“Knowledge is borrowed,
Imagination is original.”
When two weeks ago I wrote about classics that have influenced generations of children and adults alike, I was delighted with the overwhelming response. Those who read them were happy to relive the nostalgia of their childhood, and those who didn’t were intrigued and wanted to put the books on the list to buy them. After a much-loved digression about adorable cows, this week by popular demand, I am going to tell you interesting facts about many more famous books.
Carlo Collodi’s life could read like the story from his book. He was born Carlo Lorenzini in Florence in 1826. His parents were servants to the Marquis Lorenzo Gironi. Carlo was the first-born. He had nine brothers and sisters, of whom only two survived. The family was so poor and conditions so difficult, that Carlo was sent to live with his grandparents in the town of Collodi. By a great stroke of luck, the Marquis decided to pay for his education, and he was trained at the seminary at Colle Valle d’Elsa. He rejected the plans to be a priest, and when unexpected opportunities presented themselves, he grasped them. He studied philosophy and rhetoric instead, later becoming a journalist, editor, and dramatist. He often spoke about political freedom, worked on reviving Italian dialects and Tuscan traditions. This was the time of Hans Christian Anderson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Lewis Carroll. The world’s readers re-discovered the beauty and magic of fairy tales and the power of the ancient tradition of storytelling. Pinocchio would become part of those classics that shaped the minds of generations of children.
Despite his growing fame, he didn’t change, except his name to Collodi, and started to write stories about the harsh Tuscan life he had known as a child.
The book came to life in Italy, in 1881, in a weekly magazine called Giornale per I Bambini (Newspaper for Children). The first instalment was called “Storia di un burattino” (The Story of a Puppet). The author was a prolific writer with many works to his name, and he didn’t think that his story of a piece of wood that becomes a puppet and then a boy, would catch the imagination of the world.
By the time Collodi died in 1890, the book was already on its fourth edition, and the wonder of the magic of this imaginative story swept the world. Films have been made about Pinocchio, toys made, restaurants named, plays, and even a musical, and of course books.
The beginning of Pinocchio suggests that the author didn’t plan the plot but the idea came from somewhere, maybe a note found in an old notebook, or was a gift from imagination, just waiting to be written down. The opening words are saying just that:
“There was once upon a time…
“A king!” my little readers will instantly exclaim.
No, children, you are wrong. There was once upon a time a piece of wood.”
I thought you would all like to hear an amusing story of what happened at the premiere of Walt Disney’s film Pinocchio in New York City, on February 7, 1940, at the Center Theatre. After the success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, the expectations were high. Inspired by the lovable seven dwarfs, the film studio’s publicity department hired 11 little people, put them in Pinocchio costumes, and placed them outside on top of the theatre canopy to dance about and give a carnival atmosphere to the event. The event descended into chaos after food and wine were hoisted up to sustain the Pinocchios.
The dwarfs became inebriated and began to shed their clothes. By 3pm, patrons were startled to see and hear eleven naked men loudly belching and busily engaged in a lively game of craps – a gambling game based on the roll of dice.
The Pinocchios steadfastly refused commands to cover up and climb down, instead hurling obscenities. The police were called, and officers climbed ladders to reach the merry crew and haul them down to the street in pillowcases.
The amusing tale is described here:
The story of the puppet, Pinocchio, became even part of the language as we say to someone suspected of lying, “Your nose is growing longer!” The rebellious puppet is trying to get away from his creator Geppetto even as he is being carved from the piece of wood. The mouth laughs, the hand grabs, and the foot kicks. Once he is finished, he runs off with Geppetto in hot pursuit.
The many adventures of Pinocchio, while incredible, are delightful to read and might be a cautionary warning to children – this is what happens when you are naughty. But he is also innocent and easily tricked, duped, and led astray. Yet, he means well, and he wants to change.
“Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy or one with less heart than I have? From this time forth I am determined to change and so become orderly and obedient… For, at last, I have seen that disobedient boys come to no good and gain nothing.”
The language of the book is fast-moving, vibrant, simple, and poetic. Collodi’s descriptions are sketched quickly and accurately. Here is his description of Geppetto’s house: “At the end of the room there was a fire-place with a lighted fire; but the fire was painted, and by the fire was a painted pot that was boiling cheerfully, and sending out a cloud of smoke that looked exactly like real smoke.”
The story is thundering forward with one happening more amazing than the last one, all unforgettable and mesmerising. Pinocchio’s final metamorphosis into a real boy leaves the reader elated. The story has remained interesting and exuberant for over a hundred years and it will be so forever. Benedetto Croce wrote, “From wood that is humanity itself.” Another historian David Almond observed “Pinocchio is our unpredictability and our creativity, our yearning for freedom and our struggle to conform, our exuberance and our despair. He is the child who wants to be the adult, and the adult who wants to be the child. He runs through every one of us.”
Film poster for Pinocchio
Here is one extract from Pinocchio:
“The next day Fire-eater called Pinocchio aside and ask him, ‘What is your father’s name?’
‘And what is his trade?’
‘That of a very poor man’.
‘Does he earn very much?’
‘He earns as much as he needs for never having a farthing in his pocket. Just imagine, in order to buy a primer for my schooling, he had to sell his only coat: a coat that was so full of holes and patches that it was shameful.’
‘Poor fellow! I am almost sorry for him. Here are five gold pieces. Hurry up and give them to him, with my compliments.’
As you can well imagine, Pinocchio thanked the Showman a thousand times, and set for home. But before he had gone far he met a fox who was lame in one foot and a cat who was blind in both eyes, getting along as best as they could, like good companions in misfortune. The fox who was lame was leaning on the cat: and the cat who was blind was guided by the fox.
‘Good morning, Pinocchio,’ said the fox, approaching politely.
‘How do you know my name?’ asked the puppet.
‘I know your father well.’
‘Where did you see him?’
‘I saw him yesterday, at the gate of his house.’
‘And what was he doing?’
‘He was in his shirt-sleeves, and trembling with cold.’
‘Poor daddy! But never mind! From now on, he will shiver no more.’
‘Because I am now a rich man.’
‘You? A rich man?’ said the fox. And he began to laugh rudely and scornfully. The cat laughed too; but to hide it, she stroked her whiskers with her forepaws.
‘There is nothing to laugh at,’ cried Pinocchio angrily.
‘I am really sorry if what I say whets your appetite, but as you can see, there are five gold pieces.’ And he showed the money that Fire-eater had given him.
At the fascinating ringing of gold, the fox made an involuntary movement with the paw that seemed lame, and the cat opened wide her two blind eyes, but shut them again so quickly that Pinocchio could not notice.
‘And now,” asked the fox, ‘what are you going to do with the money?’
‘First of all,’ answered the marionette, ‘I shall buy a beautiful new coat for my father – a coat made of gold and silver, and with diamond buttons. Then I will buy myself a primer.’
‘Of course, for I mean to go to school and study hard.’
‘Look at me,’ said the fox. ‘It is because of my foolish passion for study, that I lost the use of my leg.’
‘And look at me,’ said the cat. ‘Because of my foolish passion for study, I lost the sight of both my eyes.’
They had gone nearly half-way towards Pinocchio’s home when the fox suddenly stopped and said, ‘Would you like to double your fortune ?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Would you like to multiply those five miserable gold pieces into a hundred, a thousand, two thousand times?’
‘Who wouldn’t! But how?’
‘That’s very easy. But instead of going home, you must come with us.’
‘And where are you going?’
‘We are going to Dupeland.’
“A simple choice sometimes changes a life.”
THE ADVENTURES OF SAJO AND HER BEAVER PEOPLE
1888 – 1938
Archibald Stansfeld Belaney was a British-born conservationist, writer, lecturer. He was born in Hastings, on the south coast. A difficult childhood made him long to escape as far away as possible.
Agawa River, Ontario, Canada
Between 1932-34 a Native Indian from the remote Canadian forest became a global sensation. His lectures on the need for conservation, protection of forests, animals, and native Indians, were so passionate, articulate, and charismatic that he had attracted the attention of agents, publishers, and those who were hoping to make money on the seemingly simple man. Books quickly followed, again to great acclaim. His tales of a trapper turned protector, written in clear heartfelt prose, some with his own illustrations, had struck a chord with many people. Those were the times of smoky jazz clubs, European nightclubs, the Charleston, drinks and other excesses, and there was a man extolling the pleasure of early morning swims in the cool forest lake, long walks among the pine trees, the beauty of nature, wildness, and animals, especially beavers.
His enchanting book about saving and bringing up two orphaned baby beavers, again with his simple but attractive drawings, became a bestseller. After ‘The Men of the Last Frontier’ and ‘Pilgrims of the Wild’ came ‘The Adventures of Sajo and her Beaver People’.
Grey Owl (He who walks at night), became the best-known Canadian author of his day. He travelled the world and his lectures were attended even by royalty, as was the case in England. When it was discovered that the Native Indian was in fact an Englishman, Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, born in 1888 in Hastings of white parents, and brought up by his aunts until the age of seventeen, the publishers were devastated and stopped using the name Grey Owl. The scandal didn’t make much difference to the millions of admiring readers and to the popularity of his books, translated into many languages. He was a conservationist and his powerful message to save the Earth from destruction will never be forgotten, no matter what name he used. Since then, many books have been written about his unusual life, and a film was made about his friendship with Native Indians and his work, with Pierce Brosnan as Grey Owl (below).
In the Preface to The Adventures Of Sajo And Her Beaver People, Grey Owl wrote:
“The events recorded in this tale, all of them have taken place within my knowledge. Indeed, most of them are recorded from personal experience and from first-hand narration by the participants themselves. Any Indian words used are correctly rendered from the Ojibway language, in the regional dialect of the area involved.
The description of the animal character is to be taken as authentic, and the mental and physical reactions ascribed to the animals are as nearly correct as a lifetime of intimate association with wildlife, in its own environment, can make them. My intention was to write a child’s story that could be read by grown-ups.
It is highly probable that Chlawee and Chikanee, the two beaver kittens who are the heroes of the story, survived to a ripe old age in their home-pond, for not only was this colony considered, after the event, inviolate by the hunters in whose trapping grounds they were, as well as by entire community, but soon after their release the region for many miles around was included within boundaries of a well known Provincial Park. The Yellow Birch river – in fact, the whole area – remains in very nearly the same unspoiled condition it was at the time of the story.
It is my hope that besides providing entertainment, this story of two Indian children and their well-loved animal friends may awaken in some eager, inquiring young minds a clear and more intimate understanding of the joys and the sorrows, the work, the pastimes, and the daily lives of the humble little People of the forest, who can experience feelings so very like their own. And the writer even ventures to allow himself the thought that perhaps, too, it may invoke in the hearts of even those of more mature years a greater tolerance and sympathy for those who are weaker or less gifted than themselves.
Above all, may it be my privilege to carry with me, as fellow-voyagers on this, a short journey to the Northland, a small but happy company of those little once who, for a short a time, dwell in that Enchanted Vale of Golden Dreams that we call Childhood.
Wa-Sha-Quon-Asin (Gray Owl )
Prince Albert National Park
November 25th, 1934
Here is an extract from The Adventures Of Sajo And Her Beaver People:
“The attendant stood by for a long time and watched and shook his head, and said ‘Too bad, little fellow, too bad.’
This was his job, taming these wild creatures that were sent to him from time to time; yet, liking animals as he did, he sometimes hated the work. To him they often seemed to be, not wild things at all, but hopeless, unfortunate little people who could not speak, and who sometimes were so pitifully in need of the kindness for which they could not ask; and he had always felt that a man, who was so much bigger and stronger, and knew so many things that they did not, should be good to them and help them all he could. And he pitied the little beaver that was struggling so helplessly to be free, for this was not the first one that had come under his care, and he knew their gentle nature.
He remembered that a beaver may live more than twenty years – twenty years in that prison of iron and concrete! In twenty years his own family would be grown up and away from here; he himself might be gone. The town would have become a great city, people would come and – free people, happy people – and through it all, this unhappy little beast, who had done no harm to anyone, and seemed only to want someone to be kind to him, would for twenty lonely years, looked out through the bars of that wretched pen as though he had been some violent criminal; waiting for the freedom that would never be his, waiting only to die at last.”
Good thoughts can be absorbed
by reading and studying good books
and by contemplating on them.”
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
1850 – 1894
“Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
On a cold, rainy morning in 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson took pen and watercolour to a sheet of canvas and began to draw a map. Aged 30, he was living with his wife, Fanny, and his parents in a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. The weather was wretched; Stevenson had a painful chest cold and had begun to spit blood. Life was a struggle – nothing he had written so far had been successful. But the outline he was sketching on the canvas would mark his breakthrough. It was the map of Treasure Island.
His 12-year-old stepson, Lloyd, made suggestions; so did his father, who contributed the contents of the Dead Man’s Chest. Gradually, the map took shape – Skeleton Island, Spy-Glass Hill – and the story with it, whose real hero is not Jim Hawkins, the boy narrator, but the villainous, one-legged, smooth-talking Long John Silver. The 1950 Walt Disney film, starring Robert Newton as Long John Silver, is the most memorable of dozens of other film adaptations.
Stevenson’s fame rests on two books, Treasure Island and The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. His literary reputation rests on a handful more, including Kidnapped. Yet he is celebrated the world over. At least ten islands claim to be the original Treasure Island. In San Francisco, there is a museum with Stevenson’s collection that includes Fanny’s shoes and two locks of his hair, and also a 5,000-acre Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, with a signposted pilgrim trail to the monument marking the site of the wooden cabin he stayed in.
The reason for his popularity is simple. Stevenson captivates everyone who reads him and learns about his life, which was as romantic, colourful, and heart-rending as any of his fiction. The only son of loving but stern Scottish parents, he was brought up by a nurse who filled his head with nightmarish stories of death and damnation. His rebellion against his father’s Calvinist strictures took the form of rejecting everything his father cherished, such as taking paid employment, despite graduating from Edinburgh University in 1872.
Sketches of Stevenson in these years single out his physical frailty, his smooth face, and his dark, compelling eyes. Dressed usually in a black velvet jacket and a straw hat or smoking cap, he charmed and fascinated men and women by the light-hearted brilliance of his conversation.
Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, parents of Robert
Stevenson discovered a way to escape his parents when on the advice of a sympathetic doctor his parents sent their son to France for his health. There, in 1876, he was introduced to Fanny Osbourne, a married American who would change his life. Fanny was in France with her children, Lloyd and Belle, to escape from her husband and his infidelities. Tough yet nurturing, she had a frank sexual allure that set her apart. By the time she returned to her husband in 1878, Stevenson had fallen in love with her.
Inconsolable, he roamed the streets of London dressed as a tramp, contemplating suicide. Eventually, Fanny sent him a telegram asking him to come to her, so virtually penniless, he sailed for New York. He then took a train to California, where he was reunited with Fanny. But, depressed at the uncertainty of her divorce, he retreated into the hills. There he collapsed in a delirium. When two hunters found him, his clothes were hanging off his thin frame; they looked after him for four days until he recovered his senses.
The hills near San Clemente Creek in Monterey County, where Stevenson camped and was taken ill
Knowing that Stevenson’s love for her might kill him if she didn’t act, Fanny started divorce proceedings. The next six months, before he could set up home with her, were the grimmest of his life. In March 1880, Stevenson was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and for six weeks he lay close to death.
The French Hotel, now a museum Stevenson House, where Stevenson stayed while in Monterey
Once Fanny’s divorce came through, his father granted him an annuity, and Stevenson never again had money problems. He and Fanny married and spent their two-month honeymoon in a derelict cabin by a disused silver mine above Napa Valley.
Yet his weak constitution meant that death was never far from his thoughts. The mountain air of the Swiss Alps and Canada’s Adirondacks suited Stevenson but made Fanny ill.
Stevenson with his family
When he returned to England for his 34th birthday, the fevers and hemorrhages continued – although Stevenson did manage to keep working despite being bedridden.
Villa Vailima, the former home on Samoa, now the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum
The couple travelled restlessly throughout their marriage, but their final Pacific cruise would see them settle in Samoa for the short remainder of Stevenson’s life. Believing that his health was improving, he bought a plantation estate on the island in 1890 and oversaw the building of his new home. There, he entertained friends and corresponded with admirers from all over the world, and set to work on his masterpiece, Weir Of Hermiston.
He died suddenly, at the height of his creative powers, in 1894, after a cerebral hemorrhage. Samoan chiefs, who venerated him as Tusitala, the Teller of Tales, hacked a path up Mount Vaea through the undergrowth so pallbearers could carry his coffin to its final resting place on the summit. In the 109 years from then, for millions of his readers, Stevenson never descended from the heights he achieved.
The shadows of his illness cast on Stevenson’s imagination and his power of invention captivated as clouds, transporting countless readers on a voyage of exhilarating, riveting excitement. His achievement has surprising scope and strength; his stories have the pulse and energy of the best modern thrillers. The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde contains the ever-expanding realm of psychological and paranormal horror. Why a Child’s Garden Of Verses brings to readers the sheer pleasure of sophistication, ingenuity, and intelligence. On the list of the best adventure stories ever written, Treasure Island deserves a place at the very top. With a taut narration, it ripples with vibrations and pulls the reader headlong into a fantastic realm of incredible adventures of pirates and buried treasures. Read the first few pages and see if you can stop.
Here is an extract from Treasure Island:
“‘And now,’ said the squire, ‘for the other.’
The paper had been sealed in several places with a thimble by the way of a seal; the very thimble, perhaps, that I had found in the captain’s pocket. The doctor opened the seals with great care, and there fell out the map of an island, with latitude and longitude, soundings, names of hills, and bays and inlets, and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to a safe anchorage upon its shores. It was about nine miles long and five across, shaped, you might say, like a fat dragon standing up, and had two fine landlocked harbours, and a hill in the center part marked “The Spy-glass.” There were several additions of a later date; but, above all, three crosses of red ink – two on the north part of the island, one in the south-west, and besides this last, in the same red ink, and in the small, neat hand, very different from the captain’s tottery characters, those words: – “Bulk of treasure here.”
Over on the back, the same hand had written this further information: – “Tall tree, Spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point to the N, of N.N.E.
“Skeleton Island E.S.E. and by E.
“The bar silver is in the north cache; you can find it by the trend of the east hammock, ten fathoms south of the black crag with a face on it. The arms are easy found, in the sand hill, N, point of north inlet cape, bearing E, and a quarter N.
That was all; but brief as it was, and to me, incompressible, it filled the squire and Dr Livesey with delight.
‘Livesey,’ said the squire, ‘you will give up this wretched practice at once. Tomorrow I start for Bristol. In three weeks’ time – three weeks! – two weeks – ten days – we will have the best ship, sir, and the choicest crew in England. Hawkins shall come as cabin-boy. You, Livesey, are ship’s doctor; I am admiral. We’ll take Redruth, Joyce, and Hunter. We’ll have favourable winds, a quick passage, and not the least difficulty in finding the spot, and the money to eat – to roll in – to play duck and drake with ever after.’
‘Trelawney,’ said the doctor, ‘I will go with you; and, I’ll go bail for it, so will Jim, and be a credit to the undertaking. There is only one man I’m afraid of.’
‘And who is that?’ cried the squire. ‘Name the dog, sir, sir!’
‘You,’ replied the doctor; ‘for you cannot hold your tongue. We are not the only men who know of this paper. These fellows, who attacked the inn tonight – bold, desperate blades, for sure – and the rest who stayed abroad that lugger, and more, dare I say, not far off, are, one and all, through thick and thin, bound that they’ll get that money. We must none of us go alone till we get to sea. Jim and I shall stick together in the meanwhile; you’ll take Joyce and Hunter when you ride to Bristol, and, from first to last, not one of us must breathe a word of what we’ve found.’
‘Livesey,’ returned the squire, ‘you are always in the right of it. I’ll be as silent as a grave.’