DEFY THE GREY KINGS | Jason Fischer.
You’re probably familiar with the classic children’s book hero Babar, the star of picture books dating back from 1930s France to this day as well as an animated TV series and a movie or two. Like others, I grew up with stories of this benevolent monarch and his adoring kingdom. The premise of Babar is simple: our titular hero visits a city of humans and learns about society and its modern features–city dwelling and infrastructure and wearing clothes and walking on two legs rather than four. Mr. Babar takes this knowledge to his probiscidean peers and they build a highly advanced modern society. It’s all very utopian, and all the elephants are adorable and wrinkle-free.
Anyway, I bring up this iconic children’s series because of today’s featured story, published last week by adventure fantasy journal Beneath Ceaseless Skies: Jason Fischer’s “Defy the Grey Kings.”
Mr. Fischer’s story is almost completely identical to the story of Babar, basically.
Both “Grey Kings” and Babar are about elephants.
They have many other similarities as well. For example, Babar looks really dapper in his pressed green suit, while the central elephant in “Grey Kings,” a fellow by the name of Ascaro, wears sturdy armor and wields a battle-ax.
Babar enjoys quiet strolls through the woods with friends, or relaxing in a hammock after a busy day. Ascaro, a respected and feared bull of an elephant, enjoys getting drunk on melon wine and murdering his human slaves by stomping on them until their bones are ground to dust or they’ve choked to death in the mud.
Babar and his friends enjoy various sports, and Ascaro and his friends mount specially trained human slave-warriors on their backs to engage in gladiatorial bloodsport while swinging enormous swords and axes and maces.
In both Babar and “Grey Kings,” whenever there is a minor disagreement, this is resolved with gentle reasoning over a pot of tea, with a minimum of decapitation, bloodletting, skinning, finger- and toe-plucking or any other form of execution drawn out to ensure maximum excruciating agony. At the end of the day, everyone is friends.
But I want to talk about a few textual similarities. Consider this classic passage from Babar:
Having called an assembly of all the elephants, Babar climbs up on a packing case and, in a loud voice, proclaims…
” My friends, I have in these trunks, these bales, and these sacks , gifts for each of you.
There are dresses, suits, hats and materials, paint boxes, drums, fishing tackle and rods, ostrich feathers, tennis rackets and many other things.
I will divide all this among you as soon as we have finished building our city.
All the elephants raised their trunks and cried: ” What a good idea ! What an excellent idea ! “
Now consider this passage from “Grey Kings.” Ascaro and his spear- and sword-wielding human pals are playing with various other well-equipped elephants and their human combat buddies:
Two elephants lay tangled in death, their tusk swords buried in throat and breast. The downed Rothai crews fought to the last on that grey hill, swords and flails flashing. Someone hoisted a lone kontoi with a red pennant tied to the shaft.
“No point waving the blood flag,” Boy laughed, and sure enough the flag-waver was butchered by his enemies. Moments later, another elephant ran past in a rage, blinded from a head wound, and slammed into the dead elephants at a full charge. When the wounded elephant rose, I saw that he’d crushed the surviving humans into paste.
Both Babar and Grey Kings are about fun and adventure. In neither work does the author focus too much on complex character psychology, beyond, in the case of Grey Kings, what turn out to be an untrustworthy character (a loyal servant of the elephant Ascaro, this man had long ago literally lost his tongue in what could only be described as a simple misunderstanding).
I spend so much time reading capital-L Literature focused on symbolic depth and character development and human complexity that I forget just how exciting and fun a purely plot-based story can be. Neither Babar nor Fischer’s ‘Grey Kings’ aspire toward Nabakovian levels of character complexity, but what they offer instead are rich, imaginative worlds in which a conflict (e.g., Which bow-tie will Babar wear to the picnic? or: How will the half-crippled slave-warrior Ghost manage to stab a spear directly into his drunken master’s brainstem? etc.) is addressed by an invested, active character. In the end, both stories manage to be epic in there own gentle way, proving we don’t need enormous helpings of pathos and survival-crises to enjoy a good yarn.
We just need a friendly anthropomorphic elephant by the name of Babar/Ascaro.