Patricia Wrightson, who died last year at the age of 88, was one of the greatest of Australian children’s writers, and her international recognition was great: she received the immensely prestigious Hans Christian Andersen medal—the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. But in Australia in recent times her work was neglected and underappreciated, and often out of print.
Like Tolkien and Lewis, she chose the medium of epic, legend, and fairytale—but as she says at the beginning of her great trilogy, The Song of Wirrun, she chose not ‘the more familiar spirits, the elves and fairies and dragons and monsters of Europe’, but ‘the folk-spirits of the Australian Aborigines—not the ritual figures of the creative myths, but the gnomes and heroes and monsters of Australia’.
She did this out of a deep love, respect and understanding; no other non-Aboriginal writer has ever, then or since, approached the sensitivity, humour, intelligence, warmth and complexity of her portraits of Aboriginal people, society, and folklore. This is apparent in many of her other classic books, such as The Rocks of Honey, The Nargun and the Stars, A Little Fear, and Balyet. (With her son Peter, she also wrote an invaluable guide to the folk spirits of Aboriginal culture, The Wrightson List).
But The Song of Wirrun—which comprises The Ice is Coming, The Dark Bright Water, and Behind the Wind— is the most complete and ambitious exploration of this intriguing, amazing Otherworld. Lyrically, evocatively written, and set in modern times, it is also a most gripping, affecting hero’s journey, an epic of magisterial proportions, yet leavened with a sharp, laconic observation and humour. All the main characters are either Aboriginal—known in this book as The People—or else are spirit folk(never sacred figures). Wirrun, the central character, is a thoughtful, rather sad and deracinated young man from the east coast who has one ambition in life: to go to the ‘great quiet centre of the land’. When he finally gets there, however, he finds something disturbing, uncanny, and puzzling…..
And so begins the epic, gripping story of Wirrun’s journey into understanding, danger, heroism, friendship and a passionate love as terrifying as it is wonderful. Rivalling Lord of the Rings for sheer breadth, depth and evocative richness, and totally eclipsing it in its beautiful portrayal of love, The Song of Wirrun is to my mind the greatest work of fantasy to have ever come out of this country. It is more than time it was rediscovered.
The Australian Literature Review