Friday, April 11, 2008

James Thurber

Many Moons
by James Thurber
Recommended Age: 10+ (8+ if read to you)

This is a very little book - a children's story book, all in one chapter. But it is also one of the finest modern fairy tales ever written. The version illustrated by Louis Slobodkin also won the Caldecott Medal for book art.

Once upon a time, a lovely little princess named Lenore fell ill. Her father, the King, dotes on her, and would do anything to help her get well. She says that if he gives her the moon, she will get well. Determined to get the moon for her, the King calls on all his wise counselors - the Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician. After each one harangues the King with a list of the things they have done for him over the years, they all tell him that the thing is impossible.

Finally, the King summons the Court Jester, who discovers an ingenious way out of the problem. But then another problem arises, and again the wise counselors are unable to help, and again the Court Jester goes to the best source of information about how to help the Princess Lenore... the Princess Lenore herself!

As one might expect from this grand master of American wit and humor, this is a delightful, funny tale, enchanted by the magic of beautiful words. If you read this book at the age I originally read it, you may end up learning a lot of new words too - such as "surfeit," "ambergris," and "Samarkand." The poetry of this book is not wasted on children; they will be enchanted by it. Yet the older and more knowledgeable you are, I think, the more delight you will find in this pretty little book.

The 13 Clocks
by James Thurber
Recommended Age: 10+ (8+ if read to you)

This book is, most unfortunately, out of print. I think it's high time it was reprinted! But to enjoy this marvelous fairy tale, you'll have to visit the library or shop for secondhand books. I hope you do find it, because it is written with the same sensuous imagery, keen wit, and wonderful use of words that characterize Thurber's adult stories (like "The Catbird Seat" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"). I tend to view Thurber as an American counterpart of Roald Dahl.

The 13 Clocks is a fairy tale of chapter-book proportions. Short enough to read aloud to a child at bedtime (in perhaps 2 or 3 installments), it is the romantic story of a handsome prince who must perform a seemingly impossible task in order to win the hand of a beautiful princess. The princess is the ward, or rather prisoner, of a chilly, one-eyed Duke who lives in Coffin Castle, which has 13 clocks all of which stopped one night at exactly ten minutes to five. The Duke claims that he murdered time, so that he could live in Then and not have to face the problems of Now.

In order to free the princess, and avoid being slit from guggle to zatch and fed to the Duke's geese, Prince Zorn has ninety-nine hours to fetch a thousand jewels and the 13 clocks must strike five at the end of that period. It's like a bet between the Duke and the Prince. Whichever one wins, marries the Princess Saralinda. Whoever loses, becomes the victim of a demonic creature called the Todal, the very mention of which causes one's hair to turn white. And the odds vastly favor the Duke.

My favorite passage in the book is the description of the princess, which I hope fair use entitles me to quote:
"The Princess was tall, with freesias in her dark hair, and she wore serenity brightly like a rainbow. It was not easy to tell her mouth from the rose, or her brow from the white lilac. Her voice was faraway music, and her eyes were candles burning on a tranquil night. She moved across the room like wind in violets, and her laughter sparkled on the air, which, from her presence, gained a faint and undreamed fragrance. The Prince was frozen by her beauty, but not cold, and the Duke, who was cold but not frozen, held up the palms of his gloves, as if she were a fire at which to warm his hands."
The experience of reading a book like this is like the experience of falling in love - in love with language at least, if not (at first sight) with the Princess Saralinda. It's like one big, dreamy, magic spell, that transports you to a world both real and unreal. You will also enjoy the charming character of the Golux with his indescribable hat, the master spy Hark, and the woman Hagga who would weep jewels instead of tears, if only she could weep at all.

There are many laughs in the book of the non sequitur, "nonsense" variety, and plays on words, and passages that luxuriate in rhyme and other poetic devices (look up "alliteration" and "assonance" in the dictionary, for example). It's virtually a sample-book of literary techniques, yet at the same time it is a simple and direct story that delights from beginning to end.

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