Monday, 7 December 2009

James Thurber

I first came across James Thurber with the short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty".

Forget the Hollywood Film with Danny Kaye. Excellent through it is in its own way, it is spoilt by changing Mitty to becoming a stay at home son, an adult, but under his mother's endless bossy regime, and a real life "thriller story" involving a murderous Boris Karloff. Kaye is wonderful, and the daydream sequences are well done, but it is not as good as the short story.

The real Thurber story is much more prosaic. Mitty is the middle aged henpecked husband, endless escaping his mundane existence to thrilling daydreams in which he is the heroic figure, but then returning to the grey drab life in which his wife nags him and tells him what to do.

Thurber's children's masterpiece "The Thirteen Clocks" has been out of print for years, but I am glad to see has recently been re-issued (and available on Amazon). This is a comic fairy tale, with a wicked Uncle, a captive princess, a prince in disguise (as a wandering minstrel), and the incredible character of the Golux (with his indescribable hat). Thurber takes the stock characters, and uses them to weave a delightful tale, which is bursting with humour that children will enjoy, and self-referential jokes for the adults. In its way, it is a post modern fairy tale before that term had even been invented.

For this blog entry, though, there is a mini masterpiece from his "Fables" - also back in print, I am pleased to say. Unlike Aesop, Thurber has fun sending up the genre, and takes a familiar story, and gives it his special twist. On this particular tale, I would also recommend "Hoodwinked", a marvellous cartoon retelling of the Red Riding Hood story from four different perspectives (the girl, the granny, the woodman, the wolf) which also subverts the tale extremely cleverly.

But here is Thurber...

The Little Girl and the Wolf
by James Thurber

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. "Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?" asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother's house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(Moral: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

The Thirteen Clocks, £5.96

Fables for Our Time, £8.06

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