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June 2006
 
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Curiosities

The Quest of the Gole by John Hollander (1966)

TALL, SLIM, elegant, witty and eminently poetic—by no means, I admit sheepishly, is that a self portrait, but rather a description of a wonderful little book by poet John Hollander. Illustrated by Reginald Pollack and published in 1966 by Atheneum, it's presented as an erudite literary study of an old myth as told by various cultures.

The story in and of itself is simple enough: a king is dying, his kingdom is under a curse, and his three sons must go in search of the Answer, which is made manifest in the Gole. The eldest son is brave and strong, the next is clever, and the youngest is dutiful, as is the custom in these tales.

What sets this apart from other, more traditional quest stories is the way in which it's told. We're given fragments of poetry, some long, some short. Each is presented as part of a longer saga of which the rest has been long lost. Connections are made between seemingly unrelated segments because of shared elements (a poet who reads bird-scratchings in rock, a book that writes the future as you watch), and the story is assembled from those disparate parts into a complete and delightful fairy tale.

The author's commentary is, for me, the most fascinating thing about this little book. Only a poet and teacher (Hollander is the emeritus Sterling Professor of English at Yale) could have done it this well, and I'm glad he did.

—Bud Webster

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