Although of course, I was very sad to hear of Terry Jones’ death the other day, I was at least cheered that much of the coverage mentioned his output as a children’s author. Erik the Viking arrived too late for my own childhood, but I often used his books in the classroom, and they never failed to raise a smile. If you have never read a Terry Jones book, thinking they would just be Python-esque foolery, you really should. He combines the exuberant wit of J.K. Rowling when it comes to naming characters (Nicobobinus! Ragnar Forkbeard! Queen Pavona!) with Philip Pullman’s forensic ability to describe without using vocabulary beyond a young audience, and Julia Donaldson’s celebration of using brains to outwit the enemy. Plus, both the chapters in his longer books and the tales in the books of stories tend to be very short, so they are ideal if you are short on time. And if you have plenty time, you can always read just one more…
Complete with beautiful black and white illustrations by Michael Foreman, this was his first children’s book. Told in the episodic style of an Icelandic saga, Erik and his trusty team set sail on a quest where they battle the fearsome Dogfighters and pit their wits against Death himself, among other adventures. It is probably the best-known of his books, partly because he turned it into a successful film, but also because it became a central part of Viking topics in many primary schools. As well as being a page-turning adventure, the story-telling style has a cyclical feel to it making it an ideal step between traditional fairy tales and longer quest stories.
Fantastic indeed, both in the sense of embodying fantasy, and that they are hugely entertaining to read. He wrote 3 compendiums: Fairy Tales, Fantastic Stories and Animal Tales, and some of them can be found as stand-alone stories too. They combine a richly-imagined fantasy world with some very down-to-earth realities (for example, the King in Forget-Me-Nuts who is unable to be happy with a mere 16 palaces, because King Fancypants of Swaggerland also has 16 palaces). In a curious way, the stories remind me of the TV series “Yes, Minister” in that the details may have dated but the underlying realities are the same as ever. The heroes and heroines of these stories demonstrate bravery, compassion and ingenuity when defeating dragons or rescuing sailors – what better way to vanquish The Beast With A Thousand Teeth than to feed him sticky buns but not to remind him to clean his teeth? The moral messages are clearly set out, but surrounded by fun and colour so the reader does not feel like they are being beaten around the head by an improving moral tome. Oh, and just occasionally they will break your heart (The Snow Baby).
My favourite! For a completely bonkers story, you can’t beat Nicobobinus. Even the chapter titles provide more entertainment than some books do in their entire length (for example: Nicobobinus’s First and Only Day as a Monk). This is the book which most clearly comes from the Monty Python school, as some of Nicobobinus and Rosie’s adventures end a bit abruptly, like a sketch without a proper ending, but it matters not a jot. Terry Jones guides the reader through the madcap escapades as the two young adventurers attempt to discover the Land of Dragons and cure Nicobobinus of his golden feet (don’t worry, it’s all explained). As with his other works, happy endings are awarded to those who are deemed worthy, and those who are not (like Brother Melchoir, who gives Agnes the kitchen girl a bad cucumber) get their just desserts. The book overall is immensely satisfying, in its close-up details, and in its overall structure. I’m sure many people will be re-watching The Life of Brian or the Spanish Inquisition sketch in tribute to Terry Jones, but I will be happy just to curl up with my copy of Nicobobinus and revel in the master at work once more.