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`How long do you wish to live?',
This review is from: Walter de la Mare, Short Stories for Children: v. 3 (Hardcover)
On certain occasions, when the commonplace fabric of the world about us comes apart without warning, we can find ourselves in the presence of what you might call the numinous in a minor key. The remarkable Walter de la Mare was one of the few writers who could conjure up such subtle enchantments to order. That skill has largely disappeared.
Did his ability come from an exceptional imagination or from personal experience? I suspect something of both called these stories into being. But, that aside, Giles de la Mare has done us a great service by publishing this particular volume for without it, I think, some of this material might eventually be lost. And it would not do for these rare and lovely, and (be warned) occasionally disturbing tales to fade away.
The collection is nicely varied and, being full of surprises, the way a story starts gives little indication of the direction it'll finally take. Some are easy-going and delightful, some are delightful and bizarre, some are very quaint and curious, and some are dark and more than a little unsettling, and some are just strange, apparently inconsequential and without much detectable direction at all. But there's always uncommon magic at work, much to enjoy, and a fair bit to reflect upon as well sometimes. `The Thief' is one of my particular favourites. Having `stolen everything in the world he thought worth stealing', the thief decides to marry so he can share his riches with a wife. But he fails to find one ... and then we meet the blind man and the thief's last remaining servant, a `puny scullery-maid with eyes black as sloes and a shock of jet-black hair' who is determined to look after him because, she says, `You were less unkind to me than all the other servants put together, and stay here I must and will, if only to see you comfortably into your coffin.' And after that it starts getting really interesting. Then there's `Alice's Godmother' who is 350 years old, had once been given an illuminated Prayer Book by Charles the First, and whom Alice, just 17, meets in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Her godmother, whose voice sounds like the chiming of a distant silver bell, has a proposal for her, a secret that she will share with Alice but no-one else; and, while this theme develops, the background occasionally loses its outlines at moments such as when Alice meets a large buck rabbit, or later encounters a `small living animal rather larger than a mole' with ivory claws ... `erect on its haunches like a tame cat or dog begging for a titbit of meat' which `patters away afterwards into hiding behind a carved Moorish cabinet before she could so much bid it adieu'. Long after this has all happened, Alice explains to her mother, `It was as if I was in Wonderland myself.' Wonderland, eh? Again?
In contrast to the elaborate fantasies, `The Old Lion' and `The Magic Jacket' are mainly set and well grounded in a London we should have little difficulty in recognising. Both have a Dickensian feel to them and a touch of Chesterton as well. The first introduces us to Mr Bumps who is Second Mate on `The Old Lion' and has `often been around the world', and who, `for two green-and-red bead necklaces and a jack-knife' buys a most unusual monkey that after settling in England gradually reveals himself to be completely different to any other monkey there ever was. It's a fascinating story which, if you feel so inclined, can be taken as an allegory, a sobering advertisement for pragmatic fortitude. `The Magic Jacket' however, which tells of old Admiral Rumbold, young Mike the pavement artist and `Andy One' and `Andy Two', moves slowly, puzzles and intrigues, and seems something of a blunt instrument, but what completely hooked me here was the twist in the tail. Who might Walter de la Mare have had in mind when he brings into the final paragraphs the `long-haired youngish young man in a dark loose cape or cloak and a black wide-brimmed hat', and then `old B in a bonnet'? The latter is `the crankiest, craziest old creature in the British Isles - but what the old boy doesn't know about pictures and painting isn't worth a tallow candle!'.
But are these children's stories? Yes, and no. The border that separates them from Walter de la Mare's Short Stories `1895-1926' and `1927-1956' is not at all clearly defined yet they do observe the typical form of the children's story; that is, the majority contain a character who is either amusing or with whom the child reader can identify, and who moves through a fertile environment capable of stimulating a child's imagination. But that may just have happened; many of Walter de la Mare's stories and poems have a dreamlike quality about them that suggest they were not necessarily deliberately crafted but instead simply shaped themselves as they settled on and around the writer. From this we might think that he just let the stories out into the world and it was the publisher who decided who would like to read them. Or so it seems to me. However, I'd have no reservation about offering them to any child who has already learnt how certain books, through their ability to unlock the imagination, can captivate us ever so much better than the screen can. This said however, we would certainly tempt a few more into this rich and extraordinary world if the likes of Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson or the disciples of Hayao Miyazaki were to turn their talents in the direction of the work of Walter de la Mare.
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