John Ciardi and Edward Gorey – The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved (1965)
I can admit, without too much shame, that I’d never heard of John Ciardi before encountering this little book. Ciardi was a well-known poet and scholar (meaning I should have learned about him when I spent all those years studying poetry in grad school) with a sly sense of humor and more than fifty books in his bibliography. (I will certainly be reading more by him in the future.) Edward Gorey, however, is one of my heroes, but you probably already knew that. (I’ve reviewed The Gashlycrumb Tinies and Amphigorey by Gorey in previous RADB entries.) Gorey’s detailed, almost obsessively constructed illustrations and moody panache are exactly my kind of creepy, so when I saw that he’d illustrated THIS book, even though I’d never heard of the author, I knew, instantly, that I had to read it.
The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved was originally published as a poem by Ciardi, and it appeared in The Saturday Review back in 1964. The Gorey illustrated version, according to the copyright info in this book, was created in 1965, about a year later.
Ciardi’s poem is an extremely clever rhyming tale about a peaceful kingdom (by the sea) that is set upon by a “hero” looking to make a name for himself by slaying the giant who roams the countryside, marrying the princess, and getting half the King’s cash as a reward for his bravery. The King, however, in no uncertain terms, tells the hero that his services aren’t needed, that the giant isn’t hurting anyone, and that they really don’t need to be bothered by a loud hero who keeps insisting on disrupting the peace. The hero complains about travel expenses and says that he will NOT be leaving until he has slain something and gotten his reward.
Ciardi’s language is very amusing, striking a tone that reminds me of The Princess Bride. He uses several meta techniques, including a first-person narrator as poet telling the tale, and the story often suggests that the characters realize they are in a fairy-tale, though a fairy-tale with some spunk, and that they just don’t want to play the game that the hero insists that they need to play. It’s a very short book, but satisfying and clever, and something that I’m certainly happy I now own—and that’s without even mentioning Gorey’s brilliant illustrations!
Gorey is the master of COMPLEX-SIMPLICITY. He makes these drawings that at first glance seem effortless and—well—completely simple: we see a giant lounging in a field smelling a flower, or a king sleeping on his throne surrounded by piggy-banks, or a cannon with a lit fuse (and very little else in the background.) And then, once you’ve taken in these simple images, you look again and realize how detailed they are, how strangely well shadowed the giant’s shirt is, or that the King’s pillow has tassels, or you suddenly see that the wheels on the cannon have life-like wood-grain! Gorey, using thin, clean lines and intricate cross-hatching, brings a surprising depth to his little black and white drawings. (The book is rather small, only about 5 inches by 6 inches, which is a typical size for a Gorey creation.)
AND Gorey even manages to bring his famous “FANTOD” into the tale, a sort of small, scaly dragon creature, who we see peppered throughout the book: sleeping on the queen’s bed or inspecting the lit fuse of the cannon. I love that Gorey can seamlessly insert his person “demons” into someone else’s poem without seeming to strain the mood. It works perfectly here.
Overall, this is a fun, clever book, with safe enough illustrations that most parents wouldn’t be bothered to give it to their kids, but with incredibly sly and clever writing that should impress even a cynical adult reader. If you enjoy Shel Silverstein or Maurice Sendak or even Edward Gorey’s own books, then this will be a welcome addition to your collection. It’s funny, manages to keep Gorey’s usual quality and tone intact, and for the connoisseur of fairytales, has some great meta-elements that raise it about your average “long ago and far away” children’s fare. The only PROBLEM, is that it’s out of print right now, so you’ll either have to try and grab it in a used book shop or pay collector’s prices in online stores (It appears to sell for about $25 and up…) Still, if you find it in a used shop for a couple of bucks, it’s definitely worth the cash!
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)