Saturday, August 18, 2012

The King With Six Friends by Jay Williams; illustrated by Imero Gobbato (1968)

Another book from Parents Magazine Press, this with an inscription:  Shawn & Patrick Thrasher 3 June 1975.  The "three" I think means that my brother was three years old when she wrote this; it's not in my mother's handwriting though, it's in a child's hand, so my brother or I wrote it.

The King With Six Friends is the very first book I remember reading all by myself, to myself.  I think I was in second grade, which makes me around 8 years old.  (around that same time, I remember realizing that "basghetti" wasn't the word was pronounced  - it started with an "sp" which amazed me).  The King With Six Friends isn't an easy reader; it's really difficult and rather long.  But it's a great story, and probably started me on a love of magic and adventure that really continues to this day.

Zar is an out-of-work king.  A note about names - they are totally "fantasy" types names, which makes sense, because Jay Williams often wrote fantasy short stories.  He had been a good king, but "a bold, strong king with many soldiers attacked his kingdom.  When the battle had ended, the strong king had won" and Zar found himself on the open road.

"The road was long and the world was wide."  No one was looking for an out-of-work king.  But "fortunately, as a king, Zar had already learned how to meet happiness or unhappiness with the same cheerful smile."  That's a good trait for anyone to have.  I'd like to think I have that trait myself.

Along the way, he meets and saves his six friends, in the way that fairy tale and folklore denizens meet their friends and companions.  An axe calls for help, stuck in a log, Zar frees it and it becomes a man named Edge.  An elephant, scared of a mouse; Zar shoos the mouse away and the elephant becomes a man named Agus.  A snake, tied in knots, untied becomes a man named Eryx.  A tree full of nests full of noisy baby birds which Zar removes becomes an entish man named Furze.  A hive of bees under attack from a hungry bear becomes a man named Dumble.

My favorite, then and now :  "After a bit it began to rain.  they took shelter under some trees, and all at once Zar heard a small, crackling voice crying, "Help, help!"  Looking around, he spied a fire burning with much smoke and smolder.  The voice came from the center.  Zar took off his cloak, and he held one end while Agus held the other.  They stretched it over the fire and sheltered it from the rain. Soon it had blazed up brightly once more.  When it had done so, it turned into a man with bright red hair and freckles like sparks.  "Many thanks, strangers," he cried, snapping his fingers.  "I thought I was done for."  Kindle was his name, and to a little red-headed boy, this must have been like magic.  When I was eight, I'm not sure I knew any other redheads.  I'm not sure there were any other red-heads in the school, at least not as red as my hair.  As all red-heads know, you get teased for having red hair and freckles.  Yet here, in a book, was a really cool guy named Kindle with freckles like sparks, who can turn himself into fire.   That was extra magic to the story.

Of course, all the companions join, because as Kindle (!) says:  "It is sad to travel without friends in the world."

Another point about the story that was probably appealing was the logic behind each rescue.  Zar asks of each friend the question an inquisitive eight year old boy with a big mouth might ask.  He asks Edge the axe (who looks a bit like Jack Palance and F. Murray Abraham had a baby), why he just didn't turn himself back into a man and save himself, and gets a reasoned and polite answer back "My nose would have been caught firmly in the log."  Each friend has a similar answer, except for Dumble the Beehive man, who "was, in fact, not very bright."

They eventually come to a beautiful city, where a king with a beautiful daughter is looking for a king to marry his daughter.  Of course, Zar is the perfect candidate, but this being a fairy tale, has to go through a series of tests first in order to marry the princess.  Unlike some stories - Three Perfect Peaches comes to mind - the king is completely willing for this to happen, as long as Zar completes the tasks.

As with all fairy tales, being good to others pays off, and having six friends who can change themselves into a cool things like an axe, a tree, a fire, an elephant, a snake, and a hive of bees helps Zar immensely.  One good turn deserves another is at least one moral of this tale.

The other moral is more subtle, but may be the coolest part of the story (after the ginger, of course).  "There's just one thing about the whole story which I don't understand," said the king's steward, who was sitting next to Agus.  "Each of you six have something he could do best.  It seems to me that it was you who passed the tests, not Zar.  What did he do?"

Again, good question - the eight year old mind hard at work.  "Agus smiled an elephant smile, his small eyes twinkling.  "He did what only a good king can do," he replied.  "He led us."

I wish I knew where Jay Williams took his inspiration for this story.  There is a similiar story "Long, Broad and Sharpsight" which Andrew Lang collected in his Grey Fairy Book; it's apparently Bohemian or Slovakian.  There is also the seven or ten Chinese brothers - and apparently many, many variations.

The King with Six FriendsThe King with Six Friends by Jay Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first book I can remember reading to myself, all by myself.  Re-reading it today as a adult, it's still a fantastic story, fairy tale/folklore with really subtle fantasy elements (like the names of the characters).  As a ginger, Kindle the red-headed character who can turn himself into fire and has freckles that sparkle (like embers, I supposed) was and still is my favorite.   The watercolor illustrations are perfectly soft, deep, muted.  The world in which King Zar and his six friends inhabit, illustrated by Imero Gobbato, is one of my dreams.  I'd move there in a heartbeat - as long as I too can turn myself into something incredibly cool and useful.  King Zar, by the way, looks a little bit like a very cute hipster.

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  1. One of my favorite books as well. Do you know, I think I found a real town that reminds me of Zar's kingdom? It's called Rocamadour, in France. I've never been, but I hope to visit someday and see for myself!

    1. I just looked it up - so cool! Thanks for reading my blog! Are you on Goodreads too?

    2. I just looked it up - so cool! Thanks for reading my blog! Are you on Goodreads too?


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