The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt is a classic children’s book, published originally in 1962 in Dragt’s own Dutch language. It won many awards at the time of publication, but has only recently been published here in the UK by Pushkin Press.
The glowing reviews both in print and online had me leaping at the chance to read this, and I was in a fever of anticipation when I finally got to crack the spine last week.
Sadly, for me, it hasn’t lived up to my expectations and I found myself flagging about half way through this epic, 500 page novel. I found myself wondering if I was struggling, how many children I know would be patient enough to sit through five hundred pages too.
This reads to me like the sort of novel adults wish children would read. It is the sort of book middle class parents buy their children as Christmas gifts in the hope that it will steer them away from things like Dirty Bertie and Jacqueline Wilson.
It is wholesome. It is improving. It is an adventure story, but there is very little violence, no swearing and no tattoos. There are quite a lot of allusions to Tiuri’s faith in God and his hardships are actually not very hard at all. Quite a lot of the time you got the feeling that Tiuri was a bit of a namby pamby, and that he would never make a decent knight if he didn’t stop whinging on about stuff all the time and get on with things.
The book takes us back to the days of chivalry and honour. It is a world of King Arthur (or his Dutch equivalent), and the knights of old. If you’ve ever had to read La Morte D’Arthur or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, you will know exactly what to expect here. It is pretty much every grail quest you’ve ever read, and if that’s what floats your boat you will love it.
It is full of honour, and duty and codes of conduct. Everyone is terribly polite. Even the baddies smile and pretend to be nice. The baddies never sneak up on the goodies and kick them while they’re down, with the single exception of the action that sets off the entire adventure. The rest of the time they all tiptoe round each other, ‘after you.’ ‘No. After you.’ The most evil baddie of all, called Slither, gets cross at Tiuri for daring the spend the night sleeping in a farm house with a farmer who has a dog. He tells him that if Tiuri had only spent the night in the barn, and there hadn’t been a dog there, he would definitely have killed him. Hardly a stone cold killer then, Slither?
I have read reviews which compare this to Tolkien without the monsters or Game of Thrones without the sex and violence.
But what is the point of that? Basically this leaves us with the story of a boy on a horse who runs backwards and forwards politely trying to finish a quest and hoping that nobody gets too badly hurt.
I exaggerate slightly, but you get the picture. Yes there are fights, but they are few and far between. Yes there are adventures, but compared with what children see and read and expect these days they are very tame indeed.
Our hero, Tiuri, is interrupted on his final night’s vigil before he is due to become a Knight. A stranger collars him and exhorts him to take a message for him to a knight in distress. It is never clear why this stranger picks Tiuri, but he does. On arriving at his destination, Tiuri finds that things are complicated by the death of the knight in distress. He is forced to continue on with his quest into strange lands to honour the promise he made to the stranger.
On the way Tiuri meets with all sorts of people who wish him ill, and many people who wish him well. He tries to abide by the chivalric code at all times and spends a lot of time anguished and torn about not being able to speak straight to anyone. It drove me crazy.
This is the first of two books, the other, presumably telling Tiuri’s further adventures with more knights.
I won’t be reading it.
If you have a knight obsessed child with a high reading age and no real interest in much in the way of a plot and a really limited sense of what constitutes an adventure, this is the book for you. It is a book for boys, with very few female characters, and the few that there are limited to the most decorative and/or useless of roles. It mainly consists of a boy straggling through the countryside trying not to get killed so he can deliver a letter to the king. The language precludes younger children readers, although the subject matter is ideal for them, which leaves me with the uncomfortable dilemma of feeling that there really isn’t anyone I can recommend it as suitable for.