now rats and horses) to find her way.
Travel Light has a mystical and floating tone even when it is describing cruelty, avarice, and death; the reader experiences Halla’s detached outlook toward a world that is starting to be thin of both dragons and heroes. There is no going back to the time of her youthful companions; Halla finds her own place straddling myth and reality – a place most people cannot see, because they do not believe in it any more.
“Perhaps she did not die,” said Halla, “perhaps her nurse turned into a bear and carried her away into the forest. Perhaps she was brought up by bears and dragons. Perhaps it was better for her in the end than being a king’s child.”
“That was never the story,” said Modolf.
“Forget the story,” said Halla.
This is a delightful little book I happily recommend to anyone who enjoys a trip in the light fantastic.