Have you ever noticed that one of the best and worst parts of coming back from a trip is the mail? On the one hand, damn, there can be a lot– and a lot of recycling. Sifting through the chaff to get to the good stuff can be a drag. But on the other hand, sometimes the good stuff can be so good. What I’m saying, yes, is that I got some of those books that you can pry out of my cold, dead hands when we came back from South Carolina. No, not just that: you can fight past the ramparts of the fortress I will have erected to preserve my personalized, signed copy of Instructions, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Charles Vess.
Wait, you care more about the front cover than to see the personalized signature that is mine and belongs to me and did I mention it’s mine? Well, I get that, because Charles Vess’s art on that front cover is glorious.
Good grief, isn’t that lovely? You probably want to reach right in and open the book. If you don’t already have a copy, though, you’re out of luck, except that that Harper Kids put together a beautiful trailer for this book. I’m going to help you out here: do not run a search for “Instructions trailer.” The results you get will not be friendly to someone in search of a piece of children’s literature. I made that mistake so that you don’t have to– you’re welcome! Instead, here’s what you’re looking for:
I hope you watched that. Neil Gaiman reads it aloud beautifully, and you should get a good sense of what’s going on with both the art and the text.
And what is going on? Why did I feel the need to write to the staff at the Jean Cocteau Cinema and beg them to beg Neil Gaiman not just to sign a copy of Instructions to me, but to please, please personalize it because it would make my life just a little more complete? (And they did ask him, because they’re lovely people, and he did it, because he’s lovely. Thank you, Jean Cocteau Cinema and Neil Gaiman!) I would say that to me this poem provides the distilled essence of everything I love about fairy tales, and synthesizes it with my daily life via the one thing common life and fairy tale adventure truly have in common: instructions.
When you’re a child, the first thing your parents really try to teach you is obedience: “Yes,” “No,” “Eat this,” “Don’t touch that,” “Come here,” “Sit down.” Even the most loving parents, even the ones most invested in giving their child a sense of autonomy and authority over their own body and their own lives, or even the most indulgent parent– well, I challenge you to find me even one parent raising their child without saying at least that common list of instructions. We all hear instructions growing up, all of us. We learn obedience to instructions, and we learn rebellion against instructions, and we learn to question instructions, and we learn, as Neil Gaiman wrote in my book which is right beside me right now, “follow instructions.” Well, fairy tales do the same thing. Find the Fountain of Life, but when you get there, don’t use the golden dipper: you must use the old tin dipper full of holes instead. Don’t let the peddler into the house. Keep to your midnight curfew.
In common life, we see consequences as we grow up: If you touch the hot stove, you’ll burn your fingers; If you don’t come here, you may be picked up wriggling and screaming and be plopped in your crib for time out; If you don’t sit down, you may fall off your chair and catch a nasty bang on your thigh, poor thing. In fairy tales, disobeying instructions often makes the action happen: It’s only the third son who has the sense to obey instructions and pick up the tin dipper; Only when Snow White lets in the peddler does the prince find her; Breaking the midnight curfew brings the prince after Cinderella. A broken instruction leads to trouble, and to excitement.
So much for the instructions we’re given, but what about the instructions we learn ourselves? You know the ones: You’re told not to touch, but you learn what you can touch, and when, and where to hide with your stolen chocolate. You also learn who to share it with, adding a hug to the chocolate if they’ve been hurt after falling off that chair. These are the ones Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess truly bring to life. You’ve probably broken an instruction. You’re probably on your journey of excitement, perhaps your quest. What are the rules now? What are the instructions we really need to know?
We start with the rule which we probably broke:
Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before,
Say “please” before you open the latch,
walk down the path.
This is a brilliant opening. Touching that wooden gate is probably breaking a rule somewhere– it would be much more sensible to stay quietly at home, don’t you know?– but it’s how you start your journey. Saying “please” is important: politeness is important, perhaps even more so in fairy tales than common life. Then you have to go, you have to take your path– you have to start your journey, my friend, and see it through until the end.
This is a sampling of the types of instructions you’ll find in the book. There are real fairy tale instructions, such as: “Eat nothing,” since we all know what happens if you eat, Persephone and Eve. But, on the other hand:
if any creature tells you that it hungers,
If it tells you that it is dirty,
If it cries to you that it hurts,
if you can,
ease its pain.
Which is only an instruction you can learn by experience– and yet is one of the most important and classic taught by fairy tales: Stamp out the fire to save the ant, and it will bring the last seed; Feed the wolf and the bear, and they will come to your aid. And yet, is it just a fairy tale instruction? Don’t we all learn this in life– or learn to harden our hearts to what we know to be true? Isn’t this how we learn to distinguish the hero from the villain in story and in life, basically? In this case, Charles Vess shows us in his illustration, one of the most sensitive and lovely in the book, that our fellow on the journey heals the cat, and the cat becomes a faithful companion.
Which brings me to Charles Vess. Do you remember when I talked about Stardust a while ago? I believe I mention him as being one of my favourite authors working today. His style is wholly different from Coralie Bickford-Smith‘s beautiful William Morris-esque work, another of my favourites. While her work is very structured, very formal and patterned in the Arts and Crafts style, Vess’s is romantic, very organic, soft and lush in texture. There are little surprises waiting for you: “eyes peer from the undergrowth,” says Gaiman, and Vess makes sure they do, on many a page. You can feel the folds of the traveller’s clothes, the warmth and coldness around the twelve months’ campfire, and the wind ruffling the animals’ fur as they ride on the back of the wise eagle. Just as the words of the poem encapsulate the lessons of every fairy tale you’ve read, the illustrations are packed with references, both in subject and in texture and feel. I can’t think of a better choice of illustrator for this particular book, not even Arthur Rackham could have done it as well, and I can’t say better than that. (Have we talked about my crush on Arthur Rackham? We’ll get there.)
There’s something I particularly love about reading this book with the Changeling. To her it’s all new, but to me it’s all old. She hasn’t yet read all of the fairy tales which are distilled in this poem, in these images, but I grew up with them. She is reading first what I read last. I’ve written before about how I love experiencing things together with her for the first time; this is a case of having precisely different experiences together with her, but each is beautiful. She gets the freshness, the mystery of a journey as yet unexplored. I get the sense of a journey in progress: I’ve read those stories, and now I’m following my own journey. I love the thought of reading it together when I’m approaching the end of my journey, she is on her journey, and perhaps she’ll have a child beginning her journey.
And so I think we’ve come to the end our journey here. We’ve followed instructions: we talked about instructions you’re given and instructions you learn to follow. We talked about how they are true, not in common life or in fairy tales, but in common life and fairy tales; how, in effect, this poem unites the two. And we’ve seen how they play out, in colour and texture, in Charles Vess’s illustrations. So I’ll leave you with Neil Gaiman’s most famous instructions, and his last instructions:
Trust your heart,
and trust your story.
Once you have?
And then go home.
Or make a home.
And from me? Take that journey, and always follow the instructions you’ve learned, the ones you know to be true, while you’re on your journey.