Discovering Howard Pyle

Though I have read enough to know how little I have read, I am still quite often shocked by the size of the gaps in my knowledge, even in subjects where I am interested and fairly widely experienced.  My friend Lenore Walker revealed another of these gaps for me last week when she lent me a little paperback novel called The Garden Behind the Moon by Howard Pyle.  I was at first under the impression that the book had been written quite recently, because the edition that was loaned to me was published in 2002, and it does not list an original publication date, but I had only read a few pages before it became apparent that it had actually been written at a much earlier time or that it had been written by someone who was very skillfully imitating the style and language of that earlier time.  A cursory internet search confirmed that the book actually dates from 1895, and the same search revealed also that its author was, and still is to some degree, a quite famous illustrator and writer of books for children.

Now, I have taught courses on children’s literature more than once, have read vast quantities of books for children, have a habit of asking people about their favourite children’s stories, and have associated for many years with homeschoolers, who generally take their children’s reading very seriously, but I had never heard of Howard Pyle, at least not in such a way that I would remember him.  Yet he wrote stories in a wide range of genres, from poetry to pirate stories (The Book of Pirates) to retellings of the Robin Hood stories (The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood) to fairytales (Twilight Land).  One of his historical fictions (Men of Iron) was even made into a film called The Black Shield of Falworth.  How I failed to find him until know I cannot quite imagine.

What is more, as successful as he may have been as an author, Pyle was probably best known in his lifetime as an artist and illustrator, earning praise from artists as influential as Van Gogh, who wrote that Pyle’s pictures struck him “dumb with admiration”.  Whether he is depicting pirates, like  Marooned Pirate and Pirate Left for Dead, or fairytale themes, like The Mermaid and David Sat Down on the Wooden Bench, or portraits, like Catherine de Vaucelles, in Her Garden and Abraham Lincoln, or civil war scenes, like The Charge and The Nation Makers, Pyle’s pictures are filled with a gravity and an emotion that make them compelling.  I am particularly drawn to some of his black and white drawings, like The Forging of Balmung or his rendering of a child being taught by an angel to play the flute.  Though my artistic judgment weighs very much less than Van Gogh’s, these pictures fill me with admiration also.

Having found so much to enjoy in its author, I returned to The Garden at the Back of the Moon with renewed interest, and I found its style and its subject and its sensibility to be very much like George MacDonald‘s At the Back of the North Wind, which is probably my favourite children’s novel.  Both books are fairytales, not in the vulgar sense of being peopled with tiny creatures who all live in flowers, but in a truer sense that I am not really able to define but that is described by George MacDonald in “The Fantastic Imagination”  and by G. K. Chesterton in “The Ethics of Elfland” and by J. R. R. Tolkien in “On Fairy Stories” and by  C. S. Lewis in “Sometimes Fairy Stories May say Best What Needs to be Said”.   The kind of fairytale that these authors describe is much rarer, at least in my experience, and The Garden Behind the Moon is just such a story.  This fairytale quality, whatever it may be, gives the novel a solemnity and a wonder and a power, even despite the bits that sound a little laboured and preachy to the contemporary ear.  It is a beautiful book and one that I will be sure to share with my children.

More importantly, I have the feeling that my relationship with the work of Howard Pyle may be only just beginning.

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8 comments
  1. Well, Luke, I just knew you would appreciate that book! The quality/character of it reminded me a little of Lilith, which you so aptly led us through a couple of years ago at EBC in Fantasy Lit.

    Howard Pyle is indeed a treasure and I agree with your comments. I found the book in a used bookstore in Southampton several years ago while on vacation there. There is a depth to the story which I found both a little frightening and compelling at the same time. It was a page turner; I could not put it down.

    When I searched out Howard Pyle I was fascinated once again to find an artist-illustrator who other artists, now recognized as fine artists, respected so highly. In the current fine art world I do not find this to be the case; illustrators are looked down upon as less skilled somehow. My own experience has been just the opposite: I find them to be as adept or even moreso than some of the artists who make the art history tomes. They seem able to draw the magic from that etherworld flowing silently and invisibly within our own dimension and illuminate us with its presence and the many things it can unfold to us.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the book and that it opened your world a bit more; it certainly did the same for me!

  2. d said:

    My favorite novels for children are the Moomin books by Tove Jannson.

  3. What a great post. I envy that you’re just at the start of discovering Pyle’s wonderfully varied pictures and writings.

  4. Ian,

    I agree. The early days of a love affair with an author have a unique excitement about them, though there is something equally beautiful about those later times when the affair has turned into a full and intimate friendship, as I hope I will find in Pyle one day.

  5. Mushk said:

    Indeed Pyle was a great artist. His work is full of life.

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