A Dark Horn Blowing

A Dark Horn Blowing. Ipcar, Dahlov. San Diego: Magic Carpet Books/Harcourt Brace & Co., 1997. ISBN 0-15-201201-X, $6.00 paperback.

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(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 35:4 (#193) in April 1998.)

Reviewed by Eleanor M. Farrell

Originally published in 1978, this long out-of-print fantasy novel has been reissued as part of Harcourt Brace’s new young adult Magic Carpet label, along with other, more recent, selections. The tale in A Dark Horn Blowing draws from Norse mythology as well as from several traditional ballads, including “The Queen of Elfan’s Nourice” and others in the collections of folklorist Francis James Child. In the story, Nora, a young woman who has just given birth to her first child, is awakened at night by what she thinks is a lowing cow, but which turns out to be a dark horn blown by a small man in a dragonboat at the shoreline. Drawn by this mournful sound, Nora is spirited away to be nursemaid to the ailing Queen of Erland’s newborn son, with all memory of her own life lost. Over the next years — time in Midgard, Nora’s home, passes twice as quickly as in Erland — Nora comes to love her charge, whom she nicknames Eelie, but still longs to return to her husband and son, who are suffering under the spells of the witch Bab Magga.

The author uses the voices of her four main characters, Nora, Eelie, Nora’s husband Eben and their son Owen, as first-person narratives to relate their interweaving stories and the cojoined events of Middle-earth and Faërie. The main theme, however, is the growth and maturation of the young Erl Prince, who must learn to use his magic wisely and to develop the qualities that will make him a better ruler than his cruel father.

Ipcar’s book is one of a small but delightful sub-genre of fantasy novels retelling traditional ballads. Diana Wynne Jones’s wonderfully original treatment of Tam Lin, Fire and Hemlock, is probably the best of these; others include Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer and Delia Sherman’s neglected Through a Brazen Mirror. All of these retellings should be of interest to anyone who enjoys the English and Scottish ballads. It’s nice to have A Dark Horn Blowing, Dahlov Ipcar’s contribution, available once again.

Content copyright 1967- The Mythopoeic Society All rights reserved