The Letter for the King

A few months ago, my dear friend Tanya Arnold asked me to consider reading and reviewing The Song of Seven by Tonke Dragt. We have very similar tastes in books, and she was delighting in the intelligent quirkiness of it. I started it and genuinely enjoyed it. I have some reading promises to fulfill first, so I had to set it aside for now. That said, I had space in my audiobook queue, so I purchased three Tonke Dragt books. I read and loved Letter for the King as well as The Secrets of the Wild Wood. Along the way, I discovered that these two books had been turned into a Netflix mini-series. I turned off Netflix around the time of Anne-With-An-E (you can read about my objections to that here), so I didn’t know anything about the Netflix adaptation of Letter for the King. I have not watched it and cannot comment on it. That said, what I have seen in this trailer bears no meaningful resemblance to the book I will review below. 

The Letter for the King

The book, Letter For the King, is a marvelous story of adventure and intrigue ideal for middle and high school readers. Set in a land of knights, hermits, friars, and kings, a young squire, on the eve of his knighting, risks everything to respond to a plea for help that cannot be ignored. Originally published in 1962, and told in classic fairytale style, Dutch author Tonke Dragt gives us an elegant and exciting story consistent with children’s stories of that time. I loved all 506 pages, and am surprised that it took over fifty years for it to be translated into English. 

When the story opens, our young squire, Tiuri, is keeping vigil on the eve of his knighting. A condition of the vigil is that the squires are sequestered in the chapel and must remain kneeling before the altar until sunrise. During their vigil, they are supposed to contemplate the life of service they seek to undertake, shall speak to no one, and are forbidden to fall asleep. Other knights warned Tiuri and his friends that on their vigils they had been tested by knocks on the door and pleas for help. So, when there is a frantic knock on the door, Tiuri assumes they are being tested. When the squires ignore the presumed test, the intensity of the knocking increases. After a brief pause, the knocker moves to a window of the church and begins to emphatically beg someone, in the name of God, to open the door. Something in that plea causes Tiuri to surrender his vigil and respond to the request. 

Fully aware that speaking to anyone will make his vigil forfeit, Tiuri tells the stranger to go away because he is bound to stay where he is and can not help. The stranger explains, “A knight must help when his assistance is requested, must he not? Come outside, and I shall explain what I need you to do. Hurry, hurry, for there’s little time!” And with that, the adventures of Tiuri and the letter for the king begins. 

The stranger has an urgent and secret letter for the king of the neighboring kingdom of Unauwen over the Great Mountains. He is being pursued by enemies and needs this letter delivered safely into the hands of the Black Knight with the White Shield at the Yikarvara Inn in the Royal Forest. He promises Tiuri that he will be able to find the knight and return before dawn, and that he will have served his own kingdom of Dagonaut well into the bargain. But, when Tiuri finds the knight in the forest, he has been mortally wounded and is nearly dead. This good knight tasks Tiuri with fulfilling his quest for him. And so, giving his word to the dying knight, Tiuri realizes he has no choice but to make the trek to Unauwen and deliver this letter. And, because this is a fairy tale, the way to Unauwen is fraught with danger and adventure. 

Diane and I talk regularly about how tired we are of modern fairy tales. These days, many aspiring authors seem to think it necessary to take beloved old stories and spin them anew with modern values. Mercifully this is not that. This is a beautiful tale told in the style of a classic fairytale. This book is also almost sixty-five years old. Any “modernizing” that was done is far from what we would think of as current today. 

The tale builds slowly, carefully, and with real art. The story opens in the nighttime hours. As Tiuri moves through the darkness towards the BLACK knight with a WHITE shield, we get the sense that the colors and the dawning of light are significant. As the story progresses, we meet Grey Knights, who are good men with a dark mission. When Tiuri goes over the mountains, he is close to the sky, where it is bright and light. Here, the story is much more hopeful. Even when things are rather desperate on the other side of the mountains, there is a lightness to the story because Tiuri is more sure of himself, his purpose and his resolve to accept what comes. 

Interestingly, one day I was listening to this story during household chores. A short while later, I recorded my review of The Princess and the Goblin. As I was reading into the microphone, I heard myself talking about Irene’s innocent belief. She sees the grandmother as she is. But I, as an adult with nearly half a century of life, was waiting for MacDonald to trick us with the grandmother. I was waiting for her to turn into an evil witch, or for MacDonald to use her for some other “gotcha” moment. But, in fairy tales, beautiful old grandmothers are more often fairy godmothers than bewitching old hags. I had the same sensation during this book. Throughout my reading, I was waiting for the Black Knight with the White Shield to be an evil prince who was sending Tiuri on a vile quest. Or, I was fully expecting the kindly friars at the Abbey to be some kind of anti-heroes. There were many times when Tiuri’s faith in the goodness of people was amply rewarded. And as I read with growing relief, I realized that our kids need stories like this. Our kids need to feast on stories where the heroes are heroic, and the evil is naked and blatant. Our kids need more stories like The Princess and the Goblin. And, while this is for an older crowd, this is one that is like that. 

The Secrets of the Wild Wood

I truly enjoyed The Secrets of the Wild Wood, and considered it an excellent “second half” of the story. Everything I loved about the first book is present in the second. It does, however, have a slightly different flavor and a few things worth noting. 

Both books are hero tales. While they are like The Ranger’s Apprentice, they are richer and more complex. They are also like The Chronicles of Prydain but less fantasy-like. They have an almost Arthurian feel but, again, not really magical. They also remind me a little of The Thief books, but they are not snarky or brooding. The Secrets of the Wild Wood is like the first, but also decidedly like Ivanhoe, and specifically like Sir Walter Scott’s rendering of Robin Hood in Ivanhoe

In this mysterious and exciting tale, Tiuri is joined by his best friend and the “fool” (who reminds me of Wamba from Ivanhoe) as they go into the Wild Wood to try to find Tiuri’s mentor who has gone missing. In the Wild Wood, they uncover a secret plot by the king’s disenfranchised second son to invade the kingdom. Just as in the first book, Tiuri and his friends have an important but age-appropriate part to play in a large drama that spans three kingdoms. Unlike the first book, this one has more emphasis on the knights and other important adults. It also includes an entire hidden forest kingdom with its own people and moral code. It is a marvelous story, and keeps the reader in delightful suspense throughout.

Like the first book, this one reads a bit like a fairytale. But this one is darker, and the magic is a little more center stage; specifically, the suggestion of darker magic. In one scene, one of our young heroes has been running from the enemy, and he reaches an enchanted stone. It is rumored that anyone who reaches the stone (which isn’t easy to do) will then, while touching the stone, have the power to command a curse on his enemy. When our hero calls out a curse on the evil knights chasing him, he is able to evade them. We never know for sure what happens to those knights, but our hero realizes almost instantly that he will pay a dear price for participating in the dark magic. He is already exhausted and hungry, and now the magic seems to further burden him. He runs and wanders in what is or becomes a feverish state. Just as he is slipping off into delirium, he wonders if he has brought this curse onto himself through the stone. The good news is that he is found by someone who becomes an ally, and he is nursed back to health.

As I mentioned above, this book features more interaction between the adult characters. One of our favorite knights discovers a tavern drunk who is much more perceptive than others realize. This character is a bit like one of Shakespeare’s fools. He sees what others do not see. And perhaps part of why he wastes his time away in taverns is because nobody takes him seriously. But he recognizes our knight who is trying to travel incognito. Our hero cannot be discovered by the pursuing enemy. So the knight presses the fool into service making him his squire, and the two of them develop a friendship. Albeit, one of the Shakespearean variety where the master harasses the servant because the servant is a coward and is lazy, but ultimately has a good heart and is loyal in the end. In several cases our good knight chastises the drunk about his bad habits (drinking included), and in the end all is more or less made right. 

Finally, there is some light and lovely romance in this story. Young heroes who rightly fall in love, old heroes who find unexpected love, and a Galadriel-like widow who stirs up the noblest of affection in our young friends. There is one set of scenes early on which had me worried as one of the ladies seemed to bewitch Tiuri. It is unclear as to whether or not there was an enchantment involved, but all is set to right in the end. 

Note: I DO recommend getting both the printed book and the audio. The names in these stories are tricky to pronounce. The audio is exceptional and helpful. The printed books have an incredibly helpful and beautiful map in the front.