Illustrations from ‘The Enchanted Packman’, New Zealand’s only pre-tolkien fantasy

From the Whitcombe’s Story Book book series, Written by Alister McClunie, Illustrated by Alice Polson. Polson also illustrated two books by Edith Howe as well as McClunie’s only other book ‘The adventures of Toby and Sphinx in Flowerland’.

‘The Enchanted Packman’ stands apart from these offerings (as well as Edith Howes other work) in taking a step beyond the world of Victorian fairy literature into something more akin to the Arabian nights, taking place in the indeterminate past and following the adventures of merchant (the packman) as he travels a landscape of magical kingdoms.

In the world of long form (87 pages in it’s original 1919 printing) New Zealand fairy tale it is unique in having an adult protagonist who faces actual danger from the magical antagonists and vagabonds he meets, and rather than just being imparted with moral advice through his interactions with the fairy world his story ends with genuine reward.

The illustration choices are worth taking note of, not just for the art nouveau mean struck by Polson, but in the choice of late 18th/ early 19th century  garb for the townsfolk and villages the packman meets, a decision that says something about how a fantastic kingdom was seen by the New Zealand illustrator in a time before the fantasy tropes were cemented in place by Tolkien and his followers.

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