The Letter for the King, by Tonke Dragt

Review published on December 24, 2013. Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy

It is the night before 16 year old Tiuri is to be knighted. He finds himself locked in a chapel in silent contemplation of the honour and duty that will be bestowed on him the following day. When he hears a noise and a voice calling for help he knows he should ignore it. If he wants to become a knight the following day he can’t talk to anyone or allow anything to distract him from his prayers. But the voice sounds desperate and is very persistent. Unable to ignore the pleas Tiuri opens the door to the chapel and finds himself face to face with an old man, begging him to go and find his master who is in desperate need of help. Although Tiuri is torn about leaving his vigil so close to the hour of his knighting, he also knows that if he already was a knight it would be his duty to offer his assistance. With reluctance and in the hope that he’ll be back in time for the ceremony, Tiuri leaves the chapel.

When he finds the knight who is the old man’s master, he is close to death. With his last breath he implores Tiuri to deliver a very important letter to the King of a far away country. It is a mission Tiuri won’t be able to talk about with anybody and a journey he’ll have to undertake alone.

Tiuri’s journey will bring him to places he’s never seen before, from dark forests to treacherous rivers, through dangerous towns and to imposing castles. Pursued by enemies who won’t think twice about killing him and unsure of whom, if anybody, he can trust, Tiuri faces an adventure that will teach him about honour and treachery. But in the face of danger he also discovers loyalty and friendship as well as the knowledge that while doing the right thing may not always be easy, it is the only course to take.

I first read this book when I was a child in Holland and loved it at the time. While most of the story-line had long since slipped my mind I did remember the opening scenes and, more importantly, how much I had enjoyed the book back then. When I discovered that this book had, at last, been translated into English I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, read it again and spread the word.

First published in 1962 The Letter for the King won the Children’s Book of the Year Award in Holland, has been translated into sixteen languages and was made into a movie in 2008. Anybody reading this book will immediately understand why Tonke Dragt is considered the greatest Dutch female writer for children. This author combines a recognisable and endearing main character with a great adventure that is sure to keep youngsters engrossed in the story. More than that though, the author also manages to share some valuable life-lessons about loyalty, honesty and friendship without ever being blatant about it.

At times this story and the words used in it felt very simple and almost too innocent, even for the age group it is aimed at. But then occasionally I stumbled across little gems like the following:

“We may never see each other again, but each of us owes his life to the other, and that includes all that we might do in the future.” – Tiuri to the Jaro, the man who failed to kill him.

There is a reason this book was chosen as the best Dutch Children’s book of the latter half of 20th Century and now, at last, the English speaking world has the opportunity to discover the beauty of this story as well. My advice is to grab that opportunity with both hands and enjoy the experience.

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The Crooked Timber of Humanity, by Isaiah Berlin

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