I was not told about this.

So apparently if you read the blurb of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase you will be informed that the book takes place in “a time in history that never happened”, and that said alternate time involves England being overrun with wolves. WHAT. This is explained? Because it’s not explained in the book itself! Lacking this blurb you are left to make your own conclusions about whether there are or are not areas of England that are overrun with savage, daring, vicious packs of wolves that come out as soon as it’s dark and jump through train windows.

I’ve written several drafts of (but never actually posted, because I was a bit embarrassed) a post about untrue life lessons you learned from childhood books and have never quite managed to evict from your brain in adulthood. You know the sort of thing? Where you read it in a book when you are small, and because this book is the only context you have for such a lesson, you accept it as true; but it’s not something that comes up again in your regular life, so you don’t ever return to question it. And then one day, years later, something reminds you of this lesson you learned from a book, and you think, Well wait. Upon reflection that is probably not a real thing, but it’s much too late for this sort of critical thinking, because whatever it is has put down deep roots in your consciousness.

For instance (I’m procrastinating telling you the real things I still sort of believe), if C.S. Lewis had lied to me about any of the life lessons in the Narnia books, such as that you should kick off your shoes if you happen to fall into deep water, I would still believe them as an adult. I have recommended Lucy Pevensie for the post of dictator of the world; no way was I ever going to cast a critical eye upon her ideas about adventure survival. Fortunately C.S. Lewis generally only told me true stuff.

For a proper example from my real life, cwidders. Are they a real instrument? My brain and the internet tell me no, but my heart tells me yes. I always rationalize away the fact that the internet doesn’t know about them by speculating that cwidder is a variant of the more common name the instrument goes by, and I have just not been able to find it out yet; and by reminding myself that until pretty recently the internet did not know about Madame Grand-Doigts. Even today the internet only slightly knows about her, and Wikipedia not at all, so possibly the same is true of cwidders.

Or as another example, mandrakes. I read this book Lost Magic when I was a little girl — if you haven’t read it you DAMN SHOULD because it is so intense and scary and, well, I’ll reread it soon if I can find a copy and review it here so you will know — but anyway, a major plot point of the book is that mandrakes are seriously, seriously powerful. When the heroine employs a mandrake in the course of her magical duties, there’s some pretty horrific fallout, of the sort that was so lastingly creepy and chilling that I to this day am really, really frightened of mandrakes (I ran away from an entire room of Sleep No More because it contained a mandrake). I just do not like them and they are evil and scary.

And, coming to the point, I have never, despite extensive efforts in this direction, been able to stop myself from believing that wolves attack trains. As they do in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Half the plot of the first half of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is that when it gets dark, the wolves come out and you had better be prepared to defend yourself or they will eat you up. Because — presumably — the characters of this book live in wolf country. Where wolves run wild. This in particular sounds true to me:

“The train stopped with such a jerk.”

“Yes, the drivers always do that. You see, if the wolves notice a train slowing down, they are on the alert at once, and all start to run toward the station, so as to be there when the passengers get out. Consequently, if a train has to stop here, the driver goes as fast as he can to the very last moment, in order to deceive them into thinking he is going straight through.”

Previously in this chapter, a wolf jumps into the train where Sylvia is sitting, through the window, and if her traveling companion hadn’t had a gun with which to shoot the wolf, that would have been the end of Sylvia. As much as I know that this isn’t a real thing and has never been a real thing (right? probably not real?), I can’t make myself believe it. It feels true to me. Wolves attack trains. You have to slam on the brakes real hard at the end or else you will get eaten by a ravenous wolf pack. That’s just a fact of life if you happen to live in an area of the country where wolves are prevalent. I have known that longer than I have known long division.

There! Now you know! I believe in cwidders and mandrakes and train-assaulting wolf packs, and the latter is apparently due to my childhood copy of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase not having an explanatory summary on the dust jacket cover. And although I am officially ashamed of these beliefs, at the deepest level I think that I am probably right about all of them. Now tell me your ones please! What objectively-nonsense things do you retain from books you read too often as a kid?

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53 thoughts on “I was not told about this.

  1. I loooove this post, and I can’t wait to see the new things people will share in comments 😀 As for me, I might have kind of maybe sort of believed certain creatures from Greek mythology were real animals until… not exactly adulthood, but an embarrassingly old age 😛

    • Hahahaha, that sounds reasonable! Especially if you had the D’Aulaire’s books — those had such beautiful illustrations, it would have been easy to believe in those things.

  2. *cough* I did not realise this was set in a time that didn’t exist and so yes I also thought way back when, when wolves were still around in the UK they attacked trains. Also, probably they were all gone before trains even existed, now that I think about it.

      • Yes they were, they just went extinct here. Occassionally someone talks about reintroducing them because they are ‘safe’ which…ok that is never going to become a thing. But this year they did re-introduce beavers into the wild here which has been awesome 😀

    • Sooo… I just checked my copy of Willoughby Chase because I had to be sure I had not misinformed Jenny. But yes, it says that about the time that never existed. And then in a note before the first chapter it states the thing about the tunnel. Phew. Glad my head hadn’t made that up.

      But I also completely understand your reaction Jenny. I have things like that happen to me all the time (I am the naivest person alive sometimes – but I like to think it makes me cute), I’ll return once I’ve thought of something.

      Wonderful wonderful post.

  3. Yeah – James Stewart ends up on the throne instead of Charles 1st (if memory serves me correctly). Thing is, Charles was relatively liberal-minded whereas James was not. Dido and her friends are instrumental in ensuring Charles ends up back where he belongs. So it’s a bit like a ‘what if Adolf Hitler won the war?’ type scenarios in English terms. I read the books out of sequence – the first one I read was ‘Black Hearts at Battersea’ and it’s an important plot point.

    That said, it is a very, very long time since I read the sequence and I could be talking through my fundiment. In fact, I think I’ll go and google it now.

    Cwidder isn’t a real instrument?

  4. Sorry, sorry – got it all wrong. James is the good guy. The conspirators are trying to put George back on the throne (in reality there were six King Georges).

    • See, this is obviously my problem. I read, I think, The Stolen Lake, but not the rest of the books in the series. And I didn’t know enough about English history at that time to be able to tell the different between real history and invented.

      Cwidders are TOTALLY not a real instrument. (Unless they are? I still hold out hope.)

  5. I find it hard to believe that Spider Robison or one of his filking cohort haven’t ever played the cwidder at one of their SF convention jam sessions.
    Most of the things I believed from fiction had to do with animals and transfiguration; dragons turning into cats (E. Nesbit), people turning into bears (Beorn in the Hobbit).

  6. Hmm. I think my pet carved-in-stone, not 100 % accurate, drummed-into-my-pysche by confident assertion in juvenile fiction is the “always keep your heels down when riding a horse” thing. I read too way many British “pony” books when I was young, where the young heroine was continually nagged “heels down!” by her riding instructor, and where it was a major criticism at fictional horse shows, where mean little critics would snottily comment on their co-competitors lack of attention to this detail.

    Fast forward many years, during which I often self-corrected when I found myself getting sloppy in the saddle with a little posture adjustment starting down at the heels. And then I actually started looking at the amazing riders I knew, who I was aching to emulate, and noticed that the very best of them often rode with softly rounded shoulders and feet oriented very naturally toes slightly down, heels slightly up. I even have photos of training sessions where this is the case, with different riders all showing a decidly “sloppy” posture, and the horses going like a dream.

    And then I was yelled at (!) in a “natural horsemanship” riding clinic for showing too much tension in my legs and keeping my calves taut and my heels down. The light began to glimmer that maybe this was something I should reassess.

    Turns out that the heels down thing is applicable to English saddles and riding in the “jockey style”, with shorter stirrups and bent knees, and old-style Prussian military officer technique, where a ramrod straight back was de rigueur. Not necessarily applicable to Western saddles and the kind of riding I was actually doing in my real life.

    I still catch myself doing it, and I mentally hiss “relax!” to the horse-mad child still resident in my brain who natters “heels down” because that’s just how it is, darn it.

    Wolves of WC – LOVE that book. Read it as an adult, as a read-aloud to my children, and we took a while to figure out that it was set in an alternate reality. We were totally flummoxed by the whole wolves attacking trains in industrial revolution era England. And the channel tunnel. And the monarchy angle not sounding quite right. Luckily we had just gotten a computer and were figuring out the whole google thing, so we researched it and then went “aha!” and it all made much more sense.

    But what’s all this about not kicking off your shoes when drowning? Isn’t that accurate? It’s certainly deeply ingrained in *my* psyche, and probably from the same source, lol! But come to think of it, when my son was doing lifeguard training, he was required to dive into the water fully clothed, including wearing runners, and he never had to kick them off. Maybe it only applies to big heavy boots? But those are usually laced on tight – good luck removing those in panic mode in the water. Guess you’re doomed, then. Heh.

    And yeah, mandrakes are magical and evil. Duh. *Everyone* knows that. (Or at least everyone who’s ever read any juvenile fantasy involving witches.) 😉

    Cwidder *should* be a real instrument. Sounds real. Probably an internet blind spot! I’ve found a few, usually regarding obscure little plants which I’m trying to research but which the search engine disclaims all knowledge of, regardless of spelling variations and multiple Latin names provided.

    Grand post, Jenny. You started this gloomy Monday with a good laugh for me. And holy cow – a super long reply post! I’ll bet that tea is ready now… 🙂

    • I have never ridden a horse so I don’t have this to worry about — I did vaguely acquire the information that British and American people go about horse-riding slightly differently. I think I picked it up from the novelization of The Parent Trap. Of all things.

      Did you really read Wolves of WC out loud to your kids? Color me impressed! I love that book but I’ve never felt it reads aloud well. I tried a few times with baby-sitting charges and never got anywhere with it, and my mother had the same experience when she tried to read it to us.

      You definitely do kick off your shoes. I meant that if CS Lewis had misled me on that point, I’d never have thought to question it. I trust him completely (which, if you scroll down this comment thread to the thing about bears, you will find is justified even in the case of really weird information).

      Glad I could cheer up your Monday! I love a super long reply post. 😀

  7. Jenny, your posts always make me smile. Like Ana Greek Mythology had a big impact. I believed in Centaurs, Dryads, Naiads and in Pegasus. I also believed in many imaginary places, and often still wish I could find my way to one of them:)

    • Pegasus is an extra good myth because that one guy tames him and then just gets to keep him. It makes it easy to imagine that YOU could have been the person who got that. :p

  8. I didn’t think that wolves had overrun England, but to this day my brain thinks that James III was a real king. It is hard for me to remember that Jamie Three never existed.

    Cwidders should be real! I can hear them in my head!

    Daniel Pinkwater wrote all sorts of things in his books that I was never quite sure about. Some of the ones I thought were real turned out to be made up, and some things I thought were made up are absolutely real. The Wartburg car is a real thing (when I was 16 I was taken on a day trip to then-Czechoslovakia, and was astounded to see a Wartburg car, which I had assumed was made up for its funny name). Meanwhile, as much as I had hoped borgelnuskies were real, they are not. The deliciousness of chili and corn muffins, however, is real.

    I must surely have many things in my head that I think are real, but are not. Maybe I’ll think of a couple more.

    • Oh, Daniel Pinkwater I bet would be a very dangerous author for this! I only read one book of his so escaped entirely. The only book of his I read was Lizard Music.

      Chili and corn muffins FOR SURE is real. I am sort of hungry for that now.

  9. Oh, mandrakes. *shudders* I read The White Witch (Elizabeth Goudge) when I was very young and there was a mandrake in it and holy crap, was it scary. I still don’t want to ever see a mandrake.

    Also, and I hate to mention this in a post that is quite lighthearted, but I feel like I absorbed a bunch of racist and sexist attitudes from books I read when I was young, that required substantial thought-surgery when I was older. Even my beloved Nancy Drew – the girl I was named after! – threw out some ugly attitude in the original books.

    And also: who knew that spindles were not sharp? That houses cannot be structurally sound if they are built of gingerbread? That weaving shirts of nettles might be difficult? Also, I am pretty sure that ipecac won’t do one thing good for croup – or diphtheria.

    • I know, right? Back when everyone knew that spindles were smooth and never sharp, that must have been a funny joke–an impossibility. It turns out though that weaving a shirt out of nettles is the opposite–sounds impossible but isn’t. You can use nettles like flax, and the inner fibers make a nice soft, smooth fabric.

    • Oh, the racist/sexist attitudes thing is a really good (if sad) point. What did Nancy Drew say that was so bad?

      I have been in the room with spinning wheels and never registered that spindles aren’t sharp. I may be dumb. However, I did always know that weaving shirts of nettles was difficult. Obv! That’s the point of the story! Her hands are all cut up poor thing!

    • I actually assumed gingerbread houses would be made of gingerbread bricks and laid thicker the the bottom to support structural soundness. And was very disappointed when my spindle did not have a point.

  10. I believe that dragons existed in biblical times, because the bible says so, and even if nobody else believes that, I do. And, by the way, I love you. You write THE most entertaining posts on the interwebs.

  11. This is a brilliant post, and I know that I have these sorts of issues but am having trouble thinking of particular ones. I do know that I grew up believing in the existence of some kings and queens who didn’t exist though, not quite the Camelot legend, but enough to mess up my learning for a short while.

    • Hahahaha, if I’d grown up somewhere where you had to learn about real kings and queens, I’d have had this problem too. By the time I had to properly learn about European history, I had already been given to understand that the Camelot stories were legends, not real life.

  12. Well there were some really scary big dogs that used to chase my bike on our country road, so I don’t think wolves attacking trains is that much of a stretch. 😉

    I’m sure I have some of those issues too, but can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    • That’s how I felt too! I knew that canine-ish animals could be very vicious! At this period in my life I was afraid of dogs, so I’m sure that factored in.

  13. I envy you your literary childhood. I can’t think of a thing but feel I should have something memorable believed that is now not true.

    I don’t know this term cwidders. Can’t recall any mandrakes in my reading and don’t get your reference to spindles.

    Sigh…

    • Cwidders are an instrument in one of Diana Wynne Jones’s series. They are very important to the plot but do not occur elsewhere in fiction. You are well out of it with mandrakes, as they are terrifying (for an example in film see Pan’s Labyrinth, most terrifying film ever). Spindles was just a reference to the Sleeping Beauty story — she pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, you know?

      • oh, yes. DWJ is another author you have introduced me to that I must read more. I actually have seen Pan’s Labrinth! eek, I just don’t remember much. and oh, yes of course, that tricky spinning wheel injury… Thank you!

  14. C.S. Lewis says that bear tastes nice if the bear has been eating fruit and awful if the bear has been eating meat, and I believed this for years before it occurred to me to wonder how he knew. Did he eat bear, in an Oxford college? In the trenches? In his Belfast childhood? It doesn’t seem likely. I’ve asked other people about this, and they assure me that bear is very nice if it’s been eating fruit, and they know this because they read it in _Prince Caspian_.

    As for the cwidder, it’s clearly a variant spelling.

    • Bear is quite nice if it’s been eating fruit. I know this because I live in interior Alaska and the bears here eat blueberries and taste like beef. I think I have some in my freezer right now. Bears that eat fish and trash taste nasty. I don’t know if C.S. Lewis ever ate bear, but he seems to have done his research.

      • Oh Katy I hope you are not just teasing us. I will be so delighted if CS Lewis’s sensible adventure knowledge even extends to what bears on different diets taste like.

      • No, I’m not teasing. People here are more likely to hunt moose and caribou than bear, but my roommate has a friend who’s a hunting guide, and last winter he gave us a lot of bear. We made bear burger and bear-olive-jalapeno sausages, and we rendered some of the fat into lard. The rest of the meat we just ate as steak and stew meat. It was all pretty tasty, but as meats go it’s not all that good for you, because it’s pretty fatty. Moose is much healthier. Other fun facts about bear – the meat tastes like steak, provided the bear has been eating berries, but the fat has a very distinctive bear taste that some people don’t like. Also, you have to cook the meat very well, because bear, like pork, can give you trichinosis.

      • That makes total sense. I’ve also heard that fish-eating birds taste fishy. Beef can taste different depending on what it’s been fed as well, not that I could taste the difference.

    • I was pretty sad when I first saw this comment! I would be crushed to learn that CS Lewis was making stuff up out of his head about adventure survival. But thank goodness, Katy is here to confirm CS Lewis’s information. It is great how CS Lewis tells us ONLY EVER THE TRUTH.

      I actually work with someone who is a very big expert on musical instruments. If I wanted the truest truest truth about cwidders, I could find it out very easily. But I am too in love with thinking cwidders are real so I am sticking with the variant spelling explanation.

      (PS Among Others is amazing and I loved it a lot lot lot.)

  15. It’s quite possible C.S. Lewis ate bear at Oxford. After all the swan and the ostrich it would probably have made a pleasant change. As for me, I wasn’t bothered by details so much as metaphysical truths. See, Enid Blyton destroyed me for years because I absolutely believed in a strictly moral universe in which baddies got their comeuppance and virtue won you rewards. I think I must have been about 35 before I finally let that go! And love this post – so entertaining!

  16. What do you mean the history in ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ isn’t correct. I learnt all my history from that series. You’ll be telling me next that there was never a Richard IV😊. Of course, sometimes children’s books do tell you true things. I was convinced that I could sail after reading ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and do you know,I was right. 10 years later I got straight into a boat and knew exactly what to do.

  17. Not exactly a BOOK, so I hate to be the cultural philistine, but when I was very young I saw Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and not only did I believe that the cartoon fish that sing “Bobbing Along on the Bottom of the Beautiful Briny Sea” existed, I was actually quite sure that I SAW them when I fell in the river at my grandpa’s house. Even now, when I think back to the experience, I remember the blue cartoon fish looking at me rather wide-eyed before they pulled me out.

    I would say that I agree with Ana about Greek myth as well, but that would require relinquishing my belief that sometimes I DO see dryads in trees. I swear to you, if you look at them just right…

  18. This was fun. I thought well into my teens that unicorns had really existed once. Oh not the big white horses with horns, but more like large antelope creatures. And if time travel is ever invented I already know that it is bad to allow my future self to be seen by my past self. I am not entirely sure why but I’ll hold to the rule just to be safe.

  19. I need to read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase! I feel so out of the loop that consists of wild animals tearing after machines.

    I had this belief that all white cats with blue eyes were deaf because of a Baby-Sitter’s Club book I read in the past. Apparently this is false. I am sure there are other things, too, that I just can’t think of. Or that I still think are true because they haven’t been proven otherwise.

  20. Great thread! It took me several readings to realize that WoWC was set in an alternate reality. I completely missed the bit about the tunnel, though, I’ll have to go and reread it. I also read this to my daughter for bedtimes and she loved it. I don’t think I’ve ever read any of the sequels, though. I guess they didn’t have them in my library growing up, and by the time I found them I had moved on to terrible adolescent crap.

  21. Pingback: Kitchen Sink Links « Reading, Writing and the 'Rhythmatic of Life

  22. What a fun post. It took me forever to think of something, even though I knew there must be a misconception a book had taught me. Mine’s pretty mundane. I actually believed this up to just a few weeks ago. It’s of the appearance of rose seed. It was from reading Robin McKinley’s Beauty. Somehow from reading that book at fifteen, I got the picture in my mind that rose seeds were smooth black things rather like dark watermelon seeds. It took me by surprise when I opened some rose hips myself and found little nutty-looking irregular shaped pale things. The really silly thing is that when I went back and looked in the book I found the description of the seeds ambiguous, but definitely not suggesting the appearance of watermelon seed. I don’t know where I got that wrong impression but I carried it around in my head for some twenty years!

  23. Pingback: I Was Not Told About This, Revisted « Reading, Writing and the 'Rhythmatic of Life

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