We Might Sometimes Go Hungry, But We Will Never Want for Adventure…
Philip Pullman is best known for his young-adult fantasy series His Dark Materials as well as the Victorian thrillers starring Sally Lockhart, but he also has quite a few children’s books under his belt, all of which are whimsical and comedic in nature. The Scarecrow and His Servant is one such story, highly reminiscent of Lloyd Alexander‘s work and definitely a change of pace from Pullman’s darker, more sophisticated fare.
A farmer builds a scarecrow with a turnip for a head and a broomstick for a backbone, and plants it in a field with these words of advice: “Now remember what your job is, and remember where you belong. Be courteous, be brave, and be honourable, and be kind. And the best of blooming luck.” Unfortunately, the scarecrow’s tenure in this particular field does not last long — each night he is stolen by a neighbouring farm until he is miles away from home. But one night, in one of those million-to-one chances, the scarecrow is struck by a bolt of lightning.
Life quickens in his body, and he steps down from his perch with a clear understanding of his purpose in life: to scare birds and to fulfil his Inner Conviction of claiming Spring Valley for his own. He is joined by a young boy called Jack. With no family of his own, Jack accepts the position of servant to the scarecrow, and the two of them start off on the road to seek their fortune.
What follows is an adventure of brigands, actors, armies, birds, and lawyers, in which the scarecrow and his servant traverse the Italian countryside, fall into trouble, muddle their way out again, and inch ever closer to their goal. Pullman relies heavily on the fairy-tale motif of a foolish master and a wise servant, for the scarecrow can often be brash and foolhardy, and it is Jack’s quick thinking that keeps the two of them out of dire straits. They keep up a witty banter throughout, and their dynamic is really rather heartwarming by the book’s conclusion.
Long-time fans of Pullman might notice the reoccurring theme of the author’s fascination with the transitory nature of physicality. In this case, various bits of the scarecrow fall off through his travels only to be replaced with other bits of paraphernalia, until it is argued at the end of the book that he is no longer the scarecrow that started his journey, but a different entity altogether. How true is this? What makes us who we are?
A similar question popped up in The Tin Princess, in which a national flag is re-sewn until not a single thread remains that was part of the original, and in Pullman’s oft-told personal anecdote about his writing shed, which went through so much disrepair and rebuilding that he doubts that any of it is part of the initial building. It poses an interesting question to young readers — where exactly does our character and substance lie? How much of it do you have to take away before one ceases to be? Pretty hefty stuff really, but this IS from the same author who killed off God in a young adult trilogy…
The story all ties together nicely by the end of the book, and is illustrated throughout by Peter Bailey, who has collaborated with Pullman on a number of his children’s books. I don’t think it’s the most inventive that Pullman has ever been, but it certainly makes for a humorous and entertaining read.