Margaret Mahy, one of the “greats” of children’s literature, was once asked what single book from the twentieth century she would like to be still available in the twenty-first century. She chose Eden Phillpott’s The Flint Heart (1910). Husband and wife Katherine and John Paterson heard of their good friend’s recommendation and, years later, John hunted the book down in a second hand book shop.
Out of respect for the original author, they decided to publish the story basically unchanged except for a very few scenes. The style may be a bit old fashioned, but if certain phrases and unusual words can be overcome, the story will capture a child’s interest. The characters lack a bit of the warmth that Katherine Paterson achieves in her own books, but it is nevertheless interesting to read and encourages worthwhile messages of kindness, thinking from someone else’s viewpoint, and the limits of absolute power.
The story is thought provoking on a number of levels. For fans of The Lord of the Rings, it would make an interesting comparative study, the books both having a striking similarity in plot. Multi award-winning author Katherine Paterson claims, “It is my considered opinion that Tolkien read it. There are many echoes of The Flint Heart in The Lord of the Rings.” However, The Flint Heart is far different and way out of the league in terms of quality of story and characters in comparison to the Tolkien classic.
The story goes like this; Long ago in the stone age lived Phutt who believed he was the strongest and should rightfully be chief of his tribe. Village wise man Fum tells him he is too soft to be village chief. So Phutt asks Fum to make him a charm that will give him a hard heart – “the harder, the better.” He is given a charm in the form of a flint stone shaped like a heart, with a hollow centre. As soon as he puts it on, he is changed. He fast becomes a ruthless and cruel leader, splitting apart people’s heads with his axe and acting with absolute heartlessness and ambition for more power. When Phutt comes to old age and death, the flint heart is buried along with him. Thousands of years later it resurfaces when it is dug up by another character, Jago, who once again is suddenly changed from being a kind man to absolute cruelty. Jago’s children meet and decide to rid the world of the flint heart stone. The story of how they go about it makes for a compelling adventure.
Characters are memorable and have touches of humour, but lack the humanity and feeling of characters such as Frodo in Lord of the Rings. They notice that they are changed by the flint stone, but then almost shrug off its evil affects. There are no signs of any spiritual struggle within the characters to free themselves of the stone’s evil power. Instead children or ordinary people affected by the perpetrator try to rid the world of the powerful stone forever.
The original 1910 version of The Flint Heart is available to read online at the California Digital Library.
A former children’s librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time mother of two.