For many years, Margaret Mahy was New Zealand’s best known and most celebrated children’s writer. Her work had a variety and panache that made it stand out from many a crowd. She wrote poems, picture books, plays, songs, stories, essays and novels, and had over 100 titles to her name. But more than quantity was the quality of her work, which has an underlying intellectual rigour and imaginative verve.
When I was a teenager, I fell upon The Changeover: a Supernatural Romance, perhaps her best known novel for young adults. It’s the story of Laura, who becomes a witch in order to save her little brother from a lemure, an ancient Roman vampire that has fastened on his life-force through a magic stamp. To become a witch, Laura undergoes a magic ritual, led by the mother and grandmother of a boy at school, Sorenson Carlisle, who is in love with her. The ritual involves cups and coins, and a journey into a psychic underworld and out again. Once she is transformed, she conquers the lemure and saves her brother.
It’s about much more than that, of course. In her ‘changeover’ into witchhood, Laura undergoes a katabasis, a journey into the underworld: a traditional journey of so many classical heroes and heroines before her: Persephone, Orpheus, Aeneas. . . And in doing so, she grows up, not merely becoming a witch, but becoming a little bit more adult. Mahy interweaves her story with contemplations about romance, about love, about family, about divorce, and about sex, and by the end of the novel Laura is aware, and accepting, of the complexities of life.
I read The Changeover, loved it, and then carried on reading many other books. It was only recently, when I was working on an article for a collection edited by Marguerite Johnson, that I realised Mahy’s classicism is interwoven through her novels for young adults. There’s The Tricksters, in which Harry, a teenage Ariadne, fights the minotaur of family secrets, during a dramatic summer holiday on Banks Peninsula. There’s Dangerous Spaces, in which two cousins, Flora and Anthea, are drawn to, and escape from a mysterious otherworld that is a gateway to the afterlife, and resolve their jealousy and resentment of one another. There’s Memory, in which Jonny, a dancer, is going mad through the effects of repressed memories about the death of his sister. Seeking an oracle who can help him discover what happened, he becomes friends with Sophie, an old lady suffering from dementia. Memory draws on ideas about dance, Dionysis, oracles and sibyls, investigating the power of the mind. And there’s The Catalogue of the Universe, in which Mahy draws on the idea of Dido’s daughter and the ancient philosophers, to tell a story of finding balance in life between passion and reason.
One of the things about working with literature for children is that you go back to the books you loved as a child, and you see them anew in interesting ways. Though I was a keen Latinist at high school, I don’t remember being struck by Mahy’s mythical imagination. But now, I see them as a suite of novels that investigate the adolescent condition through classical myths. Or, alternatively, as a suite of novels that investigate the classical myths through the modern adolescent condition.
As a New Zealand writer, Mahy was conscious of her European literary heritage. These novels show her applying it to the New Zealand landscape and the life of New Zealand teenagers in productive and fascinating ways.
– Liz Hale
Margaret Mahy: The Changeover London: J. M. Dent, 1984
Margaret Mahy: The Tricksters London: J. M. Dent, 1986
Margaret Mahy: The Catalogue of the Universe London: J. M. Dent, 1985
Margaret Mahy: Memory London: J. M. Dent, 1987
Margaret Mahy: Dangerous Spaces: London. H. Hamilton, 1991.