The Big Green Book, a 1962 collaboration between Robert Graves and writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak re-appeared in print this year and proves itself to be a satisfyingly odd addition to the Graves canon.
Poetry is magic, prose is a craft
In an interview with The Telegraph, Robert Graves’s son Tomás said that his father believed that “poetry was magic and prose paid the school fees and bills. Any money from poetry was used on antiques, plates, beautiful things; writing prose was treated like a craft.”
Given that Graves was the author or editor of more than 140 books, collections of essays or poetry, it’s clear that he must have had a fair amount of bills to pay. The sheer volume of books Graves was involved with writing can make it appear that he kept the magic for the poetry. And it’s true that, although they’re always well-written, collaborations like The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939 written with Alan Hodge – described in a contemporary review as “a strange unfocused photograph of the times” – don’t cry out to be read.
But it’s a mistake to dismiss Graves’s all collaborations as simply hack work. In its own way, The Big Green Book is every bit as magical and intriguing as the poetry. It’s also the only children’s book Graves ever wrote.
To be honest, I’ve not been able to find much of a backstory on The Big Green Book. Sendak, a year away from writing and illustrating Where The Wild Things Are was commissioned to illustrate a children’s story written by Graves. I’m not sure if the two men ever met. So perhaps what makes the book unlike Graves’s other collaborations and commissions is the fact that he wrote it first, maybe without thinking that it had commercial possibilities? After all, this was only a year after a revised, enlarged edition of Graves’s The White Goddess had been published.
Whatever the true story might be, The Big Green Book is a children’s story that isn’t everything it appears to be, as the best ones always are.
The Big Green Book
The story told in The Big Green Book is actually very simple. A small boy named Jack whose mother and father are dead lives with an aunt and uncle who are “not very nice to him”. One night, Jack find a big green book in a room at the top of the stairs. The book turns out to be full of magic spells that enable Jack to “make himself as old or young as he liked…and how to make birds or animals do just as he liked, and how to disappear”. There are also spells for winning card games and speed-reading lessons.
Transformed into a little old man, Jack plays cards with his aunt and uncle and wins every time. He ends up with their house and their enormous sheepdog. Interestingly, Graves doesn’t play by conventional moral rules which would mean that Jack’s trickery would be revealed for what it was and he would be punished because Jack is “rather scared of what he could do with the big green book”. By the end of the book, Jack is only using his ability to learn lessons instantly to remain top of his class.
On the face of it, then, the story is rather slight. But, if you remember Graves’s belief in the magical power of words and reading, it seems there’s more to The Big Green Book than meets the eye – although Sendak’s illustrations are gorgeous.
For me, the fact that the magic book is green suggests that Graves was still in White Goddess territory. If you remember, The White Goddess is in part a speculation that an ancient Welsh ballad named Cad Goddeu or The Battle of the Trees connected each tree to a letter of the alphabet and constituted a calendar of lunar months.
But, really, it’s not necessary to look for profound depths in The Big Green Book. It’s simply a lovely book and would make a perfect present for a child who isn’t convinced that the answer to everything lies in a smartphone.
Last time I looked, you could pick up a copy of The Big Green Book at La Casa de Robert Graves which is open Monday to Saturday throughout the winter. A visit to La Casa is always magical, even more so on a winter morning when you’re most likely to have more space to feel the presence of Graves for yourself.
Opening hours for La Casa are here.