Blurb from first edition
When the men of Burh, settlers from continental Europe, fall upon the sleeping nomad tribe in the depths of the forest amid the Downs of southern England, Tagart is the only survivor, escaping by sheer chance after his wife and young son have been massacred. Twenty-five and heir to the chiefdom of the roving hunters, he sees his only inheritance now to be an overwhelming urge for merciless revenge - of his family, his tribe and indeed of a way of life which in the England of 5,000 years ago is steadily being eroded by these tillers of the soil.
Tagart’s first objective for his single-handed work of retribution is the fortified village of Burh (in what is now known as the Cuckmere Valley), and the means he uses are more subtle and deadly than any traditional form of attack. This story of his revenge, his subsequent savage enslavement by the new lords of the land and his escape with Segle, the beautiful sister of another captive, introduces a new author of considerable significance. Richard Herley writes with acute sense of place, of wind and weather, of wild life and of the background of Stone Age England when the countryside is in its last virgin state before civilization begins.
This was my first published novel. I had the idea for it early in 1975 and sat down to write the book the following winter. I had already composed a version of the scene in which the farmers attack the nomads’ camp.
The action starts in medias res, with a prologue. Part 1, Chapter 1, is set some days beforehand. It describes the farmers’ village and the political rivalry which leads to the attack. Part 1 ends just as the prologue begins. After that, the sequence is strictly chronological.
I had much difficulty with inventing a name for the hero. My notebook reveals that he was originally called “Karch”. I wanted something harsh, using at least one explosive consonant. But “Karch” seemed too stark. A two-syllable name, “Tagart”, was less uncompromising, as indeed the character himself turned out to be.
The landscape of the story, which I knew quite well as a student, may be visited today or identified on an Ordnance Survey map. Here are some OS references to places mentioned:
Apuldram SU 8302
Birdbrow TQ 3806
Bow Hill SU 8210
“Burh” TV 521992
Butser SU 7120
Cissbury TQ 1307
Eartham SU 9509
Findon TQ 1108
Harting SU 8018
Highdole TQ 4004
Hooe TQ 6809
Itchenor SU 7901
Lepe SZ 4598
Harrow Hill (“Raven Hill”) TQ 0810
Thundersbarrow TQ 2208
Valdoe SU 8711
Whitehawk TQ 3305
Synopsis: January 1976
Final draft: July 1977
Editor at Peter Davies: Kieran Phelan
First publication: May 1978
Revised for electronic publication: January 2008
Extent: 71,400 words
List of printed editions
Peter Davies, London, hardback, 1978
St Martin’s Press, New York, hardback, 1979
Granada, St Albans, paperback, 1981
William Morrow, New York, hardback, 1985
Grafton Books, London, paperback, 1986 (omnibus edition of The Pagans)
Ballantine Books, New York, paperback, 1987
Proszynski i S-ka, Warsaw, paperback, 1995 (Kamienna Strzala)
Reviews of paper-based editions
A letter from Anthony Burgess to Derek Priestley, publisher of The Stone Arrow, commenting on a proof copy:
Monaco, January 1, 1978
A very happy New Year to you and yours and apologies for not having delivered a sentiment on THE STONE ARROW before now. Christmas and a trip to New York got in the way. But I have read the book, and with admiration. If this is truly a first novel, it must have behind it a long record of struggle in the art, for it is remarkably mature, and the style is highly personal though not at all heavily idiosyncratic. To write a novel about “primitive” people must be extremely difficult, and I would never dare to try it, but this one deals wholly convincingly with an ancient culture, and one is never distressed by lack of knowledge of time, location and the other alleged indispensables of a piece of fiction.
I read it with great enjoyment and instruction, and I can do no more than express my eagerness to see Herley’s next novel, having, of course, given my due meed of praise for this first. It is in every way a remarkable achievement.
The natural Darwinian world of which he writes with a blood-soaked passion left me gulping for air. Horridly imaginative, powerful in its refusal to avert its eyes from the results of violence, the book appeals to the blood lust in us all.
This is a gripping thriller set convincingly in neolithic Sussex. Richard Herley’s first novel is crammed with archaeological detail, but all of it is subordinate to the fast-moving story of Tagart. His wife, child and tribe have been wiped out by a farming village, and we follow his dogged attempts to wreak revenge single-handedly with mixed horror and admiration. In the Stone Age, tribal loyalty is the only morality, and as Herley resurrects this time with such panache, the gruesome bits of Tagart’s vendetta seem justified.
His re-creation of the remote past is an imaginative triumph.
Southern Evening Echo
Historical novels have long been with us, but few writers have ventured to set their fiction in pre-history. The scene here is Sussex around the fourth millennium BC; the theme, the tensions and clashes between indigenous hunter/gatherers and the immigrant colonists who, although they also use stone for their edge-tools, are agriculturalists, clearing the hunters’ forests for pasture and arable, and laying the foundations of an agrarian pattern which was to survive up to the Industrial Revolution. To evoke such an ancient and alien world is a daunting task to any writer, and I congratulate the author straight away on having achieved so well a picture of man as still very much part of the natural world, in competition with other animals in a shared environment determined by the subsoil and the botanical climax of undisturbed plant communities. Man was exploiting this environment while still a component of it, for food and raw materials for his artifacts: Richard Herley’s descriptions of landscape, flora and fauna, are remarkable, fully emphasizing the utility behind the beauty - food for free is there for both the hunter and farmer.
... The introduction of ceremonial intoxication by eating fly agaric is brilliant, and if the reader thinks the extraordinary details - the women chewing the fungus into pellets for the men, or the subsequent urination and drinking of this still potent by-product - have been invented by the author, they are quite wrong. They are, in fact, some of the best documented episodes in the book, taken from travellers’ accounts of Siberian tribes such as the Koryak less than a century ago.
... The life of hunters and farmers alike as portrayed by Mr Herley amply justifies Thomas Hobbes’s famous estimate of primitive societies, living in “continual feare, and danger of sudden death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and shorte”.
Stuart Piggott, The Times Literary Supplement
One can almost smell the perfumes of long-extinct forests and feel the rough ground beneath naked feet as Tagart, the only survivor of a nomad tribe slaughtered by a village of farmers, sets out to inflict his particular style of revenge.
Tagart uses his primitive but extensive skills ... in ways that are imaginative and believable. At times, his grasp of basic psychological warfare reaches near-brilliance.
You may think at first that Herley is only telling us about what may have happened a long time ago. But if you look closely, you might find yourself staring right back into your own world.
Allenstown Call Chronicle
They are being slowly destroyed not by a god, of course, but by a skillful hunter who is enduring his own hell of survival. And yet, you may wonder. There is an enigmatic feeling, an eerie presence in the forest. Through the author’s judicious use of symbols, each act of revenge seems to take on more than human design and meaning ...
... an intelligent, awesome look at the violent side of human nature, and a sensitive portrayal of man’s dependence on nature. The story is clever, imaginative, believable, and once the momentum picks up, engrossing. Through the use of narrative skills and a variety of characters, Herley provides a fascinating close-up view of the villagers and nomads - the rituals, power struggles, politics, jealousies, suspicions, brutality, lust, and even tenderness and love. The cultures are human and alive, surprisingly near to ourselves.
What is remarkable about this novel of relentless revenge is that it is so convincing despite the fact that it takes place in Stone Age England.
The author, in an incredible demonstration of skill, creates a world of woods, water and wildlife and a mode of existing that seems as palpable as the prick of a flint projectile point.
No mean feat for any writer, to be sure, but singular when one considers that this is a first novel and that its occasion covers a period about which few anthropologists would brag of their knowledge. Yet Herley breathes into the novel a warm and convincing ethos of Stone Age man, his day-to-day endeavors, his passions, art, and finally his brutal cunning.
Margaret Mead would have found nothing to dismay her in this novel, and Ian Fleming would certainly have envied the derring-do.
The Stone Arrow, a first novel by a young biologist, Richard Herley, comes with a warm commendation from Anthony Burgess, no less. It takes a landscape the author knows well - the Cuckmere Valley in Sussex and the coast further west - and puts it back into the New Stone Age, peopled with three emerging civilisations that overlap and often fight for dominance: the farmers, who live in clearings; the nomads, who hunt in the forests; and the rich entrepreneurs who quarry flints with captive slave labourers. An ambitious young farmer seeking leadership in his village raids a nomad settlement and kills everyone - he thinks. But the single survivor swears revenge.
The story then has a double excitement: the Crusoe-like theme of lonely survival, using whatever comes to hand; and the technical problems of implementing the vow of vengeance and single-handedly wiping out, with the most primitive weapons, every person, building and trace of life in a large, prosperous, well-fenced village with the most modern conditions and equipment then known. By the end it is done. “In a matter of months no trace of them would remain. The forest would take over; the fields would become overgrown, unrecognizable, and then indistinguishable from the virgin woodlands that had stood unchanged for centuries.”
What is remakable and convincing about the book is its description of a way of life and a landscape. The place at a distance of five thousand years yet recognisably Sussex is shown with beauty, force and care: plants, land formation, soil and swamps, coast and rivers, the encroaching forest with its layered life, human, animal, vegetable.
It is a highly satisfactory first novel, full of information and interest, atmospheric yet solid, suggestive yet almost weirdly recognisable and credible.
Isabel Quigly, Financial Times
No-frills, expeditious, and briskly grisly.
Prehistoric novels are a rarity - one thinks of William Golding and John Collier’s Tom’s A’Cold.
The Stone Arrow is a remarkable first attempt by biologist Richard Herley, remarkable, that is, as an evocation of the New Stone Age, the virgin Sussex forests, the weather, the tools and conditions of primitive life.
The forest is Tagart’s strong point. He knows which plants to eat, where to find pure water and how to deal with the animals around him. So does author Richard Herley, who is a biologist as well as a novelist, and the way that his forest lore is presented, in enchanting snippets appropriate to the story, helps make believable an almost feverishly imaginative tale.
Herley has a nice touch also with wildlife and landscape ... and his knowledge of the countryside and its plant life is formidable without pedantry. This is, in its novelty, a book for the jaded taste, but one with more than novelty to offer.
... this is an imaginative feat of no mean order.
British Book News