Ninny’s Boat

Cover of Clive King's Ninny's Boat

Cover of Clive King's Ninny's Boat

Since not long after it came out I must have owned this book, a children’s novel by Clive King, and the fact that I still have it even though I’d not looked at it for years shows I must internally rate it somehow.1 Recently however I used the special license that parents have to revisit half their childhood stuff in the name of entertaining the child and made it the bedtime book du jour for my nine-year-old son. This means that I am freshly equipped to tell you that it’s great. It may also have a lot to do with sending me towards early medieval history as a supposed career. (Ha ha, we laugh hollowly etc.)

The narrative works fundamentally through the lead character’s slowly diminishing ignorance of his world and the politics of the time, so spoilers really could spoil it, but if I tell you firstly that he arrives in the novel as a black-haired slave to a farming population who call themselves The Folk but whom others call Angles, and then when their homeland floods sets out with them for ‘the Isles of Ocean’ in a boat, designed and built by one of their number who escaped from slavery in ‘the Empire’ with a set of craftsmen’s tools and a wealth of experience, you’ll get the general idea I’m sure. Ninny throughout the book is in search of his origins, especially that of his name, and this could get a bit hackneyed, though thankfully the motivation is never explored in depth: because he feels he wants to find out, is all we really need. But the writing is fresh, the lead character engaging, and the others who refer to the circumstances of the world whose setting the reader knows better than the hero nicely depicted. It’s also funny and terrifying by turns: I found when reading it out loud that its scary moments had to be toned down because it’s written as a sharp but wary child might speak, and consequently catches children’s imaginations all too vividly, but on the other hand as an adult there’s stuff in there I’m only catching now that I’m degree-educated and so on. So I do recommend getting hold of a copy if you have children of your own or if you like reviewing medievalist fiction.

I will risk some engagement with the historical setting, though, but because of spoilers and so on I’ll do it behind a cut. We get Offa of Angle, we get Arthur and Medraut and in general we get a fairly convincing picture of a disintegrated Roman province some of whose inhabitants think they’re still Romans, some think they’re Britons (although they’re of Moorish descent in two cases, one called Owen—fair enough, I thought) and all of whom think the incomers are Germans even though the section of the book in what must, I suppose, be Frisia or old Saxony, makes it clear that the Germans are all at daggers drawn between each other’s tribes anyway. Huns crop up as a distant terror, meaning that the setting generally ought to be around the 450s. That’s very early for Arthur, but about right for the state of Britain generally and Arthur is kind of a movable feast anyway. The two objections I have to the history of it are to do with the Picts, about whom as is well known I have opinions.

Present-day state of Whithorn Priory, these ruins twelfth-century

Present-day state of Whithorn Priory, these ruins twelfth-century

Ninny turns out to be a Pict. He turns out to have been named after St Ninian, who is by this time a distant memory of the oldest monks at Whithorn, which has the white house and everything.2 Obviously Mr King couldn’t know what the digs there would turn up, but this pushes the legendary saint back to, what, fl. 380 or so? This is at the very earliest edge of even the most generous takes on Ninian, Nynia or Finnian as it may or may not have been.3 I don’t know why he was pushed so far back by King, he doesn’t really need to have been for the name to work. I guess he just read MacQueen and thought that would do.

The other thing is the nature of the Picts. They are here a particular stereotype I’ve never found in historical material, but only historical fiction: a short, dark, elfin people of phenomenal woodcraft and a passing similarity to cats. I’ve run across these “little dark people” in other books too, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Frontier Wolves and Eagle of the Ninth have them too I think, and maybe others, but I’ve no idea what the basis for them is. King pitches them as the pre-Celtic incomers whose language may underlie some placenames of Pictland that don’t seem to fit what we know of Pictish, but they are identified by others as Picts, and the Roman sources for the Picts say, well, more or less the same thing as they say of all barbarians, especially the Gauls in Cæsar’s De Bello Gallico: they’re tall, hairy, muscular, flame-haired, brutal, dominated by their even more fearsome women, can’t be trusted and are easily distracted or inflamed with rage. This is so much stereotype, I’m sure, but where does the alternative come from? The best I can quickly find for it is an anthropological study of early twentieth-century Wales where that physical type was considered ancestral, but that doesn’t explain the pre-Celtic tag at all and in any case appears to be referring to the cliché itself already.4 So if anyone knows where this idea originates I’d be fascinated to have your input.


1. Clive King, Ninny’s Boat (London 1980). Some description, with spoilers! in Derek Bastide, Religious Education 5-12 (London 1987), pp. 95-96, where it’s covered as a book addressing the theme of pilgrimage or migration. Worryingly, the next two things they mention are also things I owned, and thought great, at the same age. I don’t think there was any indoctrination going on there but then I didn’t see the Christian allegory in the Narnia books till I was 18…

2. Peter Hill (ed.), Whithorn and St Ninian: the excavation of a monastic town 1984-91 (Whithorn 1998).

3. Contrast John MacQueen, St. Nynia: with a translation of the Miracula Nynie Episcopi and the Vita Niniani by Winifred MacQueen (Edinburgh 1990) with Thomas Owen Clancy, “The real Saint Ninian” in Innes Review Vol. 52 (Glasgow 2001), pp. 1-28.

4. Pyrs Gruffydd, “Back to the Land: Historiography, Rurality and the Nation in Interwar Wales” as abridged in Tim Oakes & Patricia Lynn Price (edd.), The Cultural Geography Reader (London 2008), pp. 138-145 at 139-140. I may have to get this volume, it’s got loads of stuff I’ve seen cited but not read in it and I’m repeatedly told I’m doing a sort of ethnography anyway…

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6 responses to “Ninny’s Boat

  1. Aren’t those small dark people in Kipling? Not very far back, but…

  2. Wait….you have a 9 year old son? Now that changes my whole image of you!

  3. They are in Kipling, and I think they’re also in Walter Scott though I don’t know his stuff well. But that just makes it a Victorian topos, and I don’t know where it comes from before that. By the time the Victorians get it it’s halfway blended with færie and such, and I think King’s just giving a rougher more realistic version of this—this is what I love about this book, is its relative naturalism—but the source must be further back.

  4. Good Lord — have I known you that long? I thought he was 6.

  5. As I recall, it was a Victorian meme that supposed the Sidhe/Wee Folk/Fairies were the preCeltic inhabitants of Britain transformed in Celtic legend, and since the legends presented them as, er, wee folk, they must have been at least a little bit wee.

    (Of course, the definition of wee seems to be a variable thing. The Highland distilleries present tourists with what they call a wee dram, but would be called a reasonably sized shot of whiskey any place else. So perhaps the Wee Folk were only comparatively Wee.)

    BTW, does the pejorative meaning of ‘ninny’ exist on your side of the Atlantic?

  6. ADM, at that rate he must have been seven when we were first in contact I think, I knew who you were and had e-mailed you before I started the blog but we only actually met July 2007, no?

    Kishnevi, that’s interesting feedback, thankyou; so it might go no further back than the Victorians? And yes, the pejorative ‘ninny’ exists and is made much use of in the book.

    I was under the impression that a dram was actually a double measure of spirits, so 50 ml, but now that I look it up I discover that there’s no actual basis for this, as the actual fluid measure is rather less than a sixth of a shot, so it really is just Scots generosity :-) At that rate these little folk could be twelve times our size…

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