May the 35th

In 1932, 67 years after the publication of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, a German author, Erich Kästner published a book for children, Der 35 Mai (The 35th Of May). I can’t remember exactly when I first read the book, but it would have been sometime in the early 60s. I’m pretty sure that I had already read Emil And The Detectives, his most famous children’s book and possibly some of the others such as Emil And The Three Twins and The Flying Classroom, but The 35th Of May seemed like something different, evoking the world of Lewis Carroll.

In the Carroll books the fantasy world is one of dreams. Both of the Alice books are revealed in the end to be dreams although there are different doors to the dream world, falling down a rabbit-hole in one and passing through a mirror in the other. In Sylvie And Bruno the fantasy world echoes the real world and the transition from one to the other is connected with dreaming or day-dreaming. Similarly in The 35th Of May, there are devices to enter the realm of fantasy and nonsense. Firstly the fact that the date has drifted away from the calendar and then, as an actual portal, a wardrobe is the door to the fantastic lands. CS Lewis used the same device nearly 20 years later in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. As far as I am aware there is no evidence that Lewis copied this idea from Kästner although it seems likely that he did.

The book tells the story of an afternoon in the lives of schoolboy, Conrad Ringel, his uncle and a horse called Negro Caballo.

Conrad’s homework is to write an essay on The South Seas. Negro Caballo rings up the Big Horse from the Circus Horses’ Travel Agency who tells them that

All we have to do is step into the wardrobe and go straight on. Then in two hours we shall be at the South Seas.

The two hour journey takes them through a number of different realms or territories which allow the normal world to be distorted or upset. First of all, the Land of Cockayne, where all the inhabitants are fat and lazy. Anyone weighing less than twenty stone is deported. From there they pass on to the Castle of the Mighty Past, which is full of historical personnages. As luck would have it the Olympic Games are on and they stop for a while to watch some of the events. They get tickets for the stadium but then find that two of their seats are occupied.

Next, after passing through a toy wood where this is one of the scenes

they reach Topsy Turvy Country where the children are in charge and adults are sent to school for re-education. From there it is a short journey to Electropolis – The Automatic City. This allows Kästner to indulge in some futurology. For example,

What impressed them most was the following: a gentleman was travelling along the pavement in front of them, when suddenly he stepped off, took a telephone receiver from his pocket and called a number. ‘Listen Gertrude,’ he said, ‘I shall be about an hour late for lunch to-day. I have to look in at the laboratory. Good-bye, darling!’. Then he put away his pocket-telephone, stepped on to the moving band and rode off, reading a book.

Finally they reach the Indian Ocean where they travel along the equator which is a band of steel about six feet wide that ran out across the water and seemed to be as endless as the ocean itself. This leads them to the Western Gate of the South Seas, where they meet Little Parsley, daughter of a famous South Seas chieftain, who shows them around. Fortunately they meet another chieftain, Skunkadder, who manages to frighten off a whale that is chasing Parsley and who also conjures up Uncle Ringel’s wardrobe so that they can return home. Meanwhile Negro Caballo decides to stay in the South Seas, to give up the circus, to never talk again and to marry a white mare that he met there.

Illustrations by Walter Trier.