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 This too got shoved in a drawer, and I went on to write yet another, also unpublished and unpublishable.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 Immanâla, 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:
Swim to see
Oh, how beautiful
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'