The story takes place in Germany during the thirteenth century. Pyle calls this period a time "of ignorance, of superstition, of cruelty, and of wickedness." He paints scenes of two settings that conflict directly with one another: the chaotic world of the castle and the orderly world of the monastery. At the castle, Baron Conrad's world, people are boisterous and aggressive. The Baron himself robs those travelers who dare to traverse the wild and dangerous area outside the castle's stronghold. The castle's lookout lives in Melchior Tower with his family, far away from the castle's gentry, and rings a huge alarm bell to alert the Baron when potential victims have wandered into the area. In contrast, the monastery is surrounded by vineyards, gardens, and well-kept fields. Sunlight streams into the courtyard, and peacefulness prevails. Although they prefer to live in isolation from the rest of the world, the monks seek to help passersby rather than do them harm. Within these two worlds, Otto, the Baron's son, grows to manhood. He takes the values of the monastery to heart and, in doing so, proves that he differs from the residents in his father's castle.
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Otto of the Silver Hand is simply written. The characters become involved in a cliffhanging adventure as the drama moves forward at a swift pace. Although the book was written more than one hundred years ago, its language remains appropriate for younger audiences. It contains the elements necessary for successful historical fiction: realistic events, a clearly defined and historically accurate setting, and characters who act appropriately for the setting and the time.
Pyle incorporates symbolism within a realistic story to give his writing an extra dimension. For example, after Otto loses his right hand, it is replaced by a hand of "pure silver, and the hard, cold fingers never closed," and the book ends with the words, "Better a hand of silver than a hand of iron." Otto's silver hand clearly symbolizes that he has brought parity and beauty to a land that was once ruled by the iron fists of violent men such as his father.
The complete format of Otto of the Silver Hand is noteworthy. Pyle's striking 998 Otto of the Silver Hand full-page black-and-white illustrations add realism and drama to the story. While some of the characters never fully develop in the story, they come alive in the illustrated scenes. Some chapters begin with allegorical illustrations: the chapter in which Otto is kidnapped opens with a drawing of a human figure that represents terror, and the chapter in which Otto is saved from Baron Henry opens with a...
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Otto of the Silver Hand depicts the ultimate victory of good over evil, but it does not have a traditional happy ending. By the end of the story, both of Otto's parents are dead, most of his father's followers have died, and Otto has lost his hand. Yet peace has been restored to a land once dominated by violence. Pyle's descriptions of violence in the story are quite vivid, though he refrains from providing details about Otto's maiming. He does, however, attempt to offer his readers some solace in the face of this violence, depicting the monk's way of life as peaceful and virtuous. Pyle shows the importance of kindness and spirituality without resorting to doctrinaire discussions of specific religious beliefs.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Otto's father is depicted as a thief and an arrogant man, yet he shows concern for his family and those who serve him faithfully. Can these aspects of his personality be reconciled?
2. What role does Otto's mother play in the story? Why does she die at the story's beginning? What is her relationship to Abbot Otto? Is this important to the story?
3. The book is entitled Otto of the Silver Hand How soon are you aware that Pauline's father orders Otto's hand cut off? What is the significance of Otto's losing his hand?
4. Is One-eyed Hans an evil person? Does his service to Baron Conrad make him a good knight? How does his behavior fit into the code of chivalry?
5. Contrast the castle and the monastery. How does Pyle use adjectives to create a mental picture of the two places?
6. Look at Pyle's full-page illustrations. How do they bring the story to life? What events do they portray? Why do you think that Pyle chose to illustrate these particular events?
7. Discuss how this story's interpretation of thirteenth-century Europe differs from other interpretations you have heard. Which version do you think is more realistic? Why?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Consider Pyle's descriptions. How does he set a mood with the language he uses to describe places and people?
2. Compare the scenes at the beginnings of chapter 2 and chapter 8. How does Pyle make the events realistic?
3. Although the story ends with the reunion of Otto and Pauline, this book has not been termed romantic fiction. What do you think the difference is between romantic fiction and realistic fiction?
4. Look at Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and compare it to Otto of the Silver Hand. Why is the former not considered historical fiction?
5. Compare Otto and Brother John, Baron Conrad and Abbot Otto. Which characters seem most realistic? Try to determine if these characters represent qualities found in society. Why do you think Pyle uses characters to represent attitudes or morals?
6. Research and report on the rule of the Hapsburg family in the thirteenth century.
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For Further Reference
Agosta, Lucien L. Howard Pyle. New York: G. K. Hall, 1987. A critical study of Pyle's books for young adults that includes a scholarly discussion of the author's life and artistic contributions. Agosta gives significant attention to Otto of the Silver Hand in his chapter on Pyle's historical fiction.
Bingham, Jane M., ed. Writers for Children. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988. The entry on Pyle concentrates on his overall contribution to children's literature.
Children's Literature Association Quarterly 8 (Summer 1983). "Howard Pyle Commemorative" edition, marking the publication centennial of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. A collection of critical essays on Pyle's life, career, and works.
Estes, Glenn E., ed. The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 42, American Writers for Children Before 1900. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. A discussion of Pyle's contributions to children's literature.
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