George Mackay Brown, as I have suggested elsewhere, is one of my favourite modern authors. Standing apart from the mainstream, he wrote fiction (and poetry) that was powerful, haunting and evocative. This is also true of his books for young readers, such as The Two Fiddlers, which was first published in 1974. In this short review, I will write about the first half of the collection of stories, returning to the second half on another occasion.
The first question to ask concerns the intended audience. How young are “young readers”? This is an important question because The Two Fiddlers is not a safe children’s book. There’s a lot of death in it, for a start, some of it quite brutal. My view is that this book is most suitable for teenagers, though that might not be apparent from the front cover.
But The Two Fiddlers doesn’t fit easily into contemporary categories, so-called Young Adult Fiction or otherwise. Take the first (and title) story of the book, for instance. The story is taken straight from Orcadian folklore and, as such, it ends abruptly because, as the narrator explains, “the old story-tellers did not seem to be interested in what happened afterwards.” Rather than fill in the gaps, George Mackay Brown’s narrator asks a series of unanswered questions, before setting the whole tale in its cold, modern context:
“The island is rich now, with big farms and cars and television aerials. They have love and birth and death and fruition explained to them in newspapers, coldly.”
So, what does Brown give us instead? Stories about “love and birth and death and fruition.” And he doesn’t hold back. We have the whole of human life with few concessions to a young readership.
The subject matter may be disconcerting at times, but so too is the writing. George Mackay Brown was a master story-teller, but he was also a poet. He told a great tale and he was also capable of writing passages of great lyrical beauty, like this paragraph from near the end of ‘The Seal King,’ one of his more haunting and challenging tales:
“We earth-dwellers will never know the huge sympathy that bids together the creatures of the sea: so that when a terrible wrong has been committed, a single pulse of pity beats through the cold world-girdling element, and seal, pearl, whale, and sea-blossom devise with their God-given instincts that which will restore beauty and wholeness to the breached web.”
What makes George Mackay Brown’s work stand out was both his connection with place – the Orkneys – and his connection with the literary tradition that helped to create that place. He was quite happy to point out his indebtedness to Marwick’s Anthology of Orkney Verse and Creatures of Orkney Legend and their Norse Ancestry; The Orkney Saga; and Duncan J Robertson’s folklore essays because he knew that he was part of a living tradition. Not him for the shock of the new. He longed for the shock of the old, and in this fine book he provided it.