Cecil Bødker Essay - Critical Essays

Bødker, Cecil


Cecil Bødker 1927–

Danish young adult and adult novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Bødker's importance as a writer for young people rests on the high literary quality of her adventure stories. Her works are both realistic and imaginative and are drawn from contemporary life and from the folktale tradition. She brings a keen sense of the grotesque to these latter works, reminiscent of such Eastern European writers as Franz Kafka and Jerzy Kosinski. Adult authority is largely absent from Bødker's works; when present, adults are usually untrustworthy and sometimes cruel. Bødker's landscapes are harsh and desolate, reflecting and influencing adult attitudes. Several of her books include a strong element of humor, however, often bordering on burlesque. She has been praised for her clear and poetic language, as well as for her crisp dialogue, and her books are characterized by their fast-paced action and effective use of suspense. Critics feel that both young people and adults enjoy these works because of Bødker's subtle weaving of social questions and character studies with exciting plots.

Bødker's series of Silas books are especially popular because of their engaging protagonist. Silas is particularly appealing for his independent, honest ways. Bødker, however, endows him with negative characteristics which are part of his method of survival, a technique which she uses consistently in her characterizations. This device is felt to enhance the realism of her portrayals. Most of Bødker's main characters are male; she feels this is a natural result of having spent her youth with four brothers, and several of her teenage years as a silver-smith's apprentice, the only girl among fifty boys. In 1969 Bødker and her husband were invited to live in Ethiopia in order to write about the Ethiopian lifestyle for the country's children, since at that time they did not have a literature of their own. The first book Bødker published from this experience, The Leopard, was also her first to be published in the United States. Although some critics have commented that the novel's villain is too evil and the young protagonist improbable for having a large number of adventures in a short time, the reception of the novel was generally favorable, and Bødker was complimented for capturing the essence of Ethiopian life.

Very few of Bødker's works have been translated into English. Even her poetry, called visionary by Danish critics, has yet to appear. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the Drachmann Prize in 1973 for her poetry, prose, and children's books, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1976, and the Mildred Batchelor Award in 1977. In 1967, Silas and the Black Mare received the only prize for children's literature ever awarded by The Danish Academy. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, and Something About the Author, Vol. 14.)


This fantastic adventure story [Silas and the Black Mare] is divided into eleven chapters in which everyday life changes into dreams, friendship into violence, and back again. Young readers will sympathize with Silas, a clever, brave and insolent youth who masters every danger with elegance and dash…. The reader who attempts to outguess the outcome will be pleasantly surprised at the happy ending. (p. 44)

"Silas og den sorte hoppe (Silas and the Black Mare)," in Bookbird, Vol. VIII, No. 2, June 15, 1970, pp. 44-5.

Margery Fisher

For The Leopard [Bødker] has used a visitor's knowledge of Ethiopia, and her interest in the country and her sharp reactions to it are evident in the way she builds up the background of her story. It is clear, too, that in describing Tibeso's adventure she has gone far towards understanding the way such a boy might have felt and behaved. This book … relies on constant changes of scene and event to compel attention. It is a book I would not hesitate to recommend to English readers from twelve or so, for the story is well organised and swift and the atmosphere of mountain village, busy town and river-bank is definite and fascinating…. The author has used lightly idiomatic speech and has relied for excitement mainly on a swift alternation of moments of action with moments of doubt and speculation as the boy reviews each situation. (pp. 2362-63)

Margery Fisher, "The Face of Danger," in her Growing Point, Vol. 12, No. 9, April, 1974, pp. 2360-63.∗

Taye Brooks

On one level, [The Leopard] is a gripping and suspenseful story about the occasionally exasperating adventures of a shepherd-boy, Tibeso, in a rural village in central Ethiopia. The underlying theme that gives the story its continuity is Tibeso's courageous fight for survival…. For older children, The Leopard is a book that anyone, even adults, would find very enjoyable and informative.

But the book has another dimension. It depicts graphically and, except for a few minor details, authentically, life in a small rural Ethiopian village…. The book offers a lot of relevant social commentary along the way. Among other things, Bodker succinctly describes the predominant economic and social role women play. Likewise, the male chauvinism prevalent in the rural society is tersely depicted. [The author] is to be commended for having captured so well the texture of life in that area.

The Leopard will be invaluable to all those wishing to know more about village life in Ethiopia. Bodker's style is clear and her handling of suspense surprisingly unobtrusive.

Taye Brooks, "The Bookshelf: 'The Leopard'," in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin (reprinted by permission of Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 1841 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10023), Vol. 6, No. 2, 1975, p. 3.

Stan Bochtler

There are two weaknesses in [The Leopard]. First of all the characters are rather unreal. Tibeso is almost too good, and the blacksmith is the epitome of evil. Secondly, it is hard to believe that one character could have so many adventures in such a short time.

However, despite these weaknesses, The Leopard is a thoroughly enjoyable book. There is constant action, with few lulls between episodes. Also, students will enjoy hating the blacksmith because he is so unmistakably wicked!

The Leopard is an excellent book for the turned-off reader … who thinks books are dull.

Stan Bochtler, "'The Leopard'" (copyright 1976 by the International Reading Association, Inc.; reprinted with permission of the International Reading Association and Stan Bochtler), in Journal of Reading, Vol. 19, No. 6, March, 1976, p. 513.

Lucia Binder

Even though Cecil Bødker turned to children's books relatively late in her writing career … this branch of literature has become the core of her creative work….

Her popularity can be traced back to her subject matters as well as her style of presentation.

Research in reading has repeatedly shown that young readers between the ages of 12 and 14—the reading public addressed by Cecil Bødker's juvenile books—look first of all for suspense, action and atmosphere…. [In Cecil] Bødker's books they find all three of these elements. (p. 4)

The setting of her first book, Silas and the Black Mare, is the circus, but the story is far removed from the...

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The Junior Bookshelf

Cecil Bødker has lived in Ethiopia and she clearly has a strong affection for the people, a love which has in it no condescension or criticism.

Leopard is not … a book about animals in the wild. It is about village society. Tibeso, the appealing and by no means heroic hero, is a coward…. The discovery [that the Big One, thought to be a leopard, is in fact a man] is the beginning of a series of adventures in which Tibeso makes up in persistence what he lacks in courage. There is an exciting climax when the two Big Ones, feline and human, meet in combat.

Good as the story is, its effect is enhanced by the picture of Ethiopian rural society and the string of finely drawn...

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Marcus Crouch

The society [in Silas and the Black Mare] is that of peasants and the only representative of a wider world is the pedlar. Against these earth-bound, prejudiced, brutalized creatures born of poverty and ignorance shines Silas,… who owns nothing but his wits, an abundance of self-confidence, and a way with horses. Silas is much too big a creation to be squandered on one book. As he rides off, not into the sunset, at the close of this high-spirited frolic of a book, it is clear that more adventures lie ahead to be chronicled in the same blend of realism and lyricism. [Cecil Bødker] likes the byways of history and topography, but can sustain a major mainstream character, one who owes something to Tyl...

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Kirkus Reviews

From the first-page moment when Silas drifts down the river into the horse trader's view [in Silas and the Black Mare], he commands a wary curiosity; and he continues to astound and to be astounded throughout his subsequent encounters…. The story ends with the full cast assembled for an auction of the mare on the one street of a mean, impoverished village; Bødker pulls off this climactic scene as adeptly as Silas does the recovery of his mount. The whole, highly original story is related with a degree of shrewd humor and an absence of moralizing interference that are still hard to come by in children's books.

"Younger Fiction: 'Silas and the Black Mare'," in Kirkus...

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The Junior Bookshelf

There are no blacks and whites [in Silas and the Black Mare]: one is … persuaded to see the viewpoint of and sympathise with even the nastiest characters. The tension and menace build up remarkably in this world of fear and suspicion…. At such a level of writing, one looks forward eagerly to the sequels. (p. 264)

"The New Books: 'Silas and the Black Mare'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 42, No. 5, October, 1978, pp. 263-64.

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Whitney Rogge

Reminiscent of Heironymus Bosch paintings and the adult novels of Jerzy Kosinski, this almost surrealistic tale set in a timeless European landscape [Silas and the Black Mare] follows young Silas who runs away from his traveling circus family…. While the cruelty and avarice of the villagers Silas encounters are unremitting (almost all want to cheat him, beat him, or kidnap him), Silas himself is no bargain either. He survives only by putting his own needs first…. Bødker's writing, even in translation, is spare and clean, harshly appropriate to the country and people described. It is a bizarre and hostile story illuminated only rarely by glimmers of love or caring, but readers who felt an affinity with...

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John Naughton

Silas and the Black Mare is [a grim] reminder that adult cruelty to children is perennial, and that, in earlier centuries, it was even more pervasive and brutal. Cecil Bødker [has] a reputation for Kafkaesque fiction which the present book does nothing to diminish…. Every encounter the child has with an adult is treacherous and problematic, and the boy's eventual survival is something of an improbable deliverance. (p. 626)

John Naughton, "Gangs and Fans" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Naughton), in The Listener, Vol. 100, No. 2585, November 9, 1978, pp. 625-26.∗

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Denise M. Wilms

In Silas and the Black Mare … Bødker left her hero making a clean getaway with Ben-Godik after craftily retrieving his stolen mare from greedy villagers. Now, in two equally strong sequels, she follows his subsequent fortunes as a wanderer on the road with Ben-Godik in Silas and Ben-Godik and as an independent adventurer in Silas and the Runaway Coach. The harsh environment in the first book hasn't improved any in these two additions. Again poverty is rife and adults too often not to be trusted…. Bødker's characters, whether good or evil, are memorable, and Silas in particular continues to awe with his cool self-possession and wise-beyond-years abilities to deal with people—both these...

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Kirkus Reviews

In Silas and the Black Mare … Bødker projected her resourceful young hero's memorable encounters with penetrating, uncompromising shrewdness; in Silas and Ben-Godik and Silas and the Runaway Coach she settles for merely using similar treacherous and bizarre figures to spice and propel Silas' adventures. Nevertheless, her strong, stinking, conniving Horse Crone … is a most imposing villain; and Silas' further adventures, particularly in the latter volume, are corking, invigorating ones…. This time Silas and the merchant's son are kidnapped by the horse crone; again, the mare is stolen, this time with one of the merchants'; and Silas' audacious, wily, and complicated maneuvers in...

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Mary M. Burns

The desolate setting against which the characters move [in Silas and Ben-Godik] is as evocative as an Ingmar Bergman landscape: It is at once a backdrop for the actors and an explanation for their deeds. The contrast between the provincial villagers and the quick-witted Silas not only heightens the suspense but also provides an earthy, humorous note. [Filled] with action, the book lends itself to reading aloud; however, the story can be better appreciated as a sequel to Silas and the Black Mare … than as a separate entity.

Mary M. Burns, "Stories for Intermediate Readers: 'Silas and Ben-Godik'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1979 by The Horn...

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James Norsworthy

Silas and Ben-Godik and Silas and the Runaway Coach can easily stand on their own as good literature, yet when one knows that they are part of a series, the reader will probably devour all of them and still want to read more. Through Silas, Bodker has created one of the most delightful boys in all of children's literature. He has such a zest and love of and for life! In addition to Silas is a complete cast of vividly memorable characters of all types. If for no other reason, Bodker's works should be read for her character portrayal. These two works are filled with the fast paced adventure, suspense and drama which young readers crave in their books. (pp. 447-48)


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