A story about stories and fairy tales by a famous author with great illustrations (by Brian Froud)? Yes, please. Are All the Giants Dead? by Mary Norton (famous for Bed-Knob and Broomstick and The Borrowers) was originally published in the UK in 1975 but brought to the US in 1997. I picked up a paperback version at a local library sale for like a dollar. I think the kids calls this “winning.”
Familiar with Norton’s other books but not this volume, I was intrigued from the start:
One night, when he should be safe in bed, young James is whisked away by his friend Mildred to the fairy tale land of Happily Ever After. There Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are middle-aged gossips; Bell’s husband, the Beast, spends his days hunting dragon and unicorn; And Jack-the-Giant-Killer and Jack-of-the-beanstalk while away their retirement telling yarns about slaying the last of the giants.
But the two Jack’s aren’t quite telling the truth: one fierce man-eating giant still lives. And to spare his friend Princess Dulcibel from have to marry an enchanted toad, James must steal something from the dreaded giant’s bone-strewn lair, a place where even the veteran giant-killers fear to tread.
Sucked in by this back of the book blurb, I decided to read it right away not really knowing what to expect. It turned out to be a clever, if simple, story about courage and belief; and about fairy and folk tales. In classic fairy tale form James faces his fears and saves the princess – just not in exactly the way he might have imagined.
A few of the things I liked about the story:
I like the way Norton just drops you in the story without a lot of back-story or introduction. Throughout the story the writing gives you a sense that this is just one of many adventure James and Mildred have had together and that there is a lot more to this world than this one story. This gives the world and the characters some depth and adds a sense of mystery.
There is also a laid back sense about the story – it has a rather old fashioned style. It is not constant action or fast paced adventure. Instead, there is a sense of exploration – the ability to imagine and experience a magical world – but also a sense of danger lurking of the path.
But the story is told from James’s perspective and so we see him trying to make sense of this world and at the same time finding his limits and talents. When confronted with a friend who needs help he instinctively sets out to help her even if it means confronting a witch. And despite worries about being alone, he decided to stay with the two Jack’s rather than the safety of Mildred. And he gently guides Dulcibel along in their quest. He confidently climbs the crevice and when the rains force a change of plans he wisely avoids trying to climb back down.
In the end, James works up the courage to ask Dulcibel to face her fears and agree to marry the toad (using the talisman as protection). James believes this is what is best for his friend. But, as is so often the case in fairy tales, it does work out for good but not in the way James expected.
It really is a simple tale but one where you enjoy the journey as much as the destination. The allusions to fairy tales, the way the characters interact, the descriptions of the magical world and the language its inhabitants use, and of course the great illustrations all make this short story enjoyable.
A classic I am very happy to have stumbled upon.