Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1985, 151 p, plus vii p Introduction by Elizabeth Longford. First published in 1952.

Travel Light cover

It wasn’t till I read Elizabeth Longford’s Introduction (after the story itself) that I realised this is a sequel (of sorts) to Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen – apparently the best historical novel of the twentieth century – which is on my tbr pile but a much bulkier volume than this one so I had passed on it as yet. I must admit I was slightly annoyed to have read them out of sequence but Travel Light can stand alone. It is, though, a fantasy rather than a straight historical novel, the tale of Halla Bearsbairn, later Halla Heroesbane, and later again Halla Godsgift, born the daughter of a king of Novgorod whose second wife persuades him to get rid of her. She is saved by her nurse who turns into a bear and takes Halla into the woods where the bears are waking from their winter sleep. Halla spends the year with them picking up bear ways but is too lively for them as they begin to hibernate and so is adopted by the dragon Uggi as part of his treasure, most of which is kept at the back of his cave. Encounters with Norse heroes and Steinvor, a red-headed Valkyrie, suggest this may all be a Norse-based fantasy but events conspire to force Halla to leave. She has an encounter with the All-Father who tells her to travel light. She does, down the Volga to the Black Sea and the town of Marob, then sailing to Byzantium which the Norse had known as Micklegard. The bulk of the book is spent in this environment where Halla learns to navigate the ways of the human world, realising among other things that the emperor is merely a man not the near-mythical entity she had previously supposed. Halla’s ability to communicate with animals comes in handy for betting on the results at the Hippodrome and procuring the money needed for her friends from Marob to petition the court. Halla’s detachment from her human interlocutors, her air of wafting through the proceedings means that we never really feel a sense of jeopardy on her behalf, her other-wordliness, which might have been a danger, is a coat of protection. Along with this, in Travel Light, Mitchison also plays tricks with time.

The book is an example of Mitchison’s interest in other times and places, compare Blood of the Martyrs, and I did wonder about the significance or otherwise of the name which results when Halla is spelled in reverse.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction Dneiper (Dnieper.) Otherwise; mankind were (mankind was,) dispirited (dispirited,) one missing full stop.


Leave a Reply

free hit counter script