‘Iam still finding it difficult to explain just what sort of book it is,” wrote Alan Alexander Milne in the introduction to the 1922 edition of Once on a Time. “Perhaps no explanation is necessary. Read in it what you like; read it to whomever you like; be of what age you like; it can only fall into one of two classes. Either you will enjoy it, or you won’t.”
If his words aren’t hint enough about the character of the tale, that conspicuously missing “Upon” from the title will supply another.
Milne is known to most as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, perhaps the most recognizable character in children’s literature (or all literature, for that matter). A poet and playwright, he began his career writing humorous pieces for Punch magazine before achieving remarkable success around the world with his plays. In 1917, three years before his son Christopher Robin was born, Milne published Once on a Time, saying he’d written it “for the amusement of my wife and myself at a time when life was not very amusing.”
All the components of a traditional fairytale are present in the story: warring kings, a marriageable princess, fairies, a prince, enchantments, a villainess. But, dear reader, it is decidedly odd.
First, if you’ve never heard the name Roger Scurvilegs, your education has been sadly neglected. For it is from Scurvilegs’s definitive, 17-volume history, Euralia Past and Present, that our narrator (Milne) supposedly draws this tale. This narrator is a charming fellow, constantly popping in to enlighten us about the characters, add bits of pertinent (or irrelevant) Euralian history, take issue with Scurvilegs for his romantic inclinations — but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us review the synopsis:
King Merriwig of Euralia is off at war with the king of Barodia (due to an unfortunate affair involving a pair of seven-league boots, a morning constitutional, an outdoor breakfast, and some “Stiff Notes”). Merriwig has left his beloved daughter Hyacinth in charge of Euralia during his absence, and has instructed the Countess Belvane (Merriwig’s love interest, Hyacinth’s mother having been carried off by a dragon 17 years earlier) to act as her adviser.
Ah, Belvane. Let us indulge Milne for a description of her:
The Countess Belvane! What can I say which will bring home to you that wonderful, terrible, fascinating woman? Mastered as she was by overweening ambition, utterly unscrupulous in her methods of achieving her purpose, none the less her adorable humanity betrayed itself in a passion for diary-keeping and a devotion to the simpler forms of lyrical verse. That she is the villain of the piece I know well; in his Euralia Past and Present the eminent historian, Roger Scurvilegs, does not spare her; but that she had her great qualities I should be the last to deny.
It is said that the Countess Belvane is modeled partly off of Milne’s wife, Dorothy “Daphne” de Sélincourt. This is clearly not a serious fairytale. In the genre of princesses and dragons, Milne makes his own way.
“Whimsical” best sums it up. The tale is told in a roundabout, tongue-in-cheek sort of way, with classical allusions, made-up epics, and even an amusing paraphrase of Shelley’s “To a Skylark” sprinkled throughout. Absurdities abound. Take, for instance, the scene where Prince Udo of Araby is riding to the aid of Hyacinth (she has begged him to come help her stand against the cunning plots of the countess):
So three days later the friends set out with good hearts upon the adventure. The messenger had been sent back to announce their arrival; they gave him three days’ start, and hoped to gain two days upon him. In the simple fashion of those times (so it would seem from Roger Scurvilegs) they set out with no luggage and no clear idea of where they were going to sleep at night. This, after all, is the best spirit in which to start a journey. It is the Gladstone bag which has killed romance.
Or observe this scene, during the Barodo–Euralian war:
Sometimes the whole Euralian army would line up outside its camp and call upon the Barodians to fight; at other times the Barodian army would form fours in full view of the Euralians in the hope of provoking a conflict. At intervals the two Chancellors would look up old spells, scour the country for wizards, or send each other insulting messages. At the end of a month it was difficult to say which side had obtained the advantage.
Readers may note that this book was written during World War I, and begin to see similarities between the story and real-world events. Milne requests that you cease and desist:
I shall say boldly that this is a story for grown-ups. How grown-up I did not realise until I received a letter from an unknown reader a few weeks after its first publication; a letter which said that he was delighted with my clever satires of the Kaiser, Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Asquith, but he could not be sure which of the characters were meant to be Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Bonar Law. Would I tell him on the enclosed postcard? I replied that they were thinly disguised on the title-page as Messrs. Hodder & Stoughton. In fact, it is not that sort of book.
The tale is absurd, yes, but it has some poignant moments as well. The chapter where Hyacinth meets her love is rather touching, and the princess’s friend Wiggs is a darling (but not saccharine!) character.
Milne presents his characters to their best advantage, and they are always themselves, freshly original and wonderfully charming — never caricatures. Belvane, for instance, despite her faults, “had a passion for the distribution of largesse.” The king of Barodia desires to become a swineherd. Little Wiggs longs to dance like a fairy. And dear Roger Scurvilegs. Our narrator tussles with him and his “historical” narrative in the most delightful way, leaving readers wishing they could find the 17-volume history of Euralia at some dusty, half-hidden bookshop in London.
So if you find yourself in need of a laugh, pick up Once on a Time and come to Euralia. Adventure beckons.