The Lost Spells
The Lost Spells
Below barn owl spreads silence;
All sound crouches to ground,
Runs for cover, huddles down.
Noise is what Owl hunts,
drops on, stops dead.
Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris combined their creative talents in 2017 to produce the exquisite book, The Lost Words. Among the awards recognising that book’s excellence was the 2019 Kate Greenaway Medal. Awarded annually in the United Kingdom for the best illustrated children’s book, the Greenaway Medal is one of the most prestigious children’s literature awards in the world. While the Greenaway Medal particularly honoured Jackie Morris for her artistic abilities, Robert Macfarlane might otherwise also have been honoured for the artistry of his evocative writing. The team has again collaborated to produce another sure winner with their 2020 book, The Lost Spells. This latest offering features the same magnificent detail and colour in Jackie Morris’ paintings and the same beautiful poetic Robert Macfarlane writing. The first book has sold over 36,000 copies in North America. This latest offering will sell at least as many again. Anyone who has The Lost Words will want to add The Lost Spells to their collection, and, as more people learn about Macfarlane and Morris’ talents, it may well be that this new book sells even more copies than its predecessor. Those many thousands of readers who love The Lost Words will be interested to learn that in the publisher’s promotional materials, The Lost Spells is described as being “kindred in spirit and tone” to the book the preceded it.
The initial attraction to The Lost Spells is likely to be the brilliance of Morris’ watercolour artwork. The dramatic cover depiction of a barn owl swooping from a star-sprinkled night sky will cause people to pause to pick up the book. When readers flip through pages and see the beautiful interior paintings of foxes, hares, birds, trees, and flowers, they will be captivated. Morris does the heavy spade work of attracting potential readers with her dazzling illustrations, but it is Macfarlane’s evocative and vocabulary-expanding word choices that transform the book into something that one wants to carefully and thoughtfully consider. As I think about the collaboration, I feel almost as if Morris has sprinkled a garden with delightful colours. As I passed by, the flowers drew me to the garden. Once within that garden, however, I found myself increasingly enraptured by the hidden delights I uncovered. So it is with Macfarlane’s writing. The first creature featured in the book is a red fox. That fox is described as inhabiting “copse and spinney, / ginnel and alley.” There is magic in that description. The same is true of the description of gorse. Anyone who has encountered the spiky thorns of a field of gorse will nod (or wince) with recognition when Macfarlane writes that it is, perhaps, “better setting out across / a field of spears” than to try to force one’s way through gorse. Furthermore, Macfarlane suggests “each of us is partly made of gorse”. From time to time, we might all be a touch prickly. The book begins with an introductory passage which states, “This is a book of spells to be spoken aloud. It tells stories and sings its songs in paint and word.” It is in speaking aloud those “spells” that one recognises the pure beauty of Macfarlane’s language use. It is in speaking aloud those spells that one truly becomes spellbound.
The Lost Spells showcases Morris’ artistic talent and Macfarlane’s poetic genius. The writing is presented as forms of acrostic poetry. There is a poetic beauty about the swirling movement reflected in many of Morris’ illustrations as well. North American readers should note that Macfarlane and Morris both hail from Britain. This being the case, the jay depicted in the book is Britain’s Eurasian Jay, the goldfinch is not the American goldfinch, but the European goldfinch, and the woodpecker is the great spotted woodpecker of Eurasia. Jackdaws are rare vagrants in North America, and, similarly, some other creatures celebrated in the book will rarely be encountered in North America. The same is probably true of some of the word choices (e.g. the ginnel inhabited by the red fox). For me, this doesn’t detract from the book at all. Rather, it adds educative potential and, perhaps, exotic beauty that enhances the book’s value.
With well over 200 pages of beautifully presented artwork and poetry, The Lost Spells provides readers with many different paths to follow. The book comes full circle when the red fox featured at the start reappears in the final poem about a silver birch forest. In between those appearances of the fox, swifts, jays, moths, daisies, oaks, hares, and other plants and animals are celebrated. Each reader will have his or her own favourite painting and his or her favourite poem. They are all good. Many are wonderful.
Dr. Gregory Bryan is a member of the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba. He specialises in literature for children.