I wrote recently about reading an ad for Diana Wynne Jones’s The Ogre Downstairs when I was a child and never getting to read the book till I was an adult. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Witch’s Brat is another book that I had a similar experience with, except that until recently, I always thought I must have read it. The Witch’s Brat, I even thought, was part of the inspiration for my book Nightwalker and the entire Warlocks of Talverdin series. Finally, though, I’ve got a copy of my very own, and discovered that, in fact, I’m sure I’ve never seen it before. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t provide the starting inspiration for my own story.
I was looking on abebooks.com for a few Sutcliff books I still don’t have copies of, and came across The Witch’s Brat. I thought that, well, I must only have read it from the library once, and if I only read it once, it can’t have been one I liked as much as others, but it would be good to read it again, so I ordered it. It arrived from England and I considered the cover. Nope, never seen it before. I started reading. Hmm. Definitely never read it before. Very interesting ….
The Witch’s Brat, the story of Lovel, a crippled villein boy during the reign of Henry I, who becomes a monk and a physician, is an excellent story, and I’m sure I never read it as a child. It must have been one that wasn’t in our library. Like The Ogre Downstairs, I must have read a back-cover synopses for it on some other book. Oxford had a confusing habit of putting a write-up for a completely different book on the back of the dustjacket in those days. That blurb definitely sank into my imagination, because I remember at the time beginning to make up a story, in the first person, which I didn’t use much in those days, that began, “I was the witch’s brat …” It involved a swineherd (shades of The Book of Three!) who was the village outcast, a foundling raised by a peculiar old outcast woman who may or may not have been his real grandmother. After she died he was driven out and went off and had lots of heroic adventures. That was when I was eleven or twelve or so, I think. The opening settled down in the compost of the imagination and stayed there.
When I started to work on Nightwalker, the immediate opening line that came to my mind was, “I was the witch’s brat…” and the character and situation, which is where I usually start a story, was a foundling boy raised by an old woman on the outskirts of a village. He was the village swineherd. Along the way he became a monastery swineherd. I couldn’t actually use the opening sentence, “I was the witch’s brat” I suddenly realized, after writing several variant first pages of first chapters, because that was the opening line of Sutcliff’s The Witch’s Brat. Except, of course, now I know that it isn’t. Her book begins, “The boy came stumbling down between the two big outfields of the village ….” And Lovel isn’t a swineherd — though oddly enough, there’s a swineherd in the book, who helps him out after he runs away. I’m pretty sure Maurey’s long-ago early incarnation who looked after pigs owed more to the association of foundlings and (assistant) pig-keepers in Lloyd Alexander, though, as Lovel’s rescuer isn’t likely to have been featured in a cover blurb, unlike his grandmother and outcast runaway status.
Anyway, I start a book by writing and rewriting and rewriting until it all comes together and I find the right way into it, and Maurey, as readers of the Warlocks series know, isn’t a swineherd, and Dame Hermengilde, who took in his dying pregnant mother in a storm (shades of Oliver Twist!) was neither a witch, a peasant woman, nor his grandmother, and the first line is, “The sing-song voice was getting closer.”
There’s one other odd point of connection, which might be mere coincidence, or might have been a detail from that cover blurb attaching itself, all unconsciously, to some neuron: a minor character in Maurey’s world, the murdered heir to the throne in Treason in Eswy (and also that dead prince’s namesake nephew in The Shadow Road), is named Lovell, a name I picked out of a name dictionary.
It’s interesting, to me anyway, to see how these tiny scraps of things encountered in childhood take root deep in the imagination and have the potential to grow and be transformed into something so unlike what went into the compost. I wonder though, what would have happened if I had had a copy of The Witch’s Brat around when I was starting Nightwalker. I would have realized that my opening, which I came up with several decades ago, was original after all and not actually taken from Sutcliff’s book. I could have kept it. And that one change would have changed his character and his entire world. If Maurey’s guardian had been a village witch rather than a knight’s widow (and in my secondary world fantasy that would have meant a real witch), if he had been raised a peasant rather than, however briefly, sent off to grammar school, if he had run away into the wilderness as an illiterate herd-boy, rather than starting his adventures because of being trapped in the king’s own cellars, revealed as only half human, and sentenced to death by burning, Nightwalker would have been a very different book.
It would have happened, too, because … that old opening sentence still niggles at my mind. Maybe I’ll use it again someday, and see where it takes me this time.