Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 6, 2010

The Wonderful Thurber

The White Deer, The 13 Clocks, The Wonderful O, James Thurber (1945, 1950, 1957)

Even though each was written to stand alone, I always think of these books as a trio and can’t read one without diving into the others. Hard-cover versions were in my father’s collection, but I don’t remember that he ever read them aloud to us.

I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know these books well. The first two are comic (sometimes slapstick) fantasies, with magical spells, quests and peril, and a character here and there not in total control of his supernatural powers. The third novel, a tale of pirates out for revenge, is a morality play about language and power, but memorable for its play on language.

In The White Deer, a king and his three sons hunt and corner a swift deer who magically turns into a princess, and the king’s three sons are sent on quests to win her hand. Meanwhile, the king, his ministers, and the princess herself begin to fear that she might be a mere village girl or, worse, just a deer.

The 13 Clocks introduces us to the Golux (“the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device”) and the Todal (“an agent of the devil, sent to punish evil-doers for having done less evil than they should”). Another princess in danger, another quest (only one prince this time, but with the Golux to help him), a woman who cries precious jewels, and an evil Duke who killed time (whose blood has stained his sleeve).

Pirates are the villains in The Wonderful O, threatening a town with their greed and cruelty. Unable to find the wealth they believe is hidden there, they ratchet up the terror, banning certain words (any containing the letter ‘O’), and then whatever the words refer to.

There was great consternation on the island now, for people could have pigs, but no hogs or pork or bacon; sheep, but no mutton or wool; calves, but no cows. Geese were safe as long as one of them did not stray from the rest and become a goose, and if one of a family of mice wandered from the nest, he became a mouse and lost his impunity.

It takes a devious lawyer to figure out how to rid the town of Os.

These can be read aloud in an evening, although The Wonderful O is a challenge. Try this exchange: “Where are yu ging?” whispered his anxious wife. “Ut!” the boatwright cried, and ut he went.

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