Note: This piece also appears as the introduction to Travel Light (Peapod Classics, 2005; see below for ordering information).
With luck -- and perhaps the right illustrator -- Travel Light could have been one of the last century's most popular children's books. It has all the right properties: it is incandescently imaginative, full of delights, and confounds expectations at every turn. Instead, well-read copies have been passed by readers from hand to hand, who give it to friends and say, "Just read the first chapter. You'll see."
Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999), author of over seventy books, was fifty-five when Travel Light was first published by Faber and Faber in 1952. Mitchison was born in and lived in Scotland but traveled widely throughout the world. A bestselling novelist and well-known literary figure since the 1920s, during World War II she put up evacuees in her big house in Carradale in Argyll, Scotland. She was famously political and spent a fair amount of time trying to bring the local fishermen into the Labour Party. She was more successful with the plays she recruited them to act in. Later, in the 1960s, she was adopted as adviser and mother of the Bakgatla tribe in Botswana. Her books range from historical fiction to science fiction, nonfiction to autobiography to poetry; the most popular of which are Memoirs of a Spacewoman, The Conquered, and The Corn King and the Spring Queen.
It is hard for today's reader to imagine how economically depressed Britain was in the post-World War II period. While Mitchison was always political, and even though gender, religious, and national politics play their part in Travel Light, this novel must have been both a welcome escape and a refreshment for the writer and her readers.
Halla, the King's baby daughter, is turned out of her father's castle by her new stepmother. Her nurse spirits her away to the forests and transforms into a bear to look after the young princess. This is the first of many magical events in this enchanting novel of a young woman transformed by her journey. Halla lives with the bears, then as a dragon, and eventually (she has been on dragon time), returns to the human world. She has a gift of languages and speaks every tongue, including those of animals. She travels, first to Micklegard (Constantinople) then back north to Holmgard, near where she was born.
Rich and earthy, Travel Light has echoes of Mitchison's best known novel, The Corn King and The Spring Queen. Mitchison describes a world in flux where the old habits and traditions are being lost or left behind; rarely does anyone look back. From the dark ages to modern times, from the medieval forests to the Middle East, Travel Light is nimble, deep and joyful, and will carry the reader to Halla's world: where a basilisk might be met in the desert, heroes are taken to Valhalla by Valkyries, and a fortune might be made with a word to the right horse. By the end, Travel Light has become more than just a story: it is a map for living.
Where did this captivating fairy tale come from? As a child, Mitchison read everything she could get her hands on, including sagas, Balzac, and Heroes of Asgard. She loved Struwelpeter, the Jungle Books, and Flower Fairies. However, in her autobiography, Small Talk: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood (Bodley Head, 1973), she says, "I never much cared for the romantic series of fairy tales edited by Andrew Lang." In fact, she writes, "when I was eleven or twelve I told him I hadn't liked them and he didn't mind at all; those collections had just been a job." She then cheered him up enormously by telling him how much she treasured his poetry. Lang's early influence and support were important to her as she grew up. He encouraged her to trust her imagination, something that was uncommon in a family filled with down-to-earth scientists. One of her aunts had invented a ghost -- named the gorgonzola! -- which haunted a tower room in her uncle's house in Scotland. When, as an adult Mitchison discussed with her aunt "the dire effect" the ghost had had on her, her aunt said no one else in the family had her "runaway imagination." Mitchison described her imagination as a "misery then. And indeed it can be still, though without it I would have no wings." Readers have been benefiting from Lang's encouragement of that wonderful and sometimes fearsome imagination ever since.