This is a children's book. It gives a fictionalised account of the birth of the alphabet in Gebal-Byblos, a historical town in Phoenicia on what is now the Lebanese coast where the alphabet does indeed seem to have begun. The invention is ascribed to an apprentice scribe called Aleph who is captured and enslaved and taken to the Sinai desert where he discovers that the Egyptian Pharaoh intends to invade Gebal. His brother Nun goes on a sea voyage to Crete, via the volcanic island of Thira (now Santorini) and learns on the way the secret of navigating by the stars. In Crete he takes part in the bull-dances and learns about the plans of King Minos to launch a sea-borne invasion of Gebal. His other brother Zayin, a general in the army, goes on a scouting mission north and learns the secrets of riding horses; also discovering that the horsemen of the north intend to invade Gebal. Will the three-pronged attack on their city succeed? And what about the disaster foretold by the mysterious Chaldean?
Despite a surprising amount of description, this has everything a good boys' adventure yarn needs. All three brothers are captured and have to escape if they are going to warn their home town. And the stay-at-home sister Beth also has a part to play.
I loved this when I was a kid and even re-reading it there was a moment of catharsis near the end when a lump came to my throat and tears to my eyes. If it can still do that to a cynical sexagenarian it must be a great book.
Some of my favourite moments:
- “'Call yourselves soldiers!' Zayin jeered. 'I’ve collected eggs in the farmyard from creatures with more guts than you! I’ve seen them clip wool from animals with as much sense!'" (Ch 2)
- "Calculations, to Nun, were a matter of fingers and toes or pebbles, or beads on strings; but the stranger seemed to be able to perform them instantly." (Ch 3)
- "The two men exchanged looks in the obscurity, as soldiers do on the battlefield when a casualty occurs." (Ch 10)
- “I counted the trees, Father,” (Ch 11): the sniffle moment.
A much-underestimated masterpiece. February 2021
Clive King was an alumnus of my old college, Downing College Cambridge. His most famous book was Stig of the Dump.
|This review was written |
by the author of Motherdarling