The saga of three motherless monkeys who search for their father through a series of nightmarish and wondrous landscapes and events.
For the Writer
Time dusted and largely forgotten on the margins of modern literary convention, The Three Royal Monkeys by Walter de la Mare holds treasure for any writer seeking to renew the foundations of his craft, particularly in the genre of Children’s Fantasy.
Not long navigating the river of this book, this reviewer was revelling in a quest richly drawn, perfectly cast, and masterly plotted. By the stories end I loved the three Mullar-Mulgars and read slower to linger by their sides a little longer. Initiated as a brother to Thimble, Thumb and Nod, I could never let them go—will never let them go.
So what is on offer for the scribe?
Incredible explicit details, a tumbling plot, an authentic provenance of classic fairytales exemplified in longing for a thing greater than ourselves, converge in a fantasy world so believable I wondered if monkeys could dress themselves, sing songs and gab over breakfast.
With a wide palate for created vocabulary, WDLM peppered and spiced his novel with the like below. It really is in the details.
Seelem taught his sons how to make fire, what nuts and roots and fruitsand grasses were wholesome for eating; what herbs and bark and pith forphysic; what reeds and barks for cloth. He taught them how to take honey without being stung; how to count; how to find their way by the chief and brightest among the stars; to cut cudgels, to build leaf-huts and huddles against heat or rain. He taught them, too, the common tongue of the Forest-monkeys–that is the language of nearly all the Mulgars thatlive in the forests of Munza–Jacquet-mulgars, Mullabruks, purple-faced and saffron-headed Mulgars, Skeetoes, tuft-waving Manquabees, Fly-catchers and Squirrel-tails, and many more than I can mention. Seelem taught them also a little of the languages of the dreaded Gunga-mulgars, of the Collobs, and the Babbabōōmas. But the Minimul-mulgars’ and the Oomgars’ or man-monkeys’ languages (white, black, or yellow) he could not teach, because he did not know them. When, however, they were alone together they spoke the secret language of the Mulla-mulgars dwelling north of the Arakkaboas–that is, Mulgar-royal. This language in some ways resembles that of the Portugalls, in some that of the Oggewibbies, and, here and there–but in very little–Garniereze. Seelem, of course, taught his sons, and especially Thumb, many other things besides–more, certainly, than would contain itself in a little book like this. But, above all, he taught them to walk upright, never to taste blood, and never, unless in danger or despair, to climb trees or to grow a tail. [Ch. 1]
The inventive frenzy of new vocabulary abates as one embarks on the quest with the three mulgar brothers; nevertheless, everything they encounter along their journey, from a gnat to a mountain, has a name, perhaps a history, and plays some contributing role to the monkey’s pilgrimage. Though a little overwhelming in the first chapters, TTRM is a fine example of a fully realized world. (I read somewhere that a smattering of an invented language, depending on the length and breadth of the book, can do the trick. It is not necessary to conduct long conversations in the invented language, for instance, but an interjection or two may do.)
Every chapter brings a new adventure, often leading our travellers into a seemingly inescapable trap, threatening to end their pilgrimage in search of the great Tishnar, nudging our pilgrims closer and closer to desolation. Yes. The plot sucks you in, inexorably. It’s one of those just-one-more-chapter-before-I-set-it-down books. The every-adventure-per-chapter technique is a tried and true recipe in quest classics—major or minor. Think of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, the Alice books, JRR Tolkien’s work, T.M. Wallace’s Under a Fairy Moon, A Wrinkle in Time, or Edward Tulane’s odyssey narrated by Kate Di Camillo, or even the shorter Bremen Town Musicians. For every chapter the reader snaps in a breath and takes the dive, knowing she will not resurface untouched.
There is another very important aspect to writing children’s literature which begs discussion. It’s an underlying theme in The Three Mullar-Mulgars and touches upon the legacy of fantasy stories for children—a component which is a kind of crucible for separating gold from dross. C.S. Lewis touches on the subject in the collection of essays Only Connect.
The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease. [P. 213 Only Connect: On Three Ways of Writing for Children by C.s. Lewis]
Longing. The vein of gold coursing the great fantasies, that which distinguishes a work as a cheap knock off against a diamond forged under the strains of earth and heaven. The Three Mullar-Mulgars is the latter rather than the former. What begins as a search for their patriarch and father Seleem, evolves (how the word ought to be used) into a pilgrimage shaping our protagonists into epic heroes. I have read some children’s work, one or two noted on this site, which devolve, a pilgrim’s regress rather than progress. The stories are hurled at their readership as thinly veiled attacks, perhaps deservedly so (Christian denominations seem to catch a disproportionate amount of flak), or succumb to a ravenous popular culture, stories milky rather than mythic. One will sour and curdle, the other ferments into wine. Who says kids shouldn’t sip at a great vintage?
Walter de La Mare had so persuaded this reader of his world I found myself looking up words [Their source was as you have already guessed, The Three Mullar-Mulgars!], wondering if there were a breed of monkey which could do such things, and pondering the miracle of spiritual life which courses through every living thing.
Beware of over zealous bloggers and publishers urging their writers to write to the market. The editor who discovered the author of the boy with the scarred forehead once said, following an open submission at her new publishing house, that far too many of the ms. were alike, offering similar characters and themes. She was aghast. She would have liked to retract some of her former advice urging ms. submitters to write what the market demands. Want to read something original? Want a lesson in providing the sort of detail that creates an authentic world? Do you want to follow three Mular-mulgars on a quest, which, despite the formidable obstacles, allows no turning back? If one writes Children’s Fantasy he must eventually apprentice under the pen of Walter de la Mare.