My thanks to NetGalley and Steerforth Press/Pushkin Press for a digital review copy of this book.
This is an English translation of a Hungarian classic children’s tale, first published in 1981 and now being printed by Pushkin Press. The translator is Anna Bentley and the book has been illustrated by Jacueline Molnár.
King Tirunt lives in a palace by a round lake, a palace with thirty-six towers and three hundred windows. He is a just ruler, punishing only those who deserve it, and taking precautions (very great ones) against giving orders when he is in a temper, that is to say, he ensures they aren’t followed and locks himself in his throne room while he is in a temper. With him lives his daughter Arnica, a very special princess, “so sweet and gentle that when she smile[s], wolves and bears forget their fierceness”. King Tirunt wishes that Arnica would marry the person she loves and does not mind who he is or where he is from. Into their lives comes just such a person, Poor Johnny. Poor Johnny has nothing except the clothes on his back and is “footloose and fancy-free”—not only that, he wants nothing either which means that the Witch of a Hundred Faces fails to entrap him (she must enslave a new person every seven years to retain her magical powers), despite the untold wealth and riches she offers. Making his escape (she does pursue him with magic, when he simply walks away) Johnny meets Arnica and they fall in love. But the King wants to be sure before he gives his consent, and makes them wait six months. When this period is up and they are awaiting Johnny’s arrival, the witch acts, casting a spell, as a result of which it turns out that at any given time, either Arnica or Johnny must be a duck. Now they much find a way out, and they don’t mind whether both are ducks or humans but they want to be the same thing at the same time. So off they set to seek the Seven-headed Fairy, the only one who can free them of the curse. Along the way, they meet various people, each with their own oddities, and problems, and change their lives as they move on.
The story is told in third person, and off and on, there is also some dialogue between the narrator and the person he is telling the story to. This gives it the feel of a traditional storytelling style.
I found this to be a really pleasant and cute read. This is a fairly short (just 96 pages) book and a great deal of fun. Being a children’s classic, there are hidden messages of course, but it isn’t preachy or forced down your throat. All of the people they encounter, in fact, find that the solution to their problems lies within themselves, just a change of attitude or approach is called for. And that is what the book tries to tell its readers. Also, the story/stories are told in an amusing way, some episodes more than others, like the Witch’s frustration when Johnny fails to be lured by treasure or the story of Tig-Tag the robber, which was very good fun. I also liked that despite the various little troubles Arnica and Johnny fall into on their adventure, there is no melodrama or exaggeration. Arnica and Johnny are very likeable; Johnny, in fact, reminded me a little of a Grimm’s character in the story ‘Hans in Luck’ where too, the ‘hero’ attaches little to material possessions.
The book has some really colourful illustrations. These reminded me (the style) somewhat of the illustrations for Dunno (by Boris Kalushin) though the ones in these book aren’t as delicate. I loved the colours, also the patterns used, the animals, flowers, trees, etc. but while I didn’t much care for the human beings (illustrations) in the book at the start (they felt a little clumpy), even these kind of grew on me as I read on. (See cover above)
A charming and cute read.
Have you read this book or do you plan to? If you have, how did you like it? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!