Some stories are true

A Lion in the Meadow
by Margaret Mahy,
pictures by Jenny Williams.
Picture Puffins 1972 (1969).

“That is how it is,” said the lion. “Some stories are true, and some aren’t…”

Read and reread, its covers mended with yellowing sticky tape, our family’s copy of Margaret Mahy’s classic has survived nearly half a century and has already been read to the children of the child it was first bought for. And the reason I think it has survived is that it doesn’t only work on very many levels but has also been served well by Jenny Williams’ luminous illustrations.

It begins with a boy running in from a field made savannah-like by grasses as tall as his head. “Mother,” he tells her, “there is a lion in the meadow,” but she doesn’t believe him. “Nonsense, little boy,” she replies. From this point we go on to what constitutes truth and what make-believe, who takes charge of storytelling and when does the storytelling stop, if at all.

It has the quality of classic fairytales, full of archetypal figures and incidents, layered by repeated phrases amid mild suspense but at the same time leaving space for one’s imagination to expand into. Pictures work hand in hand with text while leaving us free to interpret what we’re being told and what we’re seeing.

The mother tries to allay the little boy’s half-feigned fear of the “big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion” in the meadow near the farmhouse by pretending that a dragon in a matchbox she gives him will grow and chase the lion away. But this proves to be like throwing oil on a fire. Will the mother make good her promise never to make up a story again? It’s interesting that the late New Zealand author adapted the ending for a later edition with new illustrations, but in truth I prefer this more enigmatic conclusion.

The original pictures have a very 60s bohemian pop art quality about them, for example when they contrast the golden meadow associated with the lion with the mauves and pinks and purples of the dragon’s environment, before the tones are finally combined. They mix a child’s view of the world with humour as the lion’s features flicker from ferocity to fear to fun, and also subtly draw a link between the dragon and the mother.

But it’s the story, with its rhythms and pace, which lingers in my mind. Older readers will also enjoy the subconscious echo of another writer’s lion, witch and wardrobe in the little boy’s friend, his mother and the broom cupboard in which boy and lion hide from the dragon. Adults may relish parallels with the Garden of Eden in this story’s meadow and in the apples the lion eats, or with the Norse Midgard and its serpent, and maybe even the apples of the goddess Iðunn.

But one hopes that the youngsters to whom this tale is really directed will pick up the real nugget at the centre of it all, which is that this is one of those stories that really is true: it validates the child’s hopes and fears, the power of their imagination, their sense of where the safety of home lies and how one may come to extend it.

4/21 TBR Books in 2021

18 thoughts on “Some stories are true

        1. Sadly not, though just checking online the cover illustration seems familiar so I may have come across it at some stage — perhaps when I was a kid in 1950s Hong Kong?

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  1. I don’t know this book but I too love the illustrations. Everything about them speaks of their time, the flowers in the jug, the stripes on the wooden broom and dustpan’s brush, fabulous!

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    1. Of course, brooms and brushes and dustpans are mostly plastic and nylon these days, aren’t they? I’ve seen the later edition in a YouTube video with new illustrations by the same artist, but while they’re equally lovely (there’s an extra child, though not mentioned in the text) they don’t have the particular feel of these ones, of the period and even faintly out of time.

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    1. Yes, I was a bit devastated when I found that out (I posted a YouTube link to that new version in one of my responses above). The original illustrations were so reminiscent of the farmhouse and wild flower meadow we used to have in the Preselis but I don’t recognise them in the later pictures.

      By the way, I can find out little about this Jenny Williams except that she is London-born and has worked on several picture books: https://www.hachette.co.uk/contributor/jenny-williams/. It’s confused by the existence of at least two other artists of the same name, one from Herefordshire and another US artist.

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  2. I had completely forgotten this picture book. Thank you for the reminder. The illustrations have a fabulous retro feel and I’m going to investigate the links in your replies later too. I’m intrigued!

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    1. It clearly has been and remains a popular tale for many, whichever version has been referenced, as I discovered when I went online to find out more about author and Illustrator. I hadn’t realised the late Mahy was a New Zealander, for example, or that Williams had re-envisioned the visual details to include — unnecessarily, I believe — a toddler as well as the unnamed ‘little boy’, and a more traditional yet oddly more cuddly dragon in place of the fearsome flower power fire-breathing one.

      If you can find out more background details from your more professional position I’d be very grateful, Anne. I’m sure nothing will ever take away the sheer power and raw magic of the first and best version!

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