Book Review

The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

dated dutch children's fiction

I’ve had a bad week and read two mediocre books in a row. This doesn’t happen very often any more, which is obviously great, but it doesn’t happen because I try to be discerning with what I read: I try to read well, and if I’m not doing that I’m losing the only real skill I still pretend to myself that I have.

I feel like I’ve lost all sense of momentum in my life, which is frustrating. I’ve settled into a routine that is probably the healthiest routine I’ve ever settled into (i.e. some exercise and much less booze), but it’s not a routine with any growth wrapped within it or much excitement. Reading two mediocre books in a row – mediocre in very different ways – compounds the stasis, the lack of energy, the emptiness and nothingness of my cold north north northern existence at present.

I should start Spanish classes again, I should pitch more writing to places that pay, I should try and make some poems into a chapbook and submit it fucking somewhere, I should try and do something I find dignified for money in real life. I need to be, innit. I need to fucking *be*.

Anyway.

I’m being cruel when I call Tonke Dragt’s The Letter for the King mediocre. It’s not mediocre, in fact I felt quite affected when I got to its emotional climax, but I don’t know how much that was a literary Stockholm Syndrome after having spent several days already reading it. It’s not mediocre, I continue, it’s just dated.

The Letter to the King is children’s fiction, falling at the less-exciting end of the fantasy-medieval world kinda line. Unlike Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, which I’ve been reading recently, there isn’t magic here. People speak as if it could exist, maybe, but there isn’t any, it’s all just medieval lite, but in made up countries with made up geography. What’s the point?

Dragt’s novel (translated by Laura Watkinson from the original Dutch) follows a sixteen year old boy, Tiuri, who is about to be made a knight when he is set a quest, and so journeys a long way to a distant city to deliver a letter from a dead man to… (There’s a spoiler in the title) a King. There are some villains chasing him, but they never really get that close and there is a friendship made that – to me – had very clear homoromantic if not homoerotic overtones. There are descriptions of mystical cities and some great sections about climbing through mountains at the border of a country, which happily reminded me of my idiotic and unprepared solo hike across the Pyrenees in 2016.

Yes, there is threat and there is peril, but it’s never very intense. Yes, some people do die, but no one who really matters to the narrative or – I imagine – any reader who isn’t currently so mired in grief that anything will set them off. All of Dragt’s violence is external, distanced. Maybe I’m just desensitised due to the world of adult fiction, but I don’t think the books I enjoyed as a child were this tame. At no point when reading The Letter for the King did I ever feel like the heroes might not win, which is always the inevitable ending for this kind of text: surely making the reader forget that is the author’s primary task???

The book’s from 1962, which is longer ago for children’s fiction than it is for adult writing. This is Enid Blyton type writing: I don’t mean that it’s overtly racist, but instead that the adolescents it is about behave like children. The Letter for the King is a weirdly prudish book: I don’t mean that I need every book I read to have fucking in it, but the lack of a single reference to pooing or weeing when it’s about someone hiding in a forest felt like an oversight.

This is outdated children’s fiction because it isn’t good enough to hold an adult reader’s attention. It doesn’t do the things a novel needs to do. And it’s set in a fictional fantasy world where the dominant religion is still fucking Christianity, which is the most telling detail of all.

It’s simple, it’s sweet… It feels like the kind of book aimed at middle class people to buy for grandchildren or nieces and nephews that they barely know.

Meh. Hopefully something good next…


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