Bearskin: Lyrical prose and whimsical pictures

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewschildren's fantasy book reviews Howard Pyle BearskinBearskin by Howard Pyle

Howard Pyle is best known as the writer of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a book that’s widely considered to be the definitive compilation of the Robin Hood ballads into a cohesive whole. Though that’s his most famous work, he also wrote two anthologies of fairytales: Pepper & Salt and The Wonder Clock. This adaptation of Bearskin is from the latter collection, and Pyle’s love of fairytales and legends is apparent, for it reads like a composite tale of several other familiar stories.

A king is traveling through the country when he stops to rest and dine at a mill. For fun, he orders his wise man to read the fortune of the miller’s newborn baby, but to his displeasure, the king is told that the infant will one day marry his own unborn daughter. To avoid this insulting fate, the king buys the infant from his father and gives the boy to one of his foresters to dispose of. Unable to go through with harming the boy, the forester instead hides him in a wicker basket and sends him downstream where he’s adopted by a great she-bear.

Growing to manhood, the youth finally decides to leave the forest and explore the human world, taking with him a small horn from his foster-mother that she promises will call on help if he ever needs it. Hearing news that a dragon is destroying the land, Bearskin (named so for the bearskin that he wears wrapped around his shoulders) takes it upon himself to kill the beast and save the princess. Not all goes according to plan, as the dishonest steward of the king takes advantage of the situation, taking the dragon heads back to the castle in order to take credit for the kill himself. With his reward being the hand of the princess in marriage, Bearskin must call on his cunning and wit if he’s to save her and claim his destiny.

The story is full of “borrowings” from other fairytales, Biblical stories, mythology and legends: the prophesy that endangers a child, a huntsman who doesn’t do his job, a baby set adrift on a river and raised by a wild animal, a magical gift that endows the hero with power, a dragon that needs slaying, a threefold trial, a sacrificial princess, and a secret test of character in which Bearskin reveals definitive proof that he and not the steward was responsible for the death of the dragon. Essentially, there’s everything but the kitchen sink, making “Bearskin” both familiar and muddled.

Illustrator Trina Schart Hyman seems well aware of this, and the patchwork quality of the story is matched in the variety of ethnicities apparent in the story. One can only imagine what Pyle would have thought of all this, and at first glance it may seem to be a strained effort to be politically correct, but the warmth and vibrancy of Hyman’s illustrations make this just a passing notion. Therefore, we have an Asiatic hero and an African princess in a European setting, made even odder by the fact that these characters have white biological parents. Of course, it doesn’t stand up under close scrutiny, but in this case it’s best just to embrace the general craziness of the story and the warped fairytale world in which Hyman sets it.

Human figures are always Hyman’s strong point, capturing mannerisms and facial expressions as though they were real people; even posture differs from character to character. Here Bearskin makes a fascinating hero: effeminate and manly at the same time, with good humor and intelligence in his face, as though he finds the whole world to be a rather amusing place. The princess is spritely and lithe, and though she’s quite passive in the text, Hyman makes sure that she’s no wilting violet.

There are some hilarious illustrations here, such as the “portrait” shot of Bearskin and his adoptive mother proudly looking out at the reader, or the outdoor picnic that Bearskin and the swineherd enjoy as the pigs mill around them. Unfortunately, the dragon looks a little cartoony (a similar thing occurred in Hyman’s “Saint George and the Dragon”), and the human element that isn’t accorded to the she-bear doesn’t quite meld with the straightforward depictions of the other animals present.

All in all, this is a rather strange story, with even stranger illustrations (with regard to style), but together Pyle’s lyrical prose and Hyman’s whimsical pictures somehow make it work.

Bearskin — (1997) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Betrayed by his own father, the infant son of a lowly miller narrowly escapes death and is lovingly adopted by a faithful she-bear. Raised on her nourishing milk, the boy becomes the strongest man in the land — and the only one brave enough to battle the kingdom’s bloodthirsty three-headed dragon. Yet it is wit, not just courage and might, that the hero must employ to win his true desire: the delicate hand of a princess already betrothed to another. Nothing could be more delicious than the marvelous quest that ensues — a tale of romantic valor, stolen glory, and sweet justice. Caldecott Medalist Trina Schart Hyman has created a pictorial drama that is alive with good humor and splendid characters as forever memorable as Howard Pyle’s timeless story. Here is a winning revival from the classic book The Wonder Clock that will surely be savored again and again.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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