The Secrets of the Wild Wood

Today is Tonke Dragt’s 85th birthday, and here is the Resident IT Consultant with a review of another of her fantastic books:

The Secrets of the Wild Wood by Tonke Dragt is the sequel to her prize-winning story, The Letter for the King. Originally published in Dutch as De geheimen van het Wilde Woud, it is now, for the first time, available in an English translation by Laura Watkinson, published by Pushkin Children’s.

Tonke Dragt, The Secrets of the Wild Wood

The story carries on from the end of The Letter for the King. Tiuri, now Sir Tiuri, has returned from Unauwen and is waiting with his squire, Piak, for the return of the knight-errant, Sir Ristridin, who was last heard of leading a small band of knights into the mysterious Wild Wood in pursuit of the secrets it contained. That was autumn. It is now spring, and nothing has been heard of Ristridin for many months.

Rumours abound. Risitridin has sworn to punish the Black Knight with the Red Shield for the murder of his friend Edwinem. Has Ristridin himself been killed? Has he ridden to Deltaland? If so, why did he not first come to Castle Ristridin? Tiuri and Piak decide to seek news of Ristridin at Castle Islan on the very fringes of the Wild Wood.

‘There won’t be anything of interest happening there,’ says Sir Bendu. He couldn’t be more wrong. Tiuri and Piak are embarking on an adventure which will see Tiuri captured and Piak battling to free him. Who are the Men in Green and what is the secret of the Unholy Hills? On the way to solving these questions Tiuri and Piak meet the beguiling Isadoro and encounter two old friends from the first book, Lavinia, daughter of the Lord of Mistrinaut, who still preserves her romantic feelings towards Tiuri and Marcus, the Fool in the Forest. And Tiuri plays a fateful game of chess against the Black Knight himself.

I especially enjoyed the book’s description of the natural world. Dragt (or is it the translator?) seems to have a knack for conveying the interplay of the seasons, weather, the countryside and man. I found myself, especially in the early chapters, reminded of the winter landscapes of Breugel. The language feels very natural and straightforward. There is none of the affectation in dialogue which sometimes accompanies history or fantasy.

I was intrigued to discover that Dragt only read The Lord of the Rings after she had written The Letter for the King. Apparently, she was afraid to write anything for six month afterwards for fear of being influenced by Tolkien. There’s an obvious Arthurian influence but, on the whole, I think the fantasy in the two books benefits from Dragt not having had the opportunity to study Beowulf.

I thoroughly recommend this book. The Letter for the King is recognised as the best children’s book ever in Dutch. I believe The Secrets of the Wild Wood is just as good. It’s just a pity that we’ve had to wait fifty years to be able to read it in English.

One response to “The Secrets of the Wild Wood

  1. And there are more great books by Tonke Dragt for you to be translated, among them my personal favorite ‘Torenhoog en mijlen breed’ (Sky-high and miles wide) about an explorer on Venus who is sent out to investigate the surroundings of a human base on the planet, but who is never ever to enter the woods which lie a few miles away. There are supposed to be unknown dangers. You can imagine what someone with an inquisitive mind ends up doing.

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