Magic subversion and ecological agenda coexist in Margaret Elphinstone’s collection of short stories. Quirky creatures populate the stories, which retain a strong humanity, even when cast in the fantastic genre. Human characters often hallucinate to grasp the unintelligible, and their visions subversively enlighten their view of the world, questioning their own beliefs and defying rational understanding. Epistemological and social issues coexist strongly in the majority of the stories, as the supernatural challenges rational thinking and critically investigates modern society.
The first story of the collection, “The Green Man,” bears evident links to the Scottish ballad tradition. Evocative of fairyland, the Green Man’s name, Lin, also establishes a specific connection with Tam Lin, the legendary hero of the Scottish ballad. The casual encounter with the Green Man accelerates a critical process of doubting already planted in the heroine, Sara’s, mind. As reality gradually loses its apparent order, a dramatic urge of artistic inspiration runs through Sara’s creative work. Eventually, the sacrificial death of the Green Man, whose elusive interpretation associates him with notions of fertility as well as otherness, allows life and rebirth for the planet.
The modern world’s doomed state is the background to two related stories, “Conditions of Employment” and “The Cold Well.” In the first story, fortune-telling priestess Miranda’s fantastic encounters with characters from a remote past are juxtaposed against her more realistic visits into the ordinary present world. Both stories stress the importance of magical vision and the ability to foresee, imagine, and view things in an alter-native way. “The Cold Well,” inspired by the author’s visit to Sellafield nuclear station, reinforces the sense of danger incumbent on the natural world. In stark contrast to the cool and pristine waterfalls described at the beginning of the story, earth, water, fire, and air, separated from their natural harmonious symbiosis, are turned against each other in the dangerously artificial world of the nuclear station visited at the end of the story.
The contrast between two clashing worlds is the focus of “An Apple from a Tree.” An apple bite initiates Alison’s friendship with a strange creature seemingly landed from another dimension in the middle of Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens: Nosila is, literally, Alison’s inverse double. Deceptively attractive and naive, Nosila is in fact a destabilizing force in her new context. Brought to this world through a gesture evocative of original sin, the creature represents the unknown other world, embodies a moral code, and impersonates a social behavior radically different from Alison’s own. Failed attempts of communication with human beings compensated by strong emotional bonds with houseplants and vegetables suggest that Nosila springs from a world closer to nature than Alison’s Edinburgh. A second bite into the magic apple throws the two out of the Botanic Gardens and onto the thick grass of Nosila’s world, where the sky is blue and the forest untouched. As the story develops, the awareness dawns that the possibility of them inhabiting the same world is unlikely.
Like Sara and Miranda, Alison is alienated from her own world. All human characters from the collection undergo a process of self-growth catalyzed by their extraordinary experiences. The supernatural encounters in the stories from An Apple from a Tree push the boundaries of realism open to accept the irrational within the rational and, rather than invite a suspension of disbelief, ultimately question the existence of rigid boundaries between real and supernatural worlds.
Elphinstone, Margaret. An Apple from a Tree and Other Visions. London: The Women’s Press, 1991.