Paid on both sides: James Thurber and…
The Thirteen Clocks
The Wonderful O
the two sides of the coin of the singer of tales. On the obverse, with varying degrees of glitter, are the chills, the thrills, and the giggles of his fanciful sport, but turn it over and there lurk its more shadowy implications.
The combinations vary.
I think you’d be taking things a bit far to read nuclear pessimism into ‘Tittymouse and Tattymouse’, but what of the chthonic reverberations of ‘Yallery Brown’ or ‘The Rose Tree’? It is part of the magic possessed by the singer of tales that his simplicities may hide such depths.
And where better to see it
than in these two new-invented variants: double fancies by a single storyteller, urgently demanding to be read aloud, but composed for print and visually united by the perfect collaboration of his illustrator? The Thirteen Clocks, published in 1950,came first but was, in fact, the fourth children’s book by Thurber, the great New Yorker cartoonist and satirist. (His first, Many Moons, had won the 1944 Caldecott Medal for its illustrator, Louis Slobodkin, and its two successors, The Great Quillow and The White Deer, are as worthy of reissue as the present books.)
As is proper,
The Thirteen Clocks follows the formal pattern of those tales that feature the wooing of a Princess immured in a tower – on this occasion by a villainous and false uncle (‘a cold Duke, afraid of Now’ whose thirteen clocks have long been frozen at ten-to-five in the afternoon). The hero Prince must fulfil an impossible task to rescue her (the garnering of a thousand jewels in nine-and-ninety hours, so timed that on his return the clocks of the castle shall all be striking five). And there is of course a Helper, the irrepressible Golux: ‘a little man… in an indescribable hat [whose] eyes were wide and astonished as if everything was happening for the first time’.
Needless to say,
the task is fulfilled, for the devising and solving of fairytale problems is one of Thurber’s gifts. (In Many Moons a way is found to satisfy a young princess’s desire to be given the moon.) But while a traditional structure is the foundation for the story’s authenticity it gains a wholly ‘modern’ character from the manner of its telling – ‘modern’ here intended to point up its place within an ageless tradition where now even the rawest of folktales come to their audience through print and pictures rather than through direct telling. Within that dispensation, Thurber is superb. For sure, there are some elaborate literary turns (‘It was cold on Hagga’s hill and fresh with furrows where the dragging points of stars had plowed the fields’) and these are conjoined with frequent and entirely successful shifts towards verse within prose sentences (‘You’ll never live to wed his niece. You’ll only die to feed his geese. Good bye, goodnight, and sorry.’) But Thurber’s lightness of touch and continuing comic presence enhance the joyousness of the whole narrative enterprise. Laughter, not fear, lies behind all the dark doings.
The Wonderful O, however,
which was published seven years after The Thirteen Clocks, has a different side to its coin: the tale as fable, where the storyteller casts aside ‘happily ever after’ and is liable to offer a Moral Application instead. Marc Simont, the accompanying illuminator, who had concluded The Thirteen Clocks with his only picture coloured in vernal greens and blues, is now driven back upon muted blues and greys as Thurber takes us into a startling and problematic narrative.
‘Somewhere’, the tale o-fully begins,
‘a ponderous tower clock slowly dropped a dozen strokes into the gloom’. And the ominous toll of that sentence contrasts with the o-less advent of Littlejack, ‘a man with a map’ and his alliance with Black ‘a man with a ship’ in a buccaneering quest for treasure. They sail in the Aieu (all the vowels but ‘o’ and ‘sounding a little like a night-bird screaming’) for Black has a fixated hatred of the letter ‘o’, and hence of their destination which is the island of Ooroo (‘like the eyes of ghosts leaning against an R’). Their invasion of the place, ostensibly for treasure, turns into a crazed rampage against O-ness. An edict forbids the use of the letter (so that a bootmaker becomes a btmaker and ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost and Mother Goose flattened out like a pricked balloon’) but the ban is spread from denominator to denominated and, category by category, those things and creatures possessed of o-ness are driven out or destroyed.
This assault on o
and its innocent adherents gives Thurber the opportunity for a virtuoso raid on the thesaurus: oboes, pianos, bassoons giving way to fifes, drums and cymbals, dominoes and ping-pong to tiddleywinks and mumblety-peg… There are jokes over o-less spellings (look at the name by the door-bell of poor Miss phelia liver), and a continuing flow of his trademark rhythmic, rhyming sentences. Triumph comes with a kind of celestial dance of o-full literary heroes: ‘…Donalbane of Birnam Wood, Robinson Crusoe and Robin Hood, the moody Doones of Lorna Doone, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone; out of near and ancient tomes, Banquo’s ghost and Sherlock Holmes…’ Such lightnesses mitigate the Orwellian undertow to the fable and also, in the fairytale ending, a rather clunking Moral Application.
(if not banishment) of these books – and others of like calibre – has been a deprivation hard to understand and their restitution now at the hands of the book publishing arm of the New York Review aligns that company with our own Jane Nissen as one which affirms the artistry of the past as more than a match for present dispensations. (Alongside the two Thurbers they have also just reissued the first two ‘Uncle’ books by J P Martin: Uncle and Uncle Cleans Up with their line drawings by Quentin Blake.) Apart from over-hefty board bindings (with very sharp corners) the books are entirely up to the quality of their original printings and it is good news that all those eligible for the British market will be available from Frances Lincoln Ltd. The whole shebang should be viewable via www.nyrb.com.
The illustrations by Marc Simont are taken from the 2009 editions of The Thirteen Clocks (978 1 59017 275 9) and The Wonderful O (978 1 59017 309 1) by James Thurber, published by The New York Review Children’s Collection at £9.99 each.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.