Can a Simple, Classic European Fantasy Win Over Jaded American Kids? This One Just Might.

Whether or not it is an entirely admirable thing, it is certainly an arresting thing that Tonke Dragt’s THE LETTER FOR THE KING (Pushkin Children’s Books, 512 pp., paper, $15.95; ages 10 and up), newly republished in English in a translation by Laura Watkinson, has as literal a title as has ever been imagined by an author for an adventure story. We expect the titles of children’s classics to be deliberately intriguing, marked by an unexpected metaphysical juxtaposition — a witch meets a wardrobe — or at least to suggest an intriguing concept, time wrinkling or a philosopher’s stone sought. But Dragt’s book promises to be about a letter, for some king, and that is exactly its chief and only matter. The question is if it can be delivered or not.

Since its publication more than 50 years ago, the book has sold millions of copies in Europe and been adapted as a movie; it is being developed as a series by Netflix. So the new reader coming to it must ask not if it works but how its mechanism runs — and, perhaps, whether it will run well for a generation of impatient, fantasy-besotted young American readers.

The answer is that the book is a fascinating exercise in exactly the poetic benefits — and limits — of the literalism that its title promises. There may never have been a book more shallowly written, more straightforwardly imagined, with minimal unexpected turns or true surprises. And yet the shallowness has a kind of handcrafted sweetness. To call its action wooden is merely to describe it, and not in a necessarily pejorative way. It is like watching well-made marionettes handled by a not entirely expert puppeteer: You see the strings, and the movement, yes, is jerky, but the action still has charm in its complete lack of pretension. If the reader responds with impatience at the simplicity, there is still satisfaction in a sound story so simply told.

The plot is introduced with little buildup. or back story. Tiuri, a young would-be knight in some vaguely medieval period in some clearly Northern clime, is interrupted during the vigil preceding his knighthood, when young squires were expected to stay up all night praying by candlelight in a chapel before the next day’s ceremony. Though Tiuri is forbidden from opening the door, when an urgent knock is heard he does, and is hustled off by a hermit-squire who tells him to take a letter to the king at once. “I have a letter here, with a message of vital importance. One might even say that the fate of an entire kingdom depends on it,” he explains, directly. Tiuri, with oddly minimal resistance given that it will pull him away, perhaps for good, from his ambition to become a knight, goes off with the letter on a stolen horse. Though he is to deliver the letter to “the Black Knight with the White Shield,” that knight is, no surprise, found grievously wounded — and it turns out Tiuri, no surprise again, will have to deliver the letter to the king himself.

Readers accustomed to sinister or deeply entrenched mythological imaginings, or to the ambivalences of emotion and motive that by now are expected in a fantasy novel — the satirical and dystopian impulses of the “Hunger Games” series, say, or even the busier, benevolent educational ones of Rick Riordan — will be startled by the elementary storytelling and simple colors of this one. I mean simple colors in the most literal sense. On a single page, one comes upon Red Riders, the Green River, two black knights, one with a red shield and one with a white shield, and the Black Knight with a White Shield, while a page later Tiuri rides with Gray Knights along a Blue River.

Yet as the book unfolds, its charms, and its at first mysterious appeal, become more evident. There are rewards in its lack of cunning. An earnest innocence is evident on every page, with a charming note of Dutch practicality perpetually ringing out: “This bread is fresh. Leave your old bread here. I can use it to make some bread pudding,” a character remarks one morning as the hero is sent on his way. We never see the bread pudding, but we like that, despite the epic setting, it was made. Later, we are directed to the Hills of the Moon, then told that “they’re called that because they look best by moonlight.”

The message in the letter turns out, on its climactic revelation, to be somewhat, well, anticlimactic. Its news is less world-altering than narrowly dynastic, far less cosmic than one would want such hard-carried secrets to be. What’s more, Tiuri’s quest turns out to have been slightly redundant: A second messenger was wisely, if anti-dramatically, entrusted with the same message. Yet Tiuri, if not particularly well fleshed out as a character, is a receptive vessel for any child’s imagination, and his quest, exactly because it lacks refinement of purpose or any overlay of adult allegory, should have a deep appeal to an open-minded child, though perhaps a younger one than is usual for such long-winded fare. (The second volume of the series, “The Secrets of the Wild Wood,” has also been republished. It involves secrets in a wild wood.)

Tiuri goes through a lot, all of it in a spirit of quiet, purposeful innocence that is doubtless more appealing to many kids than the more psychologically convoluted heroes of more mature recent books. Those of us who like to read more richly metaphysical or satirical fantasies may be, in Dickens’s phrase, envious of the ease with which Dragt’s readers have for so long been entertained. But the virtue of simplicity is straightforwardness, and its reward is, often, undivided attention.

Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of two fantasies for children, “The King in the Window” and “The Steps Across the Water.”

Follow New York Times Books on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast.

Source: Read Full Article