The Corn King and the Spring Queen by the Scottish author Naomi Mitchison was first published in 1931 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1989, I think I might have owned it since then, the chunkiness of it put me off reading it. I think this book would have been improved if it had been edited down to about 500 pages instead of the 719 that it is. It dragged terribly at times. I must admit that my heart sank when I realised I had got such a chunkster in the Classics Club Spin # 27.
The setting is Marob, a small state on the Black Sea, and Greece, the story switches between both places – between the years 228 BC and 187 BC. Some of the incidents are fictional while others are historical. In Marob the society revolves around the Corn King and Spring Queen as they and their ceremonies are most important in making sure that there will be a good harvest. Tarrik, the Corn King chooses Erif Der to be his wife and Spring Queen. Her father doesn’t want Tarrik to be Corn King as it’s a position he wants for himself. Erif in common with many of the women can perform magic and her father expects her to use it against Tarrik.
When Tarrik rescues Sphaeros a Greek philosopher from a shipwreck he is wooed by all the new ideas that Sphearos has and decides to sail with him to Greece. In Greece they meet King Kleomones of Sparta, he has decided that he wants a more equal society and so the rich are persuaded to give up their jewellery, money and possessions and to free their slaves. They will be given some land of their own. But everyone becomes poor and eats black soup as the peasants had to before. The previously rich people aren’t happy. King Kleomones seems to have kept all the wealth that had been given up so that he could pay for wars against his neighbours, using the money to pay the wages of mercenaries.
This is very much just the bare bones of the book which goes into detail about the ceremonies, particularly the fertility ones which end up with the Corn King ‘ploughing’ the Corn Queen and everyone else joining in in what was basically an orgy, to ensure a good harvest of course! It struck me that this was very racy for the original publication date of 1931. No doubt the mythological aspect of the book helped in that regard.
The book is split up into nine sections and at the end of every section there’s a shortish summary of what happened in that section. Just in case you didn’t understand it I suppose. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult about the writing style, it’s just rather wordy, but it is mainly an interesting read.
Mitchison came from a fairly aristocratic family, she was born in 1897 and had a long writing career, as you will see here. She died in 1998. I read a Virago edition of the book which was first published in 1983 and has an afterword from Mitchison.
Jack read this a few years ago. His thoughts are here.