Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On The Trail Of Another Old Book

In a sense, this story starts almost forty years ago. In another sense, it started last week with pirates and mermaids.

Last week, when I began seeing commercials for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, with its images of sea-faring folk and mermaids, a picture was brought up from the old files in the back of my mind. It was of a small cabin (garishly lit) inside the belly of a whale. The captain had just opened the door, and inside was revealed the Devil and a mermaid, playing cards for his soul. Two equally vivid illustrations I also remembered from the book this picture was in: a young man finding the Devil's cat in a woodpile, and the three drunk friends and old man from Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale." Over forty years ago I had read this book in my aunt's house; I believe it was some Reader's Digest compilation for Young Readers. I have been on the look-out for this book ever since, not only for the stories within, but especially for the impressive illustrations.

When I was in college in the early Eighties I ran across the picture of the Devil's cat in a book, one in a yearly series of commercial art and illustration. I made a Xerox of the picture; like a fool I made no note of the artist or where it was published. I dug that picture out of my archives and made a new scan of it; the name is down there in the grass, but I can't make it out.

Anyway, I went looking around on the Web and using elements from what I recalled of the pictures. I was able to identify the story with the captain, the Devil, and the mermaid as that of Ichabod Paddock (a whaler), who is trapped in the belly of Crookjaw the whale, where the mermaid (a sea-witch) wins his soul. He is only saved when his wife forges a silver harpoon and spears the whale, overcoming the mermaid's magic and turning her into wood (a figurehead, naturally). The story of the Devil's cat in a woodpile is "Erkki and the Devil's Hide," sometimes just called "The Devil's Hide." It is a Finnish tale, the story of a young fellow named Errki, who goes to work for the Devil. They make a bargain; whichever of them loses their temper first will be skinned by the other to make a coat. The Devil does all in his power to upset Errki, but for every trick the Devil pulls, Errki does him one better; when the Devil puts his cat in the woodpile to prevent Errki from cutting wood, Errki simply cuts its head off. The Devil eventually loses his temper and has his hide stripped, after which he vows to leave the Finns alone. "The Pardoner's Tale" of course I knew from high school.

So much for the stories. I haven't been able to find the book. I'm not even positive (at this distant date) if it was a Reader's Digest book. I've looked for anything that even has a couple of the stories together. There are two "juvenile" books of the whale story: "Ichabod Paddock: Whaler" (1970) and "Crookjaw" (1994). I found "The Devil's Hide" in both an old collection of Finnish folk tales and in an anthology edited by Jane Yolen. I found a fellow named Frank Patton who seems to be dimly recalling (as I have) the same book; he remembers the name Ichabod Paddock but is apparently looking for the story "The Devil's Hide." This assures me at least that my memory is not simply a crazy imagination.

So perhaps my best lead could be the artist--if I could only find out who that is. My one clue there is that the style of the picture of Erkki is very similar to the style of an artist who did cover illustrations for Dell/Laurel leaf books, such as Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye, or the covers in the 80's of the five Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander. Which could be helpful, except I can't find any indication anywhere of who that artist is!

So there my quest stands. If anyone, anywhere, can help me--the name of the book, the name of the artist--please, please do, so I can pin down this teasing memory at last.

1 comment:

Brer said...

And now after now more than another year of searching I've tracked it down: "Reader's Digest of Great Stories for Young Reader's" (1969). I went on Amazon, found a copy available for $1.74, and now it should be here in a couple of weeks.