Book review for Writing Genre and Mode. Autumn 2018.
The 1,000-Year-Old Boy by Ross Welford is an upper middle-grade fantasy with historical undertone, spanning a millennia’s worth of English history. The protagonist, Alfie Monk, is like any other nearly teenage boys except he is a thousand years old. He has lived through the last Viking invasion and two world wars. When his mother dies in a house fire and the 21st century comes crashing in, Alfie must set out on a mission to restart his ageing process and ultimately regain the ability to die.
Although largely set in the modern day, Welford manages to concretise the novel’s historical undertone through his masterful use of voice and point-of-views. By alternating between Alfie’s age-old eloquence — which predisposes him to say things like ‘I am beseeching you’ and ‘rather compelling nonetheless’ — and Aidan’s mostly monosyllabic comments on his new anachronistic friend with ‘shocking teeth’, Welford sets an endearingly poignant yet strangely comedic tone for this novel.
Rather compelling nonetheless. Who speaks like that? I said to myself. Out loud I said, “You’ve read it?”
“In Latin?” I squeaked. He nodded again, a bit shyly.
(Welford, 2018, p.147)
I believe this does two things for the novel. On a worldbuilding level, Aidan’s comment effectively humanises Alfie as an ageless character ripped from his own time. On a commercial level, Aidan’s point of view does well to keep middle-grade readers from feeling alienated by Alfie’s immortal plights so that they would still care enough to read on. Another instance in which these comments do well to accentuate the poignancy and the historical underpinning is when Aidan and Roxy smuggle Alfie into Roxy’s garage in order to hide him from Child Services.
He looked at me with his pale, red-rimmed eyes. “Thank you,” he said, “very sincerely.” Then he added, “Pal.”
Just that. “Pal.” It was as if he’d never said it before. He didn’t toss off the word casually like people normally do — you know, “Hey there, pal!” […] It was like he’d picked it up and was practising it for the first time, enunciating it clearly as he did with lots of words.
(Welford, 2018, p.161)
The 1,000-Year-Old Boy then is not a historical novel so much as a novel which uses history to underline the discrepancy between the past and the present so that Alfie, Aidan and Roxy can later work together to bridge this gap through the power of their friendship, and by extension, they demonstrate to us readers the timelessness of the human condition.
While it is true that we can argue for The 1,000-Year-Old Boy as a historical fiction due to its heavy use of time-jumps and flashbacks, which sometimes take up entire chapters, I feel that this does not signify the novel’s genre so much as the way in which history plays a significant role in characterisation and storytelling. For instance, the flashback to Alfie’s past during the Viking invasion is used to set up the fantastical element, which goes on to underpin the plot of the story. The eating of the magic life-pearl, or livperler as they called it in those days, is the cause of Alfie’s eternal life; the story, however, really begins a thousand years later when Alfie searches for the second and possibly last life-pearl to undo the magic of the first. Living forever, in Alfie’s own words, is ‘[a] mistake that [he] waited a thousand years to put right’.
Furthermore, the flashback to Alfie’s time during one of the world wars has less to do with history for its own sake and more to do with insight into Alfie’s motivation for finding the life-pearl. He is afraid of being betrayed and left behind: Alfie’s old friend Jack inevitably grew out of their friendship and enlisted in the army — not only did Jack make fun of Alfie’s ‘growth problem’ but he became so unsettled by Alfie’s agelessness that he used his military authority to cause Alfie and his mother to flee the country during the war. Jack’s betrayal has left a scar in Alfie’s life which in turn propels him to distrust Roxy and Aidan’s good intentions almost a hundred years later.
You will grow up, you will leave me behind: the ‘strange kid, who talked funny, who had a tattoo, who reckoned he was a thousand years old’. You will be the same as everyone else, the same as Jack, and I will be left like this.
(Welford, 2018, p.317)
This incident with Jack during the war is there as a lesson for Alfie to unlearn. He must learn to trust again if he is to find the last life-pearl before Aidan’s uncle Jasper (who turns out to be another Neverdead masquerading as an eccentric man who reckons himself a sailor) beats him to it. Therefore, the flashbacks cannot class The 1,000-Year-Old Boy as a historical in genre as it is in fact a nod to history — to Alfie’s history, or Alve Einarsson as he was originally called before modernity diluted his heritage. I feel that this parallels well with Ortega’s famous maxim ‘I am I and my circumstance’ (1914). This essentially means that in order to move forward we must come to understand our past; our fate is tied down to our nature and we, as human beings, have ‘no nature but history’ (Ortega, 1961).
As expatiated above, we would be hard-pressed to class The 1,000-Year-Old Boy as a historical fiction. So then what of the fantasy genre? This too I feel presents an interesting challenge. While most fantasy novels use fantastical elements to accentuate the novel’s own uniqueness — to wow and hook readers, propelling them into escapist comfort — Welford effectively surverts that notion by presenting the life-pearl, one of the few fantastical elements in the novel, as the central source of distress for the protagonist. Life without death is merely existing; to appreciate all that life has to offer, we must be able to die.
With both fantasy and history as its undertone, The 1,000-Year-Old Boy then foregrounds its bildungsroman-esque plot as the overarching genre. While we can agree that The 1,000-Year-Old Boy is very much a coming-of-age novel, the protagonist does not rebel against the idea of growing up as protagonists in coming-of-age novels are wont to do — instead we are taken on a journey of self-acceptance and forgiveness as Alfie’s lust for life demands that he learns to become a child again if he is to grow up and grow old. This involves ridding himself of his mistrust of others and of the cynical worldview he has adopted over a thousand years.
All in all, Ross Welford’s The 1,000-Year-Old Boy sits on the threshold of fantasy and historical fiction with the human condition as its overarching theme. I would recommend this book to fans of Piers Torday and Katherine Rundell, and to those who have fantasised about living forever — Alfie Monk will gladly tell you why it is not all it is cracked up to be.
Ortega y Gasset, J., 1961. History As a System, and Other Essays Toward a Philosophy of History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Ortega y Gasset, J., 1914. Meditations on Don Quixote. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Welford, R., 2018. The 1,000-Year-Old Boy. London: HarperCollins.