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May 2008
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The Stolen March, by Dornford Yates (1926)

DORNFORD Yates (real name Cecil Mercer) retains a cult following for two linked fiction series, both very English: the Chandos thrillers and the Berry comedies of upper-class misadventure.

His little-known The Stolen March has Berry connections and begins with high-spirited criminal capers on a Continental tour, bringing together two young couples who then stumble into the lost country of Etchechuria.

This lies between France and Spain, hidden by compass-jamming magnetic mountains and by magic. It's a medieval fairyland, where visitors must outwit malign dwarfs and be equally wary of ogres and husband-hungry princesses. Further devices include shape-changing, talking animals, invisibility cloaks and the Philosopher's Stone.

As in the Alice books, inhabitants are addicted to lunatic whimsy and logic-chopping. A manufacturing town is named Date because, naturally, "All the best stuff's out of Date." Nursery-rhyme allusions abound.

One visitor can out-talk the gabby natives: Pomfret, whose grumpy magniloquence is reminiscent of Yates's Berry, the English squire. Like Berry, he's fond of comparing people to "blue-based baboons"; unlike Berry, he's threatened with transformation into one.

Eventually the country's hospitality becomes overwhelming. Unwanted honors must be accepted on pain of death. A madcap chase sequence ensues as our outlawed tourists flee through glowing rustic scenery: Yates loved descriptive ecstasies about both landscape and women. All ends idyllically, thanks to creative real-world use of the Midas touch.

Somehow the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), though mentioning Yates in passing, missed this comic fairytale.

—David Langford

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