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There are a few illustrators for whom I hold genuine affection, and Paul Galdone is one of them. Just the tactile sensation of holding a Paul Galdone book transports me back to a simpler time in children's literature, before there were a million version of - say - Androcles and the Lion - and his editions of classic folkstories and fairy tales were the versions of record.
"Long ago in ancient Rome, a slave named Androcles served a cruel master," it begins, and there he is, standing in the midst of a dense forest, hands upraised in classic freedom-loving stature, proclaiming - indeed - "I want my freedom!"
From there, the story hits all of the points we would expect it to - although I noted that in other versions, the lion is enraged and fearsome. In Galdone's eyes, the lion is "moaning and groaning sadly." Androcles removes the large thorn from the Lion's paw, thus instigating the camaraderie between the two. Within no time, Androcles had moved into the lion's cave and spends his days napping while the lion brings him pieces of meat to the content Androcles. A healthy relationship.
But then the inevitable happens - as we know it must - the Roman guards come a-hunting, imprisoning poor Androcles once more, and this time tossing him into the arena to be ripped apart and devoured for the enjoyment of the public.
I especially love the two-page spread wherein the cage is opened, the Guard's eyes hidden in shadow. The lion is now no longer moaning nor groaning, but fierce! Opening wide its jaws, eyes wild, lunging forward.
The next page furthers to scenario, as we now see Androcles cowering in fright, sobbing, "This is the end for me!" - which makes the contrast all the more startling when the lion then pounces upon him and begins licking him joyfully. The two good friends, reuinted at last!
Galdone ends the tale with the two of them walking down a Roman cobblestone road together, Androcles with his hand around the lion's back, the sun setting. "And they walked away together."
Click here for other versions of Androcles and the Lion.
In this version of the classic tale, Androcles seems much more saintly. His run-in with the lion is not just a random occurrence, but seems just in keeping with his view of nature. In an image which reminds me of Saint Francis, Stevens draws the young lad sitting cross-legged - albeit shackled - while a bevy of cats and kittens and a few dogs flock about him, crawling on him, licking him.
"Androcles was gentle and kindhearted," she writes. "After his hard work was done and his cruel master was fast asleep, the stray animals of the city came to visit."
Even after the young slave has escaped and fled to the woods, we find him again kneeling in the grass, surrounded by a bear, a ram, a porcupine, some rabbits and... one ferocious man-eating lion who is roaring so loudly that the rest of the animals run and scatter!!! The ostrich especially looks like its about to die of a heart attack.
But does Androcles run?
"Easy boy. There's a big, nasty thorn stuck in your paw. Will you let me pull it out? Now be still and don't bite me."
And thus the friendship is struck. However, it is not much later that the Roman soldiers surprise and capture Androcles, whilst at the same time a different group of soldiers capture the lion.
Androcles is then sent to the Colosseum - there to be devoured in front of cheering attenders - whooping and hollering and whistling. But it is the very same lion released onto the Colosseum grounds! And instead of attacking, it becomes a docile pussy cat! The cheering attenders now find themselves whooping and hollering and whistling. Is there any result which would have not made their day?
Regardless, "Androcles had learned an important lesson," Steven tells us. "A noble soul never forgets a kindness.
And while Androcles was off learning that important lesson, another less fortunate chap was presumably fed to a different, less sensitive lion, and the Colosseum crowd again cheered, whooped and hollered.
Click here for more versions of Androcles and the Lion!