Eden Phillipotts's quote, "The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper," opens Katherine and John Paterson's "freely abridged" version of her children's book, The Flint Heart, first published in 1910. Katherine Paterson, Newbery Award winner for Bridge to Terebithia and Jacob, I Have Loved and Honor Winner for The Great Gilly Hopkins, as well as being the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, while not the first person I think of when I think fantasy, has, along with her husband John, done a masterful, completely entertaining remastering of this Victorian faerie-tale, warmly and gorgeously illustrated in a fitting fashion by John Rocco.
To a degree, The Flint Heart is similar to Alice in Wonderland, with a talking, thinking hot water bottle from Germany who comes to be named Bismarck, a grand and just a tiny bit absurd court of pixies and talking animals. There is also a healthy dollop of British history and culture thrown in, including one of my favorite passages when our hero, Charles, meets the court poet for the pixies, a fellow who goes by the chosen name of De Quincey, after the great British writer Thomas De Quincy, naturally. When Charles reveals his name to the poet he asks,
"Any relation to the great Charles?"
"D'you mean King Charles?"
"No," said the pixie, "I do not. I mean Charles Dickens. For practical purposes, in the history of England there is only one Charles."
There is another funny exchange when Shakespeare is brought up, and a few others down the road that will probably be lost on listeners but also make for a great "teaching moment" for the grown-up reading this book out loud, and I do strongly recommend it as a read-aloud. The tone flows easily back and forth between absurd, silly, suspenseful and magical.
The flint heart of the title is described from inception, which occurred in some five thousand years ago in the South of England, now known as Dartmoor. A tribesman with ideas of grandeur commissions the tribe's mystery man to make a flint totem that will make him all powerful. Knowing that this is impossible without the presence of the Thunder Spirit, which is very rare, and wanting to deter Phuttphutt (for that is the name of the tribesman) from trying to depose Chief Brokotokotick (for that is the name of the Chief) from his post, Fum (for that is the name of the mystery man) agrees. See? This book is so playfully infectious I can't help but write my review in the same tone... Of course, by some fluke of nature, all things come together and the Flint Heart is created, making the owner all-powerful and profoundly hard-hearted. Phuttphutt succeeds and takes over the throne, subjecting the tribe to increasing hardships under his cruel and brutal rule until the day he dies and the Flint Heart is buried with him. Some five thousand years later, that totem is uncovered by Charles' once jovial and loving father and life for this large, warm family changes drastically.
Charles and his little sister Unity become the elected siblings to tackle the terrible problem of their brutish father one night during a meeting in the wood house. The children decide that they must give their father a present that will change his heart and Unity suggests that Charles ask the pixies what the best present would be in this situation. Along with their sheepdog, Ship, the two begin and adventure in the woods that leads them to a Fairy Banquet and an audience with the great Zagabog, as well as his Agent-in-Advance, the Snick, during which the Zagabog tells a fascinating story about point of view and turns the tables on the old classic, "The Tortoise and the Hare" in a most enjoyable way.. There are many words and terms that have an old English feel to them and may see a bit beyond grasp of comprehending, but, as you read on the music of the story blends these oddities into the tale and all is either explained outright or makes sense in the end. This is the case with the Marsh Galloper, Jacky Toad, who, while in possession of the Flint Heart half way into the story, decides that he wants to abolish the veto and mount a rebellion against Fairyland. It is admitted by all that no one truly knows what "abolish the veto" actually means.
The Flint Heart, successfully nicked from Charles and Unity's father, is foolishly flung into the bog by Charles. It first is found by the Marsh Galloper and the aid of the Zagabog is enlisted again. The children follow his written instructions which include a human boy, a human girl and a hot water bottle made in Germany. He goes on to say, "When found, leave the rest to them." Confounded by the mysterious instructions and almost without hope, the stumble across a talking water bottle who has been cast aside after being damaged. When the Marsh Galloper is rehabilitated, he dearly wishes to return to his position of Together, and in yet another great story, they capture the Flint Heart a second time, only to discard it foolishly again. This time, the Badger comes across it and Charles must be called upon again. Finally, in the last pages of the story, the Flint Heart is retrieved and, in a grand predawn ceremony that involves humans, animals and pixies alike, the Flint Heart is destroyed once and for all, and, the reason why Dartmoor is so, "stinging and bracing and puts such life into you - why it makes you feel so hungry and jolly" is explained for all.
It is so nice to know that books of this nature - this fairy tale, absurdist, purely for children nature - are still being written or re-written today. Sometimes the weight of what we try to layer into contemporary books for children is just too much and silliness and playfulness (for silliness and playfulness' sake) needs to be imbued into these novels. There don't need to be any grand messages, any nods to the trying times that we live in, the new kinds of configurations our families are taking, the different paths our lives are going down. Sometimes a book just needs to be fun, and that is exactly what Katherine and John Paterson's freely abridged version of The Flint Heart is.
For more books of this nature, I suggest you read Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer's masterpiece, which is just now celebrating a 50th birthday, The Phantom Tollbooth, a childhood favorite of mine. And, of course, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I also recommend:
Johnathan Auxier's Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes and Catherynne M Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.