Different kinds of stories need to be told in different kinds of words strung together in different ways. Henry Treece understood this better than almost any other writer I know. He had a very special gift for finding exactly the words and word-patterns that each of his books needed, so that instead of simply telling the story, they blend into it and become part of its texture and colour and shape and smell.
This is a kind of magic; but it is a magic that, if it is perfectly carried out, hardly shows;
so that one might read The Dream-time from beginning to end, and never notice that it was there at all, which would be a great pity.
The Dream-time is a story of people in the very early morning of humanity, when they were not really used to being people at all, and so everything had a strangeness about it, and nothing was quite certain; not even that the spring would come again next year. They were so near the beginning that they can have had only the fewest and simplest of words with which to talk to each other and share their thoughts and feelings and ideas. And yet we know, from the things to do with their religion and way of life that they left behind them, and from Stone Age people who are alive today, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, that they had all kinds of complicated thoughts and fears and longings in their heads and hearts. So Henry Treece has told this story in very short and simple words, put together in such a way that they can express things which are not simple at all.
Before you have read very far into The Dream-time you will know what Henry Treece is saying. Indeed, he makes Crookleg, who became Twilight, think part of it for him: `He wished that all people, the men and women and horses and owls and dogs could agree to speak the same words. Then all things would be easy, to speak and to be understood. Perhaps no one would fight then.’
It is a constantly shifting and changing story that holds one all the way, with its adventures and its strange peoples and places; but it is also a plea for people to get to know each other and care about each other more; for peace instead of war, making instead of breaking.
I think that in this, the last book that Henry Treece wrote, he did not mean to make a historical novel, such as he had made before, but to do something quite different. It is more as though, in a way, he were writing down a dream; and just as, in a dream, times and places get jumbled together, he has deliberately put different periods and `pockets’ of very different Peoples nearer to each other than they really were. The story, of a boy who would rather make beautiful things than kill people, seems to belong to the late Stone Age, to the Little Dark People who possessed the secret of growing barley; but the Hunters, the makers of wonderful cave paintings, who were there long before the Barley People, come into it, too; and about the River Folk there is a suggestion of the Age of Bronze, which came after the Little Dark Ones had had their day. I think that in all this, he was trying to show that however much people change in the outward way that they behave and even think, certain things never change. Some of these things are good, and some of them bad and sad. In all ages, even today, there are people who want to make beautiful things more than anything else in the world; and people who are willing to die for a dream, even for the kind of dream that seems crazy to everyone else. And in all ages, even today when we have had four thousand years or so in which to learn more sense, people still fight because they do not understand each other.
One of the sad things of life, for every writer, is the knowing that one day he will write his last book. And all too often, when it comes, it is just a book like others that he has written before; maybe not even as good as some of those others were. But Henry Treece was lucky; he has written a very special book indeed for his last novel of all.
Rosemary Sutcliff, children’s writer and historical novelist, writes about Henry Treece.