wisdom or happiness – a children’s book review

I love children’s books.  I probably read more books that are written for children than books that are written for adults.  I find that there is nothing better than children’s books for exposing the essences of human experience and distilling them to the most basic truths.  Plus, child protagonists are always less annoying than adult protagonists.  I’m always on the lookout for Newbery Award books, historical novels, and books that are kind of old-fashioned that don’t try so hard to cater to the “cool” factor.

Kneeknock Rise by Natalie Babbitt won a Newbery Honor in 1971; I had never heard of it before I saw it in the library last week, so I decided to read it.  Can you guess the book’s message from the summary and review that appears on the back cover?

From the moment young Egan arrives in Instep for the annual fair, he is entranced by the fable surrounding the misty peak of Kneeknock Rise: On stormy nights when the rain drives harsh and cold, an undiscovered creature raises its voice and moans. Nobody knows what it is—nobody has ever dared to try to find out and come back again. Before long, Egan is climbing the Rise to find an answer to the mystery.

“Here’s a wonderfully fluent fable about man’s need to have something to believe in… The fable is simple and its meaning precise enough: Science cannot or will not explain it all.  The strength of this tale is in Natalie Babbitt’s clean, modern, very confident telling.  For children, especially, this is fine writing.” –School Library Journal

It’s basically a fable about reason and belief.  The story is very simple: the Megrimum is a horrible monster that lives at the top of a mountain overlooking the village of Instep.  Most of the time the Megrimum stays on his mountain quietly.  But he hates rainstorms, and on stormy nights he can be heard howling and moaning.  On these nights he might also come down into the village to look for food, but he won’t bother you if you stay indoors with a candle in the window and a wishbone on the hearth.

The protagonist Egan, unfamiliar with the Megrimum, is initiated into the assortment of superstitions surrounding the Megrimum and Kneeknock Rise.  Nobody has ever actually seen the Megrimum, and for everyone else in the neighborhood, it’s enough to hear it and feel the fear that it brings.  But Egan is overcome by curiosity, and decides to climb to the top to see the monster for himself, and maybe even slay it and become a hero.

The thesis of the story is summed up in this poem which the protagonist ponders:

I visited a certain king
Who had a certain fool.
The king was gray with wisdom got
From forty years of school.
The fool was pink with nonsense
And could barely write his name
But he knew a lot of little songs
And sang them just the same.
The fool was gay. The king was not.
Now tell me if you can:
Which was perhaps the greater fool
And which the wiser man?

Who is the wise man, and who is the fool?  “Is it better to be wise if it makes you solemn and practical, or is it better to be foolish so you can go on enjoying yourself?”  Egan isn’t sure, even after he climbs to the top of Kneeknock Rise and finds that, of course, there is no Megrimum.  The howling and screaming is caused when rain floods an ancient volcanic hot spring at the mountaintop.

Of course, nobody believes Egan when he returns to the village and reports what he found.  He was delirious with fever, they say.  Because as terrified as the villagers are of the Megrimum, they also love it.  They live for the delicious fear on stormy nights, and visitors come from all around to brighten up their mundane lives with the terror: “It’s the knowing there’s something different, something special up there waiting.  It’s the knowing you could choose to change your days– climb up there and throw yourself right down the throat of the only and last and greatest terrible secret in the world.  Except you don’t climb up.  A secret like that– well, it’s worth the keeping.”

Remember the review on the back cover?  It made me think the book was about something completely different.  Most of the other featured reviews I’ve seen for this book have been similar, extolling the pervasiveness of belief and the importance of finding something to believe in.  It would be one thing if these comments were made by children, but these reviewers are adults, which makes me wonder if they even read the same book.  But surprisingly, or maybe unsurprisingly, most reviewers seem to have the same reaction to the villagers in the story: it’s important to have something to believe in.

Even Egan’s uncle Ott, the one adult in the story who has climbed Kneeknock Rise and seen the “Megrimum” for himself agrees: “For me it’s always been important to find out the why of things.  To try to be wise.  But I can’t say it’s ever made me happier.  As for those people down below, they’ve had their Megrimum for years and years.  And I don’t know as I want to spoil it all for them.  There’s always the possibility that they’re happier believing.  Kind of a nice idea, this Megrimum.”  Uncle Ott is the poet who himself is caught between the paradox of the wise man and the fool.  He leaves Egan with this final thought:

The cat attacked a bit of string
And dragged it by the head
And tortured it beside the stove
And left it there for dead.

“Excuse me, sir,” I murmured when
He passed me in the hall,
“But that was only string you had
And not a mouse at all!”

He didn’t even thank me when
I told him he was wrong.
It’s possible– just possible–
He knew it all along.

It’s a pretty easy book, probably 2nd to 4th grade reading level.  It would be a great story to read with your kids if you wanted to start a discussion about belief and skepticism.  However, it presents a very black and white picture of knowledge vs faith.  I hardly think I need to say it, but contrariwise to Egan and Uncle Ott, “finding out the why of things” has made me happier.  And I still do love a good ghost story.  For those who dare to go after the Megrimum, life is not so bleak as it’s made out to be.

(PS: If you want to buy a copy, I recommend ordering books from Better World Books.)

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