In "The Song of Seven," a classic of children's literature by Dutch author Tonke Dragt, a schoolteacher woos his students with stories about his heroic alter ego. The division between the teacher and his adventuring alias disappears when a mysterious count summons enters the scene. Through the mishaps of her narrator and protagonist, Dragt explores the means and ends of storytelling.
I don’t have children. The youngest “children” I’ve taught were adults in their first years of college. I have, however, eluded the stress, responsibility, and possible heartbreak that raising children entails by escaping into books—I’m no stranger to fantasy. When I started writing and editing for a living, experimental literature, with its promises of a cerebral experience, replaced the tall tales of my youth; the books I read as a child—such as Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz series and Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox—have become a fondly remembered part of an increasingly inaccessible past, a past that seems less real to me as time goes on.
That past was momentarily illuminated as I read Tonke Dragt’s 1967 The Song of Seven (Pushkin Press, 2018). The tale follows Frans van der Steg, a twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher who woos his students with stories about his heroic alter ego Frans the Red. The division between the teacher and his adventuring alias disappears when a mysterious count summons Frans to a nearby castle. Frans, thrown into a quest to save an imprisoned young boy, watches his own reality begin to resemble the world in which his stories unfold: “Frans didn’t ask any more questions. It seemed that he’d ended up in a part of the world where antique cannons were as easy to find as buttons and marbles—a place where magicians could use their powers to send a person to sleep and eccentric counts lived in castles filled with staircases and hidden treasures.” Frans’s journey resembles the lives of children likewise coming to terms with their relationship to the supposedly real world; it also offers adult readers like myself the opportunity to reconsider the frustrations we encountered during our own passage to adulthood.
The Song of Seven stands apart from contemporary children’s stories because it comes from a different time and different place: English readers will receive a glimpse of a now bygone culture through Laura Watkinson’s skilled translation. Watkinson brings the linguistic play present in the Dutch original into her English rendering. Our first introduction to the antagonist Gradus Grisenstein, for example, is limited to the sounds “Gr . . . Gr” because a handwritten letter obscures his name. As its title suggests, much of the lore within The Song of Seven is conveyed by sing-songy lyrics: “Do you know the Seven, the Seven, / Do you know the Seven Ways?” Like many tales meant for young people, the book presents a series of erudite lessons in the form of amusing exchanges. The wizard Thomtidon, for example, annoys Frans with his whimsical logic on several occasions, but as Frans admits, “With that kind of thinking, you could undermine our entire system of arithmetic.” We’re also reminded that Thomtidon, silly as the name sounds, is pronounced exactly as it is spelled—the book doesn’t take itself too seriously.
At certain points in the narrative I wondered how parents would react. While the book’s key moral concern with deceptive appearances has stood the test of time, the culture under which the text was produced has since changed values; in fact, part of what gives the The Song of Seven its fairytale mien are the bygone customs it conveys. One scene shows Frans entering a bar filled with smoking patrons; several show Frans referring to his landlady Miss Bakker as Aunt Wilhemina—she also cooks his meals; and yet another describes Wilhemina’s sister, Miss Rosemary, as wrapped in a “colorful flowery scarf elegantly around her head” while a “snow-white curl had slipped out from under it.” If I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to send the book to friends with young children after the bar scene, I became concerned when the book repeatedly described Miss Rosemary through the clothes she wears and the color of her hair: “She’d taken off her coat and was wearing a grey silk dress with a large white lace collar. Her age was hard to guess; she was much younger than her sister Wilhemina, but her hair was as white as snow.” I leave it to other readers to decide if this classic European mythologizing constitutes a barrier for reading or cause for concern. The book, in the proper hands, could lend itself toward a study of stories we use to prepare children for society’s demands; others, namely children, will be able to ignore the historical minutia and absorb the fanfare undisturbed.
Without children of my own to consider, I can only speculate where and how others might react. But, as a somewhat experienced reader, I understand fantasy as a genre concerned with the means and devices of storytelling. The Song of Seven follows this trend by positioning Frans as both the hero and narrator in his own tale. For adult readers, this gesture and its implications may seem obvious: a story is always first and foremost a fiction. Whether or not this statement can be applied to children—thousands if not millions of which await letters from a magical school called Hogwarts each year—remains unknowable. But maybe times have changed and these children have new hopes, dreams, fantasies, and obsessions. The conventions of yesteryear stand out against the stark background of the present when we consider that Dragt was born in a time when Jakarta was called The Dutch East Indies and spent three years in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. If the literary phenomenon that united an international audience less than a decade ago seems to be losing hold, I can only imagine the lesser-known stories of which we’ve already lost sight. What does it mean to suddenly have access to these stories and the worlds, real and fictional, they contain? And how are we—as readers charged with passing information between generations—to acquaint young people with these texts and the contexts from which they originate?