Sunday, 10 May 2009

Many Moons by James Thurber

Short Story, published 1943

I promised myself that the next time I wrote about a short story for Once Upon a Time III's short story weekend, it would be one that was easy to find. It wasn't a difficult choice, because it is from a writer I love, and is one of my favourite stories ever. What's more, not only does the story itself demonstrate just how much fun the author had writing it, it predates by a couple of years the first of his longer ventures into the writing of fairytales, The White Deer, and some of the characters in this story, Many Moons, reappear in similar form and voice in the later work.

Ten-year-old Princess Lenore, the apple of her father's eye, has fallen sick of a surfeit of raspberry tarts, and the King, anxious for her recovery, promises whatever her heart desires. If she can have the moon, she replies, she will get better. The King is used to relying on his advisors, so he sends, in succession, for the Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard and the Royal Mathematician, to no avail. By this time sounding distinctly miffed, he sends again, this time for the Court Jester who, wiser than the others, finds a solution. All seems well until the King realises that the moon will rise again the next night, so he sends for...well, you can guess.
Thurber was never at a loss for ways to play with words and the opportunities offered by the oral storytelling tradition are taken up with glee. He quickly establishes the ritual of response that each of the advisors will follow, so that the reader is waiting with delighted expectation for their flights of hyperbole. Only two people in the story have the common-sense they were born with, the Jester and the Princess - in The White Deer the verbal games will tie characters in alliterative knots, and the daring quests the princes undertake will be exacerbated by the need to extricate themselves from the thickets of words (though Thurber's way with a daring quest is something I urge you to discover). In this shorter piece, however, he is a little more restrained. The Lord High Chamberlain lists the items he has acquired on behalf of His Majesty:
'Let me see now...I have got ivory, apes, and peacocks, rubies, opals, and emeralds, black orchids, pink elephants, and blue poodles, gold bugs, scarabs, and flies in amber, hummingbirds' tongues, angels' feathers, and unicorns' horns, giants, midgets, and mermaids, frankincense, ambergris and myrrh, troubadors, minstrels, and dancing women, a pound of butter, two dozen eggs, and a sack of sugar - sorry, my wife wrote that in there.'
'I don't remember any blue poodles,' said the King.
Thurber's fairytales are regular re-reads for me, and I can recite chunks of them (which is not surprising given that repetition of both words and form are common to all, and rhyme plays a huge part). As well as The White Deer he wrote The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O. I couldn't tell you which is the best - for me, it's the one I am reading at the time. I do, though, remember the pleasure that I found in The Wonderful O as a child, a story about a village where a wicked man named Black bans the letter O, so that there are no more opals and moonstones, owls and oaks (or owls in oaks).

Many Moons is the perfect fairytale for reading to children, satisfying to both reader and listener. I only know it as a story from a collection, but I see that it was originally published as a children's story book, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin.

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