City of Gold (1980)

Since having been vaccinated four times does not, apparently, make you immune from COVID, I have had a lot of time on my hands the last four days and managed to make a dent in the small-ish number of Carnegie winners that I’ve not yet read.

Today I finished City of Gold and other stories from the Old Testament by Peter Dickinson which won the Carnegie in 1980. This was his second win, having won for Tulku the year before and he was the first author to win the Carnegie twice.

Like Tulku, City of Gold has a strong spiritual and religious theme; it is a radical retelling of Bible stories, each of the 33 stories is told by a different voice and in different contexts at a time before the bible was set down in writing. In some instances, the re-setting of a given story gives it a powerful resonance. For instance, the story of The Twelfth Plague which describes the Exodus from Egypt is ‘told by a father hiding with his family in a cellar in Lydda, during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes, 168 BC’. As a frame, it is completely believable, and also brings to mind many other instances of religious persecution. Other stories again are told to boys who have just entered the priesthood or to calm a scared child. Yet other stories are recast as songs sung by women as they work or fetch water from the well.

The oral element is not only present in the framing device but in the way, the story is told by each individual storyteller who is interrupted by the audience and responds to them. For instance, the story of Babel is told by a grandfather to his young granddaughter who has been frightened by a troop of ecstatic prophets passing through the village:

“Run and beg a few cakes from your mother – tell her it’s for the prophets, so that they may bless us (…) Well done! And he blessed you? What’s that? You couldn’t understand the words, but he smiled? Then I think we may take it that he did bless you…. what’s that again? Speak slower and louder, little one. Why couldn’t you understand the words? Well, it’s an old story (….)” p27

The Gollanz edition (the original edition), which is what I have, is beautifully illustrated by Michael Foreman. A couple of years later, Foreman illustrated a picturebook which has recently become one of my favourites: Leon Garfield’s The Writing on the Wall which is a retelling of another bible story, that of Daniel interpreting the King Belshazzar’s dream, from the point of view of Samuel, a kitchen-boy in Babylon and for both books this different perspective illuminates aspects of the story which are probably not familiar to the average reader.

City of Gold also reminds me very strongly of another Garfield Carnegie Winner The God Beneath the Sea which is the retelling of some of the Greek myths. Both are exceptionally well-executed as reimaginings, retold in beautiful language with arresting imagery by a writer, as Keith Barker says ‘at the height of his powers’. However, I can’t imagine many children would be interested to read them – and this issue was also raised when the Carnegie was awarded. Barker goes on to say:

“…it was not a particularly popular choice and added fuel to the argument that the Medal was being awarded to books which failed to find a child audience. One correspondent to Library Association record wrote ‘as regards the Award in general, why does the committee so often choose something no ‘ordinary’ child would read?” (Barker, Outstanding Books for Children and Young People).

In In the Realms of Gold, Barker reports that panelist Vivian Griffiths responded that popularity with children was not a criterion; the point was literary merit. I think this strikes at heart of some of the questions about the Carnegie Medal, which I will come back to in another post.

At the back are short notes on each selected story which sets out Dickinson’s sources for each story. For me, the study, translation and interpretations of these sources have always been one of the most interesting parts of the bible so I geekishly looked at this for every story. Again I ask myself which child is this is relevant for though?

Dickinson was the recipient of many awards both for his children’s books and for his books for an adult audience. His children’s books were shortlisted for various awards and he won the 1977 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize for The Blue Hawk, the Carnegie Medal twice (Tulku, 1979 and City of Gold, 1980) and the Phoenix Award in 2001 and 2008 (for The Seventh Raven and Eva respectively). He won the Gold Dagger for his two first adult books.

I enjoy Peter Dickinson very much. I just don’t feel his two Carnegie Medal winners are aimed at or relevant for children, certainly not in 2022. However, for myself and my own reading pleasure, his other prize winners will definitely make it on to my ‘Reading List’.

8/10 (purely based on my own enjoyment of the books).

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