Walter Moers has cleverly built a fantastical tale around 21 drawings from the work of the famous 19th-century illustrator, Gustave Doré. The woodcuts reproduced in the book are of gryphons and monsters, naked damsels and dragons and the faces of the moon; Moers has plenty to go on. He spellbinds and spooks it all up into a well-knitted super-scary flight of fancy that should appeal to sophisticated and naive children alike.
Moers’ young hero is Doré himself as a 12-year-old child. We meet him when he is rather incredibly captaining a ship which is at threat from perilous twin storms, the spiralling Siamese Twins Tornado. He survives and finds himself clinging to the wreckage of his sinking ship, alone but for Death, a skeletal black-cloaked figure who quotes Goethe, and Death’s poor half-crazed sister Dementia. They play dice for Gustave’s soul, but he does a deal with Death, accepting the challenge of achieving six impossible tasks in return for his young life.
His first task is to rescue a naked damsel from the jaws of a dragon and he flies off, post-haste on a gryphon’s back to the island of damsels in distress. Only one of these golden-haired Godivas is in difficulties; the others, far from being distressed, hunt the dragons and refine their blubber into suntan cream (practical, they are all naked) or tame them for their milk, a skin-rejuvenating product. Our hero succeeds, receives little thanks for his labours and leaves the island lovelorn and broken-hearted.
For his second task — traversing a forest swarming with evil spirits — he acquires a talking nag called Pancho Sanso. Pancho quickly comes to a sticky end, though. Singing a horsy doggerel about eating ghost-grass, ‘just a friendly weed that blows your mind’, the earth sucks him under and Gustave is left to charm the evil spirits alone.
The woodland creatures are grotesque but Moers still threads through a sense of enchantment. ‘Spiders’ webs floated through the air forming gossamer-fine rope ladders up which the little light that remained was ascending into the evening sky.’ His delightfully comic touches, too, keep the pages turning and the gore is never in short supply; giants’ bodies are sliced in two like bread rolls.
Young readers already holding their stomachs might also struggle with one or two words. A reference to the Grim Reaper is unexplained and a one-legged bird becomes ‘inebriated’ — though the flowing ‘wonderlust wine’ provides an easy clue.
Pancho, who’s a trusty nag, pops back to assist with further tasks, guessing the names of five giants and extracting a toot from the Most Monstrous of all Monsters. The scenes get progressively more scary and gruesomely revolting.
The fifth task, in which Gustave has to meet himself, involves some quite scientific flights of fancy. As a scientifically challenged reviewer, I decided at this point that the book has possibly more appeal for boys than for girls. The only hope of Gustave achieving his aim, apparently, is to see his spatio-temporal continuum projection, so riding on the back of a winged Time Pig he takes a trip to the future where he meets himself as an old man. It’s all a bit above me.
He finally keeps his appointment with Death at Death’s house on the banks of the moon’s Sea of Tranquillity but he fails the final test, which is to draw Death. His tormentor tosses the perfect drawing aside; Death has no eyes, only sockets, and cannot appreciate it. He packs Gustave off back to Earth with a pair of faulty wings and Gustave lands splat on the cobbles of his native Paris. Finis.
Not quite; it is in fact just the rude awakening from a dream.
Walter Moers, writer, left-wing cartoonist, a painter and sculptor, has one inter- national bestselling children’s book under his belt, The 13-and-a-half Lives of Captain Bluebear, and A Wild Ride through the Night has been captivating a huge young German audience.
It is engaging and artfully constructed but, unlike Harry Potter whose extra powers never quite remove him from identifiable-with situations, this story transports its readers into a fantastical dream world and then lets on that it’s time to wake up for school. I felt a touch let down, a bit like seeing Father Christmas disrobe, although it was a nice tidy ending and I’m glad to have learned more about Gustave Doré.
The drawings are wondrous and otherworldly and originally adorned works such as Don Quixote, Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Paradise Lost. Doré’s chronology at the end of the book is a fascinating read.