The Poetic Beauty of The Legend of the Wandering King
Book Focus: July/August 2005
The Legend of the Wandering King
By Laura Gallego García, translated by Dan Bellm
0-439-58556-2, $16.95, Arthur A. Levine Books
Ages 10 and up
Every reader knows the click. It's that moment in a book when you give yourself up to it, when you say "yes" and surrender to the world and the characters. It's when you shut the door, turn off the e-mail, and take the phone off the hook; it's going through the wardrobe, down the rabbit hole, into the secret garden, on the Hogwarts Express. It is, in short, the moment you fall in love with a book, and of all of reading's many pleasures, it's perhaps the most thrilling and addictive.
Every editor knows the click too. For me it happens when I recognize a gesture or a feeling in a book, something real from the range of human experience (often, though not always, my own experience): when I encounter something true. And of all the wonderful things I get to do as an editor, I have to say the click moment is perhaps the most exciting part of my job, because not only do I fall in love with a book, I know I'll get to share it with other readers as well.
In the spring of 2002, my boss Arthur Levine brought back a brilliant new novel from the Bologna Book Fair, about an Arabian prince who longs to be a poet, and a fabulous, deadly, enchanted carpet. Arthur asked Macarena Salas, an editor with Scholastic en español, to read the book for us. She adored it. He asked Dan Bellm, an award-winning poet and translator, to translate three chapters for us. Dan gladly obliged. And when we received the pages, they included these lines describing the power of poetry:
Everyone who was present that day could sense that words had a mysterious magical power, that they could reach the heart and make the oldest things new again, over and over, if only one used them with feeling and passion. And once the audience understood this, they never forgot it.
A truth expressed in a way we'd never imagined it before. And just like that: click.
The book was The Legend of the Wandering King by Laura Gallego García, and Arthur A. Levine Books is proud to be publishing the complete novel in August 2005. Legend tells the story of Prince Walid of Kinda, a handsome, courteous, charming young man who longs to attend the great poetry competition at Ukaz. But his kingdom boasts one greater poet than he — a poor carpet-weaver named Hammad — and out of jealousy, Walid curses him to create an impossible work of art: a carpet showing the history of the entire human race. Hammad dies weaving it. Men go mad seeing it. And when it is stolen, Walid discovers his life's quest: to recover the carpet and earn forgiveness for his mistakes.
The book has a marvelous background in historical fact: Walid's story was inspired by the life of Imru'l Qays, a real prince of Kinda in the late fifth century C.E. who won the poetry competition at Ukaz. But it's also a rich fantasy utterly unlike anything else I've ever read. During the editing process, Laura commented that she wanted the book to have the feel of a story out of the "Arabian Nights," where startling transformations seem everyday and every small incident interlocks with a bigger event. Indeed, each piece of Walid's story takes its place in a larger whole — rather like the pattern of the magnificent, entrancing carpet at the center of the story. Two scenes in the middle of the book made me gasp out loud with their revelations, though as I reviewed what I knew about the characters and their world, I realized of course that was what had to happen, naturally Walid would run into . . .
But that would be telling. The Legend of the Wandering King is about pride, about fate, about the choices we make that determine the direction of the rest of our lives, and about our ability to reverse those choices by making other ones: about the freedom we have to decide our lives every moment we live them. While it has enormous appeal for adults, it might speak especially to teenagers as they struggle to make the choices that determine who they grow up to be. For readers unfamiliar with the rich culture of the Middle East, it might also prove a surprise and an education. And, I'm delighted to say, it's absolutely crammed with click moments.
I hope it might click with you too.