Monday, August 30, 2021

My old Ladybird books (and a magic stone soup, or a story about stories)

From the nostalgia pages: these are a few of the dozens of Ladybird books I have – among the earliest books in my life. By the time I was four I could manage “Reading Level 5”, though many of the cultural references or colloquialisms were well beyond my grasp – sometimes I got a vague sense of what certain things were intended to be (“gingerbread man”, “billy goats gruff”) without fully understanding or relating to them. (A couple of years later, this would happen again when I read about the “scones”, “eclairs” or “potted meat” consumed by the Famous Five at their picnics.) 
A few days ago I took out these Ladybirds and, flipping through them, found that I vividly recalled many of the images and even some of the specific phrases and conversations – though I was seeing them for the first time in nearly 40 years. How strange the human mind is, especially our dormant/long-term memory. 
Some of the pictures here: the creepy (pre-internet) troll coming out from under his bridge to terrify passing goats; the building of the cosy winter’s cave in Swiss Family Robinson (an image I always loved for the sense of warmth and security it provided to go with the family’s adventures); the enormous stack of mattresses on which a young woman is required to sleep to prove she is a “real princess” because she is delicate enough to be bruised by the pea far below (not the most politically correct of stories, of course, and it strikes me now that around the time I read this book Princess Di was being expected to undergo a virginity test before her wedding to Charles – in that weird faraway land we call the Real World).
I remember the swell of pride when I learnt the meanings of words like “apprentice” (from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) or “cauldron” or “tapestries” or “parsley”, or learnt how to pronounce complicated names like Rumpelstiltskin. Looking again at the drawings in the Rapunzel book, I remember wondering if her hair really was longer than my mother’s.
And then there is The Magic Stone, a story I was fascinated by at the time, and which (unlike most of the other titles here) has never been very far from my mind. Perhaps because I think of it as a fable about the nature of storytelling. Here is what happens: a tramp seeks shelter for the night in an old woman’s house. She claims she is poor and has no food for him, but he sees that she has a well-tended garden and a well-stocked kitchen. He offers to make them a delicious magic soup with just a pot of boiling water and a single stone taken from her garden. As he stirs the “soup”, he tastes it, pronounces it excellent but casually adds that it would be even better with a bit of onion – then a pinch of salt, then some turnips, and so on; the woman, increasingly excited by this display, rushes off to get those things as he mentions them. Until what they have is a full-fledged broth made up of delicious ingredients from her garden and kitchen. (Plus one stone, essential and redundant at the same time.)
I loved the way this story, though repetitive or circular in its structure, grew and grew, like the soup itself; an ingredient here, a layer there. And how the illustrations too became more colourful and elaborate as the “menu” expanded from a single round stone to the full table “fit for a king” that the old woman sets out in gratitude. I was a year or two away from my encounters with Indian mythology – including the tales from the Mahabharata and the Puranas that have grown and shape-shifted through oral retellings over the centuries – but I think the fable of the stone soup gave me an early insight (even if I couldn’t have articulated it back then) into how a story may be constructed over time so that it is constantly a work in progress, never “final”. And how, even when a story *does* have a clear ending, an enthusiastic reader is free to keep taking it in new directions.

1 comment:

  1. Happy to see a fellow Stone Soup fan. This story is beloved in our household too.