High Adventure – The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

Yesterday, my wife and I celebrated Fake Christmas. This is because on Real Christmas, we’ll be in Canada, and we don’t wish to haul our presents across the Atlantic and back. So we exchanged them early. Also, she cooked a chicken named George, and it was excellent!

As usual, my presents included a bit of High Adventure, in the form of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt and The Fall of Arthur by J R R Tolkien. I have been reading The Letter for the King in earnest and am now about halfway through it.

I recommend this book to you wholeheartedly so far. I imagine I will do so after the second half is through. It is a Dutch children’s classic from 1962, first translated into English in 2013. I am amazed we Anglophone readers have gone so long without this book — a tale not only, as I say, of High Adventure but also of chivalry and knights and castles and, save for pirates, everything I loved most as a kid.

And maybe pirates will turn up in the second half! (Unlikely.)

The Letter for the King is the kind of fantasy we need more of these days, I think. It is the tale of young Tiuri who, on the eve of his knighting, is caught up in mysterious doings and charged with the delivery of a sealed letter to King Unauwen, the noble and just king of the neighbouring kingdom (this is, I believe, called a MacGuffin). So off he goes.

Of course, he is on the far eastern edge of his home kingdom, and King Unauwen lives on the western side of his own kingdom. And there is a mountain range in the middle (fact: mountain ranges are more natural cultural, linguistic, and political barriers than rivers). So there is much adventuring to be had between home and Tiuri’s destination. Basically, your old-fashioned Quest narrative or journey motif. Along the way, various characters are met, some of whom are wicked, some of whom are good, some of whom just are.There’s even a hermit.

I like Quest narratives, frankly. When we were kids, we had 12 acres to wander about, so my siblings and I naturally crafted wooden swords and shields and marauded throughout them on various Quests against the forces of evil. Reading this book, then, is like rediscovering 10-year-old Matthew.

One of the themes running throughout this book is the chivalric ideal — a knight isn’t just a wealthy warrior with a horse and a sword. He is a man who is trained in the just treatment of those he meets, whether friend or foe. He is to seek to uphold the good and protect the vulnerable, to do literal battle with evil men. He is to be courageous and merciful, sagacious and pious, skilled on a horse and quick with a sword.

Obviously, not every knight can aspire to this — else there would be no villains!

But the idea, the ideal, is worth holding forth.

Even if the human manifestation of such ideals of righteousness is never fully realised in this life, the cynical rejection of them and creation of worlds where every single person, action, and ideal is grey shading to black is a cancer that can eat away at the soul. There is right, even if we’re not always sure if we’ve achieved it.

Stories like these mediaeval-style tales of High Adventure remind us of this.

Also, this one in particular happens to be rollicking good fun. Even without pirates.

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