|I read this on my Kindle, courtesy of
Project Gutenberg, and have no ‘real’
book, so here is a frontispiece from an
edition illustrated by Charles Robinson,
whose work I love.
King Merriwig of Euralia sat at breakfast on his castle walls. He lifted the gold cover from the gold dish in front of him, selected a trout and conveyed it carefully to his gold plate. He was a man of simple tastes, but when you have an aunt with the newly acquired gift of turning everything she touches to gold, you must let her practise sometimes. In another age it might have been fretwork.
Into this idyllic setting comes the king of Barodia, blocking the sun as he travels along in his seven-league boots. Since no-one likes their breakfast disturbed (let alone having the sun blotted out, even for a few seconds), Stiff Notes are written, and before you can say Jack Robinson, a petty quarrel has escalated into full-scale war, in which the Barodian ruler’s fearsome whiskers (or, to use the modern term, his moustache) take on a great significance, and he admits he never wanted to be a terrifying sovereign.
There, in a nutshell, you have the plot of AA Milne’s Once On a Time, which is another of my Great Discoveries, and definitely a Best Book of the Year (and yes, there do seem to be a lot of Best Books, because on the whole I seem to read books I like, but since reading is supposed to be a pleasure, where’s the harm in that?).
Anyway, this fairy tale for adults is one of the most delightful stories you could wish to read, and shows that there is more to Milne than Pooh and Piglet. It has a suitably happy ending, although it may not be what you would expect from a more conventional fairy tale. Milne avoids the trap of falling into tweeness (I apologise if that’s not a word, but it should be) by writing in wonderfully chatty, matter-of-fact style, which includes asides explaining his differences of opinion with ‘historian’ Roger Scurvilegs, who penned the monumental work ‘Euralia Past and Present’, in seventeen volumes!
|Princess Hyacinth, by Charles Robinson.|
To return to the story, King Merriwig marches off to war, leaving the kingdom in the charge of his inexperienced daughter Hyacinth. And, since the Princess lacks a mother’s guiding hand (her mother was carried off by a dragon) the king appoints the Countess Belvane (for whom he has a soft spot) as chief advisor. But the Countess has her own agenda and is not to be trusted…
The Countess Belvane! What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman? Mastered as she was by overweening ambition, utterly unscrupulous in her methods of achieving her purpose, none the less her adorable humanity betrayed itself in a passion for diary-keeping and a devotion to the simpler forms of lyrical verse. That she is the villain of the piece I know well; in his ‘Euralia Past and Present’ the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs, does not spare her; but that she had her great qualities I should be the last to deny.
She is by far the most interesting – and the most clever – character and, despite her scheming its hard to dislike her because she’s not malevolent or evil like Snow White’s Stepmother. Mind you, she’s not kindly or well-meaning either, just very self-interested and self-promotional. How could you dislike anyone who writes ‘Became bad’ in her diary on Monday, June 1st, followed at a later date by the entry ‘Became good’? And her badness is very ingenious. When the Princess asks to review the brave Women Defenders of the Home Defence Army, Belvane has a problem, because there is no such military unit, and she has taken the money allocated for paying the non-existent soldiers and flung it to the populace to boost her popularity. A lesser woman might have been worried, but Belvane rises to the occasion quite magnificently and persuades Woggs to march round and round and round a tree!
However, it has to be admitted that she is not at all nice to Prince Udo of Araby when Hyacinth, desperate to exert her own authority, asks for help. Using a magic wish stolen from Wiggs, Belvane calls for ‘something humorous’ happen to Udo, and manages to turn him into a strange creature with rabbit’s ears, a woolly body and a lion’s tail. Speaking in her defence I would have to say that Udo is a pompous ass, who is much nicer in animal form, and I would have left him like that, which probably makes me bad as well.
By the way, in case you’re wondering, there is a hero with whom the Princess falls in love: Coronel, the Prince’s friend, is good-looking, quick-witted, very capable, and not at all loyal to his Royal master. When it comes to getting what he wants he’s quite as devious as Belvane, and uses guile and cunning to gain Hyacinth’s hand and half her father’s kingdom.
‘Once On A Time’ is absolutely enchanting, and has many of the ingredients of traditional fairy tales – cloaks of darkness, a magic ring, swineherds, spells, fairies, swords which may (or may not) be magical – but nothing happens quite as you expect. Written in 1915, and first published in 1917, it could easily be seen as a satire on events in Europe at that time, but Milne always denied this, claiming it was written ‘for the amusement of my wife and myself at a time when life was not very amusing’. And he said: “But, as you see, I am still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is. Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won’t. It is that sort of book.”
It is that sort of book, and I am one of those who enjoyed it, and I can only hope that others read it with just as much pleasure.