The second of my choices for December is a haunting children’s story about a mid-winter journey by English poet and novelist, Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” was published in 1910 and remains one of the best animal-based Fantasy novels ever written. The first edition, with illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop, is a stunningly beautiful book which now sells for equally stunning prices. You don’t really need illustrations because de la Mare’s word-pictures are so vivid, so you could download the original text for free from Internet Archive or go for a cheap ebook. In 1935 the novel was reissued, with new illustrations by Mildred E.Eldridge, under the title of “The Three Royal Monkeys”. Copies of this edition are much easier to find, especially after it came out as a Puffin Paperback (1979) with a charming cover by Pauline Baynes. A story about monkeys set in a strange version of East Africa may not sound very Christmassy but most of the action takes place in frosty forests and snowy mountains.
By the edge of the Forest of Munza a lonely Fruit Monkey called Mutta-matutta lived in a hut with the skeleton of a long dead explorer for company. One day she took in a sick traveller called Seelem, who claimed to be a Mulla-Mulgar (a royal monkey), and nursed him back to health. Seelem told her that he was own brother to the Prince of the Valleys of Tishnar but he’d left his idyllic home to explore the world beyond the mountains. He and Mutta-matutta lived together for thirteen years and had three sons – Thumb, Thimble and Nod. Then grim and broody Seelem began to long for his home and decided to go on the long return journey “through dangers thick as flies” to the Valleys of Tishnar. He promised to come back for Mutta-matutta and their sons but seven years passed without any sign of him.
Mutta-matutta sickened and when she heard the voice of the goddess Tishnar calling, she knew that she was dying. She told her sons to seek the country of their father and the palace of their royal uncle. Then Mutta-Mututta gave weapons and red jackets to stout Thumb and strong Thimble but their little brother received a sheep-skin coat and his father’s milky Wonderstone because Nod was marked as a “a Nizza-neela, and has magic in him.” She warns Nod never to lose, give away or even lend the Wonderstone to anyone because if he rubs it in times of danger, Tishnar will send help.
Even after their mother’s death, the brothers are reluctant to leave the safety of their home but that changes when Nod accidentally burns down the hut. The three monkey-princes enter the frosted forest. On this first stage of their epic journey they face greedy pigs, prowling leopards, speckled tree-spiders, a mighty bull-Ephelanto, a gigantic Gunga-Mulgar and the even more dangerous flesh-eating Minimuls. When Nod is separated from his brothers he is snared by a lone Oomgar (a man) whom he helps to protect against Immanala – the Wandering Shadow. Once the monkey-princes are reunited they face even greater challenges as they try to cross the Peak of Tishnar with the aid of the agile monkeys known as the Men of the Mountains. Perils and enchantments lie ahead. Even with the help of the Wonderstone, can Nod and his brothers ever reach the fabled Valleys of Tishnar and be reunited with their father?
Walter de la Mare is now best remembered for volumes of poetry such as “Songs of Childhood” and “Peacock Pie” which capture the imaginative worlds of children. His most famous poem “The Listeners” (“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller, Knocking on the moonlit door…) can, like most of his work, be summed up by two words – magical and eerie. As a young reader I was quite traumatized by some of the sinister imagery in “Songs of Childhood”, such as John Mouldy sitting in his cellar “Smiling there alone” while rats creep over him. Less well known are de la Mare’s ghost and horror stories and his quirky Fantasy novels for adults and children. Each of these novels is very different but for me “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his masterpiece. Richard Adams, author of “Watership Down”, has been quoted as saying that “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” is his favourite book and I think I can detect its influence on Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”.
I love the beauty and inventiveness of de la Mare’s language. His sentences shimmer and dance -“Away went the three travellers, bundle and cudgel, rags and sheep’s coat, helter-skelter, between the silver breaks of the trees, scampering faster than any Mulgar, Mulla, or Munza had ever run before.” Characters often break into lively verse, sometimes in invented animal-languages, and the text features many familiar words twisted into strangeness, such as Zevveras for zebras or Babbabooma for Baboon (be warned that in one case de la Mare adapted a word which is no longer acceptable). The book is full of lovingly described animals, birds and plants. Some are real species; others are imaginary. Among my favourites are the birds who talk with tree-spirits “the tiny Telateuties, blood-red as lady-birds, that ran chittering up the trees” and the sad-faced, silken-haired Men of the Mountains who form living chains which look “like a long black-and-white caterpillar, clinging to the precipice with tiny tufts waving in the air.” Africa is used as a distant place which could contain anything that de la Mare wanted, including a wise Witch Hare and a dark-eyed, flaxen-haired water nymph.
The world of this novel is a frightening and melancholy one. The only human in the story, a lost English sailor who comes to like and respect Nod, is almost certainly doomed to die alone and a very long way from home. The various monkey tribes represent many of the vices and virtues of humanity. Some are cruel, greedy and violent; others are capable of kindness, courage and unselfishness. The three monkey-princes themselves are far from heroic. They try to follow their mother’s instructions never to taste blood, walk on all fours, or climb trees, but there are constant quarrels and mistakes. Thumb and Thimble are often proud and foolish and sweet friendly Nod is hopeless at keeping hold of the vital Wonderstone.
Yet Nod does have faith in Tishnar -who is not just a goddess but “that which cannot be thought in words, or told, or expressed.” In the most magical scene in the book, he uses the Wonderstone to allow the weary band of travellers to enjoy a heavenly feast in a scented meadow. This is a quest story which doesn’t have a conventional ending. Whether the brothers survive their journey over and under the mountains is a matter of interpretation and what they will find in the beautiful Valleys of Tishnar is mainly left to the individual reader’s imagination. I promised to recommend another “feelgood” novel before Christmas. “The Three Mulla-Mulgars” isn’t sentimental or cheery but it may make you feel braver and more hopeful about what Walter de la Mare called “the journey that has no end.” I wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a happy Holiday Season. Until next year…