Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Howard Pyle

Men of Iron
by Howard Pyle
Recommended Age: 12+

Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was not so much an author who illustrated his own stories as an artist who wrote stories to go with his illustrations. These days one may have to browse second-hand bookshops, or shop online for used books, to get hold of many of his tales, though some of them are being reissued. Readers who crave adventure will especially love Pyle's accounts of Arthur and the Round Table, pirates, elves, fairies, and colonial America, including such titles as A Modern Aladdin, Twilight Land, and The Wonder Clock. And they will especially love Pyle's historical novel of the age of chivalry, Men of Iron.

The hero of this book is Myles Falworth, the son of a blind nobleman who has fallen into poverty and disgrace. Myles's father had gotten sideways to the king, even before a bitter enemy leveled an unjust accusation of treason at him. Now it is up to the boy - a strong, active, fiercely independent, courageous boy - to make things right.

Myles is an unambiguous hero, a paragon of virtue and honesty. Nevertheless, even today's jaded, postmodern reader can sympathize with him, because he isn't altogether perfect. Hot-headed, dogged, proud, and sometimes foolish, he makes his share of mistakes and suffers for them accordingly. But as he undergoes training as a squire and, later, a knight, we see him being shaped for a great destiny.

But first, he must restore the fortunes of his fallen house. And ultimately, that means he must face the man who blinded his father in a trial by combat from which only one of them - at most - will emerge alive.

I would even recommend this book for younger readers (particularly boys), but I must acknowledge two things. First, knightly combat is pretty violent, and I wouldn't want to give nightmares to very sensitive children. Second, the book is full of historic language and describes objects, concepts, and codes of conduct that may be new to a modern, young reader. The characters speak in an archaic lingo in which "thee" or "thou" means you, "an" means if, and words like "belike," "haply," and "withal" are generously sprinkled. This manner of speech is actually closer to today's English than to what was really spoken in the time of England's King Henry IV, as Pyle himself admits; but no one with less than a master's degree in medieval English literature could comfortably read the really authentic stuff. Pyle makes it easier for us; but still, a young reader unused to that style of speaking should be ready to invest concentration and willingness to learn.

It is worth it. For, even when Pyle's characters are not directly speaking, he has an unusual way with words that vividly brings to life a bygone age and its joys, beauties, and troubles. He crafts chapters that will make you hold your breath with suspense, and a final crisis that will make your heart stand still. Whatever effort you must invest is worth it if you care for such an adventure and such a spotless, appealing young hero.

The Wonder Clock
by Howard Pyle
Recommended Age: 8+

The twenty-four fairy tales in this anthology are suitable to be read to children of any age. Howard Pyle, author of The Garden Behind the Moon and several classic books about Robin Hood, King Arthur, and pirates, not only wrote but also illustrated this set of timeless, magical stories, arranged according to the hours of the day. The result is one of the most beautiful nursery-books ever created, and it can also be appreciated by any adult.

A word about each of the stories in this book, many of which will be familiar to readers of Lang’s Fairy Books and the works of Grimm, Perrault, Andersen, etc....

At 1:00 (a.m.) is the tale of "Bearskin," a miller’s son who is prophesied to marry a king’s daughter. Because the king wants the boy out of the way, he ends up set adrift in a basket, raised by a compassionate mother bear, and finally sent out into the world to make his fortune. The greater part of this tale is of how Bearskin makes the prophecy come true, relying in part on the gifts of his mother bear, and in part on the devotion he inspires in the princess.

The 2:00 story of "The Water of Life" tells how a king’s right-hand servant did his master’s bidding, in order to win for him the hand of a fair queen. But it is the servant, whose faithfulness gives him the strength of ten men, who proves worthy to marry the queen. The length to which the king tests his servant’s faithfulness could wring your heart.

At 3:00, laugh to the story of "How One Turned his Trouble to Some Account." This silly tale tells of a soldier, come home from the wars, who is turned out of his rich brother’s house because Trouble follows him everywhere he goes. The soldier finally learns to use his Trouble to his own advantage, and the rich brother gets his just reward.

4:00 is the deliciously nonsensical hour of "How Three Went Out into the Wide World" — an animal fable featuring a goose, a cock, a sausage (!), and a Great Red Fox. At 5:00 "The Clever Student and the Master of Black Arts" face off in a magnificent duel of wizardry and wits. 6:00 brings us "The Princess Golden-Hair and the Great Black Raven," which is a great deal like the classic story of Beauty and the Beast.

At 7:00 enjoy another animal fable with "Cousin Greylegs, the Great Red Fox and Grandfather Mole," a comedy of double-crosses and come-uppances. 8:00 shows us how "One Good Turn Deserves Another," as a young fisherman’s good deeds are rewarded. At 9:00 the tale of "The White Bird" proves an uncommon specimen of the common tale of three princes being sent out to see which will prove most worthy of the throne, as the youngest and wisest of the three prevails in fortune, throne, and love.

10:00 shows us "How the Good Gifts were used by Two" — a poor brother and a rich brother, who both use the gifts of Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher, the one wisely, the other foolishly. At 11:00, "How Boots befooled the King" proves that “It is not always the silliest one that sits kicking his feet in the ashes at home.” And 12 noon brings us round to "The Stepmother," which is easily recognized as a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Now we come to 1:00 p.m., when a poor peasant named "Master Jacob" outwits three greedy rascals in the form of a Priest, a Provost, and a Master Mayor. At 2:00 "Peterkin and the Little Grey Hare" proves to be an unusual, but wildly funny, variant of Jack and the Beanstalk (only without beans). Even weirder is the story of "Mother Hildegarde" at 3:00, in which a princess learns a severe lesson in telling the truth.

"Which is Best?" is the question of the hour at 4:00, as two brothers carry on a running debate on whether greed or mercy is better. The moral is obvious! At 5:00 "The Simpleton and his Little Black Hen" are soon parted by the greed of the simpleton’s brothers and a wily inkeeper, but young Caspar shows that “Wit and Luck are not always hatched in the same nest.”

At 6:00 "The Swan Maiden" wins her freedom from a three-eyed witch with the aid of a princely sweetheart and a woman made of honey and barley meal. At 7:00 "The Three Little Pigs and the Ogre" will win you over, even without the hair of anybody’s chinny-chin-chin. In this tale, three pigs foraging for acorns in the forest repeatedly outwit a hungry ogre and prove that seeing a bit of the outside world is worth the risk.

The 8:00 tale tells us of "The Staff and the Fiddle," two magical objects that enable a fiddler to save a beautiful princess from an evil dwarf and to outwit two scoundrels. Wouldn’t you like to have a walking stick that would fight for you whenever you said “Rub-a-dub-dub”? At 9:00 you learn "How the Princess’s Pride was broken," thanks to a young king disguised as a goose boy. Then at 10:00 find out "How Two went into Partnership" — namely, Uncle Bear and the Great Red Fox, who learn respectively that “When a rogue and another cracks a nut together, it is not often the rogue who breaks his teeth by trying to eat the hulls” and that “When one sets a trap for another, it is a toss of a copper whether or no it flies up and pinches his own fingers.”

"King Stork" appears at 11:00, in the tale of how a drummer lad fresh from the wars wins the favor of the stork king, who then helps him win the hand of a princess who is also, sad to say, a wicked enchantress. And finally, 12:00 midnight comes around with "The Best that Life has to give," which is partly the story of a blacksmith who gives up his only son to a dwarf, partly that of how a queen finds out that the greatest treasure in the world is a long and happy marriage.

In both pictures and words, Howard Pyle captured a whimsical way of telling fairy tales that, I hope and expect, will endure for ages. Don’t miss out on it. If you’re a parent who reads to your children, get this book. If you’re a child of any age and you can read it, do so. If you love fairy tales, you will love this book.

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