Joseph Krumgold

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1216

[Running] into fairy tales is a familiar professional predicament of mine. It happened with each of the three books that make up the trilogy I've written on how we grow up. In each case, I started out to write a thoroughly realistic story of how a child turns adult in one of three different areas of our society. In each case, I found I was writing, by the time I got halfway through the book, simply a new variation of a well-known fairy tale….

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[In … and now Miguel] the fairy tale was the story of the Three Wishes, totally appropriate to a boy who grows up in a tradition-bound religious society. He must learn that the rewards of maturity come through believing in a wisdom far more universal than his own….

In Onion John the fairy tale proved to be the one about the Hero Who Learns the Language of the Animals. We're told that this story may preserve the dim memory of a prehistoric knack we had of communicating with our fellow beasts at a time when we domesticated some of them. It sets up the problem of identity—whether one is indeed a man or an animal—and ends with the hero trying to exploit, and being repudiated by, the creature whose language he's come to know. The boy in Onion John follows this pattern. Confused as he is by the changing values of an American small town, his search is for his identity. The magic and adventure of speaking an unknown language doesn't help in the end. He finds out who he is and turns adult only when he forces a new acknowledgement of kinship with his own kind, with his own father….

Henry's suburb turns out to be a community far more antique, in one respect, than either the small town of Onion John or the church town of Miguel. This suburb is a woman's town….

By happy coincidence, it happened that while working on Henry 3 I found myself in the exact place where recorded history did dawn—in the Mediterranean….

[One] of the common ties binding these seaboard people together is the heritage of the Goddess, and her worship….

[This heritage] goes back to the garden civilization that immediately preceded the writing of history, the culture of crop and cattle in which the woman had taken the place of the hunter as chief provider. The history of these unrecorded times, this matriarchy, comes to us as myth…. [Most] students of folklore agree that the widespread myth is a dramatization of a common religious festival, the fertility rite that petitioned the powers on high to keep things growing. (p. 113)

One fixed episode of the fertility rite is the testing of the hero who will marry the Princess and live happily ever after, until he is in turn sacrificed. In the folk tales these tests have to do with the Seven Heroic Labors, or the Dragon and Glass Mountain …, or, as turns out to be the case with Henry 3, the story we all know of the Hero Who Is Given Three Puzzles To Solve….

I was more than halfway through Henry 3 when I discovered that this was the story I was actually trying to write. And again, for a boy growing up in the new matriarchy of our big-city suburb, this fairy tale, when it did appear, seemed to be wonderfully apt. For Henry 3 did have puzzles to solve and indeed they're impressive enough…. But even more significant for me is the very pattern of the fairy tale I was now faced with. It described the world that Henry and most of us live in….

We're puzzle solvers. This is our basic faith. We live with the conviction that given enough information, enough data, enough facts—and enough computers into which we can program this flow—we can solve any puzzle. The operative word here, for our society, is enough. Whatever problems we face remain problems, we're sure, only because we don't have enough facts to bring them to decision. All we have to do is dig into ourselves a little deeper, such is our optimism, to measure ourselves a little more minutely, and all the questions of race and class and the individual and his purposes will be answered.

We seem to have no fear that the better we do this job the more we fade into an abstraction….

That's Henry's problem. He lives in this abstract world. He's as sure about himself, within his statistically bound community, as Miguel is in his religious one. With this difference. Miguel can begin to tell us his story with the simple affirmation "I am Miguel." Henry's affirmation is simple enough, but it's a decimal. "I am," he tells us, "154 percent normal." Henry's surest description of himself is an abstraction. And his struggle to grow up is a search for reality….

There's nothing real here for Henry to find. But it's the way he goes about his search that makes it even tougher. He simply adopts current procedure and goes ahead confident that if he can solve his own puzzles he'll reach fulfillment. And solve them he does, even to finding a way to go around the world in a parked automobile. Henry even finds a way to stop wars. But with all this, he fails. It doesn't work.

What Henry bumps up against, of course, is the end of that old fairy tale. The hero always does manage to solve his three puzzles, you remember. But always he's denied his reward—by the wicked King or the jealous Queen or the calculating wizard. Always something more, something different is needed. No matter how bright we are, how intellectual, what kind of an I.Q. we have or how magic a computer, it's not enough, says the old fairy tale. It takes courage. We have to stand up for ourselves, we need to prove our moral and physical courage, as well, to reach our goal. It's a switch, as we used to say in story conferences. The fairy tale turns us from a story about a brain to one about the heart that's in us.

It's this switch that makes me an optimist. It seems to point to a cultural switch that we as a people are going through today, right now. One that may be the very start of the pendulum swing that will save our own species from the brink of success. (p. 114)

With his three puzzles behind him, all neatly solved, Henry 3 does manage to summon up the courage required by the old fairy tale. He looks beyond his father and mother to reach for what's real with the help of a kid his own age…. And with this reassurance the last sentence of the book was written. Henry 3 says, "I am Miguel." It's the opening line of the first book. This was my way of telling myself that the circle of the trilogy was turned, that more of us increasingly come to where we can undertake the spiritual adventure of a shepherd boy who climbs a mountain. (p. 115)

Joseph Krumgold, "Archetypes of the Twentieth Century," in School Library Journal (reprinted from the October, 1968 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation, copyright © 1968), October, 1968. pp. 112-15.

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