The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Virago, 1983, 710 p. First published 1931.

he Corn King and the Spring Queen cover

This book has been described as “the best historical novel of the twentieth century.” Perhaps informed by James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, as an attempt to inhabit the mindset pertaining to an ancient belief system it is certainly admirable. Yet while readable, and a must for Mitchison completists, it is, however, not without its flaws, which are indeed acknowledged by the author’s afterword to this edition, published more than fifty years after its original appearance.

We start in the Black Sea area in the settlement of Marob where the young Erif Der is a practitioner of magic (she calls herself a witch) but this is actually a relative commonplace in the community. Erif’s father, Harn Der, wants her to marry Marob’s Corn King, Tarrik (who is part Greek and also has the name Charmantides) in order to nullify Tarrik’s powers with her own and so allow Tarrik to be replaced. Tarrik has fallen under the influence of the Stoic, Sphaeros, and her enchantments are not enough. The fertility rituals are depicted comprehensively (and later contrasted with those of Egypt) their importance to the community’s functioning emphasised. Eventually Erif falls in love with Tarrik, but under Sphaeros’s influence he decides to take a trip to Greece to where she accompanies him. This entails a change of viewpoint as in Section Two we engage with the inhabitants of Sparta before the arrival of the barbarians from Marob.

The first six sections alternate between Marob and Greece thereafter we remain following the fortunes of Spartan King Kleomenes, even into exile in Egypt, until the final epilogue chapter, set in Marob but still concerned with Kleomenes as it rounds off the tale of his legacy. The Greek and Egyptian sections make up well over half the book and so make the title a little misleading. The book at times reads as more of a history of Kleomenes than of the lives of Erif Der or Tarrik.

Mitchison’s characters display a matter of fact attitude to sex which might have been unusual in print ninety years ago, yet when Kleomenes refers to “nigger-boxers” – meaning black pugilists – the book’s origins in what are now distant times are apparent.

Phrases such as, “‘When things turn simple, women have to give up much more than men. Because they live in shadow, by mystery,’” show that feminism is by no means a late twentieth century invention. That the passage of time may provide a different perspective is illustrated by, “With time and questionings, rights became wrongs and wrongs rights.”

Notwithstanding the alien belief systems Mitchison’s characterisation is excellent, Erif’s brother Berris’s infatuation with the Greek girl Philylla a particular high point. These are recognisable human beings. It is the book’s structure that is off-kilter. There are in fact two stories here, though intertwined, Erif’s (Tarrik is off-stage for more than half the novel) and that of Kleomenes, who in his freeing of the helots comes across as a bit of a socialist before their time. Maybe they would have been better split into two separate volumes.

Pedant’s corner:- “By and bye” (numerous instances, it is – and always has been – by and by,) “the oddest thing about it were his bright brown eyes” (the oddest thing was his eyes,) disk-throwing (disc-throwing,) Sphaeros’ (Sphaeros’s,) span (x2, spun,) Agis’ (Agis’s,) Panteus’ (Panteus’s,) Lycurgus (elswhere Lycurgos,) sewed (sewn, as in the line above!) “none of them were very sure” (none of them was very sure,) “the Achæan League .. begin to be afraid of Sparta” (the league begins to be afraid,) waggons (I prefer wagons,) Plowing Eve, plow, plow-beam, plowed, plowing (yet plough-ox,) Disdallis’ (Disdallis’s,) “aren’t I?” (did the ancient Greeks actually use this ungrammatical formulation? Besides Mitchison is Scottish. “Amn’t I?” is more grammatical and the natural Scottish usage,) Agiatis’ (Agiatis’s,) Phoebis’ (Phoebis’s,) Apelles’ (Apelles’s,) “none of the traders know Plato from Pythagoras” (none of the traders knows,) slue himself round (slew,) Antigonos’ (Antigonos’s,) Kleomenes’ (Kleomenes’s,) “this intolerable burden o planning” (of planning, the “o” occurred at a line’s end. Make of that what you will,) Krateskleia (elsewhere Kratesikleia,) stronglier (usually expressed as “more strongly”,) Themisteas’ (Themisteas’s,) Berris’ (Berris’s.) “The party in Sparta that hated him and his revolution prepare to welcome..” (the party prepares,) Agathokles’ (Agathokles’s,) Sosibios’ (Sosibios’s,) a missing comma before the start of a piece of dialogue, Nikomedes’ (Nikomedes’s,) a missing start quote mark at the beginning of a piece of dialogue, “a whole sleeping part of her had awoke,” (awoken,) Neolaidas’ (Neolaidas’s,) “none of the crowd were in the least willing” (none was willing,) “like polished sards” (shards?)

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  1. Ian Sales

    This has been on my wishlist for a while. Guess I should make an effort to get myself a copy.

  2. jackdeighton

    Ian,
    It’s not the best (nor shortest) Mitchison I’ve read and has the flaws I mentioned but it’s still worth reading – even if only to catch up on the History of Sparta. She does seem to capture the ancient mindset well.

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