I first heard about The Letter for the King when I happened to watch bits of the film version (Dutch with subtitles) on TV some time ago, and when I noticed the book on NetGalley, of course I couldn’t resist putting in a request. My thanks to Pushkin Children’s Books and NetGalley for a review copy of this title. This was written by Dragt in 1962 and the translation I read is by Laura Wilkinson, published by Pushkin Children’s Books which according to the blurb at the back of the book brings out children’s books old and new, from different languages and cultures.
This was a lot like the book I last read (Band of Soldiers―teen heroes in times past, thrown into adventure and danger) but still a very different story, and of course in a very different place. Of course, this was part of my theme reads this month, the Kings here being the fictional kings of Dragonaut and Unauwen. Sixteen-year-old Tiuri with five other, slightly ‘older’ young men are about to be knighted by their King, the King of Dragonaut. The rules of the kingdom require that they spend the night before the ceremony locked up, in quiet contemplation, without food, water, or talk, and without letting anyone in or themselves out. But when a stranger knocks at the window seeking help, Tiuri breaks these rules not only opening the window but going out to the stranger’s aid. At first his task seems simple, to deliver a letter of importance to the stranger’s master, the Black Knight with the White shield, which Tiuri thinks he can complete and be back before the ceremony, though there will be some explaining to do. But when he finds the Black Knight with the White shield has been tricked and murdered, and the Knight, before dying hands over his task to Tiuri to complete, he realises what he must do will neither be quick nor simple. He must travel all the way to the kingdom of Unauwen to deliver the secret message to the King himself. Not only is the journey hard enough in itself, in pursuit of Tiuri are the Red Riders, responsible for murdering the Black Knight with the White shield, and also the Grey Knights who suspect Tiuri of the foul deed. Along the way, however, some misunderstandings clear up and he meets various people, in the forest and the cities he visits, who are more than willing to help him accomplish his task even if he can’t tell them what it is. But there are also dangers aplenty, and traps as many along the way, and Tiuri must avoid falling into these traps or being defeated (or indeed dissuaded) by the dangers if he wants to keep his word to the Knight and complete this task.
Image source: Pexels
At a little under 500 pages, this is not a short read but one which was very enjoyable for me. It may not feel as fast paced as one would expect from an adventure story but keeps one interested throughout, for while one might well know that Tiuri will accomplish his task at the end, one does want to know how he does it, and what each adventure he falls into along the way holds for him. Tiuri is a likeable character, believable as a young lad out on an adventure, doing what his heart tells him, yet regretting the Knighthood that he has lost and may never get again, and the same can be said about his friend Piak, who also finds himself at one point having to decide between two things he seems to want equally. While we may not face those very same questions, the kind of decisions they are faced with and must take, and the lessons they learn along the way are relevant for everyone in whatever age and situation. (In fact there is quite a bit of wisdom hidden in there―no not the preachy kind). ‘Villains’ seem to lurk around every corner to bring young Tiuri down but they too are not all of the same shade, as one will see, and some can surprise one. The menacing ‘main’ villain of the piece though is only one shade and very well done. Tiuri may not have been made a knight at the start of his adventure, but his courage, loyalty, and even tenacity show that he is one even if he doesn’t have the title. I enjoyed the world of knights and kings that this book took me into (and incidentally, now I finally properly understand what a Knight errant is―no I wasn’t entirely clear so far).
Image source: By Paul Mercuri [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This was also one of the few books I’ve read (there must have been others, though honestly I can’t think of one at the moment) where the return journey (though obviously shorter than the adventure itself) is given some space and doesn’t pass by in a blur. In it, old friends are met again, some explanations given, and some promise of ‘romance’ (like in the Band of Soldiers) is seen. I also liked the artwork, which decorates the pages between ‘parts’ of the book, very much. This is a combination of shadows/silhouettes and something like the spray feature on paintbrush (sorry again for my terrible terminology describing this) but I liked the effect the artist achieved―oh I just looked and the illustrations are by Dragt herself, something I hadn’t noticed at the beginning. Dragt, incidentally, as Wikipedia tells me, is considered “the greatest Dutch female writer for children”. I look forward to reading more of Dragt’s books and also exploring Pushkin’s other titles. Four and a half stars.