It took author Lloyd Alexander two years to recover from the experience of writing The Chronicles of Prydain. For his next book, he avoided Welsh mythology completely and instead choose to explore German fairy tales, creating a tale of a young and adventuresome fiddler, the delightful little cat that adopts him, and the sesquipedalian princess they encounter.
(I totally looked that one word up, guys.)
The result, The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, won Lloyd Alexander his first National Book Award for Children’s Books, just beating out E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, perhaps in part because the judges were bowled over by the book’s vocabulary, which managed to be both hilarious and violate virtually every one of E.B. White’s precepts for simple language. It was a very good year for animals in children’s books.
Naturally, it takes some time before our three heroes can get together. As the book starts, Sebastian, known as something of a scamp, loses his position as a violinist with Baron Purn-Hessel thanks to an unfortunate accident with his bow and a music stand which still more unfortunately causes great offense to a powerful, visiting aristocrat, known to Sebastian as a purse. Deprived of his salary and, possibly worse, the chocolate and cake he has managed to charm out of the kitchens, Sebastian next loses his violin. Things look dire, indeed.
Fortunately, Sebastian has met a cat.
Lloyd Alexander correctly and firmly believed that the friendship of a cat is well worth having, choosing to demonstrate this in the rest of the book. The cat, who soon gains the name of Presto before earning any number of lengthy and more dignified nicknames, might seem like an ordinary enough pet. But not only does Presto retain his dignity throughout the book (which is more than can be said for most of the humans) and has the sense to take naps at appropriate times, he also has the gift of making friends with the right people, like, say, sesquipedalian princesses met in disguise. And because he’s a cat, he brings good luck.
Not that the cat initially seems to bring that much luck. Some of the fine citizens of the land are convinced, absolutely convinced, that the cat is a witch disguised as a black cat. Never mind that the cat is actually white, since that’s just part of the disguise. (People can convince themselves of anything.) Sebastian’s attempt to stand up for Cat Justice is exactly what leads to the loss of his violin—but also ends up saving his life and the entire kingdom later. But I digress.
Anyway, Sebastian and Presto continue their merry travels, encountering many others on the way: a cheery traveler named Nicholas, a rather terrifying baker who may have Evil Plans, and Princess Isabel. In somewhat classic Lloyd Alexander style Isabel has dressed herself up as a boy to flee her Evil Regent, who has announced his plans to marry her; she hopes the costume will help keep her disguised. Alas, although she is able to pass as a boy quite easily, she is not, however, quite able to pass as a normal person, thanks to her habit of constantly using the Royal We and lots of Very Big Words.
I can almost picture Alexander cackling to himself while writing Isabel’s dialogue which is awesome and, to Sebastian, barely comprehensible. When I was a kid, I loved it, even if it did send me rushing to the dictionary over and over again. Sebastian more or less translates Isabel’s meaning for younger readers, but I wanted to know what the words really meant. They sounded so grown-up. Grown-ups might find that definition debatable, but Isabel’s vocabulary is indisputably, um, erudite, and if you are looking for a book to increase SAT vocabulary you could do much worse.
Isabel has another problem: trapped inside her palace listening only to her advisors, she has very little idea of how the real world works, or how she is perceived outside the palace. The revelation is a shock, especially when another young girl announces boldly and loudly that “I don’t want to be Princess Isabel, that silly thing! And a mean, ugly, wretched creature besides!” Especially since the other girl does like the cat.
So, for that matter, does Isabel, who has always wanted a kitten but never been allowed to have one. Presto’s purrs persuade her that Sebastian can be more or less trusted, or at least travelled with, so it’s off they go, hoping to find the great Captain, a legendary hero who can help them, or at least flee to another country for safety. Naturally, these optimistic plans don’t quite work out, but they do find some travelling entertainers to join, and, later, a hot air balloon. Sebastian also picks up a violin that may or may not be cursed; it certainly draws him into its music, and drains him, and a later performance enthralls him and his audience so much that no one can think of anything but music. Well, no one except Presto, who is a pretty remarkable cat.
Speaking of Presto, I have to say that I think the real fantasy of the book is that Presto rescues Sebastian not just once, or twice, or three times, but at least four. (I was kinda losing track.) And that’s not even counting Presto’s little trick of being adorable and convincing people that of course they should help out Sebastian because anyone who is friends with a cat this cute of course is the sort of person who should be helped out. Alexander just manages to keep the rescues slightly realistic by making sure that all of the rescues are something a cat can actually do, and of course Sebastian does save the cat’s life in return. Still. It’s a good thing that cat is so soft and furry, otherwise I might find myself with major doubts.
For such a lighthearted romp, the novel does deal with some fairly serious issues, including finding your place in life and what it really means to be an artist or a musician. Sebastian isn’t quite at a complete loss when he loses his first violin, but he also has no very clear idea of what to do next with his life—or what he can do. His second violin, which may be cursed, draws him back into music—but even here, he is uncertain. Isabel, meanwhile, has to decide whether or not she really wants to be a princess, and what, as a princess, she can and cannot do. Disguise is another theme: not just Isabel, but Nicholas, the baker, a beggar, and a seemingly friendly washerwoman are not quite who they seem to be.
The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian seems designed to be read out loud or under the covers with a flashlight (I am NOT confessing to doing the second thing AT ALL, thank you very much), since nearly every chapter ends with a little cliffhanger or a little twist. The end, too, is not quite what I expected, with a lovely, realistic touch that shows just how much Sebastian has grown—and just how much music can change a life. In turn, the book was to prove to Lloyd Alexander that he could write fantasy based on other mythologies beyond Prydain. In the succeeding years he would proceed to do just that.
Mari Ness has earned the friendship of not one, but TWO remarkable cats, who both tolerate her writing from time to time, even if this does take away important chin scratching and cat adoration time.