Book review: The Letter for the King

I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. I mean, I was expecting to like it – it seemed like a good story, I’m always glad to see more children’s literature in translation, and I was thrilled when Pushkin Press sent me a copy (thanks again, Pushkin!). But, it seemed to be all about knights and chivalry and it didn’t have any magic in it, and I honestly can’t remember when I last read a straightforward old-fashioned quest story.

Then the book arrived in the post, and suddenly I was eight years old again, upstairs in my grandparents’ house leafing through my mother’s childhood books. I would have loved to spend a whole weekend reading it – preferably sprawled on the floor on my belly, with the book in one hand and an apple in the other. Unfortunately real life kept intervening, and I found myself reading it in snatches of an hour or two between work and other things – but still, I was transported. On the Tube home from work yesterday I found myself daydreaming about what it would be like to be a knight of King Dagonaut.

The Letter for the King was first published in the Netherlands in 1962. It’s an award-winning and much-loved Dutch classic by Tonke Dragt, and in 2004 it won the fantastically-named Griffel der Griffels prize, for being the best Dutch children’s book of the last fifty years, so it’s a pretty good choice for a translation. Pushkin Press’s English edition really feels like a children’s classic, too – the black-and-white illustrations (which I assume are from the original Dutch edition?), the map on the inside cover, and the front and back cover design made the book feel immediately familiar, as if it might actually have been one of those books at my grandparents’ house that I’d read and loved and forgotten about until now. It’s a really lovely edition that does justice to the great story within.

Photo on 2013-11-20 at 14.38

(unlike my photo of it. Sorry :/ )

The story itself is a fat, satisfying quest narrative, which opens with several young squires sitting an all-night vigil in a small chapel. They have proven themselves worthy of knighthood, and the vigil is last test they must undergo before they can be knighted by King Dagonaut the next day. They are not to leave the chapel, or even open the door, under any circumstances. But when Tiuri, the youngest of them, hears a knock and a voice crying desperately for help, he can’t refuse the call. And so he finds himself on a dangerous quest, to take a mysterious letter to the King of neighbouring Unauwen. He doesn’t know what’s in the letter. He can’t tell anybody who he is or where he’s going. He’s broken the rules of Dagonaut and probably lost his chance to become a knight. And everybody is out to get him.

You know how it goes, really. He faces many dangers, from perilous mountain passes to deadly assassins. He makes friends whom he can trust with his life. He serves a True King who is Righteous, and works to thwart a False King who is Bad. There are knights with noble miens, and solid trustworthy farmers, and selfish, cowardly lords and sneaky travellers on the road. There are cases of mistaken identity and various spells in prison, and time is running out all the time (oh Tiuri, if you could just tell them who you are they’d understand and let you go! But don’t tell them who you are!). He delivers the letter in the end, and then he goes home, and the journey back is much less eventful than the journey out, as always seems to happen with quest stories. You know it’s all going to turn out all right in the end – but the story’s so vivid, so tightly-plotted and action-packed, that you’ll be on the edge of your seat anyway. Tiuri’s a great hero for this kind of book – brave even when he’s frightened, loyal and competent without being annoyingly preternaturally skilled at anything, and honestly just trying all the time to do his best, to behave like a knight ought to, and to keep his promise to deliver the letter.

Another thing I loved about this book was the language – Laura Watkinson’s translation is absolutely pitch-perfect, and really reminiscent of 1960s classic children’s literature (I’m thinking Natalie Babbitt, Barbara Sleigh, Rosemary Sutcliff, whoever it was that translated my mother’s edition of The Snow Queen…). The grave formality of the knights’ speech, the more light-hearted and natural conversation between Tiuri and his friend Piak, the snatches of descriptive prose that paint in the scene with such light brushstrokes that you barely notice what a complete picture is building up in your mind…it’s all perfectly portrayed in English in a way that really fits the setting and complements the story.

The Letter for the King is not the kind of book that I usually read, these days. It’s set in a mediaeval-Europe-analogue, there’s no magic in it, it doesn’t subvert anything, and it definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. But it reached straight to the heart of me, to the bookish child who loved a good story more than anything else in the world, and swept me away from my ordinary grown-up life. If you know a child like that, you should give them this book. If you were a child like that, you should read this book yourself. Clear a weekend for it. Sprawl on the carpet and eat apples (or whatever it is you used to do). It’s worth it.

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2 Responses to Book review: The Letter for the King

  1. What age bookish child would you think it would suit? Sounds great but possibly a little old for my just-turned-7-year-old.

    • Lydia says:

      I’m afraid I’m not very good at age-based recommendations, mostly because there aren’t a lot of children in my life (it’s been literally a decade since I last interacted with a seven-year-old for any meaningful length of time!), so please bear that in mind when reading my comment below!

      I guess…I remember reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my little sister when she was that age, and I’d say Letter for the King is on a similar level in terms of language, scariness and plot complexity. The difference is that at 500-odd pages it’s several times longer than any of the Narnia books, which might be a bit daunting. Also, towards the end there’s quite a bit of plot that happens ‘off-stage’, as it were – nothing particularly complicated, but just stuff that might possibly need to be spelled out a bit more explicitly to help a younger child understand what’s going on. At our bookshop it’s recommended for 8+, so maybe give it a year or so? Though I suppose so much depends on what else the child has been reading (or has had read to them).

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