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