Was it part of the order of nature to work magic, steal sun and rain for your own seasons and crops, almost to alter the courses of the stars? He thought not. Perhaps it had been — before people like himself had begun to question it. Once upon a time it had been part of the order of nature for men to eat the enemies they had killed; there was nothing wrong or abhorrent about it. But now that would be a pitfall in a clear road. [loc. 4384]The Corn King and the Spring Queen is set in Scythia and Greece, around 220BC. Erif Der is a young Scythian witch, caught up in her father Harn Der's plot against Tarrik, the current chief and Corn King of Marob. They marry, and Erif becomes the Spring Queen. Tarrik would be truly in Erif's -- and Harn Der's -- power, if he hadn't rescued a Greek philosopher from shipwreck and found himself intrigued by the principles of Stoicism and rationality. Magic, such as Erif's, doesn't work on Greeks, who are 'too plain and too real to be twisted about': Tarrik's growing appreciation of Sphaeros' teachings grants him a kind of immunity to Erif's wiles. But that immunity, in turn, makes Harn Der ever more determined to oust Tarrik. In the process, the ancient rituals of Corn King and Spring Queen are corrupted.
As another Greek philosopher says towards the end of the novel, "these two began to question, and, before they understood what was happening or could retrace their steps, they were out of their community and had to stand up unhelped and face a world of apparent chaos and pain and contradiction and moral choices which, being so thoroughly disturbed by old Sphaeros, they could not deal with." 'Out of their community' takes Tarrik, Erif and Erif's brother Berris -- separately -- to Sparta, to Delphi and to Alexandria. In Sparta, they become acquainted with King Kleomenes; his queen Agiatis; Kleomenes' eromenos Panteus; and Philylla, one of Agiatis' ladies-in-waiting. [What an anachronistic term!] Tarrik and Berris end up fighting in Kleomenes' army; Erif befriends Philylla, and Berris falls in love with her. Some History occurs. ...
There is a great deal of plot in this novel, with Erif, Tarrik, Philylla and Berris's stories playing in counterpoint to the campaigns and defeats of the Spartan king. There's also a great deal of philosophy and theology (mythology?), a discussion and exploration of ideas from Frazer's Golden Bough: kings who die for their people; a Delphic prophecy that is -- despite the cynicism of the Greek philosopher whom Erif rescues from fellow supplicants -- fulfilled; Erif's magic, corruption and cleansing. And, for a novel first published in 1931, The Corn King and the Spring Queen feels fresh and modern. Mitchison (by no means a conservative) presents homosexual and heterosexual relationships, fertility rites, murder and battle with the same even-handed, clear-eyed emotional honesty.
It's also a remarkably feminist novel. Erif and her spiritual journey are, to my mind, very much the focus of the novel. Though the term 'Amazon' is never mentioned, it's clear that Erif is a true heroine, a capable warrior as well as a witch and a kind of goddess. We first meet Philylla practising archery. Agiatis is a powerful ruler, respected and loved. All three have agency: all three are as powerful as their male counterparts, albeit in different ways. On the darker side, there's discussion of rape, female infanticide, arranged marriage, incest: these aren't glossed over, and the reactions of the characters seem credible for the historical setting.
And there's a substantial sub-plot about art. Berris is a craftsman, at first influenced by Hellenistic notions; later, inspired by Kleomenes and Agiatis, creating an artistic idiom of his own, the effects of which are long-reaching.
I don't know if Mitchison was an influence on Rosemary Sutcliff, whose historical fiction I have loved for decades: certainly some of the descriptive passages, with their timelessness and their emotional resonance, reminded me of Sutcliff's prose. "They went out by twos and threes; as they pushed back the leather curtain from the door, great waves of frosty air blew in and shook the flame of the lamps and chilled the room. Outside it was starry — a calm, deeply arched sky with that familiar closing inward and upward of mountains on each horizon, the valley of Sparta like a cup to hold so many stars." [loc. 2034]
The Corn King and the Spring Queen has flaws. I could have done with slightly less military strategy, and would have enjoyed more detail about some of the religious practices of Marob. (No, not the fertility rites.) And the final section seems irrelevant, unnecessary to the story of Erif and Tarrik. (I may change my mind about this next time I read the novel, though.) Immersive and glorious, often amusing and profoundly human: a delightful experience.
A note on the text: I think it was OCR'd. There are a few very annoying typographical errors, for instance the character name 'Linit' appearing as 'Link'.