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The best place by the fire

September 3, 2009

I know this isn’t news, but one of the best things about having a week off and actually going away is having the time and space to breathe, to go for a walk, to notice the clouds and the street signs and the other people. To have the time to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee without worrying what I’m meant to be doing or where I should be hurrying off to.

Coffee in Hobart

It was after a week of this luxury that I was strolling round the Salamanca markets on our final day in Hobart, where I spied something at a second hand book stall, something that, dare I say it, had been put there just for me.

The Soldier & Death 2

It’s a story called The Soldier and Death, adapted from a Russian folk tale by Arthur Ransome. You might know it from a series called The Storyteller, which was created by Jim Henson in the late eighties and was, I think, possibly the best thing he ever did. The stories used a mixture of live action and puppets, and were all based on relatively unknown folktales. They were told with respect – they weren’t sugar coated – they were sophisticated and dark and funny and romantic and adventurous and enthralling. My brother and I taped them off the TV and we watched them over and over and over again. I loved them. They took me into a world full of magic, one with a true bride and a thought lion and three ravens. They taught me about Sapsorrow and the straggletag, the luckchild and the griffin. Most of all, they taught me that the best place by the fire is kept for the storyteller. The way they started each episode with him, stoking the fire and talking to his dog, then taking us in to these amazing places and then, in the end, bringing it all back to him, simply stoking the fire and talking to his dog, started (I think) my fascination with the person telling the story, and not just the story being told.

There were only nine episodes (then four Greek myths, also excellent), and I had/have a few favourites – Sapsorrow and The Three Ravens spring immediately to mind. My other favourite, the one I think of with the most glee, is The Soldier and Death.

The Soldier & DeathIt’s a story about a soldier, obviously, who whistles a merry tune and carries a pack of cards and a sack. And it’s about death too, of course. But the absolute scene stealers of the story are a gang of devils, (devilish devils and gamblers too’) who fume when beaten. I can picture them now, the steam coming out of their ears as they ‘Fumed fumed fumed!’ Brilliant. And quite sad in the end, now I remember. But then, it wouldn’t have been nearly as good, nearly as true if it had ended otherwise.

When I saw the book on the table at the markets, I couldn’t believe it. Looking at it, I think perhaps this is the edition that The Storyteller must have based theirs on, not just the story, but the illustrations too. It’s such a find, nothing I would have ever thought to go looking for, nothing I would have even imagined existed.

And I found it strolling round a market in Hobart. I think I’ve used up my secondhand book shopping luck for at least a year, but I don’t care – it’s perfect.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 14, 2009 10:39 pm

    I’ve just been editing my post on Sapsorrow and thought to have a search for her on WordPress. I like the Soldier and Death story too and, like you, think Jim Henson did it really well.

    I’d not known about the Arthur Ransome connection, though I loved his Swallows and Amazons as a kid. The book looks great – thanks for sharing!

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