Gillian [Jill] Bliss - Published 1988

Gillian [Jill] Bliss was born on April 29, 1937, in London, England. She earned a diploma in education and a master's degree in English from St. Anne's College, Oxford. She taught English at Enfield Girls' Grammar School from 1959 to 1962. In 1961 she married Edmund Paton Walsh and had three children: Edmund, Margaret, and Helen. Walsh started to write when her children were young and she was at home; she has said that her interests lie in nearly everything: she calls it the 'butterfly mind syndrome.' She does not understand her motivation, nor does she want to, for fear that knowledge may change her focus. Although it is difficult to categorize Walsh's complete body of works, it appears that she has found a niche in the genre of young adult historical fiction. Walsh has said that her 'preferred subjects lie predominantly in the large area of human experience that children and adults have in common.' Walsh's novels explore such basic human concerns as love, death, and most importantly, coming of age, themes that appeal to reader of all ages. She explains that '[my] governing principle is to make whatever I am doing as simple and accessible as possible, not only to appeal to young readers, but to make my work as far as I can the sort of thing I like.' Most of her writing is aimed for the child audience 'largely from a belief that a book should always…be as simple and as readable as the writer can make it.'

Although Walsh's writing is simple, it is far from being simplistic. Her talent as a writer is served well by her knowledge of the arts. Shelia A. Egoff has observed that Walsh's 'writing is studded with allusions to poetry, art and philosophy that give it an intellectual framework unmatched in children's literature.' Walsh's writing is always of the highest caliber, whether it be her own novels which crackle with excitement and realism, or her review articles which introduce striking ideas.

Paton Walsh's books have received numerous awards, including ALA Notable Book for Fireweed (1970); Whitbread Literary Award for The Emperor's Winding Sheet (1974); Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Unleaving (1976); ALA Notable Book for A Chance Child (1978); School Library Journal Best Book of the Year for The Green Book (1981); Universe Fiction Prize and ALA Best Book for Young Adults for A Parcel of Patterns (1983); and ALA Notable Book and Premier Smarties Prize for Gaffer Samson's Luck (1984).


The value of hindsight is extremely important in Jill Paton Walsh's Torch. For instance, it becomes apparent only after one is thoroughly into the book that what the children are toting around the world is the torch that is used to start the Olympic games.

Industrial civilization has long ago been destroyed when two children, Cal and Dio, are sent up the mountain of Olim to get the required blessing of the old village man on the eve of their arranged marriage. They find the old man near death and spend the night trying to make him comfortable. The old man tells Dio that he must stay and 'guard the treasure.' He dreams that the athletes from Ago will come and claim the treasure. The children do not know what the old man is talking about; they assume he is delirious because he is so near death.

He tells the children that long ago every four years a torch was lit and carried to the games, wherever they were. 'If ever they come again, they must be shown where these things are hidden. There has to be a Guardian. You, now.' The old man had been Guardian of the torch since he was 18 years old and he designates Dio as the new Guardian. 'They' have never come for the treasure, but the old man still dreams that someone will come. He asks that he not be buried but dropped down the dry well with a cornerstone placed over it.

After the old man has died, a group of Cal's and Dio's friends come to tell them that the grown ups are angry and looking for them. Dio and Cal both realize that things can never be the same because they have spent the evening together before their wedding. Thirteen-year-old Cal has become a 'tainted' woman. Dio believes he now has two missions to accomplish: he has to protect Cal as well as keep his promise to guard the treasure the best way he can.

Dio wants to bury the old man before the grown ups come because 'it wouldn't be decent,' to just leave him there. When the children find the well and struggle to remove the cornerstone they find that it is not an empty well. They find the treasure that consists of a mirrored bowl and a 'cone, about three feet long, made of some metal, elaborately etched with a lovely flowing pattern.' The children without knowing it had found the last remaining Olympic torch in existence. After the children hide from the elders and get the torch lit from the bowl and the sun, Dio tells them he must go to find a place where the torch is wanted. The children embark on a journey with Dio carrying the lighted torch that will forever change them and everyone they encounter on the way.

They stop in a village to get some warmth and food. The villagers become excited and gather round the children while others run to get 'somebody so old and venerable he could not walk or stand, but was brought out in a wooden chair, and set down on the steps of the church…He asked in a steady voice where are the Games.'

The children learn more about Olympic games and come to realize that they have in their possession the last remaining torch in existence. The previous guardians had waited at the marble fields for the runner to come for the torch; never had a guardian gone looking for the games. When the children leave the village they are joined by the village's best runner, the Nikathalon and a guide to start their journey to Palcastra where there are reported games. They have many adventures and narrow escapes from death before they meet a scholar who is an authority on the Ago.

He has taught himself to read. He says that it was the ability to read that kept the Ago together for as long as they were together. He believes that 'Books are powerful,' because they not only teach one how to do some of the simple things from Ago, but they can also teach us why we cannot do the more difficult things like make flying pictures. 'If people grasped even that much we would be on the way back…as it is, I think we are still on the way down.' The children still do not understand, so the scholar explains that it is not so much the knowledge of Ago that is lost, but the way to combine the knowledge of each individual:

In the Ago, then, nobody [could make flying pictures]; that is, no one person. The pictures shone on frames made of glass. It wasn't any use just throwing the pictures into the sky; there had to be frames ready to receive them. Someone knew how to make the frames; or perhaps each person knew only how to make one part of the frames…and that is what we have lost. We can do now what anyone can do alone; or what a few people together, as in a family or a village, can do.

Because almost everyone's full understanding of Ago is lost, it is very emotional and meaningful to the scholar that the children have brought the torch to him. It is not only that the torch represents a piece of Ago, it is more that the children carried it through the world without understanding why or what they were doing. The emotion and the impulse of Dio and his friends represent what the scholar knows of the lost past.

The scholar believes that 'if we want the wonders of Ago, and if we strive for them we can achieve them again.' Dio is skeptical, 'How could we achieve what we can barely imagine?' But he starts to understand that it can be achieved by each individual making a small difference such as he and his friends are doing.


Torch is set in a post-nuclear war world, with industrial civilization having been destroyed a long time ago. 'Ago' is the world as we know it today, before the nuclear war. 'The world's gone sour,' according to the people who are living approximately 75 years beyond today. Because of the nuclear war the advancing technology, the learning, and the sharing of knowledge typical of the Ago stopped.

The more that Dio and his group travel into the unknown, the more that the reader becomes aware that 'Ago' is our present-day world. The child of today hears from his or her grandparents the stories of the old days which are quite different from the ones Dio and his friends hear from their elders. Children are used to hearing about the growth of technology and the so-called hard times of yesterday, when there were no VCRs, no electronic games, and no TVs in every room. Times were perceived to be much tougher then. The stories that the children in the novel's post-nuclear war world hear are about how much better the old days were.

In the time when we had boxes in our hands which sang and talked to us from far away, when the mechanical birds carried people over mountains and across oceans, and pictures shone many miles, and journeys were made by lighting fires inside carts instead of hitching donkeys…When men had returned from the moon, and out of grains of and had made machines to think and write and work the abacus.


The theme of togetherness, as in teamwork and in friendship, is very important in Torch. In this post-nuclear war world a sense of community or connectedness among the vast majority of people appears to have been lost; Dio and the other children, who join him on his crusade, are quite different from the others in this new world. Even though it is Dio who is the Guardian of the torch, the others join him on his journey to the unknown either because of their feelings of friendship toward him, or, as with Cassie, because the torch has a feel of goodness. The values of truth, goodness, and beauty are interwoven throughout the travels of the children, and are symbolized by both the torch and the children. The torch burns brightly when all is well, and it ceases to burn when the motives of an individual person or a society are dishonest or self-serving.

During the travels the torch steadily glows except for five different occasions, and one of these occasions is only because it falls into the ocean. The other four times are a direct result of someone trying to misuse the torch. The torch will not assist in the start of a race that is not being run for the pure joy and beauty that the Olympic values represent. It also stops burning when the advisor to the King of Palenstain tries to steal it, and it, in fact, burns the hand of the abductor. The torch grows cold when it suspends its flame, as if its existence and what it represents are gone forever.

Even though Dio has been told that once the torch extinguishes it will never relight, the torch does relight (all five times) when it is in a situation where the children are being unselfish, caring and most importantly, unknowing. They do their good deeds for no personal benefit or ulterior motive. It relights shortly after the Nikathalon questions why Dio had saved him from certain death, despite how horrible he had been. 'It's not a question of what you are like. It's because of what we are like.'

The torch relights for the second time when the children sit and listen to the old, blind storyteller because nobody else will listen to him. The old man is all alone because the rest of his tribe has died, and he is speaking a language that no one understands, or even tries to understand. The children cannot understand the words that the man is speaking, but they do hear the pain and the despair, the triumph and the joy of his many years and his memories. They bring joy and a new energy to the old man and the torch rewards the children by joining them again. The third and fourth times that the torch relights are in response to Dio's character. He has not been promised anything for his efforts in guarding and toting the torch around the world; he does it because it seems like the right thing to do. During these travels he grows to love and trust the torch. The torch lights when Dio simply says that he would 'be happy to cart [the torch] around the world looking for something it was for.' And it lights again when Dio refuses to ride across a huge blanket of beautiful flowers. He has to go miles out of his way with the knowledge that they are being followed and will probably be caught because of the detour they are making. Dio will still not destroy beauty.

Perhaps for the final time the torch relights when the children appear to be at home. The find a place where they can be happy and where together they can survive. Philip gathers the kindling, Peri picks mussels, Niki saves some half-starved dog and her litter, Cassie and Cal find an oven in which they will bake bread once the wheat has been grown. The torch relights when Cal runs 'for the sheer joy.' The children never expected anything of monetary value for their efforts; they did what they thought was best in an attempt to find where the torch belonged, and in doing so they have found where they themselves belong.

The five children who leave the marble fields of Olim are Dio, Cal, Cassie, Peri, and Niko. Dio is a reluctant guardian of the torch, but very quickly grows into the role. He initially starts his journey to find where the torch belongs only because it seems like the best way to keep the promise he made. He is young and unsure of himself, but he does what he believes is right. As his love for the torch, and what it represents, grows, so does he as a person. Cal tells the reader early on that Dio 'liked things to be more exciting, brighter, better, or even worse than they really were. You couldn't rely on his truthfulness, but you could rely on his kindness.' By the end of the journey Dio matures and serves as a symbol for the truth.

Cal never wanted to marry Dio; she was forced into it because her father's and his father's land abutted each other. She is still a child and has childlike fears. She travels with Dio on the journey because she has no alternative. She is disgraced in her village. As the novel's storyteller she is truthful, but somewhat naive. She is able to give us the facts but she is never sure what these facts mean. For example, she tells us about the old man whose story they are listening to when the torch relights, but she is not able to see the connection between the torch relighting and the good act.

Cassie is a bit odd. Cal tells us that she used to sit down beside flowers and lizards and tell them stories. This naive, natural act symbolizes her goodness. Cassie sees things before they happen: she knew there was shelter in the desert, and she knows when the torch is somewhere where it does not belong. Cassie joins the group because the torch 'has a feel of goodness.'

On the other hand, Peri is a bystander in the games and the races that the children used to play back home in the village. Yet, he is the one that Dio chooses to run with the Nikathalon in the race of the oldest sons at Palenstain.

Niko suffers the most and still follows Dio. He almost freezes to death, he is forced to leave his beloved dog behind at the ferry, and yet he still continues on the journey because of his friendship for Dio.

Cal tells us that the Nikathalon is not strong. 'He only wants glory, winning. The moment that turns sour…he's ready to drown, or give up…he isn't tough.' After the Nikathalon loses the fixed race at Palcastra he takes back his birth name of Philip. It is as Philip that he finds the strength to cut his hamstring so that he will not have to run again. 'I will serve the torch the way these others serve it, the way a loser serves it, better to be a cripple and go with the torch than a victor in a contemptible cause.'


Paton Walsh draws on many images and allusions in Torch, a complex novel, to help the young reader. The use of Cal as narrator manages to remove the torch and Dio's obsession with it from the limelight in order for the reader to gain distance and an objective view of both Dio and the torch. As always, Paton Walsh's writing is clear, yet demanding as she draws heavily on her knowledge of Greek history and mythology in this futuristic novel. The three muses of truth, goodness, and beauty are represented by Dio, Cassie, and Philip. The children's names all represent Greek names, from thousand of years before the Ago, that characterize them accurately. '[Peri] Pericles; he was a great leader in Athens, time before time, before time. [Niko] Nike for victory. [Cassie] Cassandra, in the old books, could see the future. She told it truly, but it did not save her. [Cal] Calliope, who was a kind of spirit, and moved men to write books…or perhaps she is Caledon, the swallow, that comes with spring. [Dio] Diogenes was a mad thinker who carried a lantern in daylight…looking for an honest man.' The principle that Diogenes was governed by is that happiness is attained by satisfying only one's natural needs. What is natural cannot be dishonorable or indecent, and therefore, can and should be done in public. Dio never tries to hide the torch; he holds it high and proud when it is lit. Dio seems to want to be a leader and the torch satisfies that need. He is confident when it is blazing, but his confidence withers when the torch goes out.

Paton Walsh uses the torch as a symbol to not only search for a lost culture, but to search for the ideals and beliefs that once held the world together. The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC The Olympic tradition represents perfection; the art of perfection by oneself doing the best he or she can do. The Olympics were originally designed to show devotion to the gods by having athletes perform godlike heroic acts against one another. The slim, muscular body that athletes strove to achieve was also meant to honor the gods by achieving the same body perfection that were attributed to the gods. When Cal sees the Nikathalon running, she thinks, 'How beautiful humankind is, you felt your own limbs apt for speed, your own frame finely made like the wonders of Ago.'

In having the torch, the muses, the Olympics, and the children, all represent the lost ideals, values and beliefs of 'Ago,' it becomes apparent that the loss of honesty, goodness, and beauty are some of the obvious reasons why the world as we know it has been destroyed. Once everyone stopped working together and started working only for the good of themselves and their family at the expense of others, the world was destroyed. The technology and the knowledge are lost, but it is the basic values of human kindness that must be found before any positive steps can be made.


There are many aspects of Torch which may be of concern to some readers or parents. First, there is the fact that the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Second, there are the children wandering around the world all alone with no adult supervision; and, third, the loss of basic human kindness as we know it. But perhaps the biggest concern is the abuse and use of athletes.

Today, we live in a society where athletes are among the highest paid people; where college scholarships are 'earned' based on athletic performance; where advanced degrees can be awarded to athletes for serving four to five years at an institution; and where professional athletes are held in the highest esteem, almost godlike, despite bad morals and attitudes.

Torch takes place after a nuclear war that has destroyed most of the memory and knowledge that once existed; however, Dio and his companions strive to find a place where the ideals and values that once ruled the world still remain. The Olympic torch is the tool; the Olympic value of bringing all nations together to strive for perfection in friendly competition is the method; and the Olympic ideal that pureness and winning are the highest honors is the result.

The importance of athletes and racing continue to loom large in this new world. The Games that the children find appear on the surface to be like the Olympic Games. The excitement, the crowds, and the glory all surround the events; however, the results are vastly different. One race was used as a means to rid the village of trouble makers by making an offering to the God Poseidon. Another was a form of population control. And the other was the dehumanization of mankind. When the children finally find the Nikathalon after he was kidnapped, he is being kept in a stable. The trailer carried a little wand with a steel spike on it that he flicked round the ankles of the runners to get them moving faster. 'Opening the upper half of a door, he showed us, within, a stall. It was immaculately clean. Fresh straw on the floor, a window high in the back wall, a tap with a chained cup hanging beside it. Standing inside was a naked youth.'

The Nikathalon initially thinks that there is nothing else that matters other than running. When he leaves his village to accompany the others on their journey, he does not even turn to wave goodbye to his family or friends. When Cal asks him why he does not wave, he says, 'There was nobody back there who could pace me, never mind beat me in a race.' The Nikathalon, especially in the company of Dio and the others, comes across as a spoiled, pampered brat. He will neither help nor do anything strenuous for fear of endangering his body, and therefore his chances of winning. However, the Nikathalon changes during the journey; he even prefers to be called Philip which is his birth name. He had always thought that the Games, in general, and running, in particular, were the 'fairest and cleanest' things to do. When he finds out that the Games are not at all what he believed, that they are not pure, and that people use them for gain, he decides he would rather be a 'loser' and serve the torch. All this could be a commentary on how modern athletes are treated and regarded.

The treatment of athletes throughout Torch allows the Nikathalon to become a better person, and even a hero, by turning his back on the whole notion of participating in self-serving Games. When the Nikathalon left his village the elder had said that it was a good thing for everyone because the other children had stopped trying to run because they could not compete against him. 'Our youngsters play dice, and grow soft. He should go with you; a chance for him, and a chance for others.' The Nikathalon has made the most of his chance and from the evidence it appears that he will not go soft. He, in fact, will grow stronger in mind and become a better person.


1. Why is there no memory of the world as we know it today? What is Paton Walsh trying to warn us against?

2. Why does the torch stop burning? Why does it relight?

3. Why is it so important that the children stay together, even though it is Dio who must carry the torch?

4. Explain why the death of literature appears to be very important in Torch. Do you believe it is an important aspect of the world of Dio and Cal?

5. Pick your favorite character and discuss what you like best about him or her. What traits does he or she have that single him or her out from the others?

6. Why do the children follow the Nikathalon to the Province and try to help him when he has been so mean to them?

7. When and what made you realize that the stories the children were being told about 'Ago' were really about today's world?


1. Research the early Olympic Games. How have the ideals remained the same over the centuries? How are they different?

2. The children's names are taken from Greek history. Choose two of the names and discuss the similarities and the differences between the children and the Greek characters they are meant to represent.

3. The treatment of athletes is confusing in Torch. They appear to be treated as special individuals; yet, in fact, they are treated as if they are not human. Discuss the evolution of athletes from the early Olympic Games to the modern-day athlete.

4. Is there a difference between the Nikathalon of the village and the young man who settles on the beach? Discuss why he changes or why he does not change?

5. Dio starts to understand that the 'Wonders of Ago' can be achieved again. How does he reach this conclusion? Do you think he is right?

6. How would the story be different if it were told from a point of view other than Cal's? For example, how might Dio tell the story?


Paton Walsh uses the theme of a future world very differently in two of her novels: The Green Book and Torch. Both novels take place after man's destruction of the world. In The Green Book the families who have to flee the Earth are very sophisticated and literate; they have all of the modern technology and knowledge necessary to make themselves comfortable on a strange planet. The group that travels to this planet has been handpicked because together they comprise the skills and the mixture to survive and multiply in a new environment. In Torch, all of the sophistication and knowledge are gone after the nuclear war. There is little memory of the past, therefore the people are 'struggling along, knowing nothing, having almost nothing, and troubled all the time, disturbed by knowing what people once had, what they could once do!' The children are told that the downfall and destruction of the earlier people was that they stopped working together. Alone people cannot survive, fragments of knowledge have to be shared to make a whole.

The one common thread in both of these novels is the death of literature. In The Green Book, everyone was allowed to bring one personal item. Very few thought to bring a book. 'The truth is, we didn't value that stuff when we had it, when we could just pick up a book any time. And now it's all dying out of mind, and we must do without, as without so many other things.' They find out that they no longer have 'the sort of goodness they needed to keep alive and well forever,' and that 'it wasn't really hunger that was making us feel empty.' Pattie, the youngest child to make the trip, brought as her personal item a book filled with empty pages which all of the other children laughed at. But it is this book that Pattie has now filled with words that appears to have solved their biggest problem. Everyone on the planet gathers around Pattie's father as he reads Pattie's story about their life on the new planet.

In Torch, the children had never heard of books until they meet the scholar who may be the only person able to read in this new world. They learn that what kept Ago together for so long was being able to read; it 'kept them knowing what they needed for those wonderful times.' The scholar himself through reading has learned how to perform some simple medicine in order to help others. He seems to be explaining that if people could read then the world would be on its way back, instead of still on a downward slope. Reading not only helps us learn new things, it tells us what and how much we still have to know; it forces us to think differently.

Betsy Byars in The T.V. Kid shows her protagonist, Lennie, with a mindless addiction to television. He is always imagining himself as the winning contestant in a television quiz show, or a hero on a situation comedy or western. He can sing any jingle to a commercial or introductory theme song to a TV show, but he does very poorly in school. When he gets bitten by a rattlesnake and is lying alone and in pain he tries to block out the pain by thinking of some of his favorite commercials or TV plots, but he cannot remember any. Instead he remembers a poem he learned in school the week before. He had not even realized that he could recall it, let alone remember it, but it is this poem which gives his life comfort when he needs it most, not the mind less happenings on TV.

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