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Showing posts with label Ezra Jack Keats. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ezra Jack Keats. Show all posts

12.18.2011

The King's Fountain (1971)

Written by Lloyd Alexander

Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats

Acrylics on canvas


E.P. Dutton and Co

What a great find this one was, buried amongst the stack of picture books at my local library. Two enormous talents: Lloyd Alexander of the Prydain Chronicles, and Ezra Jack Keats, who is most well-known for his series of books about Peter the young child. Who knew they ever collaborated on a children's picture book together? Not I.

I found it in the folklore section - where I find most of my books - but I'm not certain if this is a retelling of an old story, or something original which sprung from the minds of these two men. The only clue I got was in the afterword, in which Alexander is quoted as saying, "I wanted to explore ideas of personal responsibility and of people discovering in themselves resources they never suspected. The best way seemed to be though the form and flavor of the Hebrew parables or ancient Sufi teaching-stories."

It definitely has the flavor of an ancient parable. The story concerns a magnificent fountain which the king will be installing in his garden. However, should the fountain become operational, all water to the city will be stopped. The hero is a poor man with a long hasidic beard, sitting in a wonderful Keats' barren room (he really does paint the most gorgeous barren rooms), full of ugly splotches and dark shadows. "Soon our children will cry for water, our animals will sicken, and all of us will die of thirst," he moans.

"A man of highest learning must go to the King, speak to him out of wisdom, and show him the folly of his plan," says his wife. Though of course we know that it is he, the old man, who will go to the King.

First, however, he goes to a scholar and a merchant and pleads with them to speak to the King. They both refuse for their own reasons. My favorite scene in the book was when he then decides he must find a man of strength and courage to confront the king. He finds a ripped, bulking metalsmith, whom Keats paints as a real beast of a man.
.
The metalsmith, eager to stand against the King, swore that once inside the palace he would smash every window, crack every wall, and break the King's throne into firewood.

"Alas," bemoans the poor man. "The strongest hand is useless without a wise head to guide it."

And so it becomes up to him to meet with the King and plead his case.

For Ezra Jack Keats, the theme of the book is summed up in the words of Hillel:
.
If I am not for myself,
    who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself,
    what am I?
And if not now,
    when?
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