Thursday, June 17, 2010
"Nevertheless, Notwithstanding" - Rediscovering The Golden Phoenix
I've just been reunited with a childhood friend. A favorite book - a literary treasure - The Golden Phoenix was part of my family's collection of children's books when I was growing up in Ottawa, Canada. Written by Marius Barbeau, a cultural anthropologist who collected French Canadian folklore passed down through the oral tradition, The Golden Phoenix was first published by Oxford University Press in 1958 and reprinted by Scholastic in 1973. It has been out of print since. I've looked for it at Ottawa children's bookstores when I've gone back to visit, but a few weeks ago, I found an old library copy through an Ottawa book dealer on Amazon.
When it arrived, I removed the brown paper wrapping like it was an unexpected present. The book was musty and marked here and there with children's scribbles. Stamped, "Wallaceburg Public Library," this copy has passed through many hands. I couldn't stop myself from reading the first story right away, but I was determined to savor the pleasure by rationing the remaining seven.
Having read the book over and over again as a kid, it isn't surprising that many of the details are indelibly imprinted in my mind. I instantly recognized Arthur Price's timeless illustrations which marry the text so well. Rediscovering it now, the stories are still as fresh and charming as I remembered. Growing up, I read the Brothers Grimm, 1001 Arabian Nights, D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths and many fairy tales of different origins, but The Golden Phoenix stood out.
Like most classic tales, these share the theme of cleverness and good trumping evil, greed and trickery. The stories are also faithful to the rule of threes. For example, one of the tales, Sir Goldenhair, begins, "All the best kings have three lovely daughters, and this King that I am telling you about was no exception." What made these tales so satisfying, perhaps, was - they conformed to formulaic structure - but did it in a playful way. The tales of The Golden Phoenix are characterized by an added element of wit.
In the first story, The Golden Phoenix, two beans are left to cook slowly in a pot. The sound of their cooking convinces the sultan the prince and princess are in the palace, arguing through the night. "As soon as they felt the heat the beans began to croak. One of them said "Nevertheless" in a high voice; the other said "Notwithstanding" in a deep voice. When they were both croaking they sounded just like a man and woman talking together." In the morning, the sultan finds out the prince and the princess have fled. I've always fondly remembered the idea of two beans arguing. It seems very French, n'est pas?
I am enchanted now as I was then - and delighted to have The Golden Phoenix back in my bookcase.
What outstanding childhood book made a lasting impression on you? Please comment.