Friday 28 June 2013

Magical Classic: 'The Thirteen Clocks' by James Thurber

Guggle and Zatch: An Appreciation, by Jane Yolen

If those words—guggle and zatch—resonate for you, I don’t have to spell out the delicious power of one of my favorite (short) magical books. You already know which one I mean.
          For the rest of you, hie yourself down to your nearest second-hand book store and seek out James Thurber’s wonderful The Thirteen Clocks. Or find the fairly newly reprinted version (which I haven’t seen but have had reliably reported as containing the delightful original illustrations by Marc Simont, not the later ones by the usually delightful Ronald Searle, but he didn’t get the book the way Simont did.) This addition has an added bonus—an appreciative introduction by the ever-ready battery known as Neil Gaiman.
You can thank me later.
          It is a smart and sophisticated little book full of lovely turns of phrases, complex and enjoyable word plays, and bits that worm their way into your ear and vocabulary forever. Like guggle and zatch. (Well, Thurber did write for the New Yorker and drink with the tony lit crowd in New York after all, or rather he drank them all under the table, and my father was one of the designated bring-him-home-on-his-shield-or-in-a-taxi guys.) 
          And the magical creatures are all wonderfully scary (like the Todal) or deliciously evil (like the wicked duke), or decidedly enigmatic (like the Golux), or sadly mysterious (like Hagga), or strangely bi-loyal (like Hark).
          The story feels like an old-fashioned fairy tale with a decided kink. The princess Saralinda in danger, her rescuer the prince-turned minstrel in even more danger. Yet nothing is what we think it is and everything happens exactly as we want it to, even if we don’t realize it at the beginning.
          And the prose might as well be a long poem but isn’t, because it has this complex meter and internal rhyme and play on words and all that good stuff.
          Two Christmases ago, I gave a rubbed and pre-loved copy to my then eight-year-old twin granddaughters and promptly sat down and read them the first two chapters. (We love to read aloud.) And they asked for one more chapter. And then one more. And I fell in love with the book all over again as they were doing for the first time.  We sat reading in the fading Charleston light and finished just as dinner was on the table.
          We would have missed dinner, all three of us, just to hear the rest of the book. But we’d timed it perfectly. As does Thurber, all the way through this perfect (and picture perfect as well, thanks to Simont) magical book.

Warm thanks to Jane Yolen, who needs very little introduction from me.  Her many books (over 300 to date) are on shelves all over the world, and range from picture books for little children, to magical adventures and fairytales for middle-graders, to teenage and adult fantasies, to academic essays.  Her awards include the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Jewish Book Award, and the World Fantasy Association Lifetime Achievement Award. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates, and last year she was the first woman to deliver the prestigious Andrew Lang lecture at the University of St Andrews, adding to a rollcall of many notable names including those of John Buchan and JRR Tolkien.

Picture credit: Marc Simont artist: cover of 'The Thirteen Clocks' by James Thurber, Simon and Schuster 1950: sourced from Wikipedia

Friday 21 June 2013

Magical Classics: 'The Last of the Dragons' by A. de Quincey

Lucy Coats and the mysterious A. de Quincey's vegetarian dragon:

In Book IX of the History of Animals, Aristotle states:

"When the draco has eaten much fruit, it seeks the juice of the bitter lettuce."

Fruit? Lettuce? Dragons? Some mistake, surely, O Venerable Greek Philosopher? Well no. Not if you're A. de Quincey, author of the favourite fantasy of my childhood - The Last of the Dragons.

Perhaps you may never have thought of a dragon as a vegetarian sort of creature. Perhaps you have always seen it as a creature of blood and gore, rending sacrificed virgin princesses from limb to limb and crunching armoured knights like lobsters.  I suppose I thought like that too until I met De Quincey's Ajax.

This is how de Quincey describes him:

"He was as handsome a creature as ever lived, what with his soft and satiny dark-green skin...and the row of gold-tipped spines that ran down his back.... On his head were two pairs of horns, one shorter and the other longer, like a snail's; but they were for adornment and not for fighting or anything of that sort. His teeth were beautifully regular, and neither too large nor too small. He had a most engaging smile."

In addition to all this handsomeness, Ajax can blow double smoke rings, tell a great story, draw, play the concertina (with extra twiddles because of his six fingers and two thumbs), sniff out treasure and fly "as fast as a Spitfire". He is also, as mentioned above, a vegetarian, liking grass, leaves, fruit, nuts and, most especially, mushrooms and truffles. However, he has a problem. Ajax is the last of his kind - and he's dead bored of his own company, so decides to find a job with "the next most intelligent creatures to Dragons" - ie us humans, with varying results. 

The tale which follows is as entrancing to me now as it was when I was eight. I've just read it again for about the fiftieth time in order to try and work out what it is about this particular fantasy which has drawn me in and held me for all those decades. Is it the grumpy and ghastly Fairy Frowniface, with her wand "made for magical purposes by King Solomon himself'? Is it the mean, green-eyed slinking stinker of a cat, Mrs Maul? Is it the polite would-be dragon-slayer, Prince George of Hesperia, with his insouciant air of bravery, and rat-generalling skills? Is it villainous, black-bearded Baron Terrible and his rough and tumble henchmen, who repent after being turned into an embarrassed frog and a squiggle of tadpoles?  Or is it Ajax himself - the dragon from Venus whose King is the legendary Phoenix? 

It's all of these and more. While De Quincey's authorial voice has a delightfully old-fashioned tone akin to E. Nesbit and E. Goudge, it's also surprisingly modern in attitude - I think there are few books from that period (1947) which are so respectful of Islamic traditions, or even mention them. But apart from the great storytelling and characterisation, the thing I like best is the rich and uniquely satisfying descriptive prose, which then and now satisfies my inner reader's desire to know what things look like, where they come from, and how they got there.

Who Quincey was is a mystery.  He (or she) only wrote one other book - The Little Half-Giant - which I have just managed to track down a copy of on AbeBooks. The Last of the Dragons was illustrated by Brian Robb, who lectured at the Chelsea College of Art, (inspiring a generation of fantastic illustrators such as Quentin Blake), and later took over from Edward Ardizzone as head of illustration at the Royal College of Art. Blake says of him: "Robb's work had a humane, wry, almost teasing character that makes me wish he had set his hand to more children's books than he did" and I would agree with that. The slightly fuzzy but endearing black-and-white illustrations are a big part of the book's charm for me.  But of this particular de Quincey's life and times I can find no trace, despite it being a literary name of some renown in a sphere other than children's books. If anyone knows more about A. de Quincey, I'd love to hear from you. We fans of Ajax are few and far between, but devoted to the last. If only Hamish Hamilton would bring him back into print....


Lucy Coats is reads, writes and blogs magic, myth and fantasy – as you might expect from someone who remarks: ‘I was born in a shrubbery nearly half a century ago and have been looking for fairies in the trees ever since.’ She has written over 25 titles for children, including her Greek Beasts and Heroes series, published by Orion, Hootcat Hill, a fantasy for older children, and her new picturebook, Bear's Best Friend has recently featured on CBeebies Bedtime Stories. Lucy's website is
and she currently blogs at

Friday 14 June 2013

Magical Classics: 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' by Joan Aiken

Katy Moran explores Joan Aiken's disturbing yet entrancing classic

A grand house, a pack of hungry wolves and two brave and resourceful girls – this is the opening to one of the most magnificent children’s books ever written: a tapestry of skulduggery and deception, petty forgery and outrageous bravery, woven together with shining golden threads of thought-provoking fantasy. It’s also a tale of innocence and experience that William Blake would have been proud of.

Within seconds of the first meeting between Bonnie Green and her terrifying new governess, it is clear that Miss Slighcarp intends to rule Willoughby Chase with an iron rod. Bonnie’s days of ice-skating in the frozen park and bouncing on the window-seat cushions in a cosy, firelit nursery are unmistakeably numbered. It is no surprise, then, that Bonnie dreads the moment her parents will leave home to embark on their ocean voyage, but she must take comfort in the hope that a friendlier climate might improve her mama’s health, and in the knowledge that soon her cousin will soon arrive from London to keep her company. 

Miss Slighcarp

Ensconced in the chilly carriage of a train hurtling north, ever closer to Willoughby Chase, Sylvia Green has problems of her own as – horror of horrors ­– she is joined in the carriage by a fellow passenger, the alarmingly genial and kind Mr Grimshaw. His very presence means that genteel Sylvia cannot even nibble one of the hard, tiny bread rolls her dear Aunt Jane packed for the journey, and propriety certainly forbids accepting one of the oozing violet cream pastries Mr Grimshaw is so eager to press upon her. But outside the train carriage a fiercer danger stalks the snow and ice, for the wolves are baying with hunger and desperate enough to attack, and it quickly becomes clear that Mr Grimshaw is not quite what he seems. Joan Aiken is tremendously skilled at pinpointing the very real fears of children: Sylvia’s anguish at having to share her train carriage with a jovial and chatty stranger struck a deep chord with me when I was a child, and was a more frightening notion than Miss Slighcarp and the wolves combined. Mr Grimshaw’s dripping, sugary cakes were especially disturbing – so tempting, and yet every child knows never to accept food from strangers. Oddly, I didn’t find the wolves attacking the carriage scary at all.

The wolf attacks

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is not only a classic, it represents a new beginning, and I think it may contain one of the first examples of steampunk in children’s literature. I first discovered the novel when I was about ten or eleven years old, but I had no idea that I was encountering the first flowering of a genre that was to rule children’s fiction in later years. I do remember being fascinated by a matter-of-fact foreword explaining that the action takes place in a Jacobean period of history that “never happened”, with a fictional King James III on the throne, and a newly opened Channel Tunnel the unintended conduit of hungry wolf-packs from mainland Europe. The real Channel Tunnel was still under construction when I first read the novel, and I still remember trying to picture what it would be like filled with horses and carriages. In fact, one of the first things I loved about The Wolves of Willoughy Chase is the way Joan Aiken renders the real world just a little bit strange and unusual. The grandeur and opulence of Bonnie’s home is already an exciting contrast to the genteel poverty of the life Sylvia has just left behind, as well as the more humdrum world of most children reading the book, but of course it doesn’t end there. There are wolves. This just doesn’t feel like fantasy of the same ilk as the wonderful novels by Tamora Pierce that I gobbled each week at the library, because of course it’s not. In truth, Aiken’s flights of fantasy are perhaps more strictly magic realism – they are always used to make a point, to escalate a moment of fear. The wolves of Willoughby Chase come to embody the danger gathering around Bonnie and Sylvia as Miss Slighcarp destroys their world piecemeal – it’s as if the wolves and the steampunk Channel Tunnel that allow them to exist in the novel actually represent the girls’ loss of innocence, and perhaps also a loss of innocence on a wider, social level as the action moves from the rural grandeur of Willoughby Chase to the harsh, dark world of industrial Blastburn.

Joan Aiken’s use of fantasy and steampunk is a lesson in kind for any author – she uses these elements with such obvious pleasure, but the wolves and the other touches of fantasy don’t exist purely for their own sake – they lend wings to the story as a whole, intensifying emotion and crystallising moments of tension with the kind of authorial magic that is utterly compelling, and which only emerges once or twice in a generation. I’m delighted to have made the discovery that The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was just the first in an entire series. I only wish I had known the rest of the books as a child – still trailing clouds of glory, as William Wordsworth might have said, more or less, anyway. It really is no exaggeration to say that I would give this book to any child. 

Katy Moran  is the author of several YA historical fantasies including Bloodline and Bloodline Rising , set in Britain and Constantinople in the Dark Ages, and Spirit Hunter, a tale of danger and forbidden love along the ancient and mysterious Silk Road.  Katy has also published Dangerous To Know, a modern love story for the festival-going generation. Her latest YA novel Hidden Among Us (Walker 2013) is a compelling faerie fantasy set in contemporary Britain, and I can highly recommend it.

Picture credits: cover and artwork from 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase', copyright Pat Marriot 1962.


Friday 7 June 2013

Magical Classics: "The Three Royal Monkeys" by Walter de la Mare

So far as I know, this is Walter de la Mare’s only full length book for children. Published in 1910, its original title The Three Mullar-Mulgars was (presumably) so unhelpfully baffling even by early twentieth century standards, that by the time I read it in the 1960s it had been awarded a new and more explanatory title. Even so, I think it’s not particularly well known. Which is a pity. As a child I was entranced by it, and I still think it’s wonderful.

To explain the impression it made on me, a bit of personal history. I began seriously writing stories when I was ten: a series of Tales of Narnia: fan-fiction before the term was invented. Aged 12 or so, I wrote a set of short stories I called Mixed Magic (some not too bad, some terrible) derived from two more beloved writers, E Nesbit and Elizabeth Goudge. By 15, heavily influenced by early Alan Garner, I was writing a story about two children who encounter an mysterious stranger in dripping English woods and are pursued by minions of the triple Moon Goddess: standing stones and indifferent golden-faced elves figured. The next, written in my late teens and early twenties, by which time I was beginning to find my own voice, owed a great deal to the enchantment I found in Walter de la Mare’s The Three Royal Monkeys. This too got shoved in a drawer, and I went on to write yet another, also unpublished and unpublishable. I finally got myself into print with Troll Fell. And I enjoyed every minute of all of it.

The Portingal in his hut

The quality I loved in The Three Royal Monkeys (and was attempting to reproduce) is a rich, exotic beauty tinged with melancholy, relieved by occasional light touches of comedy. This is how it opens:

On the borders of the Forest of Munza-Mulgar lived once an old grey Fruit Monkey of the name of Mutta-Matutta.  She had three sons, the eldest Thumma, the next Thimbulla, and the youngest, who was a Nizza-neela, Ummanodda.  And they called each other for short, Thumb, Thimble and Nod.  The rickety, tumble-down old wooden hut in which they lived had been built 319 Munza years before by a traveller, a Portugall or Portingal, lost in the forest 22,997 leagues from home.

I love the specificity of those numbers...  After the Portingal dies, a Mulgar or monkey comes to live in the hut, where he finds:

... all manner of strange and precious stuff half buried – pots for Subbub; pestles and basins for Manaka-cake, etc.; three bags of great beads, clear, blue and emerald; a rusty musket; nine ephelantoes’ tusks; a bag of Margarita stones; and many other thing, besides cloth and spider-silk and dried-up fruits and fishes.  He made his dwelling there and died there.  This Mulgar, Zebbah, was Mutta-Matutta’s great-great-great grandfather. Dead and gone were all.

But one day a royal traveller arrives: Seelem, ‘own brother to Assasimmon, Prince of the Valley of Tishnar’, accompanied by his servant. Seelem becomes Mutta-Matutta’s husband, but thirteen years later he leaves her, returning to his heritage in the beautiful valleys of Tishnar. Seven years after that, on her deathbed, she urges her sons to follow their father.

“His country lies beyond and beyond,” she said, “forest and river, forest, swamp and river, the mountains of Arrakkaboa – leagues, leagues away.”  And as she paused, a feeble wind sighed through the open window, stirring the dangling bones of the Portingal, so that with their faint clicking, they too, seemed to echo, “leagues, leagues away.”

The rest of the book follows the brothers’ difficult and magical journey. De la Mare is unusual in treating the monkeys perfectly seriously as characters. Nod, the youngest, is ‘a Nizza-Neela, and has magic in him’; and he is the possessor of the marvellous Wonder-Stone, which if rubbed when they are in great danger, will bring the aid of Tishnar to them: his two elder brothers regard him with a mixture of love, impatience and awe. 

Nod with the Wonder-Stone

And who is Tishnar? There are many mysteries in this book, and she is one of them, with a whole chapter at the end dedicated to her.  She is ‘the Beautiful One of the Mountains’; ‘wind and stars, the sea and the endless unknown’.  She it is who instils in the heart a sense of longing; she brings peace and dreams and maybe, in her shadow form, death.

At any rate, the brothers’ journey is precipitated when Nod accidentally sets fire to the hut. In the fairytale tradition of the foolish yet wise younger brother, he makes many mistakes, but he is also the one who saves his brothers from the many predicaments they find themselves in, as they trek through the deep moonlit snow of the winter forest – escaping the flesh-eating Minnimuls, tricking the terrifying hunting-cat Imman├óla, riding striped Zevveras, the 'Little Horses of Tishnar', finding friends and losing one another, quarrelling and making up.

It’s a deeply spiritual quest, an epic journey with no hint of tongue in cheek. De la Mare explores the transience of beauty, the poignancy of loss, the immanence of death, and his characters blaze all the more brightly in their course across the impermanent world. There’s a lovely chapter in which Nod meets, and loses his heart to a beautiful Water Midden (water maiden) to whom he entrusts his Wonder-Stone. Here is the song he overhears her singing ‘in the dark green dusk’ beside a waterfall:

Bubble, Bubble,
Swim to see
Oh, how beautiful
I be,

Fishes, fishes,
Finned and fine,
What’s your gold
Compared with mine?

Why, then, has
Wise Tishnar made
One so lovely,
One so sad?

Lone am I,
And can but make
A little song,
For singing’s sake.

If you haven’t read the book before, and if you’re looking for something at least as good as The Hobbit (personally I think it's far better) this is the one for you.


 Picture credits: all illustrations by Mildred E Eldridge for 'The Three Royal Monkeys'