The Wind on the Moon (1944)

The Wind on the Moon, written by Eric Linklater, originally published by Macmillan. It was awarded the Carnegie Medal in 1944. There was no award in 1943.

As is apparent from the picture above, I read The Wind on the Moon in the Danish translation. This was published as part of a series of international classics by Gyldendals Børnebibliotek and given to me by my mother when my children were very young. Apparently, The Wind on the Moon was the Danish Queen’s favourite book when she was a child, and she read it to her sons when they were little. The Danish Queen, Margrethe II, has translated the edition I read from English to Danish and provided the illustrations for the front cover. 

First an enormous disclaimer – I am not keen on translations, and particularly not of children’s books. Translating books is both a skill and an art and translators do amazing work. However, we know that texts have multiple meanings and interpretations, and the translator has to make choices about specific words which close (or indeed, open) these possible interpretations. As a general rule, I now altogether avoid books translated from any of the Scandinavian languages into English and vice versa as I find myself continually interrogating in my head what the original sentence might have been. 

There isn’t a vast tradition of translating children’s books into English for the British or American market. But where it happens, the books will need to be translated. In Children’s Literature Comes of Age, Maria Nikolajeva says: “The way in which children’s books cross boundaries into another cultural region is not merely a question of translation and publication in a new langue [it is] the young readers in the country and their ability to accept and utilise the book. It is, in other words, a problem of reception” (p27). 

Riitta Oittinen has written a book about translating for children and her contention, which Maria Nikolajeva agrees with, is that the best translation of a children’s book is not necessarily the one that is the most accurate and closest to the original but the one that is able to arouse in the reader the same feelings, thoughts and associations experienced by readers of the source text. The question is then how you do this and how much you have to change the underlying text to be able to arouse these feelings and thoughts. 

I hasten to add that the translation by the Queen is excellent, I don’t find myself stumbling over a sentence, but she has (by necessity) translated both the names of people and places and the songs that are sung into the Danish ‘equivalents’. Here I found myself questioning whether the translation was ‘right’ and started interrogating what names and songs might have been used in the original. I find this grating, and in my personal opinion, it removes the authenticity of the book. However, I am hardly the target audience: I am not a child, and I speak both the original and the destination languages fluently. Issues around translating children’s literature is something I want to explore more. I found Nikolajeva’s chapter on ‘World Literature for Children’ in Children’s Literature Comes of Age very thought-provoking and Riitta Oittinen’s book ‘Translating for Children‘ is on my reading list.

Now, on to the plot of the book: in the English village of Midmeddlecum, peopled with eccentric characters like the Happy Families playing cards, Major Palfrey asks his two daughters to behave themselves while he is off at war: 

“When there is wind on the Moon, you must be very careful how you behave. Because if it is an ill wind and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and then you will behave badly for a long time to come.”  

He proves to be right: before long the girls are drinking a potion provided by the local witch and turning into kangaroos, getting stuck in the zoo, solving the crime of who steals the ostrich’s eggs and staging an escape along with their new friends, a golden puma and a silver falcon. 

Dinah and Dorinda then turn their attention to freeing their dancing master, Casimir Corvdo, from jail by convincing a judge that minds must be changed as often as socks. And then comes their greatest adventure: Count Hulagu Bloot, the tyrant of Bombardy has captured their father and imprisoned him in the dungeons. The two girls, together with the puma, the falcon and their beloved dancing teacher, smuggle themselves from England to Bombardy in a removal van to stage the dramatic rescue of their father.

Apparently, the book began as a story told by the author to his two young daughters while out on a walk in the rain and though the narrative takes place over the course of a year it is split into four or five major subplots that could be read independently. The Danish translation emphasises this by being divided into two books, reflecting the two major narrative arcs; the plots set in the zoo and the later plot of freeing their father from the dungeons of Count Bloot. 

The Wind on the Moon is a wartime book – it was published in 1944 – and it dwells on those elements of life in short supply or under threat in Britain, such as food, and liberty, and fun. The overarching theme is freedom and confinement, both in terms of (false) imprisonment and independence of thought and action, even rebellion and ‘naughtiness’. The wind on the moon is the wind of change and destruction; it changes everything but met with courage and fortitude the situation can be turned to the better. 

There are definite similarities with Alice in Wonderland; the sense of surrealism and the interweaving of parody and a fictional, impossible world that reveal a great deal about our own world. Like Alice, it contrasts the often absurd world of the adults with the innocent but sensible views of juvenile female leads. Says Dorinda: “Very often, when we think we are behaving well, some grown-up person says we are really quite bad. It’s difficult to tell which is which.”

The overt moral didacticisms remind me strongly of ‘The Little Prince’ which was published in 1943. Some people love this kind of thing – witness the popularity of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’. As it happens, I like my moral lessons served up in slightly less conspicuous ways and this was the aspect I liked least in the The Wind on the Moon.  

I started reading The Wind on the Moon aloud to my daughter when we first received it, but we gave up pretty quickly. It just didn’t grab us in any way. Obviously, I had to try again for this challenge but promised myself that if I was still bored by page 100, I could give up. It was slow going, but once Dorinda and Dinah have transformed into kangaroos in the zoo, I found it both fun and engaging and had several laugh-out-loud moments. After all, it was a surprising 6.5/10 for me.

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