Book review: The Book of Wonder

Damnit, the kid wants a bedtime story again before she goes to sleep.
This would ordinarily be fine, mind you, if the brat had let you read a proper book, like one of Jules Verne’s adventures, or a classic by Dumas, or Feynman’s Lectures on Physics: Volume I. But no, we can’t have nice things like that; she wants a fairy tale, and at this point, you are quite sick of your options. How much more of the basic morals and contrived happy endings of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs can you take? Their simple language is boring; their repetitiveness is annoying; and their portrayal of the happily-ever-after world is distorted at best and utterly misleading at worst. Both you and your daughter deserve better, and you know it. She also knows it, but, being four, can’t quite tap into that knowledge. It’s time for change.


The Book of Wonder is that change. This is a book of fairy tales in *expert-mode*.
First, the language. Both you and your child will enrich your vocabularies as you dive into a remarkably unique and antiquated-yet-understood style. A sense of grandness will slowly overcome you, and in the end, you will refuse to imagine that things could be otherwise. The tales are not so much told as they are painted; indeed, many other online reviews complain that the plot is lacking in many of the stories. But this is because they are not really stories; they are paintings, illustrations drawn with the finest literary stroke and colour. Stepping in one level of meta, I would dare call them “tone poems”, though the term itself describes music which describes a text or image.
Second, the omens. It’s time to tear apart the happily-ever-after setting, and see life as it is: enchanting, tantalizing, even seductive, but ultimately bleak, sober, and depressing. Dunsany’s tales tell true what happens when men and gods are greedy and vain; and even when they chance to be virtuous, the circumstances of fate conspire against them and their quests end in misery and failure. In their own morbid and heart-pinching way, each story is more dispiriting than the other. The main characters embark on futile quests for what they perceive as glory, only to meet a perilous doom that no force on Earth could change. Once and again they proudly step up, and once and again they fall into the dark abyss. And when some hero finally does succeed, conquering all other challenges, he soon discovers that satisfaction is but a fleeting whisper – and given a glimpse at happiness, is there greater a woe than seeing it slip through your own fingers?
Third, the myth. The stories are mere snapshots of the world, each depicting a scant few images. There is only so much they can tell about the the culture, the lore, the geography of this majestic land. The book is therefore a tough exercise in imagination, for there are many more allusions than descriptions, and it is up to you to fill in the missing details. Can you picture the Athraminaurian mountain range overlooking the surrounding planes? What noble events happened at the city of Bombasharna? What had later become of Sylvia, Queen of the Woods after dismissing her suitors? All these are left untold, slivers of history that demand the attention of your own imagination; and in the end, both you and your kid will ponder upon these things, kingdoms fantastically rising and falling in your little heads, filling you up with Wonder.

The book is available online (alas, without the wonderful illustrations, though they can be Googled) at project Gutenberg:
My personal favorites: “How Nuth would have practised his art upon the gnoles” and “Chu-Bu and Sheemish”.

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