“The Flint Heart”
A re-imagined story with a possible political message (from the New York Times Book Review)
For this revival of The Flint Heart, a wonderful British fantasy by Eden Phillpotts first published in 1910, we can thank Katherine Paterson, the well-known author, and her husband, John, who at the request of their publisher “freely abridged” the original.
At its center is an object, the Flint Heart, a heart-shaped pebble that changes whoever possesses it into an evil person. The book opens with the talisman’s back story, explaining how a shaman made the object during (appropriately) the Stone Age when a warrior wanted to become hardhearted in order to overthrow his ruler. The subject is classic, but in the Patersons’ abridgment of Phillpotts, its treatment is comic — the “Iliad” as retold by the Flintstones. “If you are one of those people that think people in those long-off days were much kinder and gentler than people are today, you are being far too romantic,” Phillpotts warns in the Patersons’ rendition. People then, as now, were “always trying to see who could throw the biggest lump at his enemy.”
Time passes, the evil stone is eventually buried and over the next 5,000 years that region in southern England, Dartmoor, is invaded by pixies, fairies, brownies, trolls, flibbertigibbets, dwarfs, pidgwidgeons, spooks and ghouls. Then comes the 19th century, when the Jago family farms the same area and the father, Billy, happens upon the Flint Heart, puts it in his pocket and suffers a Jekyll-like change.
Unaware of the lapidary explanation for their father’s transformation — he goes from Wordsworthian paterfamilias to a despot who beats his children and cheats his neighbors — 12-year-old Charles and his 5-year-old sister, Unity, seek a remedy to Billy’s disease by traveling to the Pixies’ Holt, home of tiny supernatural creatures and an example of the Fantasyland that the British do so well. Along the way to destroying the Flint Heart, the children are guided by the pixie poet Mr. De Quincey, meet the King and Queen of the Fairies, grapple with animal misbehavior à la “The Wind in the Willows,” and proctor a hilarious “Alice in Wonderland”-like school exam. Phillpotts’s most original contribution to this familiar territory is the Zagabog, a wise creature who introduces the concept of point of view by explaining how Aesop’s hare let the tortoise win in order to boost the sluggard’s self-esteem.
Illustrations by John Rocco, a former employee of Disney Imagineering and a contributor to “Shrek,” add a cinematic flavor with artwork that seems to anticipate storyboards for a future film complete with Pixar-generated pixies. Echoes of Charles Bragg’s work and of Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” occur throughout, but the guiding inspiration, in both atmosphere and palette, seems to be Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”
Asked why Phillpotts’s century-old book should be reimagined now, Katherine Paterson has hinted that the story may have a relevant political message. Could it be the Flint Heart’s capacity to make its owner lunge for power?
Indeed, if the Flint Heart still exists, we should be able to easily identify its owner by means of distinguishing symptoms. All we need do to find its current possessor is look among political aspirants for the one who is a bully and a narcissist, ignorant and narrow-minded, power-hungry and hardhearted.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (September 16, 2011). An interesting survey of the appearance of fairies in literature appears in Marina Warner’s “Once Upon a Time.” Information on the following site suggests that a film is being created from the book: theflintheart.com
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