“Life is too precious to be left to chance” – Deus X. Machina.
This playful epigraph is from Walter Moers’ The Thirteen and A Half Lives of Captain Bluebear. A cat, they say, has only nine lives. A Walter Moers’ Bluebear has twenty-seven. The photo pictured above is of the novel’s bluebear protagonist, early on in life, gazing up at the formidable SS Moloch – the largest ship in the world (registered tonnage: 936,589 tons).
Who is Walter Moers? Walter Moers is a German novelist and cartoonist whose stories are set in the fantastical land of Zamonia, a continent approximate to where Atlantis would have been if it had existed. Some of Moers remains untranslated, but those that have been show him to be one of the most complete children’s author alive today, even if for most unreasonable of reasons.
The Thirteen and A Half Lives of Captain Bluebear is a biographical tale interspersed with extracts from The Zamonian Encycopedia, written by the character of Professor Abdullah Nightingale. These extracts explain the world as much to Bluebear as they do to you, the reader – covering everything from the topography of Gourmet Island to the working geometry of the Eternal Tornado. The encyclopaedia is long enough to be a book in and of itself but combine this with the rest of the lengthy narrative and you’re left with something very much in need of tight-lipped editor. If the novel’s ramblings are sometimes a bit ungainly this does not stopper, and in fact complements, the nonsense in its prose. Take this, an explanation of multidimensional space:
“It is really quite easy to picture square yard of multidimensional space. Simply picture a train travelling through a black hole with a candle on its roof while you yourself, with a candle on your head, are standing on Mars and winding a clock precisely one yard in diameter, and while an owl, which also has a candle on its head and is travelling in the opposite direction to the train at the speed of light, is flying through a tunnel in the process of being swallowed by another black hole which likewise has a candle on its head…”
While this passage could have been taken out of Douglas Adams, it is only in flashes that the novel can be compared to the brilliant Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You see, Walter Moers does not stray too far down the rabbit-hole, because he grounds his ramblings in ancient stories. The Muggs, a peculiar nomadic species, are comically described as forever searching in the desert for the legendary city of Anagrom Ataf.
Walter Moers’ Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures is an even bigger book than The Thirteen And A Half Lives of Captain Bluebear. It tells the story of Rumo the Wolperting, and, although not in its entirety but certainly during its beginnings, it parallels itself to The Odyssey with the Demoncles, one-eyed giants who live on Roaming Rock (Joyce, eat your heart out; Nabokov, forgive me the interpretation). Rumo is on a quest to get his soulmate Rala (styled as a quest for ‘home’, obviously) armed only with his not so trusty ever so talkative sword named Dandelion. To get her, he must deal with Bluddums, Marsh Hogs, Shark Grubs, Murkholmers, Copper Killers, Troglotrolls, Hobgoblins, Spiderwitches, and the Tyrannomobyns Rex. All very Pratchettesque, and yet… the fattening genius of a Pratchet novel is somehow missing! Rumo and his Miraculous Adventures is split into two parts, the first of which is far superior to the second because Moers’ talent emerges in his world building and character histories, and this gets lost in the narrative focus of the second half. Rumo is marginally worse than Captain Bluebear because Captain Bluebear doubles down on its strengths and doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t.
Reoccurring characters breathe Zamonian stories into one another; the author guiding his young readers’ parents’ credit cards towards the next dispatch. In Rumo we are told of the long history of Lindworm Castle, and this leads us to Walter Moers’ City of Dreaming Books, a story of a lindworm whose literary endeavours lead him on an adventure into Bookholm. This has a stronger narrative, less an exploration of a world and more of a cohesive novel, which culminates in what I not only remembered as but also re-read as a gripping one-hundred-page finale filled with bottomless floors and impossible climbs. Here Walter Moers transcends his audience, writing not only for children but for adults, not only using ancient stories as the bedrock of his fantasy, but also making references to “hoary old novels” written by Doylan Cone. It’s not exactly the intertextuality of Ovid, but set in a story with giant lizard dilettantes hoping to be inspired by the Zamonian Muses, it cannot but sparkle with charm.
Walter Moers is a modern re-mythologiser. Most people know how old myths pan out. They’re common stories. We cannot be sure where we first heard them, but we know that we’ve almost always known them. Well, for me, this could well have been my earliest introduction. I cannot read the stories of Daedalus and Icarus or Perseus and Andromeda without being reminded of the books of Walter Moers and his dragons who chain distressed damsels to rocks instead of simply eating them. In this regard, Moers is a bit of a one trick pony, and indeed when I skimmed back over his novels to write this piece I did not find them as enjoyable as I remember them being (save brief flashes in The City of Dreaming Books). He is not meant to be reread in adulthood, but I will not let the innocence with which I first picked them up be lost. A Wild Ride Through the Night, an adventure of Gustave Doré, is still a delightful short story, if only, perhaps, because it is so short.
Walter Moers is the complete children’s author because his best books are the ones which derive us less pleasure when re-read in adulthood. Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Lewis Carroll; these author’s works not only retain their original charm but are enjoyed even more with each re-reading. They hold tight to the joy. Walter Moers, I submit, is a complete underage author because of his flaws. He cannot compete with greats, because, like a child with a stencilled-in piece of A4 and a colouring-set, he and his imagination scribble exactly as they will with not a care to keep within lines of quality. A childhood reading of Moers is not something you can ever reclaim. If you didn’t read him as a child, don’t start now. You missed out on the happy highways where I read, that cannot come again.