Day 12:01 am
Margaret Elliot’s The Corn Dolly and an Otherly Layering as the Years Pass: Wanderings, Explorations and Signposts 51/52
The Corn Dolly is a book by Margaret Elliot, which was originally published in 1976.
If it was published today it would probably be called a Young Adult novel – i.e. aimed at a younger teenage audience.
There is very little information about the book online and not all that many copies for sale but it could be loosely connected to folk horror or the spectral, preter/supernatural likes of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in its themes.
The story of the book involves a form of sympathetic magic and the mystical powers and actions of a corn dolly, which is found by a young brother and sister, in protecting the harvest:
“Susie retrieved the Corn dolly from the river-bank where she was being attacked by a group of crows. With the help of her brother, Jack, she fished the doll out and took her back to Granny Cuddon’s house. Their Gran told them that the doll had been a good luck charm who ensured a successful harvest for her owner – and she mentioned that farmer Barham had once had a very similar doll. Farmer Barham had employed the children’s father but bad luck had struck his farm and he was almost bankrupt now.
“It seemed to Susie, and even to Jack, that ever since they had found the doll they had been followed by the attacking crows. And both children felt obscurely threatening forces closing in on them. In fact, finding the Corn dolly was to catapult them into a sinister adventure, connected with the evil powers that were trying to destroy Farmer Barham’s Highfield. But they discovered the Corn dolly, too, had powers – powers for good, which were tested to the utmost when the enemy struck.
“Margaret Elliot has written an unusual adventure story based on the folk lore of the English countryside.”
(From the inside cover text of the book.)
Margaret Elliot wrote four books between 1976-1981 – The Corn Dolly, When the Night Crow Flies, Witch’s Gold and To Trick a Witch, all of which seem to be aimed at a similar audience and feature not dissimilar battles between mystical powers of good and evil (or white and black witches and their covens).
All four of the books feature illustrations by Colin Dunbar, on whom information also seems scarce.
If published today they might well be filed alongside the vast array of other, not dissimilarly themed Young Adult orientated books.
However with the passing of time older, previously fairly normal or mainstream culture can gain extra layers of interest/a patina of intrigue and character and that is the case with The Corn Dolly.
Viewed now and with the current interest in flipside Albion-esque and “wyrd” culture it seems like a curious, intriguing, semi-lost cultural artifact and also a signifier of some of the interests and background of its time of publication; post The Wicker Man and the canonic trio of folk horror films from the early 1970s, a relatively mainstream interest in the supernatural and the occult back then and a related yearning for and interest in rural and folkloric escape and culture at the time.
The book also connects further with The Wicker Man in that its focus is around the rituals and faith involved in protecting and hoping for a bountiful harvest and when viewed with an awareness of the above mentioned contemporary interest in the “wyrd” and eerie aspects of folklore etc the traditional verse below, which is included at the start of the book, seems to have gained a subtle “otherly” aspect:
“‘Tis but a thing of straw,” they say,
Yet even straw can sturdy be
Plainted into doll like me.
And in the days of long ago
To help the seeds once more to grow
I was an offering to the gods.
A very simple way indeed
Of asking them to intercede
That barn and granary o’erflow
At Harvest time, with fruit and corn
To fill again Amalthea’s horn.”
(Almathea’s Horn refers to Greek mythology, where a goat called Almathea’s broken horn was blessed by the god Zeus so that its owner would find everything they desired in it and which became a symbol of cornucopia and eternal abundance.)
Margaret Elliot at Good Reads
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
1) Wanderings, Explorations and Signposts 1/52: Hazel’s Kaboodles Corn Husk Doll Kit – Opening a Time Capsule from Back When and Faceless Folkloric Precedents
2) Chapter 7 Book Images: 1973 – A Time of Schism and a Dybbuk’s Dozen of Fractures