The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison has been variously described as a love story, historical fiction, a mythic tale, a proto-feminist novel, a fairy tale, a questing story, pure fantasy, and a damn good book. Different readers take different things away from each book and may describe it in any number of different ways. This is typical. More unusually in this particular case, all the different ways you could describe this book are all true.
It is difficult to describe the plot of Mitchison’s novel because of its immense scope, both geographically and chronologically. There are two main components to the story, however. The first is the story of a “barbarian” witch named Erif Der who lives in a frontier country somewhere in the Mediterranean which Mitchison names Marob. (Marob is fictional, but based on similar cultures and societies which existed at the time.) Erif marries the chief/Corn King of Marob, Tarrik, and the book proceeds to tell their story. This part of the story is almost all fairy tale: there’s magic, questing, wicked step-mothers, far-away lands, and, above all, love.
The second main component is about ancient Sparta. This part of the story is, in direct contrast to the Marob parts, almost entirely historical. As part of the questing from the Marob section, both Tarrik and Erif at different points end up in Sparta. They get involved in the historic political upheaval in Sparta featuring King Kleomenes, his wife Agiatis, and his lover Panteus.
Aside from the two main parts, the plot focuses on the idea of a loss of innocence in both cultures. The plot is touched off when a Greek philosopher (a Stoic) is shipwrecked and stuck in Marob. He begins to tutor Tarrik, who, as chief of Marob, plays a very important part in the agricultural beliefs of Marob and, as the Corn King, is supposed to be imbued with some magical powers of the harvest. (Think along druid lines and it will get you pretty close to Marob’s religious beliefs.) Influenced by this modern thinking, Tarrik loses his ability to act as the Corn King and abandons the simpler ways of Marob in hopes of gaining further Greek/Stoic understanding of the world.
Meanwhile, in Sparta, King Kleomenes wishes to bring the city-state back to its “original” (innocent) state by abandoning all richness and making everyone equal. (Think Communism in an extreme Spartan sense.) Kleomenes manages to get everyone on board with this new, communal wealth where everyone is equal to everyone else (no class, no property, etc.), but is unable to create any kind of stability in Sparta. Will Kleomenes’ forced innocence last in Sparta?
It is a stunning work and one which I would definitely recommend. Mitchison writes somewhat darkly and successfully inserts distinct strangeness into the entire narrative, really forcing the reader to recognize how foreign both Marob and Sparta are to modern eyes and to each other. Her prose is by turns fiery and leisurely, but at all times perfect in its descriptiveness. It is a strange world you’ve entered in The Corn King and the Spring Queen, but it is one which Mitchison describes in full detail so it feels utterly real and the strangeness becomes almost normal within its own continuity.
Another interesting choice is that Mitchison does weave distinct feminist angles into her story. Erif Der and a Greek girl, Phyllila, are the two main characters in both plots. The questing is at first done by Tarrik, but the bulk of the book finds Erif (the woman!) on a quest, something which struck me as highly unusual for a fairy tale. The book also deals completely frankly with women’s sexuality, not leaving the more physical side of relationships entirely in the hands of men. Erif craves physical intimacy just as much as Tarrik, but she struggles with her needs far more and often eventually succumbs to temptations on her quest with the thought “well, Tarrik does this, too” and a shrug.
The story itself is epic, with a cast of thousands requiring a helpful “New Characters” list at the start of each section. The reader is twisted around the various plots and sub-plots until the end, which, weirdly, does not necessarily prove that there was a point to the whole epic. This in and of itself may have been Mitchison’s point: When it comes to questions of innocence (lost, found, or forced), she seems to suggest that to a certain extent, we are all better off remaining as we are.